Guy Standing’s ‘Plunder of the Commons’

Here are two nice bookends for understanding British politics over the past eight centuries: The Charter of the Forest at one end, which from 1215 (until 1971!) guaranteed commoners the right to access to their common wealth for subsistence. And at the other end, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who in 1981 ushered in a draconian regime of neoliberal capitalism that has eliminated those rights by stealing and privatizing common wealth.

In his recent book, Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth, Guy Standing, an economist at SOAS in London, brings together both end-points of this history. The focus is on enclosures, but the point of the book, its manifesto, is to reclaim the commons, chiefly understood, in this context, as public assets and services.

The commons has had a recurring role in the “deep history” of the United Kingdom, but generally it has been treated as something over and done with. It is not generally regarded as a timely political issue that affects everyone. A big salute, then, to Standing for finally providing us with a full-bodied treatment of British commons in both their grand historical sweep and their importance in contemporary politics. He has synthesized so many diverse strands that have made (and unmade) the commons over the centuries – law, land, property rights, economics, culture, knowledge. It all helps illuminate how vital commons are to a fair, well-functioning society. 

Appropriately, Standing begins his account with a chapter on the Charter of the Forest, the first legal guarantee of commoners' right to subsistence. Standing’s history of the Charter of the Forest is surely one of the most succinct and vivid that I’ve read of this near-forgotten portion of the Magna Carta. The account is not a dry history of strange people who lived a long time ago; it’s a compelling account of the first instances of many patterns of law, human rights, and political struggle that define our politics today.

Standing writes:

“To a certain extent, the Charter can be regarded as an outcome of the first class-based set of demands on the state made by, and on behalf of, the common man (and woman), asserting the common or customary rights of ‘freemen.’…It was a truly radical document, guaranteeing freemen the right to the means of subsistence, the right to raw materials, and to a limited but substantive extent, a right to the means of production.”

From this "origin story," Standing proceeds to explain why commons for education, healthcare, land, knowledge and other realms are so essential today. He surveys natural, social, civil, cultural, and knowledge commons (his categories) to explain how land ownership became consolidated among a wealthy few; how public forests were plundered for their timber; and how public parks and public spaces have been starved for funds or privatized. We learn how “state-led gentrification” has squeezed out affordable housing and eroded neighborhoods and the sense of community while creating more homeless. We learn about the decline of the National Health Service through “privatization drip by drip.” 

The great contribution of Standing’s book is to show how enclosure is a pervasive phenomenon in contemporary politics – yet barely remarked upon by the political classes. In this, Standing shrewdly sees the strategic value merely in talking about commons. It resurrects issues that free marketeers – Tories, corporations, investors, Thatcherites – would prefer to ignore. Plunder of the Commons acts as a corrective by drawing a straight line from the royal seizures of common lands 800 years ago, to the cruel austerity policies of Thatcher/Reagan that continue to this day. In the 1200s, roughly 50 percent of British land was managed as commons; today, about 5 percent is recognized as common land. A predictable set of political abuses and wealth inequalities have followed.   

It reveals the essential similarity of medieval kings and modern capitalists: both demand thefts of the commons. Economic growth and “progress” have always depended upon the coercive seizures of the people's wealth – something that free-market economics has striven to disguise and ex-nominate (make invisible through words). That’s why talking about the commons amounts to a political act.

I confess that my understanding of the commons differs a bit from Standing’s. He sees many “public goods” and government services as commons. I like to call such things “state-trustee commons” or simply “government services” in that there is no bottom-up governance going on, as in classic commons. The state is in charge, ostensibly acting on behalf of commoners. Some people regard the commons as a shared or shareable resource; I regard the commons, strictly speaking, as a living social system directed and controlled by commoners themselves, and not the state.

That said, even within the discourse that accepts the “public” and “private” binary – which I regard as misleading – talking about commons as common assets opens up a new space. It asserts a moral and human entitlement to things that are essential to life. 

Plunder of the Commons lays out an ambitious agenda for reclaiming our commons by proposing two “Articles of a Charter of the Commons.” “Private riches owe much to the existence and plunder of the commons, for which commoners should be compensated,” Standing writes. One way to deal with this issue is to establish a Commons Fund whose endowment would come from levies on common assets used by businesses.The trust fund would then generate dividends that would be distributed to commoners – an idea that has been proven with the Alaska Permanent Fund and popularized by Peter Barnes’ many books, including Capitalism 3.0.

Standing’s Plunder of the Commons is wide-ranging and erudite, but rich with stories and a pleasure to read. He is politically astute without being doctrinaire, and sophisticated without being academic. His book has the great virtue of arriving just in time as well. The fate of many commons is fast-becoming a matter of national debate in British politics, and this book is well-crafted to steer that discussion in the right direction.

how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives)

I. Buddhist arguments

A Buddhist argument for “no self” goes like this: Look inward–as hard as you want–for some unchanging “I” or “self.” You cannot find it. All you’ll find are physical sensations, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness, coming one after another, free from your control, and constantly changing. The Buddha himself says, “mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another” (quoted in Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, p. 41). This stream cannot be you if “you” means some durable, controlling thing. But since that is all that you can find within, there is no you.

The idea of a durable, independent, yet fragile self is evidently not “Western” or “modern,” because Buddhists have been working assiduously against it for more than two millennia. It seems to have been endemic in their various cultural contexts. Buddhagosa (a 5th-century thinker) implies that the sense of self arises automatically from having sensations.

When there is rupa [physical sensation], O monks, then through attachment to rupa, through engrossment in rupa, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

When there is feeling … when there is perception … when there are volitions … when there is consciousness, O monks, then through attachment to consciousness, through engrossment in consciousness, the persuasion arises, ‘This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’

Buddhagosa, in Siderits, p. 37.

Even if this is a universal human phenomenon, it is still bad and worth trying to combat, according to Buddhists. We should not think, “This is mine; this am I; this is my self.’” That thought has two ethical drawbacks (where “ethical” is defined very broadly, to mean anything concerned with thinking and acting well and living a good life).

First, a theory of the self as real but fragile encourages selfishness and love or regard of self at the expense of compassion and altruism.

Second, this theory causes avoidable discomfort or even suffering. For me, a common example is nostalgia. I remember an earlier stage of life–say, being a young parent with a toddler in my arms. I experience a desire to be that person again, or to have that experience directly instead of as a memory. As a result, my memory is infused with loss. But this is a mistake. The memory is an experience, just like any other impression. I can have the memory now, which is a blessing. There is no “I” that could possibly possess the object of the experience more directly, transcending time. The past doesn’t exist; all experience is current. Recognizing that truth spares me loss.

The same is true of fears of death or great old-age. I can imagine those states, but there is no reason to tie them to my present state. I am not old or dying. The idea that those states attach to me is based on a false sense of the self.

A third example is a kind of envy. I see a person who is a young parent now, with a child in arms. I want to have that experience instead of just observing it. Envy is not very virtuous in any circumstance. In this case, it also reflects a metaphysical error. The young parent’s experience is real, and I can see it. But, as a logical matter, it cannot attach to me. I should be glad for the existence of the experience and drop the nonsensical idea that the experience should (or could) somehow be mine. The root of that mistake is a false view of self.

The crucial point is that a spiritual or ethical failing derives from a metaphysical error. Truly believing the metaphysical truth of no-self would prevent or cure the spiritual and ethical fault.

II. Kant’s defense of the self

Kant was aware of the argument that the self is not real, because we cannot find it when we introspect. All we find is a set of specific experiences. He got this from David Hume.

But Kant argued that experiences are logically structured. Consciousness is not like a big screen with lots of disconnected pixels that change color randomly. I perceive three-dimensional objects moving through space, interacting with each other, and having sounds, weight, and smell as well as shape. The fact that I perceive such things implies that I (= my self) must have categories like space, time, and causality. These categories are built into what Kant calls “reason,” which we might more comfortably call human cognition.

Kant calls his conclusion the “transcendental unity of apperception.” That phrase is certainly a mouthful, but we can break it down. “Apperception” means perception with an element of understanding and self-awareness. You apperceive something as a 3-D object moving toward you. That can be a true belief about the world. “Unity” refers to the fact that our apperceptions are coherent across time and space. And “transcendental,” in Kant’s specialized vocabulary, refers to something that is a necessary explanation of something that we know from direct experience.

Could a creature inhabit our universe and have different categories from ours? God might, or Michael on “The Good Place.” But to say that such a creature has different categories is basically empty, because we have no inkling of what that is like. For us, our categories are logical necessities. The best way to think about metaphysics is to begin by understanding what we must believe, and then believe that. We must believe in space, time, and the self, which is tantamount to saying that these things are real. That is a transcendental argument.

III. Should we try to shake the idea of the self?

One aspect of the question is empirical/psychological. Is it possible–by means of concerted introspection, philosophical argument, sudden enlightenment, practice, or some other means–to rid ourselves of the idea of the self as a durable, independent agent? I am not sure, but I am open to the possibility that this happens.

A different aspect of the question is metaphysical. By ridding ourselves of the idea of the self, are we coming closer to the truth? That is a central point of disagreement between some Buddhist thinkers and Kant. But maybe it’s not a gap between the Buddha and Kant, since it’s possible that the Buddha is only interested in the good life. (“Buddhism in both its classical and contemporary forms is first and foremost a theory of personal flourishing.” – Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, p. 122. MIT Press.)

That brings us to the third aspect of the question: Is it virtuous or ethical or otherwise a good idea to strive to rid ourselves of the idea of the self? Here I am inclined to a Middle Way.

On the one hand, Kant is right that the concept of the self is logically prior to many ordinary thoughts. At a minimum, it would be an arduous task to escape from this concept. That would take a lot of time and effort and probably involve a lot of wavering and backsliding. I am not convinced that it’s likely to accomplish the ethical goals of reducing selfishness and improving equanimity. There is a risk that it might promote narcissism (excessive interest in moulding one’s own cognition) or even avoidance of ethical responsibility. It is an empirical question how trying to attain non-self affects the character. Even if its net impact is positive, maybe there are better paths to virtue.

However, we should try to shake certain theories of the self that are not only false but also ethically problematic. It is wrong (both logically and ethically) to feel nostalgia, existential dread, or envy. These feelings are not only harmful but also reflect a mistaken theory of the self.

The mistake is not to believe in anything called a self. The mistake is to imagine that the self could time-travel or jump from one body to another. Reminding oneself of these mistakes might help to prevent or address certain spiritual ailments.

Kant tells us that time is a necessary aspect or component of cognition. But we don’t jump from an awareness of time to a possessive attitude toward time. We don’t think, “Time is mine; I want to hold it forever.” We do make that jump in the case of the self, and that’s our mistake. We move from relying on the concept of a self to loving the self possessively. This is something we could teach ourselves not to do.

IV. The relationship between ethics and metaphysics

An underlying issue here is how metaphysics should connect to ethics. Owen Flanagan writes (p. 116), “Buddhists claim a connection between understanding one’s own self, paradoxically as anatman—as no-self—and an ethic of compassion and lovingkindness. …. Diminishing the grip of the illusion of metaphysical egoism is causally connected to being good. What sort of connection is there—might there be?”

One answer is that we are obliged to believe whatever happens to be true. The truth is independent of our good,; and perhaps it is a virtue to recognize the truth whatever it may be.

Kant begins the section on the Transcendental Deduction with a legal analogy. He says that law professors distinguish “the question of right (quid juris) from the question of fact (quid facti).” They call a demonstration of right a “deduction.” In a similar way, we go around making lots of “empirical conceptions” without checking whether we have a right to them. Some of these are fine, but some are “usurped conceptions, such as fortune, fate.” Although these words are used by almost everyone, they “are occasionally challenged by the question, ‘quid juris?’” Kant wants to ask whether the concepts of space, time, causality, and self are used by right or are more like “fortune” and “fate”–unjustified ideas. (Critique of Pure Reason, trans J. M. D. Meiklejohn, A84=B116.) He concludes that they are in fact obligatory.

A Buddhist might respond that it’s actually a choice whether to remain wedded to standard conceptions of time and the self, or else to devote energy to trying to shake these conceptions. Kant says we “must” use these categories, and that is the basis for his claim that they are true or right. A Buddhist might challenge the ethical sense of that “must.” If it is possible–through concerted effort–not to think with the category of self, then Kant’s argument fails. It is then not necessary to use this category; and if it’s not necessary, it doesn’t have a transcendental basis for being true.

In the following passage, the Buddha moves from making a metaphysical claim (there is no self), to offering an existence-proof (a person can avoid believing in the self), to actually liberating his followers (they lose faith in the self and become free):

“the correct view in the light of the highest knowledge is as follows: “This is not mine; this am I not; this is not my self.”

“Perceiving this, O monks, the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for rupa, conceives an aversion for feeling, conceives an aversion for perception, conceives an aversion for volitions, conceives an aversion for consciousness.

“And in conceiving this aversion he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.’”

Thus spoke The Blessed One, and the delighted band of five sramanas applauded the speech of The Blessed One. Now while this exposition was being delivered, the minds of the five sramanas became free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.

[Samyutta Nikaya III.66–68], in Siderits, pp. 38-9

This is a different way from Kant’s to put metaphysics together with ethics. But it depends on an existence-proof: actual examples of people who have become “free from attachment and delivered from the depravities.” The question is whether that happens.

See also: nostalgia for now; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; you have a right and a responsibility to attend to your own happiness; on philosophy as a way of life

Announcing NCDD’s December Confab: Resources for Talking about Guns & Violence

We are excited announce the December Confab Call, which offers participants the chance to learn about several resources for talking about guns and violence. This free call takes place Thursday, December 5th from noon-1:30 pm Eastern/9 am-10:30 am Pacific. Register today to secure your spot.

This summer had our communities and nation again on edge after multiple mass shootings. As often happens in these moments, people want a space to process what’s happened, and/or talk about what to do to prevent future tragedy. We’ll be featuring three organizations in the NCDD network and the resources they have developed for talking about this topic:

National Issues Forums has developed materials several times on the topic. The most recent is their Issue Advisory, How Should We Prevent Mass Shootings in Our Communities?  From the advisory: “Overall, the United States has become safer in recent years. Yet mass shooters target innocent people indiscriminately, often in places where people should feel safe—movie theaters, shopping centers, schools. Many believe these attacks are nothing short of terrorism. How can we stop mass shootings and ensure that people feel safe in their homes and communities?” The issue advisory outlines three potential options for addressing this issue and encourages the public to deliberate on these and potentially other options.

Living Room Conversations‘ Conversation Guide on Guns and Responsibility seeks to help people come together across political or ideological differences to discuss this challenging topic. From the guide: “This conversation focuses on our own personal experience with guns and how these experiences have shaped our opinions. This conversation seeks to help us develop a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges surrounding gun ownership.” The guide offers a format for talking about guns in a way that helps community members hear one another’s experiences and how those impact their views about guns.

Essential Partners, the global leader in building trust and understanding across divisive differences, has led both regional and national projects around the role of guns in American life​ for over five years​. In 2018, EP convened participants from across the United States for a two-day training in dialogue design and community building, followed by an experiment in digital peer dialogue facilitation. A partnership with TIME Magazine, Spaceship Media, and Advance Local, the in-person event took place in Washington, DC, during the March for Our Lives. Watch the TIME Magazine video, read the media coverage, ​view resources, ​and find out more about Essential Partners’ approach to this issue on their website.

On this call, we’ll be joined by presenters from each of these three organizations, who will share with us the resources and how they can be used to discuss the challenging topic of guns. Join us to hear more and have your questions answered about how to convene a conversation in your community.

This free call will take place on Thursday, December 5th from noon-1:30 pm Eastern, 9 am-10:30 am PacificRegister today so you don’t miss out on this event!


About NCDD’s Confab Calls

Confab bubble imageNCDD’s Confab Calls are opportunities for members (and potential members) of NCDD to talk with and hear from innovators in our field about the work they’re doing and to connect with fellow members around shared interests. Membership in NCDD is encouraged but not required for participation. Confabs are free and open to all. Register today if you’d like to join us!

Let’s Get the Facts First

Guest View article on pain medicine & the opioid epidemic by Dr. Paul T. Davis in the The Courier (Findlay, OH), November 5, 2019, A4.

A moving & humane argument concerning medicare and opioid prescriptions*

This is a thumbnail photo of Dr. Davis's essay, published in 'The Courier' of Findlay, OH.

Printable PDF

There is no question that every reasonable and effective method to stop the opioid epidemic should be investigated, and if proven effective, implemented. The horrors and wrecked lives this epidemic have caused are all too real to many people of all ages.

However, we must remember that the opioid epidemic was primarily caused by prescribing these medicines for those with chronic pain not caused by cancer.

In the “Other View” op ed published on Nov 2, 2019, Senators Shelley Capito and Jeanne Shaheen are featured claiming that Medicare encourages over-prescribing of opioids. They are correct in that there have been articles published showing that the number of prescriptions in the Medicare population is rising.

They are also correct that their publicizing this problem has great “optics” and could help their political careers.

However, what is missing from the reports is very important. How many of these prescriptions were written for treatment of cancer pain?

In the 1970’s I watched my friend die in agony with pancreatic cancer because his doctors were afraid of losing their licenses if they gave him adequate pain medicine. They would not treat his pain because of the fear they would addict him.

In his last six weeks of life, he never slept more than 10 to 15 minutes at a time because of the severe, unrelenting pain.

Fast forward to the early part of this century when I had to watch another friend suffer needlessly. He had multiple myeloma, a cancer that causes severe bone pain all over the body. He was getting adequate amounts of pain medicine until well-meaning politicians crafted laws that restricted access to these medicines. It affected everyone, regardless of legitimate need.

These laws did little to curb the over-prescribing of opioids judging by how bad the epidemic got even after they were passed.

But what it did do what make it very difficult for him to get the pain medicine he needed. Anything less than a narcotic, in a big dose was totally worthless.

This is a plea for more information before this gets worse. Medicare-age patients are the most likely to have cancer, and treatment of cancer pain has been a great medical victory in the last 40 years.

Well-meaning laws enacted without considering the collateral damage that could be done to those with a true need would be a horrible tragedy. Or should I say, make a horrible tragedy even worse than it is for the cancer-patients in need.

By all means make it less financially rewarding for inappropriately prescribing opioids for non-cancer pain, but it is too easy to craft a bad policy than it is to fix it later.

We as a society must protect those in the greatest need.

We must ensure that the right drugs are available to the right patients in a timely manner, while keeping harmful treatments of any kind away from everyone.

Get the facts before writing a bad law.

Dr. Paul T. Davis

Dr. Paul T. Davis.

Dr. Paul T. Davis of Findlay, OH, is a retired family physician and former Program Director of the University of Findlay’s Physician Assistant Master’s program. See also the coverage on of Dr. Davis and his daughter, Liz Moreno, after she received a bill calling for payment of $17,850 for a urine test.

* I (Eric Thomas Weber) received and read a scan of the printed version of this article in early November and was deeply moved. Wanting to share it, I visitedThe Courier’s’ Web site, and then reached out to them when I could not find it there. I learned that they do not post the essays of guest columnists online, and so I requested permission to share the essay here. As I have lived in Mississippi and presently now live in Kentucky, two states deeply affected by drug addiction, I believe it all the more important that our lawmakers and policymakers think carefully and humanely about the kinds of rules that they establish concerning opioids.

This article is republished here with the permission of the author and of the staff of The Courier of Findlay, Ohio. 

The post Let’s Get the Facts First first appeared on Eric Thomas Weber.

Commoning as the Heartbeat of Art & Culture

Artists tend to be finely attuned to subtle vibrations of our culture. They hear and see things, and intuitively know what needs to be amplified.Then they come out with creative, sometimes shocking interpretations that often make us realize, “Oh wow, so that’s what I’ve been sensing all this time!” I think that’s one reason for the upswell of artistic works about the commons these days. Something's going on.

This topic is very much on my mind because of ongoing collaborations with a number of American performing artists and cultural workers who see the commons as a template to creating a new future. The group’s members include the Hinterlands and PowerHouse Productions in Detroit, Michigan; the Ethics and the Common Good Project at Hampshire College; the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Amherst, Massachusetts; Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts; and the HowlRound Theatre Commons team in Boston.

The Arts, Culture and Commoning working group is interested in using commons-based approaches “to transform the landscape of arts and culture toward equity, abundance, and interdependence as part of a social movement engaged in and in conversation with this urgent moment. Cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and co-creation bring us together.”

The group recently released a statement explaining its vision and ambitions. One paragraph reads:

“It is our belief that art can and must play a significant role in shaping culture….Art and artists play an important role in helping people process and grieve inevitable collapses of our current systems and institutions in a culture of disempowerment, disconnection, isolation, disembodiment, distraction, and anxiety. Art is a powerful antidote as a force for social cohesion, embodiment, sustainability, and mutuality. Art catalyzes imagination, creativity, and cooperation in any culture, informing the character of social, economic, and political realities. In recognition of the destructive nature of capitalism, we seek to make art that questions the prevailing capitalist framework and looks to the commons for alternative forms.”

On my blog, over the years, I’ve written about a wide range of artistic initiatives that in direct or indirect ways draw nourishment from the commons. The initiatives show the rich possibilities that emerge when commoning and art converge. In their project Tele-Trust, for example, which examines how we come to trust each other online, Dutch artists Karen Lancel and Hermen Maat compared smartphones to modern “digital data veils,” or burqas. Nice insight!

In 2016, the “Seeing Wetiko” online arts exhibition probed the idea of wetiko, an indigenous term used to describe “a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul which deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others is logical and moral.”  

Many segments of the fashion world, reacting to the scourge of “fast fashion” and labor exploitation, are discovering that it is constructive to regard clothing design and production as a potential commons of creators and designers at a global scale. Folks at ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, Netherlands, are developing this vision.

Many ordinary citizens and artists in Rome went so far as to occupy the historic Teatro Valle in 2012 when the city government took steps to sell it to private investors -- evidence that people thirst for a living, nonmarket culture that they can participate in. In my region, jazz fans have repurposed the CSA farming model as a way to finance experimental jazz performances that would otherwise be impossible to stage. 

A number of arts organizations today explicitly identify their missions with the commons. The Casco Art Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands, bills itself as “Working for the Commons” and functions as a commons itself, to the extent of everyone collectively clean their offices and preparing lunch. The Arts Collaboratory, is a translocal group of 25 organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Netherlands, uses art practices to advance social change, and to work with communities beyond the field of art. 

Furtherfield, a London collective, is a hub of artistic experimentation that combines art and technology, especially via its gallery and commons in the middle of London’s Finsbury Park. Here in the US, the Boston-based group HowlRound, a self-described “Theatre Commons,” brings together all sorts of noncommercial performers, playwrights and theater people to develop performances that speak community needs.

“Art is one of the most delicate and surprising ways to inquire into the world around us, and with it we can imagine other possible worlds to live in,” writes the Casco Art Institute. “The artists of our time take unconventional pathways to (unlearn) and relate, and create forms and images to let us see and sense, question and think.”    

Mindful of the political polarization and cultural disquiet among Europeans, the director of the European Cultural Foundation, Andre Wilkens, recently declared in The Guardian, on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Europe needs another cultural revolution. But who would lead it?”

Wilkens recalled how, in 1989, “public spaces, town centres, marketplaces, theatres, stadiums, railway stations, were occupied by the forces of hope. Graffiti and leaflets appeared everywhere. Satire and humour were deployed to powerful effect.” But today, he continued, “our public and civic spaces are shrinking, more restricted, more segregated and more commercial, usually covered in advertising. And when governments turn autocratic, public spaces are especially vulnerable to surveillance abuse and manipulation.

“So what’s happened to artists in the last 30 years? Did they keep up the pressure or sink into complacency? Did we all sink into complacency?

“I believe artists and cultural figures can and must again be the drivers of change. They can imagine a better Europe beyond simplistic talk of growth rates. They can help save Europe from nostalgia for 20th-century nationalism. Because the most pressing challenges of our times, like climate destruction, are global.

“The European public sphere is still weak. But where it exists, art and culture have been its forerunners.”

Artists and cultural workers need to take this call to action seriously -- not just in Europe, but everywhere. We have nothing to lose but our archaic perceptions and prejudices, which in the name of "common sense" imprison us in a claustrophobic cell of cynicism and despair. I say, let's see what the artists-as-commoners can generate! We have everything to gain through shifts of perception, new fields of possibility, and the heightened solidarity that great artistic works can engender.

judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view

  1. Judgment or practical reason (i.e., deciding what is right to do) means forming beliefs about facts, values, and strategies. It is sometimes worth trying to isolate the factual beliefs in order to test them empirically. But no claims are purely empirical, and the goal of distinguishing facts, values, and strategies is ultimately misplaced. (See right and true are deeply connected.)
  2. Individuals hold many opinions at once, and often some of our opinions are connected logically, causally, or in other ways. This means that we have structures of opinions. The form of our structures matters as well as their content. For instance, a structure can be too scattered or too centralized. These structures are better modeled as networks than as foundations plus superstructures. Only some networks of beliefs have nodes that function like foundations. (See an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory.)
  3. Individuals develop their opinions in constant interaction with other human beings, living or dead. We start with no explicit views of the social world and borrow most of what we think from other people. Whenever a person influences us, that reflects a link in a social network. And those who influence have their own networks of opinions that are linked by logic, causality, or in other ways. Therefore, developing judgments is a matter of participation in a network of people and their networked ideas. (See what makes conversation go well: a network model.)
  4. A culture is a name for a cluster of individuals with overlapping networks of ideas. It is a useful simplification for a world in which each individual at each moment has different ideas from the same individual at another time and from all other individuals. Some cultures hold foundational beliefs about some questions (e.g, monotheism is a foundational belief in a monotheistic culture); but in general, it is misleading to define a culture in terms of its foundations. (See everyone unique, all connected.)
  5. Often, we must judge institutions as opposed to concrete acts. (See Moral Foundations theory and political processes). For instance, we may need to assess the United States or marriage rather than an individual statement or action. Institutions also generate the material for our judgments, including most of what we take to be facts. (See decoding institutions.) Institutions exhibit patterns that are not intended or designed. (See the New Institutionalism.)
  6. Institutions are not best modeled as networks of individuals, because they have salient features–such as rules, incentives, and boundaries–that are not like nodes and links. (See a template for analyzing an institution.)
  7. The whole system of networked individuals, networked beliefs, and institutions is dynamic, not static. Individuals develop over their lives; institutions are founded, decay, and change; social networks form and shift; and networks of ideas change. (cf. Dewey’s pragmatism.)
  8. Power operates at all points in this system: e.g., when one individual influences another, when one person is put in contact with or separated from another person, when an institution is designed, and when its norms change. (See decoding institutions.) Power is not intrinsically bad; it just means that A can affect B. But some power is bad, and power shapes the materials of judgment.
  9. Liberty is a genuine value (see six types of freedom), but it should not be understood as freedom from others’ power or a right of epistemically free individuals to act according to their own judgments. Our judgments are formed by the communities we belong to (see the truth in Hayek).
  10. There are better and worse individuals, ideas, judgments, and institutions, but telling the difference between better and worse is a deeply social and iterative process. (See structured moral pluralism [a proposal].)

Check out the November Confab Recording with EvDem!

NCDD was so thrilled to host our November Confab Call with Everyday Democracy, talking about Ripple Effects Mapping! If you missed it, or want to revisit it, this post has all the important information from the event.

Dialogue can lead to many positive changes in communities, but direct impacts can be tough to track over time. Ripple Effects Mapping (REM) allows you and those you work with to capture longer-term impacts your work has had on individuals, institutions, and systems. On this Confab, Everyday Democracy staff Deloris Vaughn and Brendan Lounsbury shared with us the REM process and how it can be used to involve the community in identifying the direct impacts of our work.

The Ripple Effects Mapping Tip Sheet outlines the process of creating the ripple effects map through a community engagement event. It’s a two-page document which gives you all the key information on how to use this tool to assess the impacts of your work in a collaborative way. If you want to dig a little deeper into ripple effects mapping, you can also read the report Communities Creating Racial Equity – Ripple Effects of Dialogue to Change, which includes five case studies from Everyday Democracy’s work, and includes the Ripple Effects Mapping for each. Everyday Democracy has also developed a practical guide to Evaluating Community Engagement as well as an accompanying Toolkit.

The Confab was a wonderful walk through resources, and it can be found at this link. Our participants asked a whole lot of great questions – if you are curious to see those, you can check them out here.

Our sincere thanks to Deloris and Brendan for sharing their knowledge with us. And a special thank you to Sandy Heierbacher for making this Confab happen! It was a real great event, and we all hope to hear about how you are using Ripple Effects Mapping in the future!

Confab bubble imageTo learn more about NCDD’s Confab Calls and hear recordings of others, visit We love holding these events and we want to continue to elevate the work of our field with Confab Calls and Tech Tuesdays. It is through your generous contributions to NCDD that we can keep doing this work! That’s why we want to encourage you to support NCDD by making a donation or becoming an NCDD member today (you can also renew your membership by clicking here). Thank you!

talking about gerrymandering and political reform on WCAI (Cape Cod and Islands)

I was on Mindy Todd’s show The Point yesterday, for a program on “Strengthening our Representative Democracy.” The other two guests were David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy,” and Judy Zaunbrecher, co-president of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters. The audio is here. If you start at 42:00, you can hear Mindy ask Judy whether Massachusetts has been gerrymandered; Judy accurately summarizes the research by my colleagues at Tisch College. (Spoiler alert: not really, although it would still be better to use a nonpartisan districting commission.) I join shortly after that to discuss why our state government is so dominated by white men.

two important opportunities through APSA

The American Political Science Association’s Research Partnerships on Critical Issues program offers up to $20,000 for “proposals aimed at developing research-based projects that bring academics and practitioners together to tackle critical issues concerning citizens across the globe.” The first one, issued last year, was for a Congressional Reform Task Force that worked closely with Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. However, APSA is interested in a wide range of partnerships. A strong proposal might have nothing to do with the federal government or, indeed, American politics.

Also, please nominate people for the APSA Distinguished Award for Civic and Community Engagement. “This award honors significant civic or community engagement activity by a political scientist, alone or in collaboration with others, which explicitly merges knowledge and practice and goes beyond research to have an impact outside of the profession or the academy.”

These are both fruits of the APSA Task Force on New Partnerships.

discuss impeachment in high school–but not only impeachment

As impeachment dominates the headlines, many social studies teachers are assigning it as a topic of discussion and analysis in their classrooms. That is appropriate. Since students and their families are already discussing impeachment, it is a great “hook” for teaching about the US Constitution and the media.

Students should learn how to analyze the issues of the day, and impeachment is a leading current example. If young people learn to make sense of impeachment—to understand the rules and institutions, select reliable news sources, and assess diverse opinions—they will be able to process current events for years to come.

The impeachment debate is also an opportunity for discussion in classrooms. A moderated conversation can model respect for facts and alternative views much better than the polarized and often superficial debates in the national media. As such, it can impart skills and values that are in scarce supply today.

On the other hand, the immense attention given to impeachment reflects deficits in our civic life. Although impeachment may be one good topic of discussion in a social studies classroom, it should not be allowed to dominate or convey the impression that all politics is like impeachment.

Many Americans perceive politics as being a struggle between powerful politicians in Washington, DC. Impeachment is a perfect example of this kind of politics.

Local and state-level journalism is near collapse; about half as many people work in newspaper newsrooms today as in 2008. But the national news media still draws huge audiences, particularly for commentary on national issues. Impeachment is just the kind of issue that plays best on cable news.

Americans identify strongly with political parties and often seem to act like fans of one party against the other. Impeachment is polarized on partisan lines, with almost all Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

National political leaders increasingly resemble celebrities—none more so than the current president, who was a celebrity for forty years before he ran for office. He is at the heart of the impeachment case.

Finally, the issues that draw the most attention are often the ones that give ordinary citizens the least to do. Impeachment is basically a matter for 535 members of Congress and the President and his staff. For everyone else, impeachment might be one factor that influences their vote in 2020, but most voters have already made up their minds for or against Donald Trump.

My Tufts political science colleague Eitan Hersh describes “political hobbyism” as “consuming and participating in politics by obsessive news-following …,  by feeling the need to offer a hot take for each daily political flare-up, by emoting and arguing and debating.” He cites survey evidence that political hobbyism is extremely common, consuming two hours of every day for millions of Americans. Impeachment is a perfect issue for political hobbyists: every day’s headlines offer new fodder for opinions and emotions, but there is little actually to do. I would add that political hobbyists love to forecast elections and predict the results of today’s news, not to change the results by organizing. (I know this from personal experience, having some unfortunate hobbyist habits myself.)

The factors that make impeachment the dominant news story today—partisan polarization, a national storyline, celebrities, limited expectations for citizens, and appeal to political hobbyists—also prevent other issues from receiving the attention they deserve.

For example, last week, in the city where I live (Cambridge, MA), a new council was elected. The main issue was affordable housing, which had divided the previous council. This issue matters to students in Cambridge schools. Some come from families that face rising rents and could be forced out of town by gentrification; others could see their families’ wealth diminish if more affordable housing is built. Reasonable people who care about affordable housing disagree about the best solutions. The debate is heated and polarized, although not partisan in a city dominated by Democrats.

Each vote really matters in this local election with 22 candidates and only about 20,000 voters (about 24% of adult citizens). And there are other ways, apart from voting, for residents of all ages to influence the city’s housing stock. People can volunteer to build homes with Habitat for Humanity or bike to work instead of driving to address the parking shortage.

Yet the Cambridge council election received little coverage. No one has published an analysis of the impact of the recent election on the main issue, affordable housing. Even if social studies teachers in Cambridge Public School wanted to focus on the council election and the issues at stake, there would be no professional journalism they could assign as readings.

With these considerations in mind, I would make the following recommendations.

Social studies teachers should address impeachment, if only because teenagers will discuss it anyway, and students should be challenged to apply rigorous thinking and reliable information. But impeachment should not be the only issue they discuss during this academic year. It would be wise also to select other issues that are more local or otherwise offer more for students to do. These issues may also be less polarized or less partisan than impeachment.

While discussing impeachment, teachers should raise not only detailed issues about rules and processes in the US Congress but also broader and deeper questions: What is the rule of law? Why is power separated among branches of government? What does “due process” mean in a criminal trial, and should similar norms apply in impeachment?

An issue that interests me is the role of judgment in politics. Impeachment is not the straightforward application of law, because the Framers intentionally gave Congress the power to decide what should count as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Cynics would say that if impeachment is not determined by law, then it is simply an exercise of power by partisan politicians, who will demonstrate bias and vote according to their political self-interest. But can responsible politicians exercise judgment (as opposed to bias), and what does that look like?

Impeachment is an opportunity to understand the intentional design of the US Constitution and the principles that undergird it, such as separation of powers. Studying impeachment may therefore increase appreciation for the Constitution. At the same time, an intellectually serious study of impeachment raises critical questions about our founding documents. What should we conclude from the fact that no president has ever been impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate? Or the fact that the last president to be impeached, Bill Clinton, saw his popularity rise and paid no tangible price? Is impeachment useful?

More generally, are checks and balances working now that the parties are fully polarized, with no conservative Southern Democrats or liberal northeastern Republicans ready to vote with the other party? The Framers objected to the very idea of parties and might have expected a polarized two-party system to destroy their design. As the late Juan José Linz of Yale noted, no other system with a separately elected president and legislature has survived when the branches belong to different parties. Are we heading for dysfunction?

Finally, impeachment is a topic for deliberative discussion in classrooms that can impart worthy values and skills. But whether and how it works for deliberation may depend on context.

Given the deep polarization of the American public, students in some classrooms may hold unanimous opinions either for or against impeachment. In those cases, teachers should introduce alternative perspectives through readings and other sources. One goal is to break down stereotypes about the other side in the national debate. Liberal students should understand that not all opponents of impeaching President Trump are his enthusiastic supporters; some have concerns about the process. And conservative students should learn that some proponents of impeachment are conservatives who are concerned about the rule of law.

In other classrooms, opinion may be split, and then it is important to create a context for thoughtful, respectful discussion—deliberation more than debate. As national leaders model point-scoring, name-calling, blatant partisanship and self-interest, selective application of facts and principles, and mutual disrespect, we should expect more from our students.