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: 

Aug
1

After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

After the Crisis:  The Thought of Ivan Illich Today

Welcome, the Commons Atlas!

Ellen Friedman and the good folks at CommonSpark website (“a collective of commons activators”) are in the early stages of assembling a new sort of resource guide for the commons, “The Commons Atlas.”  This innovative project is a collection of online maps, “threat maps,” datasets and tools for creating data visualizations (geospatial maps, timelines, network maps, mindmaps, infographics, etc. ) related to the commons.

The diversity of visual systems to locate various commons is wonderful!  If you want to find out where you can locate fruit trees and other edibles for personal gleaning, go to Falling Fruit, Forage Berkeley and Mundraub (Germany).

The atlas includes a map of Maker projects in the US, and a map, “Vivir Bien” (good living) that shows where to locate “resources for a solidarity economy.”  Can’t find a place to sit in a city?  Check out Street Seats, which identifies seats and benches where you can sit down in public spaces.

On the Common Atlas, you can find the “Bike-sharing World Map” and and the Great Lakes Commons Map  which plots people’s stories on a map of the Great Lakes along with harms to it.

Now that the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy, one of the most critical questions will be what assets will be put on the table to pay creditors – and what assets, if any, will remain inalienable, that is, not capable of being sold.  You see, there are moves afoot to sell off priceless paintings and artworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay off the city’s debts.  The stash of assets include works by Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and van Gogh. 

Normally the market value of large art collections is not calculated except as needed for blanket insurance policies.  But now that a pack of hungry creditors wants to be made whole, many people are starting to look yearningly at the estimated $2 billion that could come from liquidating the museum’s collection, or substantial portions of it.

The whole scenario is of a piece with other enclosures driven by finance capitalism.  The investor class has gone way beyond privatization; now it wants to use the debt crisis to gain outright ownership of public assets and start charging for the use of them.  As economist Michael Hudson has put it, cities are selling sidewalks and citizens have to start paying to walk on them. 

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection will say a great deal about how far we Americans are willing to go in monetizing our cultural heritage.  Museums are supposed to act as permanent trustees of a community’s priceless heritage.  Donors are willing to give works to museums only because they believe that the works will be there forever, and not sold off to satisfy some unrelated financial claim against the city.   In other words, the artworks held in trust for the public by a museum are supposed to be treated as the priceless heritage of the citizenry, beyond any market valuation. That principle may be breached very soon.

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

A fairly new group of leading heterodox economic thinkers and activists has come together as Econ4 to pioneer some new forms of popular education about economics. Their work focuses both on the fallacies of conventional economics and the promise of a new economic paradigm.  Check out Econ4’s series of intelligent and engaging short videos which explain the economics of healthcare, housing, jobs, and more.  A just-released video, “The Bottom Line:  A New Economy,” provides a terrific overview of the new types of peer production, cooperatives and other distributed, local, hybrid initiatives that are already taking root across the US. 

The basic mission of Econ4 is to change the study of economics and how we publicly talk about economic choices.  As the project states on its website:  “The economic crisis we face today is not only a crisis of the economy. It is also a crisis of economics. The free-market fundamentalism that attained ideological dominance in the final decades of the 20th century has been discredited by financial collapse, global imbalances, mass unemployment, and environmental degradation. To confront these challenges, we need an economics for the 21st century.”

The term “Econ4” refers to the four central conditions that the economy must meet in meeting people’s long-term needs and protecting the planet.  This chart provides a shorthand overview of the four conditions, which are elaborated in a longer statement on the Econ4 website:

Besides its great videos, Econ4 has a variety of resources for those who wish to explore alternative economics further. 

Even though GDP -- Gross Domestic Product -- has been castigated as a misleading statistic for years, it continues to be cited by politicians, economists and the press as a generally accepted proxy for societal progress.  The investor class has a big stake, after all, in conflating “the economy” with “human well-being.” 

What if it were shown that intensified market activity isn’t such a boon to humankind, after all?  That seems to be the goal of such alternative indices as the Gross National Happiness index (Bhutan), the Human Development Index (UNDP), the Happy Planet Index (New Economics Foundation), OECD Better Life Index, among others.

It is also the goal of the goal of the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI, a new metric that is explored in great detail by Ida Kubiszewski, Robert Costanza and a team of other economists in an April 30 paper in Ecological Economics.  Kubiszewski et al. make a rigorous attempt to estimate net social welfare by taking into account all sorts of factors that GDP ignores. 

The GPI still relies upon “personal consumption expenditures,” as does GDP, but GPI goes much further by taking into account such factors as income distribution, environmental costs, and the presence of crime and pollution.  The idea is to measure the depletion of “natural, social and human capital” that economic activity entails.  The GPI also seeks to measure positive factors in human well-being such as the benefits of volunteering and household work, and self-reported “life satisfaction.”  All told, the GPI uses 24 different component metrics.

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