politics

There are the official stories that we tell ourselves about constitutional democracy and citizen rights -- and then there are the ugly political realities of the struggle against unaccountable power.  Gary Ruskin, a veteran activist (most recently in the California voter initiative for GMO labeling), shines a bright light on the latter in a new report, Spooky Business:  Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations (pdf file), just published by Essential Information

Ruskin’s report exposes a world about which we have only fragmentary, accidental knowledge.  But enough IS known to confirm that large corporations carry out a broad range of corporate espionage activities against citizen activists for exercising their constitutional rights (to petition their government for change and to publicly speak out on public policies).  

“The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years,” writes Ruskin.  “Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating ‘threats’ of all sorts – including from nonprofit organizations.  And there is now a surfeit of private investigations firms willing and able to conduct sophisticated spying operations against nonprofits.”  Many of these “security” personnel are former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers who once worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), US military, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service and local police departments. 

None of this should be entirely surprising.  The early labor movement in the US was often illegally attacked and infiltrated by Pinkerton thugs.  In 1965, General Motors notoriously hired private detectives to investigate Ralph Nader’s private life and try to dig up incriminating information about him.  Nader, then a 31-year-old unknown, had just published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the designed-in dangers of automobiles.  The revelation of GM’s tactics and its awareness of its cars’ defects unleashed a ferocious backlash, enough to make Nader a famous crusader and to spur enactment of a new federal agency to regulate auto safety.  More recently, police and corporate infiltration of the Occupy movement has occurred.  (David Graeber’s recent book, The Democracy Project, has some good accounts of this.  See also The Progressive magazine.)

While Ruskin concedes that his accounts represent only “a few snapshots, taken mostly at random arising from brilliant strokes of luck,” his report documents an alarming range of acts of corporate espionage or planned espionage.  Among the highly unethical and/or illegal acts committed:  surveillance, infiltration, manipulation and dirty tricks.

My Interview with Shareable.net

Journalist Cat Johnson recently published an interview with me on Shareable.net, the lively chronicler of new types of sharing and collaboration, especially on digital platforms and in cities.  The interview is a brief survey of my thinking on the commons as a promising political strategy and governance template.  Here’s an excerpt: 

“We need to imagine new forms of governance,” he [Bollier] says. “It’s not as if the state is going to be rendered useless or unimportant tomorrow, but the state needs to explore new forms of governance if it’s going to keep its own legitimacy and effectiveness.”

He points to the fact that government’s incompetence and incapacity for dealing with problems, as centralized, territorial institutions, is going to become more evident.

“Just as governments charter corporations, ostensibly to serve the common good,” he says, “the government ought to be chartering the commons and providing financial assistance and legal sanction and even privileges. Because at a local, self-organized level, the commons can perform lots of tasks that governments just aren't doing well because they’re too corrupted or bought off or too centralized and incapable of dealing with diverse, distributed complexity.” He adds, “At the core, it’s a governance problem. Even liberal, constitutional democracies are not capable of solving all these problems.”

Chomsky on the Commons

Noam Chomsky recent gave a meaty talk, “Destroying the Commons:  On Shredding the Magna Carta” that shows how fragile the rights of commoners truly are. Achieved after enormous civil strife, the Magna Carta supposedly guaranteed commoners certain civic and procedural rights.  A companion document, the Charter of the Forest later incorporated into the Magna Carta, expressly guarantees commoners stipulated rights to access and use forests, land, water, game and other natural resources for their subsistence. 

Both documents are now being shredded today with barely a peep of acknowledgment that centuries-old principles of human rights are being swept aside.  Much of Chomsky’s talk is dedicated to his familiar critiques of US geopolitics and corporate globalization.  But he has a few illuminating passages about the Charter of the Forest and modern-day enclosures, especially in the global South.  Chomsky gave the speech at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Citing Linebaugh’s book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, Chomsky writes:

The Charter of the Forest imposed limits to privatization…. By the seventeenth century, however, this Charter had fallen victim to the rise of the commodity economy and capitalist practice and morality.  

With the commons no longer protected for cooperative nurturing and use, the rights of the common people were restricted to what could not be privatized, a category that continues to shrink to virtual invisibility.  In Bolivia, the attempt to privatize water was, in the end, beaten back by an uprising that brought the indigenous majority to power for the first time in history.  The World Bank has just ruled that the mining multinational Pacific Rim can proceed with a case against El Salvador for trying to preserve lands and communities from highly destructive gold mining.  Environmental constraints threaten to deprive the company of future profits, a crime that can be punished under the rules of the investor-rights regime mislabeled as “free trade.” And this is only a tiny sample of struggles underway over much of the world….

Share or Die, the Book

When Dustin Hoffman was “the graduate,” he could at least consider a job in plastics.  Nowadays the jobs have been sent abroad, communities are being destabilized by budget cuts, and many of the entry-level opportunities for young people, if they exist at all, are pretty soul-deadening.  The world that is being bequeathed to the younger generation is in serious decline if not decadence – yet the corporate and political elite who run the show seem incapable of turning things around.  Indeed, they don’t really seem to want to.  What’s a twenty-something supposed to do?

Shareable Magazine has just released a lively book that provides a few answers.  It doesn't offer any grand manifestos so much as a series of highly personal, evocative testimonies filled with rays of hope.  Share or Die:  Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis, is an eclectic collection of essays about the ways that young people are trying to build happier, wholesome, workable lives for themselves as the edifice of late-stage capitalism begins to implode.  Edited by Malcolm Harris with Neal Gorenflo (New Society Publishers), the book brings to the surface, in authentic, heartfelt ways, the frustrations and triumphs of young people trying to find their footings.

Here are some of those voices: 

An anonymous, self-described “nomad” describes why he has chosen of life on the road.  It’s not as if he has a script or a deadline for his travels; he’s just wandering.  He advises, “You need to be resourceful and confident, reasonably streetwise, but also open to the prospect that most people are basically good.  The kindness of people I meet on the road continues to overwhelm me, and I aim to both repay it and pass it on as far as possible.”  The nomad itemizes what’s in his backpack (his netbook, ancient mobile phone and waterproof jacket), and why.

The commons agenda may seem a long way removed from electoral politics and mainstream respectability.  But we have already seen how the commons sensibility has propelled the Pirate Party to its surprising breakthroughs in Sweden and Germany.  And now we have Blue Labour in the U.K. making a strong bid to re-conceptualize British politics.

A key figure in this transformation is Maurice Glasman, an academic, activist and Labour life peer in the House of Lords.  Glasman has earned wide respect for his community work in London, such as working on a living wage campaign for cooks, security guards and cleaners.  He also worked with faith communities on immigration issues, including a campaign called “Strangers into Citizens” that sought to integrate immigrants into their neighborhoods by fostering social understanding and cooperation among people.

“The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here,” Glasman recently wrote in the Guardian. “The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.”

The "Blue" in Blue Labour refers to its commitment to a “small-c conservatism."  By “conservative,” Glasman and his colleagues mean a commitment to cultural tradition, community and social solidarity – those old-fashioned, “soft” things that are usually treated by politicians as sappy rhetorical inspiration.  What makes Blue Labour stand out from this tradition, however, is the way it brilliantly blends a deeper humanistic vision with a hard-nosed economic analysis, including a staunch opposition to neoliberalism and globalization.

Can the Commons Go Electoral?

From an American perspective, it would seem unlikely that the commons could become a topic of mainstream electoral concern in the near future.  The cultural base just isn’t there.  Yet the surprising success of the Pirate Party in Europe suggests that a new cultural cohort – politically disaffected, digitally networked, culturally independent – is beginning to find its voice.  Such voices can be tremendously viral as the Arab Spring and Occupy movements have shown, and moreover, crash the insider games of mainstream politics.

My colleague Michel Bauwens has written a very thoughtful essay on this topic for Al Jazeera, in which he predict that a win by the German Pirate Party in 2012 elections would set the stage for a European coalition of the commons.  He sees a “new majority in the making” if the Pirates, the Greens, Labor and Social Liberals can find a way to come together in support of “a commons-centered transformation of European politics.”  Bauwens writes:

Opinion polls [in Germany] predict an average support rate for the Pirate Party hovering around the 10-12% range, making their victorious appearance in the German national elections almost a certainty.  The importance of this can hardly be overrated. If the Pirates are needed to form a national coalition government, which is likely, Germany would no longer be a player in imposing further IP restrictions on behest of the U.S. conglomerates, and would equally certainly start dismantling already existing restrictions to a substantial degree. With dominant Germany out of the game, and Eastern European states already mostly opposed to further IP repression, this also means the end of any EU support for international IP strengthening. In other words, a victory of the German Pirate Party is actually a global victory for the forces favoring information commons.

As if recovering from the binge of market triumphalism that crested in 2008, the Zeitgeist is now unleashing a steady stream of new works on cooperation.  The rediscovery of this aspect of our humanity is long overdue and incredibly important, given the deformities of thinking that economics has inflicted on public consciousness.  So I was excited to learn that the distinguished sociologist Richard Sennetthad written a new book about cooperation, Together:  The Rituals Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press). 

The pleasures of a book by Sennett is its extreme erudition, lightly worn and combined with a thoughtful personal voice and political conscience.  Sennett, now 69, teaches at the London School of Economics and New York University, after a lifetime of studying urban culture, class consciousness, labor and politics.  Together eschews the social science jargon that imprisons so many of Sennett’s colleagues, offering an engaging, far-ranging and subtle meditation on how human beings learn to cooperate.  He draws upon evolutionary science, sociological research, a life of field research, and his personal experiences as a celebrated political cosmopolitan.

The great value of Together is its creation of a fresh vocabulary for thinking more systematically about how cooperation occurs, and does not occur, in contemporary life.  This is quite a radical act considering the general orientation of economics and public policy, which tend to presume that we are all individuals living in isolation, as disconnected libertarian monads.  It's utterly false, of course, but we do not have a very developed or precise public narrative for asserting the opposite.  Sennett supplies one. 

The Pirate Party Wins Big in Berlin

The Pirate Party won an impressive and unexpected 8.9% of the vote in Berlin's elections on Sunday. This means that the Pirates will have an astonishing 15 seats out in the state parliament, out of 141 legislators. It's the first time that the Pirate Party has won representation in a German legislative body.

To put this in perspective, the German Pirate Party won 2% of the vote in national elections in 2009, but no seats in the legislature. The Berlin election can be chalked up as a regional aberration, which it is, but it also took place in the capital of Germany.  And a bloc of 15 seats can be parlayed into real power in a parliamentary system.

But what's also significant about the Berlin victory is the growing power of trans-national movements that have strong local bases and political and cultural affinities that span national boundaries. This is the new Internet culture emerging. As the blog Governance Across Borders puts it, “The Pirate Party’s election win in Berlin would not have been possible without its relations to a much broader and transnational movement. For one, there are fellow pirate parties in over 40 different countries, most of which are members of the meta-organization Pirate Parties International. For another, the pirate party movement is itself only one of several related and partly overlapping social movements inspired by the new technological possibilities of Internet and digital technologies.” (Governance Across Borders has a useful FAQ on the Pirate Parties and the Berlin victory.)

Many people don't recognise that the commons is not just a thing – a physical element of nature or a resource like the Internet – but a distinct metaphysics and epistemology that challenges some deeply rooted premises of contemporary politics and policy.  James Quilligan probes this territory with a thoughtful piece in the latest issue of Kosmos magazine. In particular, he explores the “social nature of property”and how its individual, atomistic nature in liberal political philosophy is responsible for “its catastrophic impact on the commons.”

The essay is not a quick read, but it is a provocative and penetrating piece about some of the deeply rooted assumptions that shape our understandings of property, individual identity and how government and public policy should behave.  All such discussions must start with John Locke, the great 17th Century philosopher who created the enduring justifications for property rights.

One of Locke's central ideas is that property is inherently about individual rights of ownership and control, which means the right to exclude others and to ignore the larger social and ecological context of those rights, not to mention future generations. This understanding, in turn, entails an understanding of a human being as a dualistic creature, one who has a sovereign mind and a separate and independent material body.  The mind/body dualism is actually the basis for a larger political theory that assigns property rights to individuals (and not larger collectives) and charges governments with recognizing and enforcing those individual rights.

Some fascinating commons-animated political undercurrents are starting to surface in Ireland and Spain, two of the “troubled” nations of the Eurozone.  (I will focus on Ireland today and Spain later this week.)  In Ireland, a new all-Ireland political federation, Fís Nua hopes to shake things up.  Its self-professed goal is “to bring together, under one umbrella, all those disaffected with the corruption in politics and government and who feel that they have been left without a voice within the political arena in Ireland.”  (A tip o the hat to Michel Bauwens of P2P Foundation blog for this news.)

Fís Nua, a registered political party, wants to open up a new sort of political conversation and agenda.  The catalyst for the movement is the systemic ripoff of the Irish people in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  As the Fís Nua website puts it: 

We believe that up to 90 billion Euro of our tax money that is presently being used to ‘bail out’ or pay for the corruption of politicians and banking officials is the greatest crime in Irish history, one that we are paying for with a collapsed economy, soaring unemployment, diminishing social facilities and a scarred environmental and cultural landscape.  We believe that this money belongs to the Irish people and it should be devoted to dealing with our present crisis rather than guaranteeing the profits of criminal developers, bankers and corrupt politicians.

As set forth in a bracing manifesto, Fís Nua seeks to draw upon the work of social justice, ecology and anti-corruption constituencies “with the intent of breaking the mould in Irish politics.”  The party’s manifesto is comprehensive, thoughtful and well-worth reading.  But what I found especially exciting were Items #6 and #7 in the party’s “Ecological Economics” platform:

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