politics

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.

At least we have some clarity.  The mystifications and rationalizations are evaporating.  If nothing else, the election of Donald Trump illuminates many of the deep structural problems that we need to face squarely.

While most post-election commentary is focused on Trump and the political realignment in Washington, I think the bigger stories are the tectonic shifts in the neoliberal political economy and representative democracy itself.  Both are imploding.  Both are losing credibility as vehicles for human governance and betterment. And yet the lineaments of a new order – a robust realm of social innovation relatively unknown to mainstream politics – remains out of focus.

The election of a narcissistic, authoritarian bigot with no experience in politics and no serious ideas about how to solve the country’s problems, reveals the dysfunctions of the US constitutional system and its two major political parties. The rollicking, vituperative campaigns made for blockbuster TV ratings, but they were a farce in terms of democratic deliberation and governance.

And how could it be otherwise?  The venerable system devised by powdered-wig elites in the late 18th century has been eclipsed by the realities of the 21st century.  Politics is now a self-referential bubble of mass-media spectacle and social media.  As a branch of the entertainment world, it is a highly confected virtual space that caters more to emotional hot buttons and prejudices than rational deliberation or meaningful human dialogue.

Parties can’t help but regard this bizarre, modernist fun house as the real venue for getting and retaining power; solving real problems or fostering real democratic participation is a nostalgic fantasy.  In hindsight, it now seems utterly logical that an outrageous former reality-show star could prevail in this arena – much as Ronald Reagan’s long experience in Hollywood was essential to his success in politics. Let's not pretend that this is "democracy." It's a Roman circus.

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?

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. 

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