This and other questions are addressed in “The Weightless Marketplace:  Coming to Terms with Innovative Payment Systems, Digital Currencies and Online Labor Markets,” a just-released report that I wrote for the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program. The report distills the more salient points raised at a three-day conference last August that brought together leading players in banking, financial services and online labor platforms.   

Most of the conference participants are in the business of inventing or adapting to new types of digital payment systems or data-based services. They include major players like JP Morgan Chase, Intuit and VISA as well as upstarts such as Bitcoin, ID3 and the identity-management service Personal.

The basic story in digital markets is the ongoing elimination of “friction” in making transactions – reducing the barriers of geography, time and transaction costs. Hence the title “the weightless marketplace.”  “Reducing economic friction” has been the story of the World Wide Web from its beginnings, of course, but the trend is now reaching new levels of intensity and disruption.  My role, as rapporteur, was to represent the diverse points of view while providing my own interpretive synthesis. 

Perhaps the most fascinating points of discussion revolved around Bitcoin.  Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding it, Bitcoin’s basic functionality and soaring popularity have some serious implications for banks, credit card companies, PayPal and other payment systems. Peter Vessenes of the Bitcoin Foundation noted that digital technology can move value to anywhere in the world, at any time, using just 100 bytes of data.  And it can do it at very little cost – much less than the per-transaction charges levied by credit cards, for example.

Critics charge that Bitcoin facilitates illicit transactions, money laundering and terrorist activity, not to mention tax evasion.  Vessenes replied that Bitcoin is “way less anonymous than cash” – because the permanent global ledger of transactions for each Bitcoin is accessible and can be used to help identify buyers and sellers.  Another reason that Bitcoin is controversial is that it represents a potential threat to the sovereignty of nation-states, because it could undermine their monetary and fiscal policies.  That’s why regulation of Bitcoin is inevitable, many agreed.

But apart from Bitcoin’s fate, the larger question may be how existing banks and financial companies will respond to the coming “democratization of money.”  Several factors are fueling this trend, according to Gartner, the consulting firm:  individual access to massive, high-speed flows of information, the proliferation of mobile computing (smartphones, tablets, etc.), the rise of the cloud, and the social commons of highly specialized communities of interest.

For many people, the commons exists as some sort of Platonic ideal -- a fixed, universal archetype.  That’s silly, of course, because commons are so embedded in a given place and moment of history and culture, and therefore highly variable.  Derek Wall takes this as a point of departure in his new book, The Commons in History:  Culture, Conflict and Ecology (MIT Press).  At 136 pages of text, it is a short and highly readable book, but one that conveys much of the texture of commons and enclosures as paradigms -- and the implications for ecosystems.

Wall is an economist at Goldsmith College, University of London, so he knows a few things about the biases of conventional economics.  He is also a member of the Green party of England and Wales, and therefore knows a few things about corporate power and oppositional politics. 

As the author of a recent intellectual biography, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge), Wall has a subtle mastery of Ostrom’s approach to the commons, but he is not afraid to wade into the political aspects of commons.  He notes, for example, “most commons have not been found to succeed or fail on the basis of their own merits.  Instead, they have been enclosed, and access has been restricted and often turned over to purely private ownership or state control.”  He adds that “commons is a concept that is both contests and innately political in nature.  Power and access to resources remain essential areas for debate.”

It is entirely appropriate, then, that Wall goes beyond the familiar Hardin-Ostrom debate on the rationality and economic value of commons, to explore what he calls “the radical case for the commons,” as outlined by E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, among others.  While Marxist criticisms of the environmental effects of capitalism so often hit the mark, Wall points out that “the commons is not utopia.  A common-pool property rights do not guarantee a free and equal society.”  

That’s partly because a commons is not a unitary model, but only a template with highly variable outcomes.  People may have common rights to use “usufruct rights” on privately owned land, for example, authorizing them to gather fallen wood.  This can be considered a type of commons, albeit not one as self-sovereign and robust as those with communally owned and controlled land.  Commons may also coexist with hierarchical power relationships – a reality that also militates against a radical equality.

Walking Paths as Commons

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh of STIR magazine shared with me an arresting little snippet of history that speaks eloquently about the quiet role of social reciprocity in a civilized life.  Consider walking paths as commons, as described by Robert Macfalance in his book, The Old Ways:  A Walking Journey:

“Paths are consensual, too, because without common care and common practice they disappear....In nineteenth-century Suffolk [UK] small sickles called 'hooks' were hung on stiles and posts at the start of certain well-used paths: those running between villages, for instance, or byways to parish churches. A walker would pick up a hook and use it to lop off branches that were starting to impede passage. The hook would then be left at the other end of the path, for a walker coming in the opposite direction. In this manner the path was collectively maintained for general use.”

It seems to be that we need more modern-day “hooks” that invite people to participate in anonymous acts of self-directed enterprise and reciprocal generosity.  Sounds like a great alternative, when feasible, to the connivances of large markets and remote, centralized bureaucracies.

Save Medialab Prado!

For people who care about socially engaged, commons-minded tech innovation, there are few institutions in the world as bold and courageous as Medialab Prado, in Madrid.  For the past ten years it has been a technology lab, an interdisciplinary forum, a space that welcomes public participation, a hub for citizen activism, and a host of provocative workshops and conferences.  And yes, the Medialab Prado has also been deeply engaged with the commons paradigm as an important way of shaping a better, more socially constructive future. 

Now, after a decade of fantastic work as a pioneering social/technological laboratory, the Madrid city council is threatening to let a giant telecom corporation, Telefónica, take over its new building.  The municipal government – apparently clueless about the international stature and significance of Medialab – is in talks to let Telefónica use the brand new building that MLP moved into less than a year ago. Telefónica wants to open its own startup incubator there. The move  would cast Medialab into limbo, without any assurance of appropriate space in a suitable location or adequate funds.  

Many of us who participate in the international tech, P2P, commons or activist worlds are appalled at this recent turn of events.  Doesn’t the Madrid political establishment recognize the immense value that Medialab Prado has for the city and Spain (and the rest of the world)? 

Doesn’t it realize that Medialab is a magnet for the most exciting thinkers, technologists and social activists – a place that elevates Madrid’s reputation and Spain’s leadership in cultural and tech circles?  After citizen uprisings in so many countries around the world, does the Madrid political establishment not appreciate the need to explore new models of social outreach and public engagement, as Medilab Prado does?

Can the boundary-bursting categories of the commons penetrate the mighty citadel of Harvard Law School and its entrenched ways of thinking about property, markets and law?  I set out to find out last Saturday at the “This Land Is Your Land:  Remaking Property After Neoliberalism” conference.  The one-day event was convened by Unbound, the Harvard Law journal of the legal left, and the Institute for Global Law and Policy.  I had been invited to participate on a panel, “From Homo Economicus to Commoner” and to explore with about 100 students and a few professors how “the left” might approach property rights in some new ways.

The liberal/leftist luminary Duncan Kennedy, a founder of the critical legal studies movement and an advisor to Unbound, opened the day with a talk about “property as fetish and tool.”  He explained how both the right and the left have their own versions of property fetishism.  The right has adopted highly naturalistic arguments that regard property as an entirely natural, ahistorical reality.  An example is the right’s imposition of intellectual property rights on countries of the global South. 

The left, meanwhile, generally regards property law as a “bundle of rights” that is principled and conceptually coherent when it is in fact, he pointed out, simply an incoherent accretion of laws that reflect countless political struggles of the past.  The problem with the left, Kennedy suggested, is that it does not have an alternative conception of property law except as a useful tool of left political projects, such as better housing and social conditions.  Kennedy implied that it was futile for the left to try to get “outside” of property discourse.

Fortunately, Michael Hardt of Duke University – author of Empire and Commonwealth, among other books –objected.  He argued that we need to develop a conception of property that lets us think outside of standard property discourse and property relationships.  But is this possible and desireable?  Conference participants disagreed, and came back to the topic many times throughout the day.

It’s clear that there is a great deal of momentum for developing new forms of online deliberation and decisionmaking.  I’ve discussed LiquidFeedback in the past and how open networks are making it inevitable that we will soon have some major shifts of authority and governance to online platforms. 

Now comes word of a crowdfunding campaign underway for Loomio, “a user-friendly tool for collaborative decision-making: not majority-rules polling, but actually coming up with solutions that work for everyone.”  We must be in a Cambrian explosion of rapid evolution!

The Loomio project is driven by a small team in Wellington, New Zealand that is trying to take its prototype to a new level entirely.  The platform provides a way for participants to start a discussion on any topic and bring a variety of perspectives into the open.  Then anyone can propose a course of action with which people can agree, disagree, abstain or block.  With enough agreement, a proposal can be developed and a deadline set for achieving group goals.  Here is a video describing how lots of people can have a complex discussion and make decisions.  

It is always refreshing to read Peter Linebaugh’s writings on the commons because he brings such rich historical perspectives to bear, revealing the commons as both strangely alien and utterly familiar. With the added kick that the commoning he describes actually happened, Linebaugh’s journeys into the commons leave readers outraged at enclosures of long ago and inspired to protect today's endangered commons. 

This was my response, in any case, after reading Linebaugh’s latest book, Stop, Thief!  The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance (Spectre/PM Press), which is a collection of fifteen chapters on many different aspects of the commons, mostly from history.  The book starts out on a contemporary note by introducing “some principles of the commons” followed by “a primer on the commons and commoning” and a chapter on urban commoning.  For readers new to Linebaugh, he is an historian at the University of Toledo, in Ohio, and the author of such memorable books as The Magna Carta Manifesto and The London Hanged. 

Stop, Thief! is organized around a series of thematic sections that collect previously published essays and writings by Linebaugh.  One section focuses on Karl Marx (“Charles Marks,” as he was recorded in British census records) and another on British enclosures and commoners (Luddites; William Morris; the Magna Carta; “enclosures from the bottom up”).  A third section focuses on American commons (Thomas Paine; communism and commons) before concluding with three chapters on First Nations and commons.

Poetry of the Commons

I’ve always thought that the commons, in its attempt to achieve a holistic balance of relationships, is profoundly aesthetic and ethical.  It aspires to a certain dynamic but disciplined shapeliness.  How wonderful, then, to encounter Harris Webster’s Japanese-style poetry about the commons, inspired by his reading of The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State!     

A few years ago, Webster, a retiree living in Montpelier, Vermont, heard a presentation on the commons by University of Vermont professor Gary Flomenhoft.  Then he read a number of pieces on the commons in Kosmos journal and discovered The Wealth of the Commons.

Webster has a hobby of writing tanka poems, a genre of classical Japanese poetry akin to haiku.  He had developed a taste for Japanese poetry in the course of several exchange visits with the prefecture of Tottori, Japan, as the representative of the Japan-American Society of Vermont.  Webster decided that he wanted to capture the essence of some essays in The Wealth of Commons in the succinct, austere style of tanka. (Links to the original essays are embedded in the authors' names and essay titles.)

I hope you enjoy this wonderful poetic experiment as much as I do! 

Introduction

Question: Should earth’s people share

our earth’s seven seas?

Answer: When some Somalians

lost their share of fishing grounds,

they became pirates.

 

Good church members are stewards

of the church commons,

its resources  and culture.

Earth’s people should be stewards

of the earth’s Commons.

 

Unknown Elinor Ostrom

won a Nobel Prize

for research on the Commons

throughout our wide world.

May it be well known world wide!

 

The Commons looks at the ‘whole.’

resources, people, and norms,

(oceans, fishermen, and rules,)

nested together.

Do markets and government?

 

Do people value

good soil and fresh air?

Of course , but they are not priced,

advertised or for sale.

Is that why they’re uncommon?

Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation recently published a short essay noting that the economic fruits of peer production in today’s world tend to be captured by capitalists – whereas what we really need is a system to enable capital accumulation for and by commoners themselves.  To that end, Bauwens embraces the idea of a Peer Production License, as designed and proposed by Dmitri Kleiner.  

The idea is to emancipate online commons from the control of capital and corporations, and to enable cooperatives working within the market system to reorient themselves to the larger common good, and not just their members. Bauwens’ essay, originally published on the P2P Foundation blogfollows below:

The labor/p2p/commons movements today are faced with a paradox.

On the one hand we have a re-emergence of the cooperative movement and worked-owned enterprises, but they suffer from structural weaknesses. Cooperative entities work for their own members, are reluctant to accept new cooperators that would share existing profits and benefits, and are practitioners of the same proprietary knowledge and artificial scarcities as their capitalist counterparts. Even though they are internally democratic, they often participate in the same dynamics of capitalist competition which undermines their own cooperative values.

On the other hand, we have an emergent field of open and commons-oriented peer production in fields such as free software, open design and open hardware, which do create common pools of knowledge for the whole of humanity, but at the same time, are dominated by both start-ups and large multinational enterprises using the same commons.

Thus, we need a new convergence or synthesis, a ‘open cooperativism’, that combines both commons-oriented open peer production models, with common ownership and governance models such as those of the cooperatives and the solidarity economic models. What follows is a more detailed argument on how such transition could be achieved.

Mar
27

University of Vermont

Burlington, VT.  Public talk, "Think LIke a Commoner," at 4:00 pm in Waterman 413.

Syndicate content