Critiquing problems is far easier than imagining credible alternative futures. That seems to be the biggest problem in our political culture today: a colossal failure of imagination. I was therefore pleased when a new friend introduced me to the writings of David Fleming, an iconoclastic British thinker about economics, the environment, and culture who had roots in the British Green Party and Transition Town movement, among other circles.
Fleming worked for thirty years to produce a massive book Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, which was finished just before his death in 2010 and published by Chelsea Green in 2016. Many core themes of that book were skillfully distilled (by his colleague Shaun Chamberlin) into a shorter, more readable paperback, Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy.
Fleming, one of the earliest to warn about Peak Oil, argues about the decline of the market economy with the rigor of an economist, ecologist and physicist. But what really sets him apart is his understanding that those things are intimately related to social organization and human culture. He realizes that the needs and wants engendered by capitalism will inevitably change as a society kept afloat by cheap fossil fuels falls apart.
What will society look like in the aftermath of this world? Fleming believes that we will rediscover and invent a life of place and play – a world in which the traditions of carnival, gift culture and a sense of place re-emerge. The post-market culture will also be a place where small-scale, local activities make sense again. Once large infrastructures become too costly to maintain, we will likely build systems that restore elegance and beauty to a place of honor, and that honors local judgment and direct participation in one’s life.
As Europeans struggle to deal with their multiple economic and political crises – and now, the unreliable support of the United States – it may be time to consider some serious ideas that go beyond the standard left/right framework and open up some new conversations. That is the goal of a recent report, “Supporting the Commons: Opportunities in the EU Policy Landscape,” released by the Berlin-based organization Commons Network. The report calls on EU politicians and policymakers to embrace the commons as a fresh approach to Europe’s deep structural problems and social alienation. (Executive Summary here.)
The prevailing EU neoliberal economic and social policies have a familiar, retrograde focus: Increase market growth at all costs, deregulate and privatize while reducing government spending, social protections and services. This approach is failing miserably and highly unpopular, especially in France, Italy, Spain and Greece. But politicians cannot seem to escape this box, and even where leftist reformers win state power, as with Syriza in Greece, international capital (in the guise of neoliberal politicians) overwhelm them. Even state sovereignty is not enough!
So how might the commons help instigate a new political discussion? The Commons Network report makes clear that the challenge is not about policy tweaks. A new worldview is needed. A holistic systems perspective is needed.
The report opens with a fitting quotation by Donella Meadows, the great environmental scientist:
“Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models. ... Human beings have been endowed with the ability to count but also with the ability to assess quality. … No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point towards their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”
Who is going to stand up for all the uncountable forces that make our lives liveable? How can The System begin to take account of those things that can’t be tabulated on budget spreadsheets or aggregated into Gross Domestic Product?
Just released: a terrific 25-minute video overview of the commons as seen by frontline activists from around the world, “The Commons in Political Spaces: For a Post-capitalist Transition,” along with more than a dozen separate interviews with activists on the frontlines of commons work around the globe. The videos were shot at the World Social Forum in Montreal last August, capturing the flavor of discussion and organizing there.
A big thanks to Remix the Commons and Commons Spaces – two groups in Montreal, and to Alain Ambrosi, Frédéric Sultan and Stépanie Lessard-Bérubé -- for pulling together this wonderful snapshot of the commons world. The overview video is no introduction to the commons, but a wonderfully insightful set of advanced commentaries about the political and strategic promise of the commons paradigm today.
The overview video (“Les communs dans l’espace politique,” with English subtitles as needed) is striking in its focus on frontier developments: the emerging political alliances of commoners with conventional movements, ideas about how commons should interact with state power, and ways in which commons thinking is entering policy debate and the general culture.
The video features commentary by people like Frédéric Sultan, Gaelle Krikorian, Alain Ambrosi, Ianik Marcil, Matthew Rhéaume, Silke Helfrich, Chantal Delmas, Pablo Solon, Christian Iaione, and Jason Nardi, among others.
The individual interviews with each of these people are quite absorbing. (See the full listing of videos here.) Six of these interviews are in English, nine are in French, and three are in Spanish. They range in length from ten minutes to twenty-seven minutes.
To give you a sense of the interviews, here is a sampling:
The Transnational Institute for Social Ecology, an Athens-based group with a commitment to democratic and ecological cities, recently published an interview with me, conducted by Antonis Brumas and Yavor Tarinski. Among the topics discussed: the compatibility of commons and markets; the potential of urban commons; the links between commons and ecology; and my sense of the future of commoning.
Below is the text of the interview, conducted in March:
Some believe that the commons are incompatible with commodity markets. Others claim that markets and commons may form mutually beneficial relations with each other. What are your own views on this issue?
I think it is entirely possible for markets and commons to “play nicely together,” but only if commoners can have “value sovereignty” over their resources and community governance. Market players such as businesses and investors cannot be able to freely appropriate the fruits of a commons for themselves without the express authorization of commoners. Nor should markets be allowed to uses their power to force commoners to assume market, money-based roles such as “consumers” and “employees.” In short, a commons must have the capacity to self-regulate its relations with the market and to assure that significant aspects of its common wealth and social relationships remain inalienable – not for sale via market exchange.
A commons must be able to develop “semi-permeable boundaries” that enable it to safely interact with markets on its own terms. So, for example, a coastal fishery functioning as a commons may sell some of its fish to markets, but the goals of earning money and maximizing profit cannot be allowed to become so foundational that it crowds out commons governance and respect for ecological limits.
Of course, market/commons relations are easier when it comes to digital commons and their shared wealth such as code, text, music, images and other intangible (non-physical) resources. Such digital resources can be reproduced and shared at virtually no cost, so there is not the “subtractability” or depletion problems of finite bodies of shared resources. In such cases, the problem for commons is less about preventing “free riding” than in intelligently curating digital information and preventing mischievous disruptions. In digital spaces, the principle of “the more, the merrier” generally prevails.
Big Tech understands the power of data to advance its interests. It’s time for commoners to do the same, especially in urban settings.
A pioneer in this style of high-tech activism is the Brooklyn-based group 596 Acres, whose name comes from apparent number of acres of vacant public land in Brooklyn in 2011 as determined by the NYC Department of City Planning. Since its founding that year, 596 Acres has ingeniously used various databases to identify vacant lots throughout the City that could be re-purposed into public gardens, farms parks, and community meeting spaces.
Paula Z. Segal, an attorney who works with the Urban Justice Center in New York City, explained in a blog post that shortly after its founding in 2011, “the 596 Acres team started hunting down all available data about city-owned land. Once we got the data, we worked to translate it into usable information. For each publicly owned ‘vacant’ lot we found, we asked two questions: 1) ‘Is this lot in use already?’ and 2) ‘Can you reach this lot from the street?’”
The group used a combination of automated script, Google Maps, the interactive community maps at OASISNYC.net, and gardener surveys done by a NYC nonprofit, to identify the unused lots accessible from the street. It discovered that there were approximately 660 acres of vacant public land in New York City, distributed across 1,800 sites. But putting this land to better, public uses required commoners to organize and pressure elected officials and city bureaucrats to transfer ownership and allow the creation of new green spaces.
There is a backstory to 596 Acres’ activism: In the 1990s, many New Yorkers converged on trashed-out parcels of city land, converting them into hundreds of community gardens. This amazing surge of commoning helped to humanize the cityscape while, as a byproduct, raising property values for adjacent buildings in the neighborhood. People could undertake this work only because the vacant lots were open and accessible. (In the era of Mayors Guiliani and Bloomberg, by contrast, any vacant lots are fenced, effectively thwarting the reclaiming of vacant lots and abandoned buildings for commoners.) Guiliani sought to sell off the land that commoners had reclaimed, provoking a fierce backlash that resulted in the creation of scores of community land trusts to manage the gardens.
This is a time of great confusion, fear and political disarray. People around the world, including Americans afflicted by a Trump presidency, are looking for new types of democratic strategies for social justice and basic effectiveness. The imploding neoliberal system with its veneer of democratic values is clearly inadequate in an age of globalized capital.
Fortunately, one important historical episode illuminates the political challenges we face quite vividly: the protracted struggle by the Greek left coalition party SYRIZA to renegotiate its debt with European creditors and allied governments. SYRIZA’s goal was to reconstruct a society decimated by years of austerity policies, investor looting of public assets, and social disintegration. The Troika won that epic struggle, of course, and SYRIZA, the democratically elected Greek government, accepted the draconian non-solution imposed by creditors. Creditors and European neoliberals sent a clear signal: financial capital will brutally override the democratic will of a nation.
Since the Greek experience with neoliberal coercion is arguably a taste of what is in store for the rest of the world, including the United States, it is worth looking more closely at the SYRIZA experience and what it may mean for transformational politics more generally. What is the significance of SYRIZA’s failure? What does that suggest about the deficiencies of progressive politics? What new types of approaches may be needed?
Below, I excerpt a number of passages from an excellent but lengthy interview with Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA spokesman and member of its Central Committee. In his talk with freelance writer George Souvlis published in LeftEast, a political website, Karitzis offers some extremely astute insights into the Greek left’s struggles to throw off the yoke of neoliberal capitalism and debt peonage. Karitzis makes a persuasive case for building new types of social practices, political identities and institutions for “doing politics."
I recommend reading the full interview, but the busy reader may want to read my distilled summary below. Here is the link to Part I and to Part II of the interview.
Karitzis nicely summarizes the basic problem:
We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.
But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.
The word “development” has long been associated with the Western project of promoting technological and economic “progress” for the world’s marginalized countries. The thinking has been: With enough support to build major infrastructure projects, expand private property rights, and build market regimes, the poor nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia can escape their poverty and become "modern" -- prosperous, happy consumers and entrepreneurs poised to enter a bright future driven by economic growth and technology.
That idea hasn’t worked out so well.
As climate change intensifies, the ecological implications of growth-based “development” are now alarming if not fatuous. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the sham of self-regulating “free markets” and the structural political corruption, consumer predation and wealth inequality that they tend to entail. And culturally, people are starting to realize, even in poorer countries, that the satisfactions of mass consumerism are a mirage. A life defined by a dependency on global markets and emulation of western lifestyles is a pale substitute for a life embedded in native cultures, languages and social norms, and enlivened by working partnerships with nature and peers.
It is therefore exciting to learn that Agence Française de Développement (AFD) – the French development agency, based in Paris – is actively considering the commons as a “future cornerstone of development.”
A key voice for this shift in perspective at AFD is Chief Economist Gaël Giraud, who boldly acknowledges that “growth is no longer a panacea.” He compares the current economic predicament to the plight of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, who had to keep running faster and faster just to stay in the same place. (For a short video interview with Giraud, in French, click here.Here is an AFD webpage devoted to various commons issues.)
In a blog post outlining his views of the commons and development (and not necessarily reflecting those of AFD), Giraud cited the loss of biodiversity of species as a major reason for a strategic shift in “development” goals. “The last mass extinction phase [of five previous ones in the planet’s history] affected dinosaurs and 40% of animal species 65 million years ago,” writes Giraud. “At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.”
It’s an open secret that political parties and “democratic” governments around the world have become entrenched insider clubs, dedicated to protecting powerful elites and neutralizing popular demands for system change. How refreshing to learn about Ahora Madrid and other local political parties in Spain! Could they be a new archetype for the reinvention of politics and government itself?
Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.
To get a clearer grasp of this phenomena, Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation recently interviewed two members of Ahora Madrid, a city-based party comprised of former 15M activists who forged a new electoral coalition that prevailed in Madrid in 2015. (The full interview can be found here.) The coalition’s victory was important because it opened up a new narrative for populist political transformation. Instead of the reactionary, anti-democratic and hate-driven vision embodied by Brexit, Trump and the National Front, this one is populist, progressive and paradigm-shifting.
Below, I distill some of the key sights that surfaced in Troncoso’s interview with Victoria Anderica, head of the Madrid City Council’s Office of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. The dialogue suggests how a social movement can move into city government without giving up their core movement ideals and values. Implementation remains difficult, of course, but Ahora Madrid has made some impressive progress.
First, a clarification: To outsiders, the political insurgency in Spain is usually associated with the upstart Podemos party. That is a significant development, of course, but Podemos is also much more traditional. Its party structure and leadership are more consolidated than those of Ahora Madrid, which considers itself an “instrumental party.” It qualified to run in the 2015 elections as a party, but it does not have the internal apparatus of normal parties.
Across Europe, a vision of the commons has been emerging in the margins for many years. But now, as the credibility of conventional politics and neoliberal economics plummets, commoners are becoming more visible, assertive and organized. The latest evidence comes from the first meeting of a newly formed European Commons Assembly. More than 150 commoners from 21 countries across Europe gathered in Brussels for the three-day event, from November 15 to 17.
The Assembly was organized by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein of the Berlin-based European Commons Network, in collaboration with other commons advocates and organizations. Two sets of Assembly meetings were held at the Zinneke collective, based in an old stamp factory in Brussels that the nonprofit collective had reclaimed. Another meeting was held in the stately European Parliament building, hosted by supportive members of the European Parliament who sit on the Working Group on Common Goods, within the Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.
Bloemen and Hammerstein recently wrote about the meetings:
This movement of commoners has been growing across Europe over the last decade, but last week it came together for the first time in a transnational European constellation. The objectives of the meetings were multiple but the foremost goal was to connect and form a stable but informal transnational commons movement in Europe. The political energy generated by bringing all these people together in this context was tremendous.
On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons." I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.
The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015. She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.
Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services: a huge, complicated job.
What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals?
The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways. Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.