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To Make Hope Possible Rather Than Despair Convincing

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
27th February 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Bollier.org


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Conferences, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Epistemology, P2P Subjectivity, P2P Theory, Peer Property, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

Debating the degrowth alternative

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
27th February 2015


Giorgos Kallis, a prominent scholar on ‘degrowth’, recently wrote an essay that was the subject of debate among members of the Great Transition Initiative network. Below is a comment from STWR’s Rajesh Makwana that responded to the following theme of discussion: is degrowth, as currently formulated, sufficiently rigorous and inclusive to offer the theoretical legitimacy and political unity for a system shift?

To read Giorgos Kallis’s essay along with other selected comments from the discussion, as well as Kallis’s response to the debate, please visit this link

This is an excellent article on the immensely important issue of degrowth, with a comprehensive overview that avoids focusing only on local-scale solutions to global-scale problems. Clearly, the vision and principles underpinning the degrowth perspective can contribute much to the discourse on planetary limits and the urgent need for a new paradigm for economic development—especially since it is inherently a political perspective that directly challenges neoclassical economics.

However, in relation to the debate on how to facilitate a great transition, I think the issue of degrowth is likely to be a red herring. As a popular framing that can mobilize a global citizens movement or enable system change on the scale needed, degrowth is limited. Apart from concerns around what might (paradoxically) still need to grow in a degrowth society, which might even include GDP, a key concern is its negative and unappealing framing.

In an interconnected world, any great transition can only happen if it is underpinned by broad principles that have real transformative potential and can mobilize support on a scale never before achieved. Almost half the planet still lives in two-dollar-a-day poverty, and this number increases dramatically if we shift the poverty line upwards. The demand for degrowth is not likely to appeal to the poorest and most disenfranchised—those who will benefit the most from a great transition, and whose support is therefore essential in the creation of a “movement of movements.”

I suggest that the concept and practice of sharing could be used to reframe the degrowth debate, as it embodies critical concepts such as redistribution and participation while also alluding to the need to live within the constraints of “one-planet living.” For example, we could talk about the creation of a “sharing society,” “sharing the Earth,” or even “shared planet economics.” This more positive framing lends itself to an important debate on sufficiency—the ethic of “enough” versus the materialistic culture of “more.” It also speaks to the many sharing-related reforms that must be part of any transition to a degrowth society (some of which Kallis mentions in his essay)—from redistributing wealth, power, and jobs to sharing knowledge, land, and natural resources. In particular, the frame of global sharing lends itself to the growing recognition that humanity must work together on an international scale if we are to create the conditions to thrive peacefully on a planet with finite resources.

As for the central problem of economic growth, rather than promoting degrowth as a policy framework or a collective demand, the aim should perhaps be for governments to simply deprioritize the pursuit of GDP growth so that it is no longer considered a panacea for prosperity. Instead, public policy should be geared towards more appropriate goals and indicators that focus on the attainment of economic, social, and cultural rights within an overarching global framework of planetary limits. But as Kallis rightly points out, this paradigm shift will not be possible until governments find more effective ways of cooperating on global issues and reforming systems of global governance so that they are far more inclusive and democratic than is currently the case.



Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

Guerrilla Translation: Welcome Back, and Looking Forward

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
26th February 2015

Reposted from GuerrillaTranslation.org, my partner Ann Marie Utratel describes Guerrilla Translation’s journey in the last year and gives an overview of our new websites and our plans for 2015.

GT supercollage

Images from some of our articles

We know it may have seemed as if we’ve been inactive, or even as if we’d given up. Nothing could be further from the truth, so let me tell you a bit about our feverish year. Stacco attended the 2014 OuiShare Fest in Paris, France, and we were voted one among five winners. Together, we attended the subsequent OuiShare Acceleration Week in Paris. The two of us with Guy James helped represent the P2P Foundation at the OpenEverything Convergence held in Dublin and Cloughjordan, Ireland in September. With Arianne Sved and Susa Oñate, we developed our member screening and testing processes, and open governance model. The latter is directly inspired by the work of Enspiral (the group that developed Loomio); we had the chance to meet Ben Knight and Hannah Salmon of Loomio when they visited Madrid in the autumn. Stacco, with help from the team, built our GT wiki full of information for both public view and internal reference. Stacco also appeared on national Spanish television to talk about the project. We’ve subtitled the interview in the video below.

Arianne headed up a conference in Barcelona centered on a universal basic income proposal for Spain, participated in her local Guanyem and Podemos circles, and was even a local Podemos citizens’ council candidate. Carmen Lozano Bright came on board near the end of the year, and helped greatly with strategic planning for the relaunch. Carmen also received an ECF research grant for a project called P2P Plazas; Guy and I helped her during the proposal stage. Carmen will also lead one of our upcoming special projects centered on David Bollier’s book “Think like a Commoner”. Again with Guy, we got involved in some other related synergistic initiatives including FairCoop. I had an article published in STIR magazine. To finish off the year, the three of us hackathoned our way through building and launching the Commons Transition platform, wiki and e-book! And the entire team (including Lara, Rocío, Cristopher, and Georgina) prepared all of the new translations.

It was a truly action-packed year full of surprises, lessons and connections. Individually and as a team, we intensified our participation in the fields we’re passionate about, and developed new relationships with like-minded people. We aren’t a very large team, though, so between these events, we actively engaged some new collaborating members. Being a collective means that we always need to work on our collaborative relationships, and sometimes things don’t work out as hoped. In the end, we’re grateful for the experience and the work. Finally, in the autumn of 2014, we began working in earnest to re-launch the site with a number of objectives in mind. Allow me to take you through our recent changes and near-future plans.

We hope you like our redesigned web magazine; we’ve made a lot of changes with our readers in mind. Our original site presented a generous selection of translations, transcriptions, and other texts – roughly 100 pieces in total, ranging from 500 to 9,000 words, plus an abundance of subtitled videos. But with the constraints of our WordPress theme and other limitations, we had both target languages (Spanish and English) lumped together. Also, the menus and other factors made navigation less than ideal. We simply outgrew our original site. To address these obvious flaws, we spent several months creating two new, separate sites: guerrillatranslation.org for target English content, and guerrillatranslation.es for target Spanish (tell all your friends!)


Guerrilla Translation, FairCoop and P2P Foundation superhero, Guy James

We’ve preserved the large, “widescreen” image effect in the featured content section, which includes long-form narrative texts with a healthy shelf life. The revamped menus now make the site more navigable and logically organized. We’ve also created a dedicated space for our subtitled videos. We’ve updated and enlarged our static content pages, including our Founding Principles and FAQ, author pages and our regular team bios.

Since launching in 2013, we’ve never had a means to receive any donations for our pro-bono work; we now have a donations page. You can also learn about the services we offer as a complement to our pro-bono work here on this page.

We’re especially proud to share this series of generous testimonials from some of the authors we’ve worked with.

We worked very hard this year on our mission to share information with our peers worldwide, and to help change the overall narrative of our times by incorporating new stories that carry human and environmentally-grounded values.

Looking forward to what we intend to do in 2015, it’s hard to imagine our plates being much fuller, but an abundance of choices is not something to complain about. Here are some of our plans and intentions:

  • Developing a project in collaboration with the author David Bollier, using his book “Think Like a Commoner” in a Spanish translation as a pilot self-publishing and co- or crowd-financed project.
  • Some of us will continue working with the P2P Foundation on a regular basis, including maintaining the Commons Transition site, developing the commons-based reciprocity license (“Copyfair”) project, and collaborating with general management and fundraising strategizing, among other activities.
  • We’ll keep expanding our collaboration with our friends in the Catalan Integral Cooperative, FairCoop, las Indias, DIWOland, Shareable, MediaLab-Prado, la Plataforma por la Libertad de Prensa, Platoniq/Goteo, and many others. As different as these groups may seem, we’ve had the benefit of direct relationships with them all, and have learned a lot about their common ground, collaborative spirit and rich diversity.
  • Ongoing participation in the customized development of specialized value-tracking software for our unique economic redistribution model, in conjunction with Mikorizal Software, Sensorica and other players.
  • Team-building and -strengthening, striking a balance between being selective (regarding skills, independence/teamwork flexibility, commitment, reliability and time management) contrasted with the level of inclusion and cohesive, familiar dynamics we prefer.
  • Finally, I will be joining the Platoniq and Goteo teams for a six-month international project.

Thank you for being part of our growing circle of readers, authors and translators. We hope you enjoy our work and feel moved to share it widely, and we welcome your feedback.

Ann Marie Utratel

Co-founder, Guerrilla Translation

Ann Marie presents GT at the Ouishare Acceleration week

Ann Marie presents GT at the Ouishare Acceleration week

PPLicense mockup small
Produced by Guerrilla Translation
under a Peer Production License.

Backgound image to “Welcome Back and Looking Forward” side widget by Sami Farin


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons Transition, Copyright/IP, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Featured Project, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Company Watch, P2P Development, P2P Labor, Sharing | No Comments »

The New Greek Government Endorses Commons-Based, Peer Production Solutions

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
25th February 2015

All attention in Greece and global financial circles has been understandably focused on the new Greek Government’s fierce confrontation with its implacable European creditors. Less attention has been paid to the Government’s plans to help midwife a new post-capitalist order based on commons and peer production.

A commons colleague, John Restakis,wrote about this possibility a week or so before the January 25 elections. Now, speaking to the Greek Parliament last week, the new Deputy Prime Minister Gianni Dragasakis explicitly stated that Greece will develop new sorts of bottom-up, commons-based, peer production models for meeting people’s needs.

Dr. Vasilis Kostakis, who works with the P2P Foundation’s P2P Lab based in Ioannina, Greece, has been following the situation in Greece closely.  Kostakis, a research fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance in Tallin, Estonia, writes:

Syriza seems to be adopting policies and reforming certain laws in a fashion that resembles the Partner State Approach practices, with regard to education, governance and R&D. To mention a few:

· opening up the public data;

· making openly available the knowledge produced with tax-payers’ money;

· creating a collaborative environment for small-scale entrepreneurs and co-operatives while favoring initiatives based on open source technologies and practices;

· developing certain participatory processes (and strengthening the existing ones)  for citizen-engagement in policy-making;

· adopting open standards and patterns for public administration and education.

These plans/initiatives could be seen both as seeds of a new model for economic development and as solutions to exiting politico-economic, or “structural” problems:  revealing and controlling corruption, improving lax tax enforcement etc.  It is true that from program to implementation, several steps are required, however the first step seems to have been made: Syriza appears to not only be aware of the advantages of free/open source technologies but also to realize the potential and the new political economy of this emerging proto-mode of production.

Thus, the question is, Will Syriza create (and will be allowed to create) the conditions for a transition towards a full-mode of Commons-based peer production?

Kostakis notes that Andreas Karitzis, member of Syriza’s think tank on digital policies and an unsuccessful candidate MP, wrote an article in the Greek version of the Huffington Post before the electiions. Karitzis mentioned his party’s commitment to free/open source technologies, transparency and participatory democracy.  Syriza also apparently intends to develop the new CopyFair licenses for open hardware and support the creation of networks of distributed micro-factories (fablabs/makerspaces).

Amateur translator Eleftherios Kosmas – a member of a commons based collective like hackerspace.gr and a strong supporter of the commons – provided a translation of Deputy Prime Minister Dragasakis’ speech and considered the following remarks the most interesting:

I would like to, conclude with the permission of the President, with a general thought. Often in everyday life we all live events happening whose importance is only clear in hindsight. We live, then, not only in an historic era characterized by the crisis and the collapse of obsolete models, but we live a crisis that will eventually spawn new models and new social organization models, as was done in the past.

In this sense, then, this is an opportunity to take up the deficits of the past, to close this modernization deficit, but by addressing the contemporary social problem of unemployment, social security and social exclusion.  This could establish a new paradigm in Greece and other countries of southern Europe, combining advanced forms of democracy, social self-motivation, social justice on a strong foundation of common goods, a society-centric model, which would give dignity and confidence in society hope to the people, optimism in the new generation.

Thus Greece, from being the guinea pig of austerity and destruction, could be a ground of pioneering ideas and policies, and the benefit would not be just for us. The world would become a security goal in a region of insecurity, and “aged” Europe could rediscover through the symbiosis of different development models inside.

Let’s not rush some to say that these are utopias because there are utopias that are realistic. There are those whose implementation depends not on supernatural powers, but by the unity and collective action of ordinary people in Europe, in Greece and worldwide. Thank you.

Kosmas helpfully provides a link to Dragasakis’s speech in Greek here.

There are a number of knowledgeable and committed commoners internationally who have been in touch with Syriza officials, including a number of Greek commoners and P2P activists.  Two of the most notable are Vasilis Kostakis and George Papanikolaou, who are the administrators of the P2P Foundation’s Greek branch.  The Greek Government may wish to turn to the many concrete commons/P2P policy approaches on display at the Commons Transition Plan.

As official interest in the commons and peer production grows, many Greeks (and international supporters) are surely looking forward to the third annual CommonFest, which will be held in Athens from May 15-17, 2015.

Originally published in Bollier.org


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Open Government, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Development, P2P Governance, Politics | No Comments »

Beyond the market-state: decentralising power in a sharing society

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
25th February 2015

FIght for democracy Shutterstock

At a time when governments are failing abysmally to mitigate climate change, reduce inequality or end poverty, the key to creating a more equal and sustainable world is establishing participative forms of political engagement at all levels of society – from the local to the global.

In an era of politics characterised by unconstrained corporate lobbying, a well-oiled ‘revolving door’ between industry and government, and an endless stream of campaign contributions from dirty oil and other lucrative industries, is the long-championed ideal of a truly democratic state now a lost cause? Should concerned citizens and activists turn their attention instead to establishing sustainable economic alternatives within their towns and communities? Or should we all be doing much more to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, as Abraham Lincoln once avowed?

Few questions are more pertinent at a time when levels of trust and support for the political elite have reached an all-time low across the globe. This is not surprising given the extent to which policies that uphold the common good have been steadily marginalised over the past three decades in favour of those that promote a predominantly neoliberal agenda. As Oxfam’s head of global policy and campaignsrecently mentioned, “policies such as public provision of services, public ownership and subsidy of industry, progressive taxation of rich individuals and corporations, strong trade unions and labour rights, full employment, universal welfare states, strong limits to intellectual property – are still pretty much frozen out of current debates.” The consequences of what has become an almost global adherence to a market-driven ideology is plain to see: a failure of governments to stem the growth in inequality or significantly reduce global poverty, and an inability to agree upon the basic measures needed to curb global carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

For the most part, campaigners and progressive organisations recognise that our governments seem incapable of addressing these and many other interconnected crises. Most are also united in acknowledging the root cause of this failure: the illegitimate power of multinational corporations. It is widely recognised that the greatest influence over public policy in today’s globalised world is not wielded by the electorate, but rests with a powerful elite of wealthy individuals and transnational businesses that have unwarranted access to the corridors of power. As this year’s State of Powerreport by the Transnational Institute sums up, “corporations have succeeded in replacing rule of law with Global Corporate law, using a multitude of norms, treaties and agreements – most recently the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership [TTIP] – to secure their rights to profit above human rights.” In short, we are witnessing a crisis of governance and democracy at all levels of society – from local municipalities and national government, all the way up to the United Nations.

This reality is neatly encapsulated in the concept of the ‘market-state’, which illustrates the imbalance of power between the private sector and citizens, and the impact this has over the formulation of public policy. The phrase was first coined by the law scholar and national security expert Philip Bobbitt in 2002, to reflect the evolution of a new globalised constitutional order in which governments work towards maximising economic opportunity rather than safeguarding the welfare of individuals. Nowadays, however, it is used more generally to describe the fused relationship between governments and big business and the impact this has on society, and is often used as a point of reference by proponents of the commons. As commons theorist James Quilligan explains, “the private sector and banks are rapidly swallowing up governments and bending national constitutions to their favor, decreasing the role of government and limiting our political rights as citizens. Voting and popular representation are becoming less meaningful because governments are pledged to support the interests of large corporations, not the people’s interests.”

In light of this democratic deficit and the political disenfranchisement that inevitably follows, engaged citizens are increasingly turning to unconventional forms of social and economic organisation that are inherently more egalitarian and provide stakeholders with greater empowerment and more influence over the decisions that affect them. A whole swathe of ‘new economy’ initiatives have recently emerged to foster community participation and increase access to goods and services in an ecologically conscious way, while broadly aligning to the increasingly popular concept of ‘de-growth’.

Examples of this assorted grouping of social, environmental and entrepreneurial activities include the Transition Towns and commons movements, the numerous sharing economy and peer-to-peer networks and platforms, cooperatives and community supported agriculture, open source software, co-housing initiatives, and much more besides. Implicit in the pursuit of these predominantly locally-rooted alternatives is the growing awareness that we urgently need a radical transformation in the way we organise society, particularly in relation to how we share the planet’s finite resources. As Gar Alperovitz (a prominent exponent of co-operative enterprise) argues, the goal of these diverse new economy initiatives is “democratized ownership of the economy for the 99 percent”.

From local alternatives to global reforms

The manifold benefits of new economy initiatives should not be underestimated, especially as they go beyond financial measures of economic prosperity to include personal wellbeing, social cohesion and environmental protection. For example, the burgeoning co-operative movement boasts over a billion members globally and is characterised by strong ethical principles that go far beyond hackneyed notions of corporate social responsibility, while often encouraging the participation of both employees and consumers in decision-making processes. Transition Towns and other resilience initiatives are also gaining in popularity, with their core emphasis on regenerating communities and local economies, providing social support networks, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels and carbon intensive processes. At the same time, tech-based forms of collaborative consumption are making headlines for ‘disrupting’ existing economic models and instituting new ways of accessing goods and services. Research by peer-to-peer theorists such as Michel Bauwens and Jeremy Rifkin suggest that the digital sharing of information and knowledge has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce, distribute and consume everyday goods and services as well as renewable energy.

However, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the aggregate impact of individual or community actions in relation to the scale of change that is needed, unless they are part of a broader program of advocacy for structural reform. For example, there is currently a great deal of interest in alternative methods of food production, especially in the city centres of industrialised countries. But the localisation of food production is widely regarded by farmers’ movements across the world as only one part of the solution to the complex problems associated with today’s unsustainable global food system. As La Via Campesina highlight in their advocacy work, establishing just models of food production means adhering to the principle of ‘food sovereignty’ and reforming a host of international policies that include the intellectual property rights framework and free trade agreements.

There are similar issues around individual efforts to reduce energy consumption while governments fail to invest in a global green new deal and fossil fuel companies continue to exploit reserves at a rate that is incommensurate with agreed emissions targets. In some cases, popular local alternatives could even be counterproductive to achieving the most sustainable and equitable outcomes for society as a whole. For example, proponents of the sharing economy widely support forms of car sharing, whose benefits are indisputable when compared to individual ownership. But the benefits of car sharing dwindle significantly when compared to the massive reductions in carbon emissions that can be achieved if more effective public transport systems are built and used by citizens, which requires policy-level change on a scale that is not actively supported by sharing economy advocates.

Of course, the above examples (and the many others that could be listed) do not present mutually exclusive choices – both local alternatives and more transformative reforms to policies and institutions must ultimately be part of any great transition. However, the danger is that if we fail to make systemic reforms at the policy level then new economy initiatives such as car sharing or urban gardening, forms of commoning and peer-to-peer production, or even Transition Towns could conceivably continue to function (and even grow in popularity) without posing any real challenge to the carbon intensive, consumption-driven economic policies that result in global warming or perpetuate inequality. It is also possible for community-driven initiatives to be co-opted by governments that support localisation while also advancing neoliberal policies, such as when the UK’s Conservative Party introduced the Big Society project alongside debilitating austerity measures.

If we are serious about addressing the root cause of the environmental crisis,preventing extreme poverty or reclaiming our democratic systems, we must acknowledge that locally-based economic alternatives will not deliver the dramatic changes in society (and across the world as a whole) that are now so desperately needed – at least not on their own. This is especially the case given the scale of the structural reforms needed to reverse ongoing crises like climate change, which poses a tremendous challenge at a time when politicians are failing to reach even the most fundamental agreements needed to limit global carbon emissions.

In order to have any lasting impact on climate change or implement a just and sustainable model of economic development, it is also essential that this reconfiguration of institutions and policies takes place at the global level. Without an international approach to reforming governance, the structural realities of a globalised economy are likely to render much of what can be achieved through localisation initiatives largely ineffectual. Many analysts who take an internationalist perspective also argue that in an interdependent world, individual governments would avoid taking unilateral action on global issues in order to prevent political isolation, capital flight or other financial penalties. It is also feasible that a planned contraction in resource consumption by one country would be offset by increases elsewhere, which would nullify the benefits of such an approach. Any significant transition away from the status quo is therefore a collective action problem that can only be resolved through international cooperation and the formation of global strategies and binding agreements.

Clearly, without a significant change in our current political and economic paradigm, it will remain impossible to address these challenges. As the Trapeze Collective outline in their constructive critique of the Transition Towns movement, “the analysis of how we got into this mess, and the best way to move on, does bring us back to politics. It involves taking on power and those who hold wealth and influence.” In other words, it will remain impossible to work towards any comprehensive vision of structural reform unless we recognise the historical and political causes of environmental and social crises, challenge entrenched vested interests, and join the global struggle to put an end to the absurd concentration of wealth and economic power that currently rests with the richest 1% of the world’s population.

A new society based on sharing and redistribution

In many ways, the principle of sharing is likely to be pivotal to the transition away from the market-state as it underpins any process of decentralising and devolving political and economic power to the lowest level of decision making, in accordance with the concept of subsidiarity. Only in more equal and participative ‘sharing societies’ will citizens be able to play an active role in democratising governance institutions and shaping the direction of political life. In stark contrast to the market-state, a sharing society in any true sense will need to localise economic activity wherever possible and establish any number of more inclusive and effective forms of political engagement, such as online ‘direct democracy’ platforms, people’s assemblies, participatory budgeting initiatives, and even communal councils.

From any rational perspective, the overarching goal of social and economic policy in the period ahead must decidedly shift towards securing basic human needs for all without transgressing environmental limits. Another major challenge in building fairer societies based on the principle of sharing is therefore the creation (and safeguarding) of robust social protection systems in countries across the world. Such systems are important examples of solidarity that enable citizens to collectively pool a nation’s financial resources so that they can be redistributed for the benefit of all. Even though the aging welfare state model is in need of reform and renewal, nationwide mechanisms of mutual provisioning remain the most effective way of meeting longstanding human rights obligations across entire countries.

As the scholar and activist Francine Mestrum argues, universal systems of social protection enable people to take responsibility for those they do not know by ensuring that everyone’s basics rights are secured – a process that strengthens our ‘collective solidarity’ and embodies a profound awareness of our common humanity. Nonetheless, social protections are continually being undermined by the harsh austerity measures that have been implemented in numerous countries since the 2008 financial crisis, and their proper functioning is unlikely to be restored without increasing public outcry and a substantive reorientation of government policies. Moreover, 4 out of 5 people in developing countries are still denied the social protection guarantees that citizens take for granted in rich countries, which is why it is essential that these sophisticated systems of sharing are also dramatically scaled up and strengthened at the global level.

Yet the notion of a sharing society embodies far more than participatory democracy and the provision of universal social protection and essential public services. In accordance with the principle of sharing, private businesses would also need to substantially change the way they operate by at least ensuring that decision-making power and income is fairly distributed among employees. The current trend towards peer-to-peer modes of distributed manufacturing as well as cooperative, not-for-profit and socially-oriented business models are important steps in this direction. Additionally, corporations would need to go far beyond ‘greenwashing’ their activities and adopt genuinely ecological practices that can facilitate the transition to sustainable production and consumption patterns, and thereby help bring humanity closer to achieving the goal of ‘one planet living’.

A sharing society would also include a vibrant commons sector that could function independently of markets or direct government involvement. This is broadly in line with what P2P theorist Michel Bauwens refers to as the partner state – a reformed governmental apparatus that builds on the welfare state model and actively supports the development of the commons. Democratic and accountable state systems are also a prerequisite to managing the global commons which, in the first instance, will require representative governments to negotiate new commons-based legal frameworks to ensure that planetary resources are managed in the interests of current and future generations. Of course, entirely new structures of accountability are urgently needed if governments are to reflect the needs of their citizens in international negotiations, or if they are ever to agree a workable global agenda for safeguarding the Earth’s biosphere.

There can be little doubt that reforming governance at all levels of societal organisation is the key to establishing effective sharing societies. However, even though many of the governance reforms highlighted above are recognised as essential and unavoidable by a growing number of environmentalists and social activists, they remain virtually unattainable in the current political climate. As long as entrenched vested interests maintain their stranglehold over democratic processes, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ will present an unprecedented challenge to engaged citizens in all countries.

Resilient and socially inclusive communities can clearly play an immediate role in the great transition that still lies ahead, but it will remain impossible to establish economic systems that are structurally just and truly sustainable until political power is radically decentralised – especially at the national and global level – and wealth is distributed more equally throughout society. By recognising the global roots of our local struggles, those working towards local alternatives to economic globalisation therefore have a central role to play in democratising our governance systems from the top down as well as the bottom up.

Image credit: Shutterstock, all rights reserved


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Cooperatives, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Action Items, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

Snowden Reacts as Documentary about his Leaks wins Oscar

photo of Kevin Flanagan

Kevin Flanagan
25th February 2015

Edward Snowden-2

Edward Snowden wrote to ACLU on seeing the news on television:

“When Laura Poitras asked me if she could film our encounters, I was extremely reluctant. I’m grateful that I allowed her to persuade me. The result is a brave and brilliant film that deserves the honor and recognition it has received. My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.”

By Rainey Reitman | (EFF) –

CITIZENFOUR, Laura Poitras’ riveting documentary about Edward Snowden’s efforts to shed light on gross surveillance abuses by the United States government and its partners, just won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Tonight’s Oscar win recognizes not only the incredible cinematography of Poitras, but also her daring work with a high-stakes whistleblower and the journalism that kick-started a worldwide debate about surveillance and government transparency. We suspect this award was also, as the New York Times pointed out, “a way for Academy members to make something of a political statement, without having to put their own reputations on the line.”

We’re thrilled to see Poitras take home this prestigious award. CITIZENFOUR distilled a multi-year battle against untargeted surveillance and delivered it to the world with a compelling human interest story. The work of Poitras, Snowden, and journalist Glenn Greenwald helped shape the political course of nations across the globe. That’s worth at least an Oscar.

This award means that more people will be no doubt be watching CITIZENFOUR, and thus learning about both Snowden’s sacrifice and the surveillance abuses by the United States government. For those watching the movie for the first time, there’s often a sense of urgency to get involved and fight back against mass untargeted surveillance. Here are some suggestions for getting started:

  1. Tell President Obama to amend Executive Order 12333, which is the primary legal authority the NSA uses to engage in surveillance of people worldwide.
  2. Start using encryption when communicating digitally.
  3. Speak out against reauthorization of a much-abused section of the Patriot Act which is set to expire this summer.

And as always, help promote freedom online by becoming a member of EFF.

We extend our congratulations to Laura Poitras and everyone who helped create CITIZENFOUR.


Disclosures: I serve on the board of directors of Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit working to champion press freedom, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, her colleague Glenn Greenwald, and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Via Electronic Frontier Foundation


Posted in Activism | 1 Comment »

Together Against Fear (Norway Muslims Make “Peace Ring” For Synagogue)

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
24th February 2015

The event, that made headlines many places in the world, gathered between 1200 – 1400 people Saturday evening in the street outside the Oslo synagogue.


Young Muslims and other participants, holding hands, filled the street. They formed what they called a «Ring of Peace».


Rabbi Michael Melchior told the masses outside his synagogue about his trip to the funeral of the man killed outside the synagogue in Copenhagen last weekend.


– Afterwards, I sat with the grieving parents. I told them about the initiative of young Muslims here in Oslo, and the father of Dan Uzan embraced me and began to cry.


– He said to me «You must say to the young Muslims in Norway that they have given me hope. They have given me a reason to continue living. Maybe it was a meaning to my son’s death. Maybe it gives reason to life for the future».

Read the whole article at NRK here.

A child’s drawing from the Terezin concentration camp, located at Prague’s outskirts. The dark angel of fear and death is again about to fasten its grip on European Jews.


Posted in Activism, Videos | No Comments »

The New Global Militant

photo of David de Ugarte

David de Ugarte
18th February 2015


Yesterday I watched a PBS documentary about the rise of ISIS. Around minute 43, a phrase caught my attention. Explaining how ISIS arrived to a tipping point in recruitment, the script noted that the group itself had been surprised at the massive response of a generation who

wants to be part of something special, they want to be part of something successful

Today, an report in “El País” quoting “Le Parisien” includes a statement of the lawyer of one of the murderers of the massacre of Paris describing him as:

a clueless guy who did not know what to do with his life and who met people who made ??him feel important

I guess it is quite clear in jihadism but in reality is the generalization of these feelings that make militant movements of all kinds reach their tipping point. What happens these days is that we are nearing the time when the new political movements begin to be credible winners. And people are pointing to star in a historic change… the most credible in every different place or circumstance.

Of course will not produce the same results if is ISIS who capitalize that feeling in Syria and Iraq or if it will be the new PKK in Kurdistan. And if we look at Europe Ukrainian nationalism has not the same values thanSYRIZA or Podemos. But from the point of view of network analysis it is a very similar phenomenum: The protagonist of the great social movements is changing worldwide.

The time of the young European jihadist who was able to destroy himself as a way to defy an unquestionable power has passed away as the time of the cyberactivist who wanted to change social consensus promoting new social conversations.

Lets remember two slogans from the quotes: “feel important” and “be part of something successful”. Those will be the magic words of all the mobilizing discourses during the coming years.


Posted in Activism, Culture & Ideas, Empire, Original Content, Politics | No Comments »

The Greek Elections, the State and the Social Economy

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
17th February 2015


The recent election results in Greece could be a significant turning point in the fight against neoliberal austerity politics and an opportunity to inaugurate commons-based alternatives – from peer production to co-operatives to social economy innovations – with the support of the state. Needless to say, it is a complicated situation, not just the political and cultural dynamics within Greece, but the ambition of stepping off in new directions beyond those sanctioned by the European and global financial establishment. 

Fortunately, John Restakis provides some excellent and subtle insight into the Greek situation in a recent blog post on the Commons Transition website (which is worth visiting in its own right!).  John is past Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association in Vancouver and  has spent many years in community organizing, adult and popular education, and co-op development.  He also lectures widely on the subject of globalization, regional development and alternative economics.

John’s piece is worth reading not just for its assessment of the Greek crisis, but also for the larger challenge of moving commons-based peer production and social alternatives into the mainstream.

Civil Power and the Path Forward for Greece

By John Restakis

With the prospect of a Syriza government, everyone is wondering what the future holds for Greece.  Whether disaster or deliverance, or just the normal chaos, it is hard to ignore the potential for game-changing repercussions from a Syriza government. On the street however, embittered by the failures of governments in the past to change a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, few people are expecting big things from Syriza. The feeling of popular cynicism and fatalism is palpable. How different will Syriza be?

One thing is certain. If Syriza does what it says, it will be forging a courageous and desperately needed path in Europe, not only in opposition to the austerity policies that are devastating the country, but to the neoliberal ideas, institutions, and capital interests that are their source and sustenance. For such a path to succeed, an entirely different view of economic development, of the role of the market, and of the relation between state and citizen is necessary.

It is in this context that the social economy has become an important aspect of Syriza’s plans for re-making the economy. Like other parties of both the right and left in Europe, Syriza is taking cognizance of the role that the social economy can play in the current crisis. Even the Cameron government in the UK, the epicenter of European neo-liberalism, has promoted the social economy as a sector with a strategic role to play in job creation, in improving public services, and in reforming the role of government. In the last election, Mutualism and the Big Society were its slogans.

It all sounds very nice, until it becomes evident just 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 more generally, became a cover and a means for 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. Under the current government, the same is beginning to happen in Greece with the newly formed KOINSEPs. 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 final refuge for the discarded of society and the victims of the capitalist economy. It is one reason why the right advocates charity as the proper response for the poor. Never solidarity or equity. More recently, the rhetoric and principles of the social economy have 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. The social economy 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 and fair trade groups 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 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. For many young people, the formation of a co-operative or a social enterprise is the only way to secure a job with some autonomy, and dignity. Something more rewarding than serving tables for tourists.

The social economy is growing – but compared to other European nations, Greece lags far 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 representative organizations to unite, develop, and give voice to the sector. Outdated, fragmented, and 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 that underwent the revolutionary processes of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that provided the seedbed from which modern political, social, and economic institutions emerged, Greece remained relatively untouched by these developments while under Ottoman rule. Today, it is still struggling to establish a political culture that has moved beyond the autocratic clientelism that characterized the political system that reigned immediately 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.

The inheritance of 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 in the PASOK era when state support and subsidization of co-operatives produced a corruption that not only failed to achieve legitimate economic ends, but more disastrously, 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 contend with 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 sought 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 all the former Soviet nations, in 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, in its manipulative “support” for the co-operative model that has done most to ruin its image and reputation in the minds of millions.

The reason for this is that the left has traditionally viewed the state as the sole legitimate engine of social and economic reform. In this, it is the mirror image of the right that sees legitimacy for economic and social development only in the market. Both make the same tragic mistake in ignoring or manipulating the very 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, in very large measure, will be the true test of the character of Syriza if it comes to power. How will it relate to the broader civil society, and to the fledgling organizations and institutions of the social economy as it tries to rebuild the economic and political complexion of Greece? Will it revert to the traditional statism of the left, a command and control government, or will it seek to expand and re-imagine a leftist program for change that mobilizes the institutions of civil society and the social economy as meaningful partners in nation building? Moreover, will it understand and utilize the social and economic principles of co-operation, of mutuality and common good, as central to the re-building of the economy and the society? In short, will the party recognize and mobilize the vast potential of civil power in realizing its vision? If it does, it will be the first in Europe to do so.

That Syriza 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 it is for this reason too, that many of these groups want little or nothing to do with political parties, or the state. This is not good news for the parties of the left as they struggle to articulate a vision and method for a new political economy. They need a new approach if they are to build a leftist vision for a new age. The old ways of party and state control have been discredited and rejected.

For a truly effective political 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 a portion of 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 grace 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 leftist 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 non-paternalistic and non-clientelistic paradigm 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.

Second, it means the creation of institutions, both legal and social, that can sustain the development and growth of the social economy independently of any political 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 social and economic development.

Third, it means the application of these principles beyond the non-profit and community service sector to the support and development of the wider economy, in particular for the small and medium firms that form the bedrock of the national economy. 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 users of these services. The insular, autocratic power of bureaucracy must be broken.

Greece has no option but to try new approaches to solve its social, economic, and political problems. At the macro level, a Syriza government will have to do everything it can to address the fundamental questions of debt restructuring, of trade relations and export policy, of increasing revenue through tax policies aimed at capital, of resurrecting agricultural and industrial production, and of addressing the humanitarian crisis.

The social economy can help. But it is obviously not able to act as an engine of recovery on its own and without the support of an astute 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, particularly since basic institutional supports are still lacking.

The building of these institutions is crucial. This is true whether a new government succeeds in re-negotiating the debt and its relations to its European counterparts, and even more so if it does not. There are grave doubts whether the changes that Greece needs to make toward a more humane and socially responsible economics can be developed within the Eurozone as it is currently structured. The ideological and institutional inertia 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 is not without its advantages. It can learn from the experience of others. For example:

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. Of course, all contributed to bringing Greece to the precipice. But few point to the fundamental lack of democracy and public accountability that 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, especially in the context of a political culture like that of Greece. But that is precisely why it is so urgently needed. It is a way forward that won’t perpetuate the criminal negligence and wrongdoing of the past.

How tragic and shortsighted therefore, that the policies and prescriptions of Greece’s masters, its servile political class and the European powers that support it, are destroying the very institutions that are most needed to reform and remake Greece – its public and civil institutions. The point is, they don’t care. The destruction of public institutions and civil power suits them 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 the likes of you or me, or the vast majority of the population that is now paying for the sins of others.

John Restakis, January 14, 2014

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Kicking off a year of ‘P2P Plazas’ research and cartography

photo of Carmen Lozano Bright

Carmen Lozano Bright
17th February 2015

2014 ended on a good note. Last October, I had the opportunity to participate, together with 49 other project initiators, in the Idea Camp event in Marseille. The European Cultural Foundation promoted this event, geared towards shaking up our views on public space. After the three-day gathering, all fifty participants were invited to present a Research and Development project to be funded during 2015. The ECF announced a set of 25 R&D grants last December, and ‘P2P Plazas: a Southern European network’ is in.


Today, Europe struggles through a volatile reality. Severe economic blight and the industrial dissolution suffered over several decades have devastated the social and economic outlook of our cities and rural areas. Consequently, many industrial buildings and factories are left empty, inactive; the public sector also has abandoned buildings and lots. Basic services like education, health and culture are cut as the Welfare State is contested. Paradoxically, this atmosphere has empowered citizens to reclaim their own environments and heritage, shaping innovative roles in their production and consumption of culture and public space.

Considering what Henri Lefebvre calls the “rhythmic character of the city”, we should heed the noises and voices of public space as unique expressions of Southern European spirit, through disruptive movements including Spain’s 15M, Greek and Italian street protests in 2011 and the Taksim Square and Gezi Park occupations in Istanbul. Movements which emerged rapidly and seemed ephemeral from outside reveal themselves to be widespread over local contexts. What once was underground has become commonplace, accepted: urban gardens, self-managed social centers, open schools, fablabs, squats, active urban squares, hacklabs, medialabs, makerspaces, connected by scores of networks.

We’re calling this Southern European phenomenon “P2P Plazas”: places where bottom-up initiatives connect actions among peers (citizens). Peers decide for themselves what to do to invent and participate in new forms of cultural production and consumption, far from the established so-called “Cultural Industries”.

Frontiers which were strictly demarcated, today merge and interact. Each local area contains its own unique context for its open spaces; community relationships to that context determine the eventual re-use and re-invigoration of those places. Abandoned factories become new types of work spaces (fablabs, makerspaces, worker cooperatives), open lots may become community commercial spaces (artisan and local food markets). The neighborhood’s cultural associations with the original space guide its rebirth, not only its original use or legal zoning. These places host practices steeped in site-specific knowledge and learning, giving a deeply expanded, personal significance to commons-managed public space.

Although these practices surround us, there is no “big picture” to explain the deep significance of these transformations on our societies.

Each space finds its way through different legal (and illegal) formats, agreements and contracts with private and public owners. If we could effect a clearer view by mapping these experiences throughout Southern Europe, including the management and legal aspects of how they’re (re)signifying their environments, we would provide a catalog of prototypes to be replicated.

Mapping these p2p practices also reveals their Achilles’ heel: sustainability. It is crucial that local governments understand these transformations, provide support and tools for citizens to promote their own initiatives. Future developments out of this research could prototype p2p practices to establish a Southern European network with the common ground of sharing tools, knowledge and legal frames.

Through this year-long investigation, we will listen to those noises and rhythms which sustain our cities, and shape a ‘least common legal frame’ serving institutions and citizens to establish dialogues and understandings. The communities reshaping their local environments are central to this research. We must feel the active beating heart of our cities, and to join hands across borders. This is a way to build Europe together.

This research requires the support of foundations and institutions that believe in investigation for social change. The peer-to-peer experiences we learn from are mostly based in community volunteer work. Archiving and researching are not prioritized as are other, more tangible and immediate tasks. Works which create a big picture do exist, but without time, effort and communication devoted to research, creating the overall map isn’t possible. Isolating the tools adapted in local contexts can provide a bellwether for paradigm changes, and help us identify innovations in social, political and economic opportunities.

This proposal emerges from a local perspective of engagement with the routine at El Campo de Cebada, a commons-oriented plaza in Madrid. It will expand to other territories through the digital sphere. The context of this research will include a central cluster based in Madrid collaborating with several feeder nodes (starting elsewhere in Spain, Greece and Italy, then throughout Southern Europe). The network extension will operate in the digital context through an internal/external communication toolkit.

Coincidentally, Spain is holding local elections in May 2015, especially noteworthy for the emergence of new political actors. The research will include meetings with political parties and citizen candidates to assess their position on these questions, and evaluate their willingness to implement a ‘least common frame’.

This research does not emerge out of the blue. It’s inspired by many – many! – existing initiatives that have helped build a common cartography. For example (and these are all in Spain, for the moment): La Aventura de Aprender (The Learning Adventure), Arquitecturas Colectivas (Collective Architectures network), cartographies by Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas (VIC), among others.

Throughout 2015, we’ll be working hand in hand with other closely related research groups, like Straddle3’s guide for activating public space (Barcelona), Adelita Husni-Bey’s investigation on housing and squatting (The Netherlands and Italy), Radarq’s open source urban furnitures (Barcelona), the intense activity at Pollinaria (Abruzzo, Italy), and also the research by Catherine Lenoble –a little detached because of its field, but sharing a huge common ground and perspective– on digital toy libraries. The research and communication will also be supported by the Guerrilla Translation team.

We’ll also be watching other necessary projects with great impact potential, like Zemos98 (Seville, Spain), Sarantaporo.net (Athens) and 1+1eleven (Puglia, Italy).

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