The Greek Left Takes Stock of the Commons

If the Greek experience of the past two years shows anything, it is that conventional Left politics, even with massive electoral support and control of the government, cannot prevail against finance capital and its international allies.  European creditors continue to force Greek citizens to endure the punishing trauma of austerity politics with no credible scenario for economic recovery or social reconstruction in sight. 

After the governing coalition Syriza capitulated to creditors’ draconian demands in 2016, its credibility as a force for political change declined. Despite its best intentions, it could not deliver. The Greek people might understandably ask:  Have we reached the limits of what the conventional Left can achieve within “representative democracies” whose sovereignty is so compromised by global capital?  Beyond such political questions, citizens might also wonder whether centralized bureaucratic programs in this age of digital networks can ever act swiftly and responsively.  Self-organized, bottom-up federations of commoning often produce much better results.    

Pummeled by some harsh realities and sobered by the limits of Left politics, many Greeks are now giving the commons a serious look as a political option. This was my impression after a recent visit to Athens where I tried to give some visibility to the recently published Greek translation of my book Think Like a Commoner.  In Greek, the book is entitled Κοινά: Μια σύντομη εισαγωγή.  Besides a public talk at a bookstore (video here), I spoke at the respected left Nicos Poulantzas Institute (video with Greek translation & English version), which was eager to host a discussion about commons and commoning. 

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Andreas Karitzis on SYRIZA: We Need to Invent New Ways to Do Politics

This is a time of great confusion, fear and political disarray.  People around the world, including Americans afflicted by a Trump presidency, are looking for new types of democratic strategies for social justice and basic effectiveness.  The imploding neoliberal system with its veneer of democratic values is clearly inadequate in an age of globalized capital.

Fortunately, one important historical episode illuminates the political challenges we face quite vividly:  the protracted struggle by the Greek left coalition party SYRIZA to renegotiate its debt with European creditors and allied governments. SYRIZA’s goal was to reconstruct a society decimated by years of austerity policies, investor looting of public assets, and social disintegration.  The Troika won that epic struggle, of course, and SYRIZA, the democratically elected Greek government, accepted the draconian non-solution imposed by creditors.  Creditors and European neoliberals sent a clear signal: financial capital will brutally override the democratic will of a nation.

Since the Greek experience with neoliberal coercion is arguably a taste of what is in store for the rest of the world, including the United States, it is worth looking more closely at the SYRIZA experience and what it may mean for transformational politics more generally.  What is the significance of SYRIZA’s failure?  What does that suggest about the deficiencies of progressive politics?  What new types of approaches may be needed?

Below, I excerpt a number of passages from an excellent but lengthy interview with Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA spokesman and member of its Central Committee.  In his talk with freelance writer George Souvlis published in LeftEast, a political website, Karitzis offers some extremely astute insights into the Greek left’s struggles to throw off the yoke of neoliberal capitalism and debt peonage.  Karitzis makes a persuasive case for building new types of social practices, political identities and institutions for “doing politics."

I recommend reading the full interview, but the busy reader may want to read my distilled summary below.  Here is the link to Part I and to Part II of the interview. 

Karitzis nicely summarizes the basic problem: 

We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.

But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.

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Seeing Wetiko

One of the most important languages for expressing the values of the commons, I have come to realize, is art. It can often express visceral knowledge more effectively than words and give those insights a more powerful cultural reality.

Those were my thoughts when I saw "Seeing Wetiko," an “online gallery” of artworks, music and videos just released by the global arts collective The Rules.  “Artists and activists from around the world have come together in a burst of creative energy to popularize the Algonquin concept of wetiko, a cannibalistic mind virus they claim is causing the destruction of the planet,” the group announced. 

Wetiko is an indigenous term used to describe “a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul which deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others is logical and moral.”  The dozens of artworks on the website convey this idea in vivid, compelling ways.  The term wetiko was chosen for the project as a framework for understanding our global crisis, from ecological destruction and homelessness, to poverty and inequality.  To illustrate the scope of wetiko today, the website features a wonderful four-minute video, graffiti murals from Nairobi, carved marks from the US, a film about plastic bottle waste in Trinidad and Tobago, and a theater performance about patriarchy in India. 

The Rules is a global network of “activists, artists, writers, farmers, peasants, students, workers, designers, hackers and dreamers” who focus on five key areas needing radical change – money, power, secrecy, ideas and the commons. 

In an essay in Kosmos Journal describing the wetiko project, Martin Kirk and Alnoor Ladha, co-founders of The Rules, write:  "What if we told you that humanity is being driven to the brink of extinction by an illness? That all the poverty, the climate devastation, the perpetual war, and consumption fetishism we see all around us have roots in a mass psychological infection? What if we went on to say that this infection is not just highly communicable but also self-replicating, according to the laws of cultural evolution, and that it remains so clandestine in our psyches that most hosts will, as a condition of their infected state, vehemently deny that they are infected?"

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New Report: State Power and Commoning

What changes in state power must occur for commoning to flourish as a legal form of self-provisioning and governance?  What does the success of the commons imply for the future of the state as a form of governance? 

My colleagues and I at the Commons Strategies Group puzzled over such questions last year and decided we needed to convene some serious minds to help shed light on them.  With the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we convened a Deep Dive workshop on February 28 through March 2, 2016, called “State Power and Commoning:  Transcending a Problematic Relationship.” 

Now a report that synthesizes and distills our conversations is available. The executive summary of the report is published below (and also here).  The full 50-page report can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

Participants in the workshop addressed such questions as: Can commons and the state fruitfully co-exist – and if so, how? Can commoners re-imagine “the state” from a commons perspective so that its powers could be used to affirmatively support commoning and a post-capitalist, post-growth means of provisioning and governance? Can “seeing like a state,” as famously described by political scientist James C. Scott, be combined with “seeing like a commoner” and its ways of knowing, living and being? What might such a hybrid look like?

These issues are becoming more important as neoliberalism attempts to reassert the ideological supremacy of “free market” dogma.  As a feasible, eco-friendly alternative, commoning is often seen as posing a symbolic or even a political and social threat.  It is our hope that the report will help inaugurate a broader discussion of these issues.

Silke Helfrich and Heike Loeschmann deserve much credit for helping to organize the event, with assistance from Michel Bauwens. I wrote the report, and Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel have produced a beautiful publication and webpages.  Thanks, too, to the workshop participants who shared their astute insights.

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Civic Variations on the Fact, Value, Strategy Distinction

When civic studies scholars write about civics and citizens, as Peter Levine does today, we will usually mention the following trinity: facts, values, and strategies. Here’s Levine:

The citizen is committed to affecting the world. Some important phenomena may be beyond her grasp, so that she sees them but sees no way of changing them. But she is drawn to levers she can pull, handles she can grab onto. To choose an action, she combines value-judgments, factual beliefs, and tactical predictions into a single thought: “It is good for me to do this.”

Citizens seek facts and work with beliefs;  they orient their efforts with regard to values and judgments; and they develop and use strategies, tactics, and reliable predictions to achieve those values in light of the facts as they understand them.

There is much that this trinity illuminates about citizenship, but it can be contested too. The fact/value dichotomy is frequently challenged, and “strategic” thinking is often criticized for its instrumentalism. In general, the terms are discrete. So consider some alternatives:

  1. We could speak in terms of means, ends, and constraints. Many things called “facts” are really tendentious or irrelevant. But action always proceeds against the backdrop of other events and interests, against some opposition, or with some set of finite allies and collaborators. The simple means-ends dichotomy embraces the instrumental critique while acknowledging that new means may be discovered or alternative ends may come to light.
  2. We could use the language of needs assessment or SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.) “Constraints” are largely understood in terms of limits. Perhaps we should instead think in terms of “needs and assets” to capture the ways in which some of the things I mentioned as constraints are actually enabling. What’s more, a lot of a citizen’s work will require very careful, step-by-step organization and capacity-building. We often find ourselves in the middle of a project, taking as our main goal developing a new asset or bridging a gap between our current and desired capacities. SWOT analysis, and other rubrics like it, bring this to the fore: it recognizes that citizens are often operating with uncertainty that may yield an opportunity but threatens to harm them or impede their goals.
  3. “Leftists” of various stripes might prefer the language of solidarity, ideology, critique, and mobilization. If we understand the basic structures of our world as oppressive, especially if we think that they are organized by various forms of gendered, racist, and class-based domination–as well as an international dimension of colonial cultural privilege, or a preference for certain kinds of able bodies–then we will be especially cautious about “facts” and “values” which are themselves part of what is being contested as ideological–deceptive, dominating, and produced in order to preserve certain kinds of hierarchies and dominations. Citizens using this approach will tend to prefer strategies of exposure, including the mobilization of bodies in protest and solidarity, to pierce the ideology that preserves and legtimates those hierarchies. The goal will not be to win particular conflicts–since these are too easily reversed–except when this serves to undermine the systematic oppression diagnosed through ideological critique.
  4. Citizens living traditional or conservative lifestyles may think of themselves less as activists and more as preservationists or stewards of worldview in decline in the modern world. Thus, the lens through which they view their citizenship will privilege terms like stability and respect for history; resistance to or avoidance of corruption and temptation; reverence for certain values, communities, and sacred institutions. Facts are well-established and have survived the test of time; values can never be merely individual but are the product of a community’s mutual commitment; strategies are not tactical choices–is a funeral a “strategy”?–but understood in terms of the community’s practices, rituals, and traditions.

Obviously, each of these sets of distinctions (call them paradigms) is itself value-laden and rooted in some set of beliefs about the facts. I’ll note that my preferred paradigm is a mixture of #1 and #2, following Rachel Maddow, though I draw from each as it seems appropriate or as my audience requires.

What strikes me as particularly important is that each of these paradigms indicates a particular strategy. When I dither, as I often do, between these paradigms, I do so primarily because I wonder which metapolitical view of the world–which schematic of the effective levers and knobs of citizenship–is really correct.

Peter Levine always seems to work hard to accommodate conservative voices in his own paradigm. I’ve long suspected that he is motivated by the belief that many of our fellow citizens will answer best to that description, and that the solutions to our problems are most likely to be found in collaborating with our more conservative neighbors, which makes it important to find ways to accommodate oneself to them.

But this is most often at odds with that technocratic view of activism which seeks to steer the levers of bureaucracy that I find attractive: there, it’s more important to speak the language of the state and the market in order to be heard. Yet there’s a real risk that when you ignore your neighbors in favor of trying to make those larger institutions listen to you, you will both go unheard and find yourself corrupted by too-long attention to the state’s and the market’s values and worldview.

Lessons from SYRIZA’s Failure: Build a New Economy & Polity

Last year SYRIZA, the left coalition party elected to lead the Greek government and face down its creditors and European overlords, lost its high-stakes confrontation with neoliberalism. Greece has plunged into an even-deeper, demoralizing and perilous social and economic crisis, exacerbated by the flood of Syrian refugees. 

So what does the SYRIZA experience have to teach us about the potential of democratic politics to bring about economic and social transformation?  Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA member and former member of its Central Committee and Political Secretariat, provides a rich and penetrating analysis in an essay at "The SYRIZA experience':  lessons and adaptations" crackles with shrewd, hard-won political insights explaining why SYRIZA failed to prevail and the necessary future strategies for transformational change.

SYRIZA failed to stop the neoliberal juggernaut, Karitzis argues, because it thought it could work within the established political structures and processes.  But the gut-wrenching drama showed that conventional democratic politics is futile when state sovereignty is trumped by international finance.  SYRIZA's ultimate acceptance of the Troika's deal "arguably betrayed the hopes and aspirations of the popular classes and those fighting against financial despotism," says Karitzis.  He now calls on the left to develop a new "operating system," or what some have called "Plan C": 

We know that the popular power once one inscribed in various democratic institutions is exhausted.  We do not have enough power to make elites accept and tolerate our participation in crucial decisions.  More of the same won't do it.  If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it's not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; we need to reshape the ground.  And to do that we have to expand the solution space by shifting priorities from political representation to setting up an autonomous network of production of economic and social power.

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As Neoliberal Forces Lash Out, Solidarity with Syriza is Needed

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe. 

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.” 

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

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Bauwens Joins Ecuador in Planning a Commons-based, Peer Production Economy

Here’s a development that could have enormous global implications for the search for a new commons-based economic paradigm.  Working with an academic partner, the Government of Ecuador has launched a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning.   

I am thrilled to learn that my dear friend Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation and my colleague in the Commons Strategies Group, will be leading the research team for the next ten months.  The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.” 

The announcement of the project and Bauwens’ appointment was made on Wednesday by the Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society, or FLOK Society, a project at the IAEN national university that has the support of the Ministry of Human Resource and Knowledge in Ecuador.  The FLOK Society bills its mission as “designing a world for the commons.” 

The research project will focus on many interrelated themes, including open education; open innovation and science; “arts and meaning-making activities”; open design commons; distributed manufacturing; and sustainable agriculture; and open machining.  The research will also explore enabling legal and institutional frameworks to support open productive capacities; new sorts of open technical infrastructures and systems for privacy, security, data ownership and digital rights; and ways to mutualize the physical infrastructures of collective life and promote collaborative consumption.

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