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Envisioning a Bottom-Up Energy Transition: the plan of the Taunton Deane Borough Council

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd March 2015


Excerpted from John Thackara:

“A bottom-up, pull-based approach is exemplified by a new publication out of the Transition Towns movement.

The Chief Executive of Taunton Deane Borough Council, in the UK, asked two transitioners, Chrissie Godfrey and Paul Birch, to work with the council on a series of workshops that would enable workers and elected officials to create their vision of the borough in 2026.

Each of the eleven workshops considered how leading a low carbon lifestyle over the next 17 years could impact on food and energy production, homes, transport, jobs, holidays and leisure. Participants were very mixed: Plumbers, planners, environmental health officers and car park attendants mixed with senior strategy officers, carpenters, and tree surgeons.

From that rich mix of backgrounds, skills, interests and political leanings emerged the resulting book, “Towards a resilient Taunton Deane” , that tells a surprisingly consistent story about what a resilient Taunton Deane might be like.

The energy section, for example, describes how, by 2026, “a radical overhaul of the planning system helped local communities to take energy generation into their own hands. A surge in locally managed energy coops has made small scale community heating systems, solar and wind farming and anaerobic digesters commonplace; solar panels are commonplace on homes, and mandatory on public buildings”.

However, the book goes on, “it is not just that the Borough is generating so much of its own energy, it is also that people are using far less”.

My point here is not that high-tech push is bad, and bottom-up social pull is good. On the contrary: what’s needed is more interaction, not less, between the tech-oriented world and the social one. That said, the power relations have to change. I imagine a world filled with Transition Towns that are linked together in a network of trade routes. These trade routes will be new versions of the camel-bearing ones that predated railways and globalisation.

The merchants will offer a wide variety of (inter alia) energy solutions. But it will be for each Town (or cluster thereof) to decide which ones to choose.”

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Two Europes exist and it is necessary to position oneself in one or the other

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd March 2015


Left-Europe-democratic radicality: this dispositive is becoming increasingly important for defining the defense of working-class interests and for emancipation of the population from poverty. There is a long and dirty tradition of left-sovereigntists that must be ended, just as we must defeat the populist experiences that use national sentiments and transform them into fascist (nationalist, identitarian, isolationist) impulses. Only a europeanist left, deeply transformed by the democratic radicality of the emergent movements against austerity, can construct a democratic Europe.

Excerpted from Antonio Negri and Raúl Sánchez Cedillo:

Two Europes exist and it is necessary to position oneself in one or the other. The knowing population is aware that to win in Europe is possible only in light of a front already opened by Syriza that now has to expand in Europe. The politics of debt, issues related to sovereignty and the Atlantic question can only be considered in the European space.

It was expected that there would be great attentiveness – and so we begin to test it – to the tactical proposals and the politics of the economic-financial team of Syriza. Irrespective of value judgments about the proposals, they signaled a plan for transnational cooperation and an abandonment of the anti-European demagoguery of the “old” leftists, a demagoguery that, in any case, has never been strong in Podemos. Of course, Syriza’s bet is formulated in terms of defending national sovereignty (“against the Troika”, “against Merkel”, etc.), but in practice it implies a fairly evident acceptance of a political intervention within and against the Union as it is currently directed. In this sense, the primary option now is that of a coalition of the PIIGS and the forces of a new left to overturn the status quo of the Union. At the same time, this appears to be the only option available to Podemos for winning the elections.

Let us try to consider things in more depth. Until now the confrontation in Europe has taken shape between a neo-Bismarckian Europe, neoliberal and fundamentally conservative, and a democratic Europe, constituent and fundamentally attentive to the needs of workers, impoverished middle classes and precarious or unemployed youth, women, immigrants and refugees – the excluded, old and new. An alternative so to speak, because departing from the crisis of 2008, the Bismarckian Europe imposed itself forcefully, leaving for the other Europe a marginal space, of protest and at times even cries of despair. Nevertheless, when the situation appeared to remain strictly closed for the claims of justice and the revolts against misery, the alternative presented itself – starting in Greece. Now the task is to affirm it and organize it precisely in the areas where a reactionary initiative has imposed itself – where the attempt has been made to drown Hercules from popular rescue.

The first question, the first difficulty, is that of debt. The Europe of the Troika wants to make the European multitudes pay the debt, and the ability to pay this debt becomes the yardstick of democracy and the degree of Europeanism. But all those who are moving in a democratic front think, on the contrary, that this yardstick is insulting because the debts charged to the people today were in fact incurred by those who governed over the years. These debts have fattened the ruling classes, not only through corruption, tax evasion or fiscal favors, insane arms expenditures and industrial policies that do not benefit labor, but moreover by subjecting it to the logic of financial rent and imposing precarity and suffocating uncertainty on forms of life. Each man, each woman, each worker has had to plead guilty of a debt, of a financial gravamen for which they were not responsible. The moment has arrived to say aloud that it was not the citizens, but the masters of power, the men of the neoliberal project, the politics of the “center”, of the “grand coalitions” – more extreme and exclusive each time – it has been they who have created a debt from which they have appropriated for themselves and for which they are demanding an undue refund. Against this servile condition for the people (not only for the people of the South of Europe, but also those of Central Europe and all of Eastern Europe) the new left, through Syriza, is asking for rescue – a European conference on debt, that is, a constituent venue for a new system of solidarity, for the establishment of new criteria of measurement and fiscal cooperation and for labor policies. Podemos can bring huge support to this project. We all know that behind these topics lies a project of deep transformation of social relations. One more time, of Europe and in Europe a project of liberty, of equality, of solidarity – a project that we can call antifascist, because it repeats the passion and the force of the struggles of the Resistance. The alliance between Podemos and Syriza, and the impulse to merge into this alliance addressed to all of the new European lefts, can construct a model – a model for a democratic Union, based on solidarity beyond and against the market. Departing from this foundation, the only fiscal policy that can be made is one of reducing or abolishing the debt that has been consolidated until now and establishing and standardizing, for the future, progressive fiscal criteria in the whole Eurozone. The central themes of the welfare state – education, medical assistance, pension systems and housing policies, but also domestic labor and care work – can be developed uniformly at the European level, accompanying the great innovation of a decent basic income, generalized and uniform. All of this opens a constituent battle in those places where new rights of solidarity can be recognized, where the common becomes a central element of social-economic organization.

But to win on these issues requires indicating the field of struggle: this only can be the European space in its totality. Which brings us to the central topic, around which many misunderstandings have accumulated: the cession of sovereignty. There have already been transfers of sovereignty, and these have always been made in favor of the neo-Bismarckian powers of financial capitalism.

Demagogically attacking these cessions of sovereignty, nationalist rights are being born and developing dangerously in Europe. And yet it is strange how these positions can sometimes be made out (or that they are regarded with favor) amongst members of Syriza, Podemos and other forces of the “new Europe” that is forming. We must be clear on this point: each of the countries that has entered the Union, and even more so those that have entered the Euro, no longer have full sovereignty. And this is good, for it was behind national sovereignty that each and every one of the tragedies of modernity unfurled. If we want to continue speaking of sovereignty in a modern (and classical) sense, that is to say, of a power “in the last instance”, we must be clear that this is increasingly identified with Frankfurt, with the tower of the ECB. Our situation is characterized by the reign of a dangerous duplicity. We must recognize this: we need Frankfurt, a European currency, if we do not want to fall prey to the powers of global finance, to the politics of the United States or other continental giants that are asserting themselves against Europe; but we must also recover Frankfurt for democracy, to impose on it the reasoning of the people – and Frankfurt should be stormed by Europe: first by the movements and then, gradually, by the majority of the European democracies and by a European Parliament transformed into a constituent assembly. With globalization the centrality of a monetary governance of continental zones was imposed everywhere – and Europe is one of these continental zones. It is impossible to imagine a political battle more essential than that leading towards democratic control of the European currency. This is the storming of the Bastille today.

Moreover, it is clear that merely raising the issue of control over the monetary and political vertex of Europe, and insisting on the dissolution of the old monocratic sovereignties could open up, in a productive manner, the topic of federalism, which is another essential step in the construction of a new Europe. Federalism: not only one that wants the European nations to recompose themselves in a constituent dialogue, but also, and above all, an articulation of all the nations, of all the populations and languages that want to feel culturally and politically autonomous, within a unitary framework, that is to say, a federal one. It is not only the PIIGS who want this; there are Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country and all the other regions that demand autonomy and an effective ability to decide on their social and political constitution. Federalism will be a key to the construction of Europe. The issue of sovereignty can only be raised and used in terms of plurality, subscribing to the dynamics that articulate a forthright federalism for the years to come.

Here we see once again that only the left – the new left that departs from the democratic radicality of the emerging movements of struggle and organizes itself along emancipatory lines (Syriza and Podemos) – can impose the European Union not as an instrument of dominion but as a democratic goal. Left-Europe-democratic radicality: this dispositive is becoming increasingly important for defining the defense of working-class interests and for emancipation of the population from poverty. There is a long and dirty tradition of left-sovereigntists that must be ended, just as we must defeat the populist experiences that use national sentiments and transform them into fascist (nationalist, identitarian, isolationist) impulses. Only a europeanist left, deeply transformed by the democratic radicality of the emergent movements against austerity, can construct a democratic Europe.

Here, another problem emerges, which we can call the “Atlantic question” – it is a problem often evaded or excluded from debate, as if it were obvious that the process of European unification must necessarily develop under the watchful protection of the United States of America. Europe was promoted within the antifascist Resistance in order to overcome the wars that until the middle of the century had destroyed it and impoverished and humiliated its populations. Against this condition, the first elements of a European discourse were construed during the post-war era in Europe and during the transición in Spain, with the knowledge that peace signified the possibility of democracy, whereas war has always signified fascism and militarism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, European unity also lost its characteristic as a last front against the Soviet world and Russian expansionism. In this way, the goal of a European Union has re-centered and re-organized itself around a framework of civilization, own juridical structures and autonomy in a global environment.

But now Europe is surrounded by wars. The entire Mediterranean, deeply integrated not only to the south, but also to all of Europe by movements of migration and critical relationships of energy policy and commercial exchange, is crossed by a single line of war, by fascisms and dictatorships. It is a line that extends all the way to the Middle East and makes Europe an actor dangerously exposed to armed movements that are of global importance and have global leadership. Furthermore, on the Eastern border of Europe a senseless war is developing between Russian-speaking populations, with responsibilities that should be referred to questions of global control that contradict the interests of European populations. From this perspective, the sovereignty of Europe – no longer the imagined sovereignty of each country, but the real sovereignty of a Union that is constructing itself – is projected onto NATO and usurped by it. This is the true cession of sovereignty borne by the European populations! When Tsipras poses, in a symbolic manner, the necessity of dealing with this problem, he touches on a fundamental seam of the European structures. In so doing he introduces a problem to which we should respond, without putting ourselves under the illusion that it could be resolved immediately, but also without negating its existence and its central impact. What we refer to is the relationship of the Union with peace or war, with a peace not only inside Europe, but also at its borders. Moreover, it is immediately clear that the Atlantic question is not a problem concerning only peace and war: it is an issue of peace and war tracing back to the system of control and/or of command over the productive and financial structures of Europe itself.

In order to not be hypocritical, to speak clearly and to give further impetus to the processes of constructing a political force of the European left, we will again put some questions on the table that cannot be left unasked. What does Podemos say or do about immigration, about refugees? But also – repeating ourselves and making our question more precise – about NATO, about the regional conflicts underway in the limes of the Union? If these topics are considered “misfires” in the electoral realm, is it necessary to avoid them and/or to respond with rhetorical exercises to get by? No, not at all: it is very difficult to adopt the slogan “first we take power, then we discuss the program” in this domain. The topics of peace and war cannot be considered secondary. To take positions on them means to unambiguously clarify the fundamental orientation of the group leading Podemos not only with respect to questions of peace and war, but also on issues that refer to reform and a constituent project that affects all of Europe. The courage and seriousness with which Tsipras has laid out the whole context of topics that are now important for the construction of a Europe outside of the Troika are the same that can allow us to also outline a dispositive “outside of NATO”. The movements and governments of a new left know that they have to take on these issues as central. Without ambiguities and conscious that the same global conjuncture can now contribute to their solution. In fact, what the citizens of the world are asking for at this point is a democratic Europe in an ensemble of the new global reality, because Europe is seen as a reality that can renew a democratic tradition with a long trajectory, taking advantage of the light that Syriza and Podemos have lit, as hope for reform and moving beyond capitalism.

The European movements want to be included in the continental political initiative that the Podemos-Syriza axis can create/is creating in the European space. This initiative constitutes in particular a point of attraction for the new lefts and the new democratic radicality in formation in the south of the Union. The rhythm as much as the degree of articulation of this process will depend on the current course of the government of Syriza and on the electoral success of Podemos. We all can (podemos) organize a constituent rupture in the European space.”

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Traditional state-owned model of public services is coming to an end

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
3rd March 2015


Going with the grain: organising for a purpose by Cliff Mills

Abstract

The traditional state-owned model of public services is coming to an end. The search for a new model benefits from reflection on the historical background, and an understanding of the broader context of concepts of public service. Modern mutuals seek both to provide a new basis for public ownership and an organisational model which underpins a redesigned service delivery model aimed at securing today’s desired outcomes.

Source Article – http://www.radcliffehealth.com/ljpc/article/going-grain-organising-purpose

Introduction

There is a danger that the debate about public service reform takes place within limitations which are too narrow for the purposes of a broad ‘reform narrative’. 1 The very phrase ‘public service reform’ tends to limit debate temporally to the period from 1948 to today, and organisationally to a state-owned model of ‘public service’. In this paper we would like to explain the reasons for having a broader perspective. We look at an important example of a development in one sector, social housing, which both draws explicitly upon pre-1948 thinking and suggests a solution in which the state plays no ownership role at all. We would then like to suggest that this approach has wider implications. Whilst we conveniently regard 1948 as the starting point for modern public services, clearly what was taken over by the state in the post-war period had been emerging over many decades. There was already in existence a rich tapestry of provision, albeit a patchy and largely uncoordinated one, which had evolved to meet the needs of mainly poorer people. This rich tapestry was largely based on two powerful traditions, namely, the philanthropic and self-help traditions.

The former, based on the humanity of those who were generous with their time and money, and driven by some personal motivation to care for others, resulted in the establishment of many of today’s leading hospitals; housing, healthcare and retirement provision for those working in the businesses of the great industrial philanthropists; schools established by faith-based organisations; and many of today’s leading charities caring for children and vulnerable adults. The other was the mutual or self-help tradition, in which those living in poverty organised provision for themselves by collaborating within communities to meet their collective needs. This included securing access to unadulterated food at a fair price (the co-operative movement), protection against sickness, funeral expenses, death of the bread-winner and other catastrophes (friendly societies and mutual insurers), and access to finance to build and own their homes (building society movement).2 Self-help was the starting point and engine of all of this, resulting in a 30% share of the retail market, 19 million members of friendly societies and a building society in nearly every town.

But as the modern state assumed a major role as provider from 1948 onwards, these two people- or community-based traditions were substantially sidelined and, in the case of parts of the mutual sector, seemed to be in terminal decline by the end of the twentieth century.3 Weekly contributions to the local fund and community-based problem-solving were replaced by centrally collected taxation and the nation state meeting the needs of its citizens through central or local government-controlled provision.

Currently, the state-owned phase of public service provision appears to be coming to an end. This is driven by economic and political expediency, as well as implicit/explicit criticism of the ownership and service delivery model, which does not contain its own internal mechanism for ensuring sustainability. This then raises the basic question of what form of ownership should replace it, and the search for a new form of ownership for public services continues apace.4,5 Whilst privatisation of providers continues, the private sector’s customer-based model of service delivery poses its own challenges because it is designed primarily to deliver private benefit rather than positive social outcomes. This often results in nothing being done to reduce demand on services (indeed the profit-maximising model is designed to increase it) or out-sourced services that focus on the easier cases rather than more complex ones (in the case of payments by results contracts).

This is the context within which new mutualism seeks to play a role. First, it seeks to re-engage service users as owners. Sixty-five years of state provision have resulted in a mind-set of entitlement and expectation among tax-paying citizens, exacerbated by the introduction of the consumer approach. It is important for citizens to ‘take ownership’ of their needs, and of the ways of addressing them. This includes playing a part in reducing cost and demand. Second, it seeks to engage staff as owners as well, recognising the fundamental importance of their role and the fact that it is more than a job. Third, it introduces a new model of democratic governance that seeks to ensure competent management by those properly qualified to assume that role, but in a context of direct accountability to those for whom the service exists and to those who are delivering it.

Recent developments in social housing provide an illustration of what this means in practice, and how traditional mutual ideas of participation through membership are being used in a modern context to engender a collaborative and co-productive approach. This is also leading the organisation (their organisation) to view itself in a different light and as a catalyst for linking up (integrating) a range of services which are all crucial to the wellbeing and happiness of the local community.

Continue to Read the Full Article – http://www.radcliffehealth.com/ljpc/article/going-grain-organising-purpose

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Is Permaculture Turning into a Landscape Design Product?

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
3rd March 2015


After Vera Bradova’s obviously very provocative essay; “Utopians are ruining everything“, which spurred an intense discussion both at P2P-Foundation and at the original essay,  John Wheeler toward the end made an interesting comment:

Sorry I took so long to get back to you. Yes, while I got my PDC almost 2 decades ago, I am well aware of the way landscape architecture is making inroads into permaculture. It is born out of the desire to turn permaculture designs into products that can be sold. It is the need to satisfy the customer that drives that process of making a top-down design and imposing it upon the landscape. And, to my estimation, that is a perversion of what permaculture is supposed to be.

 

Holmgren may have been one of the cofounders of permaculture, but it has expanded so much beyond Mollison and his vision. Sepp Holzer, for example, uses pigs to dig ponds.

 

And quite frankly, I think the process you describe is an excellent example of how permaculture is supposed to work. I know in my own training, Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language played a big part, and I think it was influential in the development of permaculture. – John Wheeler

Permaculture was born as a counter culture, but is it now, like so many other counter cultures, becoming nothing more than just another design product to be sold at the capitalistic marketplace? In the name of profit, nothing is holy, not even Permaculture. The branding is already done, a name with very positive associations among lots of people, it’s just for landscape designers to jump on, perverting the whole thing.

As Wheeler says, originally even pigs were used to dig Permaculture ponds, while now they send in huge machines imposing perfect lines using GPS. Can it become further away from the intentions of the founding fathers of Permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren?

To make it clear, landscape design is a branch of Modernism, which means top-down-design. Read more about landscape design in Kristian Hoff-Andersen’s essay:

– GLASS AND GRASS

As one can see from Andersen’s essay, landscape architecture has already perverted what green urbanism means. It seems like their next victim is about becoming Permaculture. Permaculture was let loose on the world, it might not be so loose anymore, becoming caught and infected by the poisoning tentacles of the landscape architects.

Does nature design ecosystems via blueprints and future-to-present impositions? Does it envision a billion years ahead, then implement? Does nature take a burnt-over meadow and shape it according to a plan? Perish the thought. Lifelong nature observation leads me to be confident in asserting that nature emerges and evolves ecosystems by paying attention to present needs and opportunities, that it works piecemeal rather than in grand designs, and that it relies on co-adaptations of all living creatures to one another in a dance whose result cannot be predicted. – Vera Bradova

Making “Hugelculture” at the Scandinavian Permaculture Festival in Hurdal, Norway, 2013

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Syriza’s policy for ecological and energy transformation

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st March 2015


“The actions of the new government suggest that Syriza is ready to take steps to implement key aspects of the platform adopted at its first Congress in July 2013. Syriza is committed to “a new paradigm of social, environmental and economic development” and for the “ecological transformation of the economy.” Syriza says it will pursue the “practice of democratic planning and social control on all levels of central and local government.” In its election manifesto, Syriza declared it was for “Ecological transformation in development of energy production.”

Excerpted from Sean Sweeney:

“Syriza’s program and manifesto, and its early actions to halt the further privatization of power generation and gas, suggest that the EU’s neoliberal approach to energy transition and climate protection is being challenged in a way that could have implications beyond the EU itself. Nevertheless, Greece is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Therefore halting privatization should be seen as a crucial first step in what will be a longer journey toward a new energy system and ecological transformation.

The election of Syriza comes at a time when the EU’s neoliberal approach to energy is in serious trouble. This approach was based on electricity market liberalization – ostensibly to promote ‘choice’ and ‘efficiency’ that was pursued via the Internal Market in Energy directive passed down to member states in 1996. The 2009 EU climate Directive also mandates a 20 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a 20 per cent share of renewable energy sources, and a 20 per cent savings in energy consumption by the year 2020 (based on 2005 levels). These are the so-called “20-20-20” targets. The EU has therefore maintained that liberalization and the scaling up of renewable energy go hand in hand. This is based on the groundless belief that only the private sector can drive renewable energy.

The liberalization of Greece’s electricity sector has stretched over a 14-year period. In 2001 Greece passed a law allowing any company to produce electricity, thus ending the PPC’s monopoly. In 2007 individual consumers were gradually granted full “rights” to choose their energy supplier. Renewable energy companies were given special access to distribution and transmission systems. New feed-in tariffs (FiTs) were defined and introduced in 2007 and permits for offshore wind parks became possible. A modest amount of renewable energy was developed as a result of these measures, with the benefits going mainly to private companies and land owners.

But in June 2013 Greece (along with Spain, Italy and others) announced a huge cut (44.7 per cent) in the FiT and the rush to solar and wind power in Greece ground to a halt. This has been the pattern across most of the EU as member states sought to control the mounting costs of the FiT programs. The main message here is that it takes a large amount of liberalization and, paradoxically, subsidies and government intervention, to generate a relatively modest amount of renewable energy. Importantly, renewable energy has made real headway in Germany as a result of an expansion of municipal control and public investment. (But even here coal generated 60 per cent more electrical power than renewable sources in 2014). In recent years many municipalities have decided to reclaim their local grids from private corporations. Germany has thus seen a major expansion of direct municipal provision of energy services. Those who refer to Germany’s successes in advancing renewable energy often appear unaware of, or perhaps reluctant to acknowledge, the role of public authorities in challenging privatization and intervening on behalf of the broader public. The EU’s dual priorities of energy market liberalization and climate protection are in fact incompatible with each other. Liberalization has led to an oligarchic situation where just five energy companies are dominant (EDF, RWE, EOn, GDF Suez and ENEL), consumer choice is mostly fictitious, and renewable energy companies rely on power purchasing agreements, ‘capacity mechanisms,’ and subsidies to survive.

Dealing with Fossil Fuel Dependence

The failure of EU policy makes it clear that a new course is needed, and Syriza can show ‘another energy is possible’ in the EU and beyond. But Greece faces some particularly difficult challenges. Greece relies on domestic lignite (brown coal) for 70 per cent of its electrical power and imports large volumes of gas from Russia, Turkey and Algeria. However, the country enjoys an average of 300 days of sunshine per year and has considerable wind power and geothermal potential. Syriza will therefore inherit a situation where what is public (domestic lignite, overseen by the PPC) is environmentally destructive and what is presently private – renewable energy – will be needed in large volumes in order for Syriza to reduce its import bill and also develop renewable energy in accordance with its political platform.

Some may conclude (including leaders and supporters of Syriza) that, when seen in the light of the many immediate challenges facing the new government, fossil fuel dependency is a problem that can be addressed over the longer term. Greece has cheap and abundant supplies of lignite coal, and this resource can not go unused – even though the ecological effects of lignite use are widely acknowledged. A typical power station using lignite emits 37 per cent more carbon dioxide per unit of power output than a power station using black coal. Lignite use has made a major contribution to Greece’s disproportionately large contribution to global warming and negatively impacts public health. Greece’s air pollution is higher than the OECD average, and the air pollution levels in Athens, exacerbated by the increase in the burning of wood, are today 15 times higher than the EU’s alert level.

Energy Planning is the Key to Ecological Transformation

Changing a country’s energy system may be a decades-long process, but there is no reason why the process cannot begin immediately. The just released TUED Working Paper, Energy Democracy in Greece: Syriza’s Program and the Transition to Renewable Power identifies four broad and overlapping political goals that can serve as reference points for Syriza as it shapes its energy and climate policy.

These are:

* Establish control over the country’s energy future (energy self determination)

* Secure a broad-based and inclusive process for developing and implementing a national energy transition plan
Reduce fossil fuel dependency

* Scale up publicly-owned renewable energy

By halting the privatization of the PPC and DEPA, Syriza has already gone some way toward reaching the first goal. This is a hugely important first step, but Syriza must also strive to develop publicly owned and democratically managed renewable power, and generate domestic solar and wind supply chains. This is discussed below, and is explained in more detail in the TUED working paper Energy Democracy in Greece.

* Goal 2: Securing a Broad-Based and Inclusive Process

Syriza can convene a broad-based and inclusive process for both developing and implementing a national energy transition plan. Preliminary proposals for the fossil-to-renewables transition can be offered as a starting point for a national debate and discussion around broad goals. The transition to a new renewables-based energy system will present many technical as well as political challenges, but decisions can be made based on the best available research and a thorough review of all of the available options.

The short term benefits of a transition to renewable energy, such as cleaner air, improved public health, lower costs for energy in less than a decade, reduced dependence on fuels from abroad, significant job creation, etc., need to be highlighted alongside the importance of long-term climate stability and a sustainable political economy. The process must attempt to show how such a transition plan could strengthen community-based control and constructive autonomy.

Unions, small businesses presently engaged in renewable power, representatives of social movements and progressive research institutions, might constitute the core of a commission of representative groups convened to develop the plan. Syriza supporters around the world with relevant expertise can also be engaged in the process.

Engaging the union GENOP-DEH in the energy transition and the restructuring of the PPC are clearly important steps, as concerns about jobs will be uppermost. The workers in the industry can be integrated into the new ownership and oversight structures. They can be given a large degree of responsibility for operating and maintaining the systems, something they do every day. Sections of middle management can also be constructively engaged.

* Goal 3. Reducing Fossil Fuel Dependency

Greece has the potential to produce enough renewable power to meet its needs from within its own borders, and do so in a way that will generate both jobs and savings.

As noted above, Greece is today very dependent on fossil fuels both domestic (lignite or brown coal) and foreign (oil and gas). Its renewables sector is small and presently privately owned (excluding domestic solar thermal systems). From the perspective of reducing GHG emissions, it would of course be better to first substitute renewables for domestic lignite and then reduce the use of gas use later on. This is due to the fact that “burner tip” emissions from gas are almost a half of that generated from coal, and considerably less than half of lignite-generated “burner tip” emissions. But coal-to-gas fuel switching in Greece may not be the best option politically or economically during the first phase of the transition. Importantly, gas-fired power generation is the domain of a handful of private Independent Power Producers (IPPs) that have become present in Greece during the liberalization period. Reducing gas imports will therefore increase the portion of Greece’s energy that is under public control. And a fully ‘reclaimed’ PPC will ensure that the benefits of domestic lignite use are at least retained in Greece.

During the first phase of Greece’s energy transition (perhaps a decade or so) the strategy should, as far as possible, entail a straight swap: domestic renewable energy should replace imported natural gas and oil, which together generates roughly 13 per cent of Greece’s electricity. However, oil-based generation has thus far served island communities or thermal power stations near Athens as a means of avoiding lignite-related air pollution. Therefore any reduction in oil-based electricity generation will need to address specific challenges of this nature.

But if renewable energy generation can increase at a level of several GWs per year (Germany installed 7.6 GW of new solar capacity in 2012 alone) then the annual reductions in gas-based generation should be more or less comparable. The faster the deployment of renewables, the faster Greece’s bill for imported gas will be reduced.

During the first phase of the energy transition it is important to announce a cap on lignite use in order to protect against the temptation to replace imported gas with more lignite-fired generation. A supplementary cap on GHGs from lignite could also serve a purpose, and retiring the oldest lignite-fueled power plants and introducing pollution control technologies where appropriate could complement such a policy. A cap on lignite use could be accompanied by announcing a moratorium on the construction of any new lignite-fired power plants.

Clearly, Syriza must conduct a careful assessment of the environmental, social and economic implications of projects presently approved or under construction. Lignite reserves in Greece are plentiful and could last many decades, but the existing lignite-powered generation facilities presently operational in Greece will not last forever and an effective moratorium on new construction will mean that the fleet of lignite-fired stations will eventually become dilapidated and will have to be decommissioned. The trajectories for the phase out of lignite use will, however, depend on how fast renewable energy can be scaled up in Greece, and how technical and financial challenges are met and obstacles negotiated.

Given the significant number of workers engaged in lignite mining, transportation and power generation, workers and communities that depend on lignite need to be reassured that the transition away from lignite is not going to happen without their active involvement and it will be stretched out over a period of years. Firing workers is not on Syriza’s agenda, under any circumstances. No worker or community will be asked to pay a disproportionate price for the energy transition while others in Greece (and globally in the form of reduced emissions) reap the benefits. A set of robust protections and guarantees need to be given priority in order to avoid alienating the workers and communities likely to be affected by a shift away from lignite – however far in the future that shift may actually be.

* Goal 4: Scaling Up Publicly-Owned Renewable Energy

A large and rapid deployment of renewable energy in Greece is possible. But it will need to be grounded in a stable financial model, which means finding a way to recover investments in the system, operation and maintenance costs, and perhaps generating surplus revenue for upgrades and new investments. In the EU, incentives like the FiT have allowed for individuals, small businesses, and even cooperatives, become partially independent of the grid. However, this means the costs to maintain and renew the system are shifted to those who are not “prosumers” – mostly people without property and/or disposable income. Furthermore, the rapid deployment of renewable energy raises the problem of intermittency (the wind does not always blow, nor the sun always shine) which will require the development of new ‘smart’ grid options and technologies that can integrate and coordinate many different feed-in points. FiTs therefore probably have only a limited role in the energy transition.

Renewable energy cooperatives could also play an important role. In the many instances where public utilities have become marketized and profit-driven in accordance with the neoliberal agenda, the growth of cooperatives has been seen as a positive development. Furthermore Germany’s 700 renewable energy cooperatives have provided a launch pad for remuncipalization of power generation in over 40 cities. Cooperatives have also helped solidify popular support for Germany’s relatively impressive shift toward renewable power.

Lafanzanis’ statement that “there will be a new PPC” is particularly relevant here. The PPC could work with municipalities, unions and communities to drive the transition to renewable energy in a way that is ambitious enough to meet emissions reduction targets and reduce fuel costs relatively quickly. The PPC already has a presence in renewable energy and therefore some experience to offer, particularly with regard to larger installations. A reformed and reoriented PPC could play the role of buyer and installer of PV and do so in a way that spreads the benefits more evenly than is the case with the ‘prosumer’ model.

A reformed PPC can therefore be a driver of renewable energy deployment in Greece. Indeed, there have been instances where utilities have been known to pivot toward on-site generation of solar, often as a preemptive measure, aimed at moving into and enclosing ‘disruptive’ market competition. In Greece, the PPC can be instructed to play a role in helping, rather than hindering, both the deployment of renewable energy and aggressive end-use energy conservation. The effort to build energy democracy in Greece may wish to situate municipal-based power at the center of a new energy system with a reformed PPC playing a coordinating and technical role.

An ambitious deployment of renewable energy can also create significant numbers of jobs in Greece. Solar PV manufacturing is today dominated by a few countries, as is wind turbine production. Jobs can, however, immediately be created in the production of basic components and in the construction, installation and maintenance of renewable energy projects. Large-scale deployment will also stimulate demand for cables and connectors and other electrical components. Array planners are also needed.

Clearly, the scale and speed of the planned deployment will have an impact on the prospects of manufacturing gaining a foothold in Greece and also its chances of future expansion. Publicly-owned manufacturing facilities or cooperatives are not inconceivable, but phase one may require ‘joint venture’ arrangements in order to allow for the transfer of skills and knowledge.

It is possible to imagine the installation and related work being performed by PPC employees earning decent wages. The PPC could also be the primary purchaser of solar modules, inverters and other components. Public buildings – schools, hospitals, etc. – could be assessed in order to see if they are suited for solar PV, and a plan developed to install PV systems over the course of the next decade or two. In Greece, the largest single classification for buildings are public schools. Already the Centre for Renewable Energy Sources (CRES) has explored possibilities of photovoltaic systems development on the rooftops of schools, in partnership with Greece’s School Buildings Organization (SBO). A national energy transition plan could involve developing an inventory of public buildings and spaces in order to assess their capacity for on-site power generation.

The transition to renewable energy in Greece will require commitments of capital. But when measured against the financial, health-related and ecological costs of continuing with fossil fuels, renewable energy is the best possible social investment. For a more specific quantification, we can consider the cost of the public sector’s annual electricity bill, which can then be calculated over 20 years based on recent trends. This cost can be then compared to the cost of major solar PV deployment in those facilities. The price of globally sourced PV, along with installation and maintenance costs are today such that PV systems can pay for themselves within 5 years after which time the electricity supply to these facilities will be virtually free. There is every likelihood that the electricity costs to sustain the public sector – including schools, hospitals, and other government buildings – will actually fall quite dramatically over a 20-year period.

Capital could also be sourced from a variety of sources. In 2012 the PPC made a pre-tax profit of €276-million. A ‘reclaimed’ PPC would provide the option of redirecting capital to renewables. Another option is for PPC to issue bonds against its future revenues. These can be issued domestically rather than internationally and provide a tried and trusted mechanism for financing public services.

Another possibility is a carbon tax. There are numerous options for designing a carbon tax, such as imposing it on major industrial emitters in Greece, or through a charge on petrol. Greece consumed an average of 343,000 barrels of crude oil per day in 2011, of which almost half (46%) was used for transportation. According to the IEA (2009 data) compared with other OECD Europe countries, Greece has a relatively low tax on gasoline and diesel. A small carbon tax of a few cents on a liter of petrol would generate significant revenue that could in turn be dedicated to investment in renewable energy.

Conclusion

Syriza’s existing programmatic commitments to work toward “the development of a new paradigm of social, environmental and economic development,” and the need to build a public sector of a “new type” could transform energy and climate politics in the EU and beyond. But only if these commitments are implemented. Halting privatization of the PPC and DEPA was a massive first step in the right direction. If Greece can show that another energy is possible, not just theoretically but in the form of a real open, transparent and democraticaly directed transition bringing measurable gains, then the implications for society and the ecosystems that sustain us all are potentially enormous.”

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A Commons sense

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
1st March 2015


Poor Indian farmers are rich in two things: knowledge and biodiversity. The future of food depends on preserving both:

Since the 1970s, the number of rice varieties in India has plummeted from roughly 100,000 to 7,000. The massive drop is largely due to the rise of high-yield crops born from the Green Revolution, which helped relieve a strained food supply. However, the extinct rice varieties don’t just signify a loss of heritage and cultural identity in Indian villages – each lost variety is a small defeat in the battle to preserve biodiversity and genetic variation.

 

The ecologist Dr Debal Deb – who has been called India’s ‘rice warrior’ and ‘seed saviour’ – has a creative solution to his country’s vanishing rice problem: a massive seed bank that houses and preserves rare indigenous rice before it disappears. In addition to fighting the long-term effects of monoculture, he’s also working to protect small farmers from shady international patenting practices by documenting and copyrighting their unique rice strains so they can be fairly compensated for their innovations and knowledge.

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Glimmers of hope for a ‘fair shares society’

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
1st March 2015


fair share - pay yours

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Chicago Man, flickr creative commons

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Assessing the Greece / Eurogroup negotiations (2): a positive evaluation by Tom Walker

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
28th February 2015


This battle is a very long way from over. There are more key moments this week, and no doubt there are many weeks and months of crunch points still to come. The last thing we should be doing is abandoning Syriza because it hasn’t fulfilled all our hopes in the first few weeks after its election. And it’s also no use flipping backwards and forwards between enthusiasm and dejection based on each day’s round of negotiations. The future of austerity across Europe now rests on what happens in Greece. If we give up on them, we are giving up on our own struggle too.

Excerpted from Tom Walker in Red Pepper:

“To discover the truth we need to not only look at the deal, or even the media spin around the deal, but examine what the text they have signed up to will mean in practice.

* No agreement to austerity:

Much of the reporting of the deal led on the claim that Syriza has ‘signed up to austerity’ – and that would be a massive U-turn if it were true. But this rests on some mischief with the terminology.

What the Greek government has signed up to is to continue running a budget surplus, as opposed to a deficit. That is not, in itself, austerity. Austerity is the practice of balancing budgets through cuts in public spending.

Yet the agreement, as Tsipras has said, cancels the previous Greek government’s planned cuts to pensions, as well as scrapping VAT rises on food and medicine. The reforms Syriza will submit as part of its end of the deal look set to include a massive crackdown on tax evasion and corruption – meaning a shift away from spending cuts towards raising the revenue through taxation.

The Eurogroup statement also includes some flexibility for surpluses to be ‘appropriate’ given economic conditions. In other words, until the Greek economy returns to growth, the punishing targets of the previous government can be eased back – meaning there wouldn’t be as much money to raise as previously. This should free up some cash to tackle Greece’s humanitarian crisis, through Syriza’s promised measures such as free electricity and meal subsidies for the poorest.

And Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has added a very important and under-reported rider: ‘Nobody is going to ask us to impose upon our economy and society measures that we don’t agree with… If the list of reforms is not agreed, this agreement is dead.’

Of course, this is hardly anyone’s ideal programme for government. While it is not true that the hated ‘Troika’ has returned, Greece must still deal with ‘the institutions’ (the European Central Bank, European Commission and IMF) – the distinction being that it now has the potential to negotiate with the different institutions one by one. Greek democracy remains partially suspended, at least for the four-month duration of the deal, subject to negotiation and oversight.

But look at the situation Syriza were in before you condemn. Multiple credible sources claim that, if they had not agreed to the deal, Greece’s banks would have collapsed within days – and Syriza would have got the blame for taking the country into a new crisis. As Varoufakis said, ‘Greeks were being told that if we were elected and we stayed in power for more than just a few days the ATMs will cease functioning… Today’s decision puts an end to this fear.’

Defaulting on the debts and leaving the euro might be preferable in the long term – though support for that course of action among Greece’s people remains very low – but it would mean huge short-term chaos and pain that Syriza’s negotiation has managed to avoid.

In any case, the deal is not signed in blood. It can be ended if it goes as badly as some commentators are saying. The option of ‘Grexit’ and default hasn’t gone away. It is clear, though, that it is not currently part of Syriza’s mandate, and those who put forward that alternative in the election received only a fraction of Syriza’s votes. Default was always going to be a last resort, not an opening gambit: it will only be politically possible if no alternative remains.

Insofar as the Syriza government is having to compromise – and clearly it is making compromises short of surrender – that represents not so much their failure as our own. Syriza has always been clear that we cannot expect Greece to defeat austerity alone.

The various European ministers on the other end of the continuing negotiation with the Greek government need to be feeling the pressure. We need a huge movement across Europe in solidarity with Greece, and we need to be throwing ourselves into building that movement, not reclining in our armchairs ready to say ‘I told you so’.

We must put everything we can muster into shifting the political balance of forces across Europe. We now have four months of space in which to do so: we need to make them count.

There is clearly a division among the elite now over the issue of austerity, with the US government, the Adam Smith Institute and various prominent economists not usually associated with the left backing Greece’s proposals. That crack is waiting to be forced open.

This battle is a very long way from over. There are more key moments this week, and no doubt there are many weeks and months of crunch points still to come. The last thing we should be doing is abandoning Syriza because it hasn’t fulfilled all our hopes in the first few weeks after its election. And it’s also no use flipping backwards and forwards between enthusiasm and dejection based on each day’s round of negotiations.

The future of austerity across Europe now rests on what happens in Greece. If we give up on them, we are giving up on our own struggle too.

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Assessing the Greece / Eurogroup negotiations (1): a negative evaluation by Stathis Kouvelakis

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th February 2015


The Syriza government will thus have no choice other than to administer the Memorandum framework. The small changes it can make will certainly be improvements, but they will not succeed in transforming the totally disastrous economic and social situation. This will disappoint the hopes and expectations that the popular electorate placed in Syriza.

A negative assessment of the grave consequences of the Eurogroup accord as a grave defeat for the new government, from an interview with Stathis Kouvelakis, member of the party’s Central Committee:

(but watch this space for excerpts of a positive evaluation of the deal, by Tom Walker of Red Pepper)

“It’s now a month since the election. What is your assessment of Syriza’s record so far?

The new government has announced a first set of measures, expressing its desire for transparency and increased democracy. The changing of the nationality code – handing automatic Greek citizenship to immigrants’ children born in Greece – is a considerable shake-up of Greek society’s definition of nationality, citizenship and even national identity.

Another objective of these measures is media transparency, putting an end to the entanglement of political personnel and business interests linked to the state – a combination that often includes media moguls. That is not anything particular to Greece, as Berlusconi in Italy and Bouygues in France demonstrate, but in Greece it has reached really huge proportions.

The distribution of cabinet portfolios shows that Syriza was not going to give up any ground, at that level. Notably, the Interior Ministry was handed to a leading figure in the anti-racist movements, involved in struggles supporting immigrants; and the new president of the Greek Parliament, Zoe Constantopolou, is well-known for her fight against corruption and her involvement in the struggle for individual freedoms. So that sends a strong message.

From a social and economic perspective, the re-establishment of workplace rights – which the previous governments had got rid of – is another important measure that Syriza has announced, as are the re-hiring of laid-off civil servants; the re-connection of electricity for households that had previously been cut off; and the re-establishment of the ERT (public radio and TV). These announcements seek to demonstrate the new government’s break with the previous governments’ policies serving the Memorandum.

This set of measures – which correspond to Syriza’s mandate and are meant to put an end to austerity policies – has quickly come up against the demands imposed by the European Union and the Troika. These latter have forced the Greek government into a series of retreats, paralysing the implementation of Syriza’s programme. Only just after having been elected, the new government has run into difficulties that give us a glimpse of what a grave situation we will face if it fails.

* What does the accord signed on 20 February tell us?

The agreement insists on the full and timely repayment of Greece’s debts. Most importantly, it foresees the existing programme being followed through in full, which means the country agreeing to remain under the supervision of the Troika – or as it’s now called, ‘the institutions’.

Indeed, the Greek government has committed to not taking any unilateral measures that might endanger the budgetary objectives laid down by the creditors.

This accord thus neutralises the Syriza government’s activity and its capacity to implement its programme. We ought to be clear – it keeps almost the entire Memorandum framework in place.

* What explains such a rapid defeat?

Firstly, right from the start the European institutions exercised enormous pressure. This began on 4 February when the European Central Bank announced that it had stopped the refinancing of the Greek banks – because it no longer accepted Greek debt bonds – at the same time as there was massive capital flight out of the country.

Having been around €2bn a week, according to reliable sources capital flight hit around €1.5bn every 24 hours in the last few days. My information from Athens is that the Greek banks could not have opened on Tuesday if Greece had not come to an agreement with Europe. The ECB has blackmailed Greece in exactly the same way as it did Cyprus in 2013 and Ireland in 2010.

The Greek government is being strangled, exploiting its weakest link, namely, the banking system. There was increasing pressure on Greece during the Eurogroup meetings, in an effort to force it to accept the terms of the Memorandum. If Germany was the most vindictive country – and there is a degree of theatre at moments like this – the others were no different. No one took a stance against Germany.

* What are Syriza’s responsibilities now?

We ought to be clear. Some of the debates that we have had in Syriza have now been resolved in a negative way. The idea that we could break with austerity policies and yet avoid confrontation with the European Union has been refuted in practice. The majority tendency in Syriza avoided giving a clear answer to what would happen if Greece’s creditors refused to negotiate.

Those who upheld this position also thought that our European partners would be obliged to accept Syriza’s legitimacy and thus accept the Greek government’s demands. And we can clearly see that this is not the case. The dominant tendency in the Syriza leadership has the illusion that it is possible to change things even within the existing European Union framework.

These institutions have shown their true face, which is the imposition of extremely harsh neoliberal policies and other policies leading to the economic and social marginalisation of entire countries.

* What explains these ‘illusions’?

There is a real stumbling block, not just a psychological barrier but also one that concerns political strategy. Like almost all the European radical Left, Syriza believes in the idea that it is possible to reform and transform the existing European institutions from within.

That’s the whole problem. Syriza ever more clearly dug itself into a position refusing not only to break from the Euro but even to consider this a possible threat it could make during the negotiations.

And indeed we have seen that neither Tsipras or Varoufakis ever made use of this possibility. This tendency refuses to take full account of what the EU institutions and the integration process consist of – yet this is a process that has neoliberalism in its DNA.

These institutions were created in order to entrench neoliberal policies and liberate them from any kind of popular control. We cannot break with austerity policies and the Memorandum measures unless we mount a confrontation with the European Union, and leave the Eurozone if need be. During the negotiations Greece showed that it feared ‘Grexit’ more than its interlocutors did, and that was a fatal error.

* What conclusions ought we draw from this accord?

We could describe it as a major defeat for Syriza, possibly even a fatal one, and this failure affects each and every one of Syriza’s components. The Left did not succeed in imposing its point of view, having been defeated by the leadership’s strategy, ever since the 2012 elections, of shifting closer to the centre. The idea was that since we had already won as many votes on the Left as we could, what we now had to do was go in search of centrist voters.

This electoralist logic is mistaken, because given the extent of the social crisis the tendency of public opinion is not at all the strengthening of the centre ground. On the contrary, it is radicalising, and it is this radicalisation that explains the audience for Golden Dawn as well as for Syriza.

There is a really fundamental error of analysis, here. For a political force of the anti-austerity Left to give up on essential points of its programme can only lead to defeat. And sadly that is precisely what we are seeing play out at the moment.

The Syriza government will thus have no choice other than to administer the Memorandum framework. The small changes it can make will certainly be improvements, but they will not succeed in transforming the totally disastrous economic and social situation. This will disappoint the hopes and expectations that the popular electorate placed in Syriza.

Going on this way can only mean defeat. I think it is possible that Syriza could disintegrate, and that there could be a reconfiguration of the current political alliances. If Syriza continues with this policy then there is no reason why pro-Memorandum forces should go on refusing to collaborate with it. To Potami, PASOK and even a wing of New Democracy could do so – and it was precisely this latter that Syriza was giving a nod and a wink to when it chose Pavlopoulos, a leading figure of New Democracy’s centrist wing, for President of the Republic.

* How might the Greek people react?

Syriza’s victory gave the Greek people hope again. After the ECB started with its blackmail we saw people spontaneously heading into the streets to give their support to Syriza. The current retreat risks putting a stop to all this, leading to very severe disappointment.

* Should we fear disappointed voters turning to Golden Dawn?

The current success of far-Right parties in Europe essentially owes to the fact that very large sections of public opinion see them as genuine anti-systemic forces. They seem more credible and more radical than the Left.

Thanks to the extent of the mobilisations between 2010 and 2012 the electorate that has broken from the traditional ruling parties has mostly turned to the Left.

Nonetheless, the possible recomposition of politics entails the enormous danger of us abandoning the terrain of challenging the existing order to the far Right.

Syriza has been forced to accept continuing with Troika supervision of Greece. This feeling of national humiliation is very important to understanding the breakthrough that Golden Dawn has made. Its rise is really a regressive nationalist reaction to this feeling of national humiliation, combined with economic and social breakdown.

* European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recently declared that ‘There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’. Are our societies – in Greece as well as elsewhere in Europe – really democratic?

The Juncker quote sums up the reality that we face. Since the 1980s the construction of the European Union has been the vehicle of neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism is in its DNA, it is written into its treaties. Its underlying logic is constitutively anti-democratic.

It seeks to dissolve the instances of national control, establishing a detached supranational order freed from any mechanisms of popular control. And this is what has driven oppositional political forces to paralysis. Syriza’s defeat faced with the European Union is the most striking illustration of this – and also the saddest.

For any force that wants to oppose the dominant economic policy decisions, it is indispensable that they break with this construction.”

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To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
27th February 2015


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Originally published in Bollier.org

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