The Possibilitarians

The history of the Diggers in 1649 is the improbable basis for a dramatic production by the Bread and Puppets Theater, an experimental troupe based in Vermont that uses masks and puppets to entertain and educate people.  The troupe bills itself as providing “cheap art and political theater,” adding that it is “one of the oldest, nonprofit, self-supporting theatrical companies in the country.”

As reported by Greg Cook of WBUR, the Boston public radio station, the Bread and Puppets Theater recently produced a show called “The Possibilitarians,” a counterpoint to the reactionary Parliamentarians of the time.  The show was described as an “epic and raucous pageant” about the 17th Century English radicals called the Diggers, who were seeking to build an alternative order to the proto-capitalism of its time, protesting in particular the private ownership of land. 

The Diggers have been wonderfully chronicled by historians such as Christopher Hill (The World Turned Upside Down and Left-Wing Democracy In the English Civil War).  Of note is a recently published biography, Gerard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy (Pluto Press).

It’s great to see such history resurrected through an innovative kind of street theater.  The Bread and Puppets Theater was founded in 1963 by German immigrant Peter Schumann.  The troupe quickly became known for its massive papier-mâché puppets and for giving its audiences fresh baked break at the end of performances.  In the '60s and '70s the theater often mounted performances/protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear arms race, among other issues.  As WBUR put it, the Bread and Puppets Theater “vividly merged radical ‘60s theater with the alchemy and magic of traditional ritual, public pageantry and folk art.”

Last November I was lucky enough to be in Berlin when the newly founded Mercator Research Institute for Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) formally presented itself to the world.  I was initially impressed that a new scientific research institute with serious financial backing would make a commitment to studying climate change and the commons. The new Institute even regards the late Elinor Ostrom as a prime inspiration, to the extent of naming its auditorium for her.

I wondered if the new institute would be a fresh opening for some very different conversations about climate change.  I mused that perhaps the Mercator Research Institute could validate the eco-friendly practices of countless commoners around the world.  It might point the way to a different vision of “development” and more meaningful notions of “sustainability.”  It might even force the economics discipline to revisit some of its core assumptions about human cooperation and reinvent itself.

Alas, I now believe that few of these scenarios are likely.  After listening to the four speakers at the MCC’s inaugural one-day conference on November 15, “The Green Growth Dilemma,” the institute seems poised to explore modest, socially minded twists to the standard economic narrative.  In other words, a fairly tame, meliorist agenda within the crumbling edifice of neoclassical economic thought.

There will apparently be no deep critiques of the basic goals, assumptions and methodologies of economics as it is practiced today.  Nor does it seem that the potential of the commons as a form of participatory socio-ecological management will be probed.  That topic lies too far outside the framework of standard economics. Or at least, no one focused on such commons at the institute's inaugural conference.

The Death of a Hacktivist

Aaron Swartz’s death is a sobering story about the collision of free culture activism with vindicative prosecutorial powers.  It’s also about an amazing tech wizard and the personal costs of his idealism.  Here’s hoping that Swartz’s tragic suicide at age 26 prompts some serious reflection about the grotesque penalties for a victimless computer crime and the unchecked power of federal prosecutors to intimidate defendants.  Perhaps MIT, too, should reflect deeply on its core mission as an academic institution – to help share more knowledge, not fence it off. 

Swartz was a hacker-wunderkind, a boy genius who played a significant role in many tech innovations affecting the Internet:  RDF tags for Creative Commons licenses; a version of RSS software for syndicating web content; an early version of the platform that became Reddit, the user-driven news website.  In 2006, when I interviewed Swartz for my book Viral Spiral, I was astonished to encounter a 19-year-old kid who had already done the path-breaking technical work that I just mentioned.  

Swartz had been a junior high school student when he was doing mind-bending coding and design work for the Creative Commons licenses and their technical protocols.  “I remember these moments when I was, like, sitting in the locker room, typing on my laptop, in these debates, and having to close it because the bell rang and I had to get back to class….” 

When a windfall of cash came Swartz’s way following the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast, Swartz did not launch a new startup to make still more money.  He intensified his activism and coding on behalf of free culture.  He sought out new projects that would make information on the Internet more accessible to everyone.

In 2006, he worked with Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive to post complete bibliographic data for every book held by the Library of Congress – information for which the Library charged fees.  A few years later, working with guerilla public-information activist Carl Malamud, Swartz legally downloaded a large fraction of court decisions that were hosted by PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records.  PACER is the repository of US court decisions.  Swartz’s idea was to reclaim documents that taxpayers had already paid for.  Why should we have to pay 10 cents per page to access them?  (Those documents can now be found at Malamud’s site,

Social Banking and the Commons

The Swiss are known for their highly secretive banking services for the super-wealthy.  Who would have guessed that they would inaugurate a Summer School on Social Banking and the Commons

The Institute for Social Banking and the Alternative Bank Schweiz are hosting a week-long seminar in the Swiss Alps on “social banks” and how their practices can strengthen the commons.  As the Institute’s website explains, “The Summer School will be a live, working inquiry [that aims] to understand and develop pioneering, entrepreneurial practices and policies that enable the commons to flourish for shared gain.”  The Summer School is intended for up to 100 people who want to learn more about social banking and finance and how they can be used to support the commons.

Among the topics to be discussed:  the commons paradigm; indigenous commons; money and the commons; social banking; the financing of common businesses; and alternative currencies.  The sessions will feature bankers, academics and commoners from all over the world, including Jean-Pierre Caron of the French mutual finance society, La Nef ; Sion Brackenbury, a Wales consultant with Commons Vision who works with business models and the commons; and my colleague Silke Helfrich of Germany, cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group.

There are of course many fascinating new initiatives involving alternative currencies and innovative banking, but I have yet to encounter one that directly addresses the relationship between banking and the commons.  Here’s hoping that the Institute for Social Banking pushes this important line of inquiry many steps forward.

If You Give Someone A Fish....

A political twist on the old saw....from FreeLab in Poland.  Thanks, Petros. 


Cloud Computing as Enclosure

As more and more computing moves off our PCs and into “the Cloud,” Internet users are gaining access to a wealth of new software-based services that can exploit vast computing capacity and memory storage.  That’s wonderful.  But what about our freedom to create and share things as we wish, free from corporate or government surveillance or over-reaching copyright enforcement?  The real danger of the Cloud is its potential to limit how we may create and share what we want, on our terms.

There are already signs that large corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest will quietly warp the design architecture of the Internet to serve their business interests first.  A terrific overview of the troubling issues raised by the Cloud can be found in the essay, “The Cloud:  Boundless Digital Potential or Enclosure 3.0,” by David Lametti, a law professor at McGill University, and published by the Virginia Journal of Law & Technology.  An earlier version is available at the SSRN website.   

Lametti states his thesis simply:  “I argue that the Cloud, unless monitored and possibly directed, has the potential to go beyond undermining copyright and the public domain – Enclosure 2.0 – and to go beyond weakening privacy. This round, which I call “Enclosure 3.0”, has the potential to disempower Internet users and conversely empower a very small group of gatekeepers. Put bluntly, it has the potential to relegate Internet users to the status of digital sheep.”

Private Property vs. Tribal Commons

Does capitalism produce prosperity and development while indigenous culture leads to a life of poverty and stagnation?  This question is usually addressed by one side or the other, and rarely gets a straight-up, interactive debate.  So it is treat to encounter precisely such a debate about the virtues of private property and markets vs. the collective governance of Native American tribes. 

John Koppisch, a reporter for Forbes magazine, ignited the debate when he published an article in Forbes magazine, “Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor?  A Look at the 1%” that provoked a firestorm of criticism.

Forbes, whose promotional tagline for years was “Capitalist Tool,” has its own ideological axe to grind, of course.  It amounts to this formula:  more property rights = greater market development = greater prosperity and happiness for everyone.  Apart from flogging this familiar bit of capitalist propaganda, one has to wonder if Forbes’ real interest in is opening up investor access to minerals and oil on Native American lands. What better way to do that than argue that capitalism will alleviate poverty on the res.  Make the humanitarian, populist case that private property rights will help impoverished Indians (the very same arguments that Members of Congress made a century ago for stealing Indian lands and forcing tribes to assimilate into mainstream white society).

Koppisch wrote:  “To explain the poverty of the reservations, people usually point to alcoholism, corruption or school-dropout rates, not to mention the long distances to jobs and the dusty undeveloped land that doesn’t seem good for growing much.  But those are just symptoms. Prosperity is built on property rights, and reservations often have neither. They’re a demonstration of what happens when property rights are weak or non-existent.”

What Does Degrowth Look Like?

What would “degrowth” look like and why is it needed?  At the Degrowth conference in Montreal in May, Josh Farley, an ecological economist at the Gund Institute in Vermont, gave a brisk overview of the problems with our current debt-driven growth economy -- and the feasible alternatives -- in a seventeen-minute video.  Farley and eight other co-authors give a more detailed critique in a paper that they presented, “Monetary and Fiscal Policies for a Finite Planet."

Normally, I prefer to read a paper than to watch a video summary.  But in this case, Farley is so compelling that I found it a pleasure to watch him deconstruct the conceptual errors of mainstream economic thinking and GDP.  One fact that he cited really jumped out at me -- in 1969 U.S. per capita consumption as measured by GDP was only half of current levels -- and yet Americans were just as happy if not happier than they are now.  Indeed, since 1969, there have been many declining metrics of health and happiness, such as greater obesity, infant mortality, etc. 

For those dead-enders who insist that economic growth is a prerequisite to solving any of our social problems, it’s worth pausing on this fact -- that Americans were in fact once healthier and happier despite consuming at half of contemporary rates.  This proves that it is not utopian to think that we could lower our consumption and still be happy.  It’s an historical fact!

Farley would like to conduct a more systematic study of how we might return to such a society.  He calls his proposed research project “QOL 350,” which stands for the quality of life (QOL) that could be sustained at energy consumption levels not exceeding atmospheric concentrations of 350 ppm of carbon – the level that scientists say is needed to prevent climate change.  A vital element of any QOL 350 vision, Farley says in his video, is to ensure greater fairness in economic distribution and to create institutions that encourage cooperative action.

Open Up the Coast to Everyone

At one time in American life, a day at the beach was open to anyone.  Over the past fifty years, however, that expectation has been slowly eroded and parceled into expensive, privately owned beachfront lots.  As Marquette professor Andrew W. Kahrl writes in The New York Times  “…up and down the Eastern Seaboard, beachfront property owners, wealthy municipalities and private homeowners’ associations threw up a variety of physical and legal barriers designed to ensure the exclusivity — and marketability — of the beach. These measures were not only antisocial but also environmentally destructive.”

The historic bulwark against the enclosure of coastal lands has been the public trust doctrine, a legal principle with deep roots in Roman law that was eventually incorporated into British and then American law.  However, U.S. state courts have generally given the public trust doctrine very different interpretations, and state legislatures have enacted different standards of public access to and ecological protection of coastal lands. 

As a result, states like California and Texas have remarkably open access to all beaches while eastern seaboard states like Connecticut and New Jersey have fairly restrictive rules.  Such states apply the public trust doctrine only to fishing and navigation, for example.  It is not widely appreciated that this is not just unfair to people who can't afford to buy or rent their own beach house, it’s an environmental danger.

In Berlin, Exploring What Is Commonable

On Tuesday evening, I gave a talk at the American Academy in Berlin, where I have been a residential fellow for the past five weeks.  I focused on the commons as “a new/old paradigm of governance,” making a survey of the topic in ways familiar to readers of this blog.  (Here is a video of the talk along with the text.)  It was fun to mix it up with a very diverse crowd that included academics, journalists, students, a Google Germany executive, a Wikipedia leader, a German patent law official, among many others.

Among the many interesting comments made by the audience, Katrin Faensen of The Virus,  coined a word that I am going to start using a lot:  “commonable.”  Faensen asked how she personally could become “more commonable” in the sense of connected to and participating in a commons.  I replied that she should start with whatever she is passionate about, and find a suitable commons project there.

I like “commonable” as a term because I think there will be a growing use for it in the future.  Tommaso Fattori of Italy has proposed new sorts of “commons/public” partnerships, for example, which could lead one to ask the question, “Is that public service or asset ‘commonable’?”  Many of us would like to see the earth’s atmosphere treated as a commons, which could lead to the statement, "We need to make the atmosphere commonable.”  My pleasure in the word was reinforced when another fellow here at the Academy, a renowned literary translator, agreed that the word has a promising future.

A word about the American Academy in Berlin.  This small, independent center in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee is dedicated to “advanced study in the humanities, public policy, social sciences and arts.”  Its central aim is to foster German/American cultural exchange via its Berlin Prize Fellowships.  I am pleased to say that I was selected for the Bosch Berlin Prize in Policy for fall 2012.  This has given me the gift of six weeks to read, study, think, meet with people, give talks and enjoy great food and stimulating company.  As a non-academic with no hope for a sabbatical, this has been a rare treat and a real joy. 

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