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How to Rein in Monopoly-like Network Platforms?

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David Bollier
27th May 2015


fatcat_1-web

The latest issue of Boston Review has a lively forum on the growing power of network-based businesses such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb.  These companies may not be monopolies in the strict conventional sense of the law, but they nonetheless use their market dominance and network platforms to extract all sorts of advantages from competitors, suppliers and consumers.

K. Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, presented his assessment of the situation, and then nine people of various persuasions (including me) responded.  Rahman stated the problem succinctly:

The kinds of power that Amazon, Comcast and companies such as Airbnb and Uber possess can’t be seen or tackled via conventional antitrust regulations.  These companies are not, strictly speaking, monopolies; Urban and Airbnb, in particular, do not engage in the kind of price-fixing or market dominance that is the usual target of antitrust regulation today.  These companies are better understood as platforms or utilities:  they provide a core, infrastructural service upon which other firms, individuals and social groups depend.

The problem is that conventional antitrust regulation isn’t really equipped to deal with information economy platforms, which tend to connect buyer and sellers in more efficient ways while offering very low prices. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is open networks paradoxically result in “power law” outcomes in which a minority of players tend to dominate the universe of users. Some companies have used this network-based advantage to limit competitors’ access to the market, impose unfair conditions on consumers or producers, and evade consumer and labor-rights laws. 

Rahman calls for a re-purposing of Progressive era policies from a century ago that tamed large monopolies like railroads by subjecting them to public utility regulation. Is this the way to go? Juliet Schor of Boston College agrees that there is a problem, but considers the regulatory approach nostalgic and unimaginative. She argued:

“Peer-to-peer structure and peer ownership of capital undermine the argument for private ownership of platforms and, by extension, for the public utility model.  This is not to say there isn’t a strong public interest in this sector – there is.  But the compelling feature of these entities is that most of the value in the market is produced by the peers, not the platforms.  This suggests that platforms can and should be owned and governed by users.  If they are, we can worry less about rent extraction, concentrations of political power, and the other concerns Rahman raises.”

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research is similarly skeptical of a return to conventional utility regulation. He argues that companies like Amazon and Uber should simply be forced to observe the same laws that their smaller, conventional competitors do – such as paying the same sales tax, paying observing the same minimum wage and hour rules for drivers, and adhering to safety and health standards.

Here are some excerpts from my response (link to full statement is here), in which I suggest that “innovative schemes for cooperative self-provisioning and decentralized local control, also known as the commons,” can act as an antidote to market power:  “All sorts of quasi-autonomous, user-managed systems can provide shared rights of access outside the dominant market system and conventional government, [and] can mitigate the problem of network-based monopolies while mobilizing a diverse and politically consequential constituency.”

My brief note response continues:

….the rapidly diversifying world of open design and manufacturing holds promise for “out-cooperating” such companies in electronics, furniture, farm equipment, and other industries. Arduino is a vast global community of open source computer boards at the heart of wearable technologies, 3D printers, drones, and consumer electronics. The open design Wikispeed car gets a hundred miles per gallon of fuel, and the volunteers building it are pioneering new manufacturing techniques. The Farm Hack community has produced dozens of models of affordable farm equipment. The Open Prosthetics Project is designing innovative body limbs that major medical suppliers lack the creativity or profit incentive to develop. The recurrent theme: globally shared modular design that can be manufactured locally and inexpensively.

I do not wish to suggest that technology can solve all the problems of dysfunctional politics and policy. We still need government to use the antitrust and regulatory tools in its arsenal, and we would benefit from a resurgence of Progressive reform. But in the commons, individuals and groups collaborate in ways that, over time, can help remake our politics and policy. We saw a glimpse of this in the campaign for net neutrality, as a motley swarm of digital communities committed to an open Internet improbably prevailed (for now) over the cable and telecom giants, including Comcast.

As part of the forum there are also comments by Adam Thierer, a libertarian-minded tech policy expert at the Mercatus Center (“public utility regulation has discouraged competition and innovation”); Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar (peer producers should share power and the value they create); and Arun Sundararajan of the Social Cities Initiative at NYU (rethink government’s role in the market); Sofia Ranchordas of Yale Law School (platform benefits are overstated); Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute (try worker cooperatives); and Richard White, an author about railroads (historical perspectives on Gilded Age reforms).

It’s great that there is a new dialogue in a prominent magazine about how regulatory approaches for abusive market power need to be reinvented for the digital age. The comments are insightful, but the outlines of a new regulatory structure that could be effective, politically achieveable and mindful of network dynamics, remain elusive.


Originally published at bollier.org
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Posted in Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Labor, Politics | No Comments »

New Film Documentary, “Seeing the Forest”

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David Bollier
25th May 2015


two-salmon-e1429733253359In the 1990s, many communities in central Oregon were torn asunder by the “War of the Woods.” Environmentalists had brought lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service for violating its own governing statutes. For decades, timber companies had been allowed to clear-cut public forests, re-seed with tree monocultures, and build ecologically harmful roads on mountain landscapes.

Environmentalists won their lawsuit in 1991 when a federal judge issued an injunction that in effect shut down timber operations in the Pacific Northwest of the US. While the endangered northern spotted owl was the focus of much of the debate, the health of the entire ecosystem was at risk, including the Pacific salmon, which swim upstream to spawn.

There is often no substitute for litigation and government mandates, and the 1991 litigation was clearly needed.  But what is really interesting is the aftermath:  Rather than just designating the forest as a wilderness preserve off-limits to everyone, the Forest Service instigated a remarkable experiment in collaborative governance. From “Seeing the Forest”

Instead of relying on the standard regime of bureaucratic process driven by congressional politics, industry lobbying and divisive public posturing, the various stakeholders in the region formed a “watershed council” to manage the Siuslaw National Forest. Twenty years later, this process of open commoning has produced a significant restoration of the forest ecosystems, implicitly indicting the previous forest management regime driven by politics and the formal legal system.

This story is told in a wonderful thirty-minute film documentary, “Seeing the Forest,” produced by writer and filmmaker Alan Honick, with support from Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.  Honick writes how the public lands in Oregon contained most of the remaining old growth forests outside of protected parks:

These were complex and ancient ecosystems, particularly on the west side of the Cascades, where the moisture from Pacific storms gave rise to rich and diverse temperate rainforests. Hundreds of species of animals and plants depended on this habitat to survive.

For 40 years, these forests were logged with the same industrial methods practiced on private land. Vast swaths were clearcut, then densely replanted with monocultures of the fastest growing trees. When they reached sufficient size, they were scheduled to be clearcut and replanted again, in an ongoing cycle considered sustainable by those who employed it.

The aftermath of the 1991 litigation could have been simmering hostility and litigation, which would likely flare up again.  It was based on the old, familiar narrative of “jobs vs. the environment,” a debate that government was supposed to mediate and resolve.

In Oregon, however, it was decided to develop a “Northwest Forest Plan” that inaugurated a new space and shared narrative.  The Siuslaw Watershed Council invited anyone with an interest in the forest to attend its open, roundtable meetings, to discuss how to manage the forest and resolve or mitigate the competing interests of timber companies, environmentalists, recreational fishers, local communities, hikers, and others.  Outcomes were based on consensus agreement.

One environmentalist confessed that he had never wanted to sit down at the same table with a timber industry representative.  The process of sitting and talking as a group was an important behavioral experience for all sides, however.  It was a process for overcoming mutual skepticism, building trust, putting aside past differences, and taking risks on new ideas. The group does not have binding decisionmaking power, but as a Forest Service representative explained, it has “all but legal” decisionmaking power for the Siuslaw Forest, including how funds will be spent.

The process has focused on a shared goal – the restoration of salmon in the streams and rivers.  While there remain differences among participants, everyone is oriented to finding workable solutions rather than in “winning” through a pitched political or legal system.

One advantage to this process has been using informal agreement to bypass bureaucratic and legal limitation for doing things.  The life-cycle of the salmon spans an entire watershed, from the headwaters of the streams to the ocean – a geographic expanse that goes well beyond the Forest Service lands to include many private lands and community lands.  The watershed council helped surmount some of these jurisdictional issues and allow people to develop more flexible, far-ranging plans than a bureaucratically driven process would allow.  The outcomes had a built-in consensus and legitimacy, which cannot often be said about regulatory processes, where legal strong-arming, big money and cultural polarization often prevail.

The watershed council was able to initiate all sorts of solutions that would probably have eluded the Forest Service acting as a typical bureaucracy.  The council has overseen the thinning of forests in selective, ecologically responsible ways while minimizing road use and decommissioning old logging roads.  It has restored the ecological function of streams and watersheds, including the creation of culverts that mimic streambeds so that salmon could move upstream.  Instead of pulling dead trees out of the stream, they are now left intact because the fish need such habitat.  And so on.

When a major storm hit the forest in 2012, its impact on the streams and roads was minimal – indeed, far less than the impact of a devastating 1996 storm.  Of course, telling this story of effective forest management is harder because there are no apocalyptic photos of destruction to qualify as “news.”

Honick’s understated, well-made film makes a powerful point about the potential of open collaboration.  It can successfully manage even something as large and biophysical as a forest.  Even the market individualists of American culture can achieve a fundamental transformation through commoning.


Originally published at bollier.org

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Posted in Activism, Commons, Featured Video, Original Content, P2P Ecology, Videos | No Comments »

Video of the Day: Buzzing for the Commons in Madrid

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Stacco Troncoso
24th May 2015


Today, as municipal elections take place throughout the Spanish State we wanted to present a series of posts reflecting the new citizen-led electoral coalitions spawned out of the 15-M Movement.

First up is this inspiring video, originally shared by Cecilia Barriga on Vimeo and featuring an impassioned Ada Colau (who’s running for mayor in Barcelona) describing the buzz created around her Madrid-based municipalist counterpart, Manuela Carmena.

Madrid, It buzzes for the people from cecilia barriga on Vimeo.

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Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Featured Video, Open Government, P2P Development, Politics, Videos | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Ethnography of a Humanitarian Hacking Community

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Michel Bauwens
22nd May 2015


* Article: The Ethic of the Code: An Ethnography of a ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ Community. By Douglas Haywood. Journal of Peer Production, Issue 3, July 2013

From the Abstract:

“Hackers and computer hacking have become important narratives in academia and popular media. These discussions have frequently portrayed hackers as deviant, framing them ethnocentrically within North Atlantic societies. Recently, however, events such as the politicisation of hacking through ‘hacktivism’ and those who hack for humanitarian causes have forced us to reconsider such typologies, although the body of empirical research in such areas remains relatively sparse. The aim of this paper is to present the findings of an ethnographic study carried out during a hacking event in 2012 which focused upon those involved in ‘Humanitarian Hacking’. Online and offline research explored the events that hackers took part in, the technologies they produced and the individuals involved. Based around the ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ event, this paper explores the motivations of participants, contrasting against previous studies and theory, particularly the idea of a ‘hacker ethic’; the extent to which these groups comprise a ‘community’ and its nature; and finally the social shaping of the technological artefacts produced by these groups. These three themes are explored together as they were often interlinked and provide interesting insights into the nature of this group. Drawing upon the works of previous researchers including Gabriella Coleman, Christopher Kelty and Pekka Himanen, the author will provide ethnographic evidence which demonstrates that not only is the ‘hacker ethic’ an important element within narratives of open-source technology, but that elements of it are also increasingly seen in wider areas of society from open-data to crowd-sourcing to the Anonymous movement. By tracing the historical origins and context of ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ and exploring their practices, this paper seeks to explore something of the motivations behind this activity. By doing so, it will reveal the wider symbolic significance of hacking within a ‘network society’ in which informational networks hold a central role, and in which the ability of hackers to manipulate such networks can be both feared and revered. Such groups present a methodological challenge for ethnographers since they are multi-sited, mobile, and take place both online and offline. This paper therefore draws upon practices in the social sciences including internet ethnography, multi-sited studies, ‘shadowing’ actors and ‘following’ technologies as cultural artefacts. The hackers engaged with in this project were often themselves academics, with research taking place within the ethnographers ‘own tribe’ and the degree of separation between fieldwork and ‘everyday life’ constantly blurred. This made a more participatory style of ethnography essential and challenged pre-existing notions of ‘the field’.”

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Posted in Collective Intelligence, Culture & Ideas, Featured Essay, P2P Movements, P2P Research, P2P Subjectivity, Peer Production | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Effects of Algorithm Awareness

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Michel Bauwens
21st May 2015


* Essay: A Path to Understanding the Effects of Algorithm Awareness. By Kevin Hamilton et al.

From the Abstract:

“The rise in prevalence of algorithmically curated feeds in online news and social media sites raises a new question for designers, critics, and scholars of media: how aware are users of the role of algorithms and filters in their news sources? This paper outlines an approach to studying how users perceive the algorithmic “curation” of their feeds, using Facebook as a sample case. Such a problem presents particular challenges when, as is common, neither the user nor the researcher has access to the actual proprietary algorithms at work.”

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Posted in Featured Essay, P2P Governance | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: Well-Being as the Key Concept in Political Economy

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Michel Bauwens
19th May 2015


* Article: If ‘Well-Being’ is the Key Concept in Political Economy… By Claudio Gnesutta. Economic Thought Vol 3, No 2, 2014

From the Abstract:

“If ‘well-being’ is to be the key concept in political economy, then economists are placed, from a methodological viewpoint, in an uncomfortable position. A well-being approach requires consideration of several non-economic dimensions strongly interrelated with the economic process, and failure to consider them means that the subsequent economic analysis cannot be based on steadily defined categories and, therefore, economists cannot value the full implications of their policy prescriptions. In this note, I show how an interrelated economic-social scheme able to analyse (sustainable) well-being calls for a broadening of the range of social factors interacting (in short and long term) with the market equilibria, and that this entails both new analytical categories and a new socio-economic relations model; in the absence of this apparatus, the effects of economic policies on society are not reliable and, therefore, ought to be systematically subject to a ‘precaution principle’.

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Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay, P2P Subjectivity | 1 Comment »

Video of the Day: Voices of Transition

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Michel Bauwens
16th May 2015


“‘Voices of Transition’ is an enthusiastic documentary on farmers- and community-led responses to food insecurity in a scenario of climate change and peak oil.

Recorded in Cuba, France and the UK, those ‘voices’ tell us of of a future society where our deserts will once again be living soil, where fields will be introduced into our cities, and where independence from oil will help us to live a richer, more fulfilling life.”

Watch the documentary here:

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Posted in Commons Transition, Featured Video, Food and Agriculture, Videos | No Comments »

Essay of the Day: The Political Economy of the Substrate Network

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Michel Bauwens
15th May 2015


* Essay: This is not a Bit-Pipe: A Political Economy of the Substrate Network. By Rachel O’Dwyer and Linda Doyle. Fibreculture Journal, Vol. 138,

From the Abstract:

1.

“Critiquing ‘free culture’ as a utopian gesture that fails to engage with the material circuits of cognitive capitalism, this paper proposes a political economy attendant to the circulation of capital at all layers of the communications network. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the information economy, we explore the role of network infrastructure in the extraction of surplus. How is surplus from the digital commons channelled through a material substrate? How is network infrastructure transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of cognitive capitalism? Finally, what possibilities for political engagement and material exploit are emerging?”

2.

“This paper explores the economic transformations to ICT business models, infrastructure and property relations emerging in tandem with an economy that places increasing emphasis on the circulation of user-generated content. Applying the newly invigorated theories of ‘rent’ to the shifting commons/property dialectics of the network economy (Harvey, 2001; Negri and Vercellone, 2007; Pasquinelli, 2008), we explore how various proprietary mechanisms facilitate the extraction of cognitive surplus. We then focus our attention on structural antagonisms emerging between competing modalities of rent and profit: where immaterial labour and tangible architectures intersect, diverge, and sometimes conflict. The diverse forms of surplus extraction across network layers are not always complementary, representative of a crisis of capital in which negotiations between fluid surplus and economic strictures threaten the consolidation of power in the substrate network. Political and economic control of infrastructure is changing as a result.

This paper provides a broad overview of the shifting terrain of physical media and as a consequence may seem to smooth many of the social and geographical particularities of information and communications technology in favour of overarching concerns: How is surplus from immaterial production channelled through a material substrate? What are the points of conflict and/or mutual enforcement between surplus extracted from infrastructure and surplus from cognitive capital? How are communications networks transforming in response to the fluid and fluctuating dynamics of the network economy? Finally, how might these transformations suggest opportunities for tactical engagement at the level of network infrastructure?”

An excerpt from the Conclusion:

“Earlier in this paper, we noted that access and control of communications presents a point of opposition to open networks. Contrary to the fluid circulation of digital content, the structural ingredients of the physical network are not so easily distributed. Instead, the necessary flexibility of an economy based on commons-based peer production, such as that which characterises the digital network, is at odds with the Fordist models that, until recently, consolidated core infrastructure. This has posed a significant obstacle to collectives hoping to scale a network that is free at all layers.

Today, the technological dispositif is transforming in fundamental ways. It is as yet unclear whether this reorganisation spells a potential dissolution of corporate power or simply its recombination through more flexible channels. From one perspective these changes depict a network inflected at all layers with the diagram of biopolitical production They also gesture to a decomposition of monolithic components, as rent destabilises property relations at the level of infrastructure. If a proprietary substrate underpins the expropriation of the digital commons, the current redistribution of property presents opportunities for structural exploit. Critically engaged during a stage of interpretative flexibility, alternative, commons or transient models of ownership might have positive implications for a networked information economy, emerging in a favourable position to disrupt the mechanisms of economic and political control channelled through its foundations.

Fully fleshed prescriptions are beyond the scope of this analysis, which is necessarily diagnostic. We can, however, identify possibilities for further areas of exploration, such as spectrum policy or future cellular networks, that draw on the conceptual framework of this paper.

Dialectical oppositions between licensed and unlicensed spectrum regimes have been discussed throughout this paper. Shifts toward dynamic spectrum access have significant implications as a disruptive technique. Cognitive radio – the signal processing and transmission techniques used for intelligent negotiation of available spectrum – presents the opportunity for unlicensed users to access spectrum that is owned by incumbents but substantially unutilised. This suggests a possible shift from inalienable property rights over a wireless channel towards a “spectrum commons”, where communicative capacities are distributed and partitioned as needed. Interestingly, the conceptual metaphor of “squatting” is sometimes used to describe the process of dynamic spectrum access, directly engaging the disruptive characteristics of the technique (Doyle, 2009). Dynamic spectrum access and/or an increase in unlicensed spectrum poses a direct sabotage on the rent applied over wireless infrastructure.

Another early possibility concerns the transfer of points of network control to end users. Moving from the centralised topology of traditional cellular networks, technologies such as the femtocell respond to network congestion by implementing miniature base station technologies for domestic use. 12 Users connect to the service provider’s cellular network over a personal network connection. Femtocells arguably cede aspects of network control to end users. The economic rationale behind this is controversial, based on the parasitic appropriation of user’s personal bandwidth capabilities to improve the range of a proprietary network. At the same time, it suggests a slackening of monopoly control, breaking a solid network into fluid components that might be accessed, shared, redistributed or otherwise modified.

Such proposals are tentative. When we encounter a new fluidity of property, it does not automatically follow that we encounter a diminution of corporate power, or that the consolidation of such power is necessarily “disorganised”. Instead physical networks often cede to the diagram of the networked organisation (Rossiter, 2006), as the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. By this we understand, as Harvey does, that capitalism might become ever more tightly woven through dispersal, geographic mobility and flexible responses in labour and consumer markets, all accompanied by hefty doses of institutional, product and technological innovation (Harvey, 1987:159). Such flexibility is the operand of post-Fordism. An observation of early innovations suggest that the growing flexibility in material property that threatens the conglomerate is often countered with a stronger enforcement of symbolic and legislative apparatuses. These might take the form of stricter intellectual property regimes, or the enforcement of communications policies and protocols that seek to ensure network surplus does not escape circulation within the capitalist system.

The recent innovations in cognitive radio, for example, have been tempered by highly conservative regulations that seriously constrain unlicensed transmissions. Even though software-defined radios present the possibility for dynamic access to licensed spectrum, proposing a commons infrastructure managed as a public good, a number of early legislations concerning power transmit regulations and questions of “occupancy” continue to limit this access.

Femtocells, as discussed, form part of the new wave of components that allow for a scalable architecture, ceding control of core cellular infrastructure to the end-user. At the same time, recent proprietary legislation appears to ensure that these possibilities are suppressed in favour of the interests of powerful corporations. When the user places a call this is sent through the proxy servers of the ISP. The user is billed (again) despite the fact that the connection is facilitated through their own wireless infrastructure. Network carrier AT&T currently occupies a monopoly position in femtocell development in the United States. Recently, independent hardware providers such as Wilson Wireless wished to supply femtocells that are service neutral. The hardware specifications for both technologies are almost identical, but the third-party innovation sabotages the closed circuit necessary for the extraction of rent. As a result, and despite identical hardware specifications, AT&T successfully lobbied the FCC to disallow transmission licences by third party developers (AT&T, 2012).

It should be clear that the tensions between monopoly and competition, between centralisation and decentralisation or between commons and property are negotiated in fundamentally new ways. The material landscape of affordance and constraint are also shifting, and new forms of critical engagement are necessary. We need to be cognisant of the mechanisms through which value is produced within and across all layers of the network. Not only do we wish to identify the techniques by which cognitive surplus is extracted through proprietary channels, but also to develop a political vocabulary that extends beyond the semiotic, towards the underlying material infrastructure of the network economy. If the ideology of free culture is to progress beyond a pipe dream, this requires an active engagement with such materially entrenched sites of production. This paper is not so much a program for future networked utopia, therefore, as an acknowledgement of the new sites of conflict through which alternative models of activism, policy or critical engineering might emerge. A conceptual framework is the first step in such an analysis.”

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Posted in Economy and Business, Featured Essay | No Comments »

The Care-Centered Economy: A New Theory of Value

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David Bollier
15th May 2015


Do You Still Care?

I recently encountered a brilliant new essay by German writer Ina Praetorius that revisits the feminist theme of “care work,” re-casting it onto a much larger philosophical canvas. “The Care-Centered Economy:  Rediscovering what has been taken for granted” suggests how the idea of “care” could be used to imagine new structural terms for the entire economy.

By identifying “care” as an essential category of value-creation, Praetorius opens up a fresh, wider frame for how we should talk about a new economic order.  We can begin to see how care work is linked to other non-market realms that create value — such as commons, gifts of nature and colonized peoples –all of which are vulnerable to market enclosure.

The basic problem today is that capitalist markets and economics routinely ignore the “care economy” — the world of household life and social conviviality may be essential for a stable, sane, rewarding life.  Economics regards these things as essentially free, self-replenishing resources that exist outside of the market realm.  It sees them as “pre-economic” or “non-economic” resources, which therefore don’t have any standing at all.  They can be ignored or exploited at will.

In this sense, the victimization of women in doing care work is remarkably akin to the victimization suffered by commoners, colonized persons and nature.  They all generate important non-market value that capitalists depend on – yet market economics refuses to recognize this value.  It is no surprise that market enclosures of care work and commons proliferate.

A 1980 report by the UN stated the situation with savage clarity:  “Women represent 50 percent of the world adult population and one third of the official labor force, they perform nearly two thirds of all working hours, receive only one tenth of the world income and own less than 1 percent of world property.”

But here’s the odd thing:  The stated purpose of economics is the satisfaction of human needs.  And yet standard economics don’t have the honesty to acknowledge that it doesn’t really care about the satisfaction of human needs; it’s focused on consumer demand and the “higher” sphere of monetized transactions and capital accumulation.  No wonder gender inequalities remain intractable, and proposals for serious change go nowhere.

“The Care-Centered Economy” asks us to re-imagine “the economy” as an enterprise focused on care. While Praetorius’ primary focus is on the “care work” that women so often do – raising children, managing households, taking care of the elderly – she is clearly inviting us to consider “care” in its broadest, most generic sense.  The implications for the commons and systemic change are exciting to consider.

I think immediately of the Indian geographer Neera Singh, who has written about the importance of “affective labor” in managing forest commons. Singh notes that people’s sense of self and subjectivity are intertwined with their biophysical environment, such that they take pride and pleasure in becoming stewards of resources that matter to them and their community.

Such affective labor – care – that occurs within a commons becomes a force in developing new types of subjective identities. It changes how we perceive ourselves, our relationships to others, and our connection to the environment. In Singh’s words:  “Affective labor transforms local subjectivities.” In this sense, commoning is an important form of care work.

By setting forth an expansive philosophical framework, Praetorius’ essay provokes many transdisciplinary, open-ended questions about how we might reframe our thinking about “the economy.” The 77-page essay, downloadable here, was recently published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin as part of its “Economy + Social Issues” series of monographs.

Praetorius begins by situating the origins of “women’s work – children, cooking and church – in the original “dichotomization of humanity” into “man” and “nature.” This artificial division of the world into realms of man and nature lies at the heart of the problem.  Once this “dichotmomous order” is established, the public realm of monetized market transactions is elevated as the “real economy” and given gendered meaning.  Men acquire the moral justification to subordinate and exploit all those resources of the pre-economic world – nature, care work, commons, colonized people.  Their intrinsic needs and dignity can be denied.

What’s fascinating in today’s world is how the many elements of the “pre-economic lifeworld” are now starting to assert their undeniable importance.  As Praetorius puts it, “Without fertile soil, breathable air, food and potable water, human beings cannot survive; without active care, humanity does not reproduce itself; and without meaning, people descend into depression, aggression and suicide.”

As the pre-economic lifeworld becomes more visible, it is exposing the dichotomous order as unsustainable or absurd.  Climate change is insisting upon limits to economic growth.  Modern work life is becoming ridiculously frenetic.  Questions of meaning arise that “free markets” are unequipped to address.  “Why work at all if working amounts to nothing more than functioning for absurd, other-directed purposes?” writes Praetorius.  “Why keep living or even conceiving and bearing children if there is no future in sight worth living?”

As the private search for meaning intensifies, the formal political system has little to say.  It is too indentured to amoral markets to speak credibly to real human needs; it is ultimately answerable to the highest bidders. This also helps explain why politics, as the helpmate of the market order, also has so little to say about people’s yearnings for meaning.

But new meaning are nonetheless arising as the credibility and efficacy of the old order begin to fall apart. Praetorius argues that the anomaly of a black man as US President and a woman as Germany’s chancellor makes it increasingly possible for people to entertain ideas of subversive new types of order. “The supposedly natural order of the hierarchical, complementary binary conception of gender is inexorably disintegrating,” writes Praetorius.  Other dualisms are blurring or becoming problematic as well:  “belief and knowledge, subject and object, res cogitans and res extensa, colonizer and colony, center and periphery, God and the world, culture and nature, public and private spheres.”

What’s exciting about this time, she suggests, is that the “dichotomous order” is opening up new spaces for new narratives that re-integrate the world. People can begin to “collectively dis-identify” with and deconstruct the prevailing order, and launch new stories that speak to elemental human and ecosystem needs.  If there is confusion and disorientation in going through this transition, well, that’s what a paradigm shift is all about. In any case, people are beginning to recognize the distinct limits of working within archaic political frameworks – and the great potential of a “care-centered economy.”

What exactly does “care” mean?  It means the capacity for human agency, individual initiative yoked to collective practice, shared identity and meaning-making.  It means “being mindful, looking after, attending to needs, and being considerate.”  It refers to “awareness of dependency, possession of needs, and relatedness as basic elements of human constitution.”

While some might regard the elevation as “care” as vague, I agree with Praetorius:  “Care” helps break down the dichotomous order and emphasize the “pre-economic” order of human need.  “The illusion of an independent human existence becomes obsolete,” she writes.  Relationships outside of markets become more important.

Introducing “care” into discussions about “the economy” can also have the effect of transforming ourselves.  We can begin to name the pre- and non-economic activities — care, commoning, eco-stewardship – that create value.  We can develop a vocabulary to identify those things that mainstream economics deliberately does not name.  In this sense, talking in a new way becomes a political act.  It begins to change the cultural reality, one conversation at a time.

Praetorius’ essay is a fairly long read, but a rewarding one.  I came away from it with a fresh, more hopeful perspective.  I also realized how care work and commoning are part of a larger enterprise of honoring, and creating, new types of value.


Originally publshed at bollier.org

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Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Essay, P2P Collaboration, P2P Gender Issues | No Comments »

Book of the Day: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up

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Michel Bauwens
14th May 2015


* Book: Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up. By Philip Howard.

From the description by the Open Society Foundation:

“Should we fear or welcome the internet’s evolution? The latest smart televisions now watch us, and report on our behavior to their manufacturers. If you don’t pay the bills on your car loan, the bank may shut down your car while you are hiking in a park. The latest pacemaker may save your life, but the data on your heartbeats doesn’t belong to you or your doctor. Recently, a refrigerator was caught sending spam. The “internet of things” is made up of device networks–connected objects—eyeglasses, cows, thermostats—with sensors and internet addresses.

Soon we will be fully immersed in a pervasive yet invisible network of everyday objects that communicate with one another. There is lots of evidence that the internet of things will be used to repress and control people. The privacy threats are enormous, as is the potential for social control and political manipulation. Yet we should also imagine a future of global stability built upon device networks with immense potential for empowering citizens, making government transparent, and broadening information access. If we can actively engage with the governments and businesses building the internet of things, we have a chance to build a new kind of internet—and a more open society.”

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