My friend Silke Helfrich recently wrote a great blog post about the importance of infrastructure to the commonsdrawing upon the keynote talk on infrastructure by Miguel Said Vieira at the Economics and the Commons conference in Berlin, in May 2013.  Silke reviewed Miguel's talk, prepared in collaboration with Stefan Meretz – and then added some of her own ideas and examples.  Here is her post from the Commons Blog:  

Infrastructure is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons….Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called, “New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.”

"Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“

We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons-Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning; help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible) provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way that the funding of maintenance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget).

The three of us at the Commons Strategies Group were astonished recently to discover extensive, ongoing manipulations of email communications related to our commons work and our planning of the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in May. Below is a letter that we have sent to participants of that conference:

Dear ECC participants and other friends,

We wish to share with you some shocking news that affects all of us.

We recently learned that a person working closely with the Commons Strategies Group, especially in connection with the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) in May 2013, had been manipulating ECC planning and intercepting our email communications for at least 18 months.

Through traces of IP addresses and partial confessions, both oral and written, we have confirmed that Franco Iacomella made it impossible for a colleague to attend the conference and had been blocking selected email communications to Michel Bauwens, CSG co-founder and head of the P2P Foundation. He was interfering with email sent to Michel from 55 email addresses, many of them used by ECC participants. (A full list is included at the end of this letter. We apologize for sharing the email addresses, but the issue deserves detailed attention.)

Emails from these people were either deleted, leading many people to conclude that Michel had simply ignored them, or selectively filtered. Some were diverted by Iacomella and given phony responses. As one might expect, these revolting manipulations made it extremely difficult for people to cooperate in reliable ways. Iacomella's filtering also sowed seeds of confusion and distrust among people working with Michel, and among members of the Commons Strategies Group and the ECC team. We sincerely hope that throughout the conference you did not feel too much of the impact.

David Harvey, the Marxist geographer, is working on a new book, The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism.  He has a illuminating interview on this theme in Red Pepper,  the UK political magazine.  Several of his exchanges with the interviewer deal with key concerns of commoners, including the importance of protecting use value over exchange value, and the need for cultivating a “postcapitalist imagination.” 

Read the whole interview, but here are two excerpts

One of the contradictions you focus on is that between the use and exchange value of a commodity. Why is this contradiction so fundamental to capitalism, and why do you use housing to illustrate it?

All commodities have to be understood as having a use value and exchange value. If I have a steak the use value is that I can eat it and the exchange value is how much I had to pay for it.

But housing is very interesting in this way because as a use value you can understand it as shelter, privacy, a world of affective relations with people, a big list of things you use a house for. But then there is the question of how you get the house. At one time houses were built by people themselves and there was no exchange value at all. Then from the 18th century onwards you got speculative house building – Georgian terraces which were built and sold later on. Then houses became exchange values for consumers in the form of saving. If I buy a house and I pay down the mortgage on it, I can end up owning the house. So I have an asset. I therefore become very concerned about the nature of the asset. This generates interesting politics – ‘not in my backyard’, ‘I don’t want people moving in next door who don’t look like me’. So you start to get segregation in housing markets because people want to protect the value of their savings.

The Remunicipalization of Water

After the binge of privatization of municipal water systems in the 1980s and 1990s, citizens and city governments are starting to realize what a big mistake they made.  Privatization resulted in higher rates and lower water quality, service and public accountability.  As William Harless describes in the Wall Street Journal (August 19), many municipalities are now mounting lawsuits and ballot measures to try to regain control over systems that they had ceded to private companies.

In Ojai, residents will vote next week on whether to buy back their water system from Golden State Water Co., a move that the company opposes.  A lawsuit in Worchester, Massachusetts, is trying to regain public control over the city’s water system, which had been sold.  And in Connecticut, some towns are objecting to higher rates that have resulted after their systems were acquired by Aquarian Water Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which consolidated the rates for the towns it serves. 

It is satisfying to see the glittering promises about privatization exposed for what they are: glittering promises.  For more on this theme, check out the work of a group called In the Public Interest, one of the most aggressive Washington, D.C.-based policy opponents of privatization in the US.  The group's website has lots of materials explaining how and why privatization of public resources is a bad deal for taxpayers and citizens.   

My Interview with Shareable.net

Journalist Cat Johnson recently published an interview with me on Shareable.net, the lively chronicler of new types of sharing and collaboration, especially on digital platforms and in cities.  The interview is a brief survey of my thinking on the commons as a promising political strategy and governance template.  Here’s an excerpt: 

“We need to imagine new forms of governance,” he [Bollier] says. “It’s not as if the state is going to be rendered useless or unimportant tomorrow, but the state needs to explore new forms of governance if it’s going to keep its own legitimacy and effectiveness.”

He points to the fact that government’s incompetence and incapacity for dealing with problems, as centralized, territorial institutions, is going to become more evident.

“Just as governments charter corporations, ostensibly to serve the common good,” he says, “the government ought to be chartering the commons and providing financial assistance and legal sanction and even privileges. Because at a local, self-organized level, the commons can perform lots of tasks that governments just aren't doing well because they’re too corrupted or bought off or too centralized and incapable of dealing with diverse, distributed complexity.” He adds, “At the core, it’s a governance problem. Even liberal, constitutional democracies are not capable of solving all these problems.”

A vexing problem for many potential commons is the lack of startup capital to get a project going while nurturing the social structures to organize participation and work.  I recently learned of an ingenious solution developed by a group of “time banking” commoners in West Virginia.  They adapted a traditional Time Bank system of barter-exchange and combined it with common pool of funds, which in turn served as an engine of development for DIY solar power installations -- in the heart of coal country, West Virginia!

Greg Bloom of Washington, D.C., who has a keen interest in cooperatives and commons, alerted me to his case study of the project.  (Thanks, Greg!)  As he tells the story at the Community Power Network website, the tax incentive approach to promoting solar power has distinct limits.  It is too geared to people who already earn enough to benefit from the tax breaks.  But what if you are low-income and have trouble paying your utility bills?  You don’t earn enough to be incentivized, and you don’t have enough to pay for the upfront costs of a solar project.

In the town of Philippi, West Virginia, a local engineer, John Prusa, known locally as a “benevolent mad scientist,” had “designed and built his own home’s solar power array, and then shared his designs with neighbors and helped them develop their own,” writes Bloom.  Prusa and a local minister, Ruston Seaman, of People's Chapel Church, found each other, and decided to start a new group, New Vision Renewable Energy

The Church had once been the host of a flourishing Time Bank system with over 300 members, and even a store that accepted the Time Bank credits.  But the system had fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons.  Time Banks are a system by which members can earn credits for work they do for each other, at a rate of one credit, one hour of work. The systems are especially valuable for people with more time than money, such as low-income people and the elderly.  It helps them get their needs met, without money, outside of the marketplace.  Time Banks can serve important needs in areas that banks and markets have abandoned or ignored. 

Dougald Hine on Commoning in the City

The Summer issue of STIR is rich with thoughtful, provocative articles on the commons:  pieces on urban aquaponics and student housing coops, a how-to guide for saving the seeds from your tomatoes, instructions for sharing sourdough starter for bread-making, and more.

Two of the more arresting pieces in the issue are an insightful essay by Dougald Hine on “Commoning in the City,” and an interview with the British environmental activist George Monbiot on the concentration of land in England. 

Hine is a British writer and thinker who has started the School of Everything and the Dark Mountain Project.  Hine clearly appreciates that the commons disrupts the familiar thought-frames of conventional politics.  He writes:

“Of everything I hear during these two days [at a Stockholm conference on “Commoning in the City”], the answer that most impresses me comes from Stavros Stavrides: ‘commons’ has become useful, he argues, because of a change in attitude to the state, a disillusionment with the ‘public’ and a need for another term to takes its place. The public sphere, public values, the public sector: all of these things might once have promised some counterweight to the destructive force of the market, but this no longer seems to be the case.

The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

I had always admired Ivan Illich for his penetrating insights into the pathologies of modern life and the human condition.  Like dormant seeds, they sprouted at just the right time in my life and helped me develop a vocabulary for better understanding the commons. 

The recent conference in Oakland – “After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich Today,” on August 1-3 -- gave me an enlarged, fresher understanding of Illich's life and writings. Below I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conference, which can help us recover and rejuvenate Illich's thought for our time. (Illich wrote his most famous works in the 1960s and 1970s, and died in 2002.)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time friend of Illich’s, opened the conference with a short talk.  He had met Illich at Green Gulch, a Zen monastery in Marin County, in the 1970s.  Brown noted that Illich’s work cannot be fit into any political, religious or philosophical pigeonhole because.  He ranged freely across artificial disciplinary boundaries, and put a central emphasis on aliveness (which is distinct from “life”).  Much of Illich’s work, said Brown, was about challenging “the certitudes of modernity.”

In a short, just-released collection of four Illich essays, Beyond Economics and Ecology  (Marion Boyars Publishers) Governor Brown writes in the preface that Illich “questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church.”  In the 12th century and after, the Church and later the nation-state began to appropriate for themselves Christ’s narratives about salvation and the sacred, and put them to decidedly more secular, worldly use. 

This has culminated in the profound alienation of modern times, in Illich’s view.  As Governor Brown writes, Illich “saw in modern life and its pervasive dependence on commodities and services of professionals a threat to what it is to be human.  He cut through the illusions and allurements to better ground us in what it means to be alive.  He was joyful but he didn’t turn his gaze from human suffering.”

The Oakland conference consisted of ten speakers, most of whom had known Illich as collaborators and sparring partners.  I can’t summarize all of the presentations or capture all of their subtle complexities, but let me excerpt a handful of thoughtful comments.

For the past three days I've been attending a fantastic conference, "After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich today," in Oakland, California, at the Oakland School for the Arts.  Illich was an iconoclastic social critic, Jesuit priest, radical Christian, historian, scientist and public intellectual who was especially famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his searing critiques of the oppressive nature of institutions and service professions.  His writings also explored the nature of the nonmarket economy, or "vernacular domains," as he put it, which are the source of so much of our humanity and, indeed, the source of commoning.

We have not had a social critic of Illich's originality and caliber in some time.  He was a classically trained yet traversed disciplinary boundaries with ease and rigor. He was disdainful of conventional political categories and ideology because his critique came from a much deeper place, beyond left or right.  He was passionate, humanistic and contemptuous of the harms caused by modernity and economics to the life of the spirit, especially as seen from within the Catholic tradition. 

This gathering, organized by Professor Sajay Samuel, has been a wonderful reunion of Illich's former colleagues, friends and admirers, as well as a venue for Bay Area political activists and citizens to get to learn more about Illich.  Governor Jerry Brown, a friend of Illich's going back to the 1970s, gave an opening talk at the conference and showed up for the later sessions to listen.  I am told that the nine talks given at the conference will eventually be put online; I will give any updates on that promise.

In the meantime, here is the talk that I gave yesterday:

The Quiet Realization of Ivan Illich's Ideas in the Contemporary Commons Movement 

I come here today as an ambassador of the commons movement – a growing international movement of activists, thinkers, project leaders and academics who are attempting to build a new world from the ground up.  It’s not just about politics and policy.  It’s about social practices and the design of societal institutions that help us live as caring, intelligent human beings in spiritually satisfying ways.

Social Banking Discovers the Commons

The idea of “social banking” is a bit of a mind-bender for most Americans accustomed to the cutthroat ways of Wall Street and the alarmingly concentrated banking/finance sector. In the US context, with a handful of exceptions, “social banking” can only be understood as an oxymoron or cynical PR gambit.

But in Europe, the Institute for Social Banking is dedicated to helping banks that want to develop more ethical, socially minded approaches to monetary policy, banking and insurance.  The Institute provides training and research, hosts educational seminars for banking practitioners, and strives to promote ecologically positive industry practices. Despite these ambitions, the Institute concedes that there is no widely accepted definition of social banking; it remains a somewhat “off to the side” of mainstream industry practices -- a sincere but still-evolving ethic and portfolio. 

As an American, I find it remarkable that the Institute for Social Banking even exists. Even more impressive is the Institute's recent week-long seminar in Switzerland exploring how social banking could begin to understand and support the commons.  Here is a description of the course.  Besides introducing the commons more generally, the seminar included sessions on indigenous commons; organizing and financing common businesses; community-connected farming; alternative currencies; and imagining a common world / society.

My colleague Silke Helfrich attended, and reports back that there was keen interest in the commons – enough so that at the conclusion of the week, participants issued the following statement: 

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