George Monbiot on the Commons

George Monbiot, a columnist for the British newspaper and website The Guardian, may be the most prominent champion of the commons that I’ve discovered in mainstream journalism today.  He has long been a compelling, out-of-the-box thinker on all sorts of economic and environmental issues.  Now he is introducing the commons to his large readership and explaining its importance and its historic neglect by economists and politicians.  Bravo!

George Monbiot of The Guardian

Monbiot speaks about the need for a new “restoration story” that he calls the “politics of belonging” – a theme explored in his recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. He explicitly focuses on the commons in his column of September 27:

"Are you a statist or a free marketeer? Do you believe that intervention should be minimised or that state ownership and regulation should be expanded? This is our central political debate. But it is based on a mistaken premise.

"Both sides seem to agree that state and market are the only sectors worth discussing: politics should move one way or the other along this linear scale. In fact, there are four major economic sectors: the market, the state, the household and the commons. The neglect of the last two by both neoliberals and social democrats has created many of the monstrosities of our times.

"Both market and state receive a massive subsidy from the household: the unpaid labour of parents and other carers, still provided mostly by women. If children were not looked after – fed, taught basic skills at home and taken to school – there would be no economy. And if people who are ill, elderly or have disabilities were not helped and supported by others, the public care bill would break the state.

"There’s another great subsidy, which all of us have granted. I’m talking about the vast wealth the economic elite has accumulated at our expense, through its seizure of the fourth sector of the economy: the commons."

Monbiot proceeds to discuss the work of the late Elinor Ostrom and recount the violent history of enclosure in the guise of “free market” progress.  Unlike most other mainstream commentators who are all too eager to suck up to the powerful (Thomas Friedman, call your office), Monbiot is daring enough to go beyond the tired orthodoxies of our time and educate his readers:

Enclosure creates inequality. It produces a rentier economy: those who capture essential resources force everyone else to pay for access. It shatters communities and alienates people from their labour and their surroundings. The ecosystems commoners sustained are liquidated for cash. Inequality, rent, atomisation, alienation, environmental destruction: the loss of the commons has caused or exacerbated many of the afflictions of our age.

In another column (February 8), Monbiot discusses “how people can truly take back control: from the bottom up.”  He doesn’t play into the “populist-baiting” that is standard in corporate journalism, but intelligently explains how participatory democracy at the community level actually works. He even names such examples as time banking, free universities, transition towns, food assemblies (direct buying from local producers), local currencies – and examples that I’ve never heard about, such as “Men’s Sheds (in which older men swap skills and escape from loneliness), turning streets into temporary playgrounds (like the Playing Out project), secular services (such as Sunday Assembly), lantern festivals, fun palaces and technology hubs.”

Monbiot clearly understands that the commons is not a cynical ploy for shedding state responsibilities, but an empowering vehicle that is often more humane and efficient than state bureaucracies:  "A commons, unlike state spending, obliges people to work together, to sustain their resources and decide how the income should be used. It gives community life a clear focus. It depends on democracy in its truest form. It destroys inequality. It provides an incentive to protect the living world. It creates, in sum, a politics of belonging.”

For a powerful video interview with Monbiot on the challenge of replacing neoliberalism, reinvigorating democracy, dealing with climate catastrophe, and the commons, visit Open Democracy here. 

Great Lakes Commons Issues “Currency of Care”

The Great Lakes Commons project has embarked upon an ingenious campaign to reimagine money, value and water protection by issuing its own time-limited “Currency of Care.” The bills are not likely to be used for commercial transactions.  In a way, that is the point – to spark a new conversation about money, value, community and the Great Lakes. 

The Great Lakes Commons is inviting people to give a Currency of Care note as a thank-you to people who have done something to protect the Great Lakes in big or small ways.  Or you can give notes to people as a request that they do something to protect the lakes in the future.  Paul Baines, an organizer of the project, notes:

“Each note represents the act of giving gratitude or requesting action. Each note carries the most precious value: acts of thanks and care for the Great Lakes. Rather than based on dollars, the value of these notes is our collective agreement and intention to reward people for their water protection through past actions (saying ‘thanks’) or future actions (saying ‘please’).  Because our current money systems only acknowledge economic utility and gain, our Great Lakes Commons currency needs a wildly different theory of value -- such as past/future actions for water care.”

More than 5,000 individually numbered bills have been distributed, all of them due to expire at end of year.  Why the expiration date?  Because “this currency is for sharing not saving,” the currency webpage explains.  “The value of this currency comes through its use -- its current.  The rules of today’s dollar system rationalize hoarding and controlling money to make more money.  The needs of healthy people and living water are denied not because there isn’t enough money in the world, but because it makes ‘sense’ to accumulate/hoard more and to spend it otherwise.”

The issuers of the Currency of Care make the point that “money is not just a medium of exchange, but a disciplinary force on what we value, the story of a meaningful life, and our position within this story.”  The point of the currency project is to promote a new vision of money and value:

“We need a new story for money and a new currency can help us tell it.  Right now our money commodifies time, ideas, muscle, relationships, and all of creation in order to create more money.  But what if the value of money was based on caring for water?....

“There is no money to be made protecting water as the source of life.  Financing Great Lakes care today comes through either altruistic charity or legislated compensation.  Water restoration costs are a fractional expense for a pollution-based economic system.  Advocating for a friendlier version of the current system denies its core impulses and interests.  Let’s be honest -- degrading the living earth makes obscene amounts of money and defines our current story about ‘progress.’”

Inaugurating an actual, tradeable currency that asserts its own type of value and creates new circuits of value is, of course, a very complicated enterprise.  Just ask the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which has successfully developed the BerkShares currency in western Massachusetts.

The Currency of Care should not be mistaken for such a project.  It is more of a performance art project and public-education campaign that asks us to think about reconnecting money’s value with our values.  It asks us base the value of currency on things that really matter, such as the integrity of the Great Lakes as an ecosystem. 

To promote new stories of value, the project invites people who receive or give the notes to share their stories on the Great Lakes Commons online map. People are asked to share:  “What was it like getting and sharing the notes? What kinds of conversations did it spark?  What types of past/future actions did people reward?  Where did their note go or where did it come from?”

One supporter of the Great Lakes Charter Declaration, Steve Edgier, gave his notes to activists who are protecting the Great Lakes from stormwater runoff and monitoring for sewage discharges.  Another person gave a Currency of Care to the Marquette Poets Circle for their work in “tending poetry and community along the wild shore of Lake Superior.” 

Since its inception several years ago, Great Lakes Commons has done great work in helping people to express and imagine relationships of care to those much-abused bodies of water. Here's hoping that the Currency of Care widens the circle of engagement.

 

“Sharing Cities” Book Shows Variety of Urban Commoning

So what might the commons actually achieve for you if you live in a city?  How might you experience the joys of commoning? Check out Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a fantastic new book that describes more than 100 case studies and model policies for urban commoning. Researched and published by Shareable, the book is an impressive survey of citizen-led innovations now underway in more than 80 cities in 35 countries. 

We all know about conventional approaches to “development” championed by investors and real estate developers, usually with the support of a city’s political elites. Much less is known about the commons-based agenda for improving cities.  Sharing Cities is an inspirational reference guide for creating such an agenda. It details a great variety of policies and projects that are empowering ordinary citizens to improve their own neighborhoods, reduce household costs, and make their cities fairer, cleaner and more liveable. 

I was thrilled to learn about Kitchen Share, a kitchen tool-lending library for home cooks in Portland, Oregon; the consortium Local Energy Scotland that is orchestrating shared local ownership of renewal energy projects; and the “community science” project run by Riverkeeper that carefully collects data about the water quality of the Hudson River.

For urban residents who have to contend with unresponsive, high-priced broadband service, how exciting to learn about Freifunk, a noncommercial grassroots project in Münster, Germany, that has built a free Internet infrastructure for everyone.  Like Guifi.net in Barcelona, the project converted routers into WiFi access points, creating a “mesh network” of over 2,000 nodes that has brought the Internet to places with no connectivity.  Freifunk is now the largest mesh network in Germany. 

Or what about the Nippon Active Life Club in a number of locations in Japan? This project is a timebanking system that helps people cooperate to provide eldercare. If you help an elderly person with yardwork, cleaning or general companionship, you earn time credits that you can either redeem for services or gift to older family members living in other cities. In 2016, the network of timebanks had nearly 18,000 members in 120 locations around Japan. 

The book documents many other great projects and policies, all of them divided into thematic categories such as housing, energy, mobility, food, waste, land, etc. The book itself is the product of commoning among 18 Shareable staff and fellows as well as book production experts.

You can request a free download of Shareable Cities as a pdf file (the book is licensed under a Creative Commons license, Attribution-ShareAlike. But the printed version is so handsome and well-designed that you may well want to acquire the hard copy and make a donation to Shareable for all the great work it does.

The Charter of the Forest, Now 800 Years Old!

Two years ago, we heard a great deal of hoopla on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, celebrating it as the landmark advance for the rule of law and limits on the power of the sovereign. Far less attention was given to a companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which guaranteed the customary rights of commoners to access the forests that were so vital to their livelihoods.  

These rights were secured after a long civil war against the King, who had relentlessly expanded his claims of exclusive control of the forest, punishing violators with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. So it is fitting that we pause a moment and recall that 800 years ago, on November 6, 1217, King Henry III granted the Charter of the Forest, formally recognizing in writing the customary rights of commoners to have access to the things essential to their everyday lives.

The Charter of the Forest, with the Great Seal of King Henry III

Commoners depended on the forest for nearly everything. It provided  wood for their fires and houses, pastures for sheep and cattle, and  wild game for food. The forest had mushrooms, hazelnuts, berries, dandelion leaves, and countless herbs.  The forests were a source of acorns and beech mast for pigs; brush with which to make brooms; and medicinal plants for all sorts of illnesses and diseases.

“More than any other kind of landscape,” wrote English naturalist Richard Mabey, “[the English forests of the 13th Century] are communal places, with generations of shared natural and human history inscribed in their structures.”

How is it that the Charter of the Forest has been nearly forgotten? Historian Peter Linebaugh explains in his wonderful book The Magna Carta Manifesto that the two charters of liberty were often publicly linked.  Indeed, the very term Magna Carta was used to distinguish the Great Charter of 1215 with the "lesser" one issued two years later, the Charter of the Forest. 

It wasn’t until 1297 that King Edward I directed that the two be treated as the single law of the land. In 1369, King Edward III issued a law that incorporated the two into a single statute, with the Charter of the Forest becoming chapter 7 of the Magna Carta. Over the centuries, the Charter of the Forest, seen as a minor subset of the Great Charter, receded from public memory. 

The Medieval manuscripts blog maintained by the British Library has a nice post on “how our ancient trees connect us to the past,” which mentions the Charter of the Forest and provides a rarely seen image of it. (Thanks to Juan Carlos de Martin and Ugo Mattei for alerting me to this.)  The post noted that there are over 120,000 trees listed in the British Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory, some of which are over 1,000 years old and were around at the time that the Charter was issued. 

The blog post discusses how the Charter of the Forest “rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1152, where lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully.  (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders to the point of creating hardship.)” An early case of reclaiming the commons, one might say.

But what does the Charter mean for commoners today? 

Two years ago, at an event celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, I gave a talk at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, called “Who May use the King’s Forest: The Meaning of the Magna Carta, Commons, and Law in Our Time.”  My focus was on the functional legal significance of Magna Carta (i.e., the Charter of the Forest) in meeting people’s everyday survival needs and in fulfilling human rights. 

The document is significant because it assured that everyone may access the common wealth that we all inherit as human beings – or as I put it, Who may use the King’s forests? The commoners of the early 1200s had a ready answer to this question: “What do you mean, ‘The King’s forests’?  They belong to us!  They’ve been ours for centuries!” 

This is the forgotten legacy of Magna Carta: its frank acknowledgment that commoners have rights to the things essential to human life: the right to use the forest, the right to self-organize their own governance rules, and civil liberties and protections against the sovereign’s arbitrary abuses of power.  All of these preceded the very idea of written law.  They were considered human rights based on fundamental needs and long-standing traditions.

It is fascinating to realize that, with the rise of the modern nation-state and capitalism, these rights have been steadily pared back and in many cases eliminated. There is no longer any broad enforceable right of access to resources essential to human survival, for example -- although Italian legal scholar Stefano Rodota worked hard to try to resurrect this principle.

The struggle to resurrect a law for the commons in modern times is barely underway. But it is becoming clear that commoners must reclaim from reckless market/states their right to act as stewards of the planet's ecosystems. Let us raise a toast to the Charter of the Forest and remember what it stands for.  We will be needing inspiration and instruction for it in the years ahead. 

Update: Felicity Lawrence just wrote a piece on the Charter of the Forest in The Guardian, "For a fairer share of wealth, turn to the 13th century."  Also, here is an excellent piece, by Dr. Guy Standing, a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, which appeared in OpenDemocracyUK.

Re-imaging Politics through the Lens of the Commons

This essay of mine appeared on September 21 at journal-e, published by the 21st Century Global Dynamics website, UC Santa Barbara.

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?   Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.   Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.   The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

Cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff has said, “I’ve given up on fixing the economy.  The economy is not broken.  It’s simply unjust.” In other words, the economy is working more or less as its capitalist overseers intend it to work. Citizens often despair because struggle for change within conventional democratic politics is often futile—and not just because democratic processes are corrupted.  State bureaucracies and even competitive markets are structurally incapable of addressing many problems. The limits of what The System can deliver—on climate change, inequality, infrastructure, democratic accountability—are on vivid display every day. As distrust in the state grows, a very pertinent question is where political sovereignty and legitimacy will migrate in the future.   The fundamental problem in developing a new vision, however, is that old ideological debates continue to dominate public discourse. Politics is endlessly rehashing many of the same disagreements, failing to recognize that deep structural change is needed. There is precious little room for new ideas and projects to incubate and grow. New visions must have space to breathe and evolve their own sovereign logic and ethics if they are to escape the dead end of meliorist reformism.

As I explained in a recent piece for The Nation magazine, insurgent narratives and projects are actually quite plentiful. Movements focused on climate justice, co-operatives, tradition towns, local food systems, alternative finance, digital currencies, peer production, open design and manufacturing, among others, are pioneering new post-capitalist models of peer governance and provisioning. While fragmented and diverse, these movements tend to emphasize common themes: production and consumption to meet household needs, not profit; bottom-up decisionmaking; and stewardship of shared wealth for the long term. These values all lie at the heart of the commons.   For now, these movements tend to work on the cultural fringe, more or less ignored by the mainstream media and political parties. But that is precisely what has allowed them to evolve with integrity and substance. Only here, on the periphery, have these movements been able to escape the stodgy prejudices and self-serving institutional priorities of political parties, government agencies, the commercial media, philanthropy, academia, and the entrenched nonprofit-industrial complex.

Why is the public imagination for transformation change so stunted? In part because most established institutions are more focused on managing their brand reputations and organizational franchises. Taking risks and developing bold new initiatives and ideas are not what they generally do. Meanwhile, system-change movements are generally dismissed as too small-scale, trivial or apolitical to matter. They also fade into the shadows because they tend to rely on Internet-based networks to build new sorts of power, affordances (structural capacities for individual agency), and moral authority that mainstream players don’t understand or respect. Examples include the rise of the peasant farmers’ group La Via Campesina, transnational collaboration among indigenous peoples, platform co-operatives that foster sharing alternatives to Uber and Airbnb, and the System for Rice Intensification (a kind of open source agriculture developed by farmers themselves).   Rather than try to manage themselves as hierarchical organizations with proprietary franchises, reputations, and overhead to sustain, activists see themselves as part of social movements working as flexible players in open, fluid environments. Their network-driven activism enables them to more efficiently self-organize and coordinate activities, attract self-selected participants with talent, and implement fast cycles of creative iteration.

System-change movements tend to eschew the conventional policy and political process, and instead seek change through self-organized emergence. In ecological terms, they are using open digital networks to try to create “catchment areas,” a landscape in which numerous flows converge (water, vegetation, soil, organisms, etc.) to give rise to an interdependent, self-replenishing zone of lively energy. As two students of complexity theory and social movements, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, write: 

When separate, local efforts connect with each other as networks, then strengthen as communities of practice, suddenly and surprisingly a new system emerges at a greater level of scale. This system of influence possesses qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change. Emergence is how life creates radical change and takes things to scale.

The old guard of electoral politics and standard economics has trouble comprehending the principle of emergence, let alone recognizing the need for innovative policy structures that could leverage and focus that dynamic power. It has consistently underestimated the bottom-up innovation enabled by open source software; the speed and reliability of Wikipedia-style coordination and knowledge-aggregation, and the power of social media in catalyzing viral self-organization such as the Occupy movement, the Indignados and Podemos in Spain, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and Syriza in Greece. Conventional schools of economics, politics and power do not comprehend the generative capacities of decentralized, self-organized networks. They apply obsolete categories of institutional control and political analysis, as if trying to understand the ramifications of automobiles through the language of “horseless carriages.”

Instead of clinging to the old left/right spectrum of political ideology—which reflects the centrality of “the market” and “the state” in organizing society—we need to entertain new narratives that allow us to imagine new drivers of governance, production and culture. In my personal work, I see the enormous potential of the commons as farmers and fisherpeople, urban citizens and Internet users, try to reclaim shared resources that have been seized to feed the capitalist machine—and to devise their own governance alternatives. In this, the commons is at once a paradigm, a discourse, a set of social practices, and an ethic.    Over the past five years or more, the commons has served as a kind of overarching meta-narrative for diverse movements to challenge the marketization and transactionalization of everything, the dispossession and privatization of resources, and the corruption of democracy. The commons has also provided a language and ethic for thinking and acting like a commoner—collaborative, socially minded, embedded in nature, concerned with stewardship and long-term, respectful of the pluriverse that makes up our planet.   If we are serious about effecting system change, we need to start by emancipating ourselves from some backward-looking concepts and vocabularies. We need to instigate new post-capitalist ways of talking about the provisioning models and peer governance now emerging. Influencing unfolding realities may be less about electing different leaders and policies than about learning how to change ourselves, orchestrate a new shared intentionality, and hoist up new narratives about the commons.

Affluence Without Abundance: What Moderns Might Learn from the Bushmen

Where did things go wrong on the way to modern life, and what should we do instead? This question always seems to lurk in the background of our fascination with many indigenous cultures. The modern world of global commerce, technologies and countless things has not delivered on the leisure and personal satisfaction once promised.  Which may be why we moderns continue to look with fascination at those cultures that have persisted over millennia, who thrive on a different sense of time, connection with the Earth, and social relatedness.

Such curiosity led me to a wonderful new book by anthropologist James Suzman, Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. The title speaks to a timely concern:  Can the history of Bushmen culture offer insights into how we of the Anthropocene might build a more sustainable, satisfying life in harmony with nature?

Writing with the emotional insight and subtlety of a novelist, Suzman indirectly explores this theme by telling the history and contemporary lives of the San – the Bushmen – of the Kalahari Desert in Africa. The history is not told as a didactic lesson, but merely as a fascinating account of how humans have organized their lives in different, more stable, and arguably happier, ways. The book is serious anthropology blended with memoir, political history, and storytelling.

After spending 25 years studying every major Bushman group, Suzman has plenty of firsthand experiences and friendships among the San to draw upon. In the process, he also makes many astute observations about anthropology’s fraught relationship to the San.  Anthropologists have often imported their colonial prejudices and modern alienation in writing about the San, sometimes projecting romanticized visions of “primitive affluence.”   

Even with these caveats, it seems important to study the San and learn from them because, as Suzman puts it, “The story of southern Africa’s Bushmen encapsulates the history of modern Homo sapiens from our species’ first emergence in sub-Saharan Africa through to the agricultural revolution and beyond.”  Reconstructing the San’s 200,000-year history, Suzman explains the logic and social dynamics of the hunter-gatherer way of life -- and the complications that ensued when agriculture was discovered, and more recently, from the massive disruptions that modern imperialists and market culture have inflicted.

The fate of one band of San, the Ju/’hoansi, is remarkable, writes Suzman, because the speed of their transformation “from an isolated group of closely related hunting and gathering bands to a marginalized minority struggling to survive in a rapidly changing polyglot modern state is almost without parallel in modern history.” As European settlers seized their land, forced them to give up hunting, forced them to become wage-laborers on farms, and introduced them to electricity, cars and cell phones, the Ju/’hoansi acquired “a special, if ephemeral, double perspective on the modern world – one that comes from being in one world but of another; from being part of a modern nation-state yet simultaneously excluded from full participation in it; and fro having to engage with modernity with the hands and hearts of hunter-gatherers.”

In learning more about the San, then, one can learn more about the strange, unexamined norms of modern, technological society that most of us live in.  It is fascinating to see the social protocols of sharing meat and food; the conspicuous modesty of successful hunters (because in the end their success is part of a collaboration); and the “demand sharing” initiated by kin and friends to ensure a more equal distribution of meat and satisfaction of basic needs.

The inner lives of the Ju/’hoansi suggests their very different view of the world.  “For them,” writes Suzman, “empathy with animals was not a question of focusing on an animal’s humanlike characteristics but on assuming the whole perspective of the animal." The performance of the hunt engenders a kind of empathy for the prey, as well as a broader understanding that the cosmos ordains certain sacred roles for all of us – as prey, hunters, and food. Hunting and eating in the Kalahari connects a person with the cosmos in quite visceral ways – something that no supermarket can begin to approach.

I’m not ready to hunt my own food, but is there some way that I can see my bodily nourishment reconnected with the Earth and my peers, and not just to packaged commodities?  For now, my CSA is a good start.

The most poignant part of Affluence without Abundance is the final chapter, which describes how many San – deprived of their lands, ancestral traditions, and cultural identities – now live out dislocated lives in apartheid-founded townships that Suzman characterizes as having a “curious mix of authoritarian order and dystopian energy.”  There is deep resentment among the San about the plentitude of food even as people go hungry, and anger about the inequality of wealth and concentration of political power.  Most frightening of all may be the pervasive feelings of impermance and insecurity.  History barely matters, and the future is defined by market-based aspirations -- a job, a car, a home.  The modern world has few places to carry on meaningful traditions and sacred relationships.

I was pleased to see that James Suzman has founded a group, Anthropos, https://www.anthropos.org.uk/about toapply anthropological methods to solving contemporary social economic and development problems.”  A timely and important mission.

 

Data Technologies Colonize the Ontological Frontier

Writing recently in Medium, Salvatore Iaconesi -- a designer, engineer and founder of Art is Open Source and Human Ecosystems -- offers an extremely important critique of the blockchain and other data-driven network technologies.

While recognizing that these systems have enormous potential for “radical innovation and transformation,” he astutely warns against their dangerous psychological and cultural effects. They transfer entire dimensions of perception, feeling, relationships, trust-building, and more -- both individually and collectively experienced -- into algorithmic calculations. The System becomes the new repository of such relational epiphenomena. And in the process, our very sense of our shared agency and intentionality, relationships, and a common fate begins to dissolve.

In their current incarnations, the blockchain and related network-based technologies start with the ontological presumption that everything can be broken apart into individual units of feeling and action. Our character, viewpoints, emotions, behaviors, are more are all translated into data-artifacts. This is the essential role of data, after all – to distill the world into manipulable, calculable units of presumably significant information. 

Think that you are a whole human being?  Forget it.  Data systems are abstracting, fragmenting and filleting our identities into profiles that we don’t even control. A simulacrum of our "real identities" is being constructed to suit new business models, laying the foundation for what Iaconsi calls the "transactionalization of life." As he writes:

Everything is turning into a transaction: our relationships, emotions and expressions; our ways of producing, acquiring and transferring knowledge; communication; everything.

As soon as each of these things become the subject of a service, they become transactions: they become an atomic part of a procedure.

Because this is what a transaction is: an atom in a procedure, in an algorithm. This includes the fact that transactions are designed, according to a certain business, operational, strategic, marketing model.

This means that when our relationships, emotions, expressions, knowledge, communication and everything become transactions, they also become atoms of those business models whose forms, allowances, degrees of freedoms and liberty are established by those models.

"Everything, including our relations and emotions, progressively becomes transactionalized/financialized, and the blockchain represent an apex of this tendency. This is already becoming a problem for informality, for the possibility of transgression, for the normation and normalization of conflicts and, thus, in prospect, for our liberties and fundamental rights, and for our possibility to perceive them (because we are talking about psychological effects)," according to Iaconsi.

How does this process work?

By moving "attention onto the algorithm, on the system, on the framework. Instead of supporting and maintaining the necessity and culture of establishing co-responsibility between human beings, these systems include “trust” in procedural ways. In ways which are technical. Thus, the necessity for trust (and, thus, on the responsibility to attribute trust, based on human relations) progressively disappears," he writes.

Therefore, together with it, society disappears. Society as actively and consciously built by people who freely decide if and when to trust each other, and who collectively agree to the modalities of this attribution.

What remains is only consumption of services and products. Safe, transparent and all. But mere transactionalized consumption. Society ends, and so does citizenship: we become citizen of nothing, of the network, of the algorithm.

These are not technical issues, but psychological ones, perceptive ones. And, thus, even more serious.

As soon as I start using them [blockchains], as soon as I start imagining the world through them, everything starts looking as a transaction, as something which is “tokenizable”….Technology creates us just as much as we create technology.

In short, the radical atomization, objectification and financialization of human relationships begins to dissolve the very idea of a shared society.

Institutions and other people disappear, replaced by an algorithm. Who knows where trust is at/in! It is everywhere, diffused, in the peer-to-peer network. Which means that it’s nowhere, and in nobody.

In a weird way it is like in call centers: they are not really useful for the client, and they completely serve the purpose minimizing bother for the companies, letting clients slipping into the “procedure” (which is synonym with algorithm), and avoiding them from obtaining real answers and effects, in their own terms outside of procedures.

These are all processes which separate people from each other, from institutions, organizations, companies, through the Procedure.

Citizens of everywhere. Citizens of nowhere and nothing.

So what might be done?  

Iaconsi talks about the Third Infoscape, which is drives from the concept of the Third Landscape.  He writes that in the Third Landscape, “where ‘technicians’ see ‘weeds,’ the Third Landscape sees opportunity, biodiversity, an open source media which is a reservoir for the future of the planet, which does not require energy to maintain, but produces energy, food, knowledge, relations.”

Citing Marco Casagrande, Iaconsi argues that data and information should not be “laid out geometrically, formally, as in gardens, but more like the woods and wild nature, in which multiple forms of dimensions, boundaries, layers and interpretations co-exist by complex desire, relation and interaction, not by design.”

This, of course, implies “a different kind of technology, a different kind of science, with a different imagination to support it.” It also implies that we begin to speak not just of technology design, but of “sensibility, imagination and aesthetics.” 

Iaconsi's critique reminded me of Montreal-based communications professor Brian Massumi's important 2015 book, Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception.  His basic thesis is that the national security state, in its perpetual fight against terrorism, has telescoped its political priorities into a new ontological paradigm. It seeks to validate a new reality through what he calls “ontopower.” This is “the mode of power embodying the logic of preemption across the full spectrum of force, from the ‘hard’ (military intervention) to the ‘soft’ (surveillance).” 

The point is that perception of reality itself is the new battleground. Power is not just carried out in overt state or policy settings – legislatures, courts, the media. State power wants to go beyond messaging and framing the terms of debate. It has deliberately moved into the realm of ontology to define the terms of reality itself. In the national security context, that means that nefarious terrorist threats exist potentially everywhere, and thus the logic of preemptive military action (drone killings, extra-legal violence, etc.) is thus fully justified. (Cf. the film Minority Report.

Massumi writes:

“Security threats, regardless of the existence of credible intelligence, are now felt into reality. Whereas nations once waited for a clear and present danger to emerge before using force, a threat's felt reality now demands launching a preemptive strike. Power refocuses on what may emerge, as that potential presents itself to feeling.”

So if ontopower is arising as a new strategy in national security agencies, it should not be surprising that a related mode of ontopower is being developed by Silicon Valley, which is a frequent partner with the national security state. 

The new frontier in Big Tech is to leverage Big Data to obtain unassailable market dominance and consumer control.  Naturally, the surveillance state envies this capacity and wants to be dealt into the game. Hence the tight alliances between the US Government and Silicon Valley, as revealed by Snowden. Now that the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and others have secured political and economic supremacy in so many markets and cultural vectors, is it any wonder that such power is itching to define social reality itself?

Reclaiming Public Control of Money-Creation

Most people don’t really understand how money is created and what political choices are embedded in that process. As a result, the privatization of money-creation is largely invisible to public view, and the anti-social, anti-ecological effects of privately created, debt-based money go unchallenged. 

Mary Mellor, professor emerita at Northumbira University in the UK, wants to change this reality, as she explains in a recent essay, “Money for the People,” at the Great Transition Initiative website. Mellor, the author of Debt or Democracy and an expert on the development of alternative economies, writes that we must create new public circuits for money-creation so that we can direct money toward socially and ecologically needed activities, and not just the types of debt-driven loans that banks deem profitable. In other words, money-creation need not be controlled by private creditors in the course of creating debt.  

The average citizen knows that banks are too powerful and often predatory, but they may not realize that the state has largely ceded its power to create new money ("seignorage") to banks. Banks create new money out of thin air when they make loans. That money is not something they otherwise hold in a vault. It is literally created when a loan is approved. That is how banks make profits. 

The power to create new money is something that the government could feasibly control and administer itself, for the benefit of all.  But governments have surrendered their power of seignorage to the private banking system and its investors.

This has far-reaching, negative impact because, as Mellor explains, “It is the private, bank-issued money system that leaves us with a pernicious cycle of debt and growth. Money could encourage socially and ecologically sustainable production and consumption, but only if it ceases to be a creature of the market and is reclaimed as a social and public representation of value.”

I highly recommend Mellor’s essay because it deconstructs some of the basic, unquestioned premises of modern banking and money-creation while opening up new vistas for progressive action.  Even Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and their followers have not gotten their heads around the idea that the public could credibly reclaim its power to create debt-free, socially useful money.  But this would require the creation of new types of public institutions and processes for creating money for public purposes, and avoiding the pitfalls of political capture and inflation. 

Mellor writes:

“Neoliberalism, which has influenced so much of the conventional thinking about money, is adamant that the public sector must not create (‘print’) money, and so public expenditure must be limited to what the market can ‘afford.’ Money, in this view, is a limited resource that the market ensures will be used efficiently. Is public money, then, a pipe dream? No, for the financial crisis and the response to it undermined this neoliberal dogma. The financial sector mismanaged its role as a source of money so badly that the state had to step in and provide unlimited monetary backing to rescue it. The creation of money out of thin air by public authorities revealed the inherently political nature of money. But why, then, was the power to create money ceded to the private sector in the first place—and with so little public accountability? And if money can be created to serve the banks, why not to benefit people and the environment?”

In other writings, Mellor has pointed out the remarkable fact that “quantitative easing” carried out by the US Government to bail out banks is not regarded as public debt. QE gave away the game. It conspicuously demonstrated that the government itself (and not just banks) could create money out of thin air, and do so without it being considered public debt. The trillions of dollars created to prop up banks following the 2008 financial crisis, after all, was a case of the sovereign state creating debt-free money. (The banks are not going to repay those trillions.)

Mellor insists that “states can and do ‘print money.’ First, it is produced ex nihilo by central banks to provide cash and support for the money-creating activities of the banking sector. Second, money is created and circulated as the government spends, in the same way that banks create money as they lend. States spend money and then offset their expenditures against tax revenue and other income received.”

“All modern currencies are “fiat money,” created out of nothing, their value sustained by public trust and state authority," write Mellor.  "So why are states and their citizens shackled in debt? Why can’t the people simply create the money they need free of debt? Why can’t that money be circulated in a not-for-profit social or public sector?"

She answer:  “….if money is created and circulated initially by the public sector, then there is no need to ‘raise’ money through taxation. Rather than preceding public expenditure, taxation would follow it, retrieving publicly created money from circulation in amounts sufficient to keep inflation in check. If the public sector is much larger than the private sector, taxes might have to be quite high.”  But these "expenditures" of new money would serve social and environmental needs without having to meet the profit-making criteria of banks.

In the rest of her essay, Mellor outlines how a new public circuit of money could be responsibly administered by new public institutions without creating inflation or resulting in special-interest abuses of the money-creation power (as if that does not already occur right now, via banks!).  She envisions “a shift from profits to provisioning would put the main focus of the economy where it belongs: on the sustainable meeting of needs. That goal would be met through a combination of a basic income (that is, a monetary allocation to each individual as matter of right) and a budget for collective expenditures on public services and infrastructure.” 

To work well, a robust democratic process would be needed to ensure an effective form of participatory budgeting and strong oversight of monetary decisionmaking and implementation. But with such a system, money-creation would not just finance “development” that can no longer be sustained by the planet’s finite resources, it could facilitate the provision of economic security and sustainable livelihoods for all.

It’s time for commoners to open up a new debate about the politics of money-creation. The rise of blockchain-ledger software (the engine behind Bitcoin) is already doing this. Digital currencies are showing how voluntary collectives can create their own functional currencies that let communities (and not banks) capture the value that communities create. That represents a potentially huge shift of political power. It’s also time to bring the politics of fiat currency (conventional money) into this discussion, as Mary Mellor's fascinating essay does.  

There Are Plenty of Alternatives

Below is the opening paragraphs from an article of mine that originally appeared on TheNation.com on August 9, 2017. The full article can be found here: https://www.thenation.com/article/to-find-alternatives-to-capitalism-think-small.  Update, Sept. 28: An Italian translation of the article can be found here.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory, a shattered Democratic Party and dazed progressives agree on at least one thing: Democrats must replace Republicans in Congress as quickly as possible. As usual, however, the quest to recapture power is focused on tactical concerns and political optics, and not on the need for the deeper conversation that the 2016 election should have provoked us to have: How can we overcome the structural pathologies of our rigged economy and toxic political culture, and galvanize new movements capable of building functional alternatives?

Since at least the 1980s, Democrats have accepted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the free-market “progress” narrative—the idea that constant economic growth with minimal government involvement is the only reliable way to advance freedom and improve well-being. Dependent on contributions from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Big Pharma, the Democratic Party remains incapable of recognizing our current political economy as fundamentally extractive and predatory. The party’s commitment to serious change is halfhearted, at best.

While the mainstream resistance to Trump is angry, spirited, and widespread, its implicit agenda, at least on economic matters, is more to restore a bygone liberal normalcy than to forge a new vision for the future. The impressive grassroots resistance to Trump may prove to be an ambiguous gift. While inspiring fierce mobilizations, the politicization of ordinary people, and unity among an otherwise fractious left, it has thus far failed to produce a much-needed paradigm shift in progressive thought.

This search for a new paradigm is crucial as the world grapples with some profound existential questions: Is continued economic growth compatible with efforts to address the urgent dangers of climate change? If not, what does this mean for restructuring capitalism and reorienting our lives? How can we reap the benefits of digital technologies and artificial intelligence without exacerbating unemployment, inequality, and social marginalization? And how shall we deal with the threats posed by global capital and right-wing nationalism to liberal democracy itself?

In the face of such daunting questions, most progressive political conversations still revolve around the detritus churned up by the latest news cycle. Even the most outraged opponents of the Trump administration seem to presume that the existing structures of government, law, and policy are up to the job of delivering much-needed answers. But they aren’t, they haven’t, and they won’t.

Instead of trying to reassemble the broken pieces of the old order, progressives would be better off developing a new vision more suited to our times. There are already a number of projects that dare to imagine what a fairer, eco-friendly, post-growth economy might look like. But these valuable inquiries often remain confined within progressive and intellectual circles. Perhaps more to the point, they are too often treated as thought experiments for someone else to implement. “Action causes more trouble than thought,” the artist Jenny Holzer has noted. What is needed now are bold projects that attempt to demonstrate, rather than merely conceptualize, effective solutions.

The challenges before us are not modest. But it’s now clear that the answers won’t come from Washington. Policy leadership and support at the federal level could certainly help, but bureaucracies are risk-averse, the Democratic Party has little to offer, and the president, needless to say, is clueless. It falls to the rest of us, then, to figure out a way to move forward.

The energy for serious, durable change will originate, as always, on the periphery, far from the guarded sanctums of official power and respectable opinion. Resources may be scarce at the local level, but the potential for innovation is enormous: Here one finds fewer big institutional reputations at stake, a greater openness to risk-taking, and an abundance of grassroots imagination and enthusiasm.

For the rest of this article, go to https://www.thenation.com/article/to-find-alternatives-to-capitalism-think-small

Why Use Creative Commons Licenses?

Even though Creative Commons licenses have been around for more than a decade, I am always surprised to learn that many progressive-minded activists, artists and academics – the people who should be most enthusiastic about the licenses – know nothing about them or at least don’t use them.

A big welcome, then, to a new book Made with Creative Commons, by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchcliff Pearson. The book – subtitled “A guide to sharing your knowledge and creativity with the world, and sustaining your operation while you do” – explains the licenses to a new generation of users. It also offers two dozen case studies about the legal sharing of textbooks, music, data, art and other works, thanks to CC licenses. There is a short video that introduces the themes of the book.

CC licenses are widely used elements of many popular platforms these days, including Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, the video sites YouTube and Vimeo, the scientific journals published by the Public Library of Science, MIT’s OpenCourseware, and Europeana, among many others.

For newcomers to Creative Commons licenses:  They are standard public licenses that a copyright holder can use to alert people that their works can be copied, re-used, and modified (depending upon the license) without permission or payment.  They are free to use and easily used.  Since the suite of licenses was released in 2003, it has been adapted to the legal systems of more than 170 countries in the world.  An estimated 1 billion works have been tagged with CC licenses, as of 2015.

Made with Creative Commons chronicles the benefits of using the licenses and illustrates those points with profiles of an individual musician (Amanda Palmer), a university textbook publisher (Knowledge Unlatched), an electronics manufacturer (Arduino), and a global community of furniture designers (Open Desk), among many others.

As Stacey and Pearson explain, the licenses speed the dissemination of creative works and information because they ensure access to everyone.  They maximize participation and collaboration in creating new works.  They spur innovation because more people can build on existing ideas with new twists.  CC licenses also boost the reach and impact of works because there are no artificial market or distribution constraints.

Because each re-use of a work adds value to the shared pool of knowledge and creativity, CC licenses are generative to our culture, not extractive, as conventional copyright tends to be.  Finally, there is a social solidarity that the licenses tend to encourage by enabling groups of people to create and manage their own knowledge commons.

Made with Creative Commons discusses how using the licenses can help a creative newcomer get discovered. “You can stop thinking about ways to artificially make your content scarce, and instead leverage it as the potentially abundant resource that it is,” write Stacey and Pearson.  Thus the makers of Arduino printed-circuit boards make their designs openly available under a CC license, enabling Arduino to build a different sort of revenue model around an open community of tinkerers and innovators.  The science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow has used CC licenses on his commercially successful books for years.  It has helped him attract a wider audience while also boosting sales for the physical copies of his books.

Creative Commons, the organization, has come a long way since its founding, and this book reflects some new thinking.  For example, the book situates the commons within the larger spheres of the market and state, contrasting the different logic and roles played by each.  The beginnings of a critical analysis of the political economy are evident. 

When first introduced, the CC licenses focused on the emancipation that come with openness, which was indeed a significant advance over the closed, proprietary publishing world of the 20th century. But as open networks have become dominated by Google, Facebook, Amazon and other digital giants, the upside of openness per se has diminished – and the appeal of self-managed commons has grown. 

That’s because big tech companies often make significant profits by becoming default platforms for user-generated content and social sharing.  They in effect monetize social sharing without rewarding the communities or original authors.  They make social collaboration a vulnerable resource that the biggest market players see as “free for the taking.” Made with Creative Commons implicitly acknowledges the limitations of openness, suggesting that perhaps the organization is ready to move beyond some of its libertarian, Silicon Valley roots.

Made with Creative Commons is published under a CC Attribution-ShareAlike license, and available in many formats, including a printed book.