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.

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 Hinchliff 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.

David Fleming’s “Surviving the Future”

Critiquing problems is far easier than imagining credible alternative futures.  That seems to be the biggest problem in our political culture today:  a colossal failure of imagination.  I was therefore pleased when a new friend introduced me to the writings of David Fleming, an iconoclastic British thinker about economics, the environment, and culture who had roots in the British Green Party and Transition Town movement, among other circles.

Fleming worked for thirty years to produce a massive book Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, which was finished just before his death in 2010 and published by Chelsea Green in 2016.  Many core themes of that book were skillfully distilled (by his colleague Shaun Chamberlin) into a shorter, more readable paperback, Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy.

Fleming, one of the earliest to warn about Peak Oil, argues about the decline of the market economy with the rigor of an economist, ecologist and physicist.  But what really sets him apart is his  understanding that those things are intimately related to social organization and human culture.  He realizes that the needs and wants engendered by capitalism will inevitably change as a society kept afloat by cheap fossil fuels falls apart. 

What will society look like in the aftermath of this world?  Fleming believes that we will rediscover and invent a life of place and play – a world in which the traditions of carnival, gift culture and a sense of place re-emerge.  The post-market culture will also be a place where small-scale, local activities make sense again.  Once large infrastructures become too costly to maintain, we will likely build systems that restore elegance and beauty to a place of honor, and that honors local judgment and direct participation in one’s life.

One of the invisible downsides to the modern economy is the huge layer of intermediary structures – roads, electrical grids, landfills, administrative systems – that are needed to keep “the economy” going and thereby produce the countless things we want or need.  This has led to what Fleming calls the “intensification paradox.”  While massive infrastructures may help boost productivity and sheer output, economic growth all intensifies our need for costly, fixed intermediate goods.  This inevitably results in less efficiency and greater complications – at the same time that the expense of maintaining such systems rises.

This is why simply consuming less on an individual basis is not enough – the intermediate infrastructures still need to be sustained.  Alternative, more localized systems need to be invented.  “The system” conspires to keep itself afloat even if aggregate consumer demand declines because there are few practical alternatives.

Therefore, how to jump the rails to a different system – what Fleming calls the “lean economy” – is the big challenge.

A Lean Economy is about “maintaining the stability of an economy which does not grow,” writes Fleming.  “Its institutions are designed as essential means to manage and protect its small scale.”  How might this be done?

“One way to do so is by sharing out the work with restrictions on working time (as was required through the medieval period).  Another is to absorb spare labour with standards of practice – such as organic production – which combine labour-intensive methods with other benefits such as high quality and low environmental impact…..Or supply goods for the purpose of destroying them, or to produce goods of monumental extravagance (pyramids, cathedrals, carnival…).”

As this passage suggests, Fleming is exploring a radical shift in our economy.  He realizes that when the market economy inevitably fades and the state services and regulation are no longer affordable or minimally effective, we will need to draw upon social order and culture to fill the void.

If markets cannot provide a measure of social cohesion, we will need to look to new types of community institutions – dare we say, commons – to provide effective forms of self-governance and provisioning. In Lean Logic, Fleming devotes six pages to discussing the commons as a solution strategy.

Instead of looking to market consumerism and pop spectacle as unifying forces for our culture, the Lean Economy “will depend for its existence on a deep foundation in culture…..Only in a prosperous market economy [now jeopardized by Peak Oil and climate change, among other things] is it rational to go confidently for self-fulfillment, doing it on your won without having to worry about the ethics and narrative of the group and society you belong to.”

Fleming is bold enough to predict that it won’t be hard to move away from our market-based civil society; that will fall away so fast that we will find it hard to believe it was ever there.  The task, on the contrary, is to recognize that the seeds of a community ethic – and indeed, of benevolence – still exist.  It is to join up the remnants of local culture that survive, and give it the chance to get its confidence back.”

Surviving the Future is no doctrinaire manifesto or doomsday prophecy.  It is, rather, a calm analysis written with good humor and a sense of life’s mysteries, joys and tragedies.  For example, he talks about “The Wheel of Life” – a way of thinking about the life-cycle of a complex living systems.  He explains environmental ethics as a matter of understanding laws of nature that, if not obeyed, “will in due course destroy,” albeit perhaps with time delays, non-linear links, and large and horrible amplifications of small acts.

Fleming calls for shifting our mindset from a taut, tense, and competitive economy to one that intentionally builds in “slack.”  With the seeming inefficiencies of a slack system, one can have greater choices in how to use one’s time, rather than be locked into a market system that revolves around money and thus the maximum earning of money.  In the same spirit, Fleming takes on The Rationalist, who “has no time for detail and repair, / Of loyalties and doubt he has no notion, / His certainties and sameness everywhere. / No meeting-up in conversation there.”

Fleming’s editor, Shaun Chamberlin, hastens to note that Fleming is not making predictions about the future (despite a considerable amassing of evidence), but rather possible and even likely scenarios.  Serious People of mainstream political life are likely to scoff at a book that considers “the aftermath of the market economy.”  But that’s a predictable response from people living in the penthouse of that (endangered) economic system or unwilling to think about big, long-term dynamics.  On the ground, where millions of people actually live, the structural deficiencies of neoliberal capitalism are all too real, right now, and the existing system is not likely to self-reform itself.

Fleming opens some doors that few economists, political leaders and advocacy organizations dare to walk through.  But his thoughtful, humanistic approach is a welcome tonic and rich with insights.  Surviving the Future certainly expanded my appreciation for a future that is already arriving. 

Can Commons Thinking Break into the European Mainstream?

As Europeans struggle to deal with their multiple economic and political crises – and now, the unreliable support of the United States – it may be time to consider some serious ideas that go beyond the standard left/right framework and open up some new conversations.  That is the goal of a recent report, Supporting the Commons: Opportunities in the EU Policy Landscape,” released by the Berlin-based organization Commons Network. The report calls on EU politicians and policymakers to embrace the commons as a fresh approach to Europe’s deep structural problems and social alienation. (Executive Summary here.)

The prevailing EU neoliberal economic and social policies have a familiar, retrograde focus: Increase market growth at all costs, deregulate and privatize while reducing government spending, social protections and services. This approach is failing miserably and highly unpopular, especially in France, Italy, Spain and Greece. But politicians cannot seem to escape this box, and even where leftist reformers win state power, as with Syriza in Greece, international capital (in the guise of neoliberal politicians) overwhelm them. Even state sovereignty is not enough!

So how might the commons help instigate a new political discussion?  The Commons Network report makes clear that the challenge is not about policy tweaks. A new worldview is needed. A holistic systems perspective is needed.

The report opens with a fitting quotation by Donella Meadows, the great environmental scientist:

“Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models. ... Human beings have been endowed with the ability to count but also with the ability to assess quality. … No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point towards their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.”

Who is going to stand up for all the uncountable forces that make our lives liveable?  How can The System begin to take account of those things that can’t be tabulated on budget spreadsheets or aggregated into Gross Domestic Product?

Authors David Hammerstein and Sophie Bloemen write:   

“The current crisis facing the European Union demands new, unifying and constructive narratives.  The commons is an emerging paradigm in Europe – one that embraces reciprocity, stewardship, social and ecological sustainability. It is also a movement, one that can reinvigorate progressive politics and contribute to a more socially and ecologically sustainable Europe.

“….The commons perspective stands in stark contrast to the policy priorities that currently dominate in Europe,” they add, citing “individualism, private ownership and zealous free market-thinking” and the “major fault lines [that] are starting to appear in that dominant worldview….At the moment, almost all EU economic policy is focused on the promotion of purely commercial actors and the uni-dimensional view of people having the exclusively individual aims of selling, owning or buying goods or services. The dominant paradigm is rarely evaluated by applying clear indicators of social and ecological well-being to judge the success of an economic endeavour.”

It remains to be seen whether politicians will want to explore and develop a commons framing or try to re-imagine politics. The right has generally seen more advantage in striking an angry, reactionary pose against immigrants and elites, while the left generally sees few alternatives than to try to humanize the neoliberal agenda using old-style bureaucratic systems and more government money. 

However, there are some fascinating new attempts to develop a pan-European approach to democratic renewal, as seen in the DiEM 25 project and the European Commons Assembly, among other initiatives. The Commons Network report is an attempt to outline the logic, ethic and social practices of a new kinds of politics, with a focus on several promising policy areas such as participatory democracy, the urban environment and knowledge in the digital environment. 

Hammerstein and Bloemen:

“Commons…stand for a worldview and ethical perspective favouring stewardship, reciprocity and social and ecological sustainability. This outlook defines wellbeing and social wealth not in terms of narrow economic criteria like GDP or companies’ success. Instead it looks to a richer, more qualitative set of criteria that are not easily measured – including moral legitimacy, social consensus and participation, equity, resilience, social cohesion and social justice.

“The commons discourse considers people as actors who are deeply embedded in social relationships, communities and local ecosystems, instead of conceiving of society as merely a collection of atomised individuals principally living as consumers or entrepreneurs. Human motivation is more diverse than maximising self-interest alone: we are social beings and human cooperation and reciprocity are at least as important in driving our actions.  This holistic perspective also tends to overcome dominant subject-object dualisms between, for example, man and nature, and to consider human activity as part of the larger biophysical world. Recognising the multiple domains of people’s lives, these bottom-up, decentralised and participatory approaches to our major social and environmental dilemmas provide functional solutions to the crises facing our continent.

“…..New social values and practices are enabling communities to be generative instead of extractive, outside of the market and state. This is creating a new civic and cultural ethic that is breaking with conventional notions of citizenship and participation. The regeneration activities of commoners showcase, above all, cultural manifestations of new ways of daily life. Community supported agriculture, cooperative housing initiatives that ensure reasonable and lasting low rents, local energy cooperatives, do it yourself (DIY) initiatives, decentralised internet infrastructures, the scientific commons, community-based art, music and theatre initiatives, and many other activities, all provoke practical on-the-ground cultural change.”

There is a cultural shift going on at the ground level, mostly outside the view of conventional electoral politics. But since politicians are averse to wading into new and unfamiliar lines of discussion – oh, the risks! – it is likely that the cultural rumblings will first burst out in the style of Occupy, the Indignados or the Arab Spring: an abrupt surprise. We may have to wait for a cultural paroxysm for political leaders to develop the courage to think big and be bold.    

The sick thing is, Trump actually understood these deeper shifts. He just chose to exploit widespread resentments and frustrations in all sorts of manipulative, demagogic and self-serving ways. When will the pragmatic realists of the left and center begin to see the virtues of embracing the coming paradigm shift, and champion a humane social reconstruction? 

Encrypted Tractors – and the Open Source Solution

Imagine that you’re a farmer who bought a John Deere tractor for $25,000 – or perhaps a big, heavy-duty model for $125,000 or more.  Then something goes wrong with the computer software inside the tractor (its “firmware”).  Thanks to a new licensing scheme, only John Deere can legally fix the tractor – for exorbitant repair prices.  Or maybe you want to modify the tractor so it can do different things in different ways.  So sorry:  the license prohibits you from bypassing the encryption, taking it to an independent repair shop, or fixing it yourself.

As reported by Jason Koebler in Vice Motherboard, lots of American farmers frustrated by John Deere’s licensing terms are now turning to Ukrainian and Polish hackers to buy software fixes. They want to be able to fix and modify their own legally purchased tractors. (“Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors with Ukrainian Firmware,” March 21, 2017.) 

This very type of problem inspired hacker Richard Stallman to invent free software in the late 1970s. When an experimental laser printer donated to MIT by the Xerox Corporation kept jamming, Stallman tried to develop a software fix so he could help everyone who used the printer. He quickly discovered that the source code for the machine was proprietary -- a stupid, self-serving limitation that prevented him from helping his colleagues.

This sort of copyright control has frequently crippled machinery over the decades. The basic point is to protect a company's market power and proprietary control -- a form of power usually protected by law.  Under US law, for example, bypassing “digital rights management,” or DRM, systems on DVDs, CDs or websites is against the law.

In the case of land vehicles such as tractors, a legal exception was carved out under US copyright law in 2015. But John Deere was able to evade that provision by requiring farmers to sign a new licensing agreement when they buy a tractor.  The license prohibits “nearly all repair and modification to farming equipment, and prevent[s] farmers from suing for ‘crop loss, lost profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use of equipment … arising from the performance or non-performance of any aspect of the software,’” Koelber writes.

Most computer users have become accustomed to the annoying End User Licensing Agreements, or EULAs, which most people click-through and ignore.  (Are you actually going to read through 15 pages of legalese or hire an attorney to re-negotiate the license?)  The EULAs are essentially “contracts of adhesion” – one-sided agreements drafted by sellers to give them greater control over how their product may be used after its purchase and to limit sellers’ legal liability.  Contracts of adhesion purport to be freely made agreements between seller and buyer, but of course, they are nothing of the sort.  They are highly complex pseudo-contracts that reflect only the interests of the seller, which uses its raw market power or technological dominance to foist ridiculous terms on hapless consumers.

So if it’s harvest time and your tractor doesn’t work, the license insists that only an authorized John Deere dealership can fix or modify your tractor.  And if company technicians aren’t available, or 50 miles away, you’re out of luck.  Some farmers fear that the license gives John Deere so much legal authority that it could remotely shut down their tractors that have violated the license agreement.

The Vice Motherboard article describes a movement among farmers to push for “right to repair” legislation:

“If a farmer bought the tractor, he should be able to do whatever he wants with it,” Kevin Kenney, a farmer and right-to-repair advocate in Nebraska, told me. “You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can't drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.”

“What you've got is technicians running around here with cracked Ukrainian John Deere software that they bought off the black market,” he added.

Kenney and [Nebraska hog farmer] Kluthe have been pushing for right-to-repair legislation in Nebraska that would invalidate John Deere's license agreement (seven other states are considering similar bills). In the meantime, farmers have started hacking their machines because even simple repairs are made impossible by the embedded software within the tractor. John Deere is one of the staunchest opponents of this legislation.

The John Deere EULA is just another example of how corporate players are making commoning illegal.  Code can’t be shared; it must be monopolized and monetized.  Farmer Kluthe has modified his John Deere to run on methane derived from pig manure, but it likely violates the EULA.  Richard Stallman would understand the frustration.

Although right-to-repair legislation would be a significant advance, I recently ran across another option:  an open source tractor.  The Oggún Tractor, completely open source but for its drive train, was introduced in November 2016 by an Alabama-based company called CleBer.  The Oggún Tractor -- a fairly basic tractor that is intended for small-scale and family farms – sells for $12,500.The Oggun Tractor

One of the founders is Horace Clemmons, who, as a veteran of the US computer industry, understands the value of open standards and open source development.  CleBer eplains that its business model is motivated by

“the fact that 80% of the world’s farmers can’t afford a tractor. Open System Manufacturing (OSM) changes that by being a customer based business model, not a stockholder based business model.

Open System Manufacturing is grounded in the idea that farm technology can advance more rapidly than it does today and get cheaper every year. While farmers do not currently see this reality for their tools, nearly everyone has seen this reality in the form of cell phone technology that becomes more useful and affordable every year. We have seen these benefits because of Open System Software and Computing. Why not apply the same concept to farm equipment?”

As an open source tractor, the Oggún uses common, off-the-shelf parts; uses the same components and subcomponents in multiple pieces of equipment; uses locally sourced parts, where possible; uses simplistic designs that allow the user to make unique adaptation and modifications.

“Our goal is to provide an affordable foundation that allows the people closest to the problems to innovate unique solutions that work for them and their community,” says the company literature.  “It’s not just a tractor, ‘it’s a way of thinking.’” Part of the thinking behind the Oggún tractor is to help revive make local and regional farming at smaller scales.  The low-cost, open source tractor should be especially attractive to farmers in the global South.

There are, of course, other open source agricultural equipment projects such as Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack. However, a difficult problem with those projects is how to capitalize the designs and make them commercially available.  It’s hard to get capital for projects that don’t own intellectual property (i.e., a patent in a proprietary technology). CleBer seems to have solved that through the mission-oriented investments of its two founders, who want to revive small-scale farming in the US, Cuba and elsewhere.

The Oggún tractor is still a very new tractor and one aimed at a very specific market segment of farmers. Still, the fact that it exists at all as a commercial enterprise is remarkable – and its potential, if taken to different levels, could be amazing. There are a lot of owners of John Deere equipment who would surely prefer not to be buying illegal software from eastern European pirates, but helping to build a new, more innovative ecosystem of open source alternatives. 

New Videos Explore the Political Potential of the Commons

Just released:  a terrific 25-minute video overview of the commons as seen by frontline activists from around the world, “The Commons in Political Spaces: For a Post-capitalist Transition,” along with more than a dozen separate interviews with activists on the frontlines of commons work around the globe. The videos were shot at the World Social Forum in Montreal last August, capturing the flavor of discussion and organizing there.

A big thanks to Remix the Commons and Commons Spaces – two groups in Montreal, and to Alain Ambrosi, Frédéric Sultan and Stépanie Lessard-Bérubé -- for pulling together this wonderful snapshot of the commons world.  The overview video is no introduction to the commons, but a wonderfully insightful set of advanced commentaries about the political and strategic promise of the commons paradigm today.Frédéric Sultan of Remix the Commons

The overview video (“Les communs dans l’espace politique,” with English subtitles as needed) is striking in its focus on frontier developments: the emerging political alliances of commoners with conventional movements, ideas about how commons should interact with state power, and ways in which commons thinking is entering policy debate and the general culture. 

The video features commentary by people like Frédéric Sultan, Gaelle Krikorian, Alain Ambrosi, Ianik Marcil, Matthew Rhéaume, Silke Helfrich, Chantal Delmas, Pablo Solon, Christian Iaione, and Jason Nardi, among others. 

The individual interviews with each of these people are quite absorbing. (See the full listing of videos here.) Six of these interviews are in English, nine are in French, and three are in Spanish.  They range in length from ten minutes to twenty-seven minutes.

To give you a sense of the interviews, here is a sampling:

Christian Iaione, an Italian law scholar and commoner, heads the Laboratory for the Governance of the Commons in Italy. The project, established five years ago, is attempting to change the governance of commons in Italian cities such as Rome, Bologna, Milan and Messina. More recently, it began a collaboration with Fordham University headed by Professor Sheila Foster, and  experiments in Amsterdam and New York City.

In his interview, “Urban Commons Charters in Italy,” Iaione warns that the Bologna Charter for the Care and Regeneration of Urban commons is not a cut-and-paste tool for bringing about commons; it requires diverse and localized experimentation. “There must be a project architecture working to change city governance and commons-enabling institutions,” said Iaione. “Regulation can’t be simply copied in south of Italy, such as Naples, because they don’t have the same civic institutions and public ethics as other parts of Italy….. You need different tools,” which must be co-designed by people in those cities, he said.

Jason Nardi, in his interview, “The Rise of the Commons in Italy” (27 minutes), credits the commons paradigm with providing “a renewed paradigm useful to unite and aggregate many different movements emerging today,” such as degrowth, cooperatives, the solidarity economy, ecologists, NGOs, development movements, and various rights movements. He credited the World Social Forum for helping to unite diverse factions to fight the privatization of everything by the big financial powers. 

Charles Lenchner of Democrats.com spoke about “The Commons in the USA” (11 minutes), citing the important movement in NYC to converted community gardens into urban commons.  He also cited the rise of participatory budgeting movement in New York City today, in which a majority of city council districts use that process.  The City of New York is also encouraging greater investment in co-operatives, in part as a way to deal with precarity and income disparities.  

Silke Helfrich, a German commons activist, discussed “Commons as a new political subject” (27 minutes).  She said that “it’s impossible today to know what’s going on about the commons because so many things are popping up or converging that it’s hard to keep up with them all.”  She said that there are three distinct ways of approaching the commons:  the commons as pools of shared resources to be managed collectively; the commons as social processes that bring commoning into being; and the commons as an attitude and way of thinking about a broader paradigm shift going on.  

Kevin Flanagan gave an interview, “Transition according to P2P” (19 minutes), in which he speaks of the “growing political maturity within the commons world, particularly within digital commons, peer production and collaborative economy.”  Flanagan said that there has always been a politics to the commons, but that politics is moving from being a cultural politics towards a broader politics that is engaging hacker culture, maker spaces, and open design and hardware movements.   Commoners are also beginning to work with more traditional political movements such as the cooperative and the Social and Solidarity Economy movements. 

Lots of nutritious food for thought in this well-produced collection of videos!