Reinventing Politics via Local Political Parties

It’s an open secret that political parties and “democratic” governments around the world have become entrenched insider clubs, dedicated to protecting powerful elites and neutralizing popular demands for system change.  How refreshing to learn about Ahora Madrid and other local political parties in Spain!  Could they be a new archetype for the reinvention of politics and government itself?

Instead of trying to use the hierarchical structures of parties and government in the usual ways to “represent” the people, the new local parties in Spain are trying to transform government itself and political norms. Inspired by Occupy-style movements working from the bottom up, local municipal parties want to make all governance more transparent, horizontal, and accessible to newcomers. They want to make politics less closed and proprietary, and more of an enactment of open source principles. It’s all about keeping it real.

To get a clearer grasp of this phenomena, Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation recently interviewed two members of Ahora Madrid, a city-based party comprised of former 15M activists who forged a new electoral coalition that prevailed in Madrid in 2015. (The full interview can be found here.)  The coalition’s victory was important because it opened up a new narrative for populist political transformation. Instead of the reactionary, anti-democratic and hate-driven vision embodied by Brexit, Trump and the National Front, this one is populist, progressive and paradigm-shifting.

Below, I distill some of the key sights that surfaced in Troncoso’s interview with Victoria Anderica, head of the Madrid City Council’s Office of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. The dialogue suggests how a social movement can move into city government without giving up their core movement ideals and values.  Implementation remains difficult, of course, but Ahora Madrid has made some impressive progress.

First, a clarification:  To outsiders, the political insurgency in Spain is usually associated with the upstart Podemos party.  That is a significant development, of course, but Podemos is also much more traditional.  Its party structure and leadership are more consolidated than those of Ahora Madrid, which considers itself an “instrumental party.”  It qualified to run in the 2015 elections as a party, but it does not have the internal apparatus of normal parties.

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Spanish Translation of “Think Like a Commoner” is Now Published

Some of you may recall the “Think Global, Print Local” crowdfunding campaign that a consortium of Spanish and Latin American commoners organized to finance the translation of my book, Think Like a Commoner, into Spanish. I’m pleased to report that the book, Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción, has now been published. It is the fifth of seven planned translations of my book.

Ten days ago, Medialab-Prado, the pioneering civic and tech research lab in Madrid, hosted a public event for me and the people instrumental in funding and actually doing the Spanish translation. It was a lovely event that showed the depth of interest in the commons in Spain. Marcos García, the head of Medialab, had graciously arranged for a simultaneous translation of my talk, which focused on the origins of the book and current challenges to the commons. Then audience members asked a range of questions that took us into deeper territory.   

We discussed, for example, the role of the commons in piercing the veil of modernity -- the tissue of ideas we have adopted, presuming our own individual agency, rationality and dichotomies separating the world into mind and matter, and into human beings and nature.

We discussed, also, the importance of arts and culture in speaking to our raw humanity in pre-political, pre-cognitive terms. And we addressed some of the difficulties that language poses in speaking about the commons -- because language tends to render invisible many ideas and meanings embedded into words centuries ago.

I loved how a woman from Paraguay explained that in Guaraní, her native language, there are separate words for “we” as in a group of specific people, and “we” as in all living things, human and nonhuman.  As translated into English for me, she also explained that the word “word" and “God” in Guaraní are related; the point seems to be that that one must try to use language to “build on the house of the soul.” A beautiful idea!

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Barcelona’s Brave Struggle to Advance the Commons

On a visit to Barcelona last week, I learned a great deal about the City’s pioneering role in developing "the city as a commons."  I also learned that crystallizing a new commons paradigm – even in a city committed to cooperatives and open digital networks – comes with many gnarly complexities.

The Barcelona city government is led by former housing activist Ada Colau, who was elected mayor in May 2015.  She is a leader of the movement that became the political party Barcelona En Comú (“Barcelona in Common”). Once in office, Colau halted the expansion of new hotels, a brave effort to prevent “economic development” (i.e., tourism) from hollowing out the city’s lively, diverse neighborhoods. As a world city, Barcelona is plagued by a crush of investors and speculators buying up real estate, making the city unaffordable for ordinary people.

Barelona En Comú may have won the mayor’s office, but it controls only 11 of the 44 city council seats. As a result, any progress on the party’s ambitious agenda requires the familiar maneuvering and arm-twisting of conventional city politics. Its mission also became complicated because as a governing (minority) party, Barelona En Comú is not just a movement, it must operationally assist the varied needs of a large urban economy and provide all sorts of public services:  a huge, complicated job.

What happens when activist movements come face-to-face with such administrative realities and the messy pressures of representative politics? This is precisely why the unfolding drama of Barelona En Comú is instructive for commoners. Will activists transform conventional politics and government systems into new forms of governance -- or will they themselves be transformed and abandon many of their original goals? 

The new administration clearly aspires to shake things up in positive, transformative ways.  Besides fostering greater participation in governance, Barelona En Comú hopes to fortify and expand what it calls the “commons collaborative economy” – the cooperatives, commons and neighborhood projects that comprise a remarkable 10% of the city economy through 1,300 ventures.

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Think Global, Print Local: A New Commons-Based Publishing Model

Some enterprising commoners in Spain and Latinamerica have launched an imaginative crowdfunding campaign to translate and publish my book Think Like a Commoner in Spanish.  What makes this publishing initiative so distinctive is its ambition to build a new transnational publishing network that is commons-oriented in content as well as practice.  They call it “Think Global, Print Local.” 

The plan is to translate my book into Spanish and then use small-scale printing and distribution to publish the book in Spain and throughout Latin America. -- initially Peru, Argentina and Mexico, to be followed later in other locations.  The Spanish edition of my book will be entitled Pensar desde los comunes: una breve introducción.

It is difficult for a project this innovative to obtain financing, so the organizers have launched a crowdfunding campaign this week through the Spain-based Goteo website.  I’m thrilled to have my book be the focus of this pathbreaking translation/publishing experiment.  I'm also excited about having my short introduction to the commons accessible to the Spanish-speaking world! 

The “claymation” video by Espacio Abierto of Peru, explaining the project, is particularly wonderful, especially the animated clay rendition of me!  If you go to the Goteo website for the campaign, you can watch the video, learn more about the project and contribute to it.  It's off to a strong start, but it needs to minimally raise 8.042 euros -- 10,602 euros is optimum.

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Excellent Profile of Enric Duran and Catalan Integral Cooperative

The Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC, pronounced “seek”) is surely one of the more audacious commons-based innovations to have emerged in the past five years.  It is notable for providing a legal and financial superstructure that is helping to support a wide variety of smaller self-organized commons.  Some of us are calling this proto-form an “omni-commons,” inspired by the example of the Omni Commons in Oakland.

CIC is smart, resourceful, socially committed and politically sophisticated.  It has bravely criticized the Spanish government’s behavior in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which has included massive bank bailouts, foreclosures on millions of homes, draconian cutbacks in social services, a lack of transparency in policymaking.  CIC regards all of this as evidence that the state is no longer willing to honor its social contract with citizens.  Accordingly, it has called for civil disobedience to unjust laws and is doing everything it can to establish its own social order with a more humane logic and ethic.

Journalist Nathan Schneider provides a fascinating, well-reported profile of CIC in the April issue of Vice magazine. The piece focuses heavily on the role of the visionary activist Enric Duran, who in 2008 borrowed $500,000 from banks, and then he gave the money away to various activist projects. Despite being on the run from Spanish prosecutors, Duran went on to launch CIC in early 2010 with others. 

His avowed goal is to build a new economy from the ground up.  CIC is a fascinating model because it provides a legal and financial framework for supporting a diverse network of independent workers who trade with and support each other.  This is allowing participants to develop some massive social and economic synergies among CIC's many enterprises, which include a restaurant, hostel, wellness center, Bitcoin ATM, library, among hundreds of others.

As Schneider writes:

At last count, the CIC consisted of 674 different projects spread across Catalonia, with 954 people working on them. The CIC provides these projects a legal umbrella, as far as taxes and incorporation are concerned, and their members trade with one another using their own social currency, called ecos. They share health workers, legal experts, software developers, scientists, and babysitters. They finance one another with the CIC's $438,000 annual budget, a crowdfunding platform, and an interest-free investment bank called Casx. (In Catalan, x makes an sh sound.) To be part of the CIC, projects need to be managed by consensus and to follow certain basic principles like transparency and sustainability. Once the assembly admits a new project, its income runs through the CIC accounting office, where a portion goes toward funding the shared infrastructure. Any participant can benefit from the services and help decide how the common pool is used.

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Degrowth, the Book

In industrialized societies, where so many people regard economic growth as the essence of human progress, the idea of deliberately rejecting growth is seen as insane.  Yet that is more or less what the planet’s ecosystems are saying right now about the world economy. It’s also the message of an expanding movement, Degrowth, that is particularly strong in Europe and the global South. 

A few months ago I blogged about the massive Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, that attracted 3,000 people from around the world. The basic point of the discussions was how to get beyond the fetish of growth, intellectually and practically, and how to transform our idea of “the economy” so that it incorporates such important values as democracy, social well-being and ecological limits.

Several of the movement’s leading figures have now released a rich anthology of essays, Degrowth:  A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge). It is the first English language book to comprehensively survey the burgeoning literature on degrowth.  More about the book on its website and an amusing three-minute video.  

The editors -- Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgios Kallis – are three scholars at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, and members of the group Research & Degrowth. The editors describe degrowth as “a rejection of the illusion of growth and a call to repoliticize the public debate colonized by the idiom of economism.”  The basic idea is to find new ways to achieve “the democratically-led shrinking of production and consumption with the aim of achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.” 

Here’s how the book jacket describes the volume: 

We live in an era of stagnation, rapid impoverishment, rising inequalities and socio-ecological disasters. In the dominant discourse, these are effects of economic crisis, lack of growth or underdevelopment. This book argues that growth is the cause of these problems and that it has become uneconomic, ecologically unsustainable and intrinsically unjust.

When the language in use is inadequate to articulate what begs to be articulated, then it is time for a new vocabulary. A movement of activists and intellectuals, first starting in France and then spreading to the rest of the world, has called for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective. ‘Degrowth’ (‘décroissance’) has come to signify for them the desired direction of societies that will use fewer natural resources and will organize themselves to live radically differently. ‘Simplicity’, ‘conviviality’, ‘autonomy’, ‘care’, ‘commons’ and ‘dépense’ are some of the words that express what a degrowth society might look like.

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Faircoin as the First Global Commons Currency?

It’s hard to find many co-operatives with the kind of practical sophistication and visionary ambitions as CIC – the Catalan Integral Cooperative -- in Spain.  CIC describes itself as a “transitional initiative for social transformation from below, through self-management, self-organization, and networking.”  It considers the state unable to advance the public good because of its deep entanglements with market capitalism -- so it has set about building its own working alternatives to the banking system and state. 

Since its founding in May 2010, CIC has developed some 300 cooperative projects with 30 local nodes, involving some 4,000 to 5,000 participants.  You can get an idea of the impressive scope of CIC’s work through this interview with Enric Duran by Shareable magazine in March 2014. It’s fairly clear that CIC is serious about building a new global economic system – and not just as a rhetorical statement.  CIC builds real, working alternatives, showing great sophistication about politics, law, economics and digital platforms. 

CIC has now started Fair.Coop to help build a set of free economic tools that will “promote cooperation, ethics, solidarity and justice in our economic relations.” A key element of the Fair-Coop vision is a cryptocurrency, Faircoin, which has been designed to adapt the block-chain technology of Bitcoin with a more socially constructive design. (Faircoin relies less on "mining" new coins than on "minting" them in a more ecologically responsible, equitable ways.)

Many skeptics might scoff at the brash, utopian feel of this initiative.  But in many respects, Faircoin is the ultimate realism. CIC correctly recognizes that the existing monetary system and private banks pose insuperable barriers to reducing inequality and ensuring productive work and wealth for all. The only "realistic" alternative to existing fiat currencies and foreign exchange is to invent a new monetary system!  Fortunately, thanks to the pioneering examples of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and the evolving powers of software, that idea is actually within reach these days.

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From Spain’s 15-M Movement: The Charter for Democracy

Stacco Troncoso and his colleagues at Guerrilla Translation, in Madrid, have completed an English translation of an important statement from Spain, “The Charter for Democracy,” which should be of great interest to small-d democrats throughout the world. He explains that “the group behind the piece, “Movimiento por la Democracia” (Movement for Democracy) is undoubtedly one of the most important evolutions of Spain’s 15-M movement.  It clearly targets the political arena without desiring to become a political party itself. Their ‘Charter for Democracy’ is an inspiring, thorough text on what politics should be. It proposes a politics for the people: squarely grounded in environmental realities and social justice, based on the Commons, defended from corporate interests and neoliberal dictates.” 

The Movement for Democracy introduces itself this way:

"We emerged during the destruction of an economic and political model that, by its decadence, makes us poorer, excludes us, and exiles us from our own cities and towns...we are here to take democracy into our own hands, to defend against the constant threat of its systematic robbery...we are the Movement for Democracy and we came into being to say, “Yes we can!” a thousand times and more. And as we hold this to be true, that we actually can, we will challenge whoever tells us it’s impossible."

The Charter for Democracy is “a thoroughly detailed plan for the transformation of public policy and democratic representation, open for public challenge and participation,” said Troncoso, whose network of translators acted as “compilers and editors of a volunteer group-produced work” in making the English translation.  A hearty thanks to translators Jaron Rowan, Jaime Palomera, Lucía Lara, Lotta, Diego and Stacco Troncoso, with editing by Jane Loes Lipton. I love that the Charter is illustrated with some beautiful original illustrations by Clismón, one of which I include here.

Here are the opening paragraphs of this inspiring document:

This Charter was born of a deep malaise: lack of prospects, mass unemployment, cuts in social rights and benefits, evictions, political and financial corruption, dismantling of public services. It was drafted in reaction to the social majority’s growing lack of confidence in the promises of a political system devoid of legitimacy and the ability to listen.

The two-party system, widespread corruption, the financial dictatorship imposed by austerity policies and the destruction of public goods have dealt the final blow to a democracy long suffering from its own limits. These limits were already present in the 1978 Constitution. They can be summarized as a political framework that neither protects society from the concentration of power in the hands of the financial groups, nor from the consolidation of a non-representative political class. This political framework has established a system which is hardly open to citizen participation, and unable to construct a new system of collective rights for our protection and common development. This is evident in the fact that, despite some very significant public demonstrations, the demands of the vast majority of the population have repeatedly been ignored.

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Save Medialab Prado!

For people who care about socially engaged, commons-minded tech innovation, there are few institutions in the world as bold and courageous as Medialab Prado, in Madrid.  For the past ten years it has been a technology lab, an interdisciplinary forum, a space that welcomes public participation, a hub for citizen activism, and a host of provocative workshops and conferences.  And yes, the Medialab Prado has also been deeply engaged with the commons paradigm as an important way of shaping a better, more socially constructive future. 

Now, after a decade of fantastic work as a pioneering social/technological laboratory, the Madrid city council is threatening to let a giant telecom corporation, Telefónica, take over its new building.  The municipal government – apparently clueless about the international stature and significance of Medialab – is in talks to let Telefónica use the brand new building that MLP moved into less than a year ago. Telefónica wants to open its own startup incubator there. The move  would cast Medialab into limbo, without any assurance of appropriate space in a suitable location or adequate funds.  

Many of us who participate in the international tech, P2P, commons or activist worlds are appalled at this recent turn of events.  Doesn’t the Madrid political establishment recognize the immense value that Medialab Prado has for the city and Spain (and the rest of the world)? 

Doesn’t it realize that Medialab is a magnet for the most exciting thinkers, technologists and social activists – a place that elevates Madrid’s reputation and Spain’s leadership in cultural and tech circles?  After citizen uprisings in so many countries around the world, does the Madrid political establishment not appreciate the need to explore new models of social outreach and public engagement, as Medilab Prado does?

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