youth voting 2020: Tisch College analysis so far

This is your regular reminder to follow Tisch College’s CIRCLE (@civicyouth) for the best data and analysis on youth voting. A list of their recent releases follows. They will have lots of timely data as the actual election unfolds.

Brian Schaffner is also part of Tisch College. He co-leads the Cooperative Election Study (previously the CCES), which surveyed 71,789 people between Sept. 29th and Oct. 27th. (That is an enormous sample). His analysis of the likely voters in the CES shows why the youth vote is pivotal.

2020 CES Presidential vote preferences (likely voters)

Meanwhile, follow Tisch’s Institute for Democracy and Higher Education for detailed information on college students, our Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group for research on districting, and our Center for State Policy and Analysis for Massachusetts-related information, including work on the ranked-choice voting ballot initiative here.

What kind of a claim is “Biden has an 87% chance of winning”? (on the metaphysics of probability)

If you’re spending all your time nervously checking the election forecast on, your mental health may suffer. You can stop checking and do something productive to improve the world. Or you can become intrigued about what a forecast means, read Alan Hájek’s “Interpretations of Probability” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), and write some rambling reflections. That is the Path I have chosen.

Four years ago, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave Hilary Clinton about a 75% chance of winning the 2016 election. The fact that she lost did not invalidate this prediction–outcomes with probabilities of 25% happen often. Looking retrospectively, it seems right that Trump’s chances were small. He had to win narrowly in just the right combination of states.

Of course, we now know that he did win. In October 2016, an omniscient deity would have known that already. The deity could have known it in either of two ways: by looking into the future, or by understanding the complete present situation with one week still left to go in the election. Presumably, if you could know exactly what every American was thinking about politics, the precise distance to their nearest polling place, whose contact lists everyone was on, what Putin was up to, how heat and humidity were distributed on the face of the globe, and everything else about the situation with one week to go in the election, you would know what would happen with the vote. (I leave aside the possibility that that the universe incorporates physical randomness at the quantum level that affects things like the outcome of an election a week away.)

Applying that theory to our present circumstances, we would say that either Biden has a 100% chance of winning the 2020 election or Trump has a 100% chance. These are falsifiable claims, and a maximum of one of them will turn out to be true. Every other probability estimate will turn out to be false, because either Biden or Trump will actually win.

Yet is seems rational to say that Biden has almost a 90% chance of winning right now, and wrong to say that he has a 100% chance–and even more wrong to say that Trump has a 90% chance. A lot of data and experience go into a plausible prediction. Even if Trump will win in 2020, he doesn’t have a 90% chance right now. Another Trump victory would be a second improbable event. But again, the actual vote won’t invalidate either a 10% or a 90% estimate of Trump’s chances, because either one is compatible with him winning or losing.

A different way to make sense of this is to say: If the election were held 100 times, Biden would win almost 90% of them. But that is weird in several ways. The election cannot be held 100 times in a row, and if we repeated it at all, the repetition would affect the outcomes. If we imagine 100 identical universes that all unfold separately from now until next week, perhaps Biden would win in 90 of them. Or perhaps the future is determined by the current situation, which must the same in all of the 100 identical universes. Then they must all turn out the same way. We just don’t know which way.

Forecasters like Nate Silver use simulations with random (or pseudo-random) numbers built in. Those are meant to model the actual world. But they are not replicas of the real world, which–leaving aside quantum physics–seems to have just one future that is determined by the state of things now.

Another interpretation is that giving Biden a 90% chance today is simply an assessment of our knowledge level. It’s as much about us as it’s about the world. Biden actually has a 100% or a 0% chance, but we (unlike an omniscient deity) don’t know which of those is right. However, the tools of forecasting allow us to estimate how much knowledge we have–with precision. In fact, Nate Silver’s estimate rises and falls by the hour.

According to this subjective interpretation of probability, when Silver’s estimate moves from 85%-86%, he has not invalidated his previous prediction but has updated his assessment of the best possible level of knowledge at the present time. Once the election is over, our knowledge will become complete, and we will rightly say that the odds are 100% in favor of what actually happened.

Two problems occur to me about this interpretation. First, a prediction is not falsifiable in the usual way (and falsifiability is a hallmark of science).

Second, how much knowledge is “possible” is relative to circumstances. Anyone who could see all the current, private, survey data at the congressional-district level would have more knowledge than Nate Silver has. But he knows a whole lot more than I do. His estimates seem to be measures of how much certainty he is entitled to, based on the work he has done and money he has spent. If I say that Biden has an 87% chance because that’s what I read on FiveThirtyEight, I am really saying that I believe Nate Silver’s claim that he has an 87% level of confidence. But how could I test whether that estimate is correct? How can we know that he is right to raise or lower the estimate by a point? Certainly not by waiting to find out what happens next week.

‘Libres, dignos, vivos’: The Spanish Edition of ‘Free, Fair & Alive’ Is Published

Silke and I are excited about deepening the conversation about the commons in Spain and Latin America with a Spanish translation of Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons Libres, dignos, vivos: el poder subversivo de los comunes. The book will be published this week in Spain by Editorial Icaria; in Peru by Democracia Global Tejiendo Saberes; in Colombia by Siglo del Hombre; in Ecuador by Abya-Yala; and in Argentina by Econautas.

On Wednesday, October 28, there will be an online event (in Spanish) to launch the book. It will feature presentations by Marcos García, Artistic Director of MediaLab Prado; my coauthor Silke Helfrich; and a response by Beatriz O'Brien, Director of Bien Común Chile.

This will be followed by an open discussion moderated by Stacco Troncoso of and Guerrilla Media Collective. (I will participate in English via simultaneous interpretation). The international schedules for the event are 12:00 for Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Colombia; 14:00 for Chile and Argentina; and 18:00 for Spain and Europe.

The event is hosted by Guerrilla Media Collective in collaboration with Medialab Prado (Madrid), the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Berlin), the Commons Strategies Group, and the publishing houses mentioned above. Details about the event (in Spanish) are here or here.

More about the book Libres, Dignos, Vivos can be found here. And check out this short video (with Spanish subtitles) about the book.The event will be streamed live at this link.

affective polarization is symmetrical

Shanto Iyengar and colleagues write, “Democrats and Republicans both say that the other party’s members are hypocritical, selfish, and closed-minded, and they are unwilling to socialize across party lines, or even to partner with opponents in a variety of other activities. This phenomenon of animosity between the parties is known as affective polarization.”*

Although affective polarization is far from our only problem, it does make public deliberation more difficult and hence undermines democracy. It is a particular problem for people who would like to build up public institutions: progressives. A minimal state doesn’t require much public comity, but an ambitious one does.

Iyengar and colleagues treat affective polarization as symmetrical, depicting both parties as equally affected. Based on the graphs below (which I contribute), I think that is fair.

The first one shows that in the late 1970s, Democrats and Republicans both rated the other party at almost 50 on a 1-100 scale (the ANES’ “feeling thermometer”). You could describe their feelings about the other side as neutral. Now both sides’ ratings are down to the mid-twenties on the same scale. You could call that hostility. The downward trend is pretty consistent from 1990-2016, across Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

This second graph is more dramatic still. It shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who chose to rate the opposite party at zero on the 0-100 scale. For both sides, that proportion has risen from very low in the late 1970s to about one in four people today. Again, the trend is linear all the way through the Bush and Obama years. More Democrats have rated Republicans at zero than vice-versa.

These graphs show ratings of the parties, not of party members. Ratings of people are better for this purpose, but ANES stopped asking that in the 1980s and now asks only about the parties. However, during the period when they asked the same respondents about both parties and party members, the correlations were high (>.75). Therefore, I think these lines are good proxy measures for how people feel about other people across party lines.

Independents–including leaners–began this period rating both parties above 50 on a 0-100 scale. Their ratings have fallen in parallel, although not as steeply as the partisans’ ratings of each other; and they have viewed Democrats more favorably than Republicans.

*Iyengar, S., Lelkes, Y., Levendusky, M., Malhotra, N. and Westwood, S.J., 2019. The origins and consequences of affective polarization in the United States. Annual Review of Political Science, 22, pp.129-146. See also: promoting democracy and reducing polarization; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; empathy boosts polarization; what is polarization and when is it bad?; civic education in a time of inequality and polarization, etc.

citizens against domination

This review-essay was recently published and is available for free: Peter Levine, “Citizens against Domination: A Critical Reading of Ian Shapiro,The Good Society, vol. 28, No. 1-2 (2019), pp. 1-8.

I admire and recommend Shapiro’s book, Politics against Domination, but I use the review as an opportunity to push two positions that I frequently advocate:

  1. The state should not be sharply distinguished from other institutions; it is not uniquely capable of dominating people [or preventing domination]; and
  2. The salient question is not how to design a state to prevent domination–because none of us are really state-designers–but how we should prevent domination by working through the state and the other institutions that we can influence.

The rest of the special issue is valuable. I have been particularly eager to see Brooke Ackerly’s essay, “Rage, Resistance, and Politics against Oppression,” in print. She explores the overlap and the differences between domination–the keyword in modern republican political theory–and oppression, a fundamental term for much of the left, especially for intersectional social movements. That contrast is valuable for anyone to consider.

See also: from classical liberalism to a civic perspective;  do we live in a republic or a democracy?; against state-centric political theory; avoiding arbitrary command; authoritarianism and deliberative democracy.

promoting democracy and reducing polarization

Some of the threats to democracy in the USA involve bias or injustice in our political system: barriers to registration and voting, gerrymandered districts, the filibuster, money in politics, the Electoral College, and an unrepresentative Senate. With some important exceptions, reforms that address those problems will tend to benefit Democrats and progressive causes.

A particular kind of polarization also threatens democracy. The problem is not disagreement. Our elected representatives should hold diverse political views–maybe more diverse than they do now. Debate and contestation are valuable. It is good to have at least two parties with sharply distinct approaches, so that people can choose between them.

However, our Constitution was written by people who disliked parties and didn’t anticipate them. It is badly designed for partisan polarization. Whenever the branches are controlled by different parties that have homogeneous ideologies, all the incentives favor mutually destructive game-playing.

I can accept the argument that Republicans have played harder and less ethically than Democrats, although I am not certain that’s true, because my prior assumptions and my media stream are biased. But even if it’s true, all the incentives now predict that Democrats will play tit-for-tat.

Besides, affective partisanship–disliking fellow citizens because of their political identities–is the kind of divide that prevents human groups from governing themselves. In order to deliberate, you need not agree, but you must believe that it’s valuable to discuss common issues with the other side. Affective polarization blocks discussion. In the absence of a reasonable level of goodwill, arguments and reasons have no purchase.

The main alternative is simply power: amassing more votes than the other side has. That is preferable to amassing more dollars or more guns than the other side, but it is still raw power. It is government by accident and force, not by reflection and choice, to paraphrase Federalist #1. I suppose if mobilizing more votes consistently generated good outcomes, it might be OK–but it doesn’t.

Democrats and progressives (if they take power) and nonpartisan reformers face a real dilemma. Political reforms will be seen as partisan because they have unequal effects, but partisan polarization is also a problem–and an obstacle to achieving progressive goals.

This is what I would recommend:

First, push political reforms despite their partisan impact if they’re the right things to do. Not only are equity and accountability very high priorities, but our current system actually worsens polarization by giving the parties too many opportunities to pass or block policies without building consensus. I’d vote for expanding the Senate and the Supreme Court, but those reforms are so unlikely that perhaps it’s a mistake to focus much attention on them. More to the point would be voter protection, districting reform, and ending the filibuster.

Second, include political reforms that are bad for Democrats if those are also the right things to do. Redistricting reform meets that criterion in some states. Ranked-choice voting might qualify. Constraining the executive branch is an example, if Biden is president.

An often-overlooked problem involves the dates of municipal elections. Many mayors and city councils are elected in odd-numbered years or in different months than November. Democratic incumbents and municipal employees’ unions benefit because the electorate shrinks to hard-core party and union members. But turnout is often miserably low. I’d move municipal elections to November of even-numbered years and fight Democratic city halls to get that done.

Third, take explicit actions to reduce affective polarization by promoting cross-partisan dialogue and deliberation.

  • Civic education can help if it focuses on discussions of contested issues.
  • Private efforts like Braver Angels have a role.
  • The federal government could organize official public deliberations on controversial matters. The UK Climate Assembly might be a worthy recent model, but the same method could be used to discuss whether to open schools during the pandemic.
  • After the election, Biden and/or Harris could attend listening sessions with people who might be alienated from them–including right-wing groups but also marginalized people of color. It would be easy to mobilize partisans to distort these sessions. Biden/Harris could turn them into manipulative symbolic events. However, skillful advance work could make them work out better. For example, imagine Biden visiting a conservative evangelical church in the South without prior public notice (maybe he’d coordinate in advance with the pastor) and listening to congregants behind the closed church doors before emerging to make some remarks. If that were done with sincerity, it could make a difference.

The extreme polarization of the news and information sphere may actually help. As Barack Obama learned, it doesn’t really matter how you act; the right-wing news cycle will treat you as an anti-American extremist. Under these circumstances, why not push for genuinely worthwhile reforms, while also making sincere efforts to combat polarization?

See also: Four Threats to American Democracy video; empathy boosts polarization; what is polarization and when is it bad?; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; on playing hardball with the shutdown, an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts; is our constitutional order doomed? etc.

overestimating the impact of leaders

A perennial question is the relative importance of influential decision-makers (“leaders”) versus other factors that can cause social outcomes, such as the structure of institutions, mass opinion and behavior, demographic and ecological change, or sheer accident.

Reporters have a professional bias to overestimate the impact of leaders, because it’s easier to write about individuals than abstractions. Video journalists have the strongest bias, because they must put human beings on screen.

Headhunters and search firms have a similar bias. Like journalists, they are indispensable. I wouldn’t recommend trying to find a nonprofit or college executive without their assistance. But they do tend to overestimate the impact of the kind of people they help to hire. They will tell you, for instance, that Dean So-and-So “raised the ranking” of her college. Any Dean was, at most, only a contributing factor to a change in reputation.

I don’t know much about corporate boards, but I suspect they also overestimate (and hence overpay) top executives. That is partly because their explicit task includes hiring, compensating, and assessing CEOs. It’s partly because they tend to be corporate executives themselves. And it is simply easier for anyone to visualize the impact of a person than an abstraction. But if a board believes that the boss personally doubled the company’s earnings, they are not thinking clearly about causality.

Near the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy offers the opposite view–surely exaggerated, but worth considering as a corrective. He argues that of all the people who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was the least consequential. In a battle, each soldier could decide to stand or run. If most of them stood, Napoleon became a genius. If they broke and ran, he was a defeated fool. His fate was entirely in their hands.

And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will.

At a larger scale, Tolstoy says, the Napoleonic Wars were the result of an underlying historical current that caused great masses of Europeans to spill beyond their national borders. Napoleon was carried by this current all the way to Moscow. In subsequent decades, Europeans would instead fight their own countrymen in revolutions (and, although Tolstoy doesn’t say so, would conquer other continents). Napoleon was not a cause but an unwitting product of his time.

In her classic work The Thirty Years War, C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood asks why so many people in the 1600s were so interested in dynastic politics: royal marriages, successions, and usurpations. Commoners were willing to die to ensure that one family prevailed over another. She says the reason was “the faulty transmission of news” and poor “diffusion of knowledge.” People just didn’t know about aspects of politics apart from royal persons. “The public acts and private character of individual statesmen thus assumed disproportionate significance, and dynastic ambitious governed the diplomatic relations of Europe.”

In those days, people would naturally explain important social developments as the consequence of leaders’ actions. For instance, many would have said that south-central Europe was consolidating because of the Hapsburgs’ fortunate marriages or that England had remained Protestant because James VI of Scotland (a Protestant) had inherited the throne. But these were myopic explanations. Much more likely, the Hapsburgs married well because south-central Europe was consolidating, and Jacobean England was Protestant because of the strength of reform movements in northern Europe.

We should be able to fix this problem today by gathering more information and analyzing it better. However, we now have the opposite problem: too much data. So much information is available that we cannot process it, and one common response is to return to understanding the world in terms of the behavior of a few famous or infamous individuals. To the list of people who overestimate the impact of leaders, I would add: most of us voters.

See also how to assess candidates in a presidential primary; how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood; Has Tolstoy been refuted by sabermetrics?; against methodological individualism; and pay attention to movements, not just activists and events.

Now Published: ‘The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins’

I am happy to announce the publication of a new anthology that I co-edited with Professor Anna Grear, Professor of Law and Theory at Cardiff University in the UK.  The book is entitled The Great Awakening: New Modes of Life Amidst Capitalist Ruins, released by punctum books last week. 

The book asks the question: As we enter a time of climate catastrophe, worsening inequality, and collapsing market/state systems, can human societies transcend the old, dysfunctional paradigms and build the world anew?

The answer:  There are many signs of hope. In ten different essays, the book dissects the core problems of neoliberal capitalism and showcases some particularly encouraging vectors of transformation.

Anna and I want to thank the ten cutting-edge activists, scholars, and change-makers who joined us in producing this book. The authors probe the deep roots of our current predicament while reflecting on the social DNA required to build a post-capitalist future. A golden thread connecting the chapters is the role of commoning in building working utopias with the capacity to protect themselves and grow in a hostile capitalist environment. As Grear and I write in our Introduction:

Basic structures of contemporary life seem to be falling apart, no longer able to contain the chaotic energies unleashed by global capitalism, digital technologies, libertarian market culture, and modernity. One might call it a Great Unraveling. Yet, paradoxically, this period of history might also be called, accurately, the Great Awakening.

There is a growing awareness of the need for a fundamental shift in mindset and culture, as suggested by the youth climate protests of recent times; the rise of progressive politics; and a general sense that the system is broken and needs to be replaced. Amidst the messy unwinding of obsolete paradigms, many sturdy, fresh, and green sprouts of change — marginal, as yet, to the public consciousness — are emerging.

A growing cohort of self-identified commoners, working largely outside the circles of respectable opinion, is developing important new frameworks of thought and innovative tech platforms. Such commoners bring an almost dizzying array of creative approaches to central challenges of human social organization. They are pioneering, for example, creative hacks of law and new sorts of currencies. They are re-imagining regional food systems and systems for keeping agricultural seeds shareable. They are developing new models of peer production such as “cosmo-local production,” which lets people share knowledge and design globally, open-source-style, while building physical things locally. Notwithstanding pervasive crises and traumas, it turns out that this is a fertile time to reinvent the world with collaborative initiatives.

The good news is that the social practices of commoning are opening up creative new modes of life. They can sidestep the pathologies of capitalism and generate and share wealth in fair-minded, ecologically respectful ways.

For example, new initiatives are bringing “open source” seed-sharing to agriculture, defying the proprietary schemes that Big Ag companies have devised to enclose the seed commons (chapter by Maywa Montenegro Wit). Another chapter explains the promise of blockchain ledger technologies in enabling networked collaboration (Primavera De Filippi and Xavier Lavayssiere) – an advance that could enable new, more versatile modes of commoning in online spaces.

My contribution to the volume looks at the importance of legal hacks as a way to overcome conventional law and open up new zones for commoning. Legal workarounds are necessary because “the practices and values [of commoning] are philosophically alien to many aspects of the liberal market and state and their mutual focus on individualism, calculative rationality, material gain, and market growth.”

I explore the tension between commoning and state law, and showcase some clever, elegant legal hacks, such as Creative Commons licenses for all sorts of content and the General Public License for software. Such hacks invert the intended uses of conventional law (by requiring sharing, for example), while retaining the enforcement powers of state law.

Three essays delve into the philosophical dimensions of commoning -- by Anna Grear, Vito de Lucia, and Paul B. Hartzog, respectively – to probe ontological shift that must be advanced if our human societies are going to find a responsible (and enlivening!) coexistence with the more-than-human world. These chapters provide some valuable big-picture perspective that move us beyond the grubby political and economic realities of the moment.

Here are the contents of the book:

        1. INTRODUCTION / Anna Grear and David Bollier 



  1. AWAKENING TO AN ECOLOGY OF THE COMMONS / Michel Bauwens and Jose Ramos

A word of thanks to punctum books, one of the most important yet little-known experiments in open-access book publishing around. Many of us commoners are supremely frustrated that academic publishing is so corporatized and disdainful of their contributors and readers. It’s insane that so much academic knowledge must fit through the commercial filters of Edward Elgar, Sage, John Wiley, and Routledge, who not only acquire their manuscripts for free or very little, but then turn around and sell them to university libraries, at exorbitant prices that ordinary readers cannot afford.

For example, I recently encountered the announcement of a forthcoming book, Capitalism and the Commons, that I would very much like to read. To my dismay, the book is priced at a ridiculous $128. I realize that, for many academics, career advancement depends on publishing with the most “prestigious” publishers – and sometimes those publishers are the most efficient way to reach one’s academic peers. But it doesn’t advance the cause of the commons to speak to a mandarin cohort of cloistered academics through profit-driven publishers who both exploit their contributors (who were likely not paid for their essays) and readers (who can’t afford the retail prices). Academics would do well to rebuff the leading publishers – and counter-organize by starting their own upstart presses. That would be a fine commentary on capitalism and the commons.

This is why I admire punctum books (whose tagline is “spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion”) -- it's doing something about this problem by publishing high-quality academic books under Creative Commons licenses. This allows books to be published for a modest sum (our book is US$25) while making a PDF version available online for free.

Although some academic presses are starting to experiment with CC licenses, most politically progressive book publishers find this idea way too radical. Nonmarket ways of sharing are simply unimaginable. (Let me give a spirited shout-out to New Society Publishers, which had no trouble publishing Silke Helfrich's and my Free, Fair and Alive under a CC license.)

As Lauren Berlant, an English professor at the University of Chicago, has said: “The release of art and knowledge from enclosure and hoarding into spirited circulation is punctum books’ great work. It is not just that punctum books refuses to reproduce class inequality by making our work free to the desiring. It is also that it is radically open to collaborative, dynamic, rigorous experiments in genre and thought’s forms.”

New modes of life amidst capitalist ruins!

Caring and Thriving: The Social Security Engendered by Commoning

Thomas de Groot, Head of Programmes at the Commons Network in Amsterdam, recently spoke with Silke Helfrich and David Bollier about the future of social security systems and how the commons can offer alternative transition paths.

The interview is shortened for clarity. SH is Silke Helfrich, DB is David Bollier and TdG is Thomas de Groot. The original posting of this interview was at the Commons Network website. 

*       *       *

TdG: ‘Could you share your thoughts about the need for a different vision for our systems of social security?’

SH: ‘Sure. Let’s start by identifying why it is so important to link the issue of social security to commons-thinking. We are all burdened by a structural dependency on the market-based economy. And so are our social security systems. This is what we see now with the Covid-19 pandemic. The state spends billions and billions to keep businesses going because it assumes that flourishing businesses will generate more money for the state. And in fact, the state is dependent on those capital flows and tax revenues.

‘So there is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all. We know there will be another crisis. This is why we need to think about the future of the economy and of social security in such a way that we make ourselves more independent of the capitalist, market-based economy.’

DB: ‘I like the phrase ‘from redistribution to predistribution’, meaning that we need to go from the current situation, where the state redistributes wealth in a certain way, to a situation where people control and manage wealth to start with. This is not the same as equity ownership because the goal is not to use assets to generate profits or return on investment, but to have shared wealth and infrastructure for creating provisions and services outside of the market and state.’

‘There is a direct link between economic crises and the crisis of our social security system. This should scare us all.’

SH: ‘That is actually a good segue to make a related point: problematizing the source of social security is so important, because it is obvious that social security cannot just mean monetary security. We would all agree on that. And still usually we think of social security as monetary security. That means that any redistribution of wealth will necessarily depend by design on the vagaries of markets. That’s pretty insecure as an approach (especially when the wealthy politically dictate unequal terms of redistribution).

‘It also forces us to keep the megamachine going (see Fabian Scheidler’s book ‘The End of the Megamachine’) to conceive and provide social security in the first place. This is a design flaw! And it brings us directly to another pillar of the capitalist economy, and therefore of the welfare state: property – the prerequisite for generating monetary value through the market. Therefore, we are not allowed to touch the familiar ownership models.

‘In other words, there is a tacit consensus that we can talk about redistribution, but we cannot talk about predistribution, because real predistribution would mean making sure everybody has legally secure access to land, housing and other basic elements of shared wealth needed to live a dignified life. Decommodifying land – the land for agriculture and the land our houses and flats are built upon – would be the biggest contribution to a more commons-friendly version of social security. But that would require re-claiming some of the accumulated wealth of the ‘1%’.

‘The reality is different though: part of the reason why governments are having to spend all these billions now, during this pandemic, is that many people cannot even afford their rent. It’s an untenable situation. The right to decommodified housing should be part of social security. It should count as the bare minimum, part of what you are entitled to as a citizen. But for such a shift to occur, we would first need to re-think property.’

DB: ‘The ownership model in our societies is always either private and corporate, or state-run. Which then leads to this simplified debate between capitalism vs. socialism. And commons-based ideas are never even considered. They seem to be marginalized, ignored, and out of reach, always.’

SH: ‘This is because state authorities are trained to consider the market economy and its extractive business models as the only source for achieving redistribution. But whenever a crisis hits, this approach is exposed as a really bad design choice. Because we all know that there will not be enough money to redistribute whenever the next crisis hits.’

DB: ‘It is a matter of power. The state is run by people whose class, prestige, and careers are based on that extractive economy. Their jobs are about facilitating or managing that extraction and the growth it produces. They have no incentives whatsoever to imagine a wholesale shift away from this paradigm. I even think most people understand the problems we face, but they are not willing or occupationally capable of entertaining fundamental solutions.’

‘It is a matter of power. The state is run by people whose class, prestige, and careers are based on the extractive economy. Their jobs are about facilitating or managing that extraction and the growth it produces.’

SH: ‘So when talking about the future of social security, and analysing what is wrong with the current system, this is the right starting point: there is a flaw in the design of our modern nation-states. They are actually market-states, which makes any act of redistribution fully dependent on the market – i.e., investors. So any serious scenario for future social security will have to originate from outside of this framework.’

DB: ‘The market has always evaded the reality that it cannot in fact provide social security for everyone. Inequality is built into the system and accepted as “normal” by those who defend it. Now we’ve reached a crunch-point where that fact has become evident. So in the search for solutions, people are forced to choose between the market and social solidarity. This puts well-intentioned, socially minded politicians in a real bind because they are not “allowed” to entertain degrowth or post-capitalist options.’

SH:  Exactly. In Europe, as in the States, there is a tradition of – supposedly progressive – labour unions that comes to mind – a thinking about organised solidarity. But even that tradition is inadequate for what we are up to because it means that job creation on the labour market is a precondition for any social policy conceived by the welfare state.

‘To put it even more strongly, most of the time, social security policies have the explicit goal of trying to create jobs for everyone, no matter if they make sense or not. What matters is, above all, to keep the economy going, because, as we have just established, that is our only source of means for redistribution. Thus creating a perfect circle, or tautology: We need money to incentivize market participants (businesses, investors) in order to create jobs, which will let people earn money to maintain their social security, which in turn will keep the economy going and – as many hope – create still more jobs. We can not only conclude that social security has become completely monetized. We need to get rid of that entire mindset. It’s a flawed system.

‘I have researched the federation of cooperatives called Cecosesola, in Venezuela. This makes for an interesting case study about commons-based social security. There is very little left in the Venezuelan economy these days. Not enough supply on the market, not enough energy provided, no capital, nothing. But still people manage to meet their needs somehow, with provisions from Cecosesola, for example.

When you ask people who participate in that network, ‘What does Cecosesola mean to you?’, they say: ‘Security, the feeling that nothing can happen to me’. And that’s the point. It’s derived from the stability of social bonds, from living social relationships. It’s the de facto ownership they have, of their community-stewarded markets, their self-organisation, their price-sovereign trading, their ritualized activities and mutual support. They control their decision-making processes. Their peer-organized social security – they even run a fully equipped hospital without a boss – creates a sense of belonging for their members at the margin of the state of the larger economy. And I feel that this basic element, having a sense of belonging, is not even part of the discussion about social security here in Europe.’

DB: ‘One of the reasons something like Cecosesola could never work in the US is because there is no space in the political culture, discursively speaking.’

SH: ‘This brings us to the next flaw in our systems. The boundaries of our discourse around social security and economy are so narrow that there is no space to introduce new insights and experiment with them.’

DB: ‘A lot of this has to do with the bureaucracy that is such an essential part of state power, which tends to rely on one-size-fits-all models. Bureaucracy helps politicians justify their centrally administered policies as ‘meritocratic’ and fair. But by clinging to universality and bureaucracy, the system does not take into account local particularities and how bottom-up creativity can generate value, open source style. The commons approach explicitly takes these factors into account because the commons tend to be place-based and accessible. But this is also one of our challenges: how do we, as commoners, engage with the state’s bureaucracy to make it more supportive of commoning and localism?

‘One example is the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons, for instance, and more broadly, the whole “Co-Cities” movement that people like Christian Iaione and Sheila Foster are part of. This approach is trying to develop a working rapprochement between city bureaucracies and commoners, working as neighborhood groups, citizen associations, or whatever. But this good-faith experiment is vulnerable to all the power-plays of electoral politics, political parties, and legislative representatives. In addition, there is a philosophically unresolved collision of world views between state power and commoning.

‘Silke and I have struggled with this challenge: How do we formulate a commons-public partnership in a fruitful way? How can we make bureaucracy and electoral politics shift and open up, to allow for the pluriverse of commoning to occur? It’s not clear what the answers are.’

SH: ‘Exactly. It is too simple to blame “the state,” and it is, in this context, understandable that people propose a state-run basic income that is the same for everyone. However, if our governance system is set up hierarchically, as it is today, we get used to asking the same for everyone even though no one’s circumstances and needs are the same. State power creates monocultures of administration that obviously prefer monetary security. And this is a big problem, because if there is one thing we learned from Elinor Ostrom, it is that there is no such thing as a panacea. People have non-monetary security needs that have to be addressed as well.’

TdG: ‘In our research, we explore a couple of transition paths. One of them is about ‘care income’ and alternative currencies. A care income is a concept that we learned from feminist thinkers in the degrowth movement. It could serve as a way to value social reproductive labour in a way that the market simply does not. We added to that the idea to organise this with neighbourhood currencies.’

SH: ‘We always talk about the undervalued part of the economy, the part where we as people engage in provisioning. The current system only looks at the part of the economy where the money flows. But as you point out, that excludes a lot of work. The answer that many feminist economists give is that we simply have to pay more to the people who care, who account for all that reproductive labour. But paying more doesn’t get us out of the monetization trap we talked about earlier. I do understand the impulse to connect care income to alternative currencies. It’s a good idea, because you take part of the solidarity economy and shield it from the market economy. Commoning and commerce should be kept apart.

‘But there is another way. Let’s go back a bit. Any nation state depends on a bureaucracy that makes rules for everyone. Let’s call it ‘abstract equality,’ panaceas, one-size-fits-all. States will always have to govern from above and thereby ignore a lot of different situations. Otherwise these governments would continually be challenged because the law has to be the same for everybody, right?

‘So when talking about various forms of Universal Basic Income, or care income, or any such scheme, we need to ask another question. And that question is: Who governs it? Let’s think about community-based basic incomes, governed by federated communities. In this scenario, it would not be the state determining who gets how much for how long and what for.

‘There are successful models of local communities managing basic income programs that help leverage a sense of belonging, responsibility, and commitment – as opposed to a pot of state money suddenly dropping from the sky with only formal, legalistic strings attached to it. And we have to keep in mind that there is no such thing as social security without a living social fabric, without that sense of belonging.’

‘When talking about various forms of Universal Basic Income, or care income, we need to ask another question: Who governs it? Let’s think about community-based basic incomes.’

DB: ‘To add to that, I am working on a report about commons-based financing. It asks how to keep money and community inalienable – i.e., not commoditized by market forces? In other words, how can we design a system where money (and value) does not leak away from the community, and where communities and people are not treated by capital as neocolonial sites of extraction (think fracking, water, minerals, data-mining, etc.)?

‘I have come to realise that alternative currencies are part of the solution. Those schemes are by definition place-based, and so the neighbourhood currency cannot be sucked into the circuits of global finance. The challenge is to create a buffer to prevent the value generated within commons from being subjected to simple monetary trading and speculation in the larger economy. You need a buffer to prevent the users of an alternative currency from sliding back into capitalist relationships. So determining how the alternative currency is designed and used is critical. And ultimately, local communities themselves are the only ones who can settle this issue, really.’

SH: ‘The bottom line is: We need to come up with ways to decommodify our social security. So let’s start by decommodifying information, and land and even the money itself by creating a myriad of alternative currencies that might serve as means of exchange but not as commodity. This way you start to get little pockets of transition, and people can see what works for them, and start connecting them all.

‘So you set up the conditions for a needs-based and peer governed conceptualization of social security. It is key to always start from people’s needs: take shelter as an example. The most important thing a state can do is to create ownership of shelter for everyone, and set up other property models like Community Land Trusts, for example, and help communities to decommodify not only the houses but the land underneath the houses. This will help create structural independence from the market. If you look at this current crisis, we can safely say that self-organised, community-supported initiatives have proven to be more resilient when disaster strikes. They are not as dependent on international flows of capital and goods.’

DB: ‘Fannie Lou Hamer, a famous voting rights activist from the civil rights movement, is mostly known for her political activism. But she is also celebrated as a pioneer in the co-operative movement. To escape the dependency on white supremacists who controlled the local economy, she started the Freedom Farm Co-operative, to build economic independence for the Black community.

‘Her fight for food independence meant that Black people in that region no longer had to answer to white supremacists. This also made them politically independent, because they no longer had to fear being thrown off their land. The Freedom Farm Co-Operative was theirs, it was a place of security for them, a place from where they could build, and not be politically and socially dependent on others. Not just for their basic needs, but for their dignity. And that is something the state should be able to help us with. That would be a great place to start.

‘It’s basically the ‘Transition Towns Ethic’ which strives for communal goals in people’s everyday life. It doesn’t start with ideologies, which are usually politically driven and focused on state-related issues. Instead it’s about real, practical things – food, shelter, public life — that mean something for ordinary people. George Monbiot calls this the “politics of belonging” — a nourished identity based on mutual support and practical needs.’

TdG: ‘Do you think that the future of social security is decentralised, and that the municipalities will play a bigger role in organising localised schemes of social security?’

SH: ‘You know how political centrists always tell you everything is ok? Like, with the US presidential election, people tell me, ‘Biden will be elected, and that will prove that the system works, liberal democracy is the best system and our insitutions are strong’. Well, no, they are not strong. And no, this democracy does not work well. Otherwise you wouldn’t have two parties that are both part of the problem.

‘To put it differently, as long as our cities, regions and countries are ruled according to the competitive logic of political parties whose mandate is based on 50,01%  real change won’t happen.’

DB: ‘Exactly. Many people think that decentralisation is a solution, but major cities are governed by the same people that govern the country. The political culture is the same. For real alternative power structures to arise, you need to get rid of or supplant these parties first. Only then will you be able to construct a new political culture, built around place-based politics.’

‘For real alternative power structures to arise, you need to get rid of these political parties first. Only then will you be able to construct a new political culture, built around place-based politics.’

SH: ‘Absolutely. Rethinking the idea of social security, requires that we begin with predistribution, of land and shelter, and alternative political cultures will follow.’

DB: ‘But it’s not a linear sequence. We have to do both, simultaneously. We need to find ways to extricate ourselves from the market, and we also need to have an affirmative social vision of participation, belonging, contribution, and commoning.’

Research Trajectories, Big & Small

Handout from a talk delivered in the Lunch & Connect Series for the Ed Policy & Evaluation department

Click here for the handout.Today I led the department of Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation‘s Lunch & Connect meeting on Zoom, focusing on the topic: “Research Trajectories: From Idea to Presentation, to Journal Article, to Book.” I had intended to record the meeting, but due to some of the complication of starting a zoom meeting, making sure people had the link to the virtual handout, etc., I managed not to hit record before starting… Oh well. For today’s session, I made a handout and outline for the meeting I facilitated and led. That outline and handout are available here or by clicking on the Adobe logo on left.

Image of a rocket's trajectory.

I’m grateful to SpaceX-Imagery for permission to use this image.

The EPE department’s Lunch & Connect series is meant to help us stay in touch with each other during the time of COVID-19. Today, October 16th, was the day for which I signed up and weeks ago I had reached out to graduate students who participate in the Agraphia writing meeting that I run weekly, to ask what they’d like to hear about. This was one of the options that I had thrown out and that received the most votes.

John Dewey, standing.

John Dewey.

While the subtitle of my talk reads “From Idea to Presentation, to Journal Article, to Book,” actually it all starts before those smaller matters, with the big picture of one’s aims and career research trajectory. By “career,” I don’t particularly mean to refer to employment, but to the life of one’s research aims. Connecting to the big picture in this way and to who each researcher is represents an outgrowth of John Dewey’s philosophy of education, which calls for recognizing persons’ varied inclinations, interests, and selectivity of attention, as well as their powers, abilities, and attitudes. The big picture need not lead a person to exclude all else, but can allow healthy breaks for divergent projects, while also giving us reasons to watch out for what we often call “rabbit holes.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to give this talk again. If I do so, I’ll be sure to record it. For now, at least, I can share the handout I made for the sake of facilitating today’s meeting. I hope it’s useful.

P.S. If you are interested in studying philosophical issues in education, check out the Philosophical and Cultural Inquiry (PCI) track of the University of Kentucky College of Education’s Ph.D. in Educational Sciences. There aren’t many programs like ours in the country. If you want to learn more, reach out:

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