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Everything written by Michel Bauwens

Project of the Day: The Kythnos Island Community Microgrid Project

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd September 2015

A case study presented by George Dafermos et al. in the context of transition projects towards renewable energy infrastructures:

“Kythnos is a small island in the Aegean sea in Greece. As is typical of islands in general, Kythnos is cut off from the national grid on mainland Greece. It has its own island grid, but this does not, however, have the capacity to electrify all settlements on the island. Thus, in the framework of two European Commission projects (PV-MODE, JOR3-CT98-0244 and MORE, JOR3CT98-0215), a microgrid was installed in 2001, which has since provided electricity for 12 houses in a small valley that is about 4km from the closest medium voltage line (Hatziargyriou et al., 2007: 80-82; Tselepis, 2010). The system, which was designed and implemented by the Athens-based Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving (CRES),[9] Kassel University and SMA, comprises 10kW of photovoltaic generators, a battery bank and a diesel genset. These are coordinated by intelligent load controllers, which were designed and installed by the National Technical University of Athens. The same team of engineers from the National Technical University of Athens provided the members of that community with training on how to operate the technological infrastructure. Being one of the very first pilot installations in Europe, the project has been frequently cited as an example of a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of providing a small community with electricity through a model of energy generation at the site of demand using renewable sources.

In more technical detail, the roll-out of the project was premised on the installation of a 1-phase microgrid composed of overhead power lines and a communication cable running in parallel. The grid and safety specifications for the house connections respect the technical solutions of the Public Power Corporation, which is the local electricity utility. The reason for such a decision was taken on the grounds that in the future the microgrid might be connected to the island grid. The power in each user’s house is limited by a 6 Amp fuse. The settlement is situated about 4km away from the closest pole of the medium voltage line of the island. A system house of 20m2 was built in the middle of the settlement in order to house the battery inverters, battery banks, diesel genset and its tank, computer equipment for monitoring and communication hardware.

The grid electrifying the users is powered by 3 Sunny-island battery inverters connected in parallel to form one strong single-phase grid in a master-slave configuration, allowing the use of more than one battery inverter only when more power is demanded by the consumers. Each battery inverter has a maximum power output of 3.6kW. The battery inverters in the Kythnos system have the capability to operate in both isochronous or droop mode. The operation in frequency droop mode gives the possibility to pass information to switching load controllers in case the battery state of charge is low, as well as to limit the power output of the PV inverters when the battery bank is full.

The users’ system is composed of 10kWp of photovoltaics divided in smaller sub-systems, a battery bank of nominal capacity of 53kWh and a diesel genset with a nominal output of 5kVA. A second system with about 2kWp, mounted on the roof of the system house, is connected to a Sunny-island inverter and a 32kWh battery bank. This second system provides the power for the monitoring and communication needs of the components. The PV modules are integrated as canopies into some of the houses.

To recap, the case of the implementation of the microgrid on the island of Kyhtnos illustrates a model of distributed energy that has enabled a small, isolated community to become energy-autonomous in an ecologically and economically sustainable fashion.”


Posted in Commons Transition, Featured Project, P2P Energy | 1 Comment »

800 Years of Commons: The Meaning of Magna Carta, Commons and Peer-to-Peer Production

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Michel Bauwens
2nd September 2015

* Event in Berlin, September 8: 800 Years of Commons: The Meaning of Magna Carta, Commons, Peer-to-Peer-Production and Their Legal Protection in Our Times

Via David Bollier:

If you’re in or near Berlin on September 8, please come to the public talk, “800 Years of Commons: The Meaning of Magna Carta, Commons, Peer-to-Peer Production and Their Legal Protection in Our Times.”

David Bollier and Michel Bauwens will both talk, followed by a discussion moderated by Silke Helfrich: a convening of the Commons Strategies Group. At the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Schumannstraße 8. September 8 from 19.00 to 21.00.

This year, leaders of government, business and the bar are celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the landmark affirmation of individual rights and law as a check on the power of the king. What does the “Great Charter” mean today when two very different sorts of sovereigns, the nation state and transnational corporations, now govern “the King’s forests”?

Two noted activists, David Bollier and Michel Bauwens of the Commons Strategies Group/P2P Foundation, will discuss the role of the commons and peer-to-peer production in meeting people’s needs and the many enclosures of the commons that are abridging their fundamental rights. The two talks will also describe a wide variety of legal innovations that commoners are inventing to fulfill the principles of Magna Carta and build a new socio-economic order by constituting new rules and norms for their common production, governance and property modalities.

The event will be moderated by Silke Helfrich who, with the two speakers, is a member of the Commons Strategies Group.

After the talks there will be time for discussion with participants and space to socialize over refreshments.

Simultaneous translation English/German will be provided throughout the event. Registration is not required.

More Information:

* via Joanna Barelkowska, Referat Internationale Politik ; E-Mail, barelkowska@boell.de, Telefon +49(0)285 34 -306


Posted in Commons, Events | No Comments »

The Uber/Airbnb “sharing economy” model is unsustainable

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Michel Bauwens
1st September 2015

Excerpted from Kevin Carson:

“An article at Medium (Tim O’Reilly, “Networks and the Nature of the Firm — What’s the Future of Work?” August 14) describes Uber and Airbnb as “textbook examples” of “the way that networks trump traditional forms of corporate organization, and how they are changing traditional ways of managing that organization.” Um, no.

What Uber and Airbnb are “textbook examples” of is what Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives calls “netarchical capitalism”: an intermediate organizational form in which the owners of proprietary platforms use them to extract value from the users. As a friend on Twitter observed the same day the article was written, the capitalists at Uber and Airbnb extract usury from workers’ use of their own physical capital.

In the early 20th century, technological historian Lewis Mumford coined the term “cultural pseudomorph” to describe the cooptation of new, liberatory technologies — technologies which opened the possibility of fundamentally new social and economic relations — into a preexisting, technologically superfluous institutional framework. His example was the central technology of the new neotechnic era — electrically powered machinery — which was ideally suited to a new economic model of relocalized craft production with machinery scaled to the flow of production, production flow scaled to orders, and small manufacturing shops sited near the point of consumption, all on a lean, demand-pull basis. Instead, thanks to an alliance between the capitalist state and the dominant economic players, electrical power was incorporated into mass production, a newer version of the paleotechnic Dark Satanic Mills of the 19th century. Mass production threw away all the efficiency advantages of scaling production to demand at the point of consumption, and instead built a model based on running enormously expensive, large-scale, specialized machinery full speed to produce large batches totally divorced from preexisting demand. This required all the inefficiencies of supply-push, batch-and-queue distribution — the cost of which more than offset the reduced unit costs of production in the factories themselves.

We saw it again in recent years, with attempts by global corporations to outsource actual production to small-scale job shops using cheap CNC machinery — which, again, is best suited to relocalized craft production — but using finance, marketing and ownership of patents and trademarks to retain a monopoly on distribution of the product.

Both these technological revolutions could be coopted into older, corporate institutional forms for a time; but that time is coming to an end with the rise of the open-source hardware, micromanufacturing and peer production movements.

And the Uber/Airbnb “sharing economy” model — another intermediate form that involves putting new wine in old bottles — is likewise unsustainable. In the case of “ride-sharing” services falsely so-called, the sharing economy is ideally suited to genuine p2p organizational forms — horizontal and open-source, owned and self-organized by the actual drivers and/or passengers themselves. Uber and Lyft, despite the fact that new network technologies render the corporate form entirely superfluous, are — just like Nike and Apple and other corporations that don’t actually produce anything any more — attempting to use “intellectual property” (in this case a proprietary, walled-garden app), enforced by their capitalist state, to enclose the new technologies of abundance and extract rent from them.

If you wonder how that’s going to work out for them, just ask the music industry.”


Posted in Sharing | No Comments »

A review of Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: what about the precariat ?

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Michel Bauwens
31st August 2015

Excerpted from NIKI SETH-SMITH:

“This gets to the heart of my objection to Mason’s book. His economic analysis is sound. His projections for the future, were the world not to undergo a radical system change, are disturbingly plausible. My query is with his new political subject. In other words: who is our Furiosa?

Let’s look at the economics first. By applying Marx to Kondratieff’s long wave theory, Mason gives an answer to the ‘end of history’ question far more believable than the now ludicrous faith in the triumph of neoliberalism. We feel stuck, he says, because we are. In Kondratieff’s theory, capitalism has a rhythm: there are waves of upswings and downswings that should last approximately 50 years. In Mason’s theory, we are today stuck in the fourth wave, which should have ended with the economical upheaval and power struggles of the late ‘70s. Organised labour should have successfully resisted the lowering of wages, so forcing capitalists to innovate themselves out of the crisis: “working-class resistance can be technologically progressive… it forces the new paradigm to emerge on a higher plane of productivity and consumption”. But class struggle failed to fulfill that role. Instead, in the ‘80s, capitalists were able to slash wages in the centres of global capitalism like the UK and the US, go for low-value production, and mask the unsustainability of an undead economic model with a huge wave of financialisation. The long-wave pattern was disrupted. That’s because, Mason believes, we are now at the end of the capitalist era.

Whether or not we accept Mason’s interpretation of Kondratieff, the idea that we are in the midst of capitalism’s long goodbye, living under an incoherent system on constant life support, has understandably gained traction since the 2008 crash. Mason’s theory also makes sense of the peculiar feeling that ‘nothing feels new’ when it comes to anti-capitalist imaginaries. “Reappropriate free time!” “Never Work!” “Luxury is not a luxury!” “What do we want? Everything!” The slogans of the ‘70s – these are from the Situationist International and Italy’s Autonomia movement – still sound urgent and fresh today. Perhaps that’s because their vision of the future was left hanging, unfulfilled. Postcapitalism suggests that now, thirty years on, their time has finally come. Mason credits Aaron Bastani who, as co-founder of the left platform Novara media, has helped to popularize and theorize the idea of FALC, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. But the basic premise is not new and can be traced back, as Mason shows, to Marx and his obscure pamphlet, “Fragment on Machines”. By candlelight, in 1858, Marx imagined an economy where the main productive force is information, where this information is ‘social’, and that this would tend towards the unlimited creation of wealth.

Marx also predicted that the big question would change from ‘wages versus profits’ to the ‘power of knowledge.’ With the Internet of Things due to increase the informational component of even our remaining ‘concrete’ objects, we are living increasingly in this vision of a knowledge economy. And, as we all know, information wants to be free. Or does it? In his book “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free”, Cory Doctorow argues that technology doesn’t want anything: it is people who are heading towards their own liberation. Mason, like Doctorow, is not a techno-determinist. His faith is not in technology. It is in people. Or more accurately, in ‘a new kind of person’.

So who is this new subjectivity? Talking about Fragment on Machines, Mason says: “This is possibly the most revolutionary idea he [Marx] ever had: that the reduction of labour to a minimum could produce a new kind of human being able to deploy the entire, accumulated knowledge of society…” This is not a claim about ‘access’. It seems obvious to us now that the internet is fast becoming a machine through which we can access the entire, accumulated knowledge of society. Mason, channeling Marx, uses the word ‘deploy’. ‘Deploy’ is about human capability.

the driver of change is no longer the working class. There is a new political agent on the scene, one with ‘multiple economic selves’. Surely this is a description of the modern, precarious worker, the freelancer or struggling creative, juggling side projects with low-wage work? In “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”, Guy Standing describes this new class as wanting “control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism”. Surely we can place Jessica Riches and ‘Eleni Haifa’ in this group? Yet Mason suggests this as a more fundamental shift than that described by Standing. Even Standing’s ‘salariat’ can be ‘the new kind of person’. In fact, the final pages of ‘Postcapitalism’ suggest that it is only the uber-rich who are “excluded from this great experiment in social communication”. Don’t be distracted by the scathing descriptions of the anxious, body-guarded, lipo-suctioned rich, sporting their identikit Ivy League sweatshirts. Mason genuinely pities American CEOs, because they don’t have real Twitter accounts. Locked in the model of the tired old subjectivity, the 1 per cent lose their human right to be part of the future.

Mason may be onto something. But it should be acknowledged that his theory is predicated on a premise that is just as philosophical, psychological and bio-political as it is economic. These categories, as we’ve seen, have collapsed in on themselves. Yet that’s not how Postcapitalism, or the rest of Mason’s work, is framed. When you’re on this territory, it is not enough to point to what happened with the London riots, the Arab Spring, or the indignados. As Mason says himself, in the late ‘70s there was a problem of agency: organized labour wasn’t able to push us out of the fourth long cycle and into an adaptation phase. What’s to say the agency is there now? It’s true that the gap between humanity’s technological capabilities, and their fruits, is widening. It’s becoming ever harder to ignore that the ‘success stories’ of late capitalism, like Apple and Google, exist predominantly to restrict, not enable, the flow of goods. Google, through its carefully managed relationship to Open Source, is better at understanding the power dynamics of this gatekeeper role, but essentially it too is an Immortan Joe, profiting from control over a potentially abundant resource. Mason points out that the scale of the shifts due to hit in a matter of decades – ageing demographics and climate change being the most seismic and potentially catastrophic – will bring about, all too literally, a ‘do or die’ scenario for moving beyond capitalism. But we have seen humanity’s peculiar talent for failing to act in its own interests.

Perhaps it is not enough for ‘the new kind of person’ to be adaptable, creative, social, and possess multiple economic selves, in order for them to deploy “the entire accumulated knowledge of society” and thus act in the collective interest of humankind. It’s not enough to own two iPhones. When Marx imagined greater liberation due to more free time, he could not have conceived of the everyday reality of a zero contract barista, or a contracted PR rep, ready to slip on the work mask every hour of every day. It’s decades since Antonio Negri started writing about ‘cognitive capitalism’ and its means of control within the ‘social factory’. With Michael Hardt in their Empire series, Negri has carried on to develop the idea of the ‘multitude’ as the agency that will move us beyond capitalism. The idea has been critiqued for its vagueness. Alain Badiou called it “a dreamy hallucination”. Yet don’t their ideas map onto Mason’s when they say in Commonwealth: “‘Today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living” and that “there is a breach in the social relation of capital opening the possibility for biopolitical labour to claim its autonomy; the foundations of its exodus are given in the existence and constant creation of the common…”?

What Mason proposes in his Project Zero makes sense as steps towards a post-capitalist economy. Suppress monopolies and socialize the finance system, he says. Reward innovation not rent-seeking behaviour, and institute a basic income scheme. Do this by pressure from below, including the setting up of more collaborative business models, as well as an expansion of non-market networks of sharing and collaboration. At the same time, seize control of the state apparatus, and reshape it to nurture these new economic forms (eventually the state would make itself redundant). Use the immense amounts of data now available to do what the Soviet Union’s State Planning Committee could never do: reliably simulate the present and guide the future of a complex economy. There is not one answer, but many: use new forms of democracy to channel the wisdom of crowds, our ‘collective genius’.

Yet Mason accepts that the pathway to post-capitalism is not (only) an economic transition. It is a “human transition”. His first principle is telling, and not sufficiently thought through: “to recognize the limitations of human will-power in the face of a complex and fragile system”. Will. Motivation. Why did Furiosa go rogue? To chase a childhood memory, a “dreamy hallucination”. My objection then, is not to Mason’s propositions, but to Postcapitalism’s implicit claim to be based on economic theory, when it rests on something more like a leap of faith. Read the very beginning and very end of Postcapitalism and you’ll see what I mean. Chapter 1 begins as a classic analysis of contemporary political economy, “When Lehman Brothers collapsed, on 15 September 2008….” Yet it ends with a sentence that reveals that the book, at heart, is not analytical, nor even only propositional. It is something more like a spiritual call, less factual statement than prophetic utterance: “postcapitalism will set you free.”


Posted in Commons, Commons Transition, P2P Books, P2P Theory | No Comments »

We need to take our data back !

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Michel Bauwens
30th August 2015

“Our overall behaviour online suggests that, collectively, the network supports and encourages a digitally socialist viewpoint: sharing, collective ownership and control of the means of production, and so on. But counter-intuitively, our desire to have lots of free stuff has created powerful data landowners and landlords, to whom we are quite happy to cede power over everything that identifies us.”

Excerpted from Chris Middleton:

“News broke of Spotify’s new ‘privacy’ policy. That the music-streaming provider has joined the ranks of companies that stop just short of demanding your front door keys and your car in return for the right to pay for their services should come as little surprise. “With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files …” it said. Staggering. (I love the word ‘collect’. It’s what theft becomes if you tell people you’re doing it.)

It must be obvious now that companies’ privacy policies are their mission statements, and the fact that most people ignore them and click ‘Agree’ is their own stupid fault. Most people don’t read the small print: they actively choose to be ignorant of Ts & Cs rather than to inform themselves of the facts. Worse, they hope that someone else will warn them of any dangers via social media: a form of flocking behaviour that cedes leadership and personal data security to strangers. Hardly the sign of a digitally empowered society, is it?

Fortunately for the flock, Spotify’s policy ‘change’ – revelation is a better word – provoked an outcry and an apology from the CEO. But it would be foolish to assume that any such strategic proposal will simply be abandoned, just as Uber’s withdrawal of its UberPop app in Paris should really be seen as the company pulling into a parking space and leaving the engine running.

Why is this happening?

As Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason noted in his excellent Guardian blog at the weekend, the claimed rationale behind Spotify’s and any other wholesale data-grabbing exercise is to make ‘the user experience’ better. But, in fact, it is invariably used to target advertising and messaging at customers instead: a feedback loop of endless aggregate advantage to the provider and their partners, not to the customer.

Mason adds that we are witnessing the emergence of ‘cognitive capitalism’, a term coined in 2012 by economist Yann Moulier-Boutang in his book of the same name. Boutang proposed that, far from living in a flat, networked society in which we all own and control the means of production – a digital restatement of socialist principles – we are actually living in the opposite, a form of data-based capitalism in which owning data capital is the new land grab, the new gold rush. Spotify’s actions certainly map against the latter.

Each of us has the gold and many companies feel they can simply take it. It’s time to empower ourselves and take our data back.

I made a similar observation to Boutang’s about ten years ago, saying that in the future our data will be the de facto currency in a world in which actual money becomes less and less relevant. You could argue that this emerging future is the real reason behind proposals such as the Snooper’s Charter. The government wishes to create the Data Bank of England, in effect, and is using national security as a smokescreen for doing so: the only legal means of overriding human rights legislation.

All of the data assets that companies such as Spotify turn into money and noise are being crowdsourced from the general public, thanks to people tagging their friends’ images and sharing their contact details without first seeking their active consent.

In other words, everyone around you is turning you into a data asset that a third party can sell for money. Are any of your friends Spotify users? Then Spotify has your data, possibly even your photos and media files. It’s that simple. When did you agree to this? You didn’t, because nobody asked. That’s the network effect.

Now, an interesting observation about the digital world in its current form is that sharing anonymous, open data sets tends to create ‘signal’ – projects that help improve society, the environment, sustainable services, smart cities, and so forth – whereas Personally Identifiable Information (PII) invariably creates noise, in the form of advertising and other information that people don’t want or need. This leads to a truly fascinating conclusion: being anonymous creates utilitarian benefits for society as a whole.

Few of us invest our PII in improving society’s or humanity’s collective future, mainly because we lack a platform for doing so. But we’re happy to simply give it away in return for noise. What we need is a platform that empowers us only to invest our data in programmes that we agree with, and which blocks its use anywhere else – even if someone shares our data without our consent. We need a means of automating ‘I agree’ or ‘I don’t agree’ and wrapping our own terms and conditions around our personal data, like a Creative Commons licence that refers to the individual, not just a media file.

But back to Boutang’s observations. The truth is we are living in neither a digital capitalist nor a digital socialist future just yet. We are poised between the two, but nearing the point where these two different viewpoints collide in a global conflict. Let’s call it the First World Data War. Forget religion, this is the real Great War of our age. There will be bloodshed, both figuratively and literally.

Mason suggests that all of the companies that are stockpiling our data and turning it into money (for themselves) and noise (for us) are building their “castles on sand”, because their users will soon turn against them. I don’t think so: it’s gone on for too long and we have all been complicit in their actions. The data remains even if we abandon a platform or an app, and therefore so does the information asset that can be monetised by a third party. (The phrase ‘digital footprint’ is fast being replaced by ‘digital tattoo’ for a reason.)”


Posted in P2P Action Items, P2P Business Models | No Comments »

Book of the Day: The Utopia of Rules

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th August 2015

* Book: The Utopia of Rules. David Graeber. 2015.

As usual, a landmark book, this time the authors tackles the history of bureaucracy and the state-corporate nexus.

Excerpted from David Graeber:

“At least since the 19th century, the idea that a market economy is opposed to and independent of government was used to justify laissez-faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, and yet they never actually have that effect. Nor, for example, did English liberalism lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy; instead, we ended up with a ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible. And there is little doubt that maintaining a market economy requires a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.

I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratisation”. I’d like to ask why that is and, particularly, to consider the possibility that many of the blanket condemnations of bureaucracy we hear are, in fact, somewhat disingenuous. Does the experience of operating within a system of formalised rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, hold a kind of covert appeal?

There is a school of thought that holds that bureaucracy tends to expand according to a kind of perverse but inescapable inner logic. The argument runs as follows: if you create a bureaucratic structure to deal with a problem, that structure will invariably end up creating other problems that seem as if they, too, can only be solved by bureaucratic means. In universities, this is sometimes informally referred to as the “creating committees to deal with the problem of too many committees” problem.

A slightly different version of the argument is that once a bureaucracy has been created, it will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it. The chief way to do this is always by attempting to monopolise access to certain key types of information.

As Max Weber, one of the greatest German scholars of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret?.?.?.?in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.”

One side effect, as Weber also observes, is that once you do create a bureaucracy, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it. The very first bureaucracies we know of were in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these continued to exist, largely unchanged, as one dynasty or ruling elite replaced another, for literally thousands of years. Similarly, waves of successful invaders were not enough to dislodge the Chinese civil service, with its bureaus, reports, and examination system, which remained firmly in place no matter who actually claimed the Mandate of Heaven. The only real way to rid oneself of an established bureaucracy, according to Weber, is to simply kill them all, as Alaric the Goth did in Imperial Rome, or Genghis Khan in certain parts of the Middle East. Leave any significant number of functionaries alive and, within a few years, they will inevitably end up managing one’s kingdom.

The second possible explanation is that bureaucracy becomes not only indispensable to rulers but holds a genuine appeal to those it administers as well. The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions: on the one hand they are soulless; on the other, they are simple, predictable, and treat everyone more or less the same.

And, anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy enables you to deal with other people without having to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of labour. Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in 18th-century British verse. Surely this is part of the appeal.

Of course, there is a possibility that all this goes much deeper. It’s not just that the impersonal relations bureaucracies afford are convenient; to some degree, at least, our very ideas of rationality, justice and freedom are founded on them. Consider a moment in human history when a new form of bureaucracy actually did inspire not just widespread passive acquiescence but giddy enthusiasm, even infatuation, and try to understand precisely what it was about it that seemed, to so many people, so exciting.

. . .

One reason it was possible for Weberto describe bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rational efficiency is that in the Germany of his day, bureaucratic institutions really did work well. Perhaps the flagship institution, the pride and joy of the German civil service, was the post office. In the late 19th century, the German postal service was considered one of the great wonders of the modern world. Its efficiency was so legendary that it casts a kind of terrible shadow across the 20th century. Many of the greatest achievements of what we now call “high modernism” were inspired by the German post office. One could indeed make a case that many of the most terrible woes of that century can also be laid at its feet.

To understand how this could be, we need to understand a little of the real origins of the modern social welfare state, which we now largely think of — when we think of them at all — as having been created by benevolent democratic elites. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Europe, most of the key institutions of what later became the welfare state — everything from social insurance and pensions to public libraries and public health clinics — were not originally created by governments at all but by trade unions, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives, and working-class parties and organisations. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of gradually creating socialist institutions from below.”

David Graeber sees the Bismarckian German Post Office as the paradigmatic example of positive bureaucracy:

“In Germany, the real model for this new administrative structure was, curiously, the post office — though when one understands the history of the postal service, it makes a great deal of sense. The post office was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organisation to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organisation of armies and empires. They were originally ways of conveying field reports and orders over long distances; later, by extension, a key means of keeping the resulting empires together. Hence Herodotus’ famous quote about Persian imperial messengers, with their evenly spaced posts with fresh horses, which he claimed allowed the swiftest travel on earth: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” still appears carved over the entrance to the Central Post Office building in New York, opposite Penn Station. The Roman empire had a similar system, and pretty much all armies operated with postal courier systems until Napoleon adopted semaphore in 1805.

One of the great innovations of 18th- and especially 19th-century governance was to expand what had once been military courier systems into the basis for an emerging civil service whose primary purpose was providing services for the public. It happened first in commerce, and then expanded as the commercial classes also began to use the post for personal or political correspondence. Before long, in many of the emerging nation-states in Europe and the Americas, half the government budget was spent on — and more than half the civil service employed in — the postal service. In Germany, one could even make the argument that the nation was created, more than anything else, by the post office. Under the Holy Roman Empire, the right to run a postal courier system within imperial territories had been granted, in good feudal fashion, to a noble family originally from Milan, later to be known as the Barons von Thurn and Taxis (one later scion of this family, according to legend, was the inventor of the taximeter, which is why taxicabs ultimately came to bear his name). The Prussian empire originally bought out the Thurn and Taxis monopoly in 1867, and used it as the basis for a new German national post — and over the next two decades, the sure sign that a new statelet or principality had been absorbed into the emerging nation-state was its incorporation into the German postal system. The sparkling efficiency of the system became a point of national pride. And indeed, the German post of the late-19th century was nothing if not impressive, boasting up to five or even nine delivery times a day in major cities, and, in the capital, a vast network of miles of pneumatic tubes designed to shoot letters and small parcels almost instantly across long distances using a system of pressurised air. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin between 1891 and 1892, was so taken with it that he composed one of his only known non-satirical essays, “Postal Service”, just to celebrate its wondrous efficiency.

Nor was he the only foreigner to be so impressed. Just a few months before the outbreak of Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilych Lenin wrote: “A witty German social-democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At present the postal service is a business organised on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organisations of a similar type.

“To organise the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service, so that the technicians, foremen, book-keepers, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than ‘a workman’s wage’, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat — this is our immediate aim.”

So there you have it. The organisation of the Soviet Union was directly modelled on the German postal service. A vision of a potential future paradise emerging from within the post office was not confined to Europe. It was only with the rise of corporate capitalism after the civil war that the US adopted something closer to the German model of bureaucratic capitalism. Again, the forms of a new, freer, more rational society seemed to be emerging within the very structures of oppression itself. The term “postalisation” emerged, a unique American coinage for nationalisation (and one which has since completely disappeared from the language). Yet at the same time as Weber and Lenin were invoking the German post office as a model for the future, American progressives were arguing that even private business would be more efficient were it run like a post office, and scoring major victories for postalisation, such as the nationalisation of the private subway, commuter, and interstate train systems, which in major American cities have remained in public hands ever since.”


Posted in Featured Book, P2P Books, P2P Governance, P2P Hierarchy Theory | No Comments »

The role of the ‘on demand economy’ in post-welfare capitalism

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th August 2015

If an higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google along the lines sketched above did come into being, it would disrupt the public university still further – only this time by means of an innovative, profit-driven, ‘sharing economy’ business operating according to a post-welfare capitalist model, just as Airbnb is currently disrupting the state regulated hotel industry, and Uber state regulated taxi companies. Increasing numbers of university workers would thus find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that facing many cab drivers today. Instead of operating in a sector that’s accountable to state regulators, they would have little choice but to sell their cheap and easy-to-access courses to whoever’s prepared to pay for them in the ‘alternative’ education market created by platform capitalism. They too would become atomised, precarious, freelance microentrepreneurs. As such, they’d experience all the problems of deprofessionalisation, intensification and surveillance such a post-welfare capitalist economy brings.

Republished from The Uberfication of the University, by Gary Hall (Coventry University):

Talk about being careful what you wish for. A recent survey of UK vice-chancellors identifies a number of areas of innovation with the potential to transform UK higher education. Among them are ‘uses of student data analytics for personalised services’ (the number 1 innovation priority for 90% of VCs), ‘uses of technology to transform learning experiences’ (Moocs, flipped classrooms etc.), and ‘student-driven flexible study modes’, leading not least to the ‘demise of the traditional academic year’. Responding to this survey, an editorial in the Times Higher Education laments that, ‘the UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy.’ Yet one wonders whether any of those proclaiming the merits of such disruptive innovation have stopped to consider what a higher education institution emulating the expansionist ambitions of Amazon and Google would actually mean for those currently employed in UK universities.

We can see the impact aggressive, global, for-profit technology companies have on the organisation of labour by looking at those data analytics businesses that are associated with the sharing economy. Emerging from the mid-2000s onwards, the sharing economy is a socio-economic ecosystem that supplies individuals with information that makes access to things like ridesharing and sofa surfing possible on a more efficient and expanded basis. As such, it’s often portrayed as bringing community values back into the ways in which people consume, and as helping to address environmental issues – by reducing the carbon footprint of transport, for example. However, certain aspects of the sharing economy are also helping to enact a significant societal shift. It is a shift in which state regulated service intermediaries, like hotels and taxi companies, are replaced by information and data management intermediaries such as the start-ups Airbnb (a community marketplace for renting out private lodging and other kinds of accommodation) and Uber (an app that enables passengers to use their mobile phones to connect with a taxi, rideshare or private car).

In this respect, the sharing economy is one of the ways in which neoliberalism has been able to proceed with its programme of privatisation, deregulation, and reduction to a minimum of the state, public sector and welfare, even after the financial crash of 2008-2009. For by avoiding pre-emptive government regulation, these profit-driven sharing economy businesses are operating according to what can be understood as a post-welfare model of capitalism. Here there are few legislative protections for workers, and hardly any possibilities for establishing trade unions or other means of generating the kind of solidarity capable of challenging this state of affairs. It’s a situation that often leaves those providing services for these companies without a host of workers’ rights. As Mike Bulajewski notes, the list includes ‘the right to have employers pay social security, disability and unemployment insurance taxes, the right to family and medical leave, workers’ compensation protection, sick pay, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin, or wrongful termination for becoming pregnant, or reporting sexual harassment or other types of employer wrongdoing.’

All of which goes a long way toward explaining why in the March 2015 budget the government declared it is planning to make the UK a global centre for the sharing economy. Hence also one of the other names associated with this aspect of the sharing economy: ‘platform capitalism’. Indeed, the for-profit sector of this socio-economic ecosystem is almost the neoliberal ideal. It creates a situation in which the general population not only aspires to own their own homes – the vision Margaret Thatcher sold to the British working-classes in the 1980s with the right to buy scheme – they also have the opportunity to become private capitalist entrepreneurs themselves. And in the case of Airbnb, one way they can do so is precisely by trading underutilized space in their now privately owned homes. As Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky, puts it, previously ‘only businesses could be trusted… Now, that trust has been democratized – any person can act like a brand…. It means… people all over a city, in 60 seconds, can become microentrepreneurs’.

The information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy may create jobs, then, but ‘it’s a new kind of job’, as Chesky acknowledges. He calls it a 21st century job, though really it’s closer to a 19th century Victorian job. For these for-profit companies, and the microentrepreneurs who labour for them, are operating in an open market that’s relatively free from the power of state regulators, the labour movement and trade unions, to not only put a limit on the maximum hours those employed in these new kinds of jobs work, but also to specify the minimum wage they receive, the number of days off they need, and the paid holidays and free weekends they’re entitled to.

Production and control, profit and risk, are thus not shared in this sector of the sharing economy at all. It is the networks of users who help build the platform and provide the aggregated input, data and attention value that generates a market. It’s the owners of the information and data management intermediary who take the profits generated by financializing, corporatizing and exploiting the ’sharing’ of goods and services between the users and microentrepreneurs. These owners also control the platform, software and data, deciding pricing, wage levels, work allocation, and preferred user and labourer profile.

Research on the sharing economy by McGregor, Brown and Glöss shows a certain ‘homophily’ occurs, by which it is often ‘similar “types” of people [who] provide and use these services (in terms of class, education and race)’, especially when a rating system is employed. Uber, for example, enables both customers and drivers to rate one another, and suspends drivers if their scores are not high enough. Finally, it is the microentrepreneurs (who can now be potentially ‘any person’ rather than a specific set of employees) who labour to provide services in the market created by the platform on a freelance, on demand, and frequently precarious basis; who take the risks associated with having lost their rights, benefits and protection as employees; and who, according to this research, often face ‘increased surveillance, deskilling, casualisation and intensification’ of their labour too.

Such concerns are only too easy to push to the back of our minds when we’re trying to find a cheap place to stay for a weekend break, or call a taxi to take us home from a friend’s place late at night. It’s perhaps only when we think about these information and data management intermediaries from the perspective of a worker rather than a user, and consider their potential to disrupt our own areas of employment, that the implications of the shift to a post-welfare form of capitalism they’re helping to enact are really brought home. So what is the potential affect of this transformation in the organisation of labour on higher education?

In April of this year, LinkedIn, the social networking platform for professionals, spent £1.5 billion purchasing Lynda.com, a supplier of online consumer-focused courses. Although it doesn’t address the sharing economy specifically, a report of this deal by Goldie Blumenstyk published shortly afterwards in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the title of ‘How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges’, was very quick to draw attention to some of its potential implications for higher education. Of course, with its University Pages and University Rankings Based on Career Outcomes, LinkedIn already has enough data to be able to provide the kind of detailed analysis of which institutions and courses are launching graduates into which long-term career trajectories, that no traditional university can match.

But what the Chronicle piece makes clear is that, with its immanent transition into being both a social network and an actual provider of education, such data could now be used to develop an extremely successful data and information intermediary business model for higher education – if not by LinkedIn then by some other platform capitalist company. (Academia.edu, say, which has already signed up over 22 million academics who between them have added more than 6 million papers.) Such a model would be based on providing ‘transparent’ information on a fine-grained basis to employers, students, policy-makers and governments. This information would indicate which of the courses, classes and even teachers on any such education ‘sharing economy’ platform are better at enabling students to obtain a particular degree classification or other educational credential, make the successful transition to a desirable career, reach the top of a given profession, and so achieve a high level of job satisfaction and salary.

But it doesn’t end there. The Chronicle report also tells of how LinkedIn bought a company called Bright in 2014. Bright has developed algorithms enabling it to match job positions with applicants according to their particular achievements, competencies and skill sets. And it wouldn’t be difficult for a business with the kind of data LinkedIn now has the potential to gather to do much the same for employers and students – right down to the level of their salary expectations, extracurricular activities, and ‘likes’. This business could charge a fee for doing so, just as many dating agencies make a healthy profit from introducing people with compatible personalities as deduced by algorithms. They could then charge a further fee for making this information and data available on a live basis in real time – something highly desirable in today’s ‘flexible’ economy, where many employers like to draw from a pool of zero-hours workers available ‘on tap’.

More ominous still, given that it would be able to control the platform, software, data analytics and the associated ecosystem, it’s clear that such a global platform capitalist higher education business would also have the power to decide who could be most easily seen and found in any such alternative market for education (much as Google’s does with its page ranking, the European commission having decided in April 2015 that Google has a case to answer regarding possible abuse of its dominance of search through ‘systematically’ awarding greater prominence to its own ads). Understandably, perhaps – especially following the recent fuss over MOOCs – Blumenstyk’s analysis of LinkedIn’s acquisition of Lynda.com shies away from arriving at any overly exaggerated or pessimistic conclusions as to what all this may mean for higher education and its system of certification and credentialing. Nevertheless, if a company like LinkedIn took the decision to provide this level of fine-grained data and information for its own unbundled, relatively inexpensive online courses, but not for those offered by its more expensive market competitors in the public sector, it would surely have the potential to be at least as disruptive as Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn and co. have proven to be to date, if not considerably more so. For the kind of information about degrees and student final destinations and ability to react to market changes any traditional bricks-and-mortar university is capable of providing on its own will appear extremely unsophisticated, limited and slow to compile and deliver by comparison. And, lest the adoption by a for-profit sharing economy business of such an aggressive stance toward public universities seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that Google maintains its dominance of search in much the same way. In the words of its chief research guru, Peter Norvig, the reason Google has a 90-95% share of the European market for search is not because it has better algorithms than Yahoo and Bing, ‘it just has more data’. Indeed, one of the great myths about neoliberalism is that it strives to create competition on an open market. As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal and early Facebook investor, emphasizes in his book Zero to One, what neoliberal businesses actually want is to be a monopoly: to be so dominant in their area of operation that they in fact escape the competition and become a market of one.

Of course many of those who work in higher education already have contingent, precarious positions as a consequence of neoliberalism’s insistence that universities operate increasingly like businesses. According to Sally Hunt, secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), ‘more than a third of the UK’s total academic workforce is now on temporary, fixed-term contracts’, with a recent UCU survey of 2,500 casualised staff identifying a third of those in universities experiencing difficulty paying household bills, and as many as a fifth having problems finding enough money to buy food.

If an higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google along the lines sketched above did come into being, it would disrupt the public university still further – only this time by means of an innovative, profit-driven, ‘sharing economy’ business operating according to a post-welfare capitalist model, just as Airbnb is currently disrupting the state regulated hotel industry, and Uber state regulated taxi companies. Increasing numbers of university workers would thus find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that facing many cab drivers today. Instead of operating in a sector that’s accountable to state regulators, they would have little choice but to sell their cheap and easy-to-access courses to whoever’s prepared to pay for them in the ‘alternative’ education market created by platform capitalism. They too would become atomised, precarious, freelance microentrepreneurs. As such, they’d experience all the problems of deprofessionalisation, intensification and surveillance such a post-welfare capitalist economy brings. Is that what UK vice-chancellors actually want?”


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Sharing | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Italian Precarious Workers Between Self-Organization and Self-Advocacy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th August 2015

* Essay: “Inspire and conspire”: Italian precarious workers between self-organization and self-advocacy. Annalisa Murgia and Giulia Selmi. Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Volume 4 (2): 181 – 196 (November 2012)

From the abstract:

“The scenario we see today in the labor market in Italy is composed of a progressive proliferation of non-standard contracts. This involves first and foremost a problem of citizenship and welfare, due to the lower or almost nonexistent possibility of access to social rights associated with these types of contracts. Faced with this situation, over the last ten years, Italy has seen the emergence of a complex social movement to counter precariousness. This movement at first concentrated its efforts in the rewriting of the symbolic vocabulary and imagination at work, in an attempt to consolidate the precarious as a collective subjectivity beyond its traditional representations.

In recent years, however, this process of “self-representation” in terms of a collective narrative is matched by a process of “self-advocacy”: an effective self-organization of temporary workers to handle the conflict in the workplace. In a scenario of no confidence in political parties and trade unions in addressing the issue of precariousness, these movements refuse the delegation of the conflict, promoting instead a modality of action based on the organizational form of the network, sharing knowledge and direct representation. This paper explores two particular movement experiences in the Italian context.”


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Book of the Day: Communal Luxury

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th August 2015

“Kristin Ross argues that a rich legacy of ideas and practices developed during the Commune – the workers’ democracy that ruled Paris for two-and-a-half months in 1871 before being violently suppressed – needs to be recovered for the twenty-first century. *

* Book: Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross. Verso, 2015

Here is a short summary of this important book, a contribution to contemporary reflections on the possibility of abundance, followed by excerpts from an interview with the author:

“Kristin Ross’s new work on the thought and culture of the Communard uprising of 1871 resonates with the motivations and actions of contemporary protest, which has found its most powerful expression in the reclamation of public space. Today’s concerns—internationalism, education, the future of labor, the status of art, and ecological theory and practice—frame and inform her carefully researched restaging of the words and actions of individual Communards. This original analysis of an event and its centrifugal effects brings to life the workers in Paris who became revolutionaries, the significance they attributed to their struggle, and the elaboration and continuation of their thought in the encounters that transpired between the insurrection’s survivors and supporters like Marx, Kropotkin, and William Morris.

The Paris Commune was a laboratory of political invention, important simply and above all for, as Marx reminds us, its own ‘working existence.’ Communal Luxury allows readers to revisit the intricate workings of an extraordinary experiment.”

Kristin Ross interviewed by Gabriel Levy (excerpts_:

* Gabriel Levy: You urge the readers of Communal Luxury to look at the Paris Commune not as a precursor to the Soviet Union, and not as a precursor to the Third Republic in France. If it was not those things, what was it?

Kristin Ross: Extricating the Commune from those two stories is an enormous challenge, in part because those two histories were the principal ways we had of understanding the Commune. They were the histories that claimed it. In each of these narratives the Commune was made to play an essentially edifying role, as though the Communards were martyrs to state socialism or martyrs to the French Republic. If you stop seeing what the insurgents did in this way – if you stop seeing them as martyrs, sacrificing themselves to the future – then suddenly a whole new vista becomes available and you can begin to see their self-emancipation at a daily level. You are radically in their present. If you dislodge the event from those two historiographies, you are back in the day-to-day of the Communards, and it becomes possible to see, perhaps for the first time, the kinds of political inventions and experimentations that they performed.

* GL: When you spoke at the recent Planetary Natures conference at Binghamton University in the USA, you reacted very sharply to the suggestion that our relationship to the Commune is one in which we “learn from its defeat”. And you complained about the widespread habit of political back-seat driving practised on the Commune (all of it back-seat driving after the event, and therefore especially useless). Where does that false critique come from and how can it be countered?

KR: The false critique is associated particularly with these historiographies that I have mentioned. The Bolsheviks [who took power in Russia in 1917] needed a very strong myth of the Commune as the anticipation of their own revolution. They needed to have some sort of historical precedent to reassure their own people about their own transformations. So even what they considered to be the failure of the Commune – the aura of the martyrs – was supposed to, in their view, generate its contrary. So right away you have the idea of errors serving as lessons, this notion of the pedagogical role that the past is supposed to play, as though there were some sort of progressive, linear temporality: that we, by coming after, are obliged to do it better, or we will do it better—despite the fact that our circumstances are not at all the same!

What this shows is the unshakeable desire we seem to have that the past teach us a lesson, or that we have to teach the past a lesson … it doesn’t matter which, it comes to the same thing! It shows the extent to which progressive thinking about emancipation still operates as though there were some sort of blueprint of ends to be attained; and as though those ends could be precisely determined and then we could measure objectively whether they have been achieved, or not achieved, according either to time-worn and timeless standards, or to criteria that we have drawn up on the fly in 2015. It’s obviously very pleasurable to put yourself in the position of being the one who can establish what’s possible or what’s impossible, or decide when people acted too soon, when they acted too late, when they were being passé or outmoded or unrealistic. But when you adopt that position you lose any sense of the experimental dimension of politics, or of art for that matter.

* GL: Could I ask you about the chapter in the book devoted to the Communards’ efforts to remake education and to remake cultural production – or rather to break down the division between creative activity and alienated production (i.e. work)?

KR: It’s significant that a large percentage of the Communards were art workers – they worked in the arts and crafts industries, they were artisans, they had an artisanal formation. There is a primacy of arts-and-crafts labour at the centre of the Commune; that model of a useful production is at the centre of their culture. And that is what [the English socialist writer and activist] William Morris would take up and develop at great length in his own thinking and in his attempt to transmit some of the political ideas of the Commune. This working culture was, incidentally, profoundly internationalist. These were people who, like many young people today, spent most of their time not working, but looking for work … and that meant moving not only from town to town but also from country to country. There were Spaniards, Italians, Poles and other nationalities who participated actively in the Commune.

In the book I use the example of the way they set about overcoming the division between high art and decorative, or industrial, art. Who counts as an artist? Who has the right to that status? Because painters and sculptors could sign their work, they were able to exert a certain amount of economic control over what they produced. This was not at all the case with songwriters, for example, or ceramicists. The Manifesto for an Artists’ Federation, read aloud at a mass meeting for “all artistic intelligences” at the university of the Sorbonne in April 1871 concludes: “We will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendours and the Universal Republic.” (Communal Luxury, p. 58.) It was written by Eugene Pottier, a decorative artist, who also wrote the song The Internationale. Decorative artists and fine artists assembled together under the same name, the same status, and went about establishing a federation in which to work cooperatively to extend art education. I take my title, Communal Luxury, from their text and use it to refract a number of Communard ideas and practices. In this context it refers to those practices that overcome the division between those who have, and those who do not have, the luxury of playing with words or playing with images.

* GL: I had the impression from the book that these issues were not a sideshow or a minority interest; this was central to the Commune’s activity.

KR: Yes, these transformations in the status of the artist were very much part of the means by which the Communards went about emancipating themselves. And this is what Karl Marx meant, by the way, when he said that the Commune’s greatest achievement was “its own working existence.” No great laws, no utopian blueprints—just the step-by-step dismantling of the bureaucratic hierarchies that govern life under capitalism in a centralized state. When Marx looked at the Commune he saw for the first time in his life an unscripted example of non-capitalist existence – he saw what non-alienated or associative labour actually looked like.

* GL: You also write in Communal Luxury about education. When the Communards confronted the issue of transforming the state, some of them tried to get to work right away by transforming school education – breaking down the division between the education of people who work with their brains and of those who work with their hands. In other books I have read about the Commune, these efforts don’t get paid much attention.

KR: Yes. The reason you don’t see much about that in many books about the Commune is because of the obsession of many historians with the street fighting or with the legislative quarrels that were taking place. But in fact there were people out in the neighbourhoods getting to work directly on what they saw as the central question, which was how to transform education in a city where one-third of children didn’t go to school at all, another third were in Catholic school … and of course there was a fierce anti-clericalism in the Commune, so religious schooling came under particular attack. The Communards actually invented the idea of mandatory free public education for all children. But it was different from the way public education looks now. Communard education was based on the idea – and this was the twist – that every child, regardless of gender and regardless of class, would have the same education, and that this education would include both what we would think of as theoretical education (science, maths, history, and so on) and a training in a trade or two trades. The idea was that everyone would have both types of formations—intellectual and manual.

* GL: You write about the Commune as a revolt in a city surrounded by the countryside, and more broadly as a project to remake human society that is surrounded by the natural environment. You draw attention to the very rich discussions of the issues of city-country and humanity-nature, that took place in the decades after the Commune, in large part inspired by it.

KR: Yes, I spend a lot of time in the book on the prolongation of Communard thought when the Communards who survived the massacre and who avoided imprisonment met up [in exile, in the 1880s and 1890s] with people like [the Russian anarchist and geographer] Petr Kropotkin, Morris and Marx, who were all enormously supportive of the Commune but who were all—just as importantly– transformed by its example. When these people met up with each other in London and Switzerland, the central theoretical problem that they were trying to think through was that city-country divide, which was, of course, an important factor in the demise of the Commune. [Many Communards saw the lack of a movement in rural France alongside the action in Paris as one of the factors that contributed to its eventual defeat.] How do you think the realisation of non-alienated labour in a major metropolitan centre like Paris together with the remnants of agrarian communist forms in the countryside? How do you think an urban insurrection like the one that occurred in Paris with those residual formations like the obshina in the Russian countryside?

William Morris posed the problem by considering the impossibility under capitalism of that kind of solidarity that existed among crafts workers engaged in useful production. In the case of Kropotkin and [the French geographer and anarchist] Elisée Reclus … these were geographers, people who had what was considered then a very scientific formation. Following a different path, they arrived at the same kind of uncompromising anti-capitalist and ecological (though they didn’t call it that) analysis as Morris. They all believed that the principle factors in the degradation of nature were the centralized state and the capitalist system. And they believed that a systemic problem demanded a systemic solution.

* GL: Could we talk about the group of people, that included former Communards, who you refer to in the book as “anarchist communists”. You are suggesting not that the polemic between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin is not worth following, but that there were many others, this group among them, who also deserve our attention.

KR: There has been too much focus on the rivalry between Marx and Bakunin. People say that their dispute is what brought down the First International. Perhaps. But there was also the continental-wide counter-revolution that set in after the crushing of the Commune. If you broaden your focus a little beyond the tedious “political theory” discourse, you can see – especially in the people that I studied – a group of thinkers and militants who are slavishly beholden neither to Marx or to Bakunin, but who are busy performing a bricolage of anarchist and marxist ideas—a creative mixture that resonates very strongly with militant culture today. They were not locked into a battle about establishing the primacy of analyses based on economic exploitation over those based on political domination or vice versa. So they were able to move freely in both contexts and use both intellectual and political camps as a resource.”


Posted in Ethical Economy, Featured Book, P2P Books, P2P Lifestyles, P2P Movements, P2P Subjectivity, P2P Theory, Peer Property | No Comments »

Pavlos Georgiades calls out for a Plan C for Greece

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th August 2015

Pavlos Georgiadis wrote:

“Just over a month ago, Greek citizens were asked to go to the polls for a referendum that posed the country with an unprecedented existential dilemma and challenged the EU with the possibility of its collapse.

The question that shook the world was a choice between a Plan A – more of the same, evidently failed austerity policies that made the country lose 25 percent of its GDP in five years – and a Plan B – a poorly designed Grexit, with unpredictable consequences that could mean the country’s sudden death.

Instead of viewing Greece as a scapegoat, Europe should take this unique opportunity to capitalise on the solutions created by the civil society in the country.

It is an indisputable fact that Greece requires major reforms and Greeks know this better than anyone else. These are related, among others, to major existing legislative gaps, the country’s geography which generates huge transaction costs, a cultural gap between cities and rural areas, and the decision making processes in the country.

Such reforms are of systemic nature, something that no politician in Greece seems able to grasp or advocate. The old guard that still rules the country’s affairs, despite being fully aware of its own failure, is still opting for quick and flaky solutions that hardly address the causes of this crisis.

The same goes for Europe’s leaders, who seem to be more cloistered than ever, limited to their national egos and political clientele. They seem to lack the capacity, both morally and intellectually, but above all the vision to steward Europe’s human face, while addressing this crisis.

A project of “unity in diversity” is threatened by its outdated, largely opaque decision making structures that govern its economics. This explains why European leaders, in the past years, instead of solutions have been offering no more than a narrative based on the worst possible stereotypes.

A top-down approach that plundered Greece into depression and made Greeks, especially the youth, feel like little hamsters in some sort of sick socio-economic experiment.

* The Birth of a New Solidarity Economy

Some impressive civil society projects are already being implemented at the local grassroots level, piloting a parallel solidarity and needs-based economy and participa-tory governance.

Every day, a community kitchen called “The ?ther ?uman” is supplying free meals to hundreds of Greeks in need, and lately to immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan, camping in the parks of Athens.

The Metropolitan Community Clinic at Helliniko near the old Athens airport, a 1.2 hectare plot of prime land on the beachfront of Athens, set to be privatised in a scan-dalous low price, is delivering free medicine, health check ups and preventive treat-ments to citizens with no insurance.

Both initiatives have no legal structure nor bank accounts, basing their operations in a currency that survives the capital controls: solidarity and humanity. Speaking of new ways of transaction, a bartering system is making a comeback in response to the closed banks, especially in rural areas.

Open access technologies are driving this transition, as they always do with initiatives promoting public dialogue, knowledge exchange, political participation and account-ability between citizens and politicians.

Politeia 2.0, a grassroots initiative for citizens’ engagement which is pioneering methods for participatory design of a new constitution and Vouliwatch, an independ-ent parliament watchdog, are just two of them.

With such prototypes launched, tested and operating at different levels, the challenge now is to scale and communicate them in every neighbourhood, village and city of the country.

This crisis never had its crisis manager, exposing the EU’s deficiencies and the distance that splits the politicians’ realities with those of citizens. This is not only evident in the way political leaders handle the Greek case, but other challenges too, such as the TTIP, climate change and immigration.

A new political arena is thus emerging within the EU, that has nothing to do with traditional ideological divides of the left or the right. This new political arena struggles to balance top-down versus bottom-up approaches to our ways of making decisions and planning the future.

Based on this recognition, it is clear that besides a “Plan A” (a politically humiliating and financially unsustainable agreement) and a “Plan B” (the risk of a Grexit), Greece is in dire need of working out a “Plan C”.

A roadmap for advancing towards a real transition back to the Commons, based on civil engagement for participatory mapping and collective management of the assets that influence what is currently under attack: the everyday lives of the people.

Greece needs to put in an unprecedented effort in order to overcome an unprecedented challenge, engaging the best actors in key social fields such as health, food, education and social welfare, just to name a few. At this point, this is absolutely necessary in order to maintain social cohesion and explore systemic solutions during the difficult times to come.

The starting point should probably be in the fields, which a recent study by Endeavor Greece identified as the only dynamic sectors that survive the crisis: agriculture, product manufacturing and Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

The food sector, especially, can pave the way since it is already an integral part of the country’s cultural fabric. With around 13 percent of the Greek workforce engaged in agriculture (the EU average is just over 5 percent), a carefully structured plan for a transition towards agroecology can become an extremely powerful vector of change and a drive for Greece’s new economy.

Community gardens like Per.Ka., located inside an abandoned army camp in Thessaloniki, and peer to peer networks like Peliti -Europe’s largest seed-swap community- are already carving out new food system paradigms.

This new process can only be led by the youth of Greece. Highly skilled, socially networked and internationally educated, many of them are looking back to the land to seek ways out of unemployment.

All these years, these young Greeks have been deprived access to bank loans, while others were transferring 250 billion euros outside the country. Should they be connected with food business incubators, seed funding opportunities and open source technologies, they could catalyse this transition towards a quality, climate-friendly agrifood system which connects the land with health, education, tourism, energy, transport and other services.

Of course, this would require the types of reforms against existing institutional barriers and an outdated legal framework in Greece. Unfortunately, in the last five years, such reforms have never been put on the table by successive Greek governments nor their creditors.

Agrifood is only one example of the few sectors that can generate considerable social, economic and environmental benefits which are necessary towards a more resilient future for the country.

Moreover, it is possibly one of the very few ways to create jobs for the youth, who are challenged by a staggering 52.4 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the EU. Citizens are in need of new options and new development indicators need to be considered in rebuilding the country’s economy.

This change needs to start at the local level, leveraging the potential of the aforementioned initiatives and many more that are acting at the grassroots.”


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