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Everything written by Michel Bauwens

How Uber drivers, making less than the minimum wage, are organizing with assistance of taxi drivers

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th October 2014

This was written on the occasion of a recent strike in New York which involved 2,000 Uber drivers.

Excerpted from Kaja Whitehouse:

““Uber has become like Walmart. Drivers now make less than the minimum wage when we do the math,” said Abdoul Diallo of the newly formed Uber Drivers Network, which opposes new lower fare rates set by the company.

The high-tech livery-service firm recently slashed passenger fares to compete with car services such as Lyft, Gett and regular yellow cabs, a move that drivers say takes money out of their pockets.

Some Uber drivers claimed fares — and their paychecks — had been chopped 25 percent in recent months.

Other drivers said they make less than a living wage, just $7 to $12 an hour after expenses and fees — far less than the $25.79 an hour Uber promises drivers can make by joining its fleet, protesters said.

Drivers began complaining that Uber was taking them for a ride back in July, when the company temporarily launched its less-than-taxi-rate Uber X service.

In late September, Uber ­extended those cuts permanently — outraging drivers.

Uber treats drivers like private contractors, saddling them with insurance, gas and vehicle expenses but the company has total control over fares.

As many one-fifth of the Uber’s 10,000 drivers in New York went on strike over the policy and pay rates on Wednesday, passing out fliers instead of working.

Drivers could have spent the day cashing in on the company’s “surge pricing” scheme, in which rates spike during bad weather and other times of peak demand.

An Uber executive who asked not be identified by name claimed the striking drivers are “a minuscule subset of partners around the world.”

Uber drivers’ pay has spiked 11.8 percent an hour since October 2013, the executive said, and they end up making more because of higher demand fueled by less ­expensive fares.

But that just adds up to a longer day for drivers, workers claim.

“Uber makes billions on the backs of drivers. We own the cars, we pay for gas, we pay for maintenance, we suffer the depreciation, and we take all of the risks,” one protest flier proclaimed.

Uber spokesman Josh Mohrer claimed the strike didn’t impact New Yorkers looking for a ride, saying there were “normal supply levels.”

In These Times’ REBECCA BURNS reports on the organizing efforts behind the strike:

“On October 22, tech-giant Uber got a taste of its own disruptive medicine when drivers in at least five cities who work on the ridesharing platform turned off their apps and stopped picking up passengers, in protest of what they say are unjust working conditions and a dwindling share in the company’s profits. Some drivers are calling this action the first strike in the “sharing economy,” a sector known for its aversion to labor organizing.

A small crowd of Uber drivers and labor activists rallied outside the company’s offices in Santa Monica, California, at noon today, carrying signs reading “Uber: 15 Hour Days and Poverty Wages” and “Stop the War on Workers.” Drivers in San Francisco held a concurrent rally, while groups in New York, Chicago and London pledged to turn off their phones for three hours in what organizers are calling a “global day of protest” against Uber.

Another demonstrator’s sign asked, “Uber, are we your employees or your ‘partners?’” and demanded, “Stop imposing your unfair rules!” The question gets to the heart of the “sharing economy” controversy: Ask the tech companies that create “sharing” apps, and they’ll say that people who drive for Uber, rent out spare rooms on AirBnB or do small jobs via TaskRabbit aren’t employees at all; they’re “micro-entrepreneurs” or “partners” in a new kind of market.

Critics retort that these people are hardly “sharing” their time and resources out of the goodness of their hearts; rather they’re workers who have turned to a new niche in the service economy to try to make a living—and find themselves increasingly struggling to do so.

Uber has been a target of particular resentment because of recent fare cuts. In September, the company emailed drivers to say that a summer discount on its standard “UberX” service of between 15 and 20 percent, depending on the city, would be continued into the autumn. In an infographic accompanying an email to drivers in July, the company reasoned that the price cut would generate higher demand for rides, leading to more trips per shift and resulting, ultimately, in a boost to drivers’ bottom line.

Many drivers, however, were unconvinced. “I had an awesome day! I earned $5.33 an hour!” snarked one UberX driver on an online driver forum. Thanks to highway tolls and long trips to pick up passengers wanting to go only a few blocks, he explained, more rides hadn’t offset the lower fares.

On top of the lower prices, Uber has also demanded a larger cut of fares. New UberX drivers in San Francisco now hand over 25 percent of their earnings to the company; drivers for the more expensive Uber black-car and SUV services, which unlike UberX are operated only by professional drivers, surrender 25 and 28 percent, respectively.

After months of scattered unrest among Uber drivers, the California App-based Drivers Association (CADA), a labor group affiliated with the Teamsters, called for protests outside Uber offices in cities nationwide at noon on October 22. CADA was formed earlier this year in Los Angeles and has staged several protests there, but believed a coordinated outpouring of dissatisfaction would have greater effect.

“It shows Uber that drivers are speaking with each other, and it shows consumers and the shareholders that it’s not just one group of disgruntled or unprofessional drivers—there’s a problem nationwide,” says Joseph DeWolf Sandoval, co-founder and president of CADA.

Indeed, groups of Uber drivers in other cities quickly picked up the call. After learning about CADA, London Uber drivers opted to form their own association, the London Private Hire App-based Drivers Associations (LPHADA).

“London is one of the most expensive cities in the world,” says LPHADA member Yaseen Aslam, who has been driving for the company since UberX launched in London in July 2013. “It used to be that [drivers] could make a living working eight hours a day. Now, many are working 12 or more to make the same amount of money. That puts a strain on their health and family lives, as well as the safety of passengers.”

The association is calling on Uber to reduce its commission from 20 percent to 10 percent of drivers’ fares, add a tip option to the platform and consult with LPHADA before any further changes to fares or commissions, along with several other demands.

There are many challenges to organizing Uber drivers. In addition to their isolation and unpredictable schedules, both Aslam and DeWolf Sandoval believe a fear of retaliation keeps many drivers from complaining. Organizers in London and New York told In These Times that they had initially planned to stage protests, but fearing low turnout, they instead opted to focus on reaching out to drivers to strike by shutting off their phones.

“Uber can deactivate—basically, fire—a driver without cause or explanation. It’s a stick in the classic stick and carrot scenario, except there’s no carrot. The drivers live in fear,” says DeWolf Sandoval.

Uber acknowledges that if drivers’ ratings from passengers dip too low, they may not be allowed to continue on the platform. DeWolf Sandoval says that drivers have also been told that their ratings could drop if they decline too many ride requests or refuse lower-fare UberX rides when driving on the Uber Plus platform. He adds that several officers in CADA have experienced precipitous drops in their ratings or had their cars downgraded to the lower-fare UberX service, in what they suspect may be an attempt to chill driver organizing.

DeSandoval Wolf says that Uber has thus far refused to meet with CADA, and hopes that the protests will force the company to “recognize that drivers are attempting to organize, and that our organization wants to sit down and have a real conversation with Uber management.”

One Uber driver was even briefly fired for Tweeting a comment critical of the company. The driver received an email from an Uber operations manager informing him that his account had been permanently suspended “due to hateful statements regarding Uber,” though the company later reversed course after the story went viral.”

In this particular passage, Rebecca Burns explains how taxi and Uber drivers are working together to improve their social conditions:

“At the moment, since Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees, they are legally prohibited from taking the next step and forming a union. Many are waiting with bated breath for the outcome of a class action lawsuit, filed by San Francisco Uber drivers in August 2013, charging that they have been misclassified and are owed tips and expenses that would legally be due to employees.

In the meantime, drivers can do plenty to change the status quo, says New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai, whose umbrella organization the National Taxi Workers Alliance made history in 2011 when it became the first independent contractor workforce to affiliate with the AFL-CIO.

“There’s no question that the taxi industry is one of the most exploitive industries, and what Uber has done is magnify that exploitation,” says Desai.

By operating in a regulatory gray zone, Uber is able to offer cheaper fares in part by skirting the consumer and labor protections that bind traditional taxi companies. Cab drivers who believe Uber is undercutting their business have held several large protests against the company, including a multi-city European strike in June.

But Desai says that in New York, the two groups are now working together. Many traditional taxi drivers switched to Uber when its fares were higher and they believed they would be able to make more money. Now, once again facing low wages, many drivers are exporting the organizing model built up over years in the taxi industry.

“Taxi drivers, like Uber drivers, have been very invisible,” explains Desai, noting their isolation from each other and longtime exclusion from the mainstream labor movement. “We’ve really broken through that by having mass actions on the street and work stoppages, and that’s the same model that the Uber driver movement is utilizing.”


Posted in P2P Labor, Sharing | No Comments »

How Super-Star Based Technological Change Is Driving Inequality

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th October 2014

Excerpted from David Rotman:

““My reading of the data is that technology is the main driver of the recent increases in inequality. It’s the biggest factor,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School. The coauthor, with fellow MIT academic Andrew McAfee, of The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson, like Piketty, has recently gained unlikely prominence for an academic economist.

Piketty and Brynjolfsson both earned their degrees in the early 1990s, and both were professors at MIT during the following years. But beyond an agreement that growing inequality is a problem, their thinking could hardly be more different. While Piketty’s writing is sprinkled with references to Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, Brynjolfsson talks of advanced robots and the vast potential of artificial intelligence. While Piketty warns against a return to a world where inherited wealth determines social and political fates, Brynjolfsson worries that a growing share of the workforce could be left behind even as digital technologies increase overall income.

Central to Brynjolfsson’s argument is the idea that innovation is rapidly accelerating as trends in computing and networking advance at an exponential rate. Largely as a result of these advances, productivity and GDP continue to increase. But while “the pie is increasing,” he says, not everyone is benefiting. (Brynjolfsson notes that productivity has, according to conventional measurements, grown slowly since around 2005. But he attributes that “disappointing” slowdown to the recession and its aftermath—and, perhaps most important, to the fact that organizations have yet to fully capture the benefits expected to come from digital technologies.)

Brynjolfsson lists several ways that technological changes can contribute to inequality: robots and automation, for example, are eliminating some routine jobs while requiring new skills in others (see “How Technology is Destroying Jobs”). But the biggest factor, he says, is that the technology-driven economy greatly favors a small group of successful individuals by amplifying their talent and luck, and dramatically increasing their rewards.

Brynjolfsson argues that these people are benefiting from a winner-take-all effect originally described by Sherwin Rosen in a 1981 paper called “The Economics of Superstars.” Rosen said that such breakthroughs as motion pictures, radio, and TV had greatly broadened the audiences—and hence the rewards—for those in show business and sports.

Thirty years later, Brynjolfsson sees a similar effect for high-tech entrepreneurs, whose ideas and products can be widely distributed and produced thanks to software and other digital technologies. Why hire a local tax consultant when you can use a cheap, state-of-the-art program that is constantly being updated and refined? Likewise, why buy a second-best program or app? The ability to copy software and distribute digital products anywhere means customers will buy the top one. Why use a search engine that is almost as good as Google? Such economic logic now rules a growing share of the marketplace; it is, according to Brynjolfsson, an increasingly important reason why a few entrepreneurs, including the founders of such startups as Instagram, are growing rich at a staggering rate.

The distinction between Piketty’s supermanagers and Brynjolfsson’s superstars is critical: the latter derive their high incomes directly from the effects of technology. As machines increasingly substitute for labor and building a business becomes less capital-intensive—you don’t need a printing plant to produce an online news site, or large investments to create an app—the biggest economic winners will not be those owning conventional capital but, instead, those with the ideas behind innovative new products and successful business models.

In an article called “New World Order,” published this summer in Foreign Affairs, Brynjolfsson, McAfee, and Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate and professor at New York University, argued that “superstar-based technical change … is upending the global economy.” That economy, they conclude, will increasingly be dominated by members of the small elite that “innovate and create.”


Posted in P2P Hierarchy Theory, P2P Technology | No Comments »

Most of the Sharing Economy is a Rental Economy and should be regulated as such

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th October 2014

Renting is not sharing: it should be regulated and taxed!!

“Under a rhetoric guise of “sharing”, websites like AirBnb or Uber are creating a new informal economy of uninsured workers whose entire life is up for rent, from cars and homes, to their own hands available to perform chores for a fee in sites like “taskrabbit ”. Entire professions – cab drivers, cleaners etc- are passing in this way into a new black economy- unregulated, tax free and uninsured. And instead of (or alongside) the much-touted socialization and community, the result is the commodification of the final shreds of social life that had remained outside the economy.”

Excerpted from Giorgos Kallis:

“AirBnb, and other sites such as Uber , where drivers car-share with passengers for short routes in town or, Greek-origin Cookisto , where amateur cooks deliver home-cooked meals, are part of a phenomenon that has been dubbed “the sharing economy”. As the title of Rachel Botsman´s book tellingly puts it, in this new economy “what´s mine is yours ”. I offer my house, and you offer yours. You cook for me, or I can cook for someone else. Use takes the place of ownership.

Instead of buying new consumer goods, in this “sharing economy” we collaborate to share goods that we already have, when we do not need them: from rooms, houses, cars and bikes, to appliances, drills, or even dogs (in BorrowMyDoggy ). Of course, borrowing, lending and doing small favours are not new phenomena. What is new is the scale in which these can now take place. The new online social networking platforms allow exchanges not only between friends and neighbours, but between complete strangers, from different parts of the world.

As with everything new under capitalism, creation brings destruction. The new economy is disrupting existing industries. Last June, London grinded to a halt by a strike held by 10 thousand taxi drivers who demonstrated with their vehicles on the city centre against Uber, whose low prices are threatening to put them out of business. In theory, Uber drivers were supposed to be everyday people who decide to make an extra buck by taking a passenger with them in their rides. In reality, most drivers are former taxi drivers who are exploiting the legal gap and drive without having to pay for insurance or for a license.

For similar reasons, in New York or San Francisco, hoteliers accuse AirBnb of unfair competition. Its hosts do not pay municipal taxes, do not have to meet expensive safety regulations, and can operate wherever they want, and outside the zones set out by planning authorities for tourism activities.

It is hard to sympathize with taxi drivers or hoteliers, or lament that the prices of these, often overpriced, services are going down as a result of the “sharing economy”. However, there is a deeper issue at stake here. Laws and regulations exist for a reason. Municipal taxes finance the public infrastructure that is then used by tourists. Planning authorities limit the number of “room to let” or the taxis in a city, because otherwise life can become unbearable for the inhabitants of the city.

I have many friends in Barcelona who have experienced a total transformation of their apartment blocks, suddenly finding themselves alone within AirBnb rentals, unable to sleep from the parties of weekend travelers. Rental prices in the centre of Barcelona are sky-rocketing, as owners find it more profitable to rent on AirBnb than hold long-term leases. New “entrepreneurs” bid prices up, renting apartments that they then sublet at AirBnb.
Zoning restrictions for new hotels was a key site of struggle for Barcelona´s neighbourhoods’ movements. But all this has become now irrelevant by the unregulated avalanche of AirBnb houses popping up literally everywhere and changing the form and composition of the city.

Regulatory authorities are slowly catching up. In Barcelona, municipal authorities fined AirBnb with the symbolic sum of €30 thousand for advertising apartments that did not have rental permits. After a public backlash against unregulated rentals in the neighbourhood of Barceloneta this August, with spontaneous citizens´ protests, the municipality has started a door-to-door check, closing down rented apartments that lack a permit. In New York, authorities have begun evicting people who sublet apartments that do not belong to them, whereas in San Francisco authorities file lawsuits against short-term rentals that violate the law.

AirBnb, and other companies such as Uber, which have come under the attention of regulators respond that over-legislation is threatening to kill innovation at its birth. If, in order to rent out a room or give a ride, one has to get a license like a hotel or a taxi, then this becomes an economically impossible proposition.

AirBnb is running a huge advertising campaign in New York , reminding New Yorkers the benefits it offers to them, not least income. Mobilizing their so-called “communities”, companies like AirBnb or Uber are organizing counter-protests, involving their users. This discourse of “community” and “sharing” is instrumental not only for mobilizing people in regulatory battles, under the guise of a romantic battle for a different economy, but is also essential in building up a case, that these ventures are not like any other capitalist venture, and therefore merit a different treatment from the regulators.

The case for a special treatment by regulators seems weak, if one considers other factors. First, AirBnb itself is a capitalistic corporation like any other, valued at $10 billion. Its profits – dozens of millions today- are forecast to reach an estimated $1 billion per year in the coming years. AirBnb is a company with only 600 employees, with relatively low costs (related to software development and operation), but with a potentially huge market under its reach.

This is a company that can potentially control the global market for short-term rentals, charging a 10-15% commission in each and every exchange. Online social networks are not only bringing people from faraway together, but also are creating global markets, where only local segmented markets existed before. The profits from these markets are astronomical unlike anything a real estate agent would ever dream of and concentrate in the pockets of a few entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, a concentration with probably precedent in history. Tellingly, but somewhat exaggeratingly, this has led some to call companies like AirBnb, a “mafia of intermediaries”.

Second, most of the transactions taking place under AirBnb are pure rentals, involving money. It is a euphemism to call them “sharing” and hence argue that they should not be regulated or taxed. They are normal economic transactions. Where is the sharing in renting at AirBnb, and why is it “peer-to-peer” when you rent at AirBnb but not when you rent in the rental market?

In the rental economy of AirBnb a whole suit of small scale intermediaries are popping up, from those who rent houses and then sublet them through AirBnb, to companies who take care of everything that needs to be done for renting your house at AirBnb (from furnishing it, to managing the listing), for a cut on the deal. It’s one thing to host someone in your home with the prospect of someday being hosted in theirs too, as is the case with Couchsurfing , or to exchange your home, as in HomeExchange (in both cases without the mediation of money), and another one to rent or pay to rent.

Third, and worse of all, under a rhetoric guise of “sharing”, websites like AirBnb or Uber are creating a new informal economy of uninsured workers whose entire life is up for rent, from cars and homes, to their own hands available to perform chores for a fee in sites like “taskrabbit ”. Entire professions – cab drivers, cleaners etc- are passing in this way into a new black economy- unregulated, tax free and uninsured. And instead of (or alongside) the much-touted socialization and community, the result is the commodification of the final shreds of social life that had remained outside the economy.

Everything now is available to rent, at the right price; from empty rooms to an unused frying pan. Nothing any more is available for free. Hosting a friend at your house has an “opportunity cost”, eroding the value of hospitality.

The rental economy of AirBnb is not the same as the real sharing economy of urban gardens, time banks or couchsurfing, where users truly share their work, their resources and their assets, without the intermediation of money, and crucially without profit. The rental economy is the inevitable, within capitalism, commodified version of the sharing economy. As the crisis opened opportunities for new forms of mutual aid and sharing, enterprises such as AirBnb saw the opportunity to monetise them and profit.

As for the environment, I am not sure that leaving nothing idle is good for the environment. The “sharing economy” mobilizes and puts everything into circulation, retaining at all costs an unsustainable consumption model. Not my view of a sustainable future.

In conclusion: AirBnb is a rental intermediary. It is a capitalistic enterprise like any other and a very innovative and successful one in that. It should be treated, regulated, zoned and taxed as such. The same applies for those who profit from it. Exemptions could be made for those who do not use it professionally or do not make money from it (this can easily be ascertained by the frequency, duration and value of the services offered as the websites document everything).

Renting is not sharing: it should be regulated and taxed.”


Posted in P2P Public Policy, Sharing | No Comments »

How Land Property Is Tied To Inequality: the UK example

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th October 2014

This article on land and wealth originally proposed for New Start magazine in the UK, in October 2014, by Robin Murray:

” In Britain in 1700 agricultural land accounted for three fifths of all wealth. Land and its rents were the source of power and the pre-occupation of politics. Until the mid 19th century they remained so – in Parliament, in literature as in political economy. The franchise was based on landed property holdings. Jane Austin’s characters assessed their mutual prospects in terms of their annual rent rolls. The economist, David Ricardo, argued that land rent and its stranglehold on industrial growth was the primary economic problem. His focus was not was on the returns to a landlord’s investment on his estates but rather on the growing proportion of his returns that came from his control over the land itself – the so-called ground rent.

By the time of the First World War, the long dominance of the great landed estates was largely over. Their power had been challenged by the new industrial, financial and labour interests. Agricultural land fell to less than 5% of all wealth, and today is less than 1%. The great 18th and 19th questions of enclosures, land rents and rural depopulation have now been shifted to the countries with large peasant populations in the South.

In the North, the land issue has re-appeared in a different form. In the UK as in France, while wealth is partly held in stocks and shares, three fifths of it is now in housing. In both countries the rack rents paid by the tenant farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries now take the form of mortgage payments and urban rents paid largely by their descendants. For many people today housing accounts for as much as a third of their disposable income. Housing and the land on which it stands now has the same significance in wealth and inequality as rural land in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thanks to the remarkable work of the economist of the moment Thomas Piketty, we can trace the continuities in the concentration of wealth. In 1810 the top 10% owned 80% of the wealth in the UK. In 2010 the figure was still 70%. The common factor has been the concentrated ownership of land. Land is tied to inequality like the shirt of Nessus.

* Land and speculation

The link between them is partly direct. Tenants pay landlords rent. But now it is also through finance. Finance and landed property are like partners in an economic dance. Of the £540 billion gross lending in Britain in 2013, a third was for domestic mortgages. A further 30% was to businesses, in which the leading sector was real estate companies. Other companies commonly use their real estate as security for the banks. A full £180 billion of British banks debts were held against commercial property.

In Britain, land and its rents have been financialised. They now serve as a store of value, a source of capital income, and are the primary security for the financial system. They are also an object of speculation.
As became clear in the collapse of 2007/8, easy money had led to a property bubble. It was a bubble based on fictitious expectations about the future value of land rents. In the post crash policy debates the focus has been on the pyramid of financial instruments that the banks developed on the basis of mortgages (so-called derivatives). Little attention has been paid to the source of the problem – the very existence and control of ground rent itself.

* Reclaiming rent

Land by its nature is scarce. A site in Mayfair cannot be reproduced like a pair of shoes. The monopoly rent it commands plays no productive role. It acts as a private tax on the productive economy. The question has always been what can be done about it.

The first approach has been tax, from the French Revolution onwards. In modern Britain there have been three successful attempts by post 2nd world war Labour governments to tax the increases in ground rent (the so called betterment). They all faced the problems that land and wealth taxes have always met with: regular and accurate assessment, evasion, exceptions, and strong political opposition. All three Labour initiatives (in 1947, 1967 and 1976) were quickly repealed by incoming Tory governments. Some forms of property tax have survived, notably Council taxes and stamp duty, but none have tamed the tiger of property speculation.

The second approach has been to socialise ground rent. The Prussian state, with its great patrimonial estates and public railway developments, were so successful in this that they could keep tax rates close to zero. In the UK successive governments used compulsory purchasing powers to take over land, primarily to limit the land costs of state infrastructural investment. By 1980 this has grown to be a large public bank of land that was removed from the mainstream land market.

In the past thirty years the tide has turned. Privatisation, the sale of council houses, the funding of budgetary deficits by property sales, have all returned a substantial part of public land to the forces of the private market.

* Community ownership

An alternative current – limited by the 20th century predominance of the state – has been the expansion of the social economy. Land reform in Scotland has seen whole islands returned to the ownership of their inhabitants. Throughout Britain there has been an expansion of co-operative housing. Councils in England and Wales have transferred the ownership of public housing to their tenants ‘in common’. There has been a remarkable growth of community land trusts – 170 to date in Britain, 300 in the USA.

The most ambitious of these projects is an old one. Letchworth Garden City is over 100 years old. It is based on the principle of the community ownership of the freehold, so that any increase in ground rent could be enjoyed by the town’s citizens in common. Today, though Labour’s 1967 Leasehold Reform Act meant that many residents bought their freeholds, the town still collectively owns the industrial and commercials freeholds. It receives £7 million a year, with which it funds a day hospital, a museum, a public cinema, extensive parks and a great variety of activities.

Ebenezer Howard’s Letchworth is co-operative and ecological in its inspiration. It provides model for the reclaiming of the control of land as a platform for the diverse inventiveness of its leaseholders. The recent winners of the Wolfson Economics Prize for the design of new garden cities have adopted Howard’s principles of a common freehold, and shown how the developmental value of the ground rent in a new garden city would be sufficient to fund all necessary infrastructure. They also identify forty sites in England where such cities could be developed. The development of garden cities is now supported by all three main political parties. Similar support should be given to the rapid expansion of community land trusts.

* Reversing enclosure

The Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, writing in the shadow of the Great Depression and the Second World War, insisted that land, like labour and money, could not be treated like any other commodity. When they have been, society has been in danger of falling apart. The speculative turbulence of the current private land market, and the concentration of land ownership by the top 10%, bear out his argument. To resolve the current housing crisis, to tame the financial tiger and to curb the ever growing inequality that eats like an acid into our common bonds, now calls for a major initiative: to reclaim the freehold of Britain’s land for the public and the social realms.”


Posted in P2P Hierarchy Theory, Peer Property | No Comments »

Video of the Day: 3 hacks for a resource-based economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd October 2014

From the notes to the video:

The Zeitgeist Movement Ecuador invited Michel Bauwens to talk about a possible transition towards a Resource-based economic model and the “hacks” he proposes to achieve this (edited to include English audio only).

Michel Bauwens:

In this video I explain how, through the Commons-Based Reciprocity License, one can create an ethical entrepreurial coalition which co-produces commons, and which can, through the adoption of open book accounting and shared open logistics, move the ‘stigmergic’ mutual coordination which already exists for the production of immaterial goods (knowledge, code, design), to physical production itself.

This is a quote from our latest book, ‘Network Society and Four Scenarios for the Collaborative Economy‘, which touches on that issue:

“Through the ethical economy surrounding the Commons, by contrast, it becomes possible to create non-commodified production and exchange. We thus envision a resource-based economy which would utilize stigmergic mutual coordination through the gradual application of open book accounting and open supply chain. We believe that there will be no qualitative phase transition merely through emergence, but that it will require the reconstitution of powerful political and social movements which aim to become a democratic polis. And that democratic polis could indeed, through democratic decisions, accelerate the transition. It could take measures that obligate private economic forces to include externalities, thereby ending infinite capital accumulation.”


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Events, Featured Content, Featured Video, Original Content, P2P Foundation, P2P Subjectivity, Politics | No Comments »

Going beyond platform capitalism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd October 2014

“By controlling their ecosystems, platforms create a stage on which every economic transaction can be turned into an auction. Nothing minimizes cost better than an auction – including the cost of labour. That’s why labour is the crucial societal aspect of platform capitalism. It is exactly here that we will have to decide whether to harness the enormous advantages of platform capitalism and the sharing economy or to create a ‘dumping market’ where the exploited amateurs only have the function to push professional prices down.”

Excerpted from sebastian olma, who analyzes the sharing economy for what it is, platform capitalism (or as we call it at the p2p foundation: netarchical capitalism):

“Sascha Lobo, a German technology blogger for Der Spiegel, has recently suggested to drop the obscure notion of “sharing” altogether. “What is called sharing economy,” he argues, “is merely one aspect of a more general development, i.e., a new quality of the the digital economy: platform capitalism.” As Lobo emphasizes, platforms like Uber and AirBnB are more than just internet marketplaces. While marketplaces connect supply and demand between customers and companies, digital platforms connect customers to whatever. The platform is a generic ‘ecosystem’ able to link potential customers to anything and anyone, from private individuals to multinational corporations. Everyone can become a supplier for all sorts of products and services at the click of a button. This is the real innovation that companies of the platform capitalism variety have introduced. Again, this is miles away from sharing but instead represents an interesting mutation of the economic system due to the application of digital technology.

It should be clear that understanding the “sharing economy” in terms of platform capitalism is by no means a matter of linguistic nitpicking. Calling this crucial development by its proper name is an important step towards a more sober assessment of the claims made by the proponents of “sharing.” Take, for instance, the notion that everyone benefits from the disruptive force of the “sharing economy” because it cuts out the middleman. Sharing models, the argument goes, facilitate a more direct exchange between economic agents, thus eliminating the inefficient middle layers and making market exchange simpler and fairer. While it is absolutely true that internet marketplaces and digital platforms can reduce transaction costs, the claim that they cut out the middleman is pure fantasy. As one blogger puts it: “Sure, many of the old middlemen and retailers disappear but only to be replaced by much more powerful gatekeepers.”

In fact, the argument is quite an obscene one, particularly if it is made by the stakeholders of platform capitalism themselves. As globally operating digital platforms, these companies have the unique ability to cut across many regional markets and reconfigure traditionally specific markets for goods and services as generic customer-to-whatever ‘ecosystems’. It seems fairly obvious that the entire purpose of the platform business model is to reach a monopoly position, as this enables the respective platform to set and control the (considerably lower) standards upon which someone (preferably anyone) could become a supplier in the respective market. Instead of cutting out the middleman, digital platforms have the inherent tendency to become veritable Über-middlemen, i.e., monopolies with an unprecedented control over the markets they themselves create. In fact, calling these customer-to-whatever ecosystems “markets” often turns out to be a bit of a joke. For the clients of Uber & Co., price is not the result of the free play of supply and demand but of specific algorithms supposedly simulating the market mechanism. The effect of such algorithmic tampering with the market is demonstrated for instance by Uber’s surge pricing during periods of peak demand. It is not very difficult to see where this might be leading. Taking a cab to the hospital in, say, New York City during a snow storm might become unaffordable for some under conditions of mature platform capitalism. For those who believe this to be overly pessimistic and a bit of an exaggeration, just ask your local taxi driver what percentage of her work is already coming from one of the digital platforms.

As Sacha Lobo puts it succinctly:

“By controlling their ecosystems, platforms create a stage on which every economic transaction can be turned into an auction. Nothing minimizes cost better than an auction – including the cost of labour. That’s why labour is the crucial societal aspect of platform capitalism. It is exactly here that we will have to decide whether to harness the enormous advantages of platform capitalism and the sharing economy or to create a ‘dumping market’ where the exploited amateurs only have the function to push professional prices down.”

I agree. The basis for such a decision needs to be a proper understanding of the reality of platform capitalism. The anger we have seen over the last few months directed against the “sharing economy” has a lot to do with the utterly unsubstantial claims and stories that are constantly churned out by the marketing machine of platform capitalism. Take John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, who told Wired earlier this year that the sharing economy bestows on us the gift of a revived community spirit. Referring to his visit to the Oglala Sioux reservation, he writes: “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt. We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.” No question, the pompous impertinence of this comparison is truly breathtaking. And yet, neither is this kind of rhetorical gymnastics the exception in the sharing-scene nor does it come unmotivated.

Noam Scheiber of the New Republic explains the rationale behind the obscenities of Zimmer (and his kind) with great lucidity :

“For-profit “sharing” represents by far the fastest-growing source of un- and under-regulated commercial activity in the country. Calling it the modern equivalent of an ancient tribal custom is a rather ingenious rationale for keeping it that way. After all, if you’re a regulator, it’s easy to crack down on the commercial use of improperly zoned and insured property. But what kind of knuckle-dragger would crack down on making friends?”


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Economy and Business, Sharing | No Comments »

How to craft a collaborative economy for the 99%

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
22nd October 2014

Faircoop _

Towards a second wave of world-changing hacks

In recent years, the collaborative economy has been growing exponentially , reaching a stage of co-dependency with the emerging new forms of the for-profit economy, which we have described in our recent book, ‘Network Society and Four Scenarios for the Collaborative Economy‘. The new ‘netarchical’ (= net-archy, the hierachy of the network) form of capital, is no longer investing in its own production through the hiring of labour, and making products that it sells on the market, but, as Google, Facebook and other platform owners show, is directly capturing profits from the free cooperation and contributions of the 99%. While it may seem a good thing for users that platforms are being built ‘for free’, or that buyers an sellers can directly connect with each other for a fee, it is also very problematic as it creates a deep value crisis, not just for the increasingly precarious workforce, but also for capitalism itself. Indeed, how can we imagine a successful capitalism, that produces products that it can no longer sell, because an increasing number of contributors are no longer paid for their value creation ? Thus today, after an increasing exodus of especially young people out of the system of paid labor for capital, the social tensions are not just between salaried labor and capital, but increasingly, between peer producers and netarchical platform owners.

The search for alternatives is on, and more and more citizens and young knowledge workers are looking to build an alternative economy where they can make a livelihood around their contributions to the shared commons that are the heart of the new economy. Obviously, this new ‘hacker’ working class has its own approaches, that are very different from the traditional labor movement, and often takes the form of ‘hacks’, i.e. subversive tweaks to the existing system which hijack a system for contrary purposes.

The most famous hack was of course the hack that created the open and shared knowledge economy itself, and which has now reached, according to the Fair Use economy report, one-sixth of GDP in the U.S. alone. This hack, by Richard Stallman and others, took the form of licenses that used the very enclosures of knowledge facilitated by Intellectual Property legislation, to free knowledge, code and design. Through the General Public License, massive commons of shared knowledge was created, creating huge economic streams around it. However, this hack has created a paradoxical effect. Indeed, the more shareable the commons, the more capitalistic the economy which is built around it. Thus the Linux economy is at least 75% commercial, and dominated by large firms such as IBM. So, in this co-dependency between netarchical capital and the commons, we have a ‘communism’ of capital, in which the use value created by the commoners creates exchange value for the private for-profit economy. Is there an alternative to this ‘liberal communism’? Is there a new hack on the horizon?

We believe there is, and this requires a new type of license, which are no longer fully shareable licenses, but licenses based on ‘stronger’ reciprocity. Thus, along with others, we have proposed ‘Commons-based Reciprocity Licenses’, which are open for use by common good institutions, nonprofits, and for-profits that contribute, but ask for license fees or other contributions from for-profits that do no contribute back to the commons. The first iteration of such a license is the ‘Peer Production License’, already in use by the P2P Foundation, Guerilla Translation, and other P2P economy entities, and which was developed by ‘venture communist’ Dmytri Kleiner.

A second great historical hack is of course the hack of currency. As an alternative to the nationally sovereign currencies whose compound interest requirements are destroying our economies, the non-interest based Bitcoin cryptocurrency was developed, which can be peer produced by participating computers (‘mining’), has an open source code, and a thriving global hacker community to support it. However, Bitcoin is also a hyper-capitalist currency, with a higher inequality coefficient than sovereign money, mmonopolized mining, and a deflationary design which leads to rent extraction of newcomers by early adopters. Hence, Bitcoin will be mostly a tool for netarchical capital as well, enriching a new elite within the hacker class. Here also, we need to hack the first hack, just as we needed to do with the GPL. Thus the initiative of fair.coop, a global network instituted by the Catalonia Integral Cooperative, in cooperation with the P2P Foundation and others, to institute the first global cryptocurrency for the commons. Fair.coop uses the rent extraction model of cryptocurrencies, by buying up a failed egalitarian bitcoin fork, called Faircoin, but gifts this currency to a global coalition of open cooperatives, i.e. cooperatives and other ethical enterprises that create positive externalities and co-produce commons, creating livelihoods for the commoners. On the basis of the increasing market value of Faircoin, a commons-supporting capital currency is created, on top of which interest mutual credit systems will be built, supported by commons-based collateral.

There are just two of the main hacks1 that are being developed to create leverage for an emerging prefigurative commons economy, and offers an alternative to the hyper-extractive netarchical model.

The first wave of hacks was radically liberal, it is time for a second wave, where the values of equity and fairness are added to the core value of freedom, liberating commons-oriented peer production from its capture by netarchical capital.


1(At the P2P Foundation, we use Loomio software to hack hierarchical governance and are looking at new models like the Fairshares model to hack property models)


Posted in Cooperatives, Copyright/IP, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Money, Peer Property | 4 Comments »

Towards Blockchain Companies

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
20th October 2014

Excerpted from John Robb:

“A blockchain company isn’t like any company you know.

It’s not run organically (it doesn’t have faux person-hood). It doesn’t have CEO, COO or effing board of directors. It doesn’t go to a fund or a bank for funding. It never floats an issue on Wall Street. Blockchain companies don’t need all of that legal cruft and the parasitic overhead that comes with it.

The entire company is simply open source software. It’s built to provide a function and divide up the rewards of providing that function to the participants.

A company like this runs as software, in the same way bitcoin is run: decentralized. That means the company doesn’t pivot, reorganize, or recapitalize. It either provides a useful function it gets paid to do, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, it is replaced by a new company that does it better.

A blockchain company doesn’t have shares of stock. Everything that it earns is paid to the people in possession of the companies coin on a pro rata basis (using the blockchain currency of choice). Ownership is simply a call on this revenue, and all it is paid out in real time.

Earning a blockchain company’s coin is done by the company’s participants. You can earn coin doing everything from providing cloud services to doing the same types of stuff you already do online (writing, rating, and curating). There are ways to measure all of this and connect these activities to revenue.

Investment, to the extent it is needed to launch a venture is crowdsourced, usually by prepurchasing goods and services to be delivered in the future.

A blockchain company doesn’t need Silicon Valley, Wall Street or Washington.

It just needs to be open, decentralized, and useful enough to suck value out of the old economy.”


Posted in Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, P2P Business Models, P2P Governance | No Comments »

Tiziana Terranova reports on Social Network Unionism Strategies in Europe

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
20th October 2014

(via the networked labour mailing list; version without notes; this article introduces some new developments in p2p-driven labor strategies)

Tiziana Terranova:

“Over the past few years, European social movements have struggled to find new ways of cooperating and connecting in order to oppose the verticalization of European governance. Following the crash of 2008, in fact, a regime of austerity, that is severe cuts to public spending, has gone together with a remodulation of modes of welfare and work inspired by the German model. This model has seen the massive introduction of part-time, badly paid jobs (the so called *mini-jobs* ) which are part of a system of workfare where the state makes sure that everybody is forced to accept whatever job available through a new capillary control of recipients? lives. While the European Central Bank like the Federal Reserve has deployed quantitative easing, and inundated the financial system with money, none of this has effectively gone into the creation of new jobs, into expanding credit to consumers and business or to essential public services. The process of complete precarization of labor and increasing accumulation of wealth is thus unfolding along the lines of a geographical and ethnic division of labor which sees the European Union divided between centre and periphery, North and South, East and West with war pressing in on its Eastern and Southern borders.

The verticalization of European governance has thus reinforced a whole series of trends: “the attack on waged labor, the compression of union rights, the dequalification and privatisation of learning and research, the enclosure of common goods, a new government of labor mobility and the exploitation of migrant labor” (http://www.autistici.org/strikemeeting/). These considerations are central to the formation of a transnational space of action for social movements aiming to reverse the tide of complete neoliberalization of Europe and opening onto the global level as the only adequate dimension of struggle.

At the core of the summer school of the Euronomade free university network which took place in Passignano sul Trasimeno, Italy in September 2014 was the relation between this crucial importance of the geopolitical dimension in the unfolding of financial command over the productive cycle and new forms of unionism. The traditional trade unions have in fact proven themselves completely unable to answer new demands emerging out of a dispersed and individualized workforce which is no longer primarily assembled in factories (or only in the most transient form with high turnover of workers) but, as Stefano Harney has argued, through the expansion of the assembly-line by means of a generalized logistical infrastucture through the whole of society and across all geographical borders. It is in this context that what was once called peer production has become effectively integrated in the *keizen *line of logistics: synaptic labor performed under the mode of forced continous improvement spurred by performance metrics and analytics. (Harney 2014)

In a document authored by the Pisa-based Italian collective exploit directed at the usual technology hype of the Internet Festival 2014, the appeal of the mythology of the digital entrepreneurs has also been shown to be fading (eXploit 2014). While the latter continue to espouse the image of the Internet as a revolution induced by free market capitalism able to welcome new ideas and reward them with wealth while promoting social progress, it has in fact produced new monopolies and the progressive deterioriation of working and living conditions for the many. This is evident at all three levels of exploitation enacted by the digital economy as summarized by exploit: the material infrastructure of digital devices which is increasingly under the control of large multinational corporations mining minerals in Africa and able to outsource production where labor is less paid and protected; the immaterial level of software production, web services and crowdsourcing where labor is once again ever more precarious, underpaid and fragmented; and the large market in metadata which extracts value out of the most mundane acts of digital communication. This scenario postulates a “extractivist” model of accumulation where the inorganic, organic and the social strata are put to work, that is commanded and forced to yield surplus value, expressing new challenges and demanding new strategies. As the eXploit collective put it, the collective ?rewriting of the operating system? of the digital economy and the “breakdown of the rules of the market” appear as primary condition to reconquer that share of wealth produced by social cooperation but appropriated and controlled by the few.

The main challenge of organizing a labor force which unfolds throughout society and according to intermittent times lies in the strong individualisation of cognitive labor: “cognitive labor is labor without factories, as fixed place of exploitation and class recomposition which makes more difficult the formation of a class consciousness among cognitive workers. For the same reason? because of the temporal fusion between time of work and time of life, the old forms of blocking production are obsolete, if not impossible: the time of work is diffuse, not demarcated, and there is no factory as site of direct action”. This is the space of production that traditional trade unions are unable to organize as they have proceeded to become co-managers of the crisis and of the productive process within the boundaries of individual firms (as again in the German model). It is not by chance, maybe, that the only successful union struggles that have managed to achieve their goals have been those carried out by workers operating in the crucial sector of logistics. IKEA, Amazon and the Italian coop system have been hit by a wave of strikes organized by logistical workers who have been able to deploy the solidarity which emerges out of working physically together in the same space everyday with a successful reconstruction of the topology of the whole network of valorization. Maybe being aware of being part of the speculative logistical assembly-line of continuous performance improvement is an advantage in this configuration. Research discussed at the summer school about the strike of Amazon logistical workers in Germany have pointed out the importance of the “existential” dimension in triggering participation: the feeling of being a cog in the machine, of not having an input in the process constituted one of the factors which distinguished workers who joined the strike from those who didn’t.

As an answer to these challenges, Alberto De Nicola and Biagio Quadrocchi, have proposed to redeploy the tradition of “social unionism” as a way to ?connect the different experiences of struggle which, within and outside organized unions, oppose the blockage of social conlifct and the pacifying role of traditional forms of union? (De Nicola and Quattrocchi 2014). The effort goes into thinking of a common name able to account for the “proliferation of dispositifs of struggle” which are reconfiguring the form of the union pointing to the invention of a new “form of unionism”. As in the tradition of social unionism, the urgency is how to reconnect various experiences of struggles which have sedimented over the: the experiences of occupation of social spaces and houses, conflicts around a democratic reappropriation of welfare and the diffusion of new mutualisms and forms of organization of autonomous and precarious labor, demand a better connection. The use of the term ?social unionism? applied to practices which do not recognize themselves as such is meant to produce a new perspective able to connect these experiences. De Nicola and Quattrocchi deploy the term “social” in social unionism as a means to indicate the level of connection breaking through the dispositifs of “confinement” which have kept these experiences as separate instances.

The concept of “social unionism” has been rediscovered in militant milieus at the same time as its first practical implementation was deviced and launched: the ?social strike? called for by a network of activists who met for three days in Rome in September 2014 (Italians, but also French, Greek, German, Spain and Portugal) which is going to unfold through a series of events in view of the first official date of November the 15th 2014 (Strike Meeting 2014). The platform of the strike composes all the instances emerging out of the world of :work and education, of not-work and social cooperation”. The platform is crucially centered on the demands for a “new welfare” or “welfare of the common”: the right to housing, an income unlinked from waged work, a European minimum wage, free access to education, rejection of the subjection of the school and university system to the logic of the enterprise?. The notion of a *commonfare* which would not only guarantee a minimum income, but also able to refound the old institution of welfare around a process of co-production where services are no longer delivered but co-produced is crucial in the domains of health and education provision, but also housing, management of natural resources, and insurance. The social strike proposes to be a permanent experiment of invention and diffusion of forms of strikes that can be practiced also by those who cannot strike according to the traditional model: the unemployed, the precarious, the domestic worker, the crowdworker, the migrant without official documents. It thus aims to redeploy, reconnect and invent all forms of strike: ?the general strike of waged labor, the strategies of blockages and occupation experimented by precarious workers and urban dwellers, the strike of those who cannot strike, netstrikes, strikes within the spaces of education, the gender strike A kaleidoscope of practices to patiently construct through a series of territorial strike labs? (Strike Meeting 2014)

The social strike launched in September crucially includes the “digital strike” as one of its components. The importance of social networks in organizing, connecting and amplifying various struggles is undeniable, but with the years we have witnessed a growing awareness of the ways in which the social Internet has been reconfigured to become a space which operates according to a logic of security, working often in tandem with mainstream media to marginalize activists. During the BlockBCE event – which was also included in the series of events composing the social strike as permanent mobilization and which saw a rally of activists contesting the meeting of the European Central Bank in Naples, Italy – mainstream media and Facebook for example worked together to marginalize and contain the risk of contagion. This was not an intentional effect, wanted by and aimed for, as much as the result of a kind of automatic logic of security as it permeates both public discourse and communication technologies. The production of ?toxic narratives? and ?order words? by the media, the construction of activists as violent extremists, the action of police on the ground who pressured citizens and shopkeepers to close and keep indoors for the duration of the rally, are the first side of the double pincer attempting to block the generalization of the social strike, containing it as a kind of contagion. The second side of the pincer is the algorithmic calculation that reinforces and modulates the tendency of social networks to decompose into sub-networks, where most acts of communication fail to expand beyond a close numbers of related contacts and the diffuse sense of surveillance which as even corporate-funded research acknowledges produces a kind of new conformism on the Internet, a fear of ending up in the wrong database (Crawford 2014) . If the rally in Naples against the European Central Bank managed to break the siege that wanted activists to march alone in an empty city to perform a ritualized clash able to provide suitable images for the media by changing route and marching through the city, collecting solidarity and encouragement on the way, other strategies need to be deviced to break the circle that confines the social strike event within social network platforms.

The social strike launched in Rome in September has started experimenting with some strategies to break this process of marginalization on the Internet: the design of standardized but customizable images to be used as profile pics on social networks was one such level; the second was the twitter campaign launched on the 10th of october during the strike of students and of the school sector which pushed the hashtag #socialstrike to the rank of second highest trending topic. In the future, as part of the permanent laboratorial character of the social strike, new tactics could be experimented and redeployed: Anonymous-style Denial of Service Attacks, but also experimentation with hyper-popular forms of social network culture such as personality tests, games, viral links factories etc. The digital strike can thus become a new form of strike able to work synergetically with a long-term process of expansion and remodulation of strike tactics in a social unionism framework. The logic of social unionism, linking territorial labs and digital networks, posing together the establishment of long-term sites of elaboration of tactics and strategies, physical and digital action, carries the struggle of labor on that field of indistinction where work and life, digital and physical merge.”


Posted in P2P Labor, P2P Movements, P2P Theory, Politics | No Comments »

P2P Theory: The War of Maneuver vs War of Position

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th October 2014

“Politics isn’t, first and foremost, a matter of making allegations and raising awareness; there is no one straw that breaks the camel’s back, and what’s bad can be tolerated indefinitely. Instead, it is a sort of shedding of the skin, by which we become sensitive to this or allergic to that. Nor has it much to do with convincing (discourse), or seducing (marketing), but rather with opening all sorts of spaces to experience another way of living, another definition of reality, another vision of the world. In the struggle for hegemony, the skin – yours, mine, everyone’s – is the battlefield.”

It seems to me that the p2p transition is mostly a ‘war of position’, see below for the explanation of Gramsci’s theory on this.

Excerpted from Amador Fernández-Savater:

“Gramsci enters the debate making a distinction between a “war of maneuver” and a “war of position”. The concept of class struggle as war, described in military strategy terms, was prevalent in the Marxism of the time. What’s more, Gramsci was writing from Mussolini’s prison, and continually obliged to come up with new metaphors to evade censorship. Paradoxically, his use of cryptic and elusive language, rather than classical Marxist vocabulary, made Gramsci’s work a thousand times more useful as a source of inspiration for future readers.

Okay, so, the key features of the “war of maneuver” are: speed, limited appeal, and frontal attack. Gramsci makes his arguments via Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”, George Sorels’ general strike, Rosa Luxembourg´s worker insurrection and, particularly, the Leninist power grab. These images of revolutionary change clash, time and again, with European and Western reality: the bloody repression of the Spartacist movement in Germany (1918), the disbanding of worker’s councils in Italy during the Bienno Rosso (1919-20), and so on. To avert a predictable sense of frustration and to keep actively aspiring to social change, we have to reimagine revolution.

Writing behind bars, Gramsci reflects that the war of maneuver can only succeed where society is relatively independent from the State, and civil society (ie., institutions interrelated with State power: justice, media, etc.) is basic and unstructured, as was the case in Russia. By contradiction, Western Europe’s civil society was extremely solid, and acted as an “entrenchment and fortification to protect social order. It seems as if economic catastrophe has decisively breached the enemy position, but this remains a superficial effect, for behind it lies an efficient line of defense”.

Gramsci critiques the “historical mysticism” (revolution as a miraculous enlightenment) and economic determinism (the supposition that economic collapse will trigger the revolutionary process) and posits a new strategy, an alternate image for social transformation: the “war of position”. The defining feature of the war of position is the affirmation and development of a new vision of the world. Each of our daily actions, according to Gramsci, holds an implicit vision (or philosophy) of the world. Revolution disseminates a new vision – along with other expressions – of the world that slowly leaks power away from the old vision to, finally, displace it. This process is described by Gramsci as the “construction of hegemony”. No power will last long without hegemony, without control of the expressions of everyday life. It’d be domination sans legitimacy, power reduced to pure repression and fear. The taking of power must, therefore, be preceded by a “taking” of civil society.”

Thus, the war of position, unlike the war of maneuver, is more an infiltration than an assault. A slow displacement, rather than an accumulation of forces. A collective and anonymous movement, rather than a minority and centralised operation. A form of indirect, everyday and diffuse pressure, rather than a concentrated and simultaneous insurrection (but, make no mistake, Gramsci doesn’t exclude insurrection at any stage, but subordinates it to the construction of hegemony). And, above all, based on the building and development of a new definition of reality. This, as explained in the words of the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis as “what counts and what doesn’t count, what makes sense and what doesn’t, a definition not inscribed in books, but on the very being of things: the actions of human beings, their relations, their organization, their perception of what is, their affirmation and search for what counts, the materiality of the objects they produce, use and consume”.

Politics isn’t, first and foremost, a matter of making allegations and raising awareness; there is no one straw that breaks the camel’s back, and what’s bad can be tolerated indefinitely. Instead, it is a sort of shedding of the skin, by which we become sensitive to this or allergic to that. Nor has it much to do with convincing (discourse), or seducing (marketing), but rather with opening all sorts of spaces to experience another way of living, another definition of reality, another vision of the world. In the struggle for hegemony, the skin – yours, mine, everyone’s – is the battlefield.”

Two Examples: Christianity and the Enlightenment

To illustrate his argument for another idea of revolution, Gramsci offers two examples: Christianity and the Enlightenment. It’s quite curious: he utilizes a religious reform and an intellectual overhaul as models to conceptualise the political revolution he longs for. In both examples, the determining catalyst of change is a new definition of reality.

In the case of Christianity, it’s the idea that Christ has resurrected and there is life after death. Christianity coalesces around this “good news” that filters through every crack left behind by the old pagan world. The interesting feature is that the first Christians avoided power. Instead, their actions ultimately led power to come to them, as exemplified by the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century A.D. The lesson of the first Christians would be: don’t fight directly for power, be the message-bearer of a new concept of the world, and, finally, the power shall fall (into your hands).

In the case of the Enlightenment, it’s the idea that all persons are of equal worth, as beings gifted with reason. The Enlightenment was the movement that spread this idea, in salons, clubs or encyclopediae. In the end, remarks Gramsci, once the French Revolution actually took place, it had already be won. Domination has no legitimacy because this new concept of the world has silently displaced the old, overtaking the powers of the Old Regime without them even noticing. The lesson from the Enlightened would be: the revolution is won before the revolution takes place, through the elaboration and expansion of a new image of the world.

These are the examples mentioned by Gramsci, who died in prison in 1937. But the 20th century has surely offered us other examples much closer to our own experience. Take, for example, the Gay Rights Movement. A movement both seen and unseen, formal and informal, political and cultural, that completely transforms the common perception regarding affective and sexual differences and goes on to effect legislative change. Or the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that the irresistible strength of the movement resided in overcoming the deeply internalised feelings of inferiority by confronting the opponents as equals (in civil disobedience campaigns, for example). An uprising in dignity that spurred modifications in the laws of the land.”

Translated by Stacco Troncoso, edited by Jane Loes Lipton


Posted in P2P Theory, Politics | No Comments »