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Book of the Day: State of Crisis

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30th October 2014

* Book: State of Crisis. By Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni. Polity Press,

URL = http://politybooks.com/book.asp?ref=9780745680941



“Today we hear much talk of crisis and comparisons are often made with the Great Depression of the 1930s, but there is a crucial difference that sets our current malaise apart from the 1930s: today we no longer trust in the capacity of the state to resolve the crisis and to chart a new way forward. In our increasingly globalized world, states have been stripped of much of their power to shape the course of events. Many of our problems are globally produced but the volume of power at the disposal of individual nation-states is simply not sufficient to cope with the problems they face. This divorce between power and politics produces a new kind of paralysis. It undermines the political agency that is needed to tackle the crisis and it saps citizens’ belief that governments can deliver on their promises. The impotence of governments goes hand in hand with the growing cynicism and distrust of citizens. Hence the current crisis is at once a crisis of agency, a crisis of representative democracy and a crisis of the sovereignty of the state.

In this book the world-renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and fellow traveller Carlo Bordoni explore the social and political dimensions of the current crisis. While this crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the turmoil following the financial crisis of 2007-8, Bauman and Bordoni argue that the crisis facing Western societies is rooted in a much more profound series of transformations that stretch back further in time and are producing long-lasting effects.

This highly original analysis of our current predicament by two of the world’s leading social thinkers will be of interest to a wide readership.” (http://politybooks.com/book.asp?ref=9780745680941)


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Book of the Day: Collective Action After Networks

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29th October 2014

Organisation of the Organisation-less: Collective Action After Networks. By Rodrigo Nunes. PML Books (Mute / Post-Media Lab), 2014.


“Rejecting the dichotomy of centralism and horizontalism that has deeply marked millennial politics, Rodrigo Nunes’ close analysis of network systems demonstrates how organising within contemporary social and political movements exists somewhere between – or beyond – the two. Rather than the party or chaos, the one or the multitude, he discovers a ‘bestiary’ of hybrid organisational forms and practices that render such disjunctives false. The resulting picture shows how social and technical networks can and do facilitate strategic action and fluid distributions of power at the same time. It is by developing the strategic potentials that are already immanent to networks, he argues, that contemporary solutions to the question of organisation can be developed.”

Excerpted from an earlier article on the same topic, ‘Three theses on organisation’, by Rodrigo Nunes:

It is Possible to Have a Mass Movement Without Mass Organisations

This lesson is not particularly new; it has been known since at least 1968, or since the late 1990s if we are to eschew the classical references. It is nonetheless both worth repeating and phrasing in this way, since attempting to translate the questions thrown up by the present into the language of older debates can offer more of a grip on them than merely insisting on their absolute novelty.

What matters here is not only the extent to which mass organisations (parties, unions – notable exceptions being the strikes in Egypt, and local support by unions in Tunisia) were seen as ‘part of the problem’, or simply not invited, but also the extent to which they were questioned as mass organisations. In the face of a large, heterogeneous, developing, living movement, their mobilising capacity seemed limited by comparison – and the quality of their representation too stale, too ossified, too much of a representation to matter. When masses of people rose up against the representative system and the dearth of real options it offered, unions and parties were widely regarded as representing that system itself, rather than those they notionally represent.

To say this, of course, does not tell us anything about the staying power of the movements that appeared in 2011; whether a choice not to form mass organisations will entail a progressive loss of momentum, or whether forming them will simply be divisive without bringing any gains; nor does it say anything about whether mass organisations as such are an outdated proposition.[ii] But it does say something about the state of existing mass organisations, and the potentials that reside in the encounter between widespread discontent and access to technological tools that allow for mass, multi-polar communication. It is, thus, evidently good news: mass organisations are in crisis everywhere (and this includes Latin America, from where I presently write); it is good to know that it is possible to bypass them in order to produce political effects.

It also says something about the crisis of representation, and how it will be a long time until it is solved. Some were quick to point out the ‘failure’ of movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Spain, in the sense that the forces that eventually came to power were not much better than those that were removed. There is a truly bizarre logic in this: if these movements started out by decrying how all essential decisions were outside the scope of representative democracy and all the available options were different shades of the same, to expect to prove them wrong by pointing out that what they got was ultimately a different shade of the same is essentially to corroborate their assertion. This argument can only make sense if one has already accepted the premise these movements reject – that there is no alternative to the ‘there is no alternative’ that they oppose. It fails to acknowledge how they have, from the start, set their sights on a much longer game than can be measured by electoral cycles (and which will demand a lot more from them to be achieved).

In regard to the political system as a whole, these movements are exercising – and that is perhaps all they can do at present – what Colectivo Situaciones have called poder destituyente, de-instituent power.[iv] They undoubtedly also possess a constituent power whose future and direction is as yet impossible to predict. It may result in new political forms, new mechanisms of representation, new institutions or, at the very least, new organisations. It may result in all of those at once, as was the case in Bolivia in the aftermath of neoliberal crisis. But right now, their main achievable goal is probably that of flushing the system; and not only can this not be done overnight, the sharpening of contradictions in the short term – Spain now has a right wing government elected by 30 percent of the population, while polls indicate that around 70 percent agree with the indignados, who the new government are on a declared collision course with – may lead to just that in the longer run.


Organisation Has Not Disappeared, But Changed

Many have observed how the obvious similarities between 2011 and the alterglobalisation moment went oddly unnoticed among the commentariat. In what concerns organisation, there is a double irony in this invisibilisation. On the one hand, the alterglobalisation moment marked the first attempt to elaborate the transformations to organisational practice brought about by new communication technologies, the internet above all. On the other, it already manifested the same tabula rasa, new dawn attitude that some adopt today: new technological conditions have changed the way we organise forever, it is all about connected individuals now, the time of hierarchical organisational forms is over. Therein lies, of course, a third irony: that, as is often the case with the modern attitude of announcing the present as a total break with the past, it appears retrospectively as an anticipation of something then still to come. The ‘new technological conditions’ of ten years ago – mailing lists, camera-less phones and Indymedia! – pale in comparison to the access to the means of production of information that we see today; conversely, today’s ‘total break’ has already been around, in some form, for ten years.

The problem is that different things tend to get mixed up in the discussion, and activist practices associated with older organisational forms – such as ‘factory floor’ or ‘door-to-door’ community organising – are lumped in with the organisational form itself. As a consequence, the argument flits from claiming that some organisational forms are no longer necessary to some forms of activism have become superfluous, and ends up producing a falsified picture of how social media have actually been put to political use.

In a well received article from late 2010 that went on to seem thoroughly debunked by ensuing events, Malcolm Gladwell drew on Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking work in social network theory to suggest that social media are fabulous tools when it comes to spreading information and fostering low involvement forms of action (‘share’, ‘like’, ‘retweet’, ‘donate’), but are not as good when it comes to developing dependable relations, commitment and what it sometimes takes to really get an action or campaign off the ground. One of that text’s strongest conclusions was that ‘Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice’.[vi] In other words, social media are an excellent medium for weak tie activism, but the development of strong ties requires greater organisational consistency than ‘clicktivism’. As anyone who’s ever organised anything will know, it is sadly not as simple as ‘tweet it and they will come’.

My hypothesis is that, rather than contradicting this conclusion, the political use of social media in 2011 highlights a possibility underestimated by Gladwell: that, under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.

If one pays attention to how events unfolded, the myth of isolated individuals coming together on the randomly picked date of a Facebook event becomes shaky. Even the instance seemingly closest to the ‘spontaneous uprising’ narrative, Tunisia, is arguably best described as starting with strong ties. Mohamed Bouazizi’s shocking act of self-immolation first galvanised a small circle of friends and family who tried to make sure the information about his death, and the protests that followed, got out of the town of Sidi Bouzid. From then on the story was picked up by Al Jazeera, there was support from the local trade union branch and student groups, and longer-term activists and media critics of the government began to speak (and act) out.

The movement, in other words, was not simply from weak ties to strong ties, isolated individuals to strong commitments, the internet to the streets; but (small scale) strong ties to weak ties (more people hearing about what had happened) to strong ties (activist groups and individuals becoming involved on a larger scale) to a broader fringe of weak ties becoming strong ties as things gathered momentum. This is illustrated in the geographical spread; from the countryside to Al Jazeera, then from social media and YouTube to the capital and abroad, where each relay produced not only a greater number of informed people, but also people who became active; and it is not too much to imagine that communication among individuals was taking place not only through media, social or otherwise, but also through meetings and nascent or pre-existing organisations of different kinds.

It is well known that, for years, activist groups in Egypt had had their attempts to channel mass opposition to the Mubarak regime frustrated and repressed. Then the events in Tunisia and the viral spread of information and availability of online mobilising tools provided them with an opportunity that they seized. It is true, someone did create a Facebook event calling for the January 25 ‘Day of Anger’; this someone, however, was no random ‘concerned citizen’, but the admin of a Facebook page (‘We are all Khaled Said’) with over 400,000 followers that had existed for half a year. That admin, the now famous Wael Ghonim, attributes the idea to his collaborator AbdelRahman Mansour and the final decision to a brainstorming session over a month earlier with Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement, in which they agreed that the Facebook page would spearhead the call, while the activist group would take care of logistics.[x] (April 6 had already mobilised for that date – Police Day – in the past.) And as the idea of a protest on that and subsequent dates caught on, it was worked out and made operational by several other already existing and then sprouting organisations and affinity groups.

The communication that enabled the Arab Spring (or 15M and Occupy) did not simply spread from one individual to the next via social media; in each case, what happened was always a much more complex relay between already established hubs – either ‘strong tie’ groups or communication nodes with a large following and credibility – and a long tail of ties with decreasing intensity, in a sort of ripple effect with many epicentres. If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only. This is even more explicit in those cases, such as 15M and Occupy, where there was an open, overground organising process prior to things ‘kicking off’.[xi]

Finally, it is interesting to speculate on how the beginnings of both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are tied to death and sacrifice, of Mohammed Bouzizi and Khaled Said above all. There is no greater test of commitment, or of the strength of ties, than being ready to die. The relation between years of police abuse and violence, and then the irrepressible resolve demonstrated by protesters in those countries – the way in which the risk of taking action being the highest was turned into the most fundamental ‘strengthener’ of ties: the disposition to die together if necessary, and the solidarity that it creates – seems clear.


The Primary Organisational Form of 2011 was Not the Assembly

At the most evident level, the primary organisational form employed by movements in 2011 was the camp. From the extraordinary example set by Tahrir Square, the model spread to Wisconsin, Israel, Spain (where, however, it was an unplanned outcome of the 15 May demonstration); and then, after Occupy Wall Street (initially devised as a camp) and the 15 October day of global action, to the rest of the world. It was the most powerful meme, which is unsurprising seeing as it provided the most stirring images and, with Egypt, the most captivating victory.

Yet it is important to bear in mind the precise connection between form and goal that made Tahrir into a victorious symbol. For more than simply a meme, it was a tactic that consisted in concentrating the movement in one place with a very concrete, if negative, demand: that Mubarak step down. Even then, it is clear that it would not have managed to achieve its goal had the regime not realised they were losing control of several other parts of the country.

As the camp became a meme, this connection was lost. It is remarkable that the first tweet from @acampadasol – the first Twitter account of the first ‘spontaneous’ (i.e. moving from strong ties to developing strong ties along the weaker intensity long tail) camp in Spain, at Puerta del Sol, Madrid – stated that ‘we shall stay here until we reach an agreement’. Who ‘we’ was, and with whom agreement was to be reached, were things left unstated in the micro-blogging website’s peculiar syntax. By the time it got to the various worldwide ‘Occupy’ that sprung after October 15, this tie was lost. The same can be said about other related memes, such as the ‘human mic’, which started out as a practical solution to a ban on amplification at Zucotti Park in New York, and went on to become a marker of a certain ‘Occupy’ way of doing politics, even where the original impediment that had elicited it did not exist.”

About the Author

“Rodrigo Nunes is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), Brazil. He coordinates the research group Materialismos, which investigates the resurgence of metaphysical speculation in contemporary philosophy and its interfaces with other fields such as politics, science and anthropology. He has been involved in several political initiatives over the years, such as the first editions of the World Social Forum and the Justice for Cleaners campaign in London. He is a member of the editorial collective of Turbulence (http://turbulence.org.uk).”


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Book of the Day: The Cybernetic State

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28th October 2014

Book: The Cybernetic State. By Javier Livas.

From the preface:

“The emergence of a cybernetic State is now a real possibility, and most likely inevitable in the near future. This book sketches this information age organization and the cybernetic management principles on which it is based. As we shall see, many of its features are already present in embrionary form in the modern democratic State.

The description of the cybernetic State relies on the Viable System Model (VSM) developed by professor Stafford Beer and explained in several of his books. This model originates from control theory and the cybernetics of the human nervous system, and has been adopted and validated by management science. In this book the VSM is used to show the nature of the State.

The enormous explanatory power of this cybernetic map will show that Economics, Law, and Political Science, which have mostly been studied separately, actually refer to three different aspects of the same phenomena, namely the State. In this sense, the book attempts a synthesis of ideas that were born disconnected and remained so for a long time. Helpful insights about the evolution of economic, legal and political theory are a byproduct.” (http://managing.blue/2012/02/10/the-cybernetic-state/)


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The problem with Facebook “likes” and Netarchical Social Media Metrics

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Stacco Troncoso
26th October 2014

A fascinating video on Facebook’s dubious practices, which will (hopefully) make you think twice before making grandiose proclamations based on any for-profit Social Media stats.

From the notes to the original video

Evidence Facebook’s revenue is based on fake likes.

My first vid on the problem with Facebook: http://bit.ly/1dXudqY

I know first-hand that Facebook’s advertising model is deeply flawed. When I paid to promote my page I gained 80,000 followers in developing countries who didn’t care about Veritasium (but I wasn’t aware of this at the time). They drove my reach and engagement numbers down, basically rendering the page useless. I am not the only one who has experienced this. Rory Cellan-Jones had the same luck with Virtual Bagel: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-…

The US Department of State spent $630,000 to acquire 2 million page likes and then realized only 2% were engaged. http://wapo.st/1glcyZo

I thought I would demonstrate that the same thing is still happening now by creating Virtual Cat (http://www.facebook.com/MyVirtualCat). I was surprised to discover something worse – false likes are coming from everywhere, including Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia. So even those carefully targeting their campaigns are likely being duped into spending real money on fake followers. Then when they try to reach their followers they have to pay again.

And it’s possible to be a victim of fake likes without even advertising. Pages that end up on Facebook’s “International Suggested Pages” are also easy targets for click-farms seeking to diversify their likes.http://tnw.co/NsflrC

Thanks to Henry, Grey, and Nessy for feedback on earlier drafts of this video.


Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Featured Content, Featured Video, Media, Networks, Videos | No Comments »

Book of the Day: With P2P Towards a Post-Capitalist Society

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26th October 2014


De Wereld Redden. Met P2P naar een post-kapitalische samenleving. Michel Bauwens en Jean Lievens. Houtekiet / Oikos, 2013

Dear Friends,

The P2P Foundation is looking for English, and other languages, publishers for the Bauwens and Lievens book “With P2P: Towards a Post-Capitalist Society”. This book achieved its third printing in a very short time in the Flanders (Flemish) region. French translation is already secured.

English presentation and summary:

Our present society is based on the absurd idea that material resources are abundant and immaterial ideas are scarce. We behave as if the planet is infinite and exploit the earth in a way that endangers survival of the human species. On the other hand, we are building artificial walls around human knowledge to prevent and impede sharing as much as possible.

The peer-to-peer model of Wikipedia (knowledge), Linux (software) and Wikipspeed (design), inspired by open source, wants to turn this logic on its head. According to Michel Bauwens, the sharing economy, P2P-networks, open source, crowd sourcing, fablabs, micro-factories, hackerspaces, the makers’ movement, urban agriculture… all new phenomena forming patterns that lead us towards a postcapitalist society, in which the market will be subsumed to the logic of the commons.

Just as feudalism developed within the womb of the Roman slave society and capitalism developed within feudalism, we are witnessing the embryo of a new form of society within capitalism. In order to save the world, we need a relocalisation of production and an extension of global cooperation in the field of knowledge, code and design.”



Save the world is based on a 12-hour interview by former journalist Jean Lievens with Michel Bauwens, and is divided into six chapters:

Chapter 1: The Economy of P2P

For the first time in history, people all over the world can connect with each other and produce common value: a universal encyclopedia (Wikipedia), an operation system (Linux) or the design of a mother board (Arduino). They are building complex systems outside traditional organizations such as companies, government institutions or NGO’s. In addition, they don’t do it for the money, but because they like to do it, because they want to make themselves useful, because they want to solve a problem… Therefore, we are dealing with a new (proto-) mode of production, peer production. It is a hyper productive mode of production because it is based on passionate production and therefore, it has the tendency to outperform traditional businesses. In this chapter, Michel Bauwens places P2P within a historical framework and explains this new form of collaboration, sharing en producing.

Chapter 2, the politics of P2P

How will this transformation towards a new form of society in which P2P will become the dominant mode of production, take place? What are the social and political forces that will help determinate this transition? How will the ‘old world’ resist change and hinder the new emerging world? Will this transition be smoothly or will it be a revolutionary process?

Michel Bauwens considers P2P as the ideology of a new class of knowledge workers, with the same appeal as the ideas of socialism were for the industrial workers in the nineteenth century. The first political expressions – from the Swedish Pirate Party and the Greek Potato Movement to the Five Star Movement of Bopped Grillo – are still in their infancy. In addition, these new political formations need to find progressive partners to work out a program to defend and promote the interests of immaterial and material commons. In this Chapter, Michel Bauwens also tackles the role of the state that needs to transform itself from welfare state to partner state.

Chapter 3: P2P and spirituality

We cannot understand spiritual expressions and religious organizational structures outside of the historical social structure in which they originated and developed. Tribal religious forms like animism and shamanism didn’t have developed hierarchical structures as they arose within a social framework with egalitarian relationships relying on kinship. The large organized religions originating in highly hierarchical societies are defined by complex hierarchical structures. There is only one truth to which members have to obey. The protestant reaction was characterized by democratic features reflecting the values of a new urban bourgeoisie representing mercantilism and a nascent industrial capitalism. New Age reflects modern capitalist practices where even spiritual experiences have become consumer goods. In this chapter, Bauwens explains how the transition towards distributed networks will also have great consequences for spiritual development.

Chapter 4: the Philosophy of P2P

Michel Bauwens rejects methodologies that are trying to explain phenomena from one point of view. Not only do we need to take into account the objective, but also the subjective elements in their interdependency. At the same time his integral approach is a form of truth philosophy. According to Bauwens, truth needs to be constructed contributively and every object needs to be approached from as many angles and perspectives as possible. However, this integral approach also poses dangers, as shown by the reactionary nature of the ideas of Ken Wilber. For Michel Bauwens, the P2P-movement is a progressive, integrative emancipation movement.

Chapter 5: the P2P Foundation

The P2P Foundation is an international organization focused on studying, researching, documenting and promoting peer-to-peer practices in a very broad sense. This website is our knowledge commons and it’s collaboratively built by our community.

Chapter 6: a Biography of Michel Bauwens

Bauwens is founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. He is listed at #82, on the Post Growth Institute’s (En)Rich list as one of the 100 most inspiring people in the world. He worked among others for BP and Belgacom as e-business strategy director and writers for online media as Al Jazeeera English. He is also economic adviser of the government of Ecuador.

Appendix; The Story of the book

Michel Bauwens and Jean Lievens met in the second half of the seventies at the Free University of Brussels, were they were active in the student movement. More than three decades later, the ideas of P2P brought them together again. Now in their fifties, confronted with a broken system that threatens the survival of the human species, they consider the transition towards a P2P society as a way out of the present crisis.

More information

The book is based on a 12-hour interview by former journalist Jean Lievens with Michel Bauwens, and is divided into six chapters: the Economy of P2P, the Politics of P2P, P2P and Spirituality, the Philosophy of P2P, the P2P Foundation and a Biography of Michel Bauwens, who was elected on the Enriched List of the Post Growth Institute, a list with the 100 most inspiring people (dead and alive) ever in relation to sustainability.

216 pages | ISBN 978 90 8924 254 9

http://p2pfoundation.net / http://blog.p2pfoundation.net


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Inspiring New Film, “Voices of Transition,” on the Agriculture That We Need

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David Bollier
25th October 2014

How will agriculture have to change if we are going to successfully navigate past Peak Oil and address climate change?  A new film documentary, Voices of Transition, provides plenty of answers from Transition-oriented farmers in France, Great Britain and Cuba.

Produced and directed by French/German filmmaker Nils Aguilar, the 65-minute film is “a completely independent, participative film project” that both critiques the problems of globalized industrial agriculture and showcases localized, eco-friendly alternatives. The film features actual farmers showing us their farms and describing the human-scale, eco-friendly, community-based alternatives that they are developing. 

You can watch a trailer of the movie in English, German and French here and read a synopsis here. Go to the film’s website to check out the public screenings and DVD versions that you can buy.  Here is a link to the campaign around the international launch of the film.

Farmer Jean-Pierre Berlan explains the problem with contemporary agriculture:  “Our society is organized in such a way that everything is turned into a commodity. How can such a society develop farming methods that are free of cost? Agronomy should be looking for better methods, but our current farming policy is opposed to that.”

Once processing and transport are taken into account, industrial agriculture is responsible for around 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, the film explains. To produce on single calorie of food, ten to twenty times that amount of energy are needed.  Almost all government subsidies and R&D budgets are focused on this unsustainable agricultural model – and worse, most of these subsides go to the biggest, most polluting farms.

The results: Heavy chemical use literally kills valuable organisms in the soil, causing a cascade of ecological disruptions. The use of monoculture crops over vast areas of land means that wildlife and biodiversity are declining. And the centralized distribution of food makes the entire system highly vulnerable to the costs of oil and potential disruptions of supply. If trucks were to stop arriving at supermarkets, they would empty within three days.

A French farmer is reintroducing soil-enriching plants in fields, and even trees in fields, because a tree’s leaves and roots enrich the soil with organic matter and aerate the soil, allowing living organisms to breathe.”  This kind of “ecological agronomy” helps maintain soil fertility and prevent soil depletion.

A British farmer explains the dynamics of “forest gardening,” in which many layers of plants – trees, shrubs and surface level plants – are planted in proximity to each other so that they can work together as one system, promoting cross-fertilization among plants.  Rather than trying to homogenize the plants in a given area of land so that a maximum amount of saleable crops can be sold, the idea is to develop an integrated bio-system that can function sustainably, with as few external interventions as possible.

Nils Aguilar says that the aim of the film “is to catalyze transition wherever possible.  ‘Voices of Transition’ isn’t just a documentary film – it’s a tool to inspire communities to rediscover their collective potential.”

Already the film has sparked the founding of eighteen Transition initiatives, mainly in Germany, Austria, France and Belgium. Volunteers have also translated the film in seventeen languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Polish. The film has just been released in North America.  Here’s hoping that the film finds a wide and expanding audience.

Originally published in bollier.org


Posted in Commons, Culture & Ideas, Default, Featured Content, Featured Video, Food and Agriculture, Media, Original Content, P2P Foundation, Videos | No Comments »

Movement of the Day: Solidarity Economy St. Louis

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Stacco Troncoso
25th October 2014


Here’s a very inspiring interview with Solidarity St. Louis, an anti-capitalist, social justice and commons-oriented collective out of St Louis, Missouri. We’d like to thank the author, Mira Luna, for encouraging us to republish it.

Since early August, the tragic killing of Mike Brown has caught fire in the news. It’s no surprise that mainstream media has limited the conversation to this one isolated incident. But it leaves a crucial void of voices for change that are working to solve the economic inequalities that create racial injustice in the first place.

Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) is a grassroots organization that has taken the lead in organizing the community around the Mike Brown case, systemic racism and building a solidarity economy in St. Louis through a new project called Solidarity Economy St. Louis. We caught up with MORE Organizer, Julia Ho, to get MORE’s unique take on how sharing projects can support social justice organizing and why we shouldn’t ignore social justice in the struggle to create a new economy.

Why did MORE shift into solidarity economy organizing from more traditional political organizing?

In 2011, the Occupy movement sparked a pattern of people thinking about the economy in a different way, so we shifted our organizing strategy. We asked ourselves, “How can we do decentralized, anti-capitalist work and support what’s already happening?” Around this time last year, we decided it would be most effective to create a campaign working from two angles 1) connecting and sharing best practices for solidarity economy projects and 2) building political and economic power through organizing. We also knew that racial divisions restricted access to resources in the city and felt that a robust solidarity economy network could play a role in addressing those problems.

In St. Louis, a major symptom of racial oppression is the criminalization of poverty, which leads to further economic insecurity and segregation. For example, cities depend heavily on traffic fine revenue to sustain themselves, which creates an unfair burden on the working poor and those affected by racial profiling because unpaid fines often lead to bench warrants and jail time. Currently, we are working on an initiative to get traffic fines paid through community service projects that are managed through our local timebank, the Cowry Collective, while also putting pressure on the municipal courts to stop issuing these warrants in the first place.

Launch event for Solidarity Economy St. Louis

Why did this work lead you to start a new project – Solidarity Economy (SE) St. Louis?

We wanted to build a local network of people who are doing similar projects and could also pull together to fight economic and racial injustice. Our idea was that MORE would help to convene this table, but that the network would consist of groups and organizations that extend beyond our membership.

SE St. Louis currently does campaign organizing, education, and strategy meetings with people affected by bench warrants. We work with the Cowry Collective Timebank, the Organization for Black Struggle, Sistahs Talkin’ Back, the Coalition to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex, Grace Hill’s MORE Dollar Network, Blank Space, sustainable deconstruction and recycling organizations, free stores, art collectives, immigrant rights organizations like Latinos en Axion, the St. Louis Ecovillage Network, and are looking to connect with several urban gardens and neighborhood tool libraries.

Can you explain your plan to address the injustice of bench warrants for minor infractions through the use of timebanking or other alternative economic practices?

Through our work around bench warrants, we’re hoping to shift the conversation around alternative economics to call attention to systems that oppress people and exclude them from the current economy, such as the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). It’s hard for people to participate in the alternative economy if they have to fight daily to survive, to not get put in jail or lose their housing. Recently, a group of local lawyers sent a letter to Mayor Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, to clear all fines for nonviolent offenses (there are about 3 warrants of this kind per household). The reasoning behind this amnesty initiative is documented in a white paper by the ArchCity Defenders.

As a result of the hard work of these lawyers, combined with pressure from our campaign and national media attention in the aftermath Mike Brown’s murder, Ferguson actually amended its city charter to include several reforms to the municipal court system. Most recently, St. Louis City announced on October 1st that 220,000 warrants for nonviolent offenses will be cleared. These changes were big victories for our campaign, but these are just first steps. Clearly, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to ensure that people are not being exploited by the courts or the police. In addition to the other work that MORE has been doing in Ferguson, one of our next steps is to start a Timebanking program that will expand throughout St. Louis which will allow people to work off their fines by exchanging services in their community.

Cowry Collective Timebank Meetup

What’s your long-term vision for economic transformation in St. Louis and how do shared resources, the commons and cooperatives fit in?

Ultimately, our vision is to see people having true democratic power over their resources and the decisions that affect their lives. In St. Louis, corporate power rules. Peabody, the largest privately owned coal corporation in the world, is headquartered here. Monsanto is headquartered here. Boeing has a major base of operations here. These corporate powers, along with many others, heavily influence public policy and funnel money into nearly every cultural institution. As a result, people tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that these corporations are robbing millions of dollars in tax breaks per year from public schools and other city services.

Last year, we were working on a ballot initiative campaign called Take Back St. Louis that over 8 months received 36k signatures. Take Back St. Louis was essentially designed to divert tax breaks ($61,000,000 to Peabody alone) to green jobs, community gardens and renewable energy projects. It got on the ballot, but Peabody successfully filed an injunction and even inserted an amendment at the state level that prohibited St. Louisans from passing any initiatives that limit tax breaks to coal corporations. We are in the midst of an appeal process now, but the Take Back St. Louis campaign is a perfect example of how our democracy is currently being subverted.

Another major issue in the city is massive plots of vacant homes and land, which are a direct result of decades of white flight. St. Louis has over 10k vacant homes and many more private vacant lots. Developers see it as an opportunity, the city sees it as a blight, but what about the people that live there? How do we develop St. Louis in a way that’s constructive of a new economic paradigm? People are already doing it, but it’s not being recognized or supported in the ways that it should be. We want people who live in these communities, who are primarily low income people and people of color, to be dictating where the city’s resources are spent.

Map of Shared Resources in St. Louis

St. Louis has been the subject of a lot of media attention around racism lately with the murder of Michael Brown. How does your work address systemic racism?

This moment is significant because it is a chance to push forward a national movement against systemic racism. Mike Brown is not the first Black man to be killed by the police, and sadly he will not be the last–every 28 hours, a Black man or woman is extra-judicially killed. Bench warrants are just one small symptom of the widespread problem of the criminalization of Black and Brown communities. So we are doing what we can to uplift organizations that are already deeply rooted in the community, such as the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, and also support newly politicized and radicalized young leaders off of the streets by training them in their organizing skills.

Do you have any particular models of cities or projects you look to for inspiration?

We originally took a lot of inspiration from Solidarity NYC, their mission and vision. We’re also excited to connect with organizers in Detroit with the Our Power campaign, as well as folks with Cooperation Jackson who are doing incredible work to transform their local economy.

How can people get involved?

  • We just organized an event about Mike Brown and the bench warrant campaign and have a upcoming big event called Ferguson October from October 10-13th.
  • You can get further updates on campaigns and events from the Solidarity Economy St. Louis or MOREFacebook pages or follow #UnWarranted.
  • Donate to the legal support fund for justice for Mike Brown
  • Donate to the Ferguson October Weekend of Resistance

Header photo courtesy of Ferguson October


Posted in Activism, Commons, Cooperatives, Featured Content, Featured Movement, P2P Collaboration, Politics | No Comments »

Book of the Day: Virtual Economies

photo of hartsellml

24th October 2014

* Book: Vili Lehdonvirta with E.Castronova. Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis. MIT Press, 2014

URL = http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/virtual-economies

aims to bring virtual economies to the attention of social scientists, and secondly to help digital designers use social science and economics scholarship when designing their virtual economies.



By Vili Lehdonvirta:

“Digital gaming, once a stigmatized hobby, is now a mainstream cultural activity. According to the Oxford Internet Survey, more than half of British Internet users play games online; more in fact, than watch films or pornography online. Most new games today contain some kind of a virtual economy: that is, a set of processes for the production, allocation, and consumption of artificially scarce virtual goods. Often the virtual economy is very simple; sometimes, as in massively multiplayer online game EVE Online, it starts to approach the scale and complexity of a small national economy.

Just like national economies, virtual economies incentivize certain behaviours and discourage others; they ask people to make choices between mutually exclusive options; they ask people to coordinate. They can also propagate value systems setting out what modes of participation are considered valuable. These virtual economies are now built into many of the most popular areas of the Internet, including social media sites and knowledge commons — with their systems of artificially scarce likes, stars, votes, and badges. Understanding these economies is therefore crucial to anyone who is interested in the social dynamics and power relations of digital media today.

But a question I am asked a lot is: what can ‘real’ economies and the economists who run them learn from these virtual economies? We might start by imagining how a textbook economist would approach the economy of an online game. In EVE Online, hundreds of thousands of players trade minerals, spaceship components and other virtual commodities on a number of regional marketplaces. These marketplaces are very sophisticated, resembling real commodity spot markets.

Our economist would doubtless point out several ways its efficiency could be radically improved. For example, EVE players can only see prices quoted in their current region, likely missing a better deal available elsewhere. (In physical commodity markets, prices are instantly broadcast worldwide: you wouldn’t pay more for gold in Tokyo than you would in New York.) Our economist knows that providing more information to market participants increases the market’s efficiency, and might therefore suggest modifying the game such that all players gain instant and galaxy-wide access to the same price information. This would improve the overall efficiency of the galactic market.

This change would obviously be a blow to those players who have specialized in gathering and trading this price information. It would also reduce the opportunities for arbitrageurs: players who rummage the galaxy for underpriced goods, transporting them to regions where they will fetch a profit. Of course, these players could always turn themselves into haulers, the space equivalent of truck drivers. Increased efficiency would probably increase cross-regional trade, meaning a boom-time for haulers.

But wait – realizing the infinite malleability of virtual economies, the textbook economist might decide to eliminate regions altogether. Distance is what economists refer to as a transaction cost: the economy would run much more efficiently without the need to transport things around. In a virtual environment goods and characters could be instantly teleported, or the galaxy simply collapsed into a single, dimensionless point. The efficiency of the virtual economy would certainly be greatly improved. But who would pay a subscription fee to participate in such a boring economy!

Why did our strawman economist make such a horrible mess of the game economy? Conventional economic laws are work equally well in virtual environments: the equilibrium price of a commodity in a competitive market is determined by the interaction of supply and demand, regardless of whether you are in the market for magic swords or soya beans. The crucial difference is in the objectives the economy is intended to fulfil. When conventional economists design and analyse economies, they take it as read that the purpose of the economy and its institutions is to solve the so-called economic problem: the allocation of limited resources so as to best satisfy human needs. Microeconomists do this by designing mechanisms that are as efficient as possible, while macroeconomists are concerned with maximizing economic output.

But in game economies, the economic problem doesn’t really exist. The needs that players experience are contrived, created by positioning otherwise useless goods (magic swords) as desirable status items. The scarcity of resources is likewise artificial, enforced through programme code. If games designers wanted to solve the economic problem, they could do it with a few keystrokes; no markets or other economic institutions are required for this purpose.

Different multiplayer game economies have different aims, but one key objective stands out: the economy helps create and hold together the social fabric of the game. Regular interaction generates interpersonal ties and trust. Having people consume the fruits of one’s digital labour generates a sense of meaning, a sense of a role to play in the community. Division of labour and the resulting mutual interdependence moreover creates solidarity and social cohesion. In short, the economy can act as a wonderful glue holding people together.

The social fabric is important to game developers, because the stronger the ties between players, the longer the players will keep playing (and paying fees). Some games developers expend considerable resources in their own style of economic research, experimenting with different exchange mechanisms and institutions to find the designs that really strengthen the social fabric. When we examine the resulting virtual economies we can see that their design choices are often very different from the choices that a conventional economist would make.

I will give an example. One aspect of designing a market is designing an exchange mechanism: the concrete mechanism through which the buyer and the seller meet, settle on a price and quantity, and execute the transaction. The simplest exchange mechanism is two people meeting face to face to negotiate a trade, and then exchanging the goods on the spot. A more sophisticated mechanism is an online auction, like eBay. Stock markets use an even more sophisticated mechanism, where participants submit buy and sell offers, these are matched by an algorithm, and trades are executed automatically.

Given that many exchange mechanisms are possible, what kind of an exchange mechanism should be build into your market? When governments and companies create markets they usually turn to microeconomists specializing in this kind of mechanism design. The microeconomist’s answer is that you should choose the exchange mechanism that is most efficient, in the sense of allocating goods optimally and minimizing all transaction costs: in the best case it may not even be necessary for the buyer and the seller to know each others’ identities.

Games economists, in contrast, tend to favour exchange mechanisms that involve social interaction; often through a virtual face-to-face meeting, where the tedious parts (explaining item characteristics) are automated, but negotiation over prices and quantities is conducted manually. Some locations in the virtual world often spontaneously emerge as sort of bazaars, where buyers and sellers congregate to search for deals. These double as social hubs where people come to meet friends and put on performances and displays, thereby building social capital. One might later consider one’s trading acquaintances when putting together a team for some quest.

More sophisticated exchange mechanisms, such as auction houses and the commodity spot markets in EVE Online, are also common in games, but they also avoid completely displacing social trade networks. In EVE Online, players must either move around in space or use their social networks to obtain price information from neighboring localities. This way, EVE Online’s developers have struck a balance between efficiency and social ties. One thing that virtual economies can teach is to look for other objectives besides efficiency and output as variables that need to be maximized in an economic system.

I would argue that a focus on social fabric — rather than just on efficiency and output – can usefully inform national economies. First, in today’s affluent societies, we are close to solving the economic problem: in the United Kingdom or the United States the need for life-sustaining material basics is all but fulfilled. Keynes predicted 90 years ago that the economic problem will be solved within 100 years; in the affluent parts of the world, it looks like he may have been right. The greatest problem faced by the UK and US today is not the economic problem, but the disintegration of the social fabric. Virtual economies show how economic institutions could be arranged so as to strengthen it.

Second, even in that greater part of the world where the economic problem still remains acute, it is not the case that we should focus on it exclusively. Poor countries should not have to go through social disintegration to reach economic affluence. Third, as I have already mentioned, games and virtual economies have become significant phenomena in their own right. Their creators are smart people who have developed many economic insights of their own. They are eager for knowledge on how to better design and operate these economies, but conventional economic advice that focuses solely on efficiency fails to address their needs. Economists and economic sociologists should widen their research to develop answers that satisfy the needs of virtual economy designers – and also of a more ‘social’ national economy.

Now, to be fair, the fact that markets and other modern economic institutions can serve important social functions has been known to sociologists since Émile Durkheim. But this has been regarded as something of a side effect, and certainly not the purpose for which these institutions are created. Game economies are radical in this respect – that they are created entirely to serve these other functions, rather than any material function. Economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation that in the transition from a traditional to a market society, social structure was rearranged to serve the needs of the economy. What game economies do is in some ways the opposite: they rearrange the economy to serve the needs of the social structure. And that would seem to be a very worthwhile endeavor.” (http://blogs.oii.ox.ac.uk/policy/economics-for-orcs-how-can-virtual-world-economies-inform-national-economies-and-those-who-design-them/)


Posted in Featured Book, Gift Economies, Open Hardware and Design | 1 Comment »

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

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd October 2014

From the notes to the video:

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

Michel Bauwens:

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

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

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


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

Evolutionary Biologist Divulges The Secret To Human Coexisting

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
23rd October 2014

Luke Rudkowski of We Are Change in Majorca, Spain talks with Evolutionary Biologist and Futurist Elisabet Sahtouris about her life’s work. She studied algae which covered Earth in its first 2 billion years to find that there’s a maturation cycle of all life, wherein the costs of competition are too high and the solution for survival is cooperation. She is now applying her finding to the study of the evolution of human society.


Posted in Culture & Ideas, Featured Person, Videos | No Comments »