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.

The Mushroom at the End of the World

In a world that is falling apart (no further elaboration needed), how shall we understand the dynamics of survival and collaboration?  How does life persist and flourish in a world that is hellbent on commodifying and privatizing every aspect of human relations and the natural world?

For anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, the answer is to study the strange life of the humble matsutake mushroom, which tends to grow in North America but is a prized delicacy in Japan.  The social and commercial systems by which the mushrooms are harvested, sorted, transported and sold – blending gift economies and global commodity-chains in the process – hold some penetrating insights into contemporary capitalism.

Tsing, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tells this story in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015).  The book bills itself as “an original examination into the relation between capitalist destruction and collaborative survival within multispecies landscapes, the prerequisite for continuing life on earth.” It’s a brilliant premise: explore the deep dynamics of capitalism by telling the unusual ecological life and commercial journey of a mundane fungus.

The book is a wickedly wonderful ethnography. The matsutake mushroom is not just a metaphor for showing how this mushroom species devises strategies of survival for itself (in this case, entering into a symbiosis with trees and other plants and microbes); the mushroom is a partner of sorts with humans who take, steal, gift and sell it in various contexts.

Why so much attention to matsutake, a wild mushroom that cannot be grown in captivity?  Because Tsing sees it as a proxy for the fate of human beings in today’s near-ruined world. The hardy, resourceful mushroom tends to grow in disrupted ecosystems and ruined landscapes -- just as billions of people around the world must now scrape out an existence in the face of ubiquitous, often-predatory capitalist systems and blighted environments. As a subterranean fungus of northern landscapes, matsutake play a valuable role in helping trees grow in forbidding locations. You might say that mushrooms are experts in dealing with precarity.

Oddly enough, so are the people who harvest the mushrooms.  Matsutake foragers in the US Pacific Northwest tend to be refugees from Laos and Cambodia, American veterans, and itinerant poor people. They either can’t get regular jobs or don’t want them, preferring the “freedom” of being on their own in the open spaces of nature.

“Mushroom foragers work for themselves,” writes Tsing. “No companies hire them. There are no wages and no benefits; pickers merely sell the mushrooms they find. Some years there are no mushrooms, and pickers are left with their expenses. Commercial wild-mushroom picking is an exemplification of precarious livelihood, without security.”  After a harvest in Oregon, say, the mushrooms are bought by pop-up wholesalers who ship them promptly to sorters, who classify them and export them to Japan, where a large and ready market of high-end customers eagerly buy them, usually to give as gifts.

Tsing rejects rejects the standard narratives about “progress” that tend to be the axis for understanding the future, in both capitalist and Marxist accounts Instead, in an analysis appropriate for our time, Tsing presents to us a capitalism of “disturbance-based ecologies in which many species sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest.”

Studying the mushroom trade is illuminating because it shows how investors commodify everything today and treat people and elements of nature “as if the entanglements of living did not matter. Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.” Tsing’s primary message is that the whole “progress narrative” has been supplanted by a messy patchwork of precarious survival: the very life-strategy used by matsutake mushrooms.

She writes:

Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm; commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary.  Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world.

Tsing rejects the idea of a comprehensive, unitary critique of capitalism, arguing instead that the world is full of “patchiness, that is, a mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life,” which the capitalist growth-paradigm obscures. Tsing accordingly presents the reality of precarity – for both mushrooms and people – in all their particularity and ephemerality. Living things are not fungible parts of machines; they are singular and improvisational -- something our critiques ought to acknowledge. Contemporary capitalism certainly recognizes this reality by “translating” the local and peculiar into usable inputs for ongoing capital accumulation.

Tsing wishes to show that no single rationality can begin to describe today’s economy, where “supply chains snake back and forth not only across continents but also across standards…” Not only are supply chains wildly heterogeneous, they often rely upon non-capitalist social forms, much as Facebook relies upon social sharing and Airbnb and Uber have colonized people’s private lives by marketizing their apartments and cars. For Tsing, “capitalist and noncapitalist forms interact in pericapitalist spaces.”

Despite the messy contingencies of this arrangement, capitalism still manages to amass assets for further investment.  “How does this work?” Tsing asks. The short answer is that capital accumulation proceeds through a process of “salvage accumulation”:

Civilization and progress turn out to be cover-ups and translation mechanisms for getting access to value procured through violence: classic salvage.”  In today’s global supply chains, this means “coerced labor, dangerous sweatshops, poisonous substitute ingredients, and irresponsible environmental gouging and dumping.

The Mushroom at the End of the World is no dry social-sciences monograph; in its poetic expressiveness and subtle depictions of social reality, the book often reads like a novel. There are no tidy conclusions, just a series of penetrating vignettes, analyses and observations. The ultimate point is to open up a new grand narrative. Once we can get beyond the stark divide of “Man” and “Nature” as dual opposites, Tsing writes:

all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. No longer relegated to whispers in the night, such stories might be simultaneously true and fabulous. How else can we account for the fact that anything is alive in the mess we have made?

If The Mushroom at the End of the World describes the survival techniques of precariat mushroom foragers working under capitalism -- a story of ingenuity, commitment and proud autonomy -- the next step is to tell more of the stories of how precariat commoners are emancipating themselves through commons. Tsing is right: once the market/progress narrative is exposed as a cover-story, a range of different narratives become possible.

“I Am the River, and the River is Me”

A few months ago, the New Zealand Government took an amazing step – prodded by indigenous peoples – to legally recognize the rights of a river.  A new law, the Te Awa Tupua Act, recognizes that the Whanganui River (known to the iwi and hapū people as Te Awa Tupua) is “an indivisible and living whole, …from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.”

The metaphysical reality that the law recognizes is one that remains quite alien to the western mind:  “I am the river, and the river is me.”  That's how the Iwi express their relationship to the Whanganui; the two are indivisible, an utterly organic whole. The river is not a mere “resource” to be managed.

The idea of conferring of a “legal personality” on a river and explicitly guaranteeing its “health and well-being” is a major departure for Western law, needless to say. We westerners have no legal categories for recognizing the intrinsic nature of nonhuman living systems and how we relate to them ontologically. As if to underscore this fact, the practical legal challenges of defining and enforcing the rights of the Whanganui are far from resolved, notwithstanding the creation of a new legal framework.    

Still, the law is an important start. It settles the historical claims on the river made by indigenous peoples, and it makes nineteen remarkable “acknowledgements” of the Crown’s behavior over the past century. The law even recognizes the “inalienable connection” of the iwi and hapū to the river, and tenders an official apology.

This latest episode in granting rights to nature is nicely summarized in a piece in The Guardian by Ashish Kothari and Shristee Bajpai of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group in India, and Mari Margi of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in the US.

The new law does not alter the philosophical foundations of Western law, but it does constitute a notable opening of new metaphysical possibilities. A sacred, natural flow of water now has a legal right to participate in government policymaking and go to court!

And why not?  The money-making organizational form known as the corporation is every bit as much a legal fiction. Surely natural systems ought to be entitled to have a legal personality to protect themselves against the state and the legal person known as the corporation. 

The Te Awa Puua Act achieves this by establishing an office of Te Pou Tupua to act as a trustee and “human face” for the legal person of the Whanganui River. Kothari et al. note that the trust structure for the Whanganui has “its origins in the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga or “commons” / guardianship.”

The New Zealand law follows in the footsteps of other nations that have recognized the rights of nature.  Ecuador was the first when it recognized the rights of Pachamama, Mother Earth, in its constitution in 2008. Bolivia also did so a few years later. In the U.S., many communities have also recognized the rights of nature – although the legal enforceability of those rights, standing in the jurisprudential shadows of US federal and state law, is problematic. 

In any case, the trend to recognizing nature's rights seems to be gaining some momentum. A few weeks after the New Zealand law was enacted, according to Kothari et al., “a court in India ruled that the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their related ecosystems have ‘the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities…in order to preserve and conserve them.’” 

These grand declarations of law will require much addition work if they are going to have real impact. As Kothari and his coauthors write: 

What does it mean for a river to have the rights of a person? If the most fundamental human right is the right to life, does it mean the river should be able to flow free, unfettered by obstructions such as dams? Does the right extend to all creatures in the river system? How can a river, with no voice of its own, ensure such rights are upheld or ask for compensation if they are violated? Who would receive any compensation? And can such rights undo past wrongs?

….How will [government] officials be responsible “parents” – as designated by the court – if their superiors continue to make decisions that are detrimental to the rivers, such as massive hydro-project construction? Can these officials sue their own government?

The limits of this approach have been seen in Bolivia and Ecuador, where enforcing nature’s rights in court have often encountered formidable opposition.

It seems that we stand at the threshold of a new field of jurisprudence whose terms remain uncertain because they are legally under-developed and still politically contested. But the problem goes deeper. The cold reality is that state law can only achieve so much without accompanying changes in social practice, personal beliefs and culture. These are arguably the bigger challenges ahead.

At least now there is a beachhead of legal precedent into which cultural energies can flow and develop. That’s progress!  Onward to the odyssey of changing the culture, and learning from the long struggles of indigenous peoples.   

The Micro-Commons of Amherst

When I walk my dog Jackson along a burbling brook, I always smile when I pass the Bunny House.  It’s like greeting a familiar leprechaun in the forest.  The “house” is a small wooden box with a shingled roof, sitting atop a four-foot pole.  One side of it is open to passing hikers.

Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”

It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.

I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.

Stone pile, Buffam Brook Community Forest

Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest.  There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side.  The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.

I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it.  Tragic!  I was so dismayed.  The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it.  The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!

I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”

The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”

Perhaps I’m making too much of some simple folk art, but these micro-commons always make me feel good about the world. Since encountering the first two, I have run across others. In a nearby neighborhood, someone erected a “little library” – a weather-sheltered box with a window in front, which contains a few dozen books. Anyone can contribute to the collection, or borrow and share books:  a lovely gesture of neighborliness.

A few weeks ago, I took Jackson to a forested trail in the town of Leverett. At a certain point in the hike, we encountered a bench looking out on a gorgeous meadow. Next to the bench was a wooden box containing a notebook, carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain. The notebook was filled with homegrown poetry!  Hikers pausing for a rest were invited to contribute their own spontaneous poems in response to the beauty all around them.

The notebook didn’t contain great poetry, as I recall.  But the sublime landscape was surely the kind of scenery that had once inspired Emily Dickinson – a local icon – to contribute her own unabashed “letters to the world.” That may be all that it takes to create an invisible community of affection – an open notebook or a pile of stones, and an attitude of gratitude.

My Interview with Laura Flanders, and other Media Encounters

It was a treat to be interviewed by Laura Flanders, a smart, solution-minded progressive who recently explored “new economy models” on her eponymous TV show. She asked me some great questions, and put together a tight 18-minute video segment that aired on May 23. Thanks, Laura.

Over the past several months, I’ve done a number of other interviews and talks that have been posted online at various points. One of the more dramatic segments is an extremely well-produced 28-minute video about the “city as a commons,” which I gave at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona last November. It was a massive stage!

My talk is both an introduction to the common and a quick overview of efforts to bring collaborative projects and policies to urban regions – an antidote to the investor-driven “development” that is plaguing so many cities. 

In a related vein, I had a short article on this topic published in The Nation magazine on November 29, 2016.  It focused on the city as an incubator for new sorts of participatory, democratic initiatives – a piece written in anticipation of the then-impending Trump administration. 

It’s always a thrill when some discerning journalist in the mainstream media gives some exposure to the commons. That happened last December when George Monbiot, the economics columnist for The Guardian, made a nice shout-out to the power of commoning in his piece, “The case for despair is made.  Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in.”  He cites the book Patterns of Commoning and makes the case for the commons as a promising path forward.

Occasionally I get requests to do interviews with fellow activists and commoners who want to discuss some of the finer points of commons strategy and possibility. One of the more exciting interviews was done with Tammy Lea Mayer and Nicolas Perrin, who asked many probing questions of me and my commons colleague Silke Helfrich for about an hour last October.  The whole online conversation was videotaped and posted on YouTube. 

For those of you who speak Spanish, here is a panel discussion about the commons at Medialab-Prado in Madrid (some in English), held to celebrate the release of the Spanish edition of Think Like a Commoner, Pensar desde los comunes. My co-panelists were translator Susa Oñate and Ann Marie Utratel of Guerrilla Translation, both of whom played major roles in shepherding the Spanish translation and publishing to completion.

Finally, here is a short video about the commons that I did for Agence Française de Développement (AFD), which is currently exploring the commons as a new strategic framework for its development policies and programs.