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Civil Power and the Partner State

photo of John Restakis

John Restakis
31st March 2015

– Keynote Address, Good Economy Conference, Zagreb 2015

I want to speak today about a crisis that has gripped Europe, and the western democracies, over the last 30 years.

I describe the crisis as the inability of our governments to protect the interests of their citizens. It is a crisis of legitimacy that is undermining the foundations of liberal democracy. Its most recent manifestation is the doctrine of austerity, and the rapid destruction of democratic civic life.

These realities – the imposition of austerity, the end of national sovereignty, and the destruction of democratic accountability are the inevitable consequences of the neo-liberalism that commenced with Thatcherism over 35 years ago. Neo-liberalism is the return of the free market ideology that dominated economic thought at the end of the 19th century. With it, have returned the economic attitudes, social injustices, and inequalities, of that time. Especially, the class hatred against the poor.

At the heart of neo-liberalism is the demand that government remove itself from the market. The withdrawal of governments from a regulatory role in the economy was the end of the Keynesian experiment and a return to the free market ideology of the pre war era. And, if we take the long view, we can see now that the Welfare State – and the policies of public investments that made it possible – was an exception and a temporary detour on the road to the corporate capitalism we are witnessing today.

The control of societies through debt – the imposition of austerity, the privatization of public wealth, the destruction of democratic institutions, and the criminalization of dissent to these policies are all essential aspects of the new order that has spread across Europe and, increasingly, the globe. It has not gone unchallenged.

But how effective has the challenge been?

I come to you today from Greece where I have been living since last summer. I was invited there to help develop a national strategy for strengthening the social and solidarity economy as an alternative to the neo-liberal paradigm I have been describing

Debtocracy is the name of a Greek documentary on the origins of the debt crisis in Greece. But not only Greece. Argentina, Ecuador, and all the periphery countries of the European Union such as Portugal, Ireland and Spain are infected. Debtocracy is a powerful word. It describes a situation where a nation loses its sovereignty to its creditors.

Greece is the classic example of a debtocracy. The debt crisis in Greece and the attempt by Greece to challenge the roots and the rationale of this debt is a very visible drama that is being played on the European stage – but its implications are global.

For example, what will the results of this struggle mean for the creation of alternative visions for political economy? What role does the social/solidarity economy have to play? What is the role of the State? Can State and Civil Society find common cause, or must they always be at war? Does the reality of Europe today prevent such a possibility?

Having been in Greece during this time, I have also been asking myself what does this crisis means for social change in Europe? Or rather, is progressive social change even possible today? What would this change look like? What would it take?

The social economy and a mobilized civil society are central to this process. But so is a new conception of the State. The two are necessary and essential aspects of a single process. They are also crucial for a leftist movement to have any meaning and relevance for today. I will try to describe what I mean and use Greece as an example.

With Syriza’s rise to power, everyone is wondering what the future will hold for Greece. Whether disaster or deliverance, it is hard to ignore the potential for game-changing repercussions from a Syriza government.

The international media routinely describes Syriza as a far left radical party. This is false. Syriza’s proposals for economic and social reform are moderate and rational by any previous standard. But there are reasons why it is portrayed this way. One is a deliberate distortion for propaganda purposes. This is to discredit the party.

The second is because even a moderate left-of-centre party like Syriza must be portrayed as radical because all political discourse has shifted radically to the Right. The political spectrum has narrowed. Anything that challenges free markets and neo-liberal ideology in any meaningful way must be considered radical.

Like other parties of both the Right and Left in Europe, Syriza is paying attention to the role that the social & solidarity economy can play in the current crisis. This is natural when traditional polices and resources, such as taxation and public investment, are no longer available.

Even the Conservative Cameron government in the UK, has promoted the social economy as a sector with a role to play in job creation, in improving public services, and in reforming the role of government.

It all sounds very nice, until it becomes evident how little right wing governments understand, or care about, what the social economy is and how it functions. For the Cameron government co-operatives and the social economy became a cover and a way to promote public sector privatizations, for weakening job security, and for reducing the role of government.

Thousands of public sector workers have been coerced into joining pseudo-co-operatives to save their jobs. The same was happening in Greece with the last government through Social Enterprise Co-operatives.

This is a travesty of the nature and purpose of co-operatives whose memberships must always be voluntary, whose governance is democratic, and whose purpose is to serve their members and their communities for their common benefit – not the ideological aims of government. It’s a lesson that few governments understand.

For the Right, the social economy is often viewed as a refuge for the discarded of society and the victims of the capitalist economy. It is one reason why the Right always chooses charity as the proper response for the poor. Never solidarity or justice. Charity perpetuates dependence and inequality. Solidarity promotes empowerment and equality.

More recently, the rhetoric of the social economy has been used to expand the reach of capital into civil spaces. For these reasons co-operatives and social economy organizations in the UK, and elsewhere, have condemned the distortion of social economy principles for vested political interests.
But what are these principles?

The social economy is composed of civil organizations and networks that are driven by the principles of reciprocity and mutuality in service to the common good – usually through the social control of capital. It is composed of co-operatives, non-profit organizations, foundations, voluntary groups, and a whole range of associations that operate both inside the market, as many successful co-operatives do, or in non-market provision of goods or services. These include cultural production, the provision of health or social care, and the provision of food, shelter, or other necessities to people in need.

In its essence, the social & solidarity economy is a space and a practice where economics is at the service of social ends, not the other way round.

It is not hard to see why Greece today is experiencing an unprecedented growth in the size and diversity of its social economy. Here, as elsewhere, co-operatives and social benefit enterprises have arisen as a form of social self-defense against economic recession and austerity.

The co-operatives and solidarity organizations of today are playing the same role that co-operatives and mutual aid societies played at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s when capitalism was enclosing, dispossessing, and exploiting people and communities at that time. The rise of the social economy today is in part, a self-defense against the new enclosures. These include the privatizations of public goods and services and the theft of natural resources – land, water and minerals.

With the spread of globalization, the logic of enclosure, dispossession, and exploitation that was the basis of capitalism in the 18th century has become the basis of corporate capitalism today. And societies the world over are reacting in the same way – by creating co-operatives and other forms of solidarity economics to resist this process.

As elsewhere, the social economy in Greece is growing – but compared to other European nations, it lags behind. This weakness is due to many factors. One reason is the absence of institutional supports such as sources of social investment, of professional development and training, of organizations to unite, develop, and give voice to the sector. Inadequate legislation is another reason.

A third, more complex reason, has to do with the manner in which civil society and the state have evolved in Greece. Unlike other Western European nations, Greece remained relatively untouched by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution while under Ottoman rule.

Today, Greece is still struggling to establish a political culture that has moved beyond the autocratic clientelism that characterized the political system after the Ottoman era. Autocracy breeds hierarchy, individualism, and relations of dependence, not mutuality and social solidarity. The emergence of a healthy civil society, of democratic civil institutions and a democratic culture, has been undermined by this fact.

Clientelism has been deadly in Greece and it has been catastrophic for the healthy evolution of the social economy, as has been shown in the case of its co-operatives. Just as the Right uses the social economy as a proxy for the promotion of capital and markets, so does the Left consistently view the social economy as a vehicle for the advancement of the aims of the state.

When a culture of clientelism is added, it is a recipe for failure on a grand scale. This is what happened during the 80s when state support and subsidization of co-operatives produced a corruption that not only failed to achieve legitimate economic ends, but also destroyed the image and reputation of co-operatives among the public.

Today, the work of promoting co-operation as a viable strategy for economic and social development has to fight this false and negative public image of co-operatives as inherently corrupt.

Greece is not alone in this. This has been the case everywhere “leftist” governments have tried to use the co-operative model to pursue government aims without regard to the purpose and nature of co-operatives as autonomous civil associations whose primary role is to serve their members and their communities.

Just as in Greece, the co-operative model has had to be retrieved from a ruined reputation in the former Soviet nations, in many nations of Africa, and throughout Latin America where governments see co-ops, and the broader social economy, as instruments and extensions of government power.

Ironically it is the Left, and “socialist” governments, in their manipulative “support” for the co-operative model that have done most to ruin the image and reputation of co-operatives in the minds of millions.

The reason for this is that the Left has often viewed the state as the sole legitimate engine of social and economic reform. It is the mirror image of the Right that sees legitimacy for economic and social development only in the market. Both views make the same mistake in ignoring or manipulating the institutions of civil society that are essential to realizing the radical changes that are needed if any alternative to the present paradigm is to succeed.

And this will be the true test of the character of Syriza in power. How will it relate to the broader civil society, and to the organizations and institutions of the social economy as it tries to rebuild the economic and political complexion of Greece? Will it revert to the statism of the Old Left, or will it seek to expand and re-imagine a new kind of leftist program for change that mobilizes the institutions of civil society and the social economy as meaningful partners in nation building?

Will it understand and utilize the social and economic principles of co-operation, of mutuality and the common goo to re-build the economy and society? Will the Greek government recognize and mobilize the vast potential of civil power in realizing a new vision? If it does, it will be the first in Europe to do so.

Part Two

In Greece, as everywhere else, one of the things that distinguish political parties is their relation to the social economy. That the government is taking the social economy seriously is a good sign. The social economy represents one of the very few bright spots in Greece, with hundreds of new groups being formed to provide goods and services in a way that is entirely new.

Often rejecting organizational hierarchy, promoting inclusion and democratic decision-making, focusing on service over profit, these organizations see themselves as models for a new economic and political order. And they are.

But many of these groups want little or nothing to do with political parties, or the state. This is not good news for progressive parties, both inside Greece and across Europe as they struggle to articulate a vision and a method for a new political economy. They need a new approach if they are to build a progressive vision for a new age that moves beyond statism. The old ways of party and state control have been discredited and rejected.

The rejection of representative democracy and the withdrawal from formal politics by many social activists is understandable. But it is also a tragic mistake and a delusion. The only ones who will benefit from this attitude will be the status quo, and if things get bad enough, the parties of the extreme right.

You may be sure that if progressives don’t take part in politics, the fascists will. Golden Dawn in Greece, Le Front Nationale in France, UKIP in the UK, – they are all waiting for their chance at power. If they do win power, it will not be with tanks and truncheons – it will be through the ballot box.

Our task is to fashion a political vision, and a political narrative, that is a compelling answer to neo-liberalism and the ideology of competition, free markets, and the primacy of capital. We need a political economy of co-operation, of solidarity, of mutual benefit. And we need to show that it is only an economics of co-operation and shared benefit that can save Europe from its continuing decline in the face of Asian competition and the global race to the bottom.

This must be a vision that does not pit one region against another, Europe against the world. It must be an economics of co-operation, of sustainability, of local control, and of global collaboration and responsibility. If ruthless competition and corporate greed are destroying our planet, it is only co-operation and mutual responsibility for our common fate than can save it.

For a truly effective party of the Left today, the social economy represents a crucial resource and ally. The principles of economic democracy in service to the common good are practiced here. The most innovative, entrepreneurial, and socially productive young leadership is active here. The organizational forms and practices that have the potential to reform the closed, bureaucratic, dysfunction of government services are also being developed here.

This is where communities are learning to work together to recover what has been lost in these past years – of community clinics, of food markets and mutual help between farmers and consumers, of residents collectively preventing a neighbor’s electricity or water from being cut off. And this points to an unlooked for light in the midst of this crisis – that these hard times have sparked a renewal of community and genuine human connections between people. The social economy is where these connections are flourishing.

What then, must a progressive government do with respect to the social economy?
First, it must move beyond traditional statism to develop a role for government that understands how to democratize and share power with its citizens. This means understanding that the primary role of government in a new model is the empowerment and support of civil society for the production of social value – the creation of goods and services that place social needs ahead of private profit.

A vibrant and mobilized civil society is essential for this. We must learn from the experience of so-called progressive governments that came to power through the radicalization and mobilization of civil society, only to co-opt and destroy the leadership and organizations of civil society once they had political power. This is the familiar pattern of political events in Ecuador, in Brazil, in Venezuala – in fact everywhere civil society expects representative democracy, on its own, to change the patterns of power.

For this to be avoided, it means the creation of institutions, both legal and social, that can sustain the development and growth of the social economy and civil society – independently of the party that is in power.

This means the reform of co-operative and social economy legislation, the creation of financial instruments for the social and ethical financing of social economy organizations, the establishment of educational and training institutes for the study of the theory and practice of co-operation, reciprocity, and service to the common good that are fundamental for a new political economy and the advancement of a new social contract.

Third, it means the application of these principles beyond the non-profit sector to the support and development of the wider economy, in particular for the small and medium firms that form the bedrock of most national economies. The principles that animate the social economy are a framework for the recovery and reform of the whole economy.

And fourth, it means the reform of public services through the provision of control rights, transparency, accountability, and decision-making power to the citizens that are the users of these services. The insular, autocratic power of bureaucracy must be broken.

What we are talking about is a new conception: The idea of the Partner State. At its essence, the Partner State is an enabling state. It facilitates and provides the maximum space and opportunity for civil society to generate goods and services for the fulfillment of common needs.

It is a State whose primary orientation is the promotion of the common good, not private gain. And, in contrast to a view of the citizen as a passive recipient of public services, the Partner State requires a new conception of productive citizenship. Of citizenship understood as a verb, not a noun.

What is required is generative democracy – a democracy that is re-created constantly through the everyday mechanisms and decisions that go into the design, production, monitoring, and evaluation of the goods and services that citizen’s need to construct and live a truly civic life. For this, the organizational models of the social economy – the co-operative, reciprocal, and democratic organization of relationships and decisions – are the prototypes of a new political economy.

Greece, like the other indebted nations, has no option but to try new approaches to solve its social, economic, and political problems. At the macro level, the government must do everything it can to address the questions of debt restructuring, of trade relations and export policy, of taxing capital, and of addressing the humanitarian crisis.

The social economy can help.

But it cannot be an engine of recovery on its own. It needs the support of a government that understands its strengths – and limitations. The danger here is that false expectations of the social economy will set the stage for failure and disappointment.

In the past, unrealistic expectations arising out of ignorance of how social economy organizations work, and to what ends, have provided ammunition to those who like to criticize the “inefficiency” and “utopianism” of co-ops and the social economy when they fail to do what they were never meant to do. (They conveniently ignore the fact that the survival rate of co-ops is more than twice as high as that of private companies).

What the social economy offers are the ideas, the methods, and the models by which an alternative paradigm may be built. The social economy is the experimental ground of a new political economy, and its organizations are the social antennae of a possible, and more humane, future. Today, this prefiguring of another paradigm is perhaps the most important contribution that the social economy can make in Greece and elsewhere.

The building of social and solidarity economy institutions is crucial. This is true whether the new government succeeds in re-negotiating the debt, and even more so if it does not.

There are serious doubts whether the changes that Greece needs to make toward a more humane and socially responsible economics can be developed within Europe as it is currently structured. The ideological and institutional dogmatism of neo-liberalism is suffocating any prospects for reform.

Regardless, Greece can learn from the wealth of experience that has already been accumulated in other countries where the social economy has played an important role in advancing economic and social development – particularly in times of crisis. Greece is a latecomer to this field, but that has its advantages. Greece can learn from the experience of others.

In the region of Emilia Romagna in Italy, the principles of co-operation and mutual help are the reason why its small and medium enterprises have been able to flourish in a global marketplace. It is among the top ten performing economic regions in Europe. Italy’s 40,000 social co-ops have succeeded in remaking and expanding social care in that country while working in close partnership with local municipalities. They employ over 280,000 people.

In Argentina, following an economic crisis in 2001 that was almost identical to what Greece faces now, over 300 abandoned factories were taken over by their workers to restart production. Nearly all are still in operation. Schools, day cares, clinics, libraries, and community centres were also taken over and run by the people who use them. Even in Cuba, the archetype of state socialism, the government is supporting the growth of autonomous co-operatives to breath new life into its agricultural sector and to stimulate the growth of new enterprises and new services.

The reform of government is a central theme in this movement. In Brazil, Columbia, Spain, Italy, and a growing list of countries and cities around the globe, participatory budgeting, shared policy making, and civilian monitoring of budgets and public programs is a key role that the social economy is playing in reforming the way in which governments operate – making them more transparent, more accountable, more democratic, and more responsive to the real needs of citizens.

And this is the key point. The social economy is a model of political economy in which economic democracy places capital at the service of society.

Much has been written about the origins of the debt crisis in Greece. Some point to the availability of cheap money and unethical lending that followed Greece’s entry into the Eurozone. Some point to the lack of oversight and lax regulations. Some point to the role of corruption and the huge waste of public funds. All contributed to bringing Greece to the precipice. And exactly the same pattern has been evident in the other debtocracies – in Argentina, in Ecuador, in the countries of the European periphery. But few point to the fundamental lack of democracy and public accountability that has made all this possible.

What are most needed today are the building of democratic culture and the strengthening of civil institutions that generate and expand democracy – in politics, in social life, and above all in the economy. This is the role that an enlightened state should play, in partnership with civil power. It is a delicate and difficult role to get right. But that is precisely why it is so urgently needed. It is a way forward that won’t perpetuate the negligence and wrongdoing of the past.

This is why the policies of Greece’s masters, its servile political class and the European powers that have supported it, are so tragic and shortsighted. They are destroying the very institutions that are most needed to reform and remake Greece – its public and civil institutions. This is not accidental – the regrettable casualties of austerity. Their destruction is precisely the aim of austerity.

The point is, they don’t care. The destruction of public institutions and civil power suits our elites very well. The priority of social values or the wellbeing of people over those of capital doesn’t fit into their schema. In their schema what really matters is the perpetuation of a system that is working just fine for some – just not for people like you or me, or the vast majority of the citizenry that is now paying for the sins of others.

The dysfunction of western capitalism today, and the myopia of its free market ideology may have reached a point where it is no longer able to save itself. Having lost the capacity to freely exploit the resources and labour of third world colonies, having to face the growing competition of Asian state capitalism, western capitalism is now devouring its own foundations and returning to the ideas and practices of a time we had all thought was behind us. The Third World is being recreated in the heart of Europe. We are witnessing a form of cannibalistic capitalism.

In its thirst for short term profits, in its need for cheap and defenceless labour, in its dependence on unlimited access to natural resources, the public interest – and the role of governments in protecting that interest – must be destroyed. Ultimately, this is the end result of liberal democracy – a process that while achieving the democratization of politics was unwilling to sanction the democratization of economics.

In the end, the lack of democracy in economics will always destroy democracy in politics. This is the hard lesson that liberal democracy – and the modern age – is teaching us.

Today, the task of undermining democratic institutions is nearing completion. The criminalization of dissent and the introduction of pervasive surveillance under the guise of national security and anti-terrorism are essential tools in this process. With the decline of profits in the market economy, the enclosure, annexation, and colonization of the public economy is the next logical step. Governments, in the pay of capital, have become the maidservants in this process.

Unless this is stopped, the natural, social, and political foundations of capitalism itself will be consumed. And unlike what some would prefer to believe, what follows after its demise, in the absence of a humane alternative, could be far worse. Thankfully the models and the ideas already exist for a viable alternative, for a co-operative political economy in which capital serves the common good instead of the other way round.

The time has come for a convergence of movements to unite around a common agenda for a political economy of the common good.

The dynamics of such a movement have begun in the rise of Syriza, in the success of Podemos, in the growing resistance in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and yes, even in Germany. Austerity is fueling a new radicalism. Austerity, and the anti-social ideology that drives it, means not only the destruction of democratic institutions and civic life – liberal democracy as we have known it – but very likely the destruction of capitalism itself.

What our radicalism needs is both a vision for a new political economy, and the political movement to implement it. And, besides a political economy that is capable of serving people and their communities instead of profit, the rise of civil power is necessary for saving capitalism as well. This is the strange irony of our times.
I would like to finish my talk by reflecting on the origins of democracy.

Everyone knows that democracy was invented by the Greeks in ancient Athens. But not everyone knows the relation of debt to the origins of democracy. In the 6th Century BC, debt slavery had become the condition for many poor Athenians who had to use themselves as collateral for the credit they needed to survive and to work their small farms. These unpayable debts were owed to wealthy landowners and the oligarchy that ruled Athens. Over time, unable to pay their debts, many small farmers became debt slaves, having sold themselves and their children into bondage.

But then the people rose up. A series of debtor revolts in Athens threatened the city with revolution. Fearful for their wealth and power, the oligarchs appointed Solon to devise a new constitution for the city. Solon was an aristocrat. But he surprised them. First, he cancelled all debts and abolished the practice whereby a person can make themselves a slave to someone else. Then, he gave political rights to the poorest of Athens’ citizens. This was the beginning of democracy.

Some things don’t change. The power of a small minority to enslave the majority through the control of credit, through the creation of unpayable debt, and through the monopolization of political power is the perpetual pattern of oligarchy and plutocracy.

It was true in ancient Athens in the 6th Century and it is true today. And just as in ancient Athens, what is needed for a rebirth of democracy today is a new form of debtor’s revolt.

This is what is happening in Greece today against the oligarchs and the plutocrats at home and in the boardrooms and government ministries of the centres of capital abroad.

The debtor’s revolt and the rise of democracy in ancient Greece spread and become the foundation for a new conception of politics in which people matter more than money. Civil power became the foundation of political power.

Perhaps the same can happen today.


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Rojava Secret Revolution

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
27th March 2015

The Middle East’s newest territory is called «Rojava». Out of the chaos of Syria’s civil war, mainly Kurdish leftists have forged a radical, egalitarian, multi-ethnic mini-state run on communal lines. But with Daesh Jihadists attacking them at every opportunity – especially around the beleaguered city of Kobane, how long can this idealistic social experiment last? Our World has gained exclusive access to Rojava, from the frontlines, to the politicians and refugee camps.


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New Report: US force feeds GM crops to African nations

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
25th March 2015

Download the full report here (pdf).

Introduction to the report from Friends of the Earth International:

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, 23 February, 2015 – US agencies, funders such as the Gates Foundation, and agribusiness giant Monsanto are trying to force unwilling African nations to accept expensive and insufficiently tested Genetically Modified (GM) foods and crops, according to a new report released today. [1]

“The US, the world’s top producer of GM crops, is seeking new markets for American GM crops in Africa. The US administration’s strategy consists of assisting African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote agribusiness interests instead of protecting Africans from the potential threats of GM crops,” said Haidee Swanby from the African Centre for Biosafety, which authored the report commissioned by Friends of the Earth International.

The new report also exposes how agribusiness giant Monsanto influences biosafety legislation in African countries, gains regulatory approval for its product, and clears the path for products such as GM maize (corn).

Only four African countries -South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan- have released GM crops commercially but the issue of genetically modified maize is deeply controversial, given that maize is the staple food of millions of Africans.

Unlike Europe and other regions where strong biosafety laws have been in place for years, most African countries still lack such laws. Only seven African countries currently have functional biosafety frameworks in place.

“African governments must protect their citizens and our rights must be respected. We deserve the same level of biosafety protection that European citizens enjoy,” said Mariann Bassey Orovwuje from Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

Globally, markets for GM crops have been severely curbed by biosafety laws and regulations in the past decade, and GM foods and crops have been rejected outright by consumers in many countries, especially in Europe.

“South African farmers have more than 16 years’ experience cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton, but the promise that GM crops would address food security has not been fulfilled. Indeed, South Africa’s food security is reportedly declining with almost half the nation currently categorised as food insecure even though South Africa exports maize,” said Haidee Swanby from the African Centre for Biosafety.

“The South African experience confirms that GM crops can only bring financial benefits for a small number of well-resourced farmers. The vast majority of African farmers are small farmers who cannot afford to adopt expensive crops which need polluting inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and chemicals to perform effectively,” she added.

From February 24-27, 2015, Friends of the Earth delegates will attend the International Forum for Agroecology at the Nyéléni Center in Sélingué, Mali [2]

The organisations attending the forum, which represent millions of small scale food producers, believe that genetically modified crops are part of the problem, not the solution, to the hunger, climate, and biodiversity crises we
are facing globally. They also believe that agroecology and food sovereignty are the key to address these crises. [3]

In March 2011 the UN Special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, released a report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”, which demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.

The report challenged technological, industrial farming methods including patented seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified crops. [4]

Agro-ecological production models, small scale food producers free to plant and exchange seeds, and strong local markets have been recognized as the best way to feed people and protect the planet. [5]


Mariann Bassey Orovwuje, Friends of the Earth Nigeria: +234 703 44 95 940 or mariann@eraction.org

Haidee Swanby, African Centre for Biosafety, +27(0)82 459 8548 or haidee@acbio.org.za


[1] The new report, “who benefits from gm crops? the expansion of agribusiness interests in Africa through biosafety policy” is embargoed until 23 February 2015 but available for preview by members of the media at

[2] The forum is hosted by Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP); International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), La Via Campesina (LVC), More and Better (MaB), Movimiento Agroecológico de América Latina y el Caribe (MAELA), Réseau des organisations paysannes et de producteurs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA) , World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers (WFF), World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), and World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP).

[3] According to the final declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, held in 2007 in Sélingué, Mali, “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

[4] For more information read the 2011 UN report ‘Agro-ecology and the right to food’ at http://www.srfood.org/en/report-agroecology-and-the-right-to-food

[5] In April 2008 a study by 400 multi-disciplinary scientists and several international organisations known as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that agro-ecology, local trade and supporting small farmers is the best way forward to combat hunger and poverty. For more information about the assessment see http://www.unep.org/dewa/Assessments/Ecosystems/IAASTD/tabid/105853/Default.aspx


Since genetically modified organisms may have adverse effects on human and environmental health, a global agreement known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which came into force in September 2003, was developed to ensure “adequate safe use, handling and transfer” of GM organisms.

Regulatory frameworks are necessary for the commercialisation of GM crops but, depending on how the framework is crafted, they can either promote the introduction of GM organisms with minimal safety assessment (the approach promoted by the US administration and lobby), or promote rigorous safety assessment and the protection of the environment, health and socioeconomic wellbeing.

The US administration long lobbied against an effective, global Biosafety Protocol and, once the Protocol entered into force, started lobbying African governments and institutions (among others) to accept GM organisms with minimal safety assessment.

For instance, the US government agency USAID assists Regional Economic Communities in Africa to develop policies aimed not at ensuring biosafety, but at limiting regulation, which they consider to be a barrier to regional trade in GM food and crops.

Yet the Biosafety Protocol makes clear that products from new technologies must be based on the precautionary principle and allow developing nations to balance public health against economic benefits.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a Pan-African civil society network, recently condemned USAID-funded guidelines developed by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in no uncertain terms, stating that the “COMESA policy aggressively promotes the wholesale proliferation of GM organisms on the African continent by way of commercial plantings, commodity imports and food aid and flouts international biosafety law.”

USAID provided funds to set up COMESA’s Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (RABESA) project, which was tasked with developing a mechanism for regulating biosafety in the COMESA region.

There is still the time for Africans to demand that their governments implement policies to uplift and protect the millions of small-scale food producers that currently feed the continent.

The African Union has developed and recently endorsed a Model Law on Biosafety which could contribute to more rigorous biosafety regimes across Africa.”


Posted in Food and Agriculture, P2P Ecology | No Comments »

In case of illegitimate debts creditors can be contravened #Greece

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
24th March 2015

Professor Eric Toussaint, an expert on debt auditing and on the cancellation of debt, talks about the present situation in Europe, why Greek debt cancellation is a legal necessity and why this would not be anything new. The founder of CADTM – The Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt – and coauthor of the book AAA: Audit, annulation, autre politique |1| offers a clear analysis of how the neoliberal architecture of the EU shackles the States into neoliberal austerity, which further enriches the powerful few while the majority of the people is pauperized.

Source: http://cadtm.org/In-case-of-illegitimate-debts

Most of the arguments against debt restructuring and cancellation are based on the conviction that agreements and laws have to be respected. You claim that debts can be illegitimate and their cancellation necessary to ensure the rule of law and respect of constitutions. What are legal frameworks and arguments do you base you arguments on?

The first lesson of history should be that debts have often been written off. The major debt cancellation in the 20th century was the London agreement about the German debt in 1953, when 62 percent of the German debt was written off |2|. The creditors furthermore agreed to give up their demands for German reparations for the occupation and destruction of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. This was a very important debt write-off agreed on by the creditors. Later the Polish debt was written off when Poland decided to leave the Warsaw Pact under the presidency of Lech Walesa. In 2004 creditors canceled 80 percent of the Iraqi debt. There are numerous examples of debt cancellation.

The legal basis for the debtor country to decide as a sovereign state not to pay back the debt is its constitution or the fact that there are priority obligations a State has to meet. These are mostly connected to its duty to guarantee the human rights of its population. This obligation has priority over any obligation to repay a debt and therefore, if repaying debts impedes the possibility for the government to guarantee public healthcare, public education, peace and security for its population, the said government can decide not to repay the debt.

Moreover, if the debt claimed by creditors is an illegal debt then the contract of indebtedness is null and void. In this case it is possible for the sovereign state to tell its creditors that what they are demanding to be paid back is in fact illegal. In the case of the Eurozone we can claim that at least parts of the loans given by the Troika of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund in 2010 to Greece and Ireland, in 2011 to Portugal and in 2013 to Cyprus, are illegal. In the case of Greece I would claim that the loans are illegal in their entirety.

Continue to Read the Full Article : http://cadtm.org/In-case-of-illegitimate-debts


Posted in P2P Movements, Politics | No Comments »

The Revolution will (not) be decentralised: Blockchains

photo of Rachel O'Dwyer

Rachel O'Dwyer
23rd March 2015

The data centre rules.

Decentralised topologies and non-discriminatory protocols have been all but replaced by a recentralisation of infrastructure, as powerful corporations now gatekeep our networks. Everything might be accessible, but this access is mediated by a centralised entity. Whoever controls the data centre exercises political and economic control over communications. It’s difficult to see how we can counteract these recentralising tendencies in order to build a common core infrastructure. There are significant barriers in place. This includes the age-old problem of scaling distributed forms of organisation beyond the local. But it also includes barriers in terms of access and control of network resources. There are political and economic constraints governing the ownership and distribution of computational power, servers, bandwidth and energy. While we can access any range of software applications for free, the core network is always substantiated in property and provisioned on a scale that blocks access to all but the most powerful actors.

These centralising tendencies have also reared their head in cryptocurrencies. If Bitcoin was hailed as financially disruptive in much the way that VoIP and mesh networks were thought to be disruptive to cellular, powerful mining pools now control much of the infrastructure and rent-seeking individuals control a lion’s share of Bitcoin’s value. But we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While Bitcoin in and of itself may be problematic as an alterative currency, the underlying architecture has potentials not only for the future of money, but also for the future of networked cooperation.

Equality as a standard

Blockchain-based technologies may still have a role to play. They look set to have significant implications for money, for property and for cooperative organisation going forward. For example, there’s been some discussion about how the blockchain could support new forms of peer-production, and fully decentralised infrastructures for applications as varied as finance, mesh networks, cloud databases and share economies. The broader implication is that the blockchain could support the activities and resources necessary to the commons, as suggested in this recent article by David Bollier. At the same time, there are a number of other important considerations going forward. These include how key criteria like trust, property and governmentality are architected within a blockchain and what centralising tendencies or emerging possibilities for control might accompany this protocol. A lot of what follows is pretty speculative, but worth discussing in the context of peer-production.

But first of all, what is the blockchain? The blockchain is the distributed ledger that keeps track of all transactions made using the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Arguably this is Bitcoin’s key innovation, allowing users to transact without the intervention of a trusted third party such as a Central Bank or Federal Reserve. In what is sometimes called the second wave of blockchain innovation, people are now looking at the underlying database as an infrastructure for more than monetary transactions. Just as Bitcoin makes certain financial intermediaries unnecessary, new innovations on the blockchain remove the need for gatekeepers from other processes. The key takeaway is that the blockchain could support not only cryptocurrencies but also other financial instruments like equity, securities and derivatives; smart contracts and smart property; new voting systems; identity and reputation systems; distributed databases; and even the management of assets and resources like energy and water. Because of the way it distributes consensus, it routes around many of the challenges that typically arise with distributed forms of organisation– issues such as how to cooperate, scale and collectively invest in shared resources and infrastructures. There are a number of start-ups and groups currently innovating in this space such as Ethereum, Ripple and Mastercoin.

The Ethereum project really illustrates this possibility to abstract the blockchain from a specifically monetary context to one in which we’re thinking about decentralised economies and services more generally. In short, it extends the decentralised capabilities of Bitcoin beyond financial transactions. Bitcoin involves two parameters: a trustless database (more on this later) and a transactions system capable of sending value from place to place. In order to do this, Bitcoin implements a simple scripting language. But this scripting language is limited in terms of what it can do.[1] Bitcoin’s scripting language lacks certain fine-grained controls and nuances that might be necessary to provision other services. To do more complicated things, the expectation was that you needed to create an entire meta-protocol layer or even a new blockchain. Ethereum developers recognised that these functions could be implemented and scaled if there was a stronger foundational layer with a powerful scripting language for these protocols to be built on. Ethereum builds a generalised framework that extends the capabilities of the blockchain to allow developers to write new consensus applications. This is a blockchain with a built in Turing-complete programming language, allowing anyone to create applications and rules to support them. In this way, we move beyond monetary transactions towards any number of foreseeable applications.[2]

How the blockchain might support a commons

Some of these applications are still speculative; some of them are already implemented. Potential applications of Ethereum include peer-to-peer forms of cloud computing or Dropbox; incentivised Wi-Fi mesh networking or big data and machine learning; games and gambling; reputation systems; and of course financial applications. Already existing applications include Airlock.me a keyless access protocol; La’Zooz, an alternative ride-sharing application; the Eris stack, a distributed application server; Bitvote a distributed voting system; and Traity and Cryptoswartz, both online reputation systems.

Distributed Organisations & the Trust Web: One significant claim is that blockchain-based technologies such as Ethereum can support and scale distributed forms of cooperation on a global scale. This has been referred to under a few different names: the recent Coin Center report refers to Distributed Collaborative Organisations, while Ethereum’s founding developer Vitalik Buterin speaks elsewhere about Decentralised Autonomous Organisations. As David Bollier recently pointed out, this model resonates with organisations that are interested in fostering commons-based peer-production. Where questions about how to reach consensus, negotiate trust and especially scale interactions beyond the local are pervasive in the commons, the blockchain looks set to be a game changer.

In this context, the blockchain is presented as an algorithmic tool to foster trust in the absence of things like social capital, physical colocation or trusted third-party management. These are actually referred to as ‘consensus’ algorithms, and they are the staple of projects such as Ethereum and Ripple. As David Cohen has described it “Trust, rules, identity, reputation and payment choices are embedded at the peer level. Participants arrive already trusted and decentrally acknowledged”. Cohen and Mougayar have dubbed this innovation the “trust web” to describe the new suite of applications that weave network value and consensus into the protocol itself, forgoing the social institutions and relations that were previously mandatory.

Node Incentivisation: Another innovation is that Ethereum incentivises participation, encouraging actors to contribute without introducing centralisation. Ethereum also puts features in place to discourage centralisation in the future. In order to use an Ethereum application, users make micropayments to the developers in ether, Ethereum’s coin, or ‘cryptofuel’ as they term it. This might be making a micropayment in turn for storage space on a server or for acting as a relay in a mesh networking protocol. For example, in a hypothetical Ethereum mesh network, anybody could act as a node, charging small amounts for relaying people’s messages (in the region of a few microcents per kb) and alternatively paying to have their own messages relayed. We can take this further and reward people for other kinds of contributions, such as writing source code or producing creative content on a website. Monetary transactions aside, this encourages people to contribute to the commons and puts systems in place to try and protect its resources from commercial expropriation.

Decentralised Infrastructures: A third significant innovation is a change to infrastructure. Ethereum describes itself as “an infrastructure for next generation social and economic systems”. Blockchain innovations that manage networks, servers or natural resources really do radicalise infrastructure. We’re no longer speaking about monolithic resources with prohibitive barriers to entry, the quintessential server farm housed in some distant industrial estate. Instead, we can imagine infrastructure as something immaterial and dispersed, or managed through flexible and transient forms of ownership. Where powerful servers, channels and processing capacities seem like the primary chokepoint of open networks, the blockchain is a powerful antidote. As Buterin argues in a recent interview:

We would build a decentralised Internet network where all of us would access documents and content without going through a server. It means that you will need zero infrastructure to develop and distribute applications.

The payoff seems to be that new blockchain-based technologies have the potential to support new forms of commons-based peer production, supplying necessary tools for cooperation and decision making, supporting complementary currencies and even provisioning infrastructures.

Trust in the code

At this early stage of development, it’s also crucial to think about how criteria like governance, property relations and modes of production  are engineered into the blockchain, and what centralising tendencies or emerging possibilities for control might accompany this protocol. The issue most frequently cited has to do with the difficulty of regulating rogue companies in a distributed system. Primavera de Filippi, a researcher at the forefront of legal challenges in distributed organisation, points to the difficulty regulating companies and identifying who or what is in charge when things go wrong. The blockchain is still anybody’s baby and not the exclusive bequest of groups working towards a decentralised Internet or a ‘Post-Snowden’ Internet economy. Companies from share economy start-ups to major players in IT are looking to the blockchain for their next meal ticket. IBM, for example, is currently in talks about a blockchain-tied cash system with a number of central banks.

Other issues concern the design of trustless architectures and smart property.

Trustless Architectures: First of all, what kind of subjectivity does the blockchain support? In the development of consensus algorithms and monetary incentives, there’s an assumption that we can delegate much of the messiness of human relations to algorithmic governance, anticipate the motivations of individual actors and foreclose destructive behaviours. This comes back to this question of trust, something I’ve already written about in relation to Bitcoin. The claim being made is not that we can engineer trust in friends, institutions or governments, but that we might dispense with them altogether in favour of what Bill Maurer, Taylor C. Nelms and Lana Swartz refer to as ‘trust in the code.’ As outlined in the Bitcoin whitepaper, proof-of-work is not a new form of trust, but the abdication of trust altogether as social confidence in favour of an algorithmic regulation. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in my fellow peers just so long as I believe in the technical efficiency of the blockchain protocol.

What kinds of subjectivity do we want to algorithmically inscribe into our systems? Blockchain start-ups begin from the assumption that there is no trust and no community, only individual economic agents acting in self-interest. Fair enough, you might think, it’s precisely the fact that projects like Ethereum engineer confidence and provide economic incentives for contribution that may distinguish it from other services like Freenet. But it also proceeds from a perspective that already presumes a neoliberal subject and an economic mode of governance in the face of social and/or political problems. ‘How do we manage and incentivise individual competitive economic agents?’ In doing so, it not only codes for that subject, we might argue that it also reproduces that subject.[3]

Smart Property: Innovations in property and infrastructure also seem to go both ways. While greater flexibility around ownership of core infrastructure is arguably a good thing, the introduction of artificial scarcity and the new controls implied by smart property also have worrying implications for Internet copyright and Digital Rights Management. Property doesn’t disappear, but instead it is enforced and exercised in different ways. If rights were previously exercised through norms, laws, markets and architectures, today they are algorithmically inscribed in the object.

Going forward, it’s clear that there are a number of considerations to take into account, foremost not only how we provision the necessarily technical tools or resources for building a commons, but how we work to cultivate the necessarily kinds of social relations and subjectivity that might accompany this shift. There is real potential in the blockchain if we appreciate it not as some ultimate techno-fix but as a platform that, when combined with social and political institutions, has real possibilities for the future of organisation.


[1] It can’t support more complicated forms of joint accounts or savings for example.
[2] For more on this see the Ethereum Whitepaper.
[3] This is similar to criticisms that are sometimes made of Elinor Ostrum’s approach to governing the commons.


Posted in Commons, Commons Transition, Default, Economy and Business, Original Content, P2P Business Models, P2P Infrastructures, Peer Production, Politics, Technology | 5 Comments »

TTP and the Corporate Coup d’Etat

photo of Guy James

Guy James
22nd March 2015

TPPJust a reminder, if one is needed, that the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP is still being worked on, even despite the almost-universal opposition from anyone not connected with a multinational corporation (and of course I include governments as being heavily connected with corporations at this late stage of capitalism).

This article from Joyce Nelson in The Ecologist offers a nice summary of what the TPP is from a North American perspective, and who will benefit from it:

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership contains something called ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ (ISDS) – a controversial trade-dispute mechanism now being included in most secretly-negotiated trade deals.

ISDS allows multinational corporations and investors to sue countries over policy or regulations that hinder their future profits. These lawsuits are secretly tried in special ‘arbitration tribunals’ – courts that are basically privately run by the corporate sector, with the lawyers and judges selected from a few corporate law firms.”

If you’ve heard of the TPP but want to get up to speed with exactly what is proposed for its contents, and why it is imperative that we stop it becoming law, read more.

The image is by DonkeyHotey on flickr (CC Licence).

Posted in Activism, Economy and Business, Empire | No Comments »

How we got Here? #Greece has an immense network of organisations focused on social good

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
21st March 2015

Greece has an immense network of organisations that are focused on improving the social good, with or without the support of the state or private foundations. In many cases, they are self-organised and autonomous

Months after the fall of Matera, some unMonasterians came to Athens on a brief “exploratory” excursion in December, 2014. During their visit they discovered this vibrant network of locals, which has similar aims as the unMonastery, so they quickly plugged into it.

Source: https://medium.com/@unmonastery/how-we-got-here-8f463dc81920

Rooftop meeting in Athens in late December.

Later, following the Transmediale extravaganza in January 2015, many people that were involved with the original unMonastery decided to plop down in Athens in February to see what else there was to discover in Greece. This “scoping period” was intended to have a duration of three months.

What the unMonasterians found went much deeper than was initially perceived. The more time that was spent connecting to existing networks, the more it became clear that the people living in Greece have a strong affinity to hacking of all sorts; be it with internet connectivity, food sharing, reactivating abandoned spaces, or just simply taking the metro.

The vision for the future of Greece is especially captivating when you speak with the people here that are involved with making the place more liveable. The group of unMonasterians was humbled by the amount of knowledge and experience there was to absorb here.

One such visionary project is SatNOGS that was created by our new neighbours, the Athens Hackerspace. It’s a global network of opensource satellite ground stations that recently won the Hackaday prize.

Continue to read the full article: https://medium.com/@unmonastery/how-we-got-here-8f463dc81920


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Featured Movement, Networks | No Comments »

Map of #Grassroots groups in #Greece

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
20th March 2015

0dc8cfb0cb3c164e-OUZOMASTERsmallPresenting… our new grassroots map (June 2014)!

Source: http://omikronproject.gr/grassroots

Still think Greeks are sitting idle, the helpless victims of events in their country? Think again. In 2013, we carried out an extensive study to map all the grassroots movements in Greece who are stepping in where the system is failing, and produce the first edition of our grassroots map, titled ‘Coffee-drinking lazy Greeks?‘.

Now, we’ve released a second edition of the map – ‘Ouzo-drinking lazy Greeks?’ – fully updated and including over 60% more groups!

What is this?

The map is a poster showing all the grassroots groups that are currently active in Greece, split into ten categories from neighbourhood assemblies to education movements to alternative micro-economies, with information on each group and details of an example group in each category. We’ve also included a list of all these groups in text format, with links to their websites (below).

All the groups have been verified by us as grassroots, explicitly not-for-profit, Greece-based and active as of June 2014. By ‘grassroots’, we mean that the groups are open for others to join and that, at the time of their inception, they had no affiliation with a profit-making entity.

Like all our productions, the poster is made available under the Creative Commons license. Download it in high-resolution format and use it however you want.

What’s new in this version?

For this second edition of the map, there are 70% more groups, and a new category (Information Technology). We’ve provided English translations where appropriate, and we’ve removed all the groups that we found were no longer active. Thanks to all the groups who wrote to us to let us know of updates!

Help us keep this map up to date

This map is an ongoing project. If you notice any errors or omissions, let us know and we’ll make the necessary changes to the list below, as well as in the next version of the poster!

Continue to the full article: http://omikronproject.gr/grassroots


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Networks, Visualisations | No Comments »

Technological Progress in a Market Economy is Self-Terminating and Ends in Collapse

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
19th March 2015

Read the whole essay by JMG here.

At this point it may be helpful to sum up the argument I’ve developed here:

a) Every increase in technological complexity tends also to increase the opportunities for externalizing the costs of economic activity;

b) Market forces make the externalization of costs mandatory rather than optional, since economic actors that fail to externalize costs will tend to be outcompeted by those that do;

c) In a market economy, as all economic actors attempt to externalize as many costs as possible, externalized costs will tend to be passed on preferentially and progressively to whole systems such as the economy, society, and the biosphere, which provide necessary support for economic activity but have no voice in economic decisions;

d) Given unlimited increases in technological complexity, there is no necessary limit to the loading of externalized costs onto whole systems short of systemic collapse;

e) Unlimited increases in technological complexity in a market economy thus necessarily lead to the progressive degradation of the whole systems that support economic activity;

f) Technological progress in a market economy is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse.


Posted in Anti-P2P, Technology | No Comments »

Book of the Day: The Anthrobscene

photo of hartsellml

18th March 2015

* Book: THE ANTHROBSCENE. By Jussi Parikka. University of Minnesota Press, 2014

URL = http://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/the-anthrobscene


“Smartphones, laptops, tablets, and e-readers all at one time held the promise of a more environmentally healthy world not dependent on paper and deforestation. The result of our ubiquitous digital lives is, as we see in The Anthrobscene, actually quite the opposite: not ecological health but an environmental wasteland, where media never die. Jussi Parikka critiques corporate and human desires as a geophysical force, analyzing the material side of the earth as essential for the existence of media and introducing the notion of an alternative deep time in which media live on in the layer of toxic waste we will leave behind as our geological legacy.

The Anthrobscene is one of the first three works released in the University of Minnesota Press’s new Forerunners: Ideas First initiative, along with Aesop’s Anthropology, by John Hartigan Jr., and Mediators, by Reinhold Martin. Forerunners is a thought-in-process series of breakthrough digital works. Written between fresh ideas and finished books, Forerunners draws on scholarly work initiated in notable blogs, social media, conference plenaries, journal articles, and the synergy of academic exchange. This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.”


Posted in Featured Book, P2P Action Items | No Comments »