P2P Foundation

Researching, documenting and promoting peer to peer practices




Archive for 'Featured Content'

Reinventing Law for the Commons, Part I

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
2nd September 2015


One of the most devastating and recurring problems that virtually every commons faces is market enclosure – the privatization and marketization of shared resources by businesses, investors and speculators, often in collusion with government. What’s really remarkable is that legislatures and courts so often declare that enclosures are legal because they supposedly contribute to economic growth, progress and freedom, etc.

All of this got me to thinking:  What would it look like if commoners could invent their own types of law, consistent with state law, to reliably protect their commons?  What if there were a more rigorous Law for the Commons?

There are in fact many examples from history.  The most notable ones may be the centuries-old public trust doctrine for water and other natural resources, and the Charter of the Forest, the forgotten part of Magna Carta that guarantees commoners’ rights.

In our time, the General Public License for software and the Creative Commons licenses for content are masterstrokes of legal ingenuity that protect shared wealth.  Commoners can be confident that no one can legally appropriate their pooled resources, whether they are code, writing, images or music.

As I looked into this topic further, I discovered that there is in fact a wealth of legal innovation now underway in many sectors of the commons world.  There are clever legal hacks to protect indigenous peoples’ agroecological knowledge and traditions.  There are new variations on co-operative law and new legal initiatives to protect local communities’ self-determination.  There are stakeholder trusts and new organizational forms for commoning.

With support from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, I researched and wrote a lengthy four-part strategy memorandum outlining more than sixty examples of legal innovation for the commons.  The memo also includes a rationale for launching a new field of inquiry and activism, Law for the Commons. Here is a short list of the contents of the memo

Part I:  Introduction

Part II:  Legal Innovations in Beating the Bounds:  Nine Promising Fields of Action

1.  Indigenous Commons

2.  Subsistence Commons in the Global South

3.  Digital Commons

4.  Stakeholder Trusts

5.  Co-operative Law

6.  Urban Commons

7.  Localism

8.  New Organizational Forms

9.  Re-imagining State Policy to Empower Commons

Part III:  The Strategic Value of Developing Law for the Commons  

Part IV:  Next Steps   

In the next four blog posts, I will share my strategy memo part-by-part, and invite comments and ideas for moving forward.  A beautiful new wiki hosted by the Commons Transition Plan will be launched shortly to showcase the many forms of commons-based law mentioned in my memo.  (Thanks, Michel Bauwens and Stacco Troncoso!)  I am hoping that readers will have other examples to add to the ones that I’ve compiled, and new source material and weblinks for existing examples.

Here is Part I of the memo:

A Strategy Memo for the Heinrich Böll Foundation

September 1, 2015

Although it is customary for mainstream economists and politicians to consider the commons a failed management regime – the “tragedy of the commons” – it is in fact a pervasive and highly generative system for meeting people’s needs.  More:  commons tend to function in more culturally satisfying, ecologically responsible ways, which is more than can be said for conventional markets and government systems.  An estimated two billion people in the world depend upon various natural resource commons (water, forests, fisheries, farmland, wild game, etc.) to meet their everyday needs – and over the past twenty years, many people in modern, industrialized contexts have (re)discovered the commons as a new paradigm of self-provisioning.  It is producing everything from software, textbooks and farm equipment, and providing valuable stewardship for urban spaces, indigenous knowledge, natural resources and cooperative finance.

Historically, most commons have not needed nor sought formal protections of law.  Their self-organized customs, socially negotiated rules and relative isolation from outside capital and markets, were enough to sustain them.  This has changed dramatically over the past 30-40 years, however, as global commerce, technology and conventional law have relentlessly expanded, superimposing the logic and values of markets on nearly every corner of the nature and social life.  The resulting enclosures of the commons amount to seizures of common assets for private gain.  They are also destroying culturally coherent, productive communities operating outside of the market/state order, forcing people to become consumers and employees in order to meet their needs.

As enclosures have taken control of common assets – paradoxically calling attention to the actual value of commons; “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” – they have spurred new interest in using law to protect commons.  This topic has a rich history going back to the Magna Carta and its companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which provided commoners with explicit legal rights to use their customary forests, pastures, rivers and other natural resources to meet their daily needs.  In similar fashion today, commoners are increasingly devising new legal mechanisms to protect their access and use of shared resources from predatory market activity.

This is, in fact, a burgeoning new arena of political innovation in subsistence commons of the global South, digital commons on the Internet, and knowledge and design commons for physical production.  New legal regimes are being created to manage public spaces, water systems and education as urban commons; provide social services, and introduce credit and barter systems through co-operatives.  A vanguard of commoners is proposing stakeholder trusts for large common-pool resources such as oil, minerals, water and the atmosphere. Others are developing new organizational structures such as “omni-commons,” open value networks and community charters to provide legal stability and protection for commoning.

These efforts brashly embrace a paradox – to attempt build a new social order of commoning through creative hacks of laws that presume the sanctity of individual rights, private property, markets and state authority.  Remarkably, there are now many successful adaptations of laws dealing with contracts, trusts, co-operatives, municipal government, copyright, patents, and other bodies of law, that aim to protect common assets and the social practices of commoning.  One might say that this experimentation and exploration are producing a new, not-yet-recognized body of socio-legal-political innovation, “Law for the Commons.” Taken together, the efforts described in Part II below represent a bold attempt to move beyond the confines of conventional law, governance and bureaucracy, and to invent new legal forms to sanction and enable commoning.  (I decline to call it “Law of the Commons” because that term emphasizes law as the magical instrument of external coercion rather than on commoning, a set of self-organized, living social practices and norms, as the critical force of governance and “law.”  It is important to see that law is only an enabling tool for commoners – chiefly in dealing with the state and market enclosures – and not a substitute for commoning.)

Commoners see improvisations in commons-based law as expedient necessities – creative ways to thwart outside appropriation of their resources and to provide legal certainty for their social governance by negotiating a modus vivendi with a hostile state, which often sees commoning as a competing nexus of power and moral authority.  Many commoners have embarked upon this journey to engage with conventional state law because of the alarming gap between legality and legitimacy.  Law for the Commons seeks to bridge this gap between the formal strictures of state law and bureaucratic rules adopted by political and corporate elites – “legality” — and the experiences and vernacular norms and practices of ordinary people.  This “vernacular law,” as I call it, consists of the “unofficial”social norms,procedures, and customaryinstitutionsthatpeer communitiesdevisetomanagetheir own resources. Vernacular law has a moral and social legitimacy that commoners are struggling to assert, not just through law but through political struggles and cultural expression.

So in this sense, commons-based legal innovation is an attempt to overcome the structural limitations of legality, the formal apparatus of market/state governance as now constituted.  This struggle is a bit ambiguous or even paradoxical because commoners aspire to have the sanction of state law (which is grounded in alien philosophical commitments and outlooks) while also developing a very different logic and ethic (of commoning).[1] Commons law seeks to validate different (mostly non-market), socially convivial ways of meeting needs and having meaningful self-governance.  The culture spawned by the Internet over the past twenty years is in effect declaring that “representative” legislatures and centralized bureaucratic systems are simply not as responsive and effective as bottom-up, commons-based approaches on open network platforms.  Significantly, citizens do not experience the former as transparent, legitimate and accountable.

One premise of this memo is that conventional politics and policymaking are suffering from a severe crisis of legitimacy and efficacy – an affliction that commons-based law can help remedy.  The nation-state is suffering a decline in authority as global capital becomes even more powerful and as the scale and complexity of economic, social and ecological problems outstrip the intelligence and instruments of centralized bureaucracies, whether corporate or governmental.  Noting the decline of state authority, Dutch political scientist Maarten Hajer writes: “The weakening of the state goes hand in hand with the international growth of civil society, the emergence of new citizen-actors and new forms of mobilization.  In such cases, action takes place in an ‘institutional void’:  there are no clear rules and norms according to which politics is to be conducted and policy measures are to be agreed upon.  To be more precise, there are no generally accepted rules and norms according to which policymaking and politics are to be conducted.” (emphasis in original)

I submit that commoners are attempting to fill the institutional void of politics with new sorts of commons-based law that have not yet been recognized as such.  This shift of focus by citizens reflects dwindling confidence in state law as a way to achieve real change.  It also reflects growing interest in technology platforms and social norms as better vehicles for “making law”; the latter are seen as more likely to be participatory, effective, respected and legitimate.

In this respect, I believe law for the commons can help rehabilitate and transform mainstream politics and public policy by enacting values that are structurally marginalized by the neoliberal policy consensus – participation, inclusiveness, fairness, non-instrumental human relationships, transparency, accountability.  Commons-based law attempts to declare that certain human relationships and resources must be insulated from market exchange (“inalienability”).  It honors the sovereignty of people to devise their own forms of hands-on governance to meet their needs, especially in a local context.  It recognizes the importance of bottom-up initiatives and engagement.  It provides a philosophically coherent framework – distinct from the governing ethos of the liberal market state – for meeting people’s needs without bureaucracy (politically corrupted, paralyzed by formalities, dominated by lawyers and remote “experts”; indifferent to local complexities) or conventional markets (concentrated, predatory, often rigged and oligopolistic, ecologically harmful, winner-take-all).  I like to think that Thomas Jefferson would endorse this project of developing law for the commons because, as he once said, “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.”  The human mind and social circumstances have changed quite a bit in the last generation, not to mention the last 225 years.

It is worth adding:  the economic logic and appeal of commoning – apart from any moral or political arguments – is rapidly increasing.  As analysts such as Jeremy Rifkin, Paul Mason, Yochai Benkler, Michel Bauwens[2] and many others argue, the world economy is undergoing a profound shift.  Twentieth-century economy of institutions based on strict, hierarchical systems of centralized control and mass production overseen by experts, are giving way to an economy based on open networks that honor self-organized, bottom-up participation in the manner of open source software.  This fundamental re-ordering of economic relationships is releasing a great deal of social energies precisely because network infrastructures invite ordinary people to invent their own systems of provisioning based on local needs and niche preferences.  Sharing and collaboration are becoming common-sense norms.

This shift in basic economic structures entails a move away from a logic of scarcity (e.g., the artificial constraints of copyright and patents on non-rival information) to a logic of abundance (where information, culture, research, etc. can be shared at virtually no cost).  This shift is also making social, ethical and personal relationships more important in economic life, enabling us to escape from the prevailing fiction of homo economicus as the human template for policymaking, to more complex, humanistic and culture-specific concepts of economic behavior.  As a socio-economic paradigm, the commons accurately depicts much of the collaborative activity now occurring digital networks:  self-determination as the basis for a new political economy.  However, prevailing (archaic) legal regimes tend to ignore or criminalize commoning, thwarting a faster, fuller transition to the next economy.

The Purpose of This Memo 

This strategy memo is a first attempt to survey the more significant realms of commons-based legal innovation occurring today.  Besides providing a rough inventory of more than sixty projects and theaters of legal innovation, I wish to propose that these disparate initiatives be conceptualized as a new strategic framing, “Law for the Commons.”  The essential goal of this body of law is to develop novel legal forms that can incubate, maintain and defend commons.  A related goal is to use the banner of “Commons Law” to help federate isolated players in this sprawling, emergent realm (commons-based social and political struggle) to strengthen their collective impact through the use of law.  If we’re serious about catalyzing systemic change, we need to start articulating a coherent vision and provide specific legal and policy mechanisms for achieving it.  In that respect, this memo complements the intentions of the P2P Foundation’s Commons Transition website (www.commonstransition.org).

Declaring the existence of a new realm of inquiry known as Law for the Commons could also have important secondary effects.  It could provide a clearer, more muscular vision of change for the many political movements seeking to create a “new economy.”  It could provide a shared focal point for the Solidarity Economy, co-operatives, the Transition Town movement, peer production, indigenous peoples, and many others to coordinate their post-capitalist activist strategies.  By providing better forms of direct self-governance and access to resources for basic needs, Law for the Commons can also help advance the interests of women and marginalized minorities for whom access to state law, enforcement and support may be problematic.[3]  These movements all seek to achieve systemic changes in production, state policies, governance, the fetish of economic growth and the culture of consumerism, especially as they relate to the environment and the quality of everyday life.  A new field of Law for the Commons could help consolidate and loosely coordinate the diverse initiatives now unfolding, and give them greater focus and visibility as kindred endeavors.

This memo therefore provides an introduction to commons-based law as a distinct field of policy research, legal innovation and activism.  It seeks to show how such a body of law could catalyze new (transformational) types of dialogues, collaborations and cross-movement fertilization of ideas.  It could also help jolt existing legal scholarship, advocacy and activism out of their well-worn ruts – i.e., their fixation on state policymaking structures and law as the primary engines of change – and challenge them to pursue a more ambitious, bottom-up agenda for change.

The many varieties of commons-based law described below are quite different from each other; some might consider them too disparate to be related at all.  But I believe they all attempt to enable commoning and/or prevent market enclosures.  A familiar concept in eighteenth century English commons was the idea of “beating the bounds.”  Every year the town’s commoners would host a community festival that consisted of walking the perimeter of the shared forest or pasture, identifying any hedges or walls that had enclosed the land for private gain – and then knocking them down.  The event was an effective but convivial way of asserting the community’s identity and governance, and protecting the shared wealth, and identifying and punishing vandals and free riders.

The strategic focus of many contemporary social movements is, in effect, to devise new methods (legal, technological, social) for beating the bounds.  But the recurring patterns of this commons-based legal innovation goes largely unrecognized – perhaps because this work is seen through the lens of neoliberal economics and policy and therefore dismissed out of hand; or perhaps because so many American activists continue to have a blind faith in the efficacy of governance institutions created in the eighteenth century; or perhaps because a new commons-based political culture has not sufficiently coalesced and therefore many people cannot see its transformational potential.

The problem may also be that commons-based law is not seen as a philosophical or strategic departure from the status quo because it continues to “play ball” with established, state-based forms of law.  But that is often both tactical feint and political necessity in the service of playing a “longer game.”  The whole point of instigating a new discourse of commons-based law is to reframe and reorient people’s perspectives.  It is to emphasize that new forms of self-governance – social, informal and evolving in character – point toward a different vision of political economy, law and culture.  It is use a different language to showcase new approaches that can be more effective, trusted and dynamic than the (tired, less effective) solution-sets that the liberal polity is offering.

That’s the primary reason that I have compiled here the many types of commons-based legal innovation now underway – to point to distinct patterns of legal innovation that offer promising strategic opportunities.  More grandly, I like to think that the forms of commons-based law described below constitute a powerful (if underdeveloped) force for re-imagining governance, economics, politics and social practice in systemic ways.

[1]  Thus, commons sometimes aspire to work with a partner state (to the extent that the state can deal in good faith) and in other ways commons simply seek defensible legal work-arounds that require no active support from the state.  This amounts to a “particle-and-wave” political choice that deserves further theoretical analysis.

[2]  Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Paul Mason, Post-Capitalism:  A Guide to Our Future (2015, UK); Michel Bauwens, Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); and Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks (Yale University Press, 2006).

[3]  As feminist historian of the commons Silvia Federici has written, “The social function of the commons was especially important for women, who, having less title to land and less social power, were more dependent on them for their subsistence, autonomy and sociality.” Medieval witch-hunts were often directed at women who resisted enclosures of their commons.  Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s recent book, Collective Courage:  A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice describes the critical role that self-provisioning and -governance through cooperatives played in the emancipation of African Americans.


Posted in Commons, Commons Transition, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Open Content, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Legal Dev., Peer Property, Sharing | No Comments »

The Commons and EU Knowledge Policies

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
2nd September 2015


One of the great advantages of a commons analysis is its ability to deconstruct the prevailing myths of “intellectual property” as a wholly private “product” – and then to reconstruct it as knowledge and culture that lives and breathes only in a social context, among real people.  This opens up a new conversation about if and how property rights in knowledge should be granted in the first place.  It also renders any ownership claims about knowledge under copyrights and patents far more complicated — and requires a fair consideration of how commons might actually be more productive substitutes or complements to traditional intellectual property rights.

After all, it is taxpayers who subsidize much of the R&D that goes into most new drugs, which are then claimed as proprietary and sold at exorbitant prices.  Musicians don’t create their songs out of thin air, but in a cultural context that first allows them to freely use inherited music and words from the public domain — which future musicians must also have access to. Science can only advance by being able to build on the findings of earlier generations.  And so on.

The great virtue of a new report recently released by the Berlin-based Commons Network is its application of a commons lens to a wide range of European policies dealing with health, the environment, science, culture, and the Internet.  “The EU and the Commons:  A Commons Approach to European Knowledge Policy,” by Sophie Bloemen and David Hammerstein, takes on the EU’s rigid and highly traditional policy defense of intellectual property rights.  Bloemen and Hammerstein are Coordinators of the Berlin-based Commons Network, which published the report along with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.  (I played a role in its editing.)  The 39-page report can be downloaded here — and an Executive Summary can be read here.

“The EU and the Commons” describes how treating many types of knowledge as commons could not only promote greater access to knowledge and social justice, it could help European economies become more competitive. If EU policymakers could begin to recognize the generative capacities of knowledge commons, drug prices could be reduced and climate-friendly “green technologies” could be shared with other countries. “Net neutrality” could assure that startups with new ideas would not be stifled by giant companies, but could emerge. And scientific journals, instead of being locked behind paywalls and high subscription fees, could be made accessible to anyone.

Bloemen and Hammerstein write that:

many of the economic and legal structures that govern knowledge and its modes of production – not to mention cultural mindsets – are exclusionary. They presume certain modes of corporate organization, market structures, government investment policies, intellectual property rights and social welfare metrics that are increasingly obsolete and socially undesirable. The European Union therefore faces an urgent challenge: How to manage knowledge in a way that is socially and ecologically sustainable? How can it candidly acknowledge epochal shifts in technology, commerce and social practice by devising policies appropriate to the current age?

EU policies generally focus on the narrow benefits of IRP-based innovation for individual companies and rely on archaic social wellbeing models and outdated models of human motivation. The EU has failed to explore the considerable public benefits that could be had through robust, open ecosystems of network-based collaboration. For example, the EU has paid little serious attention to the enormous innovative capacities of free, libre and open source software (FLOSS), digital peer production resulting in for example Wikipedia, open design and manufacturing, social networking platforms, and countless other network-based modes of knowledge creation, design and production.

Here’s a useful chart that summarizes key principles of the commons, policy designs, and outcomes that could be pursued through a knowledge commons agenda.

The report concludes with an agenda that the EU (or any government) could adopt to promote knowledge commons.  It includes such ideas as non-exclusive licensing of research so that biomedical innovations could have greater impact and more benefit for taxpayers; new support for knowledge commons through such things as patent pools, data sharing, the sharing of green technologies, and biomedical prizes that would make discoveries more widely available.  Muiltilateral trade treaties could be designed to promote investment in R&D and knowledge sharing among countries, producing enormous social benefits for people through expanding the global knowledge commons.  Net neutrality policies for the Internet could have similar catalytic benefits.

Will the EU stand in the way of the “collaborative economy” that is emerging, giving protectionist privileges to the big, politically connected digital corporations – or will it stand up for the great benefits that can be generated through open platforms, collaborative projects and knowledge sharing?  It’s great that this new report is stimulating this long-overdue debate.

For a broader overview of how the commons is going mainstream in Europe – most notably, via the new commons Intergroup in the European Parliament — here’s an insightful article by Dan Hancox that recently appeared in Al Jazeera English.


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Open Access, Open Content, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Development, P2P Ecology, P2P Healthcare, P2P Legal Dev., Peer Property, Politics | No Comments »

Call for a Chamber of Commons

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
1st September 2015

Chamber of Commons USa

Steve Ediger from the Chamber of Commons US has sent us the following info on the Chamber of Commons events taking place around October 10. Other commons-related events to check out in these dates include Somero 2015 in Gijón, Spain (which includes the Sharing Cities Seminar, the GNU Social Camp and ShareableLab Europe) and Le Temps des Communs, a 15 day festival centered on the rise of the Francophone Commons.

October 10, 2015 9:30am – 5pm
ICA Greenrise, 4750 N Sheridan Rd. Chicago, IL

Worldwide, numerous organizations are working to push back on the economic and political forces that increasingly threaten to enclose those things which we all own together, such as:

Air, public land, and water The Internet and the airwaves
Public spaces: parks, libraries, streets, etc. Taxpayer funded medical/scientific research
Wildlife Public education, transportation
The food supply Open-source software
The oceans, Antarctica and outer space Arts and Culture


While the forces of neoliberalism and privatization support a variety of pro-growth, pro-business groups, the commons movement has yet to create an advocacy group to preserve its values and develop its economic models.

We call for the establishment of a Chamber of Commons USA on Oct. 10, 2015.

We’ll start with a Consensus Workshop on “How do we define Commons?” Then, we’ll create the actual plan for opening our first Chamber of Commons in Chicago. While we will be focusing on the Chicago region, we anticipate that this example will act as a template for the formation of other USA chambers.

Similar events are taking place all over the world on this date. See the p2p Foundation or the Commons Transition Plan for more information. In Chicago, we are inviting organizations, initiatives and individuals working on economic, environmental, community, and cultural sustainability, local commons-oriented organizations, national/international commons-oriented organizations with a presence in Chicago, commons-oriented organizations focused on immaterial commons (knowledge, software, etc.)

9:30am Registration and Snacks
10:00am Introductions/Icebreaker
10:30am Consensus Workshop on “How do we define Commons?”
12:00pm Lunch Break
1:00pm Action Planning Workshop to develop start-up plan for a Chicago Chamber of Commons
5:00pm Evaluation/Announcements/Close


Register here


Call for Chicago Chamber of Commons


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Conferences, Ethical Economy, Events, Featured Movement, P2P Business Models, P2P Development, P2P Foundation, Peer Property | No Comments »

Book of the Day: The Utopia of Rules

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th August 2015

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

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

Excerpted from David Graeber:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
29th August 2015

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

From the abstract:

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

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


Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Labor | No Comments »

Book of the Day: Communal Luxury

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th August 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Kristin Ross interviewed by Gabriel Levy (excerpts_:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Women in P2P: Interview with Alison Powell (Part 1)

photo of Rachel O'Dwyer

Rachel O'Dwyer
26th August 2015

Alison Powell interviewed By Rachel O’Dwyer

alison highres_238x305

Alison Powell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Media & Communications in the London School of Economics. Her research examines the history and future of openness within new media. Alison’s research explores open-source cultures including community wireless networks, free software advocates and people interested in open sourcing knowledge including hardware design. Alison was involved in Île Sans Fil,  a Montreal organisation founded in 2003 and committed to spreading Wi-Fi across the city.

I interviewed Alison last month during IAMCR in Montreal, Canada. We spoke about the Community Wireless Network (CWN) Île Sans Fil in Montreal, the changing role of wireless infrastructure in reclaiming the city and why creating a P2P society needs much more than the right technical infrastructure.

ROD: You’ve done a lot of research across p2p, but with a particular focus on community wireless networks and more recently smart cities and open data. What drew you to research community wireless networks initially?

AP: I’ve always been really interested in urban communication spaces and in the ways that people appropriate different technologies within urban spaces to create their own identities and to create their own versions of the city. So I was really drawn to community wireless networks because I thought it was a way of remaking the city and adding a different element to the idea of urban life that was both collective and technological. The people in Montreal had this idea of ‘hacking the city’ as part of the way that they thought of the work they were doing. It was really interesting to work with them because they were interested in reimagining the city through community and collective projects and they were doing that reimagining through a technology project. That meant there were several levels. There was the level of the technology itself and the ways that people were using internet technologies and thinking about access to information technology or even thinking about how we distribute the computing network. Another level was thinking about how we change the way that we all live together in cities. Do we do this by creating a community organisation, partnering with other community organisations or having something quite rhizomatic that connects different community organisations?

ROD: When did you start the research?

AP: I started that in 2004. It wasn’t of course one of the first community networks, I think the first ones were in London. The people that did those projects – like James Stevens and Julian Priest – they were also thinking about transforming the city and they had a more radical perspective on the topological side of things, because from the beginning they were interested in building meshes. And they were interested in building meshes because they were interested in building a horizontal city. If you read Julian’s report on the Consume project in London, he talked about how they were going to make horizontal nodal cities that would overlap and intersect and be a model for a non-hierarchical way of communicating and being in the city. And of course it didn’t work, because mostly these things are visions; they’re creative projects.

ROD: How did Île Sans Fil differ?

AP: It wasn’t a mesh network.

ROD: What kind of a topology did it have?

AP: They developed a gateway protocol that transforms an existing network connection into a wireless hotspot. The gateway protocol is open source.

Their main innovation was that all of the authorisation for the individual wireless hotspots would be visible on the server. So they did interesting projects that linked the hotspots together. There was some information that was transferrable across hotspots even though each node was its own spot. The nodes were never linked together (meshed) but there was this idea that the network itself was one entity so they linked all of the different locations where you could get wireless access, mostly through projects where there were stories or information distributed over hotspots.

For example, in one storytelling project each hotspot had a different part of the story told by a different character and in order to get a full story you would have to visit all the hotspots. They also provided election information that was specific to the location of each hotspot access point.

Their idea of using the technology to link people together and to create a more horizontal city did not have to do with the topology of the network; it had to do with the applications and the creative projects that ran over the top of the network. The network itself was quite simple, just hotspots broadcasting Wi-Fi in each individual spot. The economic model was that they would partner with places that were already paying for Internet bandwidth and give people a completely ‘free’ (as in free-of-charge) way of managing access to that Internet bandwidth. So in the early 2000s when it was really hard to get Internet outside of your house, cafes signed up to provide individual hotspots, then some community centres and eventually business districts partnered with Île Sans Fil to pay for the equipment to install hotspots to cover entire streets. In turn that became a branding project for different parts of Montreal and eventually the city of Montreal created a partnership with Île Sans Fil to use their equipment and software to do wireless Internet access in lots of public locations. It was a way of rethinking the city through one technological possibility. But it was actually quite flexible. The activists were very flexible in how that happened; they wanted more people to become involved in learning how to build wireless technology in learning how to use it and they felt they were creating a very useful service.


Île Sans Fil Map

ROD: How has the community wireless network model changed since that time? How sustainable is it? For example, one concern about community wireless networks more recently  is that they seem to be tied in with mobile offloading by cellular networks. If in the past we framed community Wi-Fi in opposition to commercial networks and as a possibility to build over the top services using VoIP, today it seems as though Wi-Fi is just a positive externality for cellular carriers to offload their data into free and public communication space. I’m thinking of something like FON for example, which is presented as a ‘mobile commons’ but also has economic partnerships with large network operators that allow these to offload their mobile data onto Wi-Fi spectrum. We don’t really know who we’re sharing with.

AP: I did a project in 2006 while living in Paris, which was about different political economic models for wireless access in cities at the time. That was the point when I realised this wasn’t going to be a long-term sustainable mode for people to gain access. What was more interesting was that this was a creative appropriation and playfulness for different ways of thinking about the city and about creative practice.

From the beginning, FON was interested in employing Wi-Fi access within innovative economic partnerships. They partnered with Free, the French telecom – so it was always an offloading model. If you have bandwidth you can send it out unknowingly as a potential resource for passers-by. The initial models didn’t work because places where people had sectioned off their wireless bandwidth for public use weren’t necessarily in places where people used wireless. And so that’s why it became bundled into lots of telecom offers. That was the point at which I thought ‘it’s not really about Wi-Fi, it’s more about what different technologies might let you do’. Wi-Fi lets you offload and share bandwidth but if you don’t know who you’re sharing your bandwidth with or why and how that might create a relationship between you and them, then its kind of incidental that you’re sharing your bandwidth; it becomes simply an arrangement of infrastructure. From my perspective it’s a lot more interesting when people start thinking about and representing the social relationships that underpin that. I’ve always been a little bit disappointed by the models that seem to be about unknowingly offloading/sharing. This might be good if we’re thinking about commons-based infrastructure, but to me they don’t help us to think through the cultural changes we need to make in order to amplify the commons-based community relationships that we already have.

ROD: How significant are terms like commons or commoning to your practice? 

AP: Radio spectrum is of course a public commons so you should think about how to manage that from a commons perspective as opposed to a proprietary auction and command and control model. But I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about the commons from an economic perspective because I’m not an economist; I’m a person who thinks about how people use technologies to tell stories about themselves. So when people start telling stories about commons themselves, then I start listening. I also think about communication commons because I’m a communications scholar and I’m interested in people’s right to communicate and their ability to develop and have their own voice in the world. That’s a different kind of commons, a ‘speech commons’ – the space of possible speech and exchange.

ROD: The practices you’ve described with Île Sans Fil seem to relate more closely to that model of the commons, more so than the Elinor Ostrum model of economic governance of resources outside of the state or the market.

AP: Exactly. So this idea isn’t as well developed in the literature. And where the p2p literature talks about the commons there isn’t as much of a discussion of this.

ROD: Sure. There’s definitely more emphasis on commons as an economic resource. But you have the work of people like Peter Linebaugh for example, which is more focused on commoning as social production and social practices. That possibly relates to your idea of the speech commons?

AP: I’m more interested in social production than shared infrastructure and I’m more interested in cultural and symbolic production than social production and I’m really interested in people not as individuals but as groups of people. I’m interested in the commons as a speech commons that can be claimed and used expressively by all and not just by individuals.

ROD: To come back to a point you made earlier, you’ve expressed some criticism of the mesh network approach commonly used in CWNs. Does this relate to your criticism of different approaches to the commons?

AP: I’m critical of mesh networking projects because I have a concern about over-determining technological possibilities for social and cultural change. And we see this in a lot of technology-led movements. What we tend to see is that people interpret the possibilities of a technology’s design or, as you said, ‘topology’ to be a model for social or cultural forms.

ROD: Such as a purist emphasis on things being ‘decentralised’ or ‘distributed’ in an infrastructural sense …

AP: Exactly. ‘In an infrastructural sense’ which then comes to stand in for whatever social or cultural relationships might be required to make such a thing operate. So you can say ‘we will then have a distributed system’ and it’s like the technical or topographic description stands in for all of the things that you would need to construct to build a social and cultural movement. This is partly the consequence of having people with lots of technical training who are influential in these movements. So this is where my critique of the mesh comes from. My critique is not so much that people would like to build networks that mesh together or that they couldn’t feasibly make this happen, but with the assumption that if you did that this would be modelling and instantiating a distributed form that would imply social and cultural relationships.

ROD: I think that’s a great analysis of what’s so problematic with much of the work around p2p networks. Not just around CWMs and meshes but more recent work around, say, the blockchain as a new distributed infrastructure… that presumption that we can technically or algorithmically engineer the commons.  

AP: Or engineer people out of equations!

ROD: But how do you think we can find a medium where we’re still acknowledging the affordances of these systems? Obviously we’re not talking about a perfect translation between the infrastructural topology and the social practices that can emerge, but that isn’t to say that technical architectures fail to matter. Or do you disagree?

AP: Well I think that the people interested in creating social change who are interested in technological models need to work with the people who are interested in making social change who may know more about how social change operates. I believe that these two sets of approaches occupy the same space and they have many of the same goals, but they bring different ways of thinking about things. Silicon valley is not the only space where you get people who are compelled to believe that technology will bring social change; you also find that in activist circles, and I think we need to be better at building bigger coalitions and being more humble if we’re from a more tech-activist background. We need to work with people who have done a lot of community organising and can describe how to create social change, how to create trust, how to involve many people, how to break down hierarchies and this involves different kinds of skills and embracing a certain kind of humility.

P2P processes have existed throughout history. So the question is to what extent does their mediation make a difference? And if the mediation is going to be technological, how do you maintain the legitimacy of the processes themselves without letting the technology take too much of a role?

click here for part two…


Posted in Default, Featured Person, Networks, P2P Gender Issues, P2P Theory | No Comments »

Anthropologist Harry Walker on the Lessons of Amazonian Commons

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
26th August 2015

Harry Amazon

Sometimes it takes anthropologists to ask the really deep questions and help us imagine another world. That became clear to me after listening to Dr. Harry Walker, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, give the prestigious Malinowski Memorial Lecture in late May.

Walker has long studied the people of Peruvian-Amazonia, with special attention to “the nature of the self and its relationship to interpersonal and political processes.” His provocative, thoughtful lecture, “Equality Without Equivalence: an anthropology of the common,” is a meditation on the deep clash between our modern, western ideas of liberal equality and private property, and the different modes of being and knowing that are nourished in commons.

The talk essentially juxtaposes Walker’s conclusions about aboriginal commons against the context of representative government and market economics, helping to reveal the peculiar ideals of humanity embedded in the liberal polity.  (Thanks, Miguel Vieira, for alerting me to Walker’s podcast!)

A bit of background:  Walker is the author of Under a Watchful Eye:  Self, Power and Intimacy in Amazonia, which is described on the author’s website as an exploration of

the pervasive tension in Amazonian societies between a cultural prioritization of individual autonomy and uniqueness, and an equally strong sense that satisfaction and self-realization only come through relations with others. In seeking to understand the inherently shared or ‘accompanied’ nature of human experience, it brings together considerations of child care and socialization, relations with nonhumans, and concepts of power, in order to show how agency and a sense of self emerge through everyday practices involving the cultivation of intimate but asymmetrical relationships of nurturance and dependency.

Walker’s one-hour talk is too long and complex to summarize here, so I will focus on some of his concluding insights. He noted that a central theme of Amazonian commons is the idea of “living well” – to organize one’s life and productive efforts in such a way that it “imbues life with a sense of meaning, purpose and direction.” The point is to strive for “a state of happiness and tranquility,” especially with loved ones.

This goal is necessarily one that must be shared, he said: “One cannot simply be tranquil on one’s own. Like language or a good idea, tranquility is a collective resource isn’t depleted or divided when more people share in it, but actually enhanced.”

Walker notes that the “corporeal, ecological and affective dimensions” of the commons in Amazonia are all interconnected. Each dimension is the “product and precondition for the processes of production.” Thus, activities to replenish game animals, preserve the climate, and take care of people’s well-being, are all interconnected.

This helps explain why what is being created by commons “is not so much objects or subjects,” said Walker, “so much as social relationships or even subjectivity itself…..More than merely a set of institutional or property rights arrangements, we might see the commons as a kind of social imaginary that is quite unlike the nation-state as imagined community….It works against commensurability, equivalence, reciprocity, and exchange.  It breaks down divisions between natural and artificial, material and immaterial, production and reproduction, and work and life.”

Walker suggests that while Amazonian commons might be described as “libertarian” – in the sense that they honor the radical individuality of everyone. But it would be misleading to describe them as “egalitarian,” a world that implies that everyone is formally equal as participants in a bounded polity.

“Egalitarian” as an equal distribution of resources is also misleading, Walker said, because that idea “rests on an economics of scarcity,” which the commons rejects through its emphasis on sharing:  “An emphasis on material equality can end up highlighting the ways in which people are at odds with each other rather than as members in a common enterprise,” he said.

How does this work?  “In Amazonia, many of the most desired goods – well-being, say, or companionship or belonging – are not the rival goods” that are studied by economists, which if they are enjoyed by one person can’t be possessed or enjoyed by another.”  Because the culture is focused on “shareable” states of being, attention is shifted “towards the enjoyment of what can be shared rather than what can be privately consumed.”

The logic of the common challenges the ontology of the modern liberal state and economics by rejecting the formalization of rights and essences. Instead, the commons is seen as something that is produced – something that is “open and multifarious, largely external, and grounded in the individual’s material, historical positioning.” In a commons, the actual heterogenity of people is never reduced to “a chain of equivalence.” And because the community is somewhat open, evolving and never fully constituted, the commons “never becomes opposed to individual liberty.”

The premises of Amazonian commons are based on a conception of persons as radical singularities, said Walker – as beings who are “opaque, infinite and ultimately unknowable.”  There is no abstract notion of a “common humanity,” if only because “humanity remains no more than a possibility, a potential, that is perhaps never fully realized.”  And so “humanity” remains open to everyone, including nonhumans, as evidenced by animism. The firm distinctions between subject and object, and human and nonhunman, that characterize western property regimes, do not exist in Amazonian commons.

“Following from this, it may not be coincidental that western conception of equality coincided with enclosure and the rise of private property,” said Walker. “This is not only because private property and the law work hand in and to produce a sense of individual subjects as formally equal. As the ground we share with others — land, water — has been privatized and enclosed, it is tempting to speculate that this has produced an internalization and essentialization of the common under the guise of universal humanity.  In other words, if enjoyment of the common as a collectively produced relational good implies a multiplicity of singular differences, its erosion and privatization compels people to find the source their common being elsewhere.”  They posit “equivalents or essences to overcome the ever-widening gap that isolates them from each other.”  Particularity and singularity is lost.

Walker concludes with a strong pitch for the commons as a way forward:  “The ancient western idea of the commons is a quite simple idea that forms the basis of an economics run by neither the state or market.  It’s also an idea that we’ve never needed so urgently,” he said, noting that it is “a powerful concept for connecting many disparate struggles around the world.” He goes further: “The attempt to recover and enlarge the commons, and thwart its capture by capital, is now a virtually a necessary element of any radical political project.”

Quoting Claude Levi-Strauss, Walker notes that anthropology has a crucial role to play in helping to imagine a new world:  “Anthropologists are here to witness that the manner in which we live, the values that we believe in, are not the only possible ones – that other modes of life, other value systems, are permitted and continue to permit, other human communities to find happiness.”

Alas, I found no text on the Web for Walker’s talk, but an official podcast can be heard here. A rich, stimulating presentation!

Originally published in bollier.org


Posted in Collective Intelligence, Commons, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Person, Original Content, P2P Epistemology, P2P Lifestyles, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

Book of the Day: Shadow Work

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th August 2015

* Book: SHADOW WORK. The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. By Craig Lambert, 2015

Excerpted from a review by Barbara Ehrenreich:

“There’s still plenty of work to do, even if no one is willing to pay for it. This is the “shadow work” that Craig Lambert appealingly brings to light in his new book on “the unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your day.” We take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared. As corporations cut their workforces, managers have to take on the work of support staff (remember secretaries?), and customers can expect to spend many hours of their lives working their way through menus and recorded advertisements in search of “customer service.” At the same time, our underfunded and understaffed schools seem to demand ever more parental participation. Ambitious parents are often expected not only to drive their children to and from school, but to spend hours carrying out science projects and poring over fifth-grade math — although, as Lambert points out, parental involvement in homework has not been shown to improve children’s grades or test scores.

“Shadow Work” is generally a smooth ride, but there are bumps along the way. The definition of the subject sometimes seems to embrace every kind of unpaid work — from the exploitative, as in the use of unpaid interns, to the kind that is freely undertaken, like caring for one’s own family. At times the book gets weighed down by an unwarranted nostalgia for the old days, when most transactions involved human interactions. For example, Lambert grants that home pregnancy tests offer women “more privacy and more control,” while also lamenting — as no woman ever has — that they cut out the doctor and thus transform “what can be a memorable shared event into a solitary encounter with a plastic stick.”

Lambert, formerly an editor at Harvard Magazine, is on firmer ground when he explores all the ways corporations and new technologies fiendishly generate new tasks for us — each of them seemingly insignificant but amounting to many hours of annoyance. Examples include deleting spam from our inboxes, installing software upgrades, creating passwords for every website we seek to enter, and periodically updating those passwords. If nothing else, he gives new meaning to the word “distraction” as an explanation for civic inaction. As the seas rise and the air condenses into toxic smog, many of us will be bent over our laptops, filling out forms and attempting to wade through the “terms and conditions.”

Lambert falls short of calling for the shadow workers of the world to go out on strike. But that’s what it might take to give us the time and the mental bandwidth to confront the dystopian possibilities being unleashed by technology. If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will “become nonexistent”: “The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from “Elysium” to “The Hunger Games” — we’ve been seeing it again and again.


Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Book, P2P Labor | No Comments »

Feminist Theory and Free Software

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th August 2015

Excerpted from Katja Mayer and Judith Simon:

“Feminist scholars and feminist expertise are rarely mentioned in the context of FS studies, and if so, relating mainly to topics such as the “gender gap” (Kelty 2008) or the “coproduction of gender and technology” (Faulkner 2001; Oudshoorn et al 2004)3. However, we claim that instead of merely assessing the gender ratios in the free software community, feminist theory can help to better understand the epistemology of free software – or more precisely the entanglement of epistemology, ethics and ontology; of knowing, being and acting. That is, while we agree that the free software movement has had profound effects on the epistemic practices involved in software creation, i.e. the ways in which software if produced, improved and modified collectively, it is insufficient to focus only the epistemic dimension. Instead, a performative understanding of knowledge requires us to understand and account for the fact that epistemic practices are inherently ethical practices because a) instead of merely representing what is there, they are also generative and b) they may have differential effects on different agents.

Feminist theoreticians have proposed a broad and diverse range of epistemologies.

Yet, there are two aspects that are prevalent and particularly conducive to understand the epistemology of free software:

a) the performativity of epistemic practices and

b) the entanglement of epistemology, ontology and ethics.

One approach that appears particularly useful for apprehending FS is Karen Barad’s “agential realism” (AR) (2003, 2007), an “[…] epistemological-ontological-ethical framework that provides an understanding of the role of human and nonhuman, material and discursive, and natural and cultural factors in scientific and other social-material practices” (Barad 2007:26).

Departing from Niels Bohr’s unmaking of the Cartesian dualism between objects and subjects in quantum physics, Barad challenges dualistic understandings of subject-object, nature-culture, human-technology. Reality, in Barad’s understanding, is a verb rather than a noun, it is a process in which the observer, the observed, the practices, methods and instruments of observation are entangled and intra-act with one another. This radical shift forces her to rethink and reconsider received meanings of notions such as agency, materiality or discourse.

Apart from her non-dualistic perspective, another aspect of Barad’s approach is of particular importance for the understanding of FS we propose: her defense of performativity over representationalism. Both terms are meant to denote different ways of understanding the relationship between reality and discourse. While in representationalims discourse is meant to merely represent the world out there, Barad’s posthumanist performativity acknowledges the interrelation between discourse and materiality, between knowing, acting and being. “Agential realism is not about representations of an independent reality but about the real consequences, interventions, creative possibilities, and responsibilities of intra-acting within the world.” (Barad 1998: 8).

So far so good – but hasn’t the FS community always been about reality shaping? Aren’t FS activists the perfect agential realists? After all, isn’t FS all about shaping and changing reality through material-discursive practices? The crucial twist that we need to take in understanding the critical power of FS as well as some of its (potential) failures consists in taking power seriously. Power asymmetries, power effects – and their ethical counterparts injustices, biases, discrimination have been core topics in feminist theory. Concordant with Foucault and Butler, Barad argues that “power is not an external force that acts on a subject; there is only a reiterated acting that is power in its stabilizing and sedimenting effects” (Barad 2007: 235). Yet, a crucial aspect of AR consists in emphasizing the material dimension of power. Power refers to “overall materializing potential “ (Barad 2007:230), i.e. it must be thought of terms of who/what matters and who/what is excluded from mattering. Accordingly, power asymmetries refer to differences in materializing potential, to differences in matter/ing amongst human and non-human agents within socio-material practices.

As a performative and critical theory, AR emphasizes the possibility to reconfigure who/what comes to matter as well as the responsibility to act in case of unjust power asymmetries/injustices (Barad 2007:35).

Combining such a performative material-discursive understanding of power with the acknowledgement of the fundamental entanglement of epistemology, ethics and ontology opens the possibility for an “ethics of mattering”. If we concede that acting, knowing and being are related, but that different agents have different chances of mattering, then this implies a duty to watch out for injustices or marginalizations with respect to the potentials for mattering. Acknowledging our intra-relatedness, we need to critically engage in material-discursive practices in order to reconfigure the socio-material topology of which we are part in case of injustices with respect to mattering. If we agree upon the necessity to critically engage in material-discursive practices, which strategies can be used for these reconfigurations? How can we engage to change socio-technical epistemic environments for the better? We think that Helen Longino’s norms for transformative criticism can offer some guidance (even if Longino focuses merely on the social dimension while neglecting the socio-material entanglement).

In her book “The fate of knowledge”, Helen Longino develops a socio-epistemological approach that is […] responsive to the normative uses of the term knowledge and to the social conditions in which scientific knowledge is produced (Longino 2002: 1). In her analyses of epistemic practices Longino strives to be descriptively adequate– a goal that Kelty also stresses in his conclusions – but she moreover emphasizes the normative component of epistemology: i.e. epistemology goes beyond just assessing how knowledge practices are conducted but it also draws conclusions on how knowledge practices should be conducted.

To understand Longino’s social epistemology, it is important to note that “social” does not denote common, collective, or shared, but rather should be understood as interactive. The crucial sociality of knowledge lies in being in a dialogue about issues at stake; it is about interacting in producing situated, partial and provisional knowledge that is bound to revisions, debate, and critical questioning. This interactive aspect is also visible in her definition of knowledge as epistemically acceptable content. According to Longino “(s)ome content A is epistemically acceptable in community C at time t if A is or is supported by data d evident to C at t in light of reasoning and background assumptions which have survived critical scrutiny from as many perspectives as are available to C at t, and C is characterized by venues for criticism, uptake of criticism, public standards, and tempered equality of intellectual authority (Longino 2002c: 135)”.

It should become obvious from this definition, that the community of knowers is the central focus of attention in Longino’s social epistemology. This is not too surprising given that only through a communal process of reviewing, criticizing and finally vetting epistemic content, knowledge can be created, i.e. knowledge depends on effective socio-rational processes. The crucial term here is “effective” and by Longino already offers the criteria, which distinguish effective communities from their ineffective counterparts: venues for criticism, uptake of criticism, public standards, and tempered equality of intellectual authority.

These four criteria are explicated in Longino’s four norms for effective transformative criticism, which she proposes as ideals that communities should strive for if they wish to improve their knowledge-producing capacities.

“1. Venues. There must be publicly recognized forums for the criticism of evidence, of methods, and of assumptions and reasoning. […]

2. Uptake. There must be uptake of criticism. The community must not merely tolerate dissent, but its beliefs and theories must change over time in response to the critical discourse taking place within it. […] Uptake is what makes criticism part of a constructive and justificatory practice. […]

3. Public Standards. […] Participants in a dialogue must share some referring terms, some principles of inference, and some values or aims to be served by the shared activity of discursive interaction. […] A community‘s standards are themselves subordinated to its overall cognitive aims […] Finally, standards are not a static set but may themselves be criticized and transformed […] There is no particular act of adopting or establishing standards. […]

4. Tempered Equality. Finally, communities must be characterized by equality of intellectual authority. (Longino 2002: 129ff)”


There are several crucial insights to be taken from Longino’s social epistemology. First of all, it is important to note that communities are essential for knowledge in a very fundamental sense: without communal evaluation of content, there is no knowledge. Second, communities differ with respect to their epistemic effectiveness and the better they are in adhering to the before mentioned norms, the higher the likelihood that they will end up generating different forms of knowledge. Third, (cognitive) diversity benefits epistemic processes and products. This point is particularly important, because it explains why having diverse communities of knowers is not merely an ethical, social or political nice-to-have, but epistemically beneficial.

We think that both Longino and Barad’s epistemologies offer valuable insights for a critique of the critical power of free software. First of all, Longino’s four norms for transformative criticism can serve as criteria to evaluate the FS community itself. To what extent does the FS community adhere to or strive for the fulfillment of these norms? Are there sufficient venues for criticism? Is there tempered intellectual authority? And how are the norms changing and transformed in regard to social dynamics and shifting standards (e.g. the transformation of OSS markets, uptake of mobile social media by social movements and its interest to regimes of control, …)? Secondly, Longino’s social epistemology convincingly shows that cognitive and epistemic diversity is an ethical just as much as an epistemological requirement for sound, well-functioning and effective epistemic communities in a learning society as paradigmatically denoted by the FS movement. How is FS dealing with diversity of epistemic cultures and different identity politics? Thirdly, Longino’s emphasis on the performative and productive value of norms explains why it may be essential to always and repeatedly relegate to certain paradigms, such as the freedoms, in order to incite and harvest the critical power of FS – norms can serve as tools for transformation.

Barad’s contribution has been to remind us that our practices of knowledge do not merely represent what is there, but shape and create what is and what will be there. While this insight may be almost trivial in the context of FS, where the generative power of epistemic practices is well understood, it may be nonetheless necessary to remind ourselves that in the process of producing new artifacts we also create new distinctions, new differences. And we may also create new biases or injustices. The reaction to this danger however, cannot reside in escapism – we do not have the possibility to back out and abandon this material-discursive mess. Even if our actions are neither independent nor innocent, we have duty to make expand our frames of analysis, to make accountable cuts (Suchman 2007), to engage in critical practices striving for just socio-material configurations.

A fundamental insight from both feminist theories concerns the role of power. Adopting a performative understanding of power as differential potential for mattering may sharpen our senses for what is at stakes if we focus on mere knowledge processes and give debates about the relationship between knowledge and power in FS a deeper and more profound meaning.

What else can such feminist approaches do for us in this debate? It can further focus our attention on the realization of transformational processes, especially in fluid socio-technical settings. We can follow the various enactments of epistemological, ontological and ethical entanglements in software culture, approach the “agential realism” (Barad) of the FS movement in terms of how it has changed over time and in specific configurations. Tracing strategies of keeping up inter- and intra-activity to gather “effective” communities, looking for their relationships within certain knowledge regimes.

“When it is rooted in culture, software development becomes a discipline distinct from engineering, and social and cultural values are invested in the work.” (Medosch 2005: 177). The FS movement has always transgressed disciplinary boundaries of traditional expertise and authority. It was understood that very valuable things could be produced collaboratively. Making valuable things easily accessible and sharable proved to be hazardous to conventional, rigid concepts of intellectual property and privacy. We can ask what we have learned so far from the FS culture, and how those learnings have manifested themselves in ever shifting environments, e.g. when masses of people are protesting against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) or SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), to demonstrate that they are not (radical) pirates, but active advocates of free access to certain cultural resources.

The “critical power” or to speak with Longino the “transformative criticism” of FS is more than just a “copyfight” (Kelty). It has already shown more potential then to “only” radically transform markets and content-sharing practices. The FS movement has touched and transformed our understanding and handling of knowledge. FS strategy has taught us how to keep and protect openness and interaction in many realms besides the digital, even though we see effects of commodification, control and closure everywhere. This is not necessarily always very “radical” (Kelty) or “revolutionary”, just because it is transformative.

The FS movement serves as an inspiration for transforming publishing, teaching, and scientific practices (cf. Kelty 2008), and it has stimulated the idea of peer production, free culture (Lessing 2004), free flows of information and free/open networks, and it has shown us the capacity to approach freedom as something in the making, as something mutable that must continuously be negotiated and adapted. Besides adding new challenges to traditionally institutionalized markets of knowledge production, it is about to co-transform norms of “socially robust knowledge” (Nowotny et al. 2001). We owe this – inter alia – to the constant and consequent demarcation of the values and norms coming with the terminology “free” – and its sensitivity for power constellations. Therefore, let us conclude our argument by stating that free software is a rich and challenging field to study how matters and meanings are mutually constituted. We agree with Kelty that free software is constantly “becoming”. With its transgression to free culture and similar practices it is not only problematizing relations of power and knowledge, it is coproducing and transforming them, code being just one of many socio-cultural practices it its context. It has the potential to reconfigure the socio-material topology of the very assemblage it is embedded in. Hence, the crucial questions are: how is it becoming? What are matters of concern? How to make a difference?”


Posted in Culture & Ideas, Featured Essay | No Comments »