economics

Upcoming Conferences on the Commons

There are a number of upcoming conferences focusing on various sorts of commons.  For those of you with a passionate interest in any of the following, check out these four gatherings in coming months:

A Virtual Town Hall for the Great Lakes Commons, March 18

What would happen if the Great Lakes in North America were managed on principles and practices that empower communities to become stewards of the water?  What if decisionmaking was local and collective? To discuss these themes, several organizations are convening the first webinar in a series, “Protect the Great Lakes Forever Virtual Town Halls.”  This first one will take place on March 18 from noon to 1 pm ET. For more information, visit here.  Or check out the Facebook invite

The event is convened by Alexa Bradley (Program Director for On the Commons), Sue Chiblow (Environmental Consultant for the Mississauga First Nation) and Jim Olson (Founder and Chair of FLOW for Water). Emma Lui (Water Campaigner for the Council of Canadians) will be moderator.  The organizers want to use the commons to “prioritize the basic needs of communities, the rights of indigenous peoples and the sustainability of the land,” noting that “the lens of the commons can act as a political framework for many Great Lakes issues including extreme energy projects, bottled water extraction, invasive species and pollution.”

Knowledge Commons Conference in September

Make plans now to attend the International Association for the Study of Commons’ second Thematic Conference on Knowledge Commons, to be held at NYU’s Engelberg Center on Innovation, Law and Policy, from September 5 to 7, 2014. 

The interdisciplinary conference seeks “to better understand how knowledge commons work, where they come from, what contributes to their durability and effectiveness, and what undermines them.”  This year, the focus will be on “Governing Pooled Knowledge Resources, with special attention to the fields of medicine and the environment.” 

Keynote talks will be given by Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School), Eric von Hippel (MIT Sloan School of Management), and Michael McGinnis (Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington).  Co-chairs of the conference are Katherine Strandburg, NYU School of Law, and Charlie Schweik of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. More information at the conference website.  

CommonsFest in Greece To Explore Peer to Peer Civilization

CommonsFest is an initiative to "promote freedom of knowledge (or free knowledge) and peer-to-peer collaboration for the creation and management of the commons." The focus of CommonsFest will be on “the emergence of the peer to peer civilization and political economy.” Festival organizers explain that peer production "has spread through free software communities and extends to many aspects of our daily lives, such as the arts, governance, construction of machinery, tools and other goods. Through an exhibition, talks, screenings and workshops, the aim of the festival is to promote the achievements of this philosophy to the public and become a motive for further adoption."

The Green Party of England and Wales really knows how to stake out some fresh territory in their national politics!  At the autumn conference, the Greens adopted a resolution calling for “a programme of reform to remove the power to create money from private banks, and to fully restore the supply of our national currency to democratic and public control so that it can be issued free of debt and directed to environmentally and socially beneficial areas.” 

Bold thinking!  The Greens explain why the existing banking system is so pernicious: 

"The existing banking system is undemocratic, unfair and highly damaging.  Banks not only create money, they also decide how it is first used – and have used this power to fund financial speculation and reckless mortgage lending, rather than to finance investment in productive businesses.  Through the interest charged on the loans on which all credit is based, the current banking system increases inequality.  It also regularly causes economic crises:  banks create and lend more and more money until the level of debt becomes unsustainable, boom turns to bust, and the taxpayer bails out banks that are ‘too big to fail.’  Finally, the need to service the growing mountain of debt on which our money is based is a key driver of unsustainable economic growth that is destroying the environment."

The right to create money and profit from it is known as seignorage.  Banks currently enjoy this right and exercise it through their lending, which creates most of the money in circulation.  Governments have effectively let banks privatize control of the money supply.  In so doing, governments have forfeited the opportunity to provide debt-free lending to support productive enterprises and public needs as opposed to fueling boom-and-bust speculation and relentless economic growth that destroys the environment.

Reclaiming seignorage for public benefit has been a serious idea among many progressive economists for years.  A notable figure in this regard is James Robertson, the founder of the new economic foundation in Great Britain, in 1986, who has championed this issue for years.  Robertson’s most recent book Future Money explains how re-gaining public control over how new money is created and circulated could result in “an annual savings to all citizens of the UK of £75bn, and second in a one-off benefit to the public purse totalling £1.5bn over a three-year transition period.”

Now that free market dogma has become the dominant narrative about value – and yet that narrative is neither credible nor readily displaced -- we are descending deeper and deeper into a legitimacy crisis.  There is no shared moral justification for the power of markets and civil institutions in our lives.  Since the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of “rational markets” has become something of a joke.  There are too many external forces propping up markets – government subsidies, legal privileges, oligopoly power, etc. – to believe the textbook explanations of “free markets.”

This is a serious quandary.  We’re stuck with a threadbare story that few people really believe -- the “magic of the marketplace” advancing human progress and opportunity – and yet it is simply too useful for elites to abandon.  How else can they justify their entitlements?  These are among the themes explored in an astute new book, The Ethical Economy:  Rebuilding Value After the Crisis  (Columbia University Press, 2013), by sociologist Adam Arvidsson and entrepreneur/scholar Nicolai Peitersen. 

The implicit “social contract” that people have with the reigning institutions of society is coming apart.  As the authors note:  “Three decades of neoliberal policies have separated the market from larger social concerns and relegated the latter to the private sphere, creating a situation where there is no society, only individuals and their families, as Margaret Thatcher famously put it, and no values, only prices.”  Meanwhile, the catastrophic ecological harm being caused by relentless consumerism and economic growth is becoming all too clear, especially as climate change inexorably worsens.

Our “value crisis” is tenacious, say Arvidsson and Peitersen, because we have “no common language by means of which value conflicts can be settled, or even articulated.”  Few people believe in “free markets” and government as benign, mostly responsible influences any more; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.  And who believes that the Market/State as constituted can solve the many cataclysms on the horizon?

Arvidsson & Peitersen’s ambitious goal is to outline a scenario by which we might come to accept a new, more socially credible justification for socially responsive production and governance.  They want to imagine a “new rationality” that could explain and justify a fair, productive economics and civil polity.  A tall order! 

While I don’t agree with all of their arguments, they do make a penetrating critique of the problems caused by neoliberalism and offer some useful new concepts for understanding how we might imagine a new order.  The Ethical Economy provides a bracing, sophisticated look at these issues.

A few weeks ago I had an extensive dialogue with Bill Baue, a “corporate sustainability architect” who works with corporations and others to design “systemic transformation and company-level solutions.”  He had wanted the commons community to engage with the idea of “context-based sustainability,” a system used by some companies to “measure, manage and report sustainability performance.” The whole idea is that there are stocks of financial, natural, and human (or social) capital that can be prudently managed to respect the “carrying capacity” of the capital. 

Given my grounding in the commons world, I was profoundly skeptical – but open to a frank exploration of the ideas.  Below is a record of an exchange that I had with Baue. My disagreements centered on whether corporations can or should be the primary arbiters of sustainability (that much-abused term), and whether treating nature and social relationships as “capital” is even appropriate. I instead advocated for commons-based approaches that first, would not regard commons as mere resources, but as socio-ecological systems, ans second, that would empower commoners, especially in contrast to market-based systems.

Baue recently posted our dialogue on the website, SustainableBrands.com, as a two-part series. I have copied it all below. To read our entire exchange on the SustainableBrands.com website – along with some comments that have cropped up – here are the links to Part I  and Part II.  

Sustainable Brands bills itself as “a learning, collaboration and commerce community of over 348,000 sustainable business leaders from around the globe.  Our mission is to empower more brands to prosper by leading the way to a better world.  We produce content, events, and other learning solutions designed to inspire, engage and equip our community to profitably innovate for sustainability.” 

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.

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.

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?”

The Man Who Quit Money

What does it mean to live without money?  Is it possible?  And how does it change one’s outlook on life and human relationships?  I stumbled across a wonderful book, The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead Books, 2012), the story of Daniel Suelo, who, in the style of Henry David Thoreau, decided to live deliberately, and with clear purpose, by giving up money.  I’m a bit of a late-comer to Suelo’s story, which captured a lot of attention in late 2009 following a profile in Details magazine.

Suelo made the radical decision that he would not earn, receive or spend any money – his attempt to live life more directly and honestly.  In the book, journalist Mark Sundeen’s describes the journey that Suelo has taken over the past ten years in leading an active, productive, socially satisfying life without markets.  Just as anthropologists have often searched for the “savage child” raised by animals rather than humans (in order to assess the role of nurture vs. nature), Suelo, now 52, is that rare real-life example of what it means to live voluntarily outside of the market order without becoming a recluse.  Here is a real human being, not an abstraction, who does not want to be an employee, consumer or investor.

For shelter, Suelo has lived in a dozen of more caves in the canyons near Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.  He forages for food from the desert – cactus pods, yucca seeds, wildflower and the like – and engages in dumpster-diving for food and clothing.  Born Daniel Shellabarger, he took the name “Suelo,” Spanish for “soil,” and decided to have the smallest possible ecological footprint as possible.

To outside appearances, Suelo could easily be seen as yet another homeless or mentally ill person without friends or family.  But despite maintaining a minimalist household comprised of discarded items, Suelo is no monastic or hermit.  He has many friends in town.  He sometimes house-sits and accepts meals from friends.  He volunteers for various community projects.  He wanders the Utah desert and meditates.  While his life is fairly impoverished by conventional standards, Suelo considers it a happy existence. 

Naturally, the reader wants to know how and why a person would choose to live this way.  Some explanations arise from the Christian fundamentalist upbringing that Suelo fled, before discovering that he was gay as well.  It would be easy to stereotype this story as one about a man on the run from himself.  But as the author Mark Sundeen makes clear, Suelo is brutally honest about himself and his search for authenticity – which is why this book raises some fascinating issues about what it means to live without money. 

By training Stefan Meretz is a German engineer and computer scientist, but he is also a deep theorist of the commons who has written often about commons-based peer production and the development of a free society beyond market and state.  Over the past several years I have learned a lot from Stefan's application of free software-inspired thinking to the commons.    

Below, I have posted his wonderful essay, “The Structural Communality of the Commons,” which appears in The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press).  Stefan lives in Berlin and blogs at www.keimform.de. 

This essay, like the rest of The Wealth of the Commons, is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.  In coming weeks, I plan to post additional essays from our anthology.  All of them will all be available at www.wealthofthecommons.org starting in April.

 

The commons are as varied as life itself, and yet everyone involved with them shares common convictions. If we wish to understand these convictions, we must realize what commons mean in a practical sense, what their function is and always has been. That in turn includes that we concern ourselves with people. After all, commons or common goods are precisely not merely “goods,” but a social practice that generates, uses and preserves common resources and products. In other words, it is about the practice of commons, or commoning, and therefore also about us. The debate about the commons is also a debate about images of humanity. So let us take a step back and begin with the general question about living conditions.

Living conditions do not simply exist; instead, human beings actively produce them. In so doing, every generation stand on the shoulders of its forebears. Creating something new and handing down to future generations that which had been created before – and if possible, improved – has been part of human activity since time immemorial. The historical forms in which this occurred, however, have been transformed fundamentally, particularly since the transition to capitalism and a market economy. Although markets have existed for millennia, their function was not as central as they have become in contemporary capitalism, where they set the tone. They determine the rules of global trade. They organize interactions between producers and consumers across the world. Some observers believe they can recognize practices of the commons even in markets. After all, they say, markets are also about using resources jointly, and according to rules that enable markets to function in as unrestricted and unmanipulated ways as possible. However, markets are not commons, and it is worth understanding why.

Although markets are products of human action, their production is also controlled by markets, not by human action. It is no coincidence that markets are spoken of as if they were active subjects. We can read about what the markets are “doing” every day in the business pages. Markets decide, prefer and punish. They are nervous, lose trust or react cautiously. Our actions take place under the direction of the markets, not the other way around. Even a brief look at the rules mentioned above makes that clear. Rules issued by governments first recognize the basic principles of markets, but these rules function only as “add-ons” that are supposed to guide the effects of the markets in one direction or the other.

One direction may mean restricting the effects of the market so as to attain specific social goals. Viewed in this light, the supposedly alternative concept of a centrally planned economy turns out to be nothing more than a radical variant of guiding markets. The other direction can mean designing rules so that market mechanisms can flourish, in the hope that everyone is better off in the end if individuals pursue their own material self-interest. The various schools of economic thought reflect the different directions. They all take for granted the assumption that markets work, and that what matters is optimizing how they work. A common feature is that none of these standard schools of thought question markets themselves. That is why markets are at times described as “second nature” (Fisahn 2010) – a manifestation of nature and its laws that cannot be called into question, but only applied.

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