One of the more provocative talks at the Economics and the Commons Conference last week was Andreas Weber’s critique of the “bio-economics” narrative that blends social Darwinism and free market economics.  Bioeconomics is the default worldview for contemporary economic thought, public policy and politics.  The only problem is that, by the lights of the latest biological sciences, this narrative is wrong, seriously wrong. 

Worse, it is impeding the emergence of a more accurate account of natural systems and life itself.  It is thwarting our ability to develop a new, more respectful relationship with nature.  Weber proposes instead a new story of “enlivenment” that points to a different vision of the "more than human world" and to commons-based based ways of organizing our political economy.

Andreas Weber is a Berlin-based theoretical biologist, independent scholar and ecophilosopher who explores new understandings of “life as meaning,” a sub-discipline in biological sciences known as “biosemiotics.”  This is the idea that living organisms are not just automatons who respond to various external, impersonal forces, but rather are intrinsically creative, sense-making organisms whose subjectivity and “consciousness” matter.  Indeed, our subjectivity is an indispensable part of biological evolution, Weber contends.

Weber’s essay “Enlivenment:  Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture and Politics,” was just published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  It can be downloaded here.  (Full disclosure:  I gave Weber some editorial advice about his text.)

Weber’s complaint about conventional biology is that it refuses to study life itself.  It is too committed to Enlightenment categories of the individual, rationality and competition, and it insists upon a reductionist logic that cannot address, let alone provide answers, to what is life itself.  Weber argues that organisms are “sentient, more-than-physical creatures that have subjective experiences and produce sense.”  He notes that current biological sciences do not ask, “What do we live for?  What are our inner needs as living creatures?  What relationships do we have, or should we have, to the natural order?  How do we produce things for our immediate needs or the market?....What is life and what role do we play in it?”

That was quite a week in Berlin!  The Economics and the Commons Conference was an intense convergence of more than 200 commoners from thirty-plus countries.  It featured six amazing keynote talks, breakout sessions for five streams of discussion, extensive networking and bridge-building among commons activists, and action-planning in nine self-organized side events. 

If the landmark 2010 International Commons Conference let commoners meet for the first time and see that there was in fact a larger global community, the 2013 Economics and the Commons Conference showed how advanced the dialogue and projects have become, and revealed the many new frontiers of intellectual and political exploration.

To give you a sense of the wide range of people participating, there were activists fighting enclosures in Asia and Latin America; a Brazilian seed activist; an Amsterdam digital money designer; an Icelandic activist attempting to crowdsource democracy; a German sociologist who studies sustainable lifestyles and urban gardening, a leading champion of cooperatives from the UK; several French digital rights activists; a forest commons researcher from India; an American collaborative consumption advocate; a fab lab coordinator from Montreal; a Finnish artist-organizer involved with peer-to-peer developments; a commons education organizer from Barcelona; an EU official concerned with participatory leadership and collective intelligence; an Indonesian activist focused on alternative governance of natural resources and energy; among many, many others. 

It is impossible to encapsulate the highlights of the conference right now, but a full conference report will be released in about two months.  In the meantime, here are a few outcomes of the conference that I find significant:

Next week, the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, Germany – subtitled “From Seed Form to Core Paradigm” – will bring together some 200 commoners from more than 30 countries.  The primary goal:  to explore new ideas, practices and alliances for developing the commons as an alternative worldview and provisioning system.

There will be five separate “streams” of inquiry at the conference, each of them seeking to redefine policy and activism through the prism of the commons.  These streams are Land and Nature; Work and Caring in a World of Commons; Treating Knowledge, Culture and Science as Commons; Money, Markets, Value and the Commons; and New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design.  

Working with my colleagues on the Commons Strategies Group, Silke Helfrich and Michel Bauwens, the conference is being co-organized by CSG, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, The Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Remix the Commons. The event will be held from May 22 to 24 at the Böll Foundation headquarters in Berlin.

The good news is that there has been an overwhelming advance interest in the conference.  The sad news is that physical capacity of the venue limits participation to 200 people.  However, the opening sessions on May 22 will be open to the public, and many events from the conference will be streamed.  Details will provided later at the conference communications platform / blog, which is already buzzing with postings and debate.  There is also a lot of background material on the commons at the conference wiki.

In a sign of how far the forces of enclosure have come, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that re-using seeds that are patented, knowingly or not, amounts to an act of piracy.  Of course, re-using seeds has been the tradition in agriculture for millennia, just as re-using songs and text is an essential element of culture. 

No matter.  The masters of "intellectual property" hold the whip hand, and they don't want us to re-use and share seeds as the natural course of things. If you think that a farmer ought to be able to use the seeds from one crop in the next season, you are entertaining  illegal ideas. (Just be happy that Google doesn't have access to your mind yet -- although Google Glass may be a leading gambit!)

The Supreme Court case involved 75-year-old farmer Hugh Bowman, who bought bean seeds from a grain elevator and planted them in his fields.  Since nearly all soybeans are now genetically engineered to be pesticide resistant, Bowman suspected, correctly, that the beans he bought might also be Roundup-resistant like the earlier generation of seeds.  It turns out they were – and so Bowman grew them several seasons, using the next generation of seeds each time.  But here’s the catch – the original generation of seeds are patented, and he didn’t pay Monsanto for the right to use the second-generation of seeds for planting.

This amounts to an act of intellectual property theft, according to the Court, because farmers should not presume to have the right to re-plant seeds from prior harvests.  Companies like Monsanto now hold property rights in seeds, and they don’t like the competition from the commons.  The commons is the radical idea that the abundance of nature (self-reproducing plants) ought to be shareable. 

Denis Postle on the psyCommons

“All professions are a conspiracy against the laity,” George Bernard Shaw famously said.  But what is the laity to do about it?  In the context of psychotherapy and related fields, Denis Postle, an independent practitioner of humanistic psychology, thinks that we need to recognize and honor the “psyCommons.”

For Postle, a Brit, the psyCommons is the realm of the informal, the customary and the local – the social spaces in our lives that are largely exempt from bureaucratic or legal control, the spaces where people can negotiate their own shared understandings of intersubjective reality.  The psyCommons is the great reservoir of human wisdom and power that we “create, renew and replenish every day as we learn from experience, make choices, befriend, support and confront each other,” he writes. 

Reading Postle, I could not help but think of renegade sociologist and social critic Ivan Illich, who referred to this zone of life as “the vernacular.”  As Illich put it in his 1981 book Shadow Work, the vernacular domain evokes a “sensibility and rootedness…in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence-and communitarian-oriented communities.”  The vernacular consists of those “places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization,” Illich wrote. 

Like Illich, Postle bridles at the professionalism and guild mentality that psychotherapy and other “helping professions” have come to embody.  These professions are determined to set therapists apart as a class of “experts” that control the wisdom of the psyCommons.  They regiment and bureaucratize the process of emotional healing, often setting up barriers to authentic human relationships.  They can sometimes expunge the somber realities of the human condition, including a sense of the tragic.

In effect, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling and coaching have enclosed the psyCommons, says Postle, by treating people’s problems as personal “deficits” and “mental illness.”  The prestige and livelihoods of the professions are maintained through “an imposed technocratic monoculture of regulatory control,” he charges.  Professional licensing, certification and reimbursement rules put the coercive power of the state behind certain types of approved practitioners and therapeutic techniques – while marginalizing all the others. 

Six months after the print edition was published by our good friends at Levellers Press, I’m happy to report that the anthology of essays, The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State, is now available online at http://www.wealthofthecommons.org

A hearty thanks once again to the commons activists, academics and project leaders from more than 25 countries who contributed the 73 essays in the book.  You can review the list of contributors and their essays here.  

The volume describes the enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.  My colleague Silke Helfrich edited the German edition with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which was published in Germany in April 2012.  Silke and I then edited a separate English edition published by Levellers last November. 

The five sections of the book give a good idea of its themes:  “The Commons as a New Paradigm”; “Capitalism, Enclosure and Resistance”; “Commoning – A Social Innovation for Our Times”; “Knowledge Commons for Social Change”; and “Envisioning a Commons-Based Policy and Production Framework.” 

The book chronicles many ongoing struggles against the private commoditization of shared resources – while documenting the immense generative power of the commons.  It explains how millions of commoners are defending their forests and fisheries, reinventing local food systems, organizing productive online communities, reclaiming public spaces, improving environmental stewardship and re-imagining the very meaning of “progress” and governance.   

We’re hoping that the online access to the book will help increase its visibility and readership – along with sales of the printed version.  I invite you to spread the word about book in your spheres of influence. 

It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die.  I’d like to suggest two others paths:  zombiehood and courageous re-invention.

Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working.  This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.

It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.

For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.”  Guess what?  It’s not working.  Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated.  The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions.  It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes.  It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions.  It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.

As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests.  The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities.  And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking.  For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species. 

In a crazy twist of Italian politics – in a nation known for its zany political life – the Roman lawyer, scholar and commoner Stefano Rodotà unexpectedly became the presidential candidate of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the rising political force there.  The amazing thing is, he nearly won!         

Rodotà is a kindly, clever, fiercely intelligent and straight-shooting left-wing legal scholar and politician.  Now nearly 80 years old, Rodotà is a something of a grey eminence in Italian politics.  He has served four times in the Italian Parliament and once in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  He helped write the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.  He has taught at universities in Europe, Latin America, the US and India.

The recent success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) in the February 2013 elections abruptly opened up this opportunity for Rodotà and the commons.  M5S was launched in 2009 by a comedian and activist, Beppe Grillo, to focus on five key issues – public water, sustainable transportation, development, connectivity and environmentalism.  The movement is less of a real party than a cultural vehicle for voters to express resentment, frustration and hostility toward the political class in Italy.  M5S is generally populist and libertarian in orientation, sometimes with a right-wing flavor (anti-immigrant policies). But Grillo is a showy amateur as a politician and not exactly a small-d democrat (he gives no press interviews and doesn’t welcome debate within M5S).

Still, the movement's issues and profile are compelling enough that M5S won more than 25 percent of the vote in the February 2013 elections – second only to the Democratic Party, which won only a fraction more votes.  Forming a government in a country with dozens of political parties can be a difficult proposition, however, especially when personalities, political history, ideology and various odd circumstances are thrown in.    

I recently wrote the following essay with John H. Clippinger as part of the ongoing work of ID3, the Institute for Data-Driven Design, which is building a new open source platform for secure digital identity, user-centric control over personal information and data-driven institutions.

As the Internet and digital technologies have proliferated over the past twenty years, incumbent enterprises nearly always resist open network dynamics with fierce determination, a narrow ingenuity and resistance.  It arguably started with AOL (vs. the Web and browsers), Lotus Notes (vs. the Web and browsers) and Microsoft MSN (vs. the Web and browsers, Amazon in books and eventually everything) before moving on to the newspaper industry (Craigslist, blogs, news aggregators, podcasts), the music industry (MP3s, streaming, digital sales, video through streaming and YouTube), and telecommunications (VoIP, WiFi).  But the inevitable rearguard actions to defend old forms are invariably overwhelmed by the new, network-based ones.  The old business models, organizational structures, professional sinecures, cultural norms, etc., ultimately yield to open platforms.

When we look back on the past twenty years of Internet history, we can more fully appreciate the prescience of David P. Reed’s seminal 1999 paper on “Group Forming Networks” (GFNs).[1] “Reed’s Law” posits that value in networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model that offers “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of consumers) to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).  But by far the most valuable networks are based on those that facilitate group affiliations, Reed concluded.  When users have tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” he found, the value of the network soars exponentially to 2– a fantastically large number.   This is the Group Forming Network.  Reed predicted that “the dominant value in a typical network tends to shift from one category to another as the scale of the network increases.…”

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