Civics in Real Life: The 2020 Census

Well, it’s time for the Census! And today, we bring you a new Civics in Real Life reading on the 2020 Census and why it matters. How is it an obligation of government and a responsibility of citizens? Why should we complete it?

censuscrl

We hope that you find this, and others in the series, useful!

Check out the new series here. 

As a reminder, our topics so far have addressed
Unemployment InsuranceUI

The Defense Production Act
DPA

Essential Workers

CRLEW

The First Amendment1st amndcrl

Government Power

GP

Nongovernmental OrganizationsNGO

Propaganda and Symbolism

prop

The National Guard

NG

The CARES Act

CARES

Primary Sources

primary sources

Federalism in Action

federalism

The Preamble in Action

Preamble
Executive Orders
CRL EO

the Common Good,
CG1

and Public Health and the Social Contract.
PH1

We hope that you will find these useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us at anytime! And don’t forget, you can find the ‘Civics in Real Life’ resource on the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship website here. Be sure also to check out Civics360 for videos and readings that explore additional civics concepts and ideas within a more traditional framework!

the pivotal significance of reparations for the American left

About one in four Americans supports reparations for slavery. There is a racial split on that question, with up to three in four African Americans–but only 15% of whites–in favor.

If you think that justice demands reparations, you should support them. You might not make reparations your main criterion for choosing candidates in a given political contest, because you might vote on other grounds, but you should endorse proposals that you believe are just.

Here I want to address a different issue. I’ll offer an explanation (not a justification or a critique) of the importance of reparations in the mentality of left-leaning Americans.

I think that many Americans on the left are torn between two political positions, each coherent on its own but in tension with the other:

1. A strong version of New Deal/Great Society liberalism and/or social democracy, in which the nation-state intervenes assertively in the economy to promote equity and environmental sustainability. This stance is compatible with enthusiastic support for voting and democratic processes. It requires a lot of trust in the state and a willingness to entrust state actors with the ability to, for example, investigate how much wealth (not just annual income) you have, which schools your kids will attend, and which health treatments will be paid for, given data about your body.

Martin Luther King, Jr., provides a classic statement of this view when he recalls the launch of the Great Society: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.”

2. A deep suspicion of the United States government as white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist: as a continuous entity that has played a leading role in genocide, enslavement, and apartheid, in part because those policies have sometimes been popular among the white majority of the country.

It’s debatable what positive program follows from the second position, but in practice, it can mean support for local initiatives, nonprofits, women- and minority-owned businesses, and autonomy at the neighborhood level. Malcolm X provides a classic text for this view:

The white man, the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community. But you will let anybody come in and control the economy of your community, control the housing, control the education, control the jobs, control the businesses, under the pretext that you want to integrate. 

… we haven’t had sense enough to set up stores and control the businesses of our community. … But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations. Woolworth didn’t start out big like they are today; they started out with a dime store, and expanded, and expanded, and expanded until today they are all over the country and all over the world and they getting some of everybody’s money. …

So our people not only have to be reeducated to the importance of supporting black business, but the black man himself has to be made aware of the importance of going into business. And once you and I go into business, we own and operate at least the businesses in our community. 

Note that this position is compatible with certain forms of libertarian thought but not with social democracy.

It is not embarrassing to be drawn to two incompatible views. The social world is complicated, and there are good reasons in favor of many positions. However, when you feel the pull of two incompatible ideas, a deciding factor becomes very important.

Reparations play that role for the American left. If the United States government were to pay reparations, that would tilt many left-leaning people from the second position to the first: from Malcolm to Martin, if those labels are helpful. The impact would be especially strong if Congress and the president decided to pay reparations of their own volition–not by grudgingly negotiating with a social movement–and if the payment were substantial.

The underlying theory here is similar to Homer-Dixon et al (2020). An ideology is a complex system that consists of numerous ideas with logical links among them. It cannot be described adequately by placing it on one left/right spectrum, nor even several such continua at once. It is not a point in logical space but a structure of ideas.

In complex systems, we frequently see multiple equilibria, and specific nodes have surprisingly large impact because of their location. A single node can tilt the system from one equilibrium to another.

My conjecture is that reparations plays such a role in the system of the ideology of the American left. Left-leaning people may not rate it as the most important issue. They may not even endorse it whole-heartedly. But it (perhaps uniquely) can tilt them from a libertarian equilibrium to a social-democratic equilibrium.

This is an empirical conjecture for which I do not have data. To test it, we would have to explore the epistemic network of left-leaning Americans, either by analyzing large bodies of text or by surveying individuals about their ideas and perceived connections among their ideas.

See also: on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter; ideologies and complex systems; and unveiling a systems map for k-12 civic education (for a methodological analog).

Do Shipwrecked Boys Choose Cooperation or Barbarism?

In the course of researching his forthcoming book on human cooperation, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman had to deal with the inevitable atrocities and behaviors that suggest that humanity is barbaric at its core. There is no question that humanity has shown such tendencies through history. But is savage cruelty the default setting for “human nature”? 

As anyone who has gone through high school remembers, that is the one lesson we were all taught when assigned to read Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. That classic book, you may recall, is about a band of British schoolboys who are shipwrecked on a desert island. Forced to create their own society, they end up shedding the veneer of (British) civilization and reveal themselves to be utterly nasty and depraved. When the constraints of civilization and state power disappear, the story tells us, we all revert to savagery. We choose barbarism.

Poster for the 1990 film 'Lord of the Flies'

Since its publication in 1951, Lord of the Flies has been translated into more than 30 languages and sold tens of millions of copies. The idea that humanity is disturbingly sinister at heart would seem to be widely believed. Or at least readers may find such stories darkly thrilling, for which there is certainly something to be said.

But Bregman discovered that Lord of the Flies was more a flight of William Golding’s perfervid imagination than an empirical description of humanity. In researching his book, Bregman tripped across a blog post that referred to an actual incident of shipwrecked boys in the South Pacific in 1965. According to the blog, “six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip….Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

Whaaaaaat? You mean, boys stranded in the wilderness don’t descend into barbarism? 

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Bregman recounts his research odyssey to confirm the incident and learn more details. (See, also, a profile of Bregman here.)

It turns out that the Australian boys had been stranded alone on the island of Ata for fifteen months before being rescued on September 11, 1966. Fifty years later, Bregman flew to Australia to try to track down any survivors of the incident. He located sea captain Peter Warner, then 90 years old, who told Bregman how he came to rescue the lost boys given up for dead.

The island on which the boys were marooned had been inhabited until 1863, when a slave ship captured all the natives and sailed away. While steering his ship past Ata, Captain Warner noticed a fire. Looking through his binoculars, he saw naked boys screaming for help. The six boys were all Catholic schoolboys, ranging in age from 13 to 16, who had drifted for six days without food or water following a big storm. Eventually they washed up on the shores of Ata.

The fifteen months stranded on the island did not resemble the story of Lord of the Flies, however. As Captain Warner recalled in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” The boys survived on fish, coconuts and tame birds, and seabird eggs, wild taro, bananas and wild chickens.

In Lord of the Flies, the boys got into fights about who would maintain a fire to alert would-be rescuers. But the boys on Ata assiduously kept their fire going for more than a year. The boys had a roster for tasks, which they did in pairs. If arguments erupted, they agreed to a time-out. Bregman writes that “their days began and ended with song and prayer.”

The real-life drama of the stranded boys of Ata helps us to see that we invent the stories we want to believe. Who knows what motivated William Golding to tell this story, but Bregman notes that Golding as a person was apparently unhappy, alcoholic, and prone to depression. Golding himself even acknowledged Nazi-like tendencies in himself.

It may have been that Golding wanted to channel the spirit of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher whose fable about social contracts has long been used to justify state power. A Hobbsean story like Lord of the Flies helps justify our supposed need for the modern, coercive state. Who else, after all, is going to keep order when we individually can’t constrain our own savagery? Lord of the Flies in effect dismisses the idea that we might self-organize a stable, humane order that can satisfy our needs. 

Bregman’s discovery of the stranded boys of Ata is therefore a revelation. It helps debunk the fictionalized projections about humanity that often pass for political wisdom.

I’d argue that the story of the shipwrecked boys validates a different story about humanity.  It affirms the reality and potential of commoning. As Bregman puts it, “It’s time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.” 

the Biden-Trump polling gap

I have been watching these lines for months:

The gap is very steady, which means that every time Trump moves up, so does Biden–at the expense of undecideds–and vice-versa. By way of contrast, this is how the 2012 election looked:

Granted, the scale is even tighter in the 2012 graph than in 2020, and the length of the trend is longer. Still, we saw points when the lines converged, crossed, or moved apart.

Likewise in 2016:

Or 2008, according to Gallup’s polling:

Henry Enten does better and compares Biden/Trump 2020 polling to historical trends going back to the beginning of polling. He says, “The steadiness in the polls is record breaking. Biden’s advantage is the steadiest in a race with an incumbent running since at least 1944.” Enten adds: “all the [national] polls taken since the beginning of 2019 have [Biden] up 6 points.” He means an average of six points, but that has a small standard deviation. The Real Clear Politics chart, reproduced above, suggests that the full range has been 4-10 points.

The consistency of this gap is noteworthy in an extraordinarily tumultuous period, marked by impeachment, a competitive Democratic primary campaign, a global pandemic, and the worst economic decline since 1929. Donald Trump’s own support has risen and fallen–although only within a five-point range. Biden has had his own ups and downs: near defeat in the primary, a serious accusation of sexual impropriety. Yet the gap between the candidates has been virtually unchanged since December.

Polls this far out are not necessarily very predictive. National polls don’t map exactly onto Electoral College outcomes. Polls conducted now include all adults or self-described “registered voters”; actual voters will be a subset of those. Turnout in 2020 is particularly hard to predict given the practicalities of voting in what may still be a pandemic.

But all these caveats are about whether the graph foretells the result in November 2020. Even if it doesn’t, it tells a very interesting story about now. As Matthew Continetti writes

It is not foolish to suppose that these world-shaking events would affect the presidential election. On the contrary: One would expect a dramatic swing toward either the incumbent or the challenger. But look at the polls. Not only has there been no big shift. There has been no shift. … Neither good nor bad news has an effect.

I think that almost all Americans have formed such firm and well-anchored beliefs about both Trump and Biden that even epoch-making events don’t shift us. We already have enough information to judge these men, whatever the news throws at us. By six percentage points, we like Biden more than Trump.

(By the way, Biden also leads in battleground states’ averages: by 3 points in WI and NC, by 4 in NV and FL, by 7 in PA and NH, and by 8 in Michigan. That would bode well for an Electoral College win, if we want to get into forecasting November.)

Civics in Real Life: Unemployment Insurance

With the new day comes a new Civics in Real Life reading ! Many of our kids, and maybe many of us, are dealing with the reality of family members who have lost jobs over the past couple of months. So today’s CRL looks at this question: What is the origin and purpose of unemployment insurance? UI

Check out the new series here. 

As a reminder, our topics so far have addressed

The Defense Production Act
DPA

Essential Workers

CRLEW

The First Amendment1st amndcrl

Government Power

GP

Nongovernmental OrganizationsNGO

Propaganda and Symbolism

prop

The National Guard

NG

The CARES Act

CARES

Primary Sources

primary sources

Federalism in Action

federalism

The Preamble in Action

Preamble
Executive Orders
CRL EO

the Common Good,
CG1

and Public Health and the Social Contract.
PH1

We hope that you will find these useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us at anytime! And don’t forget, you can find the ‘Civics in Real Life’ resource on the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship website here. Be sure also to check out Civics360 for videos and readings that explore additional civics concepts and ideas within a more traditional framework!

the neo-feudalism thesis

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I’ve superficially encountered the terms “neo-feudalism” and “refeudalization” and read a few relevant works, e.g., Jodi Dean’s “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” in the May 12 edition of the LA Review of Books and Robert Kuttner’s “The Rise of Neo-Feudalism” in the March/April American Prospect. I know my Habermas (who proposed a thesis about neo-feudalism in 1962 that still attracts attention). Years ago, I made a somewhat serious study of actual feudalism as I tried to understand and assess Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But I have missed everything else in this debate–so caveat emptor.

The basic idea is that capitalism has not continued as such, nor has it transformed into socialism, as the Marxian left predicted. Instead, it has morphed into a new system that resembles feudalism in important respects. If this is true, it means that the left should stop opposing neoliberalism or late capitalism, because those are not the reigning systems of the day. And the center-right should stop defending capitalism, because it’s gone.

Definitions would be helpful. I start with these:

A market is any venue in which individuals choose whether or not to exchange goods or services that they own for things that other people own. Markets seems almost ubiquitous–for example, they are found in communist states, inside bureaucracies, and in a huge range of cultures. Market choices are never without constraint and necessity. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to doubt the genuine experience of choosing whether or not to exchange what you own for something you want.

Feudalism–at least in its European medieval version–was a political/economic system in which land represented the vast majority of wealth and was not actually understood as marketable. Although people sometimes traded land for land or land for goods, such exchanges were frowned upon and made difficult. Most people were born with an inalienable link to a specific place. Whether you were a peasant, a lord of a manor, a higher lord, or a sovereign, you had both obligations and rights with respect to particular acres. Your name even incorporated that place: you were from it if you were a commoner, and of it if you were gentry. The gentry did not own demesnes as they owned carpets and tables; they held their places as their “seats.”

Rights and obligations were massively unequal; feudalism was hierarchical. However, a peasant had inalienable rights (e.g., to take firewood from the manor’s commons); and even the king had many feudal obligations. Status came in shades and degrees.

Meanwhile, government in the Weberian sense–the legitimate use of violence–was profoundly decentralized. The lord of the manor was a landlord but also the law. The king was a higher law but had very little capacity for governing anyone outside the royal court itself, unless assisted by feudal vassals who had interests of their own. Parliaments emerged as places where sovereigns bargained with local leaders (lords, bishops, and towns) because they could not govern on their own.

Capitalism is a system in which the most important assets are heavily “capitalized”: subject to investments that make them highly productive. Although farms can be capitalized, the classic example is a factory or manufacturing plant. Thanks to concentrated physical, intellectual, human, and social capital, a factory produces an impressive flow of goods. Because it is complex, it requires a bureaucracy to operate. Therefore, a capitalist economy requires firms, not just individuals coming to market with things they privately own.

As a matter of definition, capitalism involves investment in these productive assets. Some people can live from the proceeds of such investments. Other people are paid to work in a capitalized industry. That distinction produces two classes (at least in Marxian theory–in reality, lines may blur).

Capitalism is incompatible with feudalism because feudalism’s refusal to allow a market for land and agricultural labor prevents investment. Also, capitalism cannot operate efficiently when governance is decentralized in the way we see under feudalism, with many independent rulers wielding legitimate force and making discretionary decisions in their various domains.

Capitalism is, however, compatible with a range of political institutions. The US republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and today’s one-party People’s Republic of China have all been capitalistic. Capitalism can certainly co-exist with political systems that involve equal legal rights, democratic elected governments, and even social welfare systems. In fact, some people think that the most robust and sustainable capitalist systems (for better or for worse) are also democratic, liberal, and at least mildly socialistic.

It would appear that a world dominated by Google, Facebook, Apple, Airbnb, Uber, and the like is still capitalistic. It certainly isn’t feudal in the classical sense, with barriers preventing people from exchanging the most important goods and with inherited status prevailing over contracts. But it might have certain features that make it different from high capitalism and might dimly resemble feudalism.

First, the capitalism that Marx and Engels observed involved great masses of people working in the most productive firms. These workers constituted the proletariat. Today, the most powerful companies in the world don’t employ many people. Google has 118,000 employees and about $1 trillion in market capitalization (measured before the current downturn). That approaches $10 million in capital per employee.

Imagine that Manchester, England, had become the powerhouse of the British Empire with cotton mills that employed … a few hundred workers in total. Engels would have needed a different theory.

To put it a different way, in 1850 it seemed as if most people were being recruited into the “armies” of workers who labored for the most important firms in the world. In 2020, a minuscule proportion of the world’s labor force is employed by the biggest companies.

Second, we are “governed” (in the full sense of that word) by a whole set of overlapping and decentralized rule-makers. Nation-states make rules, but so do companies. They establish and enforce elaborate terms that regulate their employees, contractors, and customers. Kuttner provides examples:

Gated residential communities, such as Disney’s Celebration, are privately controlled municipalities that make and enforce their own laws. Private mercenary armies, such as Blackwater (now rebranded as Academi), are hired by the Pentagon so that their “soldiers” will be less accountable for what might otherwise be war crimes. Eminent domain, the inherent public prerogative to claim private property for a public purpose, has been commandeered by private developers. And courts—the ultimate embodiment of law in a democracy—have been privatized by the vast expansion of compulsory arbitration.

Speaking for myself: I am OK with polycentrism, with layers and overlapping Venn diagrams of power. I believe very strongly in pluralism or a mixed economy, in the sense of a society that incorporates different kinds of institutions, with different logics and incentives. I am not a statist socialist, because I observe that systems in which the nation-state monopolizes power simply enrich the rulers and their families; they do not deliver the equity they promise. It is no coincidence that the sons of Chinese revolutionaries are now capitalist princelings.

Therefore, the very fact that centers of governance have proliferated doesn’t bother me. But one question is whether centers of governance have actually consolidated instead of ramifying. Whereas millions of firms previously established law-like rules within their own domains, now Google makes rules for billions of people. From a global perspective, the fact that most of the world’s most powerful organizations have headquarters on the coast of the USA between San Jose and Seattle is also a worrying sign of concentration. These firms may compete, but their cultural capital, norms, and social networks overlap.

Another question is whether we have preserved robust forums in which to debate whether power has been allocated appropriately. (Surely not.)

A world with consolidating centers of power and a weak public sphere doesn’t sound to me like feudalism, but like something new and bad.

See also: the oscillation between dictatorship and parliamentary institutions (a game theory model); why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2); Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Picketty; the gentry as caste and class; when chivalry died; China teaches the value of political pluralism; and how a mixed economy shapes our mentalities

The Pandemic as a Catalyst for Institutional Innovation (Part II)

The following essay is adapted from a talk given on May 5 at Radical May, a month-long series of events hosted by a consortium of fifty-plus book publishers, including my own publisher, New Society Publishers. My talk -- streamed and later posted on YouTube here -- builds on two previous blog posts.

 

As the pandemic continues, it is revealing just how deeply flawed our societal institutions really are. Government programs reward the affluent and punish the poor, and are often ineffectual or politically corrupted. The market/state order is so committed to promoting market growth and using centralized hierarchies to control life, that the resulting systems are fragile, clumsy, and non-resilient. And so on. It is increasingly evident that the problems we face are profoundly systemic.

After dealing with emergencies, therefore, we need to pause and think about mid-term changes in how we can redesign our economy and governance institutions. We need second responders to help emancipate ourselves from archaic, ineffective institutions and infrastructures. We must not revert to old ideological patterns of thought as if the pandemic were simply a temporary break from the normal. “Normal” is not coming back. The new normal has already arrived.  

The pandemic is not just about rethinking big systems; it is also about confronting inner realities that need to change. We need to recognize and feel the suffering that is going on around us. We need to understand our interdependencies so that we can build appropriate institutions to rebuild and honor our relationships to each other. Our inner lives and external institutions need to be in better alignment.

Our years of leisurely critique of neoliberal capitalism are over. Now we need to take action to escape from its pathologies and develop new types of governance, provisioning, and social forms. Fortunately, there are many new possibilities for institutional change – in relocalization, agriculture and food, cities, digital networks, social life, and many other areas.

Why this conversation now?

There are several reasons why this conversation is needed now.  First, it’s clear that the pandemic has opened up our minds. Now that the failures of existing institutions are so obvious, people are more willing to entertain alternatives that were dismissed only a few months ago. Amazingly, the Financial Times of London has actually endorsed the idea of a Universal Basic Income and wealth redistribution. Congressional Republicans have shown themselves willing to create trillions of dollars for unemployment insurance and social services, without considering it public debt. It’s been the equivalent of “quantitative easing” for people instead of banks.

All of this confirms the saying that there are no neoliberals or libertarians in a pandemic. This is not entirely true, as we’ve seen with armed militia defying state authorities so barber shops can open.  But the general point remains: such ignorant defiance of scientific realities is properly seen as anti-social and wacky.

At a deeper level, the pandemic is reacquainting us moderns with something we have denied:  that we human beings actually depend on living, biological systems. We human beings are profoundly interdependent on each other despite our presumptions to be autonomous, self-made individuals. A recent essay by ecophilosopher Andreas Weber, “Nourishing Community in Pandemic Times,” puts it nicely:

The corona pandemic makes us understand that the earth is a commons, and that our lives are shared. This insight is not a rational concept, but springs from an emotional need. Individuals accept hardships by restricting their contacts in order to protect community. The understanding that we need to protect others has been able to override economic certainties within days.  Humans choose to put reciprocity first. Reciprocity – mutual care – is neither an abstract concept nor an economic policy, but the experience of a sharing relationship and ultimately of keeping the community of life intact. 

The reality of mutual aid as a deep human impulse has been showcased recently in a column by George Monbiot in The Guardian and an excellent piece by Gia Tolentino in The New Yorker.

There are two other, more hard-bitten reasons that we need to talk about institutional innovation right now. The pandemic is causing a decline in the market valuation of many types of businesses and assets, and even bankruptcies. This means that it may be easier to acquire land, buildings, and equipment to convert them into commons infrastructure. For this, we will need to develop a whole class of “convert to commons” strategies, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

And finally, this is a time when lots of top-flight talent is eager to innovate and contribute to the common good. During major economic recessions, especially those affecting the technology industries, we have seen remarkable surges of innovation. Talented coders and engineers who otherwise would be designing systems to serve business models and maximize profit-making, can instead design what they really want to design. That’s one reason that we saw such an effusion of tech innovations following the 2002 recession, with blogs, wikis, social media, and other great leaps forward in software design. Similarly, the New Deal under FDR was a time of grave necessity driving breakthrough innovations in government and economics. 

In a crisis, it is necessary to innovate, or at least we have “permission” to deviate from standard business models and to reinvent the state. I worry about mutual aid systems withering away as old commercial systems struggle to get back on their feet. I don’t want mutual aid to be merely a transient rescue system for the weaknesses of capitalism and state power. I want it to become a distinct institutional and power sector of its own! To do that we need to self-consciously develop institutional innovations to sustain commoning.

The Commons

I come to this talk as a long-time scholar/activist of the commons. I’ve studied the theory, practice, and social life of the commons for the past 20 years, currently as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. I’ve encountered hundreds of commons in my travels and studied them closely. I’ve concluded that they have great promise in addressing the challenges of this moment.

Eight months ago, I published a book called Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons with my German colleague Silke Helfrich. The book distills and synthesizes our twenty years of study of commoning as a social and economic alternative.

I’ve come to conclude that the commons discourse is not only a fantastic way to critique capitalism. It helps us talk about creative, constructive alternatives as well. It points to functional alternatives that meet needs in non-capitalist ways with the active participation and creativity of commoners.

The truth is, we can and must leapfrog over tired debates about socialism versus capitalism. Both of these options rely on centralized, hierarchical, state-based systems, after all. The point of the commons is to open up new vistas for distributed, peer-organized initiative. It’s to honor the countless Internet-friendly options that empower us to take charge of our own governance and provisioning as much as possible.

If we truly want a world of democratic sovereignty and freedom, this option is arguably imperative.  After all, electoral politics in modern politics, especially in the US, has been captured and corrupted by capitalism. The nation-state has become so closely allied with capital that it’s virtually impossible to effect transformational change. Political ideology and power have triumphed over serious ideas and debate. Even though economic growth is biophysically impossible over the mid-term, as climate change makes clear, the state continues to prop it up with huge subsidies and legal entitlements.

So unless we confront these tendencies of state power – which the commons helps us do -- we will remain entangled in the web of neoliberal capitalism and its structural constraints.

The grim reality is:  Covid-19 is the most powerful political actor of our time. It is disrupting countless premises of modern life and forcing us to acknowledge a fork in the road: Shall we try to restore brittle, tightly integrated global markets based on neoliberal fantasies of unlimited economic growth and technological progress? Shall we re-commit to this vision even though this system requires horrific extractivism from nature, racism, inequality, and neocolonialism – and even though small local perturbances like a virus can bring the system down?

Or shall we build a more distributed, resilient, eco-mindful, place-based system that places limits on the use of nature?  Shall we build a system that invites widespread and inclusive participation, and nurtures place-making cultures that assure a rough social fairness for everyone? 

This is the race we commoners are in – to articulate a positive, progressive vision of the future before reactionaries and investors restore a shabby version of the Old Normal, an unsustainable capitalism that may easily degenerate into authoritarianism or fascism. This direction is already being staked out by Trumpism and its attacks on the rule of law, the rise of the capitalist surveillance state, and armed protests against shelter-at-home policies.

The Old Paradigm is indeed falling apart – but new ones are not yet ready.  Since politicians and economists are not going to develop any new paradigms, the burden falls to us to step up and sketch a new societal vision. Beyond expressing a new worldview and set of social practices and norms, we will need to build new types of infrastructures and institutions revolving around the commons. While state power and capital-driven markets will not disappear, it won’t be enough to hoist up a Green New Deal or cling to a timid Democratic Party centrism. 

In this essay, I leave aside the complicated macro-policy discussion that we might have. Here, I want to focus on the institutional innovations that could move us in the right directions. In any case, it’s very hard to implement macro-policies without underlying support at the micro-level – the realm of everyday experience and culture. So I’d like to focus on institutions that we can build ourselves, right now, without having to persuade politicians or courts. That, in fact, is the beauty of the commons. We generally don’t need permission to move forward.

Commons-based Institutions

Pre-pandemic, it was very hard to get any traction for expanding the commons, or even talk about it, because the neoliberal vision of “development” was so pervasive and powerful. It was seen as the only credible template for policy, politics and economics. Of course, the moment has changed. The veil has been ripped off of the neoliberal capitalist narrative and it is now quite obvious that we are actually biological creatures whose well-being depends upon a living Earth. We are social creatures who depend on each other.

Fortunately, there are, in fact, many functional models for change that recognize these realities. It’s only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that the problem is more one of our internal consciousness than external institutions. But the effect of the pandemic is to push the “microbial destruction of the Western Cognitive Empire,” as Andreas Weber puts it, referencing a great book, The End of Cognitive Empire, by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Weber’s point is that the Hobbesean vision of society as governed by a social contract and a world composed of dead things misreads the human condition. The conceit that we are ahistorical, decontextualized, isolated individuals – that we are rational, utility-maximizing materialists -- is a modernist, libertarian, capitalist fantasy. 

The Enlightenment conceit that we can separate humanity from nature, that the individual is utterly separate from the collective, and that the mind and body can be separated, is empirically wrong. It is, frankly, ridiculous. So it’s a bit misleading to say that the coronavirus is destroying the capitalist global economy. It’s more accurate to say that it’s destroying the epistemological edifice upon which the economy stands.

We’re beginning to realize that the world is a pulsating super-organism of living agents. That’s why there is so much talk these days about the “new animism.” People are beginning to realize that the world is actually alive. Gaia really exists!

So rebuilding the world won’t just require new economic policies.  It will require an entirely new mindset about a living world and our own aliveness. We need to see that life is really about achieving organic wholeness and integration. It’s about relationality and reciprocity. We need new systems that are take this into account. They must be bottom-up and place-based  and embedded in local ecosystems. There must be opportunities for peer governance and local cultures to flourish. 

As for “scaling” the commons, hope lies in federating diverse commons so that they can coordinate with each other and work at larger scales without becoming captured by the state or political elites. This requires that we demonstrate the feasibility of new forms of commoning, infrastructure, finance, and commons/public partnerships.

So let me share some of the institutional innovations that I think we need to develop.

Relocalization is vital to a resilient economy. Prime vehicles for relocalization include community supported agriculture, community land trusts, local import-replacement of goods, and local currencies.  The basic goal is to decommodify assets and recirculate value.

CSAs are a time-proven finance technique for upfront sharing of the risk between users and producers.  We know this as an agricultural finance tool, but in fact it can be used in many other contexts. In my region, many jazz fans subscribe to a series of jazz performances by paying upfront fees, CSA-style. This relieves the financial risks on concert producers and lets performers follow their creativity and not just hype their most well-known, marketable songs.   

Community land trusts are also a great way to decommodify land, take land off speculative markets permanently, and mutualize control and benefits of real estate. CLTs help keep land under local control and allow it to be used for socially necessary purposes (e.g., organic local food) rather than for marketable purposes favored by outside investors and markets.

One adaptation of the CLT model developed by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics is “Community Supported Industry,” which applies the CLT model of collective ownership of assets – not just land, but buildings, manufacturing, and retail space – as a way to foster “import replacement.”  The idea is to substitute local production for the importing of products through global or national markets.

Another way to foster relocalization is through what I call “Convert-to-Commons Strategies.”  This refers to financial or policy mechanisms for converting private, profit-making assets into ones for collective use (preferably nonmarket uses rather than market exchange). Converting business assets into commons helps anchor them in a particular ecological place rather than making them mere commodities subject to the whims of external investors or markets.  

A still-emerging Convert-to-Commons approach is finding ways to convert private businesses into collectively owned and managed projects. Activist/scholar Nathan Schneider called these “Exit-to-Community” strategies.  These are ways for entrepreneurs to allow communities to acquire their enterprises, avoiding the only two other options generally available to them -- selling out to large companies or “going public” (i.e., selling to private investors) through Initial Public Offerings.   

In Great Britain, there is a wonderful Assets of Community Value Law, which gives local communities a legal entitlement to be the first to bid on private business that is being sold or in danger of liquidation. This has been a way to convert privately owned pubs, buildings, and civic spaces into community assets.

Relocalization of food production and distribution systems. An important subset of the relocalization question is regionally based agriculture and food distribution systems. The pandemic has shown the precariousness of global and national supply chains, not to mention the atmosphere-destroying carbon emissions that such chains require. We need to develop food supply chains that are more place-based, cheaper in their holistic operations, respectful of ecosystems, and resilient when disruptions do occur. 

The activist/academic Jose Luis Vivero Pol has done a great deal of thinking about treating food as a commons and what this would entail. By this, he means that food should not be regarded just as a market commodity that should fetch the highest price, but something that is affordable to everyone, nutritious and not just profitable, and rooted in local economies. This will require that we re-imagine food systems that favor local agriculture, agroecological practices, and more equitable value-chains than we currently have. 

An example is the Fresno Commons in California, a community-owned food system in the San Joaquin Valley. Among other mechanisms, the Fresno Commons uses a stakeholder trust to assure that locally grown produce is accessible and affordable. What would otherwise be siphoned away as “profit” is instead mutualized among farmers and field workers, consumers, community businesses, restaurants, and other participants in the food value-chain.

The relocalization of food should also look to innovative data analytics so that farmers themselves can start to build new sorts of cooperative supply systems.  If they don’t, the big players who can own and manipulate agricultural data – Monsanto, etc., -- will come to control local agriculture. Along the same lines, farmers need to look to open-source designs for agricultural equipment to assure that they can modify and update the software on their tractors, prevent price-gouging and copyright control of data and software, and take charge of their own futures.

This brings me to the idea of cosmo-local production. This is a system in which global design communities freely share and expand “light” knowledge, open-source style, while encouraging people to build the “heavy” stuff -- physical manufacturing – locally.

There are already a number of exciting examples of cosmo-local production arising for motor vehicles, furniture, houses, agricultural equipment, electronics, and much else. In agriculture, there are the Farm Hack and Open Source Ecology projects. For housing, there is the WikiHouse model. For furniture, Open Desk. For electronics, Arduino.  To help deal with environmental problems, by providing monitoring kits, for example, Public Lab is a citizen-science project that provides open source hardware and software tools.

Like local food chains, the point here is the importance of developing more resilient local production that can be customized to meet local needs. Innovation need not be constrained by the business models that Google and Amazon or other tech giants depend on; the small players can actually make a go of it! Production costs can be cheaper using nonproprietary, non-patented design that rely on open-source communities of innovators.  And transport and carbon costs can be minimized. 

Imagine what could happen if this approach were applied to the development of a Covid-19 vaccine! Once a new vaccine is presented to the world, we are poised to see a major fight among proprietary drug developers, rich and poor nations, and various international bodies. Some people won’t be able to afford to vaccine, and others will make a fortune off of the pandemic – without actually vaccinating everyone, as needed.  That’s why we need to look to organizations like the Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative, which organizes international partnerships to develop high-quality, low-cost medicines for everyone.

There are two serious problems that will need to be addressed if cosmo-local production, however: finance and law. If there is no intellectual property for cosmo-locally produced products – and thus no property to serve as collateral -- lenders will be less inclined to finance new drugs or cosmo-local products. So these problems will need to be solved to help cosmo-local production scale.

Platform cooperatives are another institutional model of commoning. They use Internet platforms as vehicles for cooperative benefit – to empower workers and consumers, to spur creativity, to reduce prices, to assure quality of life. The point of a platform coop is to empower the people who own and run them – workers, consumer, municipalities – rather than investors who extract money from a community in the style of Uber and Airbnb. Platform coops mutualize market surpluses for the benefit of participant-owners.

There are now platform coops for taxi drivers in Austin, Texas (ATX Coop Taxi), for food delivery workers in Berlin (Kolymar-2), for delivery and messaging workers in Barcelona (Mensakas), and for freelance workers in Brussels (SMart), among many others. Recently a new platform for independent bookstores in the US -- Bookshop.org – has made some headway against Amazon.  While not a coop but rather a B-Corporation, it shares 75% of its profits with bookstores.

One variant of platform cooperatives is known as DIsCO, the Distributed Cooperative Organization, which is a digital platform, sometimes using distributed ledger/blockchain technologies, to build working communities that prioritize mutual support, cooperativism, and care work, while avoiding the exclusionary, techno-determinism of typical networked platforms.  DIsCOs and other network platforms need not be market-driven.  They can be mutual aid platforms of the sort we’ve seen in response to the pandemic…..or timebanking platforms that enable people to share services through a credit-barter system…or freecycle platforms for giving away and sharing things.

It’s important to build commons-based infrastructure so that any individual commoner doesn’t have to be heroically creative and persistent. Infrastructure – physical, legal, administrative – provides a structure that makes it easier for individual commoners to cooperate and share more readily. It’s a standing, shared resource.

Some examples: Guifi.net, a WiFi system in Catalonia, Spain, has more than 30,000 nodes that functions as a commons.  It provides high-quality, affordable service that avoids the loathsome prices and business practices of corporate broadband and WiFi systems. Another interesting infrastructure project is the Omni Commons in Oakland, a collective property for artisans, hackers, social entrepreneurs, and activists. The project consists of nine member collectives who make decisions together, and provides meeting spaces, programming, community-outreach, and more. 

Creative Commons licenses are a form of legal infrastructure that enables legal sharing and copying of information and cultural works. Again, this would be far too difficult for any individual to do, but as a collective enterprise, these free public licenses have opened up countless new, cheap and free opportunities to share information, creativity and culture.

Land is an important infrastructure – for regenerative agriculture, affordable housing, and community-based businesses. There is a whole frontier in making land a form of community-owned infrastructure, rather than a mere market or speculative commodity.

Stakeholder trusts like the Alaska Permanent Fund are another rich vehicle for treating public assets as infrastructures for sharing benefits. In his book Capitalism 3.0, Peter Barnes sets forth many examples for using stakeholder trusts to monetize and share the benefits of publicly owned land, forests, water, minerals, and more. The basic idea is to use trusts to manage these assets, which in turn can generate annual dividends for the ordinary citizen. 

Finally, we need to explore new types of commons-based finance in the years ahead. There are already many hardy examples to build upon, such as mutual aid societies and insurance, crowd-gifting and crowd-equity pools of money, and – as mentioned earlier – community land trusts, CSA finance models, platform cooperatives, and Convert-to-Commons strategies. 

The idea is to avoid the traps of conventional debt and equity, which generally colonize our future behaviors and options, and require enterprises to become growth-driven despite the ecological and community consequences.  We need to imagine finance as a diverse array of community-supported and -accountable pools of money that actively facilitate commoning. 

The state may be able to play to creative role here, especially city governments, so long as they can get used to the idea of use-rights being as important as market exchange. One way of pursuing this goal is through commons/public partnerships, as Silke Helfrich and I discuss in our book Free, Fair and Alive. This is another, much larger topic – how the state -- long allied with capital investors interested in economic growth -- can become a constructive, non-intrusive partner with commoners in developing different types of infrastructures, legal regimes, and financing for commons.

*                      *                      *

At the dawn of neoliberalism in the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once thundered in defense of her economic plans, “There IS no alternative!”  We now see that this idea is a ridiculous, bullying claim. The pandemic has revealed that neoliberalism is a fragile monoculture.  It is no match for the harsh biological realities of global viruses, the living dynamics of Gaia and climate change, and the governance and inequality problems of the market/state order.

The opportunities ahead are better defined by the acronym TAPAS: “There are PLENTY of alternatives.” But we need to find ways to work together to develop these institutional models and give them some public visibility as real options.  We need to communicate these ideas to other commoners and to the general public.

My bet is that the dysfunctionality of current systems and urgent social need will propel great interest in many commons-based models. Still, we have a lot of work to do in consolidating these ideas into a new vision of the future and in building them out. It is very early in the day!

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Civics in Real Life: The Defense Production Act

Well hello there and good evening! Another new Civics in Real Life reading  is now available! What do you know about the Defense Production Act? Did you know it was used over 300,000 times last year? Check it out and learn how the DPA helps our nation meet its needs!
DPA

Check out the new series here. 

As a reminder, our topics so far have addressed

Essential Workers

CRLEW

 

The First Amendment1st amndcrl

Government Power

GP

Nongovernmental OrganizationsNGO

Propaganda and Symbolism

prop

The National Guard

NG

The CARES Act

CARES

Primary Sources

primary sources

Federalism in Action

federalism

The Preamble in Action

Preamble
Executive Orders
CRL EO

the Common Good,
CG1

and Public Health and the Social Contract.
PH1

Upcoming resources will discuss the NIH, the Census, and Defense Production Act, among others. We hope that you will find these useful. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact us at anytime! And don’t forget, you can find the ‘Civics in Real Life’ resource on the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship website here. Be sure also to check out Civics360 for videos and readings that explore additional civics concepts and ideas within a more traditional framework!

Educational Equity During a Pandemic

In lieu of a post here today, I have an article up on the American Federation of Teachers’ Shanker Institute blog, entitled “Educational Equity During A Pandemic.” It begins:

My wife and I have each spent many hours teaching by video this spring. While sitting in the same house, I meet online with college students who attend a selective private university; she meets with 5-to-9-year olds in an urban public school system, helping them learn to read. 

Both of us think and worry about equity: how to treat all students fairly within our respective institutions and across the whole country (even the world). And both of us discuss these issues with our respective colleagues. I suspect that many other educators are similarly wrestling with the challenges of teaching equitably while schools are closed. 


I hope it may have some value for people currently teaching remotely (at any level) or for parents and other adults concerned about education while schools are shut.