Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world -- and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, "To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing," a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good. 

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.    

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

All attention in Greece and global financial circles has been understandably focused on the new Greek Government’s fierce confrontation with its implacable European creditors. Less attention has been paid to the Government’s plans to help midwife a new post-capitalist order based on commons and peer production. 

A commons colleague, John Restakis, wrote about this possibility a week or so before the January 25 elections. Now, speaking to the Greek Parliament last week, the new Deputy Prime Minister Gianni Dragasakis explicitly stated that Greece will develop new sorts of bottom-up, commons-based, peer production models for meeting people’s needs.

Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, who works with the P2P Foundation’s P2P Lab based in Ioannina, Greece, has been following the situation in Greece closely.  Kostakis, a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance in Tallin, Estonia, writes:

Syriza seems to be adopting policies and reforming certain laws in a fashion that resembles the Partner State Approach practices, with regard to education, governance and R&D. To mention a few:  

· opening up the public data;

· making openly available the knowledge produced with tax-payers’ money;

· creating a collaborative environment for small-scale entrepreneurs and co-operatives while favoring initiatives based on open source technologies and practices;

· developing certain participatory processes (and strengthening the existing ones)  for citizen-engagement in policy-making;

· adopting open standards and patterns for public administration and education.

Feb
12

Keynote Talk at Hampshire College

Launch of LEEP project, Franklin Patterson Hall, 4:30 pm.

André Gorz on the Exit from Capitalism

In an amazingly prescient essay, “The Exit From Capitalism Has Already Begun,” journalist and social philosopher André Gorz in 2007 explained how computerization and networks are causing a profound crisis in capitalism by making knowledge more shareable. He argues that shareable knowledge and culture undercuts capitalist control over the global market system as the exclusive apparatus for production and consumption (and thus our "necessary" roles as wage-earners and consumers). 

The essay, translated by Chris Turner, originally appeared in the journal EcoRev in Autumn 2007 and was reprinted in Gorz’s 2008 book Ecologica. It’s worth revisiting this essay because it so succinctly develops a theme that is now playing out, one that Jeremy Rifkin reprises and elaborates upon in his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society. 

Let’s start with the conundrum that capital faces as computerization makes it possible to produce more with less labor.  Gorz writes:

The cost of labor per unit of output is constantly diminishing and the price of products is also tending to fall. The more the quantity of labor for a given output decreases, the more the value produced per worker – productivity – has to increase if the amount of achievable profit is not to fall. We have, then, this apparent paradox: the more productivity rises, the more it has to go on rising, in order to prevent the volume of profit from diminishing. Hence the pursuit of productivity gains moves ever faster, manpower levels tend to reduce, while pressure on workers intensifies and wage levels fall, as does the overall payroll. The system is approaching an internal limit at which production and investment in production cease to be sufficiently profitable.

Over time, Gorz explains, this leads investors to turn away from the “real economy” of production, where productivity gains and profits are harder to achieve, and instead seek profit through financial speculation in "fictitious" forms of value such as debt and new types of financial instruments. The value is ficititious in the sense that loans, return on investment,  future economic growth, trust and goodwill are social intangibles that are quite unlike physical capital. They depend upon collective belief and social trust, and can evaporate overnight.

Still, it is generally easier and more profitable to invest in these (fictitious, speculative) forms of financial value than in actually producing goods and services at a time when productivity gains and profit are declining.  No wonder speculative bubbles are so attractive:  There is just too much capital is sloshing around looking for profitable investment which the real economy is less capable of delivering.  No wonder companies have so much cash on hand (from profits) that they are declining to invest. No wonder the amount of available finance capital dwarfs the real economy. Gorz noted that financial assets in 2007 stood at $160 trillion, which was three to four times global GDP – a ratio that has surely gotten more extreme in the past eight years.

Creative Commons has just issued a report documenting usage patterns of its licenses.  It’s great to learn that the number of works using CC licenses has soared since this vital (and voluntary) workaround to copyright law was introduced twelve years ago, in 2003. 

According to a new report, the State of the Commons, recently released by Creative Commons, the licenses were used on an estimated 50 million works in 2006 and on 400 million works in 2010.  By 2014, that number had climbed to 882 million CC-licensed works.  Nine million websites now use CC licenses, including major sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr, Public Library of Science, Scribd and Jamendo.  The report includes a great series of infographics  that illustrate key findings. 

For any latecomers, CC licenses are a free set of public licenses that let copyright holders of books, films, websites, music, photography and other creative works choose to make their works legally shareable.  The licenses are necessary because copyright law makes no provisions for sharing beyond a vaguely defined set of “fair use” principles.  Copyright law is mostly about automatically locking up all works in a strict envelope of private property rights.  This makes it complicated and costly to let others legally share and re-use works.

The CC licenses were invented as a solution, just as Web 2.0 was getting going.  It has functioned as a vital element of infrastructure for building commons of knowledge and creativity.  It did this by providing a sound legal basis for sharing digital content, helping to leverage the power of network-driven sharing.

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe. 

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.” 

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

Tomorrow’s election in Greece could be a significant turning point in the fight against neoliberal austerity politics and an opportunity to inaugurate commons-based alternatives – from peer production to co-operatives to social economy innovations – with the support of the state. Needless to say, it is a complicated situation, not just the political and cultural dynamics within Greece, but the ambition of stepping off in new directions beyond those sanctioned by the European and global financial establishment. 

Fortunately, John Restakis provides some excellent and subtle insight into the Greek situation in a recent blog post on the Commons Transition website (which is worth visiting in its own right!).  John is past Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association in Vancouver and  has spent many years in community organizing, adult and popular education, and co-op development.  He also lectures widely on the subject of globalization, regional development and alternative economics.

John’s piece is worth reading not just for its assessment of the Greek crisis, but also for the larger challenge of moving commons-based peer production and social alternatives into the mainstream.

Civil Power and the Path Forward for Greece

By John Restakis

With the prospect of a Syriza government, everyone is wondering what the future holds for Greece.  Whether disaster or deliverance, or just the normal chaos, it is hard to ignore the potential for game-changing repercussions from a Syriza government. On the street however, embittered by the failures of governments in the past to change a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, few people are expecting big things from Syriza. The feeling of popular cynicism and fatalism is palpable. How different will Syriza be?

One thing is certain. If Syriza does what it says, it will be forging a courageous and desperately needed path in Europe, not only in opposition to the austerity policies that are devastating the country, but to the neoliberal ideas, institutions, and capital interests that are their source and sustenance. For such a path to succeed, an entirely different view of economic development, of the role of the market, and of the relation between state and citizen is necessary.

It is in this context that the social economy has become an important aspect of Syriza’s plans for re-making the economy. Like other parties of both the right and left in Europe, Syriza is taking cognizance of the role that the social economy can play in the current crisis. Even the Cameron government in the UK, the epicenter of European neo-liberalism, has promoted the social economy as a sector with a strategic role to play in job creation, in improving public services, and in reforming the role of government. In the last election, Mutualism and the Big Society were its slogans.

It all sounds very nice, until it becomes evident just how little right wing governments understand, or care about, what the social economy is and how it functions. For the Cameron government co-operatives, and the social economy more generally, became a cover and a means for public sector privatizations, for weakening job security, and for reducing the role of government. Thousands of public sector workers have been coerced into joining pseudo-co-operatives to save their jobs. Under the current government, the same is beginning to happen in Greece with the newly formed KOINSEPs. This is a travesty of the nature and purpose of co-operatives whose memberships must always be voluntary, whose governance is democratic, and whose purpose is to serve their members and their communities for their common benefit – not the ideological aims of government. It’s a lesson that few governments understand.

For the right, the social economy is often viewed as a final refuge for the discarded of society and the victims of the capitalist economy. It is one reason why the right advocates charity as the proper response for the poor. Never solidarity or equity. More recently, the rhetoric and principles of the social economy have been used to expand the reach of capital into civil spaces. For these reasons co-operatives and social economy organizations in the UK, and elsewhere, have condemned the distortion of social economy principles for vested political interests. But what are these principles?

Open Co-operativism Report

Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other? 

That was the animating question behind a two-day workshop, “Toward an Open Co-operativism,” held in August 2014 and now chronicled in a new report by UK co-operative expert Pat Conaty and me.  (Pat is a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and a Research Associate of Co-operatives UK, and attended the workshop.) 

The workshop was convened because the commons movement and peer production share a great deal with co-operatives....but they also differ in profound ways.  Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force.  Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future.  There is great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

The workshop explored this topic, as captured by the subtitle of the report:  “A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons,” hosted by the Commons Strategies Group in Berlin, Germany, on August 27 and 28, 2014. The workshop was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, with assistance with the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation of France. 

Below, the Introduction to the report followed by the Contents page. You can download a pdf of the full report (28 pages) here. The entire report is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 license, so feel free to re-post it.

The P2P Foundation recently launched a new website, the Commons Transition Platform,  as a central repository for policy ideas that help promote a wide variety of commons and peer-to-peer dynamics.  The site represents a new, more coordinated stage of activism in this area – collecting practical policy proposals for legally authorizing and encouraging the creation of new commons.

The website is a database of “practical experiences and policy proposals aimed toward achieving a more humane and environmentally grounded mode of societal organization.”  The idea is to begin to outline how policies could bring about and support a commons-based civil society, with a special focus on how collaborative stewardship of shared resources can be achieved. 

The P2P Foundation has stated its aspirations for the new initiative this way:

With the Commons Transition Plan as a comparative document, we intend to organize workshops and dialogues to see how other commons locales, countries, language-communities but also cities and regions, can translate their experiences, needs and demands into policy proposals. The Plan is not an imposition nor is it a prescription, but something that is intended as a stimulus for discussion and independent crafting of more specific commons-oriented policy proposals that respond to the realities and exigencies of different contexts and locales. This project therefore, is itself a commons, open to all contributions, and intended for the benefit of all who need it.

The Commons Transition Platform currently features three main policy documents, each originally created for Ecuador’s groundbreaking FLOK Society Project.  The FLOK Project (Free Libre Open Knowledge) produced a comprehensive set of policy proposals for encouraging knowledge commons and peer production.  These documents – written by Michel Bauwens, John Restakis and George Dafermos – have been newly revised and updated in non-region-specific versions.

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