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Archive for 'Culture & Ideas'

La’Zooz: The Decentralized, Crypto-Alternative to Uber

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
1st March 2015


What makes a lot of people uncomfortable about a phenomenon like Uber, when you get right down to it, is how it is owned. As in other mega-Internet companies, a small number of owners poised to take over a global industry—in this case, the taxi industry with ownership currently spread out among local drivers and operators. In response to Uber’s rise, there has been a flurry of proposals for driver-owned alternatives. But what if the real Uber-killer were owned by nobody?

Meet La’Zooz, a project that began in Israel but belongs to nowhere. Like Uber, Lyft or Sidecar, it’s an attempt to implement real-time ridesharing, but without the company. Using the same technology underlying the virtual currency Bitcoin—a distributed online ledger, or “blockchain”—the La’Zooz network would exist on the phones and computers of its community of users, rather than any central server. Rather than Bitcoin’s “proof of work” method of generating new tokens, which requires enormous computational power, La’Zooz generates new tokens—called “zooz”—with “proof of movement.” Basically, turn on your La’Zooz-enabled phone and drive. As you drive, you earn zooz tokens. Then, when you want a ride from someone else in the community, you can pay in zooz.

So far, La’Zooz is still a work in progress. Nobody has gotten a ride yet with it, though an Android app is available for those who want to start earning zooz by driving and bringing friends on to the network, for instance, by inviting them to download the app.

When I spoke with founders Matan Field and Shay Zluf, the ambition of functional ridesharing seemed like just an excuse for creating a truly decentralized, autonomous organization—an entity without owners, without central servers, a pure child of the Internet. But to make that happen, the ridesharing has to happen, too.

Nathan Schneider: Let’s begin by talking about where this all came from. How did La’Zooz get started, and how has it developed?

Shay Zluf: Sometimes things come to several people at around the same time. I became interested in real-time ridesharing when I was stuck in a traffic jam. And the same happened to Matan. I tried to make this idea a reality a few years ago, but back then people didn’t think it could happen. The evolution of social networks and the sharing economy has since changed people’s minds.

Matan Field: When we met each other and started talking with others, there was immediate positive feedback. It was completely clear that this was something that needed to happen. Initially we just talked about ridesharing, but from day one we knew that we weren’t just speaking about ridesharing. We would try to build a model of participation. Then we stepped into the Bitcoin space, and learned about decentralized organizations, and found out that the ideas we were abstractly thinking about had been born and raised on another side of the planet. Ridesharing was just the excuse. There’s a whole movement that’s going on—a movement for building the future of society, the future of organizations.

And is that where cryptocurrency comes in? Is that an essential part of making real-time ridesharing possible, or is it more of an add-on that you happen to be interested in?

MF: From the beginning, irrespective of the obstacle in ridesharing, we wanted to do things differently in terms of our own operations. But when we began to understand the difficulty of establishing enough of a critical mass of users to have a working system, we found that doing things differently could be a solution to that problem.

Making this a community project is not just a bonus or a nice thing—it’s what will overcome what caused others to fail. With blockchain technology, power is automatically distributed to the whole community. To raise a critical mass of participation, you can invent a token, then distribute that token to whoever contributes. They can be developers, founders, purchasers, or even early adopters. In that way there is an incentive for early participation. Then, as soon as the thing that you are trying to build is operational, there is a critical mass of participants ready to use that same token in the system. In our case, riders will share the cost of a drive with zooz tokens.

So this is how you’re financing the project right now? Is it being financed in some other way as well?

MF: At first we remunerated ourselves with zooz tokens according to a community decision. But since zooz didn’t have a market, we had to rely on our day-jobs and savings. We generated a market by selling some of our zooz tokens in a pre-sale three months ago, and there will be another presale as well. In the process, we are building a new model of full-scale decentralization, where any sort of contribution can be evaluated and price-tagged by the community in a decentralized manner.

How did the pre-sale work? How much was raised through it?

MF: We did a first pre-sale round about three to four months ago, and raised around $80,000; this round was mostly among family and friends, plus some other people who’d heard about us. Now we’re opening a more official pre-sale round this week, still not fully public—not announced in general media, at least. But we are telling everyone who has ever contacted us about it, and we announced it at Bitcoinference 2015 last week. There is a web interface dedicated to the sale, which will open on Wednesday, January 28. It will stay open for one week, allowing purchases of zooz with bitcoin or wire transfer up to total of $200,000. These funds will be used to support development until the opening of the crowd sale sometime in the near future. The rate for this pre-sale is a 12 percent discount from the what we call the “zooz peg rate,” which we expect to be the opening rate at the crowd sale.

How much adoption have you seen, and is it actually working? Is it possible to get a ride with zooz tokens?

SZ: The application that is out right now is for zooz mining. People are being rewarded with tokens when their phones send their location data and help to create the network. When the network reaches a certain critical mass, the ridesharing application will become operational. We learn a lot from our beta users—about 1,000 beta users. You can see their distribution around the world on our website.

In the context of a region where, for instance, the West Bank has separate roads for Israelis and for Palestinians, does this kind of technology create opportunities for new kinds of connections?

MF: For the problem you mention, I don’t think so because it’s controlled by the government, by the army. But I do truly believe that this kind of technology will lead to solutions and to peace because it will connect similarly minded people without relation to their geography.

SZ: People are much more interested in building bridges than governments, which have their own agendas.

How does your platform help facilitate the building of trust where it doesn’t already exist?

SZ: Part of the system will be a social matching algorithm, which will identify people’s similarities and dissimilarities from very esoteric data on the network—for instance, Facebook data. For security, also, we’ve thought of having an alert button connected to the application. Since the system is community-based, people driving nearby can respond to an alert if someone finds themselves in a situation that is not wanted.

That makes me curious about what kind of privacy protections there are. If mining takes place through movement and through transmitting location, then that location data would go on to a public blockchain—isn’t that right?

MF: Here, we need to distinguish two stages. Right now, everything is in testing, so the data is going to our servers. We are not looking at it for any reason. But eventually all this data will sit on a blockchain—on many, many servers, not one. For that we need a programmable blockchain, which Ethereum is building, and we are waiting for that to go live in a couple of months. Then we will gradually decentralize everything. This will be the most private scenario, actually, because all information will sit on a cryptographic blockchain, which means that nobody—including us—will be able to access the information. Whenever a rider and a driver are matched, only the part of the information that is necessary and public will be available between them.

So, the network will know everything, but people will only be able to access select parts of it. Have you run into any legal obstacles in developing this platform? Do you foresee any challenges with regulators?

MF: Above all, we are building infrastructures for multiple applications, not just ridesharing. We are building economic protocols, distributional protocols, decentralized reward mechanisms, and more. Included in that is also the legal structure. We have worked for almost six months on the structure that will enable us to function without any special regulation.

But you’re not forming a traditional corporate shell?

MF: The point here is that we have a model for full-scale decentralized operation. Many, many companies are talking about decentralization but not acting on it. They are building decentralized applications, but they are building them in a centralized way. Until the technology is mature, we are holding it in a centralized way as well, with a company that we just established. This company will have a legal structure that binds it to follow the rules of the protocol. Of course that’s not the ideal solution, but it’s a middle step before we reach full decentralization.

What are you expecting to see in the near future?

MF: We’ve been working for 15 months, and we have developed a lot of the protocols, a lot of the crypto-token technology, and what we call “vending machines” that implement these protocols. We’ve developed the beta version of the zooz-mining Android app that people can drive with in the background and collect zooz tokens. We still need to develop the app in iOS. We’ll soon develop the ride-sharing app. We will open the whole protocol probably around mid-February. From that day on, the protocol, the issuance, the distribution and the decision-making will be active. People will be able to start purchasing zooz tokens. At the same time, we are in touch with venture capitalists and private investors who want to inject funds into the project. Just as Shay and I are participants, companies can participate, contribute, and be rewarded with zooz tokens.

We haven’t pushed to expand the community of users because we don’t want to reach the critical mass before we have ridesharing all worked out. Yet without any marketing effort, the community of users is constantly growing. After three months of operation there are already more than 1,000 users. Gradually, we are also building the generic, decentralized platform. You can think of transportation as a test case where we develop these ideas and test them on the community. Then we will bring them to full scale, replacing all known industries one by one. Within five or six months, at least, we hope to have a working, real-time ridesharing service with a critical mass somewhere.


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Crowdsourcing, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, P2P Company Watch, P2P Development, P2P Money, P2P Technology | No Comments »

Glimmers of hope for a ‘fair shares society’

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
1st March 2015

fair share - pay yours

As part of STWR’sglobal call for sharingcampaign, we are periodically highlighting the growing public debate on the need for wealth, power and resources to be shared more equitably both within countries and internationally. This debate is becoming more prominent by the day, although it is often framed in an implicit context without directly acknowledging how the principle of sharing is central to resolving today’s interlocking crises.

In this light, the editorial below illustrates some of the many and diverse ways in which a call for sharing is being expressed, whether it’s by politicians, economists, campaigners, activists, academics or anyone else. To learn more about STWR’s campaign, please visit: www.sharing.org/global-call

Last month the reality of extreme global inequality was again a presiding theme of high-level discussion, not least at Davos where the world’s richest and most powerful get together “to convince themselves they are the good guys”. Remarkably, the World Economic Forum founder urged delegates that the motto for their 2015 meeting should be ‘sharing and caring’. But as STWR pointed out in a blog post, the solutions to global inequality are unlikely to come from the business elites that are in large measure responsible for creating it. Oxfam’s latest research on the growing wealth gap made global news headlines once again, based on a briefing paper that argued how the billions spent on corporate lobbying is increasingly moving society away from the direction of economic sharing and redistribution on behalf of the common good.

So from the very start of the year, the need to tackle inequality through policies that can share wealth more equitably is central to even mainstream debate – and will inevitably remain so in the midst of ongoing austerity measures, wage cuts and high unemployment in many high-income as well as low-income countries.

It is interesting to observe how the focus on inequality is shaping political attitudes in rich nations like the United States, especially following Obama’s State of the Union address that emphasised social mobility and the need to ‘spread the wealth’ more evenly. His proposed tax redistribution measures – dubbed the ‘Robin Hood plan’ and widely considered a “pipe dream” by Republicans – were at least centered on the need to bolster social programs that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans, paid for with tax increases on the wealthiest taxpayers, corporations and financial firms. As a hopeful sign of the times, Obama is apparently trying to reframe the debate over what government can do to limit inequality – focusing on real solutions rather than sterile arguments about economic growth versus equity.

As the UK gears up for its general election in May, bellicose discussions about equality, fairness, taxation and redistribution are also front and centre of political debate. A coalition of NGOs recently launched a campaign for a new law called the Tax Dodging Bill [see STWR blog], premised on the need for a just tax system that shares its wealth and resources fairly among the population. Campaigners highlight the need for big corporations to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes, both at home and abroad, and call for the next UK government to take definitive steps to crack down on tax dodging within the first hundred days of taking office.

Almost every British politician is now compelled to acknowledge the need for tax justice in one way or another, especially in light of the firestorm over HSBC’s complicity with international tax evasion. Indeed, one member of parliament has even called for a “fair shares society” in which businesses “share the wealth they minted”. Wading into the debate earlier last month, the Church of England has also spoken out in trenchant terms about the extreme inequality that defines modern Britain, arguing that moral principles and sharing should underpin the foundations of society [see STWR blog].

Occupy Democracy are also stepping up their activities at Parliament Square outside Westminster prior to the election, with a provisional set of demands that broadly encapsulate the need for a more equitable sharing of wealth, political power and resources across society as a whole – such as by closing down tax havens, reversing the privatisation of public services, abolishing university tuition fees, and instituting a universal basic income. The latter policy proposal has reinvigorated popular discourse in the UK over how society’s resources should be shared for the benefit of everyone, mainly in light of the resurgent Green Party’s plans to implement the measure for every adult in or out of work. Although many notable progressive analysts disagree with the proposal as a way to share work and incomes, some – like Paul Mason – argue that its logic could pose “a radical challenge to market economics” and help forge “a pathway to a different kind of economy”.

At the European level, much has happened since Syriza’s rise to power to ignite debate over what it means to live in a sharing society. As Paul Mason again writes in an incisive blog about Europe’s new populist left movement: “…if you think about it, all Podemos and Syriza are really trying to do is bring the Scandinavian model to the Aegean and the Med. …But here’s the problem: in a neoliberal world, even the basic welfare state can look revolutionary. Most projections for the survival of free-market capitalism involve the creation of greater inequality, a smaller state sector and a lower-paid workforce.”

It’s unclear as yet whether Syriza’s victory will spell the coming of a European Democratic Spring or the end of austerity, but there’s no doubt that progressive policies that reflect the principle of sharing are at least being seriously considered and discussed. There’s even the odd glimmer of hope that some policies are headed the right way, as with calls for cancelling Greece’s debt or Croatia’s plans to write-off the debts of 60,000 poor citizens. Plans for taxing the financial sector to generate public money for European countries – an EU-wide Robin Hood Tax – are also “still kicking”, according to The Economist.

Of course, government priorities and policies are generally headed far from the trajectory of global systemic change and economic sharing, as summed up in the concept of the ‘market-state’ which is outlined in a recent article by STWR’s Rajesh Makwana. Now more than ever, it is essential that ordinary citizens join hands with campaign groups and activists who are working to democratise our governance systems from the top down as well as the bottom up. And there is every indication that this is happening more and more, not least with the recent civil society mobilisation in Brussels against TTIP – the so-called ‘Trojan treaty’ that threatens democracy and puts corporate profits before people’s needs.

The above is just a snapshot of recent signs and trends that illustrate how the principle of sharing is increasingly being viewed as a solution to unjust power dynamics or inequitable wealth distribution. Much more could be mentioned, especially in terms of the environmental movement, new economy initiatives and the renewed concept of the commons – much more of which we will aim to highlight in future editorials. See in particular a recent interview by the P2P Foundation, which outlines STWR’s basic perspective about the ethic and practice of sharing in relation to commoning and peer-to-peer production.

For regular sharing-related links of the above nature you can visit STWR’s twitter andfacebook pages, as well as a new scoop.it! page on ‘what we’re reading’. And if you see that we’ve missed anything pertinent (due to our limited time to monitor the news media and progressive websites), please drop us a line at info@stwr.org. You can also sign up to our newsletter on the homepage if you’d like to receive regular updates in your email inbox about what we’re doing at STWR.

Photo credit: Chicago Man, flickr creative commons


Posted in Activism, Anti-P2P, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Original Content, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

A New Alignment of Movements?

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
28th February 2015


In September 2014, the Commons Strategies Group convened a three-day workshop in Meissen, Germany, of 25 policy advocates and activists from a variety of different economic and social movements.  The topic of the “deep dive”:  Can leading alt-economic and social movements find ways to work more closely together?  Can there be a greater convergence and collaboration in fighting the pathologies of neoliberalism? 

The activists hailed from movements devoted to the Social and Solidarity Economy, Degrowth, Co-operatives, Transition Towns, the Sharing and Collaborative Economy, Peer Production, environmental justice, and the commons, among others. While most came from Europe, there were also participants from Canada, the US, Brazil, Ireland and the UK. The workshop was organized by the Commons Strategies Group, which gratefully acknowledges the indispensable support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Germany) and the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (France and Switzerland).

Before this workshop, roughly a dozen of the same participants had deliberated on the topic of “open co-operativism” a few days earlier at a separate gathering in Berlin. The report synthesizing those conversations, “Toward an Open Co-operativism,” were released three weeks ago and can be found here. 

Below, the Introduction to the report, “A New Alignment of Movements?” which synthesizes the salient points of discussion from the Meissen workshop. The 39-page report, by David Bollier and Pat Conaty, can be downloaded as a pdf file here.  

Despite the deepening crisis of neoliberalism in Europe, no clear alternative critiques or philosophical approaches have emerged that could catalyze a united response or new convergence of movements. Indeed, the traditional left has not only not profited politically from the ongoing crisis, but, with a few exceptions, its popularity has actively declined. With the notable exception of the Greece, recent European elections have shown a marked move to the radical right among major segments of the European electorate.

But if the classic political expressions of resistance may be wanting, that does not mean that there have not been positive developments.  Amongst these are the “growth”of the degrowth movement and other ecological/sustainability oriented movements; the emergence of a commons orientation amongst political groups in countries like Italy; the creation of thousands of alternative solidarity mechanisms in Greece and Spain; a revival of co-operativism as an economic and social alternative; ongoing work by the Social and Solidarity Economy movement; and movements ranging from Transition Towns to “shareable cities” to local food.

Interesting political expressions include the massive mobilisations of youth around the 15M “real democracy”platform in Spain, the success of left parties with a transformative agenda such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the emergence of parties expressing digital culture such as the Pirate Parties (in more than two dozen nations), and platform parties calling for direct democracy like the Partido X in Spain. These efforts have been accompanied by many constructive efforts by precariously employed youth to create alternatives for their livelihoods, also expressed in the emergence of the “sharing economy.”

Is it possible to imagine a convergence of movement practice and goals – blending constructive, social and political movements –in ways that advance the idea of “unity in diversity”? Is it possible to imagine the reconstruction of socially progressive majorities at the local, national and European level?

This Deep Dive workshop is an attempt to host intensive forms of exploratory dialogue and cooperation among social movements.  Participants were associated with movements dedicated to co-operatives, a Degrowth economy, Social and Solidarity Economy, peer production, Transition Towns, ecological/ sustainability, and the commons. In sharing the more salient developments in their respective movements, participants reflected on the distinct strengths and weaknesses of their movements, the broader challenge of contributing to systemic change, and strategies for fostering a collaborative convergence.

A key question posed was whether the commons paradigm could function as a shared discourse, critique and ethic to help convene the various movements around a shared agenda for change?  The argument could be that as the relative political clout of the industrial working class steadily diminishes in Europe, we are losing the political equilibrium of forces and compromises that sustained the welfare state models in the first place.  If we look at the newly emergent work culture of the precarious knowledge workers, along with the other popular sectors, we may see the emergence of a potential sociological and political coalition around “commons-oriented political transformation” – a proposition that has been vividly affirmed in Greece.

This strategic question gave rise to a second goal of the workshop – to explore the specific potential of the commons paradigm for helping to align and coordinate cross-movement collaboration and action. Are there other commonalities that could foster a convergence of social and political movements around joint goals?  To address this, a third goal of the gathering was to explore possible vehicles for exploring and harnessing cooperative action in the future.  What specific sorts of vehicles, projects, social or economic issues, institutional partners, and so forth, might play a constructive role?  Moreover, how might this work be organized and supported over time?

Finally, assuming there was agreement on the above questions, the workshop sought to arrive at some consensus regarding next steps for achieving movement convergence.  Is there some way to re-create a political and social majority for sustainability-oriented social change?  How might we expand the capacities of each of our movements, unleash new synergies and offer new, more integrative solutions to the ecological, climatic, social and economic crises facing humankind?

Contents of the Report


I.  The General Challenge 

A.  The Co-operative Movement

B.  The Social Solidarity Economy

C.  The Degrowth Movement

D.  Peer Production

E.  The Sharing and Collaborative Economy

F.  The Commons Movement

II.  Strategies for a Convergence of Movements 

Do These Movements Overlap – or Not?

Notable Exploratory Projects

Strategies for Alliance Building

Suggested Action points for Moving Forward


Appendix A:  Workshop Participants

Appendix B:  Roadmap – 2015 Events that Offer Opportunities for Convergence

Originally published in Bollier.org


Posted in Commons, Commons Transition, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Business Models, P2P Collaboration, Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
27th February 2015

Last week I gave an opening lecture at Hampshire College at the launch of its new center for civic activism, the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how colleges and universities could engage more directly with changing the world — and how the commons could help open up some new fields of thought and action.  Scholarship has an important place, of course, but I also think the Academy needs to develop a more hands-on, activist-style engagement with the problems of our time.

I enjoyed the perspectives of LIz Lerman, a choreographer, performer, writer and founder of the Dance Exchange in Washington, D.C., who shared her hopes for the new center.  We shared an interest in the limits that language can impose on how we think and what we can imagine.

Below, my talk, “To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing,” a line borrowed from the British critic Raymond Williams.  My talk introduced the commons and explained why its concerns ought to be of interest to the new Hampshire College center.

Thank you for giving me the honor of reflecting on the significance of this moment and this initiative.  It is not every day that an academic institution takes such a bold, experimental leap into the unknown on behalf of social action and the common good.

I come to you as a dedicated activist who for the past forty years wishes there had been something like this when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1970s. I have always admired the image of what the French call l’homme engagé. I guess the closest American equivalent is “public intellectual.”  But neither of those terms quite get it right – because they don’t really express the idea of fierce intellectual engagement combined with practical action motivated by a passion for the common good. That’s the archetype that we need to cultivate today.

We stand at a precipice in history that demands that the human species achieve some fairly unprecedented evolutionary advances. I don’t want to get into a long critique of the world’s problems, but I do think it’s safe to say that humankind now faces some fundamental and unprecedented questions. These include questions about our modern forms of social organization and governance, and questions about our planet-destroying system of maximum production and consumption.

The dark menace looming over us all, of course, is climate change – an incubus that has been haunting us for more than a generation even as our so-called leaders look the other way.  That is surely because to confront the sources of climate change is tantamount to confronting the foundations of modern industrial society itself.  Climate change is simply the most urgent of a long cascade of other environmental crises now underway – the massive species extinctions, collapsing fisheries, soil desertification, dying coral reefs, depleted groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and so on.  Our species’ impact on the planet’s ecosystem is so pervasive that it now qualifies as a separate geological era, the Anthropocene.

It is customary to speak about problems with “the environment” and economic inequality as if they were something “out there” as abstract policy issues somehow separate from us.  But in fact these problems are rooted deeply inside of us – in how we relate to the more-than-human world, how we relate to each other, and how we have structured our institutions.

As a culture, we still inhabit the Cartesian claim that our bodies and minds are separate, and by extension that humanity is quite different from what we call “nature.”  This lets us maintain our self-delusion that we can continue our reckless dominion of the biosphere, particularly if there’s money to be made.

So why do I bring up these troubling reflections at the inauguration of this Project?

I think we have a rich and rare opportunity here to plant a new seed for growing a different societal logic and ethic – and to make common cause with others who are searching for a new civilizational DNA.  This initiative can help us grow a different social imaginary.  It can start some different types of conversations, scholarship and projects.  The ripple effects could go far beyond our beautiful little patch of western Massachusetts.

Before I explain more on why I have these wild ambitions, let me share some of my experiences in the vineyards of activism.  It might help explain why I see this project catalyzing so much.

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I was an American Studies major at Amherst College in the late 1970s, but I surely learned the most during my junior year off when I worked for Ralph Nader. This generation may not appreciate the character of Nader’s career before the 2000 presidential election, about which we could have a long discussion.  Suffice it to say that Ralph – who’s 81 years old in two weeks – has been one of the most creative and effective change-agents of the past fifty years.

Ralph’s big contribution was showing how ordinary citizens could step up to become public citizens and use the formal machinery of government to make a difference. Prior to Ralph’s arrival as an auto safety activist, ordinary citizens had very little to do with Congress besides voting and still less to do with regulation, let alone initiating entirely new fields of public concern – airbags and product recalls, the Freedom of Information Act, food safety, nuclear power safety, whistleblower protections, and much else.

Following my time with Nader, I worked a Member of Congress, Toby Moffett, before moving on to become the first research director of People for the American Way, the constitutional rights and civil liberties organization founded by television producer and activist Norman Lear.  For those of you digital natives, Lear was a big deal in the 1970s when there were only three commercial networks on TV. At one point, he had five of the ten top shows on TV, mostly because they dealt with explosive social and political issues with great humor:  Shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time,The Jeffersons, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and many others.

If Nader taught me about the role of rational empiricism in activism, People for the American Way taught me about the role of non-rational religious fundamentalism. From the scrappy, low-budget style of Nader activism, I moved on to the culture wars of the religious right and issues such as textbook censorship, “creation-science,” school prayer and judicial nominations. Throughout the 25 years that I spent with Lear, from whom I learned a great deal about understanding people as people, not as political stereotypes, I also pursued my own projects as an activist, including the cofounding of Public Knowledge, a Washington public interest group that fights against anti-social expansions of copyright law and for an open Internet.

As the 1990s wore on, I became depressed at the sorry state of American political culture – and the even sorrier state of progressive activism. The supposedly liberal Bill Clinton was the one who gave us telecom deregulation that resulted in massive media consolidation, the loosening of securities and banking laws that culminated in 2008 financial crisis, and so-called welfare reform that was going to morally rehabilitate poor people. Meanwhile, most nonprofits were becoming so professionalized and locked into their funding base that they didn’t dare to experiment or innovate lest it marginalize them politically or tarnish their “brands.”

I slowly came to realize that liberalism, at least as co-opted by electoral politics, was not going to produce the kinds of changes our society really needs. It became clear that conventional public policy and law are captured by the two major political parties, which themselves are both in tight collusion with business elites.  I call it the Market/State duopoly, the incestuous alliance of the two great forms of power in our country, which systematically seek to diminish both democracy and the commons.

To be sure, we can’t simply walk away from politics, policy and law; they remain vital arenas of engagement.  But let’s be honest – our politics today is too structurally compromised to produce much significant change. As Elizabeth Warren has said, the game is rigged.  We live in a time of predatory business organizations, poorly performing government institutions, moribund democratic participation, and slow-motion ecological collapse.

But if the 1990s incubated despair in me, I also discovered the great, transformative potential of the commons– which has been my passion for nearly twenty years. One general way to understand the commons is as everything that we inherit or create together, which we must pass on, undiminished, to future generations. The commons should be understood as a social system for managing shared wealth, with an emphasis on self-governance, fairness and sustainability.  The commons is also a worldview and ethic that is ancient as the human race but as new as the Internet.

It was about this time that I discovered the scholarship of Elinor Ostrom, an Indiana University political scientist who had been studying collective-action institutions for decades. Ostrom had conducted scores of studies of commons of forests, fisheries, farmland, irrigation water, wild game and other natural resources in impoverished regions of the world.  t’s a little known fact, but an estimated two billion people around the world depend on these commons for their everyday survival – but because this self-provisioning occurs outside of markets, without producers selling to consumers, economists have relatively little interest in studying it.  Ostrom’s big achievement was showing that it is entirely possible for communities to manage shared resources over the long term without succumbing to the so-called “tragedy of the commons.”

Ah, yes, the “tragedy of the commons”!  If you mention “the commons” to someone today, that is invariably the first idea that comes to mind.  The term “tragedy of the commons” was launched by a now-famous 1968 essay by biologist Garrett Hardin in the journal Science.  Imagine a pasture in which no individual farmer has a rational incentive to hold back his use of it, said Hardin.  He declared that each individual farmer will put as many sheep on the pasture as possible, which will inevitably result in the over-exploitation and destruction of the pasture:  the tragedy of the commons.

The point of the story is to demonstrate that the shared management of resources will invariably fail.  It is true that finite resources can be over-exploited, but the “tragedy of the commons” does not really describe a commons. Hardin was describing an open-access regime that has no rules, boundaries or indeed no community. In fact, the situation he was describing – in which free riders can appropriate or damage resources at will — is more accurately a description of unfettered markets. You might say Hardin was describing the tragedy of the market.

But over the past two generations, the “tragedy parable” was elevated into a cultural cliché by economists and conservative ideologues.  They saw it as a powerful way to promote private property rights and so-called free markets, and to fight government regulation.

The point is that the tragedy story is simply not grounded in empirical reality.  Ostrom’s landmark 1990 book, Governing the Commons:  The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, powerfully refuted the “tragedy” parable by extensive fieldwork that revealed that people talk to each other and negotiate solutions to prevent the over-exploitation of resources.  From her studies, Ostrom identified eight key “design principles” in successful commons, which are broadly applicable to most commons today.  She went on to build a large international network of scholars who study the commons, blending sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, environmental studies, and other fields.  For her pioneering work in studying the role of cooperation in generating value, Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 – the first woman to win the award.

I think Ostrom’s insights as a woman in a field of male economists are worth noting here.  You see, Ostrom did not see economics as an ultra-rational mathematical science that sees the economy as a machine.  Ostrom saw economics as dealing with social relationships, collective-action problems, and the unacknowledged power of cooperation.

There were two other things going on in the 1990s that pushed me out of the liberal tradition and into the commons. The first was the emergence of the World Wide Web in 1994 as a popular medium.  It gradually became clear to me that cyberspace is a highly generative realm in which neither the state nor the market is the driving force. Here, social cooperation is pervasive and hugely productive without markets or formal law. I learned to see that the Internet is really a massive hosting platform, a new lightweight infrastructure, that is fantastically generative because it lets people self-organize their own commons.

When blogs, wikis, social networks and Creative Commons licenses began to proliferate in 2003 and after, it was clear that something very new and different had arrived:  a new sector of commons-based peer production! There is in fact a vast Commons Sector of non-market, not-state production and culture online. This phenomenon simply cannot be explained by mainstream economics and its model of human beings as selfish, rational, utility-maximizing materialists.

The second thing that I encountered in the 1990s was the unlikely rise of an eclectic social movement based on the principles of commons.  t has had two notable international conferences, in 2010 and 2013, which I co-organized, and it has many active hubs of strategic action. This movement – largely independent of Ostrom’s academic scholarship – consists of food activists trying to rebuild local agriculture; software programmers building free software and open source software; artists devoted to collaborative digital arts; and scientific communities sharing their research and data on open platforms.

The commons movement also consists of many people who are fighting the privatization and commodification of their shared wealth by the “free market” – a process that is known as “enclosure of the commons.”  These commoners include:  indigenous peoples trying to preserve their ethnobotanical knowledge from the biopiracy of big pharmaceutical and ag-biotech companies. Subsistence farmers and fishers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by industrial harvesting. South African shack dwellers who are asserting their rights to self-determination against developers. And Latin Americans fighting the neo-extractivist agenda of multinational companies plundering oil, minerals and genetic knowledge.

While these communities vary immensely, they are all asserting a different universe of value.  They all share a basic commitment to production for use, not market exchange…the right to participate in making the rules that govern themselves….the importance of fairness and transparency in governance….and the responsibility to act as long-term stewards of resources.

They also share a hostility to market forces that are trying to enclose wealth that belongs to everyone.  I consider enclosures of the commons one of the great, unacknowledged scandals of our times – a massive theft and dispossession of common wealth for private gain.

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As I studied the many tribes of commoners around the world, I came to realize that a large part of the problem that they all face is the very language that is used to perceive and explain problems. I came to realize that our very categories of thought, our vocabulary, are shot through with regressive political implications.  We all live under the sway of a moral narrative about economic growth, consumerism, progress and corporate control – and these stories have a logic and ethic that are deeply embedded in our language.

For example, such familiar pairings of words as “public” and “private”; and “individual” and “collective”; and “production” and “consumption” tacitly point to a world dominated by government and markets in the service of economic growth. The dichotomies have erased the very idea of the commons, quietly preventing us from even considering non-market relationships and social organization as possible or consequential.  We are given a choice between the “public” and “private” sectors – government or markets – but the void in our language prevents us from choosing to self-organize our own commons. It is assumed that government is the only legitimate agent of the public will.

So, upon encountering the idea of commons, I realized that its greatest potential is in helping to develop a different discourse – a way of imagining a new sector of life that is quasi-autonomous from both government and the market.

In the 1970s, I had seen how American business had quite deliberately set about neutering the nation’s health, safety and environmental laws by inventing a new discourse.  They called it cost-benefit analysis.  The goal was to use pseudo-scientific quantification to make regulatory decisions:  Is it “worth the cost” to ban a given pesticide?  Is it “worth” saving a species from extinction?  Cost-benefit analysis provided a number-based language of experts and economists to override the social and ethical policies behind congressional statutes.  And that’s one way that industry blunted or reversed much of the environmental activism of the 1960s and 1970s:  it required government to adopt the language of the market, cost-benefit analysis.

This was a revelation to me:  Discourse is law.  And it’s something that progressive advocates have never really learned.  They have never developed a discourse that can express their own putative values.  Wittingly or not, most have instead embraced the utopian narrative of American neoliberalism – that human progress will continue through economic growth, new and better technology, and a system of government that caters to the demands of capital while making grudging concessions to social or environmental concerns.

I suspect you can guess where I’m heading:  I think it’s time for a new grand narrative and a new cultural discourse.  I’m not talking about new sorts of political “messaging” or a retread of state-oriented leftist ideology.  I’m talking about a different worldview and ethic.  I’m talking about a different ontology for describing who we are and our relationships to each other and the more-than-human world.  We need a different epistemology to go beyond the neoDarwinian, free-market narratives that presume that humanity is mostly nasty, brutish, competitive and incapable of cooperation and mutual support.

Human beings are not self-made individuals.  We are not homo economicus.  Evolutionary science backs up the principle of “Ubuntu” that is used in South Africa – “I am because of who we are.”  Our individualism is nested without our collective relationships.

Let me stress that this is not just a philosophical discussion for the seminar room and learned journals.  In the world of the commons, it is a very practical discussion with countless real-life applications.

You see the commons among seed-sharing cooperatives in India, where women pass down native seeds from mother to daughter, as if in quiet compact among generations and the Earth.

You see the commons in thousands of open source software projects and among the 100,000 Wikipedians globally working on dozens of different language editions of that project.

You see the commons in more than 10,000 open access scholarly journals that bypass commercial publishers and let academic disciplines retain the fruit of their own works.

You see the commons in the movements within academia for open textbooks, so that students don’t have to keep paying textbook publishers for over-priced new editions.  And you see the commons in the open educational resources, or OER, movement, which is producing “open courseware” that is radically improving access to learning around the world.

You see the commons in the 882 million works internationally that use Creative Commons licenses, inverting the automatic propertization of culture under copyright law and making it legally shareable.

You see commons in local food initiatives such as Community Supported Agriculture, Slow Food, and permaculture – all of which privilege the social or regional community over the demands of footloose capital.

You see commons in the burgeoning movement to reinvent the city as commons.  This idea, paradoxically enough got its start when then-Prime Minister Berlusconi proposed privatizing the nation’s water systems – an idea that was defeated in a voter referendum by more than 90% of the vote.  Significantly, water was named as a commons in this campaign, which helped catapult it into mainstream political life.

Once people understood that water is a commons, they began to see endangered commons everywhere – in grand public theaters, in parks, in urban spaces.  And so they began to organize as commoners to reclaim them.  Now, in Bologna, for example, there are now serious efforts to create public/commons partnerships – cooperation between municipal government and self-organized commoners – as a way to move beyond corrupt public/private partnerships that steal our common wealth.

You see commons in localities that use alternative currencies such as the Bangla-Pesa in Kenya, which has made it possible for poor people in slum neighborhoods to exchange value with each other.  I am especially excited by the so-called “blockchain” technology that enables Bitcoin to function as a currency without any third-party guarantors such as banks or government. This technology transcends the particular problems of Bitcoin itself because it makes possible all sorts of trustworthy, large-scale cooperation as a self-organized phenomenon.

You see the commons in the explosion of open design and manufacturing – design that is globally shared but manufacturing that is local, inexpensive, accessible to anyone, and modular, in the style of open source software. This movement has produced the Wikispeed car that gets 100 miles per gallon of fuel….the Farm Hack community that has produced dozens of pieces of affordable farm equipment…. and specialized open-source prosthetic limbs that major medical suppliers don’t have the creativity or profit incentive to make.

I wanted to give you this brief survey of commons projects to suggest the breadth and variety of innovation going on.  What’s exciting is that these commons amount to ontological disruptions. They are developing new types of relationships among people and with the Earth.

Instead of focusing on stocks and inventories of things, the commons is all about flows of creative energy and production. Instead of focusing on impersonal transactions in the market, the commons is about nourishing enduring relationships among people.  Instead of focusing on bottom lines and the maximal accumulations of capital, the commons offers a vision of society based on the intensification of living systems. The commons gives us a way to reimagine and reinvent how we can produce things and govern ourselves – and in turn, develop new cultural identities that go beyond “citizen” and “consumer” as traditionally understood.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the immensity and scale of the world’s problems. The commons invites us to look at the sphere of influence that each of us has right now.  What are our talents and passions?  What peer group can be work with or create?  A friend of mine at UMass Amherst, the late Julie Graham, writing with her colleague Katherine Gibson, once wrote, “If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies.”

If we allow political parties, government, news and entertainment media, and large corporations to define our aspirations, then we will be capitulating to – in the words of anthropologist David Graeber – “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.”

On the other hand, if we trust our experience and bodies, we can start an upward spiral of change even if it that seems to put us on the fringe.  The great lesson of open networks is that seemingly isolated, marginal voices are often ubiquitous.  It’s just that each voice has not found the others and gone viral.

I hope it is clear by now that the commons is not just another word for “the public interest” or the “common good.”  It certainly aspires to produce those outcomes, but it has a deeper personal resonance. Notice that a commons is not simply a resource.  It is a distinct social system that develops its own rules and practices, and customs and rituals, for managing a shared resource.  Commons tend to embody certain recurrent principles:  Self-determination.  Fairness.  The inalienability of resources from the market.  Ecological stewardship.  Localism.  A different paradigm of development.

What I especially like about the commons is the new bonds of solidarity that it can foster among people from some very different realms – North and South, city and countryside, digital and subsistence, indigenous and modern.  This is what is happening right now as all sorts of transnational tribes of commoners around the world find each other.

There are now efforts among many alternative-economic and social movements to find ways to collaborate. They include:

· the Social and Solidary Economy movement, which is big in Europe and Brazil;

· the Degrowth movement, which is especially popular in Europe;

· the Transition Town movement that is developing new forms of sustainable localism in anticipation of Peak Oil and climate change disruptions;

· the Co-operative movement, which is pioneering new forms of multi-stakeholder co-ops that go beyond workers and consumers;

· the Sharing and collaborative economy movement that is using open network platforms to encourage new forms of sharing;

· the tech-oriented peer production world of hackers and FabLabs and the Maker movement; and

· the commons movement that provides a lingua franca to bring together the pluralism of voices.

I am pleased to add to this list the new Greek Government. Giannis Dragasakis, the new Greek deputy prime minister, last week explicitly endorsed a commons-based strategy for social reconstruction in an address before Parliament. Syriza clearly sees the commons as an important element in the social reconstruction of their austerity-ravaged economy.

These movements represent a disruption of the prevailing worldview. They are a deliberate flouting of boundaries set by conventional politics.  Each in their own way is struggling to move beyond some limitations of Enlightenment thinking to assert a new sort of cooperative humanism, which a good friend of mine, German theoretical biologist Andreas Weber, calls the Enlivenment. 

Weber is a biosemiotics researcher and ecophilosopher who argues that neoDarwinistic principles are a factually inaccurate, specious justification for free market ideology. The many reductionist, mechanical principles that science uses for studying living organisms prevent us from seeing that all living organisms are meaning-making creatures, from microorganisms to homo sapiens. As other evolutionary scientists such as Martin Nowak, David Sloan Wilson and Samuel Bowles suggest, an economy based on cooperation is not a fantasy – it’s our human heritage.  The homo economicus of free market theory is a grotesque aberration in history.

I find Weber’s arguments compelling because he makes the case that living systemsmust be understood as living systems:  creative, evolving, dynamic, relational, sense-making.  Living creatures can’t be understood as clockwork machines without creative or moral agency.  This is obviously a much longer conversation, but the commons makes so much sense to me because it insists upon seeing economics not as a machine or even a science, but as a rich social economy of creative moral agents – a living human system integrated with a living planet and myriad lifeforms to which markets must be subordinate and held accountable.

+                     +                     +

What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with the Ethics and the Common Good project?  I like to think that the themes I’ve been discussing could animate this initiative in the years ahead.

Traditional higher education is being buffeted by the speed of change in contemporary life, the blurring of disciplines andthe power of network culture.  Traditional scholarship is being challenged more than ever by the vitality of practitioner communities outside of the Academy.  Meanwhile, most colleges and universities that I’ve encountered are disinclined to innovate or adapt.

What’s sorely needed are new sorts of experimental, hands-on engagement that link the Academy and the “real world.”  Education needs to become more about participatory learning, and not just about the transfer of expert knowledge from professor to student.

There’s an epistemological crises going on within the Academy, too:  What sorts of knowledge shall be deemed credible and respectable?  How should scholars engage with the world?

Scholarship often presumes to be morally neutral, but if I have learned anything from the commons, it is that subjective emotions and embodied knowledge are also important ways of understanding the world. So I hope that this project will provide a new vehicle to grapple with varieties of knowledge in transdisciplinary ways, and in new voices.

The questions raised here go further than Hampshire College.  By focusing on our fuller humanity and on the common good, the Ethics and the Common Good project can initiate new conversations about What is an education for, anyway?  It isn’t just about endowing individuals with new talents to earn lots of money.  It’s about imagining how we can play meaningful roles in improving the common good.  And more: education should try to catalyze such changes, beyond the contributions of scholarship.

Since I invariably see things through the prism of the commons, I see this project itself acting as a type of self-organized, collaborative commons – one that could empower a wider community to participate in imagining new forms of production and governance.  The Ethics and the Common Good project could help us reclaim the commons – the realm of social relationships and life that precedes the market and the state.

In the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was insisting that Great Britain adopt the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, budget cuts and new privileges for capital, she insisted, as the European Union now insists to the Greeks, “There is no alternative!”  The phrase that was later shortened to its acronym, TINA.

Well, looking around at the commons and the many companion movements bursting out all over, it is clear that the more accurate acronym is TAPAS – “There are plenty of alternatives!”  The only question is whether we have the eyes to see them and the courage to commit to them.

The great British critic Raymond Williams put it well:  “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”  That is the real challenge that we face, to overcome cynicism and hopelessness, and to quicken the many serious alternatives awaiting our creativity.

I hope that the Leadership and Ethical Engagement Project will make the most of this entirely realistic future. Thank you.

Originally published in Bollier.org


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Conferences, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Epistemology, P2P Subjectivity, P2P Theory, Peer Property, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

Debating the degrowth alternative

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
27th February 2015


Giorgos Kallis, a prominent scholar on ‘degrowth’, recently wrote an essay that was the subject of debate among members of the Great Transition Initiative network. Below is a comment from STWR’s Rajesh Makwana that responded to the following theme of discussion: is degrowth, as currently formulated, sufficiently rigorous and inclusive to offer the theoretical legitimacy and political unity for a system shift?

To read Giorgos Kallis’s essay along with other selected comments from the discussion, as well as Kallis’s response to the debate, please visit this link

This is an excellent article on the immensely important issue of degrowth, with a comprehensive overview that avoids focusing only on local-scale solutions to global-scale problems. Clearly, the vision and principles underpinning the degrowth perspective can contribute much to the discourse on planetary limits and the urgent need for a new paradigm for economic development—especially since it is inherently a political perspective that directly challenges neoclassical economics.

However, in relation to the debate on how to facilitate a great transition, I think the issue of degrowth is likely to be a red herring. As a popular framing that can mobilize a global citizens movement or enable system change on the scale needed, degrowth is limited. Apart from concerns around what might (paradoxically) still need to grow in a degrowth society, which might even include GDP, a key concern is its negative and unappealing framing.

In an interconnected world, any great transition can only happen if it is underpinned by broad principles that have real transformative potential and can mobilize support on a scale never before achieved. Almost half the planet still lives in two-dollar-a-day poverty, and this number increases dramatically if we shift the poverty line upwards. The demand for degrowth is not likely to appeal to the poorest and most disenfranchised—those who will benefit the most from a great transition, and whose support is therefore essential in the creation of a “movement of movements.”

I suggest that the concept and practice of sharing could be used to reframe the degrowth debate, as it embodies critical concepts such as redistribution and participation while also alluding to the need to live within the constraints of “one-planet living.” For example, we could talk about the creation of a “sharing society,” “sharing the Earth,” or even “shared planet economics.” This more positive framing lends itself to an important debate on sufficiency—the ethic of “enough” versus the materialistic culture of “more.” It also speaks to the many sharing-related reforms that must be part of any transition to a degrowth society (some of which Kallis mentions in his essay)—from redistributing wealth, power, and jobs to sharing knowledge, land, and natural resources. In particular, the frame of global sharing lends itself to the growing recognition that humanity must work together on an international scale if we are to create the conditions to thrive peacefully on a planet with finite resources.

As for the central problem of economic growth, rather than promoting degrowth as a policy framework or a collective demand, the aim should perhaps be for governments to simply deprioritize the pursuit of GDP growth so that it is no longer considered a panacea for prosperity. Instead, public policy should be geared towards more appropriate goals and indicators that focus on the attainment of economic, social, and cultural rights within an overarching global framework of planetary limits. But as Kallis rightly points out, this paradigm shift will not be possible until governments find more effective ways of cooperating on global issues and reforming systems of global governance so that they are far more inclusive and democratic than is currently the case.



Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

Guerrilla Translation: Welcome Back, and Looking Forward

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
26th February 2015

Reposted from GuerrillaTranslation.org, my partner Ann Marie Utratel describes Guerrilla Translation’s journey in the last year and gives an overview of our new websites and our plans for 2015.

GT supercollage

Images from some of our articles

We know it may have seemed as if we’ve been inactive, or even as if we’d given up. Nothing could be further from the truth, so let me tell you a bit about our feverish year. Stacco attended the 2014 OuiShare Fest in Paris, France, and we were voted one among five winners. Together, we attended the subsequent OuiShare Acceleration Week in Paris. The two of us with Guy James helped represent the P2P Foundation at the OpenEverything Convergence held in Dublin and Cloughjordan, Ireland in September. With Arianne Sved and Susa Oñate, we developed our member screening and testing processes, and open governance model. The latter is directly inspired by the work of Enspiral (the group that developed Loomio); we had the chance to meet Ben Knight and Hannah Salmon of Loomio when they visited Madrid in the autumn. Stacco, with help from the team, built our GT wiki full of information for both public view and internal reference. Stacco also appeared on national Spanish television to talk about the project. We’ve subtitled the interview in the video below.

Arianne headed up a conference in Barcelona centered on a universal basic income proposal for Spain, participated in her local Guanyem and Podemos circles, and was even a local Podemos citizens’ council candidate. Carmen Lozano Bright came on board near the end of the year, and helped greatly with strategic planning for the relaunch. Carmen also received an ECF research grant for a project called P2P Plazas; Guy and I helped her during the proposal stage. Carmen will also lead one of our upcoming special projects centered on David Bollier’s book “Think like a Commoner”. Again with Guy, we got involved in some other related synergistic initiatives including FairCoop. I had an article published in STIR magazine. To finish off the year, the three of us hackathoned our way through building and launching the Commons Transition platform, wiki and e-book! And the entire team (including Lara, Rocío, Cristopher, and Georgina) prepared all of the new translations.

It was a truly action-packed year full of surprises, lessons and connections. Individually and as a team, we intensified our participation in the fields we’re passionate about, and developed new relationships with like-minded people. We aren’t a very large team, though, so between these events, we actively engaged some new collaborating members. Being a collective means that we always need to work on our collaborative relationships, and sometimes things don’t work out as hoped. In the end, we’re grateful for the experience and the work. Finally, in the autumn of 2014, we began working in earnest to re-launch the site with a number of objectives in mind. Allow me to take you through our recent changes and near-future plans.

We hope you like our redesigned web magazine; we’ve made a lot of changes with our readers in mind. Our original site presented a generous selection of translations, transcriptions, and other texts – roughly 100 pieces in total, ranging from 500 to 9,000 words, plus an abundance of subtitled videos. But with the constraints of our WordPress theme and other limitations, we had both target languages (Spanish and English) lumped together. Also, the menus and other factors made navigation less than ideal. We simply outgrew our original site. To address these obvious flaws, we spent several months creating two new, separate sites: guerrillatranslation.org for target English content, and guerrillatranslation.es for target Spanish (tell all your friends!)


Guerrilla Translation, FairCoop and P2P Foundation superhero, Guy James

We’ve preserved the large, “widescreen” image effect in the featured content section, which includes long-form narrative texts with a healthy shelf life. The revamped menus now make the site more navigable and logically organized. We’ve also created a dedicated space for our subtitled videos. We’ve updated and enlarged our static content pages, including our Founding Principles and FAQ, author pages and our regular team bios.

Since launching in 2013, we’ve never had a means to receive any donations for our pro-bono work; we now have a donations page. You can also learn about the services we offer as a complement to our pro-bono work here on this page.

We’re especially proud to share this series of generous testimonials from some of the authors we’ve worked with.

We worked very hard this year on our mission to share information with our peers worldwide, and to help change the overall narrative of our times by incorporating new stories that carry human and environmentally-grounded values.

Looking forward to what we intend to do in 2015, it’s hard to imagine our plates being much fuller, but an abundance of choices is not something to complain about. Here are some of our plans and intentions:

  • Developing a project in collaboration with the author David Bollier, using his book “Think Like a Commoner” in a Spanish translation as a pilot self-publishing and co- or crowd-financed project.
  • Some of us will continue working with the P2P Foundation on a regular basis, including maintaining the Commons Transition site, developing the commons-based reciprocity license (“Copyfair”) project, and collaborating with general management and fundraising strategizing, among other activities.
  • We’ll keep expanding our collaboration with our friends in the Catalan Integral Cooperative, FairCoop, las Indias, DIWOland, Shareable, MediaLab-Prado, la Plataforma por la Libertad de Prensa, Platoniq/Goteo, and many others. As different as these groups may seem, we’ve had the benefit of direct relationships with them all, and have learned a lot about their common ground, collaborative spirit and rich diversity.
  • Ongoing participation in the customized development of specialized value-tracking software for our unique economic redistribution model, in conjunction with Mikorizal Software, Sensorica and other players.
  • Team-building and -strengthening, striking a balance between being selective (regarding skills, independence/teamwork flexibility, commitment, reliability and time management) contrasted with the level of inclusion and cohesive, familiar dynamics we prefer.
  • Finally, I will be joining the Platoniq and Goteo teams for a six-month international project.

Thank you for being part of our growing circle of readers, authors and translators. We hope you enjoy our work and feel moved to share it widely, and we welcome your feedback.

Ann Marie Utratel

Co-founder, Guerrilla Translation

Ann Marie presents GT at the Ouishare Acceleration week

Ann Marie presents GT at the Ouishare Acceleration week

PPLicense mockup small
Produced by Guerrilla Translation
under a Peer Production License.

Backgound image to “Welcome Back and Looking Forward” side widget by Sami Farin


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons Transition, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Project, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Company Watch, P2P Development, P2P Labor, Sharing | No Comments »

The New Greek Government Endorses Commons-Based, Peer Production Solutions

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
25th February 2015

All attention in Greece and global financial circles has been understandably focused on the new Greek Government’s fierce confrontation with its implacable European creditors. Less attention has been paid to the Government’s plans to help midwife a new post-capitalist order based on commons and peer production.

A commons colleague, John Restakis,wrote about this possibility a week or so before the January 25 elections. Now, speaking to the Greek Parliament last week, the new Deputy Prime Minister Gianni Dragasakis explicitly stated that Greece will develop new sorts of bottom-up, commons-based, peer production models for meeting people’s needs.

Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, who works with the P2P Foundation’s P2P Lab based in Ioannina, Greece, has been following the situation in Greece closely.  Kostakis, a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance in Tallin, Estonia, writes:

Syriza seems to be adopting policies and reforming certain laws in a fashion that resembles the Partner State Approach practices, with regard to education, governance and R&D. To mention a few:

· opening up the public data;

· making openly available the knowledge produced with tax-payers’ money;

· creating a collaborative environment for small-scale entrepreneurs and co-operatives while favoring initiatives based on open source technologies and practices;

· developing certain participatory processes (and strengthening the existing ones)  for citizen-engagement in policy-making;

· adopting open standards and patterns for public administration and education.

These plans/initiatives could be seen both as seeds of a new model for economic development and as solutions to exiting politico-economic, or “structural” problems:  revealing and controlling corruption, improving lax tax enforcement etc.  It is true that from program to implementation, several steps are required, however the first step seems to have been made: Syriza appears to not only be aware of the advantages of free/open source technologies but also to realize the potential and the new political economy of this emerging proto-mode of production.

Thus, the question is, Will Syriza create (and will be allowed to create) the conditions for a transition towards a full-mode of Commons-based peer production?

Kostakis notes that Andreas Karitzis, member of Syriza’s think tank on digital policies and an unsuccessful candidate MP, wrote an article in the Greek version of the Huffington Post before the electiions. Karitzis mentioned his party’s commitment to free/open source technologies, transparency and participatory democracy.  Syriza also apparently intends to develop the new CopyFair licenses for open hardware and support the creation of networks of distributed micro-factories (fablabs/makerspaces).

Amateur translator Eleftherios Kosmas – a member of a commons based collective like hackerspace.gr and a strong supporter of the commons – provided a translation of Deputy Prime Minister Dragasakis’ speech and considered the following remarks the most interesting:

I would like to, conclude with the permission of the President, with a general thought. Often in everyday life we all live events happening whose importance is only clear in hindsight. We live, then, not only in an historic era characterized by the crisis and the collapse of obsolete models, but we live a crisis that will eventually spawn new models and new social organization models, as was done in the past.

In this sense, then, this is an opportunity to take up the deficits of the past, to close this modernization deficit, but by addressing the contemporary social problem of unemployment, social security and social exclusion.  This could establish a new paradigm in Greece and other countries of southern Europe, combining advanced forms of democracy, social self-motivation, social justice on a strong foundation of common goods, a society-centric model, which would give dignity and confidence in society hope to the people, optimism in the new generation.

Thus Greece, from being the guinea pig of austerity and destruction, could be a ground of pioneering ideas and policies, and the benefit would not be just for us. The world would become a security goal in a region of insecurity, and “aged” Europe could rediscover through the symbiosis of different development models inside.

Let’s not rush some to say that these are utopias because there are utopias that are realistic. There are those whose implementation depends not on supernatural powers, but by the unity and collective action of ordinary people in Europe, in Greece and worldwide. Thank you.

Kosmas helpfully provides a link to Dragasakis’s speech in Greek here.

There are a number of knowledgeable and committed commoners internationally who have been in touch with Syriza officials, including a number of Greek commoners and P2P activists.  Two of the most notable are Vasilis Kostakis and George Papanikolaou, who are the administrators of the P2P Foundation’s Greek branch.  The Greek Government may wish to turn to the many concrete commons/P2P policy approaches on display at the Commons Transition Plan.

As official interest in the commons and peer production grows, many Greeks (and international supporters) are surely looking forward to the third annual CommonFest, which will be held in Athens from May 15-17, 2015.

Originally published in Bollier.org


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Open Government, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Governance, Politics | No Comments »

Beyond the market-state: decentralising power in a sharing society

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
25th February 2015

FIght for democracy Shutterstock

At a time when governments are failing abysmally to mitigate climate change, reduce inequality or end poverty, the key to creating a more equal and sustainable world is establishing participative forms of political engagement at all levels of society – from the local to the global.

In an era of politics characterised by unconstrained corporate lobbying, a well-oiled ‘revolving door’ between industry and government, and an endless stream of campaign contributions from dirty oil and other lucrative industries, is the long-championed ideal of a truly democratic state now a lost cause? Should concerned citizens and activists turn their attention instead to establishing sustainable economic alternatives within their towns and communities? Or should we all be doing much more to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, as Abraham Lincoln once avowed?

Few questions are more pertinent at a time when levels of trust and support for the political elite have reached an all-time low across the globe. This is not surprising given the extent to which policies that uphold the common good have been steadily marginalised over the past three decades in favour of those that promote a predominantly neoliberal agenda. As Oxfam’s head of global policy and campaignsrecently mentioned, “policies such as public provision of services, public ownership and subsidy of industry, progressive taxation of rich individuals and corporations, strong trade unions and labour rights, full employment, universal welfare states, strong limits to intellectual property – are still pretty much frozen out of current debates.” The consequences of what has become an almost global adherence to a market-driven ideology is plain to see: a failure of governments to stem the growth in inequality or significantly reduce global poverty, and an inability to agree upon the basic measures needed to curb global carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

For the most part, campaigners and progressive organisations recognise that our governments seem incapable of addressing these and many other interconnected crises. Most are also united in acknowledging the root cause of this failure: the illegitimate power of multinational corporations. It is widely recognised that the greatest influence over public policy in today’s globalised world is not wielded by the electorate, but rests with a powerful elite of wealthy individuals and transnational businesses that have unwarranted access to the corridors of power. As this year’s State of Powerreport by the Transnational Institute sums up, “corporations have succeeded in replacing rule of law with Global Corporate law, using a multitude of norms, treaties and agreements – most recently the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership [TTIP] – to secure their rights to profit above human rights.” In short, we are witnessing a crisis of governance and democracy at all levels of society – from local municipalities and national government, all the way up to the United Nations.

This reality is neatly encapsulated in the concept of the ‘market-state’, which illustrates the imbalance of power between the private sector and citizens, and the impact this has over the formulation of public policy. The phrase was first coined by the law scholar and national security expert Philip Bobbitt in 2002, to reflect the evolution of a new globalised constitutional order in which governments work towards maximising economic opportunity rather than safeguarding the welfare of individuals. Nowadays, however, it is used more generally to describe the fused relationship between governments and big business and the impact this has on society, and is often used as a point of reference by proponents of the commons. As commons theorist James Quilligan explains, “the private sector and banks are rapidly swallowing up governments and bending national constitutions to their favor, decreasing the role of government and limiting our political rights as citizens. Voting and popular representation are becoming less meaningful because governments are pledged to support the interests of large corporations, not the people’s interests.”

In light of this democratic deficit and the political disenfranchisement that inevitably follows, engaged citizens are increasingly turning to unconventional forms of social and economic organisation that are inherently more egalitarian and provide stakeholders with greater empowerment and more influence over the decisions that affect them. A whole swathe of ‘new economy’ initiatives have recently emerged to foster community participation and increase access to goods and services in an ecologically conscious way, while broadly aligning to the increasingly popular concept of ‘de-growth’.

Examples of this assorted grouping of social, environmental and entrepreneurial activities include the Transition Towns and commons movements, the numerous sharing economy and peer-to-peer networks and platforms, cooperatives and community supported agriculture, open source software, co-housing initiatives, and much more besides. Implicit in the pursuit of these predominantly locally-rooted alternatives is the growing awareness that we urgently need a radical transformation in the way we organise society, particularly in relation to how we share the planet’s finite resources. As Gar Alperovitz (a prominent exponent of co-operative enterprise) argues, the goal of these diverse new economy initiatives is “democratized ownership of the economy for the 99 percent”.

From local alternatives to global reforms

The manifold benefits of new economy initiatives should not be underestimated, especially as they go beyond financial measures of economic prosperity to include personal wellbeing, social cohesion and environmental protection. For example, the burgeoning co-operative movement boasts over a billion members globally and is characterised by strong ethical principles that go far beyond hackneyed notions of corporate social responsibility, while often encouraging the participation of both employees and consumers in decision-making processes. Transition Towns and other resilience initiatives are also gaining in popularity, with their core emphasis on regenerating communities and local economies, providing social support networks, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels and carbon intensive processes. At the same time, tech-based forms of collaborative consumption are making headlines for ‘disrupting’ existing economic models and instituting new ways of accessing goods and services. Research by peer-to-peer theorists such as Michel Bauwens and Jeremy Rifkin suggest that the digital sharing of information and knowledge has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce, distribute and consume everyday goods and services as well as renewable energy.

However, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the aggregate impact of individual or community actions in relation to the scale of change that is needed, unless they are part of a broader program of advocacy for structural reform. For example, there is currently a great deal of interest in alternative methods of food production, especially in the city centres of industrialised countries. But the localisation of food production is widely regarded by farmers’ movements across the world as only one part of the solution to the complex problems associated with today’s unsustainable global food system. As La Via Campesina highlight in their advocacy work, establishing just models of food production means adhering to the principle of ‘food sovereignty’ and reforming a host of international policies that include the intellectual property rights framework and free trade agreements.

There are similar issues around individual efforts to reduce energy consumption while governments fail to invest in a global green new deal and fossil fuel companies continue to exploit reserves at a rate that is incommensurate with agreed emissions targets. In some cases, popular local alternatives could even be counterproductive to achieving the most sustainable and equitable outcomes for society as a whole. For example, proponents of the sharing economy widely support forms of car sharing, whose benefits are indisputable when compared to individual ownership. But the benefits of car sharing dwindle significantly when compared to the massive reductions in carbon emissions that can be achieved if more effective public transport systems are built and used by citizens, which requires policy-level change on a scale that is not actively supported by sharing economy advocates.

Of course, the above examples (and the many others that could be listed) do not present mutually exclusive choices – both local alternatives and more transformative reforms to policies and institutions must ultimately be part of any great transition. However, the danger is that if we fail to make systemic reforms at the policy level then new economy initiatives such as car sharing or urban gardening, forms of commoning and peer-to-peer production, or even Transition Towns could conceivably continue to function (and even grow in popularity) without posing any real challenge to the carbon intensive, consumption-driven economic policies that result in global warming or perpetuate inequality. It is also possible for community-driven initiatives to be co-opted by governments that support localisation while also advancing neoliberal policies, such as when the UK’s Conservative Party introduced the Big Society project alongside debilitating austerity measures.

If we are serious about addressing the root cause of the environmental crisis,preventing extreme poverty or reclaiming our democratic systems, we must acknowledge that locally-based economic alternatives will not deliver the dramatic changes in society (and across the world as a whole) that are now so desperately needed – at least not on their own. This is especially the case given the scale of the structural reforms needed to reverse ongoing crises like climate change, which poses a tremendous challenge at a time when politicians are failing to reach even the most fundamental agreements needed to limit global carbon emissions.

In order to have any lasting impact on climate change or implement a just and sustainable model of economic development, it is also essential that this reconfiguration of institutions and policies takes place at the global level. Without an international approach to reforming governance, the structural realities of a globalised economy are likely to render much of what can be achieved through localisation initiatives largely ineffectual. Many analysts who take an internationalist perspective also argue that in an interdependent world, individual governments would avoid taking unilateral action on global issues in order to prevent political isolation, capital flight or other financial penalties. It is also feasible that a planned contraction in resource consumption by one country would be offset by increases elsewhere, which would nullify the benefits of such an approach. Any significant transition away from the status quo is therefore a collective action problem that can only be resolved through international cooperation and the formation of global strategies and binding agreements.

Clearly, without a significant change in our current political and economic paradigm, it will remain impossible to address these challenges. As the Trapeze Collective outline in their constructive critique of the Transition Towns movement, “the analysis of how we got into this mess, and the best way to move on, does bring us back to politics. It involves taking on power and those who hold wealth and influence.” In other words, it will remain impossible to work towards any comprehensive vision of structural reform unless we recognise the historical and political causes of environmental and social crises, challenge entrenched vested interests, and join the global struggle to put an end to the absurd concentration of wealth and economic power that currently rests with the richest 1% of the world’s population.

A new society based on sharing and redistribution

In many ways, the principle of sharing is likely to be pivotal to the transition away from the market-state as it underpins any process of decentralising and devolving political and economic power to the lowest level of decision making, in accordance with the concept of subsidiarity. Only in more equal and participative ‘sharing societies’ will citizens be able to play an active role in democratising governance institutions and shaping the direction of political life. In stark contrast to the market-state, a sharing society in any true sense will need to localise economic activity wherever possible and establish any number of more inclusive and effective forms of political engagement, such as online ‘direct democracy’ platforms, people’s assemblies, participatory budgeting initiatives, and even communal councils.

From any rational perspective, the overarching goal of social and economic policy in the period ahead must decidedly shift towards securing basic human needs for all without transgressing environmental limits. Another major challenge in building fairer societies based on the principle of sharing is therefore the creation (and safeguarding) of robust social protection systems in countries across the world. Such systems are important examples of solidarity that enable citizens to collectively pool a nation’s financial resources so that they can be redistributed for the benefit of all. Even though the aging welfare state model is in need of reform and renewal, nationwide mechanisms of mutual provisioning remain the most effective way of meeting longstanding human rights obligations across entire countries.

As the scholar and activist Francine Mestrum argues, universal systems of social protection enable people to take responsibility for those they do not know by ensuring that everyone’s basics rights are secured – a process that strengthens our ‘collective solidarity’ and embodies a profound awareness of our common humanity. Nonetheless, social protections are continually being undermined by the harsh austerity measures that have been implemented in numerous countries since the 2008 financial crisis, and their proper functioning is unlikely to be restored without increasing public outcry and a substantive reorientation of government policies. Moreover, 4 out of 5 people in developing countries are still denied the social protection guarantees that citizens take for granted in rich countries, which is why it is essential that these sophisticated systems of sharing are also dramatically scaled up and strengthened at the global level.

Yet the notion of a sharing society embodies far more than participatory democracy and the provision of universal social protection and essential public services. In accordance with the principle of sharing, private businesses would also need to substantially change the way they operate by at least ensuring that decision-making power and income is fairly distributed among employees. The current trend towards peer-to-peer modes of distributed manufacturing as well as cooperative, not-for-profit and socially-oriented business models are important steps in this direction. Additionally, corporations would need to go far beyond ‘greenwashing’ their activities and adopt genuinely ecological practices that can facilitate the transition to sustainable production and consumption patterns, and thereby help bring humanity closer to achieving the goal of ‘one planet living’.

A sharing society would also include a vibrant commons sector that could function independently of markets or direct government involvement. This is broadly in line with what P2P theorist Michel Bauwens refers to as the partner state – a reformed governmental apparatus that builds on the welfare state model and actively supports the development of the commons. Democratic and accountable state systems are also a prerequisite to managing the global commons which, in the first instance, will require representative governments to negotiate new commons-based legal frameworks to ensure that planetary resources are managed in the interests of current and future generations. Of course, entirely new structures of accountability are urgently needed if governments are to reflect the needs of their citizens in international negotiations, or if they are ever to agree a workable global agenda for safeguarding the Earth’s biosphere.

There can be little doubt that reforming governance at all levels of societal organisation is the key to establishing effective sharing societies. However, even though many of the governance reforms highlighted above are recognised as essential and unavoidable by a growing number of environmentalists and social activists, they remain virtually unattainable in the current political climate. As long as entrenched vested interests maintain their stranglehold over democratic processes, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ will present an unprecedented challenge to engaged citizens in all countries.

Resilient and socially inclusive communities can clearly play an immediate role in the great transition that still lies ahead, but it will remain impossible to establish economic systems that are structurally just and truly sustainable until political power is radically decentralised – especially at the national and global level – and wealth is distributed more equally throughout society. By recognising the global roots of our local struggles, those working towards local alternatives to economic globalisation therefore have a central role to play in democratising our governance systems from the top down as well as the bottom up.

Image credit: Shutterstock, all rights reserved


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Action Items, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

Full speed ahead with GNU-Social!!

photo of David de Ugarte

David de Ugarte
25th February 2015

GNU-Social can become the basis of a whole new free software on distributed architectures, and we want to make our contribution.

la Matriz

Almost five years ago, thanks to the Garum Fundatio, we began the development of our first program based on a distributed server architecture: Bazar.

ficha empresa bazarThere were two objectives: on the one hand, to give a tool with free code and a distributed architecture to all those SMEs, cooperatives and communities that decide to take the leap into the market. On the other hand, to start on the path towards a global alternative to the centralized and misnamed “social networks” and their culture of adherence.

Learning from doing

But with Bazar, we made a mistake: developing it in Ruby assumed that groups that were interested in installing it in Spain, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil demanded an installation, administration and maintenance service that the Foundation couldn’t offer and that we should have avoided developing in PHP.

The next distributed development, Letxuga, was built on Python. The idea was to create a standard free program to manage networks of consumers of ecological products. Having been developed for the very concrete needs of a very concrete client, it was developed rapidly for functionality, specific needs, and detail, leaving aside things like the graphical interface, which were unnecessary for daily use, but very important for expanding its use.

Joshua de EnspiralAs we were starting discussions with our friends from Enspiralabout how to integrate Loomio into WordPress, we became aware that while all this was happening, “Status” had successfully been migrated to PHP and had become GNU-Social.

Why not turn Bazar and Letxuga into plugins for GNU-Social?

We’re on it. GNU-Social can become the basis of a whole new free software on distributed architectures. We’ve decided to make our contribution with new plug-ins that allow the new distributed architectures to find the direct economy.

Full speed ahead with GNU-Social

But to become familiar, we’ll begin with the most simple, most basic functionality: microblogging in 1000 characters, reviving an old Indiano site originally opened in 2007 as a first distributed response to Twitter: lamatriz.org.

On La Matriz [which translates into English as “head office,” “matrix,” or “womb”], because the GNU-Social server architecture is distributed, you’ll be able to connect with users and other GNU-Social servers, like quitter.is,BlogSoviet, quitter.se, quitter.no, quitter.is, Vinilox, gnusocial.of or gnusocial.no. So, we’re waiting for you to share in the daily conversation and organize your own networks!

Translated by Steve Herrick from the original (in Spanish)


Posted in Culture & Ideas, Free Software, Networks, Open Content, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Development, Sharing, Social Media | 1 Comment »

Why the Tech Elite Is Getting Behind Universal Basic Income

photo of Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider
24th February 2015


As if Silicon Valley hasn’t given us enough already, it may have to start giving us all money. The first indication I got of this came one evening last summer, when I sat in on a meet-up of virtual-currency enthusiasts at a hackerspace a few miles from the Googleplex, in Mountain View, California. After one speaker enumerated the security problems of a promising successor to Bitcoin, the economics blogger Steve Randy Waldman got up to speak about “engineering economic security.” Somewhere in his prefatory remarks he noted that he is an advocate of universal basic income—the idea that everyone should get a regular and substantial paycheck, no matter what. The currency hackers arrayed before him glanced up from their laptops at the thought of it, and afterward they didn’t look back down. Though Waldman’s talk was on an entirely different subject, basic income kept coming up during a Q&A period—the difficulties of implementing it and whether anyone would work ever again.

Around that time I had been hearing calls for basic income from more predictable sources on the East Coast—followers of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber and the editors of the socialist magazine Jacobin, among others. The idea certainly has a leftist ring to it: an expansion of the social-welfare system to cover everyone. A hard-cash thank-you just for being alive. A way to quit the job you despise and—to take the haters’ favorite example—surf.

Basic income, it turns out, is in the peculiar class of political notions that can warm Leninist and libertarian hearts alike. Though it’s an essentially low-tech proposal, it appeals to Silicon Valley’s longing for simple, elegant algorithms to solve everything. Supporters list the possible results: It can end poverty and inequality with hardly any bureaucracy. With more money and less work to do, we might even spew less climate-disrupting carbon.

The idea of basic income has been appearing among the tech-bro elite a lot lately. Mega-investor and Netscape creator Marc Andreessen recently told New York magazine that he considers it “a very interesting idea,” and Sam Altman of the boutique incubator Y Combinator calls its implementation an “obvious conclusion.” Albert Wenger, a New York–based venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, has been blogging about basic income since 2013. He’s worried about the clever apps his company is funding, which do things like teach languages and hail cars, displacing jobs with every download.

“We are at the beginning of the time where machines will do a lot of the things humans have traditionally done,” Wenger told me in October. “How do you avoid a massive bifurcation of society into those who have wealth and those who don’t?” He has proposed holding a basic-income experiment in the dystopian fantasyland of Detroit.

Singularity University is a kind of seminary in Silicon Valley where the metaphysical conviction that machines are, or soon will be, essentially superior to human beings is nourished among those involved in profiting from that eventuality. Last June, the institution’s co-founder and chairman, Peter Diamandis, a space-tourism executive, convened a gathering of fellow industry luminaries to discuss the conundrum of technology-driven unemployment.

“Tell me something that you think robots cannot do, and I will tell you a time frame in which they can actually do it,” a young Italian entrepreneur named Federico Pistono challenged me. Among other accomplishments, Pistono has written a book called Robots Will Steal Your Job, but That’s OK. At the Singularity meeting he was the chief proponent of basic income. He cited recent experiments in India that showed promise for combating poverty among people the tech economy has left behind. Diamandis later reported having been “amazed” by the potential.

One might not expect such enthusiasm for no-strings-attached money in a room full of libertarian-leaning investors. But for entrepreneurial sorts like these, welfare doesn’t necessarily require a welfare state. One of the attendees at the Singularity meeting was HowStuffWorks.com founder Marshall Brain, who had outlined his vision for basic income in a novella published on his website called Manna. The book tells the story of a man who loses his fast-food job to software, only to find salvation in a basic-income utopia carved out of the Australian Outback by a visionary startup CEO. There, basic income means people have the free time to tinker with the kinds of projects that might be worthy of venture capital, creating the society of rogue entrepreneurs that tech culture has in mind. Waldman refers to basic income as “VC for the people.”

Chris Hawkins, a 30-year-old investor who made his money building software that automates office work, credits Manna as an influence. On his company’s website he has taken to blogging about basic income, which he looks to as a bureaucracy killer. “Shut down government programs as you fund redistribution,” he told me. Mothball public housing, food assistance, Medicaid, and the rest, and replace them with a single check. It turns out that the tech investors promoting basic income, by and large, aren’t proposing to fund the payouts themselves; they’d prefer that the needy foot the bill for everyone else.

“The cost has to come from somewhere,” Hawkins explained, “and I think the most logical place to take it from is government-provided services.”

This kind of reasoning has started to find a constituency in Washington. The Cato Institute, Charles Koch’s think tank for corporate-friendly libertarianism, published a series of essays last August debating the pros and cons of basic income. That same week, an article appeared in the Atlantic making a “conservative case for a guaranteed basic income.” It suggested that basic income is actually a logical extension of Paul Ryan’s scheme to replace federal welfare programs with cash grants to states—the Republican Party’s latest bid to crown itself “the party of ideas.” Basic income is still not quite yet speakable in the halls of power, but Republicans may be bringing it closer than they realize.

Karl Widerquist, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, has been preaching basic income since he was in high school in the early 1980s. He says that we are now in the third wave of American basic-income activism. The first was during the economic crises between the world wars. The second was in the 1960s and 70s, when libertarian heroes like Milton Friedman were advocating for a negative income tax and when ensuring a minimum income for the poor was just about the only thing Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon could agree about. (Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which bears some resemblance to basic income, passed the House but died in the Senate.) The present wave seems to have picked up in late 2013, as the news went viral about a mounting campaign in Switzerland to put basic income to a vote. Widerquist is glad to see the renewed interest, but he’s cautious about what the libertarians and techies have in mind.

“I don’t think we want to wait for technological unemployment before having basic income,” he says. For him the plan is not about averting the next disaster—it’s about curbing the exploitation of the property system.

Riding way on the left side of the current wave of enthusiasm is Kathi Weeks. She’s a good old-fashioned-in-certain-ways feminist Marxist who made basic income a central proposal in her recent book The Problem with Work. She advocates it cautiously, however: If a basic income were too low, people wouldn’t be able to quit their jobs, but employers would still lower their wages. It could incline more businesses to act like Walmart, letting their workers scrape by on government programs while they pay a pittance. Workers might get money for nothing, but they’d also find themselves with dwindling leverage in their workplaces.

If we were to fund basic income only by gutting existing welfare, and not by taxing the rich, it would do the opposite of fixing inequality; money once reserved for the poor would end up going to those who need it less. Instead of being a formidable bulwark against poverty, a poorly funded basic-income program could produce a vast underclass more dependent on whoever cuts the checks. And as out-there as the idea can seem, Weeks’s leftist critics complain that it’s still a tweak, a reform. “It’s not going to signal the end of capitalism,” she recognizes.

Like pretty much all the shortcut solutions Silicon Valley offers, basic income would have its perks, but it isn’t enough to solve our real problems on its own. There’s still no substitute for organizing more power in more communities—the power to shape society, not just to fiddle with someone else’s app. Social Security, for instance, came to be thanks to the popular struggles of the 1930s, and it carried huge swaths of old people out of poverty. Obamacare, a set of reforms mostly written by the industry it was meant to regulate, has turned out to be a far more mixed bag.

A basic income designed by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley is more likely to reinforce their power than to strengthen the poor. But a basic income arrived at through the vision and the struggle of those who need it most would help ensure that it meets their needs first. If we’re looking for a way through the robot apocalypse, we can do better than turn to the people who are causing it.


Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Open Innovation, Original Content, Politics | No Comments »