For Dave Jacke, a designer of ecological landscapes since the late 1970s, human culture and our “inner landscapes” are the floating variables for our future on Earth. “Western culture, psychosocially, is extremely underdeveloped,” Jacke says in the just-released Episode #9 of my podcast, Frontiers of Commoning. “We humans believe we are separate [from natural systems]. That is kind of like the developmental stage of a two-year-old.”
The question facing the human species is whether we can sufficiently adapt our cultures to make them compatible with living ecosystems. This was a primary topic in my discussions with Jacke. “Very few people alive today have any idea of what a healthy ecosystem looks like,” said Jacke, “because all of us have grown up in damaged ecosystems. We do not understand the abundance that is possible.”
But paradoxically, our “under-development” is a reason for hope: “If the human species were as developed as we could be, genetically, as we face all the perils we face, we’d be screwed. But the fact that we have so much room to grow, psychosocially, is our greatest reason for hope,” Jacke claims.
Jacke has been a serious student of ecology and design since the late 1970s when he embarked on a career designing and installing landscapes for homes, farms, and communities in the many parts of the United States, as well as overseas. He is a passionate teacher and consultant about designing human cultures using ecological principles -- sometimes known as "applied ecology," or what some folks call permaculture. He pursued this work through his firm Dynamics Ecological Design based in Montague, Massachusetts. [Email: davej/at/edibleforestgardens.com]
For years, the US Navy deliberately used the lush Caribbean island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, for target practice. It shot all sorts of projectiles onto the island until 2003, when huge public protests and civil disobedience made the wanton destruction too hot for the Navy. It withdrew from Vieques, by then a severely contaminated tropical wasteland that is being "cleaned up" (if possible) and turned into a wildlife refuge.
Now we are at the dawn of a similar situation in the highland pastures of the Balkans known as Sinjajevina.The region’s large mountain grasslands – home to eight native tribes with 22,000 people and a rich biodiversity – has been used for centuries as pastoral commons, “katuns.” The area’s biodiversity is recognized by two nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites. Until recently, Sinjajevina had been a place of stable lives lived in happy coexistence with the land.
Obviously, such things cannot be allowed.The government of Montenegro, supported by key NATO allies, has established a military training ground on the pastoral commons. NATO saw no need to hold any public hearings or consultations with the people who live there. With the government’s assent, it just barged right in, sidelining government plans for a regional park to protect the local ecosystem and communities.
The following essay is my contribution to the recently published anthology, 'The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life amidst Capitalist Ruins' (Punctum Books), published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. I co-edited this volume with my colleague Professor Anna Grear of Cardiff University. More about the book at the Punctum Books website.
The chapter asks some basic questions about the future of commons within a system of state power and law: Can commoning be affirmatively protected via conventional state law while respecting the integrity of commoning as a post-capitalist social form? Can Vernacular Law and modern law be artfully blended, if only as a makeshift venture?
The essay is about 7,000 words, so it's not a quick read, but it outlines some salient legal challenges that we face in moving commons forward. It feels like a nice companion piece to my recent podcast interview with Janelle Orsi of Sustainable Economies Law Center.
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In recent years, the power and diversity of commoning in contemporary life has increased dramatically. Commoning is both an ancient and rediscovered social form that can be seen in the stewardship of forests, fisheries, and farmland, especially in subsistence and indigenous contexts. It lies at the heart of community land trusts, local currencies, mutual aid networks, and cohousing. It is embodied in community-supported agriculture, agroecology, and permaculture, and in digital spaces that produce open source software, hardware, and design. Commoning is at work in open access scholarly journals, crowdfunding tools, and platform cooperatives, and in academia, arts and culture, and many other realms.
Because commons are strongly inclined to respect ecological limits and devise fair-minded, flexible governance through inclusive participation, they hold great promise in dealing with many societal problems. However, commoning as a legal activity faces an uncertain future. Its practices and values are philosophically alien to many aspects of the liberal market and state and their mutual focus on individualism, calculative rationality, material gain, and market growth. Commoning therefore has trouble gaining legal recognition and support. Indeed, the state is predisposed to ignore the commons, criminalize its activities, or exploit its resources in alliance with the business class.
The commons may be a pariah within the world of conventional politics because it challenges the foundational terms of ideological debate, which presumes that the market and state are ideological adversaries – the “private sector” battling the “public sector.” This is a specious binary because market and state are in fact deeply interdependent and both subscribe to the grand narrative of “social progress through economic growth.” The state looks to the market for economic growth, tax revenues, and social mobility for its citizens, while market players look to the state for a stable legal order, subsidies, state support and privileges, and the mitigation of market abuses (pollution, social disruption, inequality). State and market are so utterly symbiotic it is entirely warranted to speak about the market/state system.
From within this dominant worldview, it is almost a foregone conclusion that collective management of wealth would be seen as a “tragedy of the commons” – the over-exploitation and ruin of a resource. To the guardians of the market/state, after all, individual agency and rights are supreme. Collective action is not perceived as feasible or attractive. By definition, human beings are defined as atomistic individuals, not as co-participants in shared histories, cultures, interests, and values. When people are conceived of as “rational individuals” with boundless “incentives” to take as much as they can, it should not be surprising that heedless consumption and the reckless “externalization of costs” follows.
Now, however, this convenient fiction is starting to fall apart. Critics are increasingly calling out the claim that a commons is simply a selfish free-for-all when, in fact, this scenario more accurately describes what we might call the tragedy of the market. The commons is in fact a durable social form that orchestrates shared intentionality to steward wealth responsibly and inclusively over the long term. In a commons, people willingly negotiate rules of peer governance, resolve group conflicts, and enforce rules. They develop ways to pool and share (or divide up or mutualize) their collective wealth, without resort to a state Leviathan to maintain law, order, and personal safety.
In our legal system -- designed to protect private property, individual rights, and market exchange – it can actually be very difficult to share things legally. Attorney Janelle Orsi found this out the hard way as she worked with co-housing groups, worker cooperatives, and community gardens. “Our clients kept running up against legal barriers that make no sense: employment laws for co-ops in which people are both employer and employee. Landlord-tenant law for cohousing projects in which people are both landlords and tenants.”
Such frustrations led Orsi to co-found (with Jenny Kassan) the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) in Oakland, California, in late 2009. It has since become a singlular team of venturesome lawyers attempting creative hacks on antiquated laws and regulations.Their clients are not corporations or other deep-pocket moguls, but grassroots groups, cooperatives, and social justice organizations, especially in the Bay Area.
The story of the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s amazing work is the subject of my latest Frontiers of Commoning podcast, Episode #8. Janelle explains some of the innovative legal strategies that the Law Center uses to try to help cooperatives, commons, low-income communities, and Native Americans, among others. (Full disclosure: I am on SELC’s advisory board.)
“The law treats people as atomized, bounded individuals in conflict with each other, in an attempt to keep people separate,” said Orsi. Much of the work at the Law Center is therefore about coming up with ingenious hacks on the law so that people can solve their problems together. The organization describes its theory of change this way:
“Neither our communities nor our ecosystems are well served by an economic system that incentivizes perpetual growth, wealth concentration, and the exploitation of land and people. Communities everywhere are responding to these converging economic and ecological crises with a grassroots transformation of our economy that is rapidly re-localizing production, reducing resource consumption, and rebuilding the relationships that make our communities thrive."
On Wednesday, October 28, there will be an online event (in Spanish) to launch the book. It will feature presentations by Marcos García, Artistic Director of MediaLab Prado; my coauthor Silke Helfrich; and a response by Beatriz O'Brien, Director of Bien Común Chile.
This will be followed by an open discussion moderated by Stacco Troncoso of DisCO.coop and Guerrilla Media Collective. (I will participate in English via simultaneous interpretation). The international schedules for the event are 12:00 for Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Colombia; 14:00 for Chile and Argentina; and 18:00 for Spain and Europe.
The event is hosted by Guerrilla Media Collective in collaboration with Medialab Prado (Madrid), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Berlin), the Commons Strategies Group, and the publishing houses mentioned above. Details about the event (in Spanish) are here or here.
More about the book Libres, Dignos, Vivos can be found here. And check out this short video (with Spanish subtitles) about the book.The event will be streamed live at this link.
The book asks the question: As we enter a time of climate catastrophe, worsening inequality, and collapsing market/state systems, can human societies transcend the old, dysfunctional paradigms and build the world anew?
The answer: There are many signs of hope. In ten different essays, the book dissects the core problems of neoliberal capitalism and showcases some particularly encouraging vectors of transformation.
Anna and I want to thank the ten cutting-edge activists, scholars, and change-makers who joined us in producing this book. The authors probe the deep roots of our current predicament while reflecting on the social DNA required to build a post-capitalist future. A golden thread connecting the chapters is the role of commoning in building working utopias with the capacity to protect themselves and grow in a hostile capitalist environment. As Grear and I write in our Introduction:
Basic structures of contemporary life seem to be falling apart, no longer able to contain the chaotic energies unleashed by global capitalism, digital technologies, libertarian market culture, and modernity. One might call it a Great Unraveling. Yet, paradoxically, this period of history might also be called, accurately, the Great Awakening.
There is a growing awareness of the need for a fundamental shift in mindset and culture, as suggested by the youth climate protests of recent times; the rise of progressive politics; and a general sense that the system is broken and needs to be replaced. Amidst the messy unwinding of obsolete paradigms, many sturdy, fresh, and green sprouts of change — marginal, as yet, to the public consciousness — are emerging.
Thomas de Groot, Head of Programmes at the Commons Network in Amsterdam, recently spoke with Silke Helfrich and David Bollier about the future of social security systems and how the commons can offer alternative transition paths.
TdG: ‘Could you share your thoughts about the need for a different vision for our systems of social security?’
SH: ‘Sure. Let’s start by identifying why it is so important to link the issue of social security to commons-thinking. We are all burdened by a structural dependency on the market-based economy. And so are our social security systems. This is what we see now with the Covid-19 pandemic. The state spends billions and billions to keep businesses going because it assumes that flourishing businesses will generate more money for the state. And in fact, the state is dependent on those capital flows and tax revenues.
‘So there is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all. We know there will be another crisis. This is why we need to think about the future of the economy and of social security in such a way that we make ourselves more independent of the capitalist, market-based economy.’
DB: ‘I like the phrase ‘from redistribution to predistribution’, meaning that we need to go from the current situation, where the state redistributes wealth in a certain way, to a situation where people control and manage wealth to start with. This is not the same as equity ownership because the goal is not to use assets to generate profits or return on investment, but to have shared wealth and infrastructure for creating provisions and services outside of the market and state.’
‘There is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all.’
How can cooperatives serve as vehicles for social change, especially in online spaces? What practical interventions could check the anti-social behaviors of Big Tech? These are two questions that I explored recently with Nathan Schneider, professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, in Episode #8 of my podcast, “Frontiers of Commoning.”
Nathan is a long-time journalist and scholar focused on social-change movements of resistance, nonviolence, and system-change. Much of his work has focused on the new opportunities that cooperatives and digital technologies can provide in today’s world. He has been especially active in promoting platform cooperatives as a vehicle for moving beyond predatory business models like Uber, Airbnb, and TaskRabbit.
For Schneider, the history of cooperatives is a source of great inspiration and practical instruction. “Cooperatives are nothing new,” he told me, citing Gandhi’s embrace of coops as a strategic tool to emancipate Indians from the British. “But it is a form of doing business that has shaped our world that doesn’t get enough credit.” For example, people often don’t appreciate that coops were a big element of the civil rights movement, he said.
Martin Luther King Jr. supported African-Americans in starting credit unions, in part because cooperative banking enabled them to become more independent from oppressive local circumstances. “I interviewed a civil rights elder in Mississippi,” said Nathan, and asked him if coops were around in the 1960s. And he said, ‘Who do you think was getting people registered to vote?’”
Sharecroppers always risked getting evicted from the land if they dared to assert their civil rights or become politically active. But members of coops are secure enough to take risks and join movements, he said. “This is a geography of our world that we don’t see.”
One of the big epiphanies that I had in writing Free, Fair and Alive with Silke Helfrich, was that a lot of political disagreements are not just about law, politics, or economics. They reflect fundamental clashes of worldviews. They are disputes about how human beings should or can relate to each other and to nature, and what types of societal institutions can support these relationships.
Seen through this lens, many public debates are actually about ontology – the way we understand human existence as it plays out in political and institutional arenas. Call it Ontopolitics – the ways in which basic conceptions about human life affect how we structure our political economy and culture.
For example, the climate crisis may register as a debate about international treaties and industrial practices. But these arguments are implicitly about the nature of human existence and community. Are we really rational, utility-maximizing individuals with no essential relationship to our fellow humans or the Earth, as standard economic theory claims (and as liberal political theory agrees)? Or are we biological creatures nested within social collectives (“community”) with great capacity for cooperation and, as a species, deeply entangled with nature? Each conception of humanity implies very different sorts of institutions and norms.
A number of us commoners wanted to probe this deeper, existential substrate of politics and policy. So in September 2019, the Commons Strategies Group partnered with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) of Potsdam, Germany, to convene a deep dive workshop. The pre-pandemic event brought together eighteen activists, philosophers, policy experts, and commons scholars from eleven countries to meet for three days at Silke’s home in Neudenau, Germany.
The death of activist/anthropologist David Graeber last week was a cruel loss in these already-difficult times. Graeber was only 59....he clearly had many more dazzling books ahead of him....and those of us questing for system-change as multiple crises converge, took great inspiration from his thinking.
As a student of human societies, he had much to say not only about the human condition but about structures of social organization as they have played out over millennia. Even more: he applied this knowledge by fearlessly critiquing the pathologies of global capitalism – and then proposing and agitating for serious alternatives.
This is not usually a career-advancing move for an academic. And in fact, he famously ran afoul of Yale University for his radical activism. When Yale indicated that he would not be kept on as a professor there despite his obvious brilliance, over 4,500 students signed a petition supporting him. But he lost the battle and was forced to move on to the greener fields of Great Britain. He eventually ended up at the London School of Economics.
I was bowled over by Graeber’s 2011 masterwork, the book Debt, which properly reframed finance as a preeminently political and social issue. I also took a great deal from Graeber’s extended critique of bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules, and from his Bullshit Jobs, about the pointless jobs that capitalist hierarchies produce. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams is one of his lesser-known early works, but I found it a rare treat amidst the vast economics literature that regards “value” as a simple issue: market price = value.