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Can political movements become enabling movements ?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th July 2015

The rapid transformation of the priorities of Syriza from a party promising radical change to a party that signs on to carrying out extreme neoliberal policies may require a fundamental rethinking of emancipatory politics.

Here is the thought of R.C. Smith:

“It remains true that, in spite of Syriza’s failures to date, the Greek people need not rely on the relic of the Party. It is possible that the Greek people, its communities, like in any other western country, can still plot a rebellious course of action through grassroots pressure and transformation.

It was always difficult to image that, within the realm of representative democracy, a leftist party could be elected with the expectation that they will be the sole driver of progressive transformative social change. This type of old leftist politics is dead. Instead, what is needed today is new progressive thinking. New forms of revolutionary politics and organisation and social philosophies of societal transformation. The revolutionary process requires guidance, but guidance by a political party (be it a Leninist or a social democratic party) is or should be a non-starter. This sort of guidance perpetuates, as we have seen time and again, the institutional and corporate world.[1] To the contrary: as part of a longstanding, widely developed and recognized thesis at Heathwood, emancipatory politics must have a grassroots centre of gravity and emphasis.

If the election of Syriza was a big moment for the Greek people and for leftist politics, it was always the case that beyond the victory of Election Day, another onslaught of terrifying rhetoric would come, as images of economic Armageddon are propagated by the European elite in attempt to undermine or coerce the direction of policy and action. To date, no other analysis has been more accurate. The challenge from the very first day was whether the party could resist the coercive powers of the instrumental, institutional, and administered world (to borrow the words of Adorno). It was always going to be the case that aside from potentially offering certain resistances to austerity, which Syriza has largely failed to do, the biggest success of the government will have been defined according to whether it can establish a set of policies for the immediate relief of precarious social and economic life, and also how it might put together a plan to assist the process of revolutionary transformation by way of radical reformism that supports the greater autonomy of social movements.

Can Syriza – and particularly Alexis Tsipras – resist the temptation of fetishizing the party and the role of the leader (Fromm), instead focusing on encouraging, supporting and, indeed, creating conditions for the flourishing of autonomous participatory movements, which is the real source of sustainable transformative transition to a post-capitalist world? Presently, it does not look very good. Syriza has offered little to no clue that it embraces an actual progressive mandate. In the end, only time will tell whether the leftist Greek government has the courage to resist old temptations and look toward radical new political horizons, which translates in the increasing critical diminution of their own hierarchical, authoritarian power as a political party – that is, the critical deconstruction of the hierarchical power of the party itself. Indeed, the emancipatory course – the goal for Syriza or any other leftist party – is to take up the democratic challenge, which, ultimately, means a course for the eventual abolishment of their own power. The ‘bigger picture’ – an actual egalitarian (and, impliedly, participatory) democracy – cannot exist under hierarchy, under a party or leader. It would be largely representative of a social landscape of horizontality.

One may instantly refute that in the current system a form of representation is required; because involvement in traditional, institutional politics is unavoidable. This may be true. Negotiations concerning Greece’s future might require temporary hierarchy, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks. But once this hierarchy is no longer responsive to a participatory mandate, it loses all validity. In this sense, Syriza so far bears no legitimacy as being part of a revolutionary movement in terms of the current course of history (as testified by its failure to call for police to cease its assault on protesters?).

Besides, if it is to be expected that ‘in a reified society, political issues will present themselves in a reified and mystifying way’,[2] and therefore the presence of temporary hierarchy may be unavoidable in certain situations; this is not to say that Syriza or any other leftist party should not work toward the transformation of the representative system. As many European Green parties currently argue, for example: one of the key policies for any progressive political party should be to challenge the current status of democracy, even if that means the very existence of the party itself in the long run. The very idea of a possible transition to an actual egalitarian (participatory, horizontal) democracy demands it – it demands or requires roots in grassroots politics. As Richard Gunn explains: “general elections are top-down affairs …/ now it’s time for social movements to come into their own. Participatory social movements are, or should be, the centre of gravity of an emancipatory politics – because emancipation exists in and through human interaction …/ [this] interaction is unlikely to result from hierarchy – in my view, an emancipatory movement must start as it intends to go on. That is, it must start (and continue) in a prefigurative way.”[3]

Yet, if participatory social movements are the centre of gravity of an emancipatory politics, these movements undoubtedly need support at the start. Moving beyond rigid debates between total and stifling hierarchy and the opposite of horizontalism, radical reformism can play a vital role. But radical reformism must be rooted in a revolutionary culture – that is, again, in the efforts of autonomous participatory movements. In other words: the question now with regards to the Greek Crisis might be on some level whether Syriza can still position itself from within the current coercive and ideological social reality of neoliberal capitalist Europe – even when buckling to external pressures to accept austerity – to create systematic subversions from within that context. If truly progressive, if truly a believer in actual democracy, if truly a party of the progressive and emancipatory left, it must find a way to do so. But the bigger question is whether it is willing to align itself with the grassroots, with Greek communities, in their struggle to potentially attempt to create a revolutionary, transformative culture.

What I mean by this last statement is not only how it is philosophically necessary that Syriza prioritise the enabling of resources, time, and space for progressive movements to develop and experiment with alternatives. It is also necessary for the course of economic transformation, that the current left government make its focused task to support the grassroots in whatever possible, in effort to develop an alternative to capitalism from the bottom-up.

What is required, today, is a prefigurative grassroots politics – the sort that we’ve already witnessed in various incarnations in different revolutionary cultures throughout the western world.

In a past series of research papers, I already began to layout an alternative philosophy of systemic change along these lines, which develops and expands on the argument presented in an ongoing project by Heathwood on emancipatory politics and radical (or actual) democracy. It is not possible here to provide a thorough account of the arguments and analyses presented in that series. What can be said is that an emancipatory political philosophy of fundamental system change should reject the idea of a Grand Soir and, instead, take a many-sided, integral view of the process of grassroots transformation. Against the belief in parties and or a radical takeover of the system by a political camp – especially as the driving force of societal transformation, which more often than not proves authoritarian, disempowering, and reproductive of dominant social structures and paradigms – an emancipatory politics would instead be multifaceted, holistic, participatory and prefigurative. It would take into account not only the philosophical, political and economic facets of fundamental systemic change; but also the psychological, emotional, relational, existential, anthropological, developmental, and even epistemological dimensions of change and of the particular needs of people. Based on a theory of how systems actually work, and how change actually unfolds, an emancipatory political philosophy would see social transformation as transitory, and as a transformative political and economic process inasmuch as a many-sided transformative healing process.[4]

Indeed, while I agree with Jerome Roos and others at ROAR Magazine, particularly with regards to Greece’s need for a “Plan C” – that is, for a social and political project oriented toward the commons and communality – to say this is not enough. Capitalism, as a mode of social relations, is alienating. Capitalism’s coercive legacy in this regard cannot be completely overcome in a relatively short period of time. It is a matter of transition, if nothing else. Thus I share ROAR’s commitment to the grassroots, with the caveat that the grassroots politics we’re talking about is prefigurative and mutually recognitive.[5]

In the global context, what is common amongst many progressive democratic movements is not only a shared emphasis on direct (participatory) democracy and horizontality. The deeper connection is an underlying dynamic of mutual recognition – understanding mutual recognition in an egalitarian and emancipatory sense. Positioned against the hierarchical, undemocratic and one-way relations of power that characterise the capitalist world, the mutually recognitive interaction of grassroots politics opens on to a landscape that is inclusive and participatory. Through participatory public engagement, commonising can emerge.[6]

The task of a progressive left government, then, is to find a way, to create set of policies, rooted in and supportive of the further development of the grassroots. In Greece, it is not as though the grassroots does not already exist. In fact, in some communities it is already very strong and healthy. As Jerome Roos recently cited with regards to the Greek context (but also applicable to Europe more generally), we already witness a remarkable proliferation and, indeed, experimentation with commons-based initiatives across a number of social spheres: “think of solidarity kitchens, social clinics, self-managed workplaces, mutual aid networks, alternative currencies, and so on”.[7]

Although examples of emancipatory grassroots movements may vary, in a popular or mainstream sense – consider Occupy-style initiatives, 15m, the movement of the squares, the Indignados, and so on – it is not that a progressive grassroots politics need to necessarily be explicitly political. Grassroots politics can also take less obvious and less directly political forms. Alternative education (as in Summerhill, the Alpha Project for homeless people or the Social Science Centre, Lincoln), basic community projects such as community-based agriculture or energy initiatives, emancipatory constructs regarding the re-organisation of media and communication and, even, technology-focused initiatives – all of these may have an emancipatory grassroots logic.[8] Against the bleak and hopeless narrative of dominant neoliberal capitalist media, the truth is that a lot is happening on a grassroots level in a diversity of forms and across many different sites of resistance.

If we’re ever going to transcend capitalism and eventually move beyond its coercive legacy, the process of healing and transformation must come from below. The goal for Syriza or any other leftist party, then, if it is to have any relevance, is to support the grassroots in the development of an alternative social world from within the current system, and work toward the abolishment of its own required existence as an entity. In the meantime, its power should only be considered in the sea of horizontality, in midst of a mutually recognitive and prefigurative grassroots landscape, never free from normative critique and the challenge of demonstration. This is the only way it can suffice to be an actual progressive partner for people.

So how can Syriza redeem itself? Well, redemption should begin in and through acknowledgment of grassroots demand. As to what those demands might be, they are likely to vary given the particularity of the community, its needs, and the particular needs of its people. But for the government to move forward with any semblance of progressiveness, it must open the channels for mutual exchanges of communication. Perhaps delegates from community democratic assemblies would be one option to making communication direct and effective?

With regards to greater economic transformation – that is, transformation of the economy – I offer several comments which may be of assistance to various grassroots movements, whether in Greece or elsewhere.

There are, generally speaking, two broad levels of focus with regards to the development of alternatives to capitalism. “The first is an alternative to how capitalism organizes enterprises in terms of their internal workings and relationships.”[9] The second is an alternative “to how capitalism organizes the economy as a whole.”[10] Concerning both levels, we can celebrate the fact there are alternative models available in the here and now. From Participatory Economics to Economic Democracy, P2P, Collaborative Economics, the Sharing Economy, worker co-operatives, social enterprises, non-profit organisation (to name just a few) – alternative economic possibilities, varying from market to non-market models, are emerging all around us. The problem is, none are perfect. A lot more development has to take place. A lot more experimenting on a grassroots level has to happen. That is to say that there is still much to do with regards to the process of undertaking further study and critique and redevelopment.

To the best of my knowledge, most of the more ‘concrete’ alternatives – by which I mean theories and models that have been considered extensively on a micro and macro level, and could be considered as immediate substitutes for neoliberal capitalism through a process of deep, radical reform – are market-based alternatives. Of course market-based economics come with a whole list of problems and questions – including structural problems that are in many ways in conflict with actual egalitarian democratic social relations. But if the notion of transition is key to conceptualising a course that begins to move beyond capitalist coordinates in the present, we can at least start to navigate the structural antagonisms of market-based alternatives as we move into a progressive market system which, in turn, would open more space for the experimentation of other future progressive systems – perhaps even a non-market alternative, which should be the ultimate goal. In other words, the position I am drawing on here is one that sees economic transition in phrases. From within one progressive market-based system might another more emancipatory system emerge. From there, perhaps more space develops and more ideas are conceived with regards to non-market possibilities on a micro and macro level. Revolutionary transition is therefore participatory inasmuch as it is a democratic, grassroots and unfolding process.”

Moving then to the Closing Reflections of his long essay, R.C. Smith writes:

“So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the Greek people, or the hope for transformation in the UK or Canada or the US or wherever else? Quite simply: there is no hard and fast answer. It’s a transition, one small step at a time. It is going to be a struggle: such is the demand of an actually progressive (participatory) politics. But the requirements of Syriza should at least be clear. If they refuse or fail, then the grassroots only has to return to exactly where they have started from.

As Theodoros Karyotis recently wrote in his article for ROAR Magazine:

Syriza’s failure to deliver on any of its campaign promises or to reverse the logic of austerity lifts the veil of illusion regarding institutional top-down solutions and leaves the grassroots movements exactly where they started from: being the main antagonistic force to the neoliberal assault on society. Now is the moment for a broad alliance of social forces to bring forward a ‘Plan C’, based on social collaboration, decentralized self-government and the stewardship of common goods. Without overlooking its significance, national electoral politics is not the privileged field of action when it comes to social transformation. The withering away of democracy in Europe should be complemented and challenged by the fortification of self-organized communities at a local level and the forging of strong bonds between them, along with a turn to a solidarity- and needs-based economy, and the collective management and defense of common goods.

To know that the first steps out of capitalism, however tentative and fragile, is not impossible, is significant. It provides, as Lambert Zuidervaart reflects when writing on Adorno, a real sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Indeed, in the same way I have closed so many of my essays: the point is that emancipation must begin as it aims to go on. No matter how one looks at, we have it all to do. If policy is not there to help, this does not mean the first step out of capitalism is lost. Economic Democracy provides an immediate alternative on both levels of transformation – it is within our grasp, even in terms of a prefigurative politics. It is within people’s grasp in the context of existing economic systems and even within existing businesses.

Moving forward, and with regards to the notion of creating revolutionary culture: solidarity, irrespective of policy support, must be created amongst movements and initiatives and campaigns across various or, indeed, diverse sites of struggle – that is, a solidarity that recognizes both the particularity and universality of struggle for a better world. To put it differently: revolutionary theory must recognize transformation as the outcome of a plurality of sources within “the differential fabric of society”.[21] Solidarity must be achieved amongst diversity of progressive movements, whether they’re the fast-food workers’ movement or a student occupation or an environmental campaign or a community agriculture initiative or civil rights struggle or an anti-oppression campaign. Despite the differences in particular focus, despite one’s particular individual focus of concern, progressives throughout the west ultimately share in one way or another a common universal struggle: that is, anti-capitalist struggle.

But if a more concrete object of solidarity is required, then, if not a form of recognition of the various struggles themselves (for a better society), it could, in the least, be found in the anti-capitalist struggle for democracy. Against a system which runs counter to the well-being of all; counter to the prospect of actual democracy, equality and egalitarianism; counter to environmental justice and agrarian rights; counter to participation and freedom; the many diverse sites of resistance today should recognize the fundamentally (bad) social reality in which they all exist. Conscious solidarity of the whole, as Adorno once described it, does not take anything away from the particularity of suffering, conflict and struggle of each group or each community or each individual. It simply recognizes the particular in the context of the systemic whole.

Is such a form of solidarity already being forged among people, communities and the grassroots in Greece? I am not in a position to answer. What I can say is that even in places like the UK, conscious solidarity seems present in certain movements at certain times (however fleeting). However, if it is the case that greater economic lines of sight are required; here, again, Economic Democracy might be proposed. It could be proposed as a potentially widely accessible platform for the basis of many things, including the beginning stages of the process for (re)democratization of food, labour, political-economy, environmental management, the university, and so on. The message is clear, open, engaging, and inclusive. In confronting the bigger picture, Economic Democracy is an easily understandable concept and theory. Seen as the first systemic step, it could be relied on in different ways by progressives across all sections or sectors of society.

In closing: if Economic Democracy is the initial focus, then when all starts to feel lost on a policy level, with neoliberal governments destined to refuse to respect the voice of the people, strategic confrontation with the status quo is still obtainable, particularly by pressuring the inner-most structural constitution of the system: i.e., challenge existing business to democratize. Inject the concept of worker self-management and co-ops into the mainstream. Boycott, if collectively necessary. Turn the capitalist notion of ‘money is power’ on its head. Subvert and pressure and create from within, in whatever way conceivable. Like guerrilla gardeners, plant seeds of transformation within the existing (bad) social architecture – institutions, cultural practices, and interpersonal relations – of contemporary society. From alternative education movements to open-source tech projects and community-based medical initiatives, revolutionary change can occur in the most surprising of places. It is more than possible that, with a concerted effort, the end of capitalism could be closer than what we may all expect or anticipate. But for that to happen, one thing is clear: the development of a revolutionary culture, of conscious solidarity, and all that it entails, is necessary if not vital.”


Posted in Activism, P2P Movements, P2P Theory, Politics | No Comments »

Video: on the recent tidal wave of social media supported activism amongst Chinese workers

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
20th July 2015

Listen to Jack Linchuan Qiu on the use of Social Media on the Picket Line

This presentation gives many details on social media use in mostly Chinese and South-East Asian social and labor mobilisations, with many interesting examples.

Watch the video here:

Video via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me2qGlNj3dU


Posted in Activism, P2P Labor, Politics, Videos | No Comments »

Pope Francis on the need for structural social change

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
18th July 2015

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change. I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age.”

Excerpted from the speech of Pope Francis to a meeting of social movements in Bolivia:

“Do we realize that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?

Do we realize that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought and acts of fratricidal violence are taking place on our very doorstep? Do we realize something is wrong when the soil, water, air and living creatures of our world are under constant threat?

So let’s not be afraid to say it: we need change; we want change.

In your letters and in our meetings, you have mentioned the many forms of exclusion and injustice which you experience in the workplace, in neighborhoods and throughout the land. They are many and diverse, just as many and diverse are the ways in which you confront them. Yet there is an invisible thread joining every one of those forms of exclusion: can we recognize it? These are not isolated issues. I wonder whether we can see that these destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?

If such is the case, I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.

We want change in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our everyday reality. We want a change which can affect the entire world, since global interdependence calls for global answers to local problems. The globalization of hope, a hope which springs up from peoples and takes root among the poor, must replace the globalization of exclusion and indifference!

Today I wish to reflect with you on the change we want and need. You know that recently I wrote about the problems of climate change. But now I would like to speak of change in another sense. Positive change, a change which is good for us, a change – we can say – which is redemptive. Because we need it. I know that you are looking for change, and not just you alone: in my different meetings, in my different travels, I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world. Even within that ever smaller minority which believes that the present system is beneficial, there is a widespread sense of dissatisfaction and even despondency. Many people are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns.

Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.

I do not need to go on describing the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship: you are well aware of them. Nor is it enough to point to the structural causes of today’s social and environmental crisis. We are suffering from an excess of diagnosis, which at times leads us to multiply words and to revel in pessimism and negativity. Looking at the daily news we think that there is nothing to be done, except to take care of ourselves and the little circle of our family and friends.

What can I do, as collector of paper, old clothes or used metal, a recycler, about all these problems if I barely make enough money to put food on the table? What can I do as a craftsman, a street vendor, a trucker, a downtrodden worker, if I don’t even enjoy workers’ rights? What can I do, a farmwife, a native woman, a fisher who can hardly fight the domination of the big corporations? What can I do from my little home, my shanty, my hamlet, my settlement, when I daily meet with discrimination and marginalization? What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solution for my problems? A lot! They can do a lot. You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels.

Don’t lose heart!

You are sowers of change. Here in Bolivia I have heard a phrase which I like: “process of change”. Change seen not as something which will one day result from any one political decision or change in social structure. We know from painful experience that changes of structure which are not accompanied by a sincere conversion of mind and heart sooner or later end up in bureaucratization, corruption and failure. That is why I like the image of a “process”, where the drive to sow, to water seeds which others will see sprout, replaces the ambition to occupy every available position of power and to see immediate results. Each of us is just one part of a complex and differentiated whole, interacting in time: peoples who struggle to find meaning, a destiny, and to live with dignity, to “live well”.

As members of popular movements, you carry out your work inspired by fraternal love, which you show in opposing social injustice. When we look into the eyes of the suffering, when we see the faces of the endangered campesino, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child, the mother who lost her child in a shootout because the barrio was occupied by drugdealers, the father who lost his daughter to enslavement…. when we think of all those names and faces, our hearts break because of so much sorrow and pain. And we are deeply moved…. We are moved because “we have seen and heard” not a cold statistic but the pain of a suffering humanity, our own pain, our own flesh. This is something quite different than abstract theorizing or eloquent indignation. It moves us; it makes us attentive to others in an effort to move forward together. That emotion which turns into community action is not something which can be understood by reason alone: it has a surplus of meaning which only peoples understand, and it gives a special feel to genuine popular movements.

Each day you are caught up in the storms of people’s lives. You have told me about their causes, you have shared your own struggles with me, and I thank you for that. You, dear brothers and sisters, often work on little things, in local situations, amid forms of injustice which you do not simply accept but actively resist, standing up to an idolatrous system which excludes, debases and kills. I have seen you work tirelessly for the soil and crops of campesinos, for their lands and communities, for a more dignified local economy, for the urbanization of their homes and settlements; you have helped them build their own homes and develop neighborhood infrastructures. You have also promoted any number of community activities aimed at reaffirming so elementary and undeniably necessary a right as that of the three “L’s”: land, lodging and labor.

This rootedness in the barrio, the land, the office, the labor union, this ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people… Commitment, true commitment, is born of the love of men and women, of children and the elderly, of peoples and communities… of names and faces which fill our hearts. From those seeds of hope patiently sown in the forgotten fringes of our planet, from those seedlings of a tenderness which struggles to grow amid the shadows of exclusion, great trees will spring up, great groves of hope to give oxygen to our world.

So I am pleased to see that you are working at close hand to care for those seedlings, but at the same time, with a broader perspective, to protect the entire forest. Your work is carried out against a horizon which, while concentrating on your own specific area, also aims to resolve at their root the more general problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion.

I congratulate you on this. It is essential that, along with the defense of their legitimate rights, peoples and their social organizations be able to construct a humane alternative to a globalization which excludes. You are sowers of change. May God grant you the courage, joy, perseverance and passion to continue sowing. Be assured that sooner or later we will see its fruits. Of the leadership I ask this: be creative and never stop being rooted in local realities, since the father of lies is able to usurp noble words, to promote intellectual fads and to adopt ideological stances. But if you build on solid foundations, on real needs and on the lived experience of your brothers and sisters, of campesinos and natives, of excluded workers and marginalized families, you will surely be on the right path.”


Posted in Activism, Ethical Economy, P2P Movements, P2P Spirituality, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

Messages from the Immaterial Commons: 4

photo of Denis Postle

Denis Postle
14th July 2015

Stepping aside from neoliberal faith – The heresy of Commoning

20thAnniFLYERwebCropOne of the great things about the commons tradition is that every instance is local and idiosyncratic and requires that we make it up as we go along. But do we have to reinvent the commonweal? Yes – probably we do, but what might be generic? What might be learned by sharing the experience? This article tells of how a group of practitioners in the UK developed what subsequently turned out to be commoning, and have sustained it for over 20 years.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Default, Ethical Economy, Integral Theory, Networks, Open Access, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, P2P Ecology, P2P Healthcare, P2P Subjectivity, Peer Production, Politics | No Comments »

Closed in and crowded out: urbanising against the city

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
11th July 2015


Cross-posted from CommonsTransition.org, Carlos Delclós explores the gap between people and increasingly unaccountable institutions beholden to financial interests, citizens are rising up to reclaim the commons.

commons box_0

The ubiquity of social unrest and economic conflict in Europe tells us that we are living in times of intense contradictions.

Where streets have not filled up with massive protests calling for a more direct, participatory and meaningful democratic culture, ballot boxes are increasingly filling up with votes for post-fascist parties like the National Front or UKIP, whose voices are in turn amplified and over-represented by consistently high voter abstention rates.

Though many are looking to the rise of new parties like Syriza and Podemos for signs of hope, the gap between the idea of Europe as a common, borderless space of emancipatory potential and the threat of a Europe characterised by nationalist entrenchment remains a daunting reality.

Over the last few years, the Doc Next Network has been researching, documenting and playing in this gap, and building an archive of short, socially conscious documentaries and independent films in the process. During the first phase, called Remapping Europe, we explored the contours of Europe’s borders, whether these were internal between member states, external to the common area or inherent in the very idea of Europe.

We learned that borders are something we carry with us; they continuously shape the structure and texture of our surroundings by imposing and reproducing relationships of exclusion and exploitation. As the political and social theorists Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson point out, they are not mere obstructions of global flows of capital. Rather, they are the essential devices through which these flows are articulated, mediating social relationships and access to the most basic resources required to satisfy human needs, such as land, labor, money and knowledge, often referred to as “the commons”.

This insight led to the project’s next phase, called Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons, which looks at how borders operate at a more local level to enclose the commons and how those enclosures are being confronted and overcome. In this series of posts, we will present some of our results along with content from our Media Collection. By doing so, we will explore the challenges faced by ordinary people who are working together to produce an emancipatory horizon of self-organised and self-managed commons, free from the mediation of both the state and the market.

The challenges faced by these movements are many. The enclosure of the commons is not limited to the privatisation of public resources, though this is certainly one of the forms in which it takes place. Enclosure goes beyond the transfer of resources to produce two major tendencies: closing in and crowding out.


Think of the internet. Ostensibly, it is conceived to allow any user to connect with any other user or set of users anywhere in the world to exchange information in real-time. Many of us still remember how, around the turn of the century, several notable and enthusiastic intellectuals referred to an obliteration of the tension between time and space that would eventually lead to radically horizontal social relations. Of course, the reality of the internet is more complex than that.

In a recent essay, net artist and co-founder of the Geocities Research Institute Olia Lialina describes how the field of User Experience (UX) has changed the way people use the internet over the years. Premised around “scripting the user”, UX directs what information we consume, what users we relate to and how, eliminating clicks by relegating more and more processes to the back-end of websites and applications (where they run automatically) and directing those we do make through a streamlined, visually attractive front-end.

If we think of a company such as Facebook, the tendency towards enclosure becomes even clearer. In addition to information about the people we interact with, Facebook’s algorithms are constantly collecting data on our behavioural patterns, preferences and tastes. The algorithms, in turn, determine what stories we see in our feeds and what is marketed to us.

Each click determines the next several, reproducing and reinforcing our previously existing interests and shielding us from the influence of those whose interests diverge from our own. In this way, we are closed into increasingly specific interest groups and crowded out of a forum for interaction with a much more varied multitude. Meanwhile, people all over the world are coming to believe that Facebook actually is the internet, and more and more companies and institutions are submitting an increasing share of their social activity to the logic of a single company.

Urbanisation has remarkably similar effects, and that is because its goals are not much different than those of Facebook. Ultimately, the goal of urban planning is to direct social relations so that they are predictable enough to guarantee security, maximise profits and minimise conflict for flows of capital. The social ecologist Murray Bookchin realised this, and in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, he proposed that urbanisation was ultimately at war against the historical notion of the city:

City space, with its human propinquity, distinctive neighbourhoods and humanly scaled politics—like rural space, with its closeness to nature, its high sense of mutual aid and its strong family relationships—is being absorbed by urbanisation, with its smothering traits of anonymity, homogenisation, and institutional gigantism.

The overwhelming scale of the process can even lead people to enclose themselves, as he went on to point out:

The result is that the ego itself tends to become passive, disembodied, and introverted in the face of a technological and bureaucratic gigantism unprecedented, indeed unimaginable, in earlier human history. Public life, already buffeted by techniques for engineering public consent, tends to dissolve into private life, a form of mere survivalism that can easily take highly sinister forms.

Bookchin also linked the emergence of a market economy, freedom of trade and industrial innovation in Europe to the development of roads, rivers and canals.

The French from ZEMOS98 on Vimeo.

Tellingly, while the latter were systematically homogenised, redirected and, in the case of the rivers, polluted, the former are precisely the elements that were prioritised throughout the development of the European Union, beginning with its roots in the European Coal and Steel Community.

While there is much to be said about his idealisation of rural communities and pre-capitalist society in general, reading The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship today is an illuminating experience. His agenda for community-based, libertarian municipal politics matches the demands of the radical democratic movements that took center stage in post-2011 Europe, while the Troika imposed austerity through the sheer force of its own “institutional gigantism”. And his critique of urbanisation resonates with the pathological geographies of the housing and construction bust of countries like Spain and Ireland.

NONCITY, an independent film by Nuno Pessoa and Andrea Fernández, captures Bookchin’s critique of urbanisation at the expense of the city as it follows two visitors wandering through Arroyo de la Encomienda, a Spanish ghost town on the outskirts of Valladolid left behind by speculative town planning and corruption. Its mayor resigned a year after being charged with bribery and obstruction, once he had been sentenced to three years of prison.

NONCITY from TNGNT on Vimeo.

We are beginning to see the cracks in the pavement. Seemingly small gestures can provoke widespread revolt, whether it is cutting down a tree in Istanbul or evicting a squat in Hamburg or Barcelona. Mainstream publications like The Guardian are beginning to run articles on the commons, heralding “a wave of disruption” that will challenge neoliberalism.

And the politics of urbanisation now generates considerable interest, with prominent blogs and web magazines dedicating considerable space to polemics on Richard Florida’s creative-class oriented approach to “urban renewal” or Neil Smith and David Harvey’s critique of gentrification and city branding. We are also seeing the rise of what I’d argue has become a sub-genre of internet literature, namely, the pseudo-Marxist think-piece on hipsters and gentrification.

Most importantly, we are seeing more and more attempts by ordinary citizens to take back what is rightfully theirs, what is rightfully everyone’s. Over the next several weeks, we will tell some of those stories. It’s true that we are not going to change the world with one or two urban gardens. But when we care for the seeds planted in the gaps of a hollow system, we are choosing to cultivate the living city and leave the dead weight of urbanisation behind. And who knows what may tremble beneath the cobblestones?

Municipal Tremors – Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons teaser (Spain Medialab) from Doc Next Network on Vimeo.

European cities for the commons is an editorial partnership supported by Radical Democracy: Reclaiming the Commons, a Doc Next Network project.

This article was originally published in Open Democracy


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Featured Movement, Guest Post, Open Government, Open Models, P2P Action Items, P2P Architecture and Urbanism, Peer Property, Videos | No Comments »

Messages from the Immaterial Commons: 2) Professional Wisdom and the Abuse of Power

photo of Denis Postle

Denis Postle
10th July 2015

The PsyCommons and its Enclosures – Professional Wisdom and the Abuse of Power.

First published in Asylum

couple chatting

Commons, commoning and common goods, apart from their intrinsic value, can wake us up to the extent to which valuable human resources have been enclosed for exploitation or social control. Enclosures such as copyright, land, patenting (and bottled water), have surged into view. Less apparent but equally important are the enclosures of some of the emotional, intrapsychic aspects of the human condition. Advertising, branding and marketing will have to wait for another day, what follows is an outline of how the enclosures of professionalized psychology demean, damage and exploit the common resources of the human condition.

Read the rest of this entry »


Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Commons, Default, Integral Theory, P2P Rights, P2P Subjectivity | No Comments »

The European Parliament Focuses on Commons

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
8th July 2015

Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 3.47.51 PM-375x333

The European Parliament is formally focusing on the commons paradigm through a new “Intergroup on common goods,” which is part of a larger group known as the “European Parliamentary Intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services.”  The group met for the first time on May 26 in Brussels, at the European Parliament.  At this early stage, it’s hard to tell if it will be influential either within the European Parliament or with the public, but it certainly represents a significant new threshold for commons activism.

Intergroups are official forums of the Parliament at which members, political organizations and movements can air their views and try to rally attention to a given topic. As Sophie Bloemen of the Commons Network writes:

Even though the intergroups have no legislative power, they can be valuable having such a representation in the European Parliament. At the minimum, it is a multiparty forum where one can exchange views and propose ideas on particular subjects in an informal way. Those who choose to work with such an intergroup, its Members of Parliament, and civil society or lobbyists, share the notion that a certain topic is important and can focus on how to get things done.

Now there will also be a Commons Intergroup. This particular group will allow for discussions on policy from a shared perspective: the idea that “the commons” – is an important and helpful way of framing the important themes of present times. As there can only be so many Intergroups, inevitably the group is the result of a political compromise. It has been formed by Members of the European Parliament from the Greens, the left group GUE, the large Social Democrat party (S&D) and the group EFDD which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party. The movement on water as a commons has been instrumental for the mobilization of the intergroup.

For political reasons, the Commons Intergroup is one of two subgroups of the European Parliamentary intergroup on Common Goods and Public Services. MEP Marisa Matias from GUE is the president of the Commons Intergroup.

Bloemen sees the very formation of the Intergroup as “confirmation of the aspirations and discourse of the commons becoming a political force.”  But she also wonders “how an intergroup with such a broad scope as commons or common goods [can] be useful? Aren’t the daily activities of the European Parliament in the end about concrete policies, amendments to policy proposals and votes?”

These were not the only questions about the new Intergroup.  Denis Postle, a Brit who blogs at psyCommons, wrote about his own misgivings about the meeting – and its promise:

There were repeated calls for “the need for debate” but debate was overwhelmingly subordinate to a series of charismatic and often vociferous presentations mostly from the podium, peppered with multiple exhortations that the commons and common goods “were a good idea,” “we must…” “we need…” “we have to…” etc., etc. Lots of talk about commons not much apparently fromcommons. When I spoke to ask the other delegates “who we were” and how many had direct experience of commoning, around a third of the audience put up their hands, an indicator perhaps that less preaching to the converted would have been appropriate.

This was an inaugural meeting, so uncertainty and clumsiness can be excused, however on balance the presentations had a lot to say about common goodsresources, i.e., a city’s water supply and much less about commoning, often a fragile flower growing out of peer-to-peer governance, commitment and emotional competence.

Was this a meeting then, as it perhaps seemed, where the old left was trying to befriend a new and promising flavour of the political month? There was no coffee break and apart from casual chat before the meeting, no interaction between the assembled delegates –the old paradigm of a representative polity?

And yet… in her introductory remarks Marisa Matias outlined two agenda items, “how to think outside the logic of the state” and “how to handle the management of the commons,” both radical contradictions of neoliberal preferences. Perhaps this Common Goods Intergroup event was a way of introducing to an old politics, news of political innovation that was proving unexpectedly and improbably successful.

The arrival of the Commons Integroup can’t help but provoke reflections on the rising tide of other commons initiatives in Europe.  There were the recent elections of leaders in Barcelona with an explicit commons agenda; the new public/commons partnerships instigated by the city governments of Bologna and other Italian cities; the festivals for the commons in Greece, Italy and elsewhere; the re-muncipalization of the Paris water supply; and the growing interest in the commons paradigm among French academics and graduate students, especially as the performance of the Socialist Party declines.

As a creature of the European Parliament, the Commons Intergroup may face some serious challenges in advancing a commons agenda, however. How will it deal with the multiple definitions of commons, the diversity of voices, and the wide-open agenda that could focus on dozens of suitable topics?  Still, it is significant that there was sufficient interest among credentialed European political factions to discuss the commons and give it a political presence That’s a huge advance.

So now there exists a forum in which to hash through conflicting views of the commons and to give visibility to a neglected realm of European public policy.  Let the debates begin over whether the commons is a resource alone or a social activity, what should be considered a commons, and how best to protect them from enclosure. Let us hear, too, of the many innovative policy initiatives that might support and protect commons.

An important conversation has begun!

originally published at Bollier.org


Posted in Activism, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Open Government, Original Content, P2P Public Policy, Politics | No Comments »

The Real Question of the Referendum: The Enclosure of the Greek Commons

photo of Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis
4th July 2015


Being a typical academic, allow me to begin with a definition: the commons is a term used to describe shared resources (such as land, water, air, culture, science, infrastructures) in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.

The devastating enclosures of the English commons, between 16th and 19th centuries, has been labeled as the “revolution of the rich against the poor” by the eminent political economist Karl Polanyi. They forced peasants into the labor market and the factories of the industrial revolution and “marked the beginning of a worldwide process of commodifying the land, ocean, and atmosphere of the earth”.

So, what is the relevance of the loss of the English commons with the imminent Greek referendum?

Much discussion has been taking place around the meaning of a question posed in a relatively technical language. To put the matter bluntly, I would like to argue that the real question of the referendum is whether Greek citizens approve or disprove the enclosure of their commons. The proposed changes in the pension, taxing, labour and insurance systems are supposedly aimed at ensuring that Greece can service its foreign debt. However, these are not the biggest perils although they fill most of the pages of the notorious document the Greeks are called to approve or disprove.

In short, on page 17, the creditors suggest that Greece irreversibly privatizes its airports, harbors, railways, water supply and sewerage companies, energy infrastructures and public power corporations, motorways, post offices, thermal springs, cultural treasures and other properties (seaside land, marinas etc). These are assets which we have inherited or jointly created and, instead of delivering them intact or even enhanced to the next generations, we are called, under the pressure of an economic collapse, to sell them off to the rich. In addition, no hybrid forms of public-private partnership are explicitly mentioned (for instance, OTE, a profitable telecommunication public-private corporation, is to be entirely privatized).

Conditions in Greece today are not only reminiscent of those in Germany in 1933, as Prof. Sachs writes, but also of those in 16th-19th century England and Wales. Another revolution of the ultra-rich is taking place and the endgame playing out between Greece and its creditors might be only the beginning of a new global wave of enclosures.


Vasilis Kostakis is Senior Research Fellow at the Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance (TUT), longtime collaborator of the P2P Foundation, and member of the CommonsTransition Team.

Images: (Top) (Bottom) by OpenSource.com


Posted in Activism, Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Commons Transition, Economy and Business, Empire, Original Content, P2P Rights, Politics | No Comments »

Michel Bauwens: The Transition Will Not Be Smooth Sailing

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
29th June 2015


We present an English translation of the original interview in French conducted by Arthur de Grave. Cross-posted from OuiShare. Translation by Clement Defontaine. Originally published at Shareable Magazine

Michel Bauwens is one of the pioneers of the peer-to-peer movement. Theoretician, activist, and public speaker, he founded the P2P Foundation in 2005. His work, both rich and complex, is built around the concepts of networks and commons, and lays the conceptual foundations of a production system that would serve as an alternative to industrial capitalism. I had the opportunity to meet him at the French release of his latest book, Saving the World: Towards a Post-Capitalist Society with Peer-to-Peer (published by “Les Liens qui Libèrent”).

Michel, Save the World, your last book, is the translation of a series of talks with Jean Lievens published two years ago. What happened between then? Do you have the impression that the transition you talk about has accelerated?

In this regard, one should make haste slowly. It is clear that the transition to a post-capitalist, sustainable economy will not happen overnight, or even in a few years. It is a long process. Some projects which seemed to work well according to a peer-to-peer logic one or two years ago have since become purely capitalistic. This enables them to grow faster. It contrasts with other more open and truly collaborative projects that have chosen to grow more slowly.

When one has no money, one takes on “solidarity dynamics”. So yes, it can give an impression of a relative stagnation, but I do not worry too much. For this is a major crisis, ecological, social and economic, looming on the horizon. The challenge is to be ready when it breaks out, probably around 2030. FairCoop, WikiSpeed… These kinds of projects are still small and yes, too few. In the coming years, those who are still only the seeds of this transition will have to develop a stable ecosystem, in order to initiate a real movement.

In an interview with us in 2013, you stated that capitalism and peer-to-peer were still interdependent. Isn’t that the real problem? Is this a stable relationship?

No, of course not, how could it be? The value generated by the Commons is still largely captured by capital: by adopting extractive models, large platforms of the sharing economy are engaged in a form of parasitic commercial activity. In the old days, capitalism was a way of allocating resources in a situation of scarcity, but now it is an engineered scarcity system. Our system is completely mad: we pretend that natural resources are endless, and we set artificial barriers around what is abundant in nature, i.e.: creativity and human intelligence. This is a profound moral issue.

In her book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, Marjorie Kelly aptly defines the challenge that awaits us: moving from extractive capital to generative capital. The good news is that this process has already started. First of all, because it is impossible to hide the fact that civil society has now become a value creator. This is an important point, as civil society was mostly absent from the “classic” capitalist equation. In addition, we are beginning to witness a change in market structures: commercial spheres of a new kind are developing around the Commons. Enspiral [a collaborative network of social entrepreneurs], in New Zealand, is the perfect example of this type of entrepreneurial coalition.

In your opinion, how could the peer-to-peer model free itself from capitalism in practical terms?

For a start, we should choose the right strategy. I think that despite all the good intentions, projects that aspire to compete head-to-head with Google or Facebook are doomed to fail. I believe much more in targeted approaches like Loomio [an online tool for collaborative decision-making, editor’s note]. The transition will be a sum of such small victories that will connect with each other.

This also requires the creation of new legal tools. We have completely forgotten the tradition of Commons and this is really obvious in our legal tradition. We must make room for legal innovation. In this regard, a principle like the copyleft, or the opposite, the copysol [a license that prohibits any interaction with the traditional commercial market, editor’s note] are interesting but imperfect as they are too radical (in their implications). I want to find a third way, one that would provide a balance between the commercial sphere and the Commons. This is the goal of the work we began around the notion of Peer Production License, which balances out contribution to the Commons and use of these.

Will that be enough? Those in the hands of which capital is concentrated today have no interest in the emergence of a distributed and fair model…

No revolution ever happened without a fraction of the ruling elite take the side of progress! This means that a cultural shift is needed. Today, Joe Justice [founder of the Wikispeed community] struggles to raise funds, including from ethical finance funds, as Wikispeed does not file patents. The world of responsible finance can not continue to support models that create artificial scarcity.

As I was saying earlier, when one lacks resources, one works with other people. For initiatives of the Commons economy, building a network is an absolute necessity. To get an idea of what this kind of ecosystem might look like, go to Madison, Wisconsin: there, food cooperatives, cooperative credit systems between companies, time banks, etc. gathered to create the Mutual Aid Network. In Madison, the alternative economy can be seen and felt in the streets and took less than two years to happen! The same kind of ambition drove an initiative like Faircoop in Spain.

For now, the main transformative ideas that are penetrating the economy – open economy, solidarity economy and ecology – are applied independently from each other. But when these ideas converge, we will witness the birth of an open source and circular economy. This concept of Open Source Circular Economy is at the heart of the debate we are conducting within the P2P Foundation.

I have the feeling that, by focusing on economy and leaving aside the political processes, we have given in to the calls of technological solutionism criticized by Evgeny Morozov. What do you think? Should we relearn to do politics?

Yes, in some ways, but what matters is that politics ended up re-imposing itself through collective learning. The Commons Transition Platform in which I am very involved, gathers and details the political transformation plans necessary for the implementation of a post-capitalist society. This is also the idea of the approach we applied with the FLOK project in Ecuador. The devised political transition plan which included civil society at the centre of public-value creation, a market sphere integrating external factors and a State that serves as a facilitator. FLOK was a partial failure, due to a lack of political will and lack of social base on which to lean for support, however, the political vision we have outlined is making its way to Europe (some proposals have been included within the economic program of Syriza in Greece).

Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados eventually lost momentum. The Arab Spring was, for the most part, led astray. In Spain, Podemos movement attempts to maintain a balance between bottom-up and vertical power, but at the expense of permanent tensions. How can one overcome the contradiction between the institutional logic intertwined with political practices and horizontality, a concept cherished by social movements?

To transfer a concept in real-life conditions on the long term following a pure horizontal logic is very complicated, if not downright impossible. At one time or another, a collective entity has to intervene to transcend individual interests. This also forms part of the collective learning of politics that we had to do. This is also the goal of Podemos’ experience in Spain. A fully horizontal organization system causes too much energy loss; conversely, the vertical system should be confined to areas where it guarantees a greater degree of autonomy for everyone. A bit like the Domain Name System when Internet appeared.

Are the Commons a left-wing idea?

Politically, the P2P Foundation is a pluralistic organization, simply because the logic underlying the Commons spans the entire political spectrum. Solidarity also exists within right-wing parties, some ideas in the ideology of the Front National (French extreme right-wing party, translator’s note) could even be considered as more socialist than what the Parti Socialiste (French socialist party, translator’s note) offers today. But the real question is: who benefits from this solidarity? Right-wing parties only show real solidarity with their supporters! So it’s on the issue of inclusion that the real fault line between right and left comes to light.

It is on the issue of inclusion that the real fault line between right and left comes to light.

Personally, I have left-wing ideas, and I think that the transition to a Commons economy has to benefit to everyone. The real challenge is to go beyond the progressivism inherited from the world of work of the last century. In this context, it is not surprising that European socialism is going through a profound identity crisis.

It is true that none of the partisan parties really seized this idea of Commons. Was it a mistake? Can we really make this a political topic? The concept of Commons remains somewhat abstruse.

The jargon of the Commons may at first seem technical and hard to digest, which is true. But in the mid-2000s, when I created the P2P Foundation, I decided to completely give up the old political lexicon of the left. At that time, the public did not really know what was hidden behind the concept of peer-to-peer. But as social and cultural practices started evolving, as networks started being used on a daily basis, more and more people adopted this new language. The same will most likely happen with the terminology of the Commons.

All will depend on the social movements that will defend this original conceptual arsenal. However, I find you rather pessimistic: the Pirate Party, the European Greens, Podemos, or Syriza have largely embraced this concept of Commons. It is indeed at the core of a new progressive thinking.

Politicizing the Commons, is researching their roots and genealogy. If the law leaves so little room for the Commons today, it is because we forgot where they came from. Yet, this type of organization and management of resources existed long before modern industrial capitalism practices. We must reconnect with this tradition and rewrite this forgotten chapter in our economic history. Politicizing the Commons is also researching their roots and genealogy. It’s the condition to lay the foundation of a new narrative on progress. Changing the world for the better will require considerable efforts on the part of everyone, but I think that peer-to-peer is a vision of society that is worth the sacrifice.


Posted in Activism, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Ethical Economy, Open Models, Original Content, P2P Labor, P2P Subjectivity, Politics | No Comments »

Bologna Celebrates One Year of a Bold Experiment in Urban Commoning

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
28th June 2015

Colori di Bolonia

Reposted from Shareable Magazine, Neal Gorenflo describes the one year anniversary of The Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons, a unique city policy that has turned “no you can’t” into “yes we can together.”

It all began with park benches.

In 2011, a group of women in Bologna, Italy wanted to donate benches to their neighborhood park, Piazza Carducci. There was nowhere to sit in their park. So they called the city government to get permission to put in benches. They called one department, which referred them to another, which sent them on again. No one in the city could help them. This dilemma highlighted an important civic lacuna — there simply was no way for citizens to contribute improvements to the city. In fact, it was illegal.

Fast forward to May 16, 2015. The mayor, city councilors, community leaders, journalists, and hundreds of others gathered at the awe-inspiring MAST Gallery for the opening ceremony of Bologna’s Civic Collaboration Fest celebrating the one year anniversary of the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons, a history-making institutional innovation that enables Bologna to operate as a collaborative commons. Now Bologna’s citizens have a legal way to contribute to the city. Since the regulation passed one year ago, more than 100 projects have signed “collaboration pacts” with the city under the regulation to contribute urban improvements with 100 more in the pipeline.

It was an impressive event filled with ceremony, emotion, historical significance all in a context of tough political realities.

The MAST Gallery in Bologna

The MAST Gallery in Bologna

City Councilor Luca Rizzo Nervo opened the ceremony with a rousing speech. He said a new day was dawning where “no you can’t” was turning into “yes we can together,” where citizens are self-determining, and where a new, empowering relationship between citizens and city had begun. He said he was tired of the old, pessimistic rhetoric and that the regulation opened up a new, hopeful development path that takes “active citizenship” to the next level. He ended with a vision of Bologna as an entire city powered by sharing and collaboration as part of a global network of other cities on the same path.

Administrator Donato Di Memmo, the urban commons project leader, spoke to the importance of the urban commons for urban art, digital innovation and social cohesion and the need for improvement in the application of the regulation. He said that relationships are the starting point and that with training and more visibility the regulation could meet the high expectations for it.

We heard from the leaders of three projects that had signed pacts. Michela Bassi spoke of the impact of her Social Streets project, which has moved from a network of neighborhood Facebook groups to a nonprofit with a set of tangible projects including an outdoor ad turned into a neighborhood bulletin board. Veronica Veronesi introduced Reuse With Love, a group of 50 neighbors who joined forces to fight waste and improve the lives of children and the poor. Annarita Ciaruffoli of Dentro Al Nido (Inside the Nest) spoke of how the regulation was helping to restore schools.

Stefano Brugnara, president of Arci Bologna and spokesperson for the Bologna Third Sector Forum, an association of local nonprofits, spoke of the durable role of nonprofits under the new regulation; that they don’t get subsumed by it, but rather can be strengthened by it, especially if there’s transparency in its application. His comments hinted at a concern that nonprofits would be weakened by the regulation.

Giovanni Ginocchini of Bologna’s Urban Center commented on urban transformation from a physical standpoint including fighting graffiti, renovation of the city’s famous arcades, green lighting in public spaces, and better social housing.

While the proceedings included a diverse set of stakeholders, Mayor Virginio Merola was clearly the headliner. He gave an engaging speech filled with emotion and historical reflection. His main point, which was a reminder of Bologna’s long history of civic innovation, was that Bologna’s people and their cooperative culture are the city’s most important assets, the things that set it apart. He said the regulation was taking this tradition to the next level.

Bologna's Mayor Merola about to give civic collaborators keys to the city at the recent Civic Collaboration Fest

Bologna’s Mayor Merola about to give civic collaborators keys to the city at the recent Civic Collaboration Fest

He got emotional at points in his speech, pausing to hold back tears. This stirred the audience. He connected. He spoke of the need for citizens to love each other and to have the freedom to do the best for oneself and others. He said it’s easy to get depressed by the daily news, but that the DNA of Bologna is the ability of citizens to fulfill their dreams. He spoke about the increasing diversity of the city – only 30% of residents are Bologna born – and the need to focus on commonalities, common assets, human rights, and equality. He urged the audience to create an intelligent city – one based on great relationships – as opposed to a merely smart city. He concluded that while there’s a need for much more citizen action, that this doesn’t mean the end of hierarchy. The city still needs dedicated civil servants.

The mayor has been criticized as “the mayor who cries” and for not having a vision. I got word after the ceremony that the mayor said the urban commons is now his vision. I was blown away how aligned his and Luca Rizzo Nervo’s vision is with Shareable’s and our Sharing Cities Network. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our vision is aligned with theirs as Bologna has a thousand year history of civic innovation that includes the first university in the Western world, self-rule as a independent city-state during the Middle Ages, and more recently the rise of the region’s famously large cooperative sector. One conclusion of Robert Putnam’s influential book about Italy, Making Democracy Work, was that Northern Italians were richer than their southern cousins because they were civic, not the reverse as he had previously thought. The mayor’s speech about the cooperative spirit of Bologna was not hot air. It had the weight of history behind it. It spoke to a necessary and feasible revival of it.

Mayor Merola giving a citizen a key to the city. Said citizen beams with pride.

Mayor Merola giving a citizen a key to the city. Said citizen beams with pride.

After the mayor spoke, and on the invitation of our host, Christian Iaione of LUISS LabGov, Fordham University professor Sheila Foster, commons activist David Bollier (who also posted about the event here), and I gave short talks about the urban commons. Sheila focused on the potential of the urban commons to foster human development. David spoke about commons-based economic development, and Bologna’s potential to inspire other cities.  And I spoke about the how living day-to-day in the commons builds citizenship.

The ceremony was concluded in the most fitting way possible. All the leaders of projects operating under the regulation were invited on stage. The mayor gave each a USB key to the city with a copy of regulation on the drive. The USB key was the brainchild of Christian Iaione and Michele d’Alena, the civic collaboration fest project leader. What a great idea. It created a joyful moment that symbolized a shift in power from elected leaders to citizens.

One of the many keys that Mayor Merola passed out at the Civic Collaboration Festival

One of the many keys that Mayor Merola passed out at the Civic Collaboration Festival

The next day Christian Iaione and Elena De Nictolis, Alessandra Feola and Elia Lofranco of LUISS LabGov gave a delegation including Sheila Foster and I a tour of projects that were active that day. Our first stop was one of seven citizen groups painting buildings in the city’s historic center. Painting is a big deal because of an abundance of graffiti and the need to maintain the ancient buildings, which is crucial for quality of life not to mention the tourist trade.

A group of volunteers from nonprofit Lawyers at Work painting under one of the many arcades in Bologna's historic city center

A group of volunteers from nonprofit Lawyers at Work painting under one of the many arcades in Bologna’s historic city center

There I saw the regulation’s multistakeholder collaboration in action. The painting crew was a nonprofit, Lawyers at Work. The municipal waste management company Hera had dropped off the painting kit earlier in the day. It included paint that met the city’s historical code, brushes, smocks to protect clothing, cones to mark off the work area, and more.  Hera had also cleared the painting project with the building owner and city. The city hosted an online map that showed all the projects active that day and their location. Citizens could track and join projects online or do it spontaneously. A neighbor had joined Lawyers at Work when they happened by the worksite, something that happens regularly with Bologna’s urban commons projects. Neighbors also share project activity on social media which can spark more activity and civic pride.

A screen shot of a real-time map developed by the city to track urban commons project activity

A screen shot of a real-time map developed by the city to track urban commons project activity

My idea of placemaking was radically upgraded by witnessing the regulation in action.  Here the making part of placemaking was brought to life in a vivid and dynamic way. No longer was placemaking for urban design experts who plan everything out in advance, but rather it was for everyone in a real-time multistakeholder dance that included both planned and spontaneous elements. I began to see the possibilities of an entirely new way to live in a city that was even more creative, enlivening, and social than what cities already offer.

In between stops in what turned out to be a long, vigorous walk, I had the chance to chat with Sheila Foster and Christian Iaione who had just co-authored a soon-to-be published paper conceptualizing the city as commons from an administrative law standpoint. Two points stood out in our conversation. First, that a new era was dawning where citizens are active co-managers of the resources they use in cities instead of passive recipients of services. Secondly, that the old idea of commons needed an upgrade in the urban context. Most academic studies of commons revolve around relatively isolated natural resource commons like forests, fisheries, and pastures. Urban commons must by necessity be embedded in a dense weave of institutions. They can’t be as independent of the market and government as the natural resource commons that Elinor Ostrom was famous for studying. Room must be made for urban commons in a city’s administrative law and processes. In addition, they must be productively linked to other sectors of with a city. This arguably makes urban commons more complex to set up, but could provide more protection for them than what’s typical for natural resource commons, which are prone to closure. This highlighted the importance of Bologna’s urban commons regulation. It has opened space for the urban commons to flourish in Bologna and is already leading the way for other cities in Italy and beyond.

After a couple of other stops, we ended our tour at Piazza Carducci. I wanted to see where Bologna’s urban commons began. I got my wish. The park was ordinary, and that’s just the point. The most extraordinary social innovations can begin in ordinary places with a simple wish. This was such a place, and it was beautiful to me for that reason. All of us gathered on one of the benches for a picture to commemorate the pioneers of Bologna’s urban commons, the women of Piazza Carducci.

Sheila Foster, Christian Iaione, the LabGov team, and myself on a bench in Piazza Carducci

Sheila Foster, Christian Iaione, the LabGov team, and myself on a bench in Piazza Carducci

Originally published on Shareable
Lead image by Martina. Article images by Neal Gorenflo


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