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The prospects for radical democracy (2): how Flatpack Democracy disenclosed local elections in the UK

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
27th May 2015


Excerpted from John Harris:

“A small-scale revolution that has turned local politics there, and elsewhere, on its head.

The basic aim seems both simple and benign: “Taking political power at a local level, then using it to enable people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.” But the results have been explosive: the routing of Lib Dems and Conservatives (and, of late, a solitary Ukipper) from Frome’s town council, and the arrival in power of a coalition of self-styled independents, united by the belief that democracy needs a drastic revival.

On 7 May, after four years in power, the Independents for Frome (or IfF) group took all 17 seats on Frome’s town council, with vote-shares as high as 70%, and support from people who cast their other votes for the main political parties. Moreover, the IfF idea seems to be spreading, as people add their voices to a quiet rebellion that is materialising in some very unlikely places?—?from small commuter towns in Bedfordshire to the political home of George Osborne. There are two key elements to this very English revolt: a quest to revive the often moribund town and parish authorities long squashed by county, borough and district councils, and give them a new energy and purpose; and in the places where party politics has dominated even this lowly tier of government, the shoving aside of the big parties in pursuit of new ways of doing things.

The chief theorist of flatpack democracy (the term is a reference to the idea’s basic DIY ethos) is 57-year-old Peter Macfadyen, who has lived in Frome for nearly 30 years, and has spent much of his adult life working for disability charities, as well as founding an eco-friendly local undertakers. A graduate of the south-west’s hippie counterculture who brims with can-do enthusiasm, he was one of the people who co-founded IfF at the tail-end of 2010, having been repulsed by what he had seen of the existing town council.

His main source of irritation was the extent to which the party politicians running it seemed walled in behind bureaucracy and protocol. Decisive proof came, he tells me, when he approached the town’s ruling Liberal Democrats on behalf of Frome’s branch of the Transition Towns movement, which seeks to respond to climate change on a local level. “I went to them and said, ‘What’s your green policy?’. And they said: ‘The park.’ I said, ‘Climate change, peak oil -what about all these things that actually matter?’ They said: ‘No, sorry?—?it’s the park.’ That and a few hanging baskets.”

While Macfadyen seethed, a parallel conversation was taking shape among a group of people including 64-year-old Mel Usher, a native of Sunderland who had settled in Frome after a long career working in and around local government. He and some of his friends were just as frustrated with the inertia of the town’s politics, but also excited by the new coalition government’s localism bill. “Previously, what town and parish councils could do was very nebulous,” he says. “What the localism bill said was, ‘You can do anything, as long as it’s legal.’ And that’s what started to drive us along – we thought we could really use it constructively.”

At an initial public meeting in the upstairs room of a town-centre pub, a collective resolution was made to put up candidates for all of the town council’s seats. “You can’t change things if you only put up a few people,” says Macfadyen. “It has to be total revolution or nothing: that was our stance.” The somewhat oxymoronic idea was to form a group of independents – in the sense that political diversity was held to be a strength, and there would be no whipping on council votes. Instead, the new group would be held together by a codified way of working that acknowledged the inevitability of disagreement, and a sense of purpose that would differentiate it from the kind of old-school independent councillors?—?“independent ratepayers”, they often used to call themselves?—?who too often turn out to be complacent timeservers.

At the local elections of May 2011, IfF candidates won 10 seats on the town council?—?including four previously held by the Lib Dems and three by the Tories, and their group thereby took control. Usher became the council leader after serving a term as the town’s mayor; Macfadyen was this week announced as his successor.

Over the last four years, despite regular tussles with a Tory-run district council still getting used to the arrival of these new upstarts, the IfF group has been very busy. On top of the annual £1m it gets from local council tax, £250,000 donated by a local philanthropist impressed by the flatpack democracy idea, has been invested in the town via a specially formed community interest company. In the face of opposition from local Conservatives convinced that austerity had to apply even at the most local level, the council has also borrowed around £750,000 to invest in buildings and land, and to boost its regeneration work. Green spaces have been spruced up and game-changing help has been given to the local credit union. The council is involved in a new renewable energy cooperative, and has put money into the setting up of a new “share shop”, as far as anyone knows, the first one in the UK, from which people can borrow everything from drills and gardening tools to children’s toys.

Macfadyen talks about all this with real passion, but he thinks the IfF group’s biggest achievements are less palpable. He enthuses about the fact that all its recent candidates, including serving councillors?—?were selected by an independent panel, a measure clearly intended to kibosh any possibility of cronyism. And he sets great store by the way the town council’s meetings are organised. “They’re infinitely friendlier now, more open. We get crowds sometimes. There are other town councils where the clerk walks in first, and the members stand, the mayor comes in behind, and they then say a prayer. The public have to write in beforehand, saying they want to speak. And it’s all just lost in some sort of Victorian past. It’s just insane. And of course, it means that if you know all the rules, you’re in control. That’s the problem.”

Last year, Macfadyen decided to pour the IfF story into a 100-page booklet called Flatpack Democracy, subtitled “A DIY guide to creating independent politics”. When the-then local government secretary Eric Pickles visited Frome in February 2015, he pronounced it the “home of localism”, bought a copy, and after having lunch with Macfadyen, insisted that he sign it.

The booklet has so far sold close to 1,000 copies, and Macfadyen is regularly in touch with similar groups of independents in such towns as Liskeard in Cornwall, Newbury in Berkshire, Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, and Wells, Wedmore and Shepton Mallet, all in Somerset. Most notably, on 7 May, people who had directly followed the example set out in his text took control of two councils in very different parts of the country.

One was in Arlesey, a settlement of 5,000 people in Bedfordshire?—?just under 40 minutes by train from London?—?whose town council is now run by the Independents for Arlsey group, after they won 14 of its 15 seats. Its founders were alerted to the flatpack democracy idea via Facebook, and resolved to shake up the politics of a town that had got used to uncontested elections and a council run by old-school independents. One of the prime movers was 64-year-old Chris Gravett, who says that whereas the town’s ancien régime was “dysfunctional”, he and his colleagues are now set on starting everything from scratch. “We’ve followed the core principles in the Flatpack Democracy book pretty closely,” he says. “We took a lot of advice from it. And I must say: the results were beyond our wildest expectations.”

In Buckfastleigh in Devon (population: 3,326), the Buckfastleigh Independents group have followed a similar path. “This isn’t an affluent community,” says the town’s new deputy mayor, Pam Barrett. “It’s a working-class town that’s been suffering from a real loss of services.” Fired up by the possibilities of localism and their experience of fighting?—?successfully?—?to keep open a library and swimming pool, she and other residents resolved to stand for town council seats that had not been contested for “20 or more years”. One of the catalysts, she says, was a box of 10 copies of the Flatpack Democracy booklet, which was brought in by one of her colleagues. “It was articulating what we were already thinking,” she says, “and it helped us take a lot of shortcuts.” On 7 May, they took nine of 12 seats, and started running the show.

In other places, highly motivated groups of independents have achieved similar feats without any knowledge of the flatpack democracy idea, suggesting that what has happened in Frome and elsewhere might be part of a general political wave. A good example is Alderley Edge in Cheshire, a very affluent village that sits at one end of the Tatton constituency, held since 2001 by George Osborne. Until 7 May, its town council was solidly Tory, but dissent was brewing?—?a result of such controversies as the council’s plan to replace long-established allotments with a car park.

On election day, the Conservatives lost all nine of the parish council’s seats to a new group called Alderley Edge First, which also took the village’s one seat on Cheshire East council. Though the people responsible were not aware of developments in the West Country, their thinking is much the same: as one newly elected councillor, Mike Dudley-Jones, tells me, “our basic mantra is that there is no place for mainstream party politics at this level”.

Amid the IfF group’s jubilation, one key question springs to mind. Now that they hold all the seats on the town council, there have been local murmurings about whether the absence of any official opposition will turn out to be a good thing. But throw this point at the town council’s prime movers and the answers that come back voice two contrasting arguments: a belief in IfF’s democratic ideals, and critique of the arrogant kind of rule perpetrated by a system in which whatever the opposition says, if one party has the numbers, it can freely impose its will on everybody else.

“This is actually much healthier,” insists Macfadyen. “This group of 17 people has within it a range of views. If there’d been a majority, even of one, for one of the main parties, I’d be worried. Because, as we’re now seeing at Westminster, they’d go out and say, ‘Sod the lot of you, we’re going to do what we want.’ You know?—?12 seats more than everyone else and they’re bringing back fox hunting. We couldn’t do that, because we have such a wide range of people.”

“Most of the traditional parties draw their candidates from a very limited pool,” says Mel Usher, “whereas we put an advert in the paper and said, ‘Come along.’ All you needed was a telephone number and an email address, and one side of A4 paper saying what you wanted to do for Frome. They were then selected by an independent group of people. And they were genuinely independent.”

The outgoing leader of the People’s Republic of Frome cracks a smile. “The only time I tried to interfere, they told me to fuck off,” he says. “Which was good.”

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Posted in Commons Transition, P2P Governance, P2P Hierarchy Theory, Peer Production, Politics | 1 Comment »

How to Rein in Monopoly-like Network Platforms?

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
27th May 2015


fatcat_1-web

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My brief note response continues:

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

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

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

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


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

Commons conquer Barcelona! A victory for David over Goliath

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
26th May 2015


By Mayo Fuster Morell – @lilaroja

Originally published – http://www.onlinecreation.info/archives/1135

Yesterday (May 24th) the candidature “Barcelona in common” won the municipal elections (the option of 1 of each 4 people voting). “Now Madrid”- a candidature also connected to commons ethos – became a key force for the governance of Madrid city. Those are only two of the many surprises from yesterday municipal and regional elections in Spain. Cities might be the departing point of a larger political change. Electoral results opened up an optimist scenario for the attempt to win also the national elections at the end of this year, or even in a larger run, a South European coalition against austerity.

Popular Party and Socialist Party remain the main parties, as since the country transition to democracy in late 70s, but usual politics power suffered an important blow. Bipartisan-ism dropping from 65% at the last elections 4 years ago to 52% of the nationwide vote. The renewal of power forces, instead of its change, are also promoted by status quo interests as by the creation of new parties: the case of “Citizens”, which also emerged with force as a new political protagonist. Still the irruption of citizens candidature is impressive for its dimension and its speed. It also favored the increase of at least 5 points electoral participation.

Only four years after Indignados / 15M rise up for “real democracy now” in opposition to politicians “who don’t represent us” and the “dictatorship of the markets”, its impact has become so evident that cannot be any more denied. The composition of the new candidatures are populated by the social movement fabric. To give a taste of it, Ada Colau direct action anti-eviction activist and squatter is going to be the next major of Barcelona. A joke from history: an activist against housing evictions “evicts” usual politicians from the city hall. Considering leaders trajectory, it could also be said that the cycle started with the anti-Globalization Movement (the background of Colau or Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos/Yes we can), but also succeeded to mobilized once again the generation that fought to bring back democracy in Spain against Franco regime (background of Manuela Carmena of “Now Madrid”, a retired judge and the mos probable next major of Madrid).

From the programs, the first thing to hightlight is the centrality of urgent plans to rescue citizens suffocating from the austerity policies, such as with the implementation of several modalities of basic income, and the revision of public services privatization. An ethical code to regulate politicians regarding transparency and the abolition of politician privileges (i.e. limits wages for politicians ($29,000 a year)) and the commitment to support citizens iniciatives.

A part of its political importance, it is fascinating from an organizational perspective. In less than one year and without connections with political, economical, judicial and traditional media power, ordinary citizens coming together have been able to gain important positions in the political system.  A victory for David over Goliath. Combining among its means crowd funding, crowdsourced programs, neighbourhood assemblies, and networked online voting. But also, as in the case of Podemos leader, building on popularity gained by his own TV program.

How was the song? First we take Barcelona, and then we take Manhattan? Indeed, some are working for it. There has been a delegation of activist from NYC visiting Spain during the campaign in order to learn from the experience and “export” such people raising in their own cities. There are many lessons and insights to extract. I try to suggest you just a few hoping inspirational to start similar process in other countries.

The CC effect – One of the – mainly young – citizens struggle that immediately preceded and afterward fed the emergence of the 15M mobilization was provoked by a reaction to a law promoted by the Government, repressive of the online sharing and the free culture (Sinde Law in December 2010). To a large extent this movement of collaborative cultures on the web reacted like Lessig did in 2008, shifting from “Creative Commons” to “Change Congress”. It moved from focusing on sectorial politics connected to intellectual property and Internet regulation to the understanding that to defend these freedoms it is necessary to change the political system as a whole. In this move, the free culture and peer production model became the inspirational organizational form to organize political protest. I explained in detail that move in my luncheon presentation at Berkman center and at this article. The Spanish translation of Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of networks” in this 2015 is not a coincidence, as a resource to understand those organizational models. In sum, the sectors holding the expertises around methodologies of co-creation and to engage with new forms of collaboration supported by online means has great political potential.

The Wikipedia “hidden innovation” model – Even if there are large organizational innovations, the discourse should be “plain”, or austere. Mako Hill studied why Wikipedia was able to success in 2001, and other attemps to built an online encyclopedia did not. One of its conclusion is that Wikipedia was the case adopting a more easy to understand concept, even if being innovative in its method. It held firm on the traditional notion of an encyclopedia: an idea old few centuries is easy to understand. Similarly, it could be argue here. The discourse able to raise votes for a political deep change in Spain is not vanguardist or particularly innovative, but popular, accessible to everyone, connected to basic needs. Some point to radical populism reinterpreting Laclau and Mouffe. It is a “battle” around the common sense, around gaining the hegemony. While, more vanguardist models, such as new parties connected to “innovative” discourse and Internet identity, such as Pirate Party or X Party, have been relevant providing organizational ideas, but did not work out obtaining general population votes (X Party obtained 0.64 % at last year European elections). In sum, innovative methods, but popular discourse connected to an agenda of basic common needs.

Top and Down – These organizational processes are neither Top down not Bottom up, but “Top and Down”. Perhaps, more precisely: “A visually recognizable top working for a distributed down“. These forces rely on strong leaders, but also on the raise of a collaborative and free to operate base. A key concept is “overflow”. It refers to the capacity of losing control over the process, and to the freedom to operate in the engagement in the mobilization process. The raising of creativity of actions of support not under the control of the “parties” seems to be a relevant aspect for the success of these processes (this is the case of the movement of graphical liberation around the candidatures). Furthermore, there are not clear boundaries about who is part of the “parties” or who is not, there are not rituals that establish who is part or who is not, but self activation though participation is the way to become part of it. Still leaders have strong presence, their face became one of the key symbols of the process (i.e. the symbol at the voting ballots is not the candidature logo, but the leader face). Visual symbols in the visual Internet, where TV though Internet became again a key channel. Particularly, TV and leadership remains a key channel to engage with popular sectors of population, that early middle class social movements adopters of Internet were not able to connect with. Leaders credibility is built over communication capacity and long social commitment. Candidatures lead by women – not matter their age – (women leaders at main cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia) are better able to increase vote by transmitting change and having a more democratic leadership style. As Ada Colau Barcelona next major (and originally zapatist put it): “lead by obeying people’s orders”. Leaders positions are based on power “for“ the base, not “over”. In sum, a visually recognizable social leadership, but an uncontrolled distributed form of engagement.

Again, these are just three “impressionist” insights from the current people raising process in Spain. More to come. 2015 is the year of change, so it will continue. Now, time to celebrate. I left you with the “rumba” music of the “run run” singed by our next Barcelona major:

Mayo from Barcelona

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Posted in Politics | No Comments »

Michel Bauwens presents P2P to the French Senate

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th May 2015


For the: “colloque revenu de base au Sénat

This ten-minute French-language video was made on the request of Arnaud Delepine, and Jean-Eric Hyafil of the Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne, for the benefit of a colloqium which took place in the French Senate on May 19th and which discussed the topic of the basic income.

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Posted in Original Content, P2P Governance, Politics, Videos | 3 Comments »

Gar Alperovitz on Democratic Planning, the Market and the State

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th May 2015


Gar Alperovitz, cooperativist and advocate of the Next System Project, is interviewed by Geoff Gilbert:

“* You consistently return to economic planning as necessary for any system seeking stability, for both the entire economy and for communities. Can you explain our current system of backdoor corporate planning?

Every area you look at, either tax or regulation or loans or loan guarantees or combinations of those strategies bolster or don’t bolster certain directions in the economy. So the idea that we have a free market in the economy and that there is open competition is absolutely absurd. If you look at the oil industry, for example, it’s supported by special tax programs that give it a particular direction.

The way it’s organized, lobbyists have found ways to get these programs out of the government. As you know I worked in both houses of Congress at one point. The way in which the lobby system works — this is very well known and most people close to the political process just take it for granted.

* What would democratic planning look like?

You are going to have to have national economic planning for the big areas — for example, energy, climate impact, transportation. Right now we let the free market control where the major air transport goes. What that means is a city like Cincinnati loses its transportation, then it loses its business. The same thing is going to happen to Cleveland, which is ridiculously inefficient, as well as inhumane. A planning system needs to begin to coordinate that.

* How can we do this?

Partly we need to build up local experience through participatory budgeting and planning. That is a whole area for activists to work on.

We also need a theory of how to do it at the national level. Making it explicit — for example, if we want to deal with climate change, saying here are all of the implications captured in an economic plan. Similarly, if we want to stabilize communities, and so on. And then we should debate it back and forth.

* Given our country’s size, the region becomes an important political unit in your work. Can you explain this?

Most people haven’t faced this question or wanted to face it. The country is almost obviously too big for the government to be a genuinely democratic institution — it’s almost 3,000 miles from corner-to-corner with 318 million people.

Now, most states are too small, economically. The most logical solution is something bigger than a state and smaller than a continent — a region. Most European societies are radically smaller than the United States. You could drop Germany into Montana. Large scale gives control to elites — and to money and media. So, at some point, any serious model that wants to be democratic is going to have to decentralize where decisions are made. California, New York, Texas could probably do it on their own — they are regional scale units. That’s a whole set of questions that have to be put on the agenda.

* In your writing on democratic planning, you often confront the tension between the need for action and its centralizing tendencies, and participatory democracy and the decentralization needed to make it a reality. How can this apparent contradiction be overcome?

First, you have to have inclusive units that include everybody — community models, not just worker-ownership models.

The second piece is using both planning and markets. Using Cleveland and the Evergreen Cooperatives as an example, you’ll see that the big institutions — hospitals and universities — both of which have a lot of public money, buy from worker-owned companies that are embedded in the community structure. That’s a planning system, using the purchasing power of these institutions, a lot of which is public money — Medicare, Medicaid — to help stabilize companies that are owned by the community and workers. It’s not just a free market system.

* How can markets be used?

You want some sort of mix of planning and markets, because you want to challenge the planning systems, which can get rigid. If you take this model to the national level, then the government, using just one example, would support mass transit and high-speed rail as one element of its transportation system. That would mean there are a lot of public contracts to build that. They could purchase the goods from worker and community-owned companies. You could have several of them that are quasi-competitive, so that the planning system can be efficient.

* What are the basic types of alternative political-economic models that could achieve this?

Most of the models have an element of worker-ownership in them. It’s not the only thing, but it does change the ownership of capital. I think it’s a mistake to say that’s the only element — I don’t agree with some theorists who think that the system is going to be just adding up worker-owned companies.

Another model is a city-ownership model. For instance, in Boulder, Colorado, they have municipalized a private electricity utility. So that’s a different strategy that emphasizes a community model at the city level. Now, you can put both together — I believe in a pluralist system that will include several different models.

A third model is neighborhoods. It’s particularly important for the United States, where neighborhoods are often organized around race. The work we’ve done in Cleveland is a combination of neighborhood ownership and worker ownership.

* And you write about the problems that come with economic entities that achieve scale, even if they are worker-owned.

When you get to the larger scale and economies of scale become available, even worker coops develop power relationships because they have to. If somebody else is in the game who can cut costs by polluting, even good guys in the coop will lose their jobs and their company if the other group is able to undercut them. Especially, if you invest in new equipment that can lower your cost, if somebody else does that in another company, you must do the same thing, otherwise you will be out of business. They have to grow; they have a growth dynamic, as well as a cost cutting dynamic, built into the model. So when you get to significant scale — and that changes in different industries — worker coops, in a market economy, have very similar forces operating against them that any company in a private economy has.

* How can problems of scale be overcome?

First I want to say that worker coops make sense on a smaller scale and are doable.

One way to address scale is to build a culture of community that internalizes externalities, through, for example, community-wide ownership. That is to say, a community-wide ownership system can decide to pollute, but it pollutes itself. So it must make the choice of what to do. Whereas a company, worker owned or not, may like to not pollute, but if it pollutes, it’s polluting the community, not just itself, and it might do that because of cost competition.

* How can some of these different ownership models begin to be implemented right now?

I think we are going to see a lot of this. We’re already seeing activity at the city government level. Several city governments — New York, Madison — are beginning to pick up on supporting worker ownership. Some states — Vermont and Ohio — have supported worker-owned companies. That’s a step forward.

* How can local government be used as a resource for this type of change?

It’s not just funding. People don’t realize, a worker-owned coop is a “business.” In the United States, there are enormous subsidies and laws and national government policies in support of business. For progressives and people on the left, the light bulb needs to come on that almost all of this could be used for worker businesses.

For example, with the Cleveland model, once the city officials realized they wanted to help, they could begin to use all of the existing tools for this direction. And the mayor often looks good if he or she does this. People are often in opposition and they don’t realize there are a lot of opportunities in government where politicians would look very good if they helped.

* And what about the role for anchor institutions, like with the Cleveland Model?

The other strategy is big institutions that have a lot of money in them and can’t move — like hospitals and universities. Medicare and Medicaid, educational money, etc. They buy a huge amount of goods and services. They can be requested, or pressed, or organized to help support these new directions. That’s what’s going on in Cleveland, of course. In many cities, actually, but Cleveland has done the most dramatic work.”

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Posted in Commons Transition, Economy and Business, P2P Governance, P2P Public Policy | 1 Comment »

New Film Documentary, “Seeing the Forest”

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
25th May 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Originally published at bollier.org

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With P2P: Spain’s ‘citizen candidates’ shake up politics

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
24th May 2015


A man gestures with his mouth gagged as dozens of protesters shout slogans before local elections [AP]

A man gestures with his mouth gagged as dozens of protesters shout slogans before local elections [AP]

With the election results only a few hours away, we’d like to finish today’s coverage with an extract from Katharine Ainger‘s excellent Al-Jazeera article entitledSpain’s ‘citizen candidates’ shake up politics“. In preparation for the article Ainger contacted P2P Foundation co-founder Michel Bauwens for some feedback.


Bauwens told Al Jazeera given historical problems with monolithic political parties on the one hand, and problems with direct democratic assemblies on the other, “the most realistic option is to combine electoral democracy with new forms of deliberative and participative democracy”.

With numerous figures from both traditional major parties in Spain embroiled in corruption scandals, there has been a collapse of public trust for conventional politicians. This crisis of political legitimacy is exacerbated by the second highest unemployment rate in Europe, low wages, and anger against cuts to social welfare. As a result the country’s bipartisan system is being eroded, in many different directions.

This is the context in which Barcelona en Comú and sister coalitions are contesting Sunday’s municipal elections in towns and cities across the country, from Galicia to the Canary Islands. They are polling best in Spain’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. In many cases allied with anti-austerity party Podemos, and using crowdsourced electoral platforms, social activists are running for office under names such as Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now) and Zaragoza en Comun (Zaragoza in Common).

Javier Toret, the developer of Barcelona en Comú’s online participation platforms, said he is influenced by theorists such as Michel Bauwens, who is working in the field of peer-to-peer technology to create new forms of democracy.

Bauwens told Al Jazeera given historical problems with monolithic political parties on the one hand, and problems with direct democratic assemblies on the other, “the most realistic option is to combine electoral democracy with new forms of deliberative and participative democracy”.

With new technology it is now easier and cheaper than ever before for citizens to vote on almost any issue in the running of their cities. Toret was particularly inspired by web tools from Reykjavik in Iceland, where users proposed and debated policies online, took budgetary decisions, and voted on neighbourhood issues.

Using a similar model, 1,000 people took part online in the creation of Barcelona en Comú’s ethical code. Aimed at increasing transparency and avoiding corruption, the code limits wages to 26,400 euros ($29,000) a year for all party officials – thereby slashing the mayor’s salary by more than 100,000 euros ($110,100) – and commits them to full transparency, including publishing all meetings and income sources, and to “promote and support all citizen initiatives”.

Click here to read the full article

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Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, P2P Development, Politics | 1 Comment »

The Prospects for Radical Democracy in Spain

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
24th May 2015


A rally for Ahora Madrid in April. (Ahora Madrid / Flickr)

A rally for Ahora Madrid in April. (Ahora Madrid / Flickr)

Continuing our series on Spain’s all-important municipal elections, we are happy to present this article, originally published in In These Times, and authored by Vicente Rubio Pueyo and Pablo La Parra


The upcoming municipal elections will be a key test for the rising leftist movement in Spain.

“Do you hear the buzz? The buzz says: let’s defend the common good.” These are the lyrics of the campaign song of Barcelona en Comú–one of the new “confluence” platforms of “popular unity” running in the May 24th municipal elections in Spain, sung (with the help of autotune) to the rhythm of a popular Catalán rumba by its candidate, Ada Colau. According to pre-election polls, Colau is poised to win the mayoral election in Barcelona this Sunday.

Colau is part of a rising electoral insurgency across Spain by candidates trying to reimagine radical democracy, drawing from social movements to create a new participatory style of “governance by listening.” Four years ago, the May 15 movement appeared during the campaign for municipal and regional elections. Then, the characterization of the movement by many politicians and mainstream media oscillated between patronizing and condescending, along the lines of, “If these kids want to achieve anything, they should organize a party, and run for elections.”

Four years later, the political landscape has changed. As a popular slogan puts it, “Fear has changed sides.” Or perhaps happiness and hope have changed sides, as Spaniards finally have a political alternative to austerity. The emergence of PODEMOS in the European parliament elections one year ago was the first electoral manifestation of a growing political shift to the left in Spain. The buzz could be heard by anyone in the streets, in the plazas, in every mobilization in defense of public education and healthcare, in every neighborhood. Today, several cities and numerous smaller towns are running candidates from these new political parties, with elections on May 24.

From outside of Spain, it’s easy to conflate all the post-15M new electoral alternatives under PODEMOS. But the reality is more complex. On May 24, there will be two elections in Spain. One is the regional elections, which will take place in every “autonomous community” (the Spanish term) except four. PODEMOS is running electoral candidates at the regional level. This process has shown a rich diversity among the party itself. Pablo Echenique, for example, is now running for the Aragón regional government. Nicknamed “the other Pablo of PODEMOS” (in relation to Pablo Iglesias, PODEMOS’s Secretary-General), Echenique is prominent within the party as a strong advocate for participatory methods in constructing the party’s program.

“This participatory ethos is the heart and soul of the confluence candidacies: from online primaries to configuring electoral rolls to the collective composition of the party’s platform through open assemblies in each neighborhood.”

At the local electoral level, a series of experiments in constructing movement-influenced electoral platforms are taking place. In these so-called “confluence” processes, PODEMOS is one force among many. Confluence forces have become important new players in the upcoming local elections. In addition to the aforementioned possibility of a mayoral victory in Barcelona, polls this week point to a technical tie in Madrid between the ruling Popular Party and Ahora Madrid (loosely affiliated with Podemos), which would allow its candidate, Manuela Carmena, to become mayor of the capital city with the support of other forces. There are similar possibilities for parallel initiatives in other major cities throughout the country: Zaragoza en Común, València en Comú or Málaga Ahora, among others.

What does this confluence mean? How does it work? What are the ingredients of these new municipal initiatives? The “confluence candidacies” bring together a wide spectrum of participants: from grassroots activists to members of Left political parties, from well-known scholars to common citizens from diverse professional backgrounds. Rather than reproducing the traditional “electoral coalition” model (the tactical merger of a group of parties that preserve their strong, visible identities), the confluence logic is based on the idea of the “non-hierarchical encounter.”

Take, for instance, the case of Barcelona en Comú. The parties and individuals willing to join this initiative agreed to a “Code of Political Ethics,” which had been previously discussed, amended and approved in an open, online debate. This participatory ethos is the heart and soul of the confluence candidacies: from online primaries to configuring electoral rolls to the collective composition of the party’s platform through open assemblies in each neighborhood. No longer a top-down politics of opaque pacts and closed policy platforms, but an open-source process based on grassroots collective participation.

Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau themselves are good examples of the heterogeneity of the people involved in these political experiments. Carmena, a 71-year-old retired judge, has a long history of political judicial work, from her involvement with the clandestine movement of labor lawyers involved in the anti-Francisco Franco workers’ movement to her later defense of inmates’ human rights in Spanish prisons, or her work to guarantee social housing to evicted people in Madrid. Colau is a 41-year-old social activist, co-founder and former spokesperson of the PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), undoubtedly one of the most tenacious and innovative grassroots social movements developed in Spain during the recent economic crisis.

The generational span and complementary trajectories of Carmena and Colau hints at the dialogue between different activist traditions underlying these municipal movements–as when Carmena praised the contributions of the squatter movement in Madrid or Colau reclaimed the memory of the proletarian neighborhood struggles of the 20th century in Barcelona.

Both Carmena and Colau were elected through open and participatory processes, and both have put into practice a logic of leadership that looks quite different from traditional electoral spectacles and entrenched authority. As Colau argued in a recent interview, participation has to be understood “not as a top-down concession but as a way to rule,” thus it is necessary to develop non-patriarchal modes of leadership inspired by feminist and ecological thought. Similarly, Carmena has repeatedly criticized traditional political rallies, instead promoting what she calls close “encounters” with neighbors.

“Ahora” (“now”) and “En Comú” (“in common”) have been recurring themes in most confluence candidacies. On the one hand, “Now” summarizes the sense of urgency in recovering basic social rights and, more so, overturning the neoliberal model of urban growth that has been the model for Spanish cities over the last decades. After almost 25 years under conservative rule, Madrid has become one of the most aggressive laboratories of neoliberal privatization throughout Europe, propelled by a conglomerate of political power, major construction companies and financial interests–repeatedly proven corrupt–that have overtaken basic public infrastructure such as hospitals and water access.

The apparently kinder, social democrat/nationalist-ruled model of Barcelona is perhaps one of the most exemplary cases of the effects of branding in a city’s everyday life: streets have been turned into shop windows for tourist consumption, while spectacular buildings coexist with one of the highest eviction rates in all of Spain. Confluence forces advocate for a profound shift in this model of urban development, rooted in social economy and sustainable practices.

On the other hand, “In Common” appeals to the demands for extended participation within the political institutions that 15M first put forward. The programs of these citizen platforms are packed with proposals for newer forms of political accountability, transparency and the use of both online and in-person assembly methods of deliberation in the elections of district representatives, among many other developments. Although focused on immediate needs, and thus pragmatic and realistic in many of their proposals, these programs also convey an open-ended character focused on defending and democratizing the public domain. These forces have an experimental character that goes beyond the anti-austerity Left’s usual reactive framework: in their combination of audacity, openness and realism, these new political projects represent not so much a simple “return of the Left”–or, at least, of the Left as we knew it–but the building blocks of a whole new political constellation.

The political scenario after the upcoming regional and municipal elections this Sunday remains uncertain, although some indications for major changes are at stake. If Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú finally win the elections in the two major Spanish cities, what potentials and limits will they find operating at a municipal scale? Are Madrid and Barcelona at the brink of a new definition of municipal autonomy, popular empowerment and a grassroots reactivation of the right to the city? To what extent would a hypothetical new political landscape in the regional elections influence PODEMOS’s strategy towards the November 2015 general elections, at a moment when many critical voices are reclaiming a critical examination of the “middle-classist” turn of the party?

PODEMOS started from the top tier of the European parliament elections to try to produce change at the state level, while these municipal confluence forces have started from the local level. The elections tomorrow and over the next few months will determine if these two distinct approaches can intertwine in order to prepare for the fall elections. Meanwhile, the buzz keeps getting louder.

Vicente Rubio Pueyo and Pablo La Parra are affiliated with the NYC to Spain delegation.

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Video of the Day: Buzzing for the Commons in Madrid

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
24th May 2015


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

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

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

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The Ubiquitous Commons: a legal and technical toolkit for a user-controlled data commons ?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
23rd May 2015


Excerpted from Maija Palmer:

“Could a system be created that gave back some control to individuals? An international group of researchers led by Salvatore Iaconesi, a lecturer at the La Sapienza university in Rome, and Oriana Persico, a communication scientist, is trying to create a legal and technical toolkit that would allow people to do just that.

The concept, called Ubiquitous Commons (UC), would insert a layer between individuals and Facebook that specifies how a users’ details can be used. For example, when a user types an “I love kittens” post on Facebook and presses “send” the message would be intercepted by the UC platform and encrypted before it reaches Facebook. They would be asked to specify how their data might be used — perhaps for scientific purposes, but not commercial ones, for example.

The back end of the system would log the user’s instructions to a “blockchain” or electronic public ledger. The data could only be decrypted and accessed by organisations that fit the set criteria.

“There is a real inequality of power between individuals and companies when it comes to data,” says Mr Iaconesi. “When you configure your privacy policy on Facebook, not many people realise that you are configuring your privacy policy towards other people, not towards Facebook. They can see it all.

“UC would apply not just to social networks such as Facebook, but the whole internet of things — smart fridges and [activity monitoring devices].”

People would also be able to place controls over the personal physiological data that wearable devices might generate. You could allow your health data to be seen by a doctor, for example, but not by an employer or insurance company. If it were adopted, UC would change fundamentally the balance of power of data between consumers and companies.

Last month the Ubiquitous Commons group was showing the technology to Italian farmers, who have become concerned that collection of crop data is being monopolised by large food groups such as Monsanto.
Previous attempts to create social media platforms that put users in control of their data have not taken off. The Diaspora project, created in 2009 as a Facebook alternative that put individuals in control of their information, and Ello, a social network set up in 2014 with a promise never to sell users’ data to advertisers or other third parties, have not gained ground against Facebook.

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