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Archive for 'Empire'

A New Commodity Is Born: Breast Milk

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
6th April 2015


It’s not everyday that we get to see great masses of people alter their attitudes as a cherished act of motherhood is converted into a lucrative market. That’s what is happening these days with breast milk, as recently reported by the New York Times. Biotech firms want to capitalize on the rich therapeutic potential of breast milk by turning it into high-tech medical products that can fight infections, improve blood clotting and deal with intestinal and infectious diseases.

This keen commercial interest in acquiring breast milk – an intimate part of the human body associated with maternal love and nourishment – raises all sorts of troubling new questions.  Who will have privileged access to breast milk in the future – biotech firms backed by the deep pockets of venture capitalists, or premature babies who need the milk, especially from their own mothers?  Will the emerging big business of breast milk lead to the closing of “milk banks” that provide donated breast milk to hospitals and nursing mothers at cost (i.e., the costs of donor-screening and pasteurization)?

The rise of a new market for breast milk brings to the fore the fundamental issue of inalienability – the idea that certain things are so valued that it is not ethically appropriate to exchange them for money in the marketplace. This is a topic that is near and dear to commoners, of course, who are constantly trying to prevent and reverse market enclosures that commodify everything from water and the atmosphere to the human genome and childhood.

Years ago, I learned a lot about inalienability from Margaret Jane Radin’s book Contested Commodities:  The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts and Other Things (Harvard University Press, 1996).  She argues that liberal societies have a recurrent problem caused by a philosophical conundrum:  It values freedom and individual choice, but it also values the dignity of personhood.  So what happens when our “freedom of choice” in the marketplace runs over our integrity and dignity as human beings – such as having intimate aspects of our bodies converted into market commodities?

“Conceiving of all human exchange in terms of the market metaphor,” said Radin, “creates the risk that we will become incapable of transcending that rhetoric’s presuppositions about human nature, and thus unable to inspire deeper, more humane visions of the good.”

Commodification is a worldview that implies all sorts of attitudes, behaviors and relationships toward other human beings.  If money, efficiency and individual freedom trump all else, and if all values are to be reduced to a price, launching the fiction that everything is commensurable on that single scale of value, then we start down a path toward social disintegration.  A libertarian ethos trumps ethical and social norms, which “interfere” with our “market freedoms.”

If and when the market worldview comes to redefine the value of breast milk, we will enter a new regime in which companies will be entirely free to interpose themselves between nursing mothers and needy babies, much as Nestle’s once did with its milk formula. The Times reports that one company, Prolacta, has produced a “fortifier” compound for premature babies using breast milk.  It costs about $180 an ounce, or about $10,000 for several weeks of milk for one baby.

All of this will inarguably contribute to GDP, and it may provide medical benefits for the special-needs babies who need the fortified milk.  But can neonatal hospital units really afford such a product – and will commercial demand for breast milk dry up milk banks and convert desperate or poor nursing mothers into milk machines?

And what of the inevitable social inequalities that will arise?  Mothers who can afford not to sell their milk will become socially privileged, while desperate mothers who need the money will be induced into selling their breast milk — much as jobless people with a car often turn to Uber to try to scrape by.  Free-marketeers invariably dismiss the ethical issues by retorting, “It’s their choice!”

And some liberal feminists as well.  One of the most depressing responses to the Times’ story came from Jessica Valenti, a columnist for The Guardian. The headline of her recent column:  “For-profit breast milk?  It’s her body, and it must be her choice.”  Valenti conjectures that “business involvement [could] lead to some positive changes for families who do want to use breast milk but don’t have access to it” – noting that government regulation of breast milk could help weed out tainted, unsafe milk.

She concludes, “No matter what the future holds for breast milk, though, we can’t be surprised when a market is created for something we continue to tout as near-magical. And if we value women’s bodily autonomy we’re going to have to get comfortable with the choices she makes – whether it’s breastfeeding, formula feeding, or pumping for cash.”

Valenti perfectly expresses the standard liberal view that markets are more or less benign, that regulation will work as designed, and that any individual choice must be respected. The social inequities and changing norms that will result from the marketization of a once-inalienable resource don’t even get a mention from her. “Individual autonomy” (within a corporate-dictated context) is all that matters.

But there is no obvious reason why therapeutic innovations using breast milk must be market-driven. One could imagine a large-scale commons-based trust or regional co-operatives to collect and allocate milk without all the ethical problems raised by investor-driven enterprises. Of course, the shark-filled venture capital world is usually the first to arrive on the scene of new profit opportunities, dictating its own vision of proper relationships toward “resources” (i.e., private, monetized, tradeable, profitable).  Meanwhile, the opportunities for co-operative finance, nonprofit and government leadership on this issue – though feasible – are utterly missing.

And so the profit-minded biotech world is beginning to escort mother’s breast milk onto the auction block. A new commodity is being inducted into the market dream machine of progress and innovation. The real questions ought to be what this new market will do to us as human beings and to the culture of parenting – and why there has been so little attention paid to building more humane, commons-based alternatives.

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Posted in Anti-P2P, Cognitive Capitalism, Commons, Empire, Original Content, Politics | No Comments »

TTP and the Corporate Coup d’Etat

photo of Guy James

Guy James
22nd March 2015


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

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

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

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

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

The image is by DonkeyHotey on flickr (CC Licence).
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Posted in Activism, Economy and Business, Empire | No Comments »

Return with Freedom and Occupy Banking

photo of Enric Duran

Enric Duran
7th March 2015


Statement #OccupyBanking #ReturnWithFreedom Enric Duran from Radi.ms on Vimeo.

We want to finance the team that is already working on the launch of the #OccupyBanking campaign with thintention of placing at the center of public debate the total lack of democracy of the European Central Bank (ECB) and large private banks who control the monetary system, and especially the creation of money. A perverse system based on debt with these institutions – who have never been voted in democratically – hijacking our sovereignty. The #OccupyBanking campaign also wants to be the spearhead for creating the conditions that allow the #ReturnWithFreedom of the activist Enric Duran.

The current crisis / fraud perpetrated by the financial and banking system in recent years has uncovered one of the problems that have long been highlighted by many activist groups: from the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle up until today, the effects of globalized capitalism have been exposed around the world: based on growth through pillag(pollution and destruction) and overexploitation of resources, and the use of debt as a way to subjugate people to pseudo-feudalist economic powers, a model – in view of the evidence of recent years – that has been shown to be extremely harmful to the needs and welfare of humanity and to all living beings.

In this context, in 2008 Enric Duran made public an act of conscious condemnation of this system that involved the expropriation of 492,000 euros from thirty nine financial institutions in order to:

  • Finance diverse social and cooperative projects already in existence (more info)
  • Print and disseminate three publications about the origins of the financial crisis, the main partiesresponsible, and providing alternatives to the system imposed by capitalism and nation states, giving voice to the movements formed with the intention of transforming competitiveness into cooperation, promoting the common good rather than individual benefit, and seeding initiatives based on Degrowthand the Good Living.
  • And especially to highlight and condemn the way money is created based on debt.

Prior to the trial to which Enric was summoned in February 2013, the Provincial Court rejected each and every one of the twenty witnesses that the defence had presented to illustrate that the accusations against the banking system - and especially how money is created - are a significant concern for society and fully justifiedthe actions which had been taken. With such a violation of any procedural guarantee, which certainly was intended to negate Enric’s whole argument and simply send him to jail for common crimes, completely silencingthe claims made and proven for years about all the damage that the banking system has done to the lives of the majority of the population of Europe and inded the whole world. This, together with the known connivance of the judiciary and executive together with the banks’ representatives, caused Enric Duran to reject thelegitimacy of the official trial and decide to go into hiding, where work continues today in various projects related to Integral Revolution.

After the call #ReturnWithFreedomEnric has formed a team of seven fully trusted and willing people with whom to cooperate in person, and this team can move wherever necessary to achieve its objectives.

It is time to act and we need your support!

stopWe’re going to start #OcuppyBanking, a global campaign to expose both the European Central Bank and the banking system and at the same time strengthen the effectiveness of the original action that Enric made, and thus to generate a great movement of support that makes possible his #ReturnWithFreedom. We want to plan his way to come out of hiding,meanwhile denouncing internationally the framework of the European banking system, which is condemning us to the loss of popular sovereignty and the accumulation of wealth by a privileged minority who are plundering the resources of peoples through the privatization of public services, handing theirmanagement to private entities linked to the political and financial powers.

Behind these perverse mechanisms underly a system of creating money out of nothing based on loans contracted; simply trusting that the person signing the contract will be able to give back the money in some way, and if unable to do so, is going to be sanctioned economically or politically. And what is worse, banks -private entities that defend their own interests - are the only ones with the privilege of creating money, whichmeans they have the political control of who will receive funding and how, in the same way that the ECB - even though no one has given them a popular mandate - are ordering policies affecting all the peoples of Europe.

Like the publication ‘Crisis’, published in 2008, several initiatives have exposed these issues in recent years and some have achieved some successes, such as getting the debate about the creation of money to the British Parliament this autumnNow with #OccupyBanking we are working hard to link these initiatives and to make itpossible to occupy the space in consciousness and public debate they deserve throughout Europe.

necesidadesSo this funding campaign aims to cover the costs of travel to different countriesand the accommodation of Enric Duran‘s team of seven people. We need to ensure at least the economic sustainability of the working group until September 2015, when we rethink the strategy, i.e. seven months with an average monthly expenditure of 2,400 euros, representing a total of 16,800 euros for the maintenance of all equipment.

You can support us financially for the success of this plan with the amount that you feel within your means (any input is welcome); and even if you can not contribute financially right now, we also invite you to cooperate with the dissemination of materials and / or this funding campaign, also you can be part of local support groups that are being put into operation.

It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning“.

Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Motor Company and the father of the modern assembly lines used in mass production).

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Posted in Activism, Campaigns, Cognitive Capitalism, Collective Intelligence, Commons Transition, Crowdfunding, Economy and Business, Empire, Ethical Economy, Original Content, P2P Collaboration, Politics, Videos | No Comments »

Glimmers of hope for a ‘fair shares society’

photo of Rajesh Makwana

Rajesh Makwana
1st March 2015


fair share - pay yours

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Chicago Man, flickr creative commons

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Posted in Activism, Anti-P2P, Collective Intelligence, Commons, Commons Transition, Culture & Ideas, Economy and Business, Empire, Original Content, Politics, Sharing | No Comments »

The Butlerian Carnival

photo of Øyvind Holmstad

Øyvind Holmstad
22nd February 2015


By John Michael Greer. Original post here.

Over the last week or so, I’ve heard from a remarkable number of people who feel that a major crisis is in the offing. The people in question don’t know each other, many of them have even less contact with the mass media than I do, and the sense they’ve tried to express to me is inchoate enough that they’ve been left fumbling for words, but they all end up reaching for the same metaphors: that something in the air just now seems reminiscent of the American colonies in 1775, France in 1789, America in 1860, Europe in 1914, or the world in 1939: a sense of being poised on the brink of convulsive change, with the sound of gunfire and marching boots coming ever more clearly from the dimly seen abyss ahead.

It’s not an unreasonable feeling, all things considered. In Washington DC, Obama’s flunkies are beating the war drums over Ukraine, threatening to send shipments of allegedly “defensive” weapons to join the mercenaries and military advisors we’ve already not-so-covertly got over there. Russian officials have responded to American saber-rattling by stating flatly that a US decision to arm Kiev will be the signal for all-out war. The current Ukrainian regime, installed by a US-sponsored coup and backed by NATO, means to Russia precisely what a hostile Canadian government installed by a Chinese-sponsored coup and backed by the People’s Liberation Army would mean to the United States; if Obama’s trademark cluelessness leads him to ignore that far from minor point and decide that the Russians are bluffing, we could be facing a European war within weeks.

Head south and west from the fighting around Donetsk, and another flashpoint is heating up toward an explosion of its own just now. Yes, that would be Greece, where the new Syriza government has refused to back down from the promises that got it into office: promises that center on the rejection of the so-called “austerity” policies that have all but destroyed the Greek economy since they were imposed in 2009.  This shouldn’t be news to anyone; those same policies, though they’ve been praised to the skies by neoliberal economists for decades now as a guaranteed ticket to prosperity, have had precisely the opposite effect in every single country where they’ve been put in place.

Despite that track record of unbroken failure, the EU—in particular, Germany, which has benefited handsomely from the gutting of southern European economies—continues to insist that Greece must accept what amounts to a perpetual state of debt peonage. The Greek defense minister noted in response in a recent speech that if Europe isn’t willing to cut a deal, other nations might well do so. He’s quite correct; it’s probably a safe bet that cold-eyed men in Moscow and Beijing are busy right now figuring out how best to step through the window of opportunity the EU is flinging open for them. If they do so—well, I’ll leave it to my readers to consider how the US is likely to respond to the threat of Russian air and naval bases in Greece, which would be capable of projecting power anywhere in the eastern and central Mediterranean basin. Here again, war is a likely outcome; I hope that the Greek government is braced for an attempt at regime change.

That is to say, the decline and fall of industrial civilization is proceeding in the normal way, at pretty much the normal pace. The thermodynamic foundations tipped over into decline first, as stocks of cheap abundant fossil fuels depleted steadily and the gap had to be filled by costly and much less abundant replacements, driving down net energy; the economy went next, as more and more real wealth had to be pulled out of all other economic activities to keep the energy supply more or less steady, until demand destruction cut in and made that increasingly frantic effort moot; now a global political and military superstructure dependent on cheap abundant fossil fuels, and on the economic arrangement that all of that surplus energy made possible, is cracking at the seams.

One feature of times like these is that the number of people who can have an influence on the immediate outcome declines steadily as crisis approaches. In the years leading up to 1914, for example, a vast number of people contributed to the rising spiral of conflict between the aging British Empire and its German rival, but the closer war came, the narrower the circle of decision-makers became, until a handful of politicians in Germany, France, and Britain had the fate of Europe in their hands. A few more bad decisions, and the situation was no longer under anybody’s control; thereafter, the only option left was to let the juggernaut of the First World War roll mindlessly onward to its conclusion.

In the same way, as recently as the 1980s, many people in the United States and elsewhere had some influence on how the industrial age would end; unfortunately most of them backed politicians who cashed in the resources that could have built a better future on one last round of absurd extravagance, and a whole landscape of possibilities went by the boards. Step by step, as the United States backed itself further and further into a morass of short-term gimmicks with ghastly long-term consequences, the number of people who have had any influence on the trajectory we’re on has narrowed steadily, and as we approach what may turn out to be the defining crisis of our time, a handful of politicians in a handful of capitals are left to make the last decisions that can shape the situation in any way at all, before the tanks begin to roll and the fighter-bombers rise up from their runways.

Out here on the fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where archdruids lurk and heresies get uttered, the opportunity to shape events as they happen is a very rare thing. Our role, rather, is to set agendas for the future, to take ideas that are unthinkable in the mainstream today and prepare them for their future role as the conventional wisdom of eras that haven’t dawned yet. Every phrase on the lips of today’s practical men of affairs, after all, was once a crazy notion taken seriously only by the lunatic fringe—yes, that includes democracy, free-market capitalism, and all the other shibboleths of our age.

With that in mind, while we wait to see whether today’s practical men of affairs stumble into war the way they did in 1914, I propose to shift gears and talk about something else—something that may seem whimsical, even pointless, in the light of the grim martial realities just discussed. It’s neither whimsical nor pointless, as it happens, but the implications may take a little while to dawn even on those of my readers who’ve been following the last few years of discussions most closely. Let’s begin with a handful of data points.

Item: Britain’s largest bookseller recently noted that sales of the Kindle e-book reader have dropped like a rock in recent months, while sales of old-fashioned printed books are up. Here in the more gizmocentric USA, e-books retain more of their erstwhile popularity, but the bloom is off the rose; among the young and hip, it’s not hard at all to find people who got rid of their book collections in a rush of enthusiasm when e-books came out, regretted the action after it was too late, and now are slowly restocking their bookshelves while their e-book readers collect cobwebs or, at best, find use as a convenience for travel and the like.

Item: more generally, a good many of the hottest new trends in popular culture aren’t new trends at all—they’re old trends revived, in many cases, by people who weren’t even alive to see them the first time around. Kurt B. Reighley’s lively guide The United States of Americana was the first, and remains the best, introduction to the phenomenon, one that embraces everything from burlesque shows and homebrewed bitters to backyard chickens and the revival of Victorian martial arts. One pervasive thread that runs through the wild diversity of this emerging subculture is the simple recognition that many of these older things are better, in straightforwardly measurable senses, than their shiny modern mass-marketed not-quite-equivalents.

Item: within that subculture, a small but steadily growing number of people have taken the principle to its logical extreme and adopted the lifestyles and furnishings of an earlier decade wholesale in their personal lives. The 1950s are a common target, and so far as I know, adopters of 1950s culture are the furthest along the process of turning into a community, but other decades are increasingly finding the same kind of welcome among those less than impressed by what today’s society has on offer. Meanwhile, the reenactment scene has expanded spectacularly in recent years from the standard hearty fare of Civil War regiments and the neo-medievalism of the Society for Creative Anachronism to embrace almost any historical period you care to name. These aren’t merely dress-up games; go to a buckskinner’s rendezvous or an outdoor SCA event, for example, and you’re as likely as not to see handspinners turning wool into yarn with drop spindles, a blacksmith or two laboring over a portable forge, and the like.

Other examples of the same broad phenomenon could be added to the list, but these will do for now. I’m well aware, of course, that most people—even most of my readers—will have dismissed the things just listed as bizarre personal eccentricities, right up there with the goldfish-swallowing and flagpole-sitting of an earlier era. I’d encourage those of my readers who had that reaction to stop, take a second look, and tease out the mental automatisms that make that dismissal so automatic a part of today’s conventional wisdom. Once that’s done, a third look might well be in order, because the phenomenon sketched out here marks a shift of immense importance for our future.

For well over two centuries now, since it first emerged as the crackpot belief system of a handful of intellectuals on the outer fringes of their culture, the modern ideology of progress has taken it as given that new things were by definition better than whatever they replaced.  That assumption stands at the heart of contemporary industrial civilization’s childlike trust in the irreversible cumulative march of progress toward a future among the stars. Finding ways to defend that belief even when it obviously wasn’t true—when the latest, shiniest products of progress turned out to be worse in every meaningful sense than the older products they elbowed out of the way—was among the great growth industries of the 20th century; even so, there were plenty of cases where progress really did seem to measure up to its billing. Given the steady increases of energy per capita in the world’s industrial nations over the last century or so, that was a predictable outcome.

The difficulty, of course, is that the number of cases where new things really are better than what they replace has been shrinking steadily in recent decades, while the number of cases where old products are quite simply better than their current equivalents—easier to use, more effective, more comfortable, less prone to break, less burdened with unwanted side effects and awkward features, and so on—has been steadily rising. Back behind the myth of progress, like the little man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, stand two unpalatable and usually unmentioned realities. The first is that profits, not progress, determines which products get marketed and which get roundfiled; the second is that making a cheaper, shoddier product and using advertising gimmicks to sell it anyway has been the standard marketing strategy across a vast range of American businesses for years now.

More generally, believers in progress used to take it for granted that progress would sooner or later bring about a world where everyone would live exciting, fulfilling lives brimfull of miracle products and marvelous experiences. You still hear that sort of talk from the faithful now and then these days, but it’s coming to sound a lot like all that talk about the glorious worker’s paradise of the future did right around the time the Iron Curtain came down for good. In both cases, the future that was promised didn’t have much in common with the one that actually showed up. The one we got doesn’t have some of the nastier features of the one the former Soviet Union and its satellites produced—well, not yet, at least—but the glorious consumer’s paradise described in such lavish terms a few decades back got lost on the way to the spaceport, and what we got instead was a bleak landscape of decaying infrastructure, abandoned factories, prostituted media, and steadily declining standards of living for everyone outside the narrowing circle of the privileged, with the remnants of our once-vital democratic institutions hanging above it all like rotting scarecrows silhouetted against a darkening sky.

In place of those exciting, fulfilling lives mentioned above, furthermore, we got the monotony and stress of long commutes, cubicle farms, and would-you-like-fries-with that for the slowly shrinking fraction of our population who can find a job at all. The Onion, with its usual flair for packaging unpalatable realities in the form of deadpan humor, nailed it a few days ago with a faux health-news article announcing that the best thing office workers could do for their health is stand up at their desk, leave the office, and never go back. Joke or not, it’s not bad advice; if you have a full-time job in today’s America, the average medieval peasant had a less stressful job environment and more days off than you do; he also kept a larger fraction of the product of his labor than you’ll ever see.

Then, of course, if you’re like most Americans, you’ll numb yourself once you get home by flopping down on the sofa and spending most of your remaining waking hours staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen. It’s remarkable how many people get confused about what this action really entails. They insist that they’re experiencing distant places, traveling in worlds of pure imagination, and so on through the whole litany of self-glorifying drivel the mass media likes to employ in its own praise. Let us please be real: when you watch a program about the Amazon rain forest, you’re not experiencing the Amazon rain forest; you’re experiencing colored pictures on a screen, and you’re only getting as much of the experience as fits through the narrow lens of a video camera and the even narrower filter of the production process. The difference between experiencing something and watching it on TV or the internet, that is to say, is precisely the same as the difference between making love and watching pornography; in each case, the latter is a very poor substitute for the real thing.

For most people in today’s America, in other words, the closest approach to the glorious consumer’s paradise of the future they can expect to get is eight hours a day, five days a week of mindless, monotonous work under the constant pressure of management efficiency experts, if they’re lucky enough to get a job at all, with anything up to a couple of additional hours commuting and any off-book hours the employer happens to choose to demand from them into the deal, in order to get a paycheck that buys a little less each month—inflation is under control, the government insists, but prices somehow keep going up—of products that get more cheaply made, more likely to be riddled with defects, and more likely to pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of their users, with every passing year. Then they can go home and numb their nervous systems with those little colored pictures on the screen, showing them bland little snippets of experiences they will never have, wedged in there between the advertising.

That’s the world that progress has made. That’s the shining future that resulted from all those centuries of scientific research and technological tinkering, all the genius and hard work and sacrifice that have gone into the project of progress. Of course there’s more to the consequences of progress than that; progress has saved quite a few children from infectious diseases, and laced the environment with so many toxic wastes that childhood cancer, all but unheard of in 1850, is a routine event today; it’s made impressive contributions to human welfare, while flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that will soon make far more impressive contributions to human suffering and death—well, I could go on along these lines for quite a while. True believers in the ideology of perpetual progress like to insist that all the good things ought to be credited to progress while all the bad things ought to be blamed on something else, but that’s not so plausible an article of faith as it once was, and it bids fair to become a great deal less common as the downsides of progress become more and more difficult to ignore.

The data points I noted earlier in this week’s post, I’ve come to believe, are symptoms of that change, the first stirrings of wind that tell of the storm to come. People searching for a better way of living than the one our society offers these days are turning to the actual past, rather than to some imaginary future, in that quest. That’s the immense shift I mentioned earlier. What makes it even more momentous is that by and large, it’s not being done in the sort of grim Puritanical spirit of humorless renunciation that today’s popular culture expects from those who want something other than what the consumer economy has on offer. It’s being done, rather, in a spirit of celebration.

One of my readers responded to my post  two weeks ago on deliberate technological regress by suggesting that I was proposing a Butlerian jihad of sorts. (Those of my readers who don’t get the reference should pick up a copy of Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune and read it.) I demurred, for two reasons. First, the Butlerian jihad in Herbert’s novel was a revolt against computer technology, and I see no need for that; once the falling cost of human labor intersects the rising cost of energy and technology, and it becomes cheaper to hire file clerks and accountants than to maintain the gargantuan industrial machine that keeps computer technology available, computers will go away, or linger as a legacy technology for a narrowing range of special purposes until the hardware finally burns out.

The second reason, though, is the more important. I’m not a fan of jihads, or of holy wars of any flavor; history shows all too well that when you mix politics and violence with religion, any actual religious content vanishes away, leaving its castoff garments to cover the naked rule of force and fraud. If you want people to embrace a new way of looking at things, furthermore, violence, threats, and abusive language don’t work, and it’s even less effective to offer that new way as a ticket to virtuous misery, along the lines of the Puritanical spirit noted above. That’s why so much of the green-lifestyle propaganda of the last thirty years has done so little good—so much of it has been pitched as a way to suffer self-righteously for the good of Gaia, and while that approach appeals to a certain number of wannabe martyrs, that’s not a large enough fraction of the population to matter.

The people who are ditching their Kindles and savoring books as physical objects, brewing their own beer and resurrecting other old arts and crafts, reformatting their lives in the modes of a past decade, or spending their spare time reconnecting with the customs and technologies of an earlier time—these people aren’t doing any of those things out of some passion for self-denial. They’re doing them because these things bring them delights that the shoddy mass-produced lifestyles of the consumer economy can’t match. What these first stirrings suggest to me is that the way forward isn’t a Butlerian jihad, but a Butlerian carnival—a sensuous celebration of the living world outside the cubicle farms and the glass screens, which will inevitably draw most of its raw materials from eras, technologies, and customs of the past, which don’t require the extravagant energy and resource inputs that the modern consumer economy demands, and so will be better suited to a future defined by scarce energy and resources.

The Butlerian carnival isn’t the only way to approach the deliberate technological regression we need to carry out in the decades ahead, but it’s an important one. In upcoming posts, I’ll talk more about how this and other avenues to the same goal might be used to get through the mess immediately ahead, and start laying foundations for a future on the far side of the crises of our time.

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The New Global Militant

photo of David de Ugarte

David de Ugarte
18th February 2015


ucrania

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.

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A world of ‘sharing and caring’ won’t begin in Davos

photo of Adam Parsons

Adam Parsons
13th February 2015


Davos

At this year’s gathering of the world’s richest and most powerful at Davos, the World Economic Forum founder has urged delegates that the motto for their 2015 meeting should besharing and caring’.


Inequality is again on the agenda (if not considered the top threat to world stability, as last year), which has prompted many critics to point out – as usual – that the solutions to inequality are unlikely to come from the global elites that are largely responsible for creating it.

Despite all the media debates and high-profile discussions there is mainly talk and no action when it comes to creating a more equal society. And the only kind of sharing that is championed by the corporate executives and world leaders at Davos is within the context of charity and big business, rather than discussing any real solutions that would require government interventions and wealth redistribution.

A new report and series of interactive infographics from Global Justice Now, formerly the World Development Movement, exposes the core myths that define the worldview of this tiny group of elites. In a refreshingly straightforward and incisive way, it demonstrates the fallacies behind their ideology that is now deeply ingrained in society and a serious obstacle to building a fairer, more sustainable world for the majority.

For example, it is not true that the ‘poor are getting richer’ in the face of soaring inequality, which is starkly illustrated in sub-Saharan Africa where there has been almost no improvement in poverty rates since 1981 (indeed, the number of people living on less than $2 has doubled over this period). As often repeated, the vast majority of the fall in global poverty since the 1990s is the result of China’s effectiveness at tackling poverty, which it famously achieved without following the prescriptions of the so-called Washington Consensus.

The reality is that while the rich have certainly got richer as a result of economic globalisation, most of the poor have remained in poverty. Believing otherwise is to conveniently overlook the devastating impacts of free market, neoliberal economic policies in many developing countries, as well as the inequalities of power that keeps poor people poor. But this is, of course, unlikely to be the chief concern at Davos where discussions revolve around a common theme: that their business practices, overseas investments, entrepreneurial talent and philanthropy are the only answer to world problems.

Another myth is that economic growth is the panacea for social ills and poverty, despite all evidence to the contrary. As the Global Justice Now report argues, growth – while important – is never enough, unless a nation’s economy is geared to sharing the benefits of growth fairly. As long as the benefits are increasingly captured by a small global elite, it is inevitable that the lives of those at the bottom of society will continue to get worse. A neat graphic illustrates a stark fact from the New Economics Foundation’s report Growth isn’t working, asking the reader to guess how much of each $100 of global economic growth has actually contributed to reducing poverty – which is an astonishing $0.60. (Equally shockingly, 95% of the proceeds of growth in the US went to the top 1% during the three years of economic recovery that followed the 2008 financial crash.)

Several of the report’s myths also simply describe how the global economic system is fundamentally skewed in favour of rich countries, which is the real reason why billions of people in poorer countries are lacking the essentials for life, such as adequate food, water and energy. So the image of Africa as poor and helpless is wrong, because the continent is one of the richest in terms of natural resources – and far more money is extracted from the region (such as through profit repatriation, debt repayments and tax evasion) than is given in aid.

The report also argues that international aid could make the world a fairer place, but only if it undergoes major reform so that it is genuinely redistributive and no longer a tool of free market policy. At present, aid is increasingly being used to support multinational corporations in their quest for profits, such as by forcing poor countries to privatise their public services. But this does not mean that overseas development assistance should be entirely scrapped as a system, as “redistributing wealth from the richest to the poorest is a necessary element of creating a fairer world – as it is in creating a fairer society.”

More ambitiously, the report suggests, we should see aid more as a system of global taxation in which it is used to help build what we might call ‘sharing societies’ in all countries. It concludes: “The funds would have to be much bigger than they currently are to create such a change, and the mentality would have to change completely. Creating a better world is not generous, especially if you have created the unfairness in the first place. What’s more aid can never be seen in isolation. Fairer trade, cancelling unjust debt, stopping climate change, tackling tax havens and securing democratic freedoms are all more important in achieving global justice.”

Such common sense is sadly not the preserve of orthodox thinking among the majority of attendees at the luxurious ski resort of Davos, where there is no hint of the poverty and hardship suffered by billions of people elsewhere in the world. As ever, it is up to campaigners and concerned citizens to challenge the myopic outlook of those elites who are concerned about growing inequality, but unwilling to embrace the necessary measures to reverse it.

Photo credit: World Economic Forum, flickr creative commons

 

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As Neoliberal Forces Lash Out, Solidarity with Syriza is Needed

photo of David Bollier

David Bollier
6th February 2015


Syrizavictory

Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged:  the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations.  Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe.

Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less.  The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership.  They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).

Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”).  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.

There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”).  ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system.  It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.

I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics.  A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.”  Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.  Very, very quickly.”

“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks?  Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.

Still, such fear campaigns have to be taken seriously.  We remember what happened when the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvatore Allende, did not conform to the expectations of international capital in 1973. This is serious stuff. Nowadays governments have learned to handle such perils in a more decorous fashion – through draconian, secretly negotiated international treaties, non-democratic central bank actions and sweetheart legislation enacted by compliant or corrupt members of parliament.  Much cleaner politically.

The lesson today is the same one that the 2008 meltdown taught:  in the end, citizens and democracy are the junior partners in this enterprise known as “democratic capitalism.”  Investors and creditors have their privileges, their trump cards and reliable political proxies.  That’s what is being mobilized now against the Greeks.

We saw this sort of mobilization of political clout a few days ago before the Greek election. The European Central Bank used “quantitative easing” lending in an attempt to sway Greek voters, according to Corporate Europe Observatory:

“The EU bureaucratic elite is very much part of the game in Greece. Already at the first hint of an upcoming general election, the EU Commission President Juncker lashed out at Syriza, saying he thought ‘the Greeks ­– who have a very difficult life – know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone,’ warning against “extreme forces.”  And the power of the ECB has been unashamedly applied in a way that doesn’t quite square with its mandate. A case in point is its quantitative easing, the massive injection of capital to the tune of 1.1 trillion euro decided yesterday [January 22] by the ECB, in that its timing and design could be seen as in part an attempt to influence the outcome of the Greek elections.”

The website went to note that Syriza wants to cancel at least half of the Greek debt, especially debt to the Eurozone and the ECB:  “These are promises that are hard to go back on… as they strike to the core of the humanitarian crisis in Greece. This crisis moreover, will not be relieved in the slightest by the new program of quantitative easing, but only via some sort of rollback or outright deletion of the Troika austerity programs.  Clearly the ECB has chosen its design and timing for its quantitative easing program in a manner that is intended to be helpful to the party currently in power in Greece, the conservative New Democracy, as it fights an election this weekend.”

So if the pre-election manipulations were bad, the coming collision between European creditors and the Syriza government will likely be even more intense. The Greek government has some serious chips of its own to play, however, most notably its commanding election victory and the legitimacy that it confers.  Greece could conceivably leave or threaten to leave the Eurozone, too, a move that would be very bad news for investors. In a bit of bravado, Syriza has even called attention to the fact that Germany has never repaid the money that it “borrowed” from Greece during the Nazi occupation during WWII.

Needless to say, the guardians of the “Washington consensus” are not eager for Greece to prevail and set a “bad example” that others might emulate. A successful Syriza might inspire oppressed taxpayers and jobless citizens in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the US and elsewhere to fight the crushing anti-social costs and unfairness of austerity politics. Occupy could happen again, but with a new determination not to be fooled again.

It is hard for most of us to imagine the hardships that the Greeks have endured – the massive unemployment, extensive privatization of public assets, loss of public services, corrupt policymaking and dire everyday need. Over 400 new laws were rushed through the Greek parliament over the past four years, including many drawn up by the Troika — the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.  It has now become virtually illegal for public sector workers to go on strike because it would threaten growth and risk state mobilization of citizens. Such a threat was made against teachers who threatened to go on strike.

So the attacks on Syriza are really about much more than Syriza – they are about preserving the international policies and neoliberal political system for the benefit of investors and lenders. They are about nipping in the bud any sustained or contagious populist insurgencies.

That’s why it is critical, in the coming media wars, that there be strong international solidarity with Syriza and the difficult challenges that it faces in inventing a new, more socially constructive successor to neoliberalism. Governments in the US, UK, Germany and elsewhere need to realize that their hardball tactics toward Greece will have domestic political costs — because, after all, Greece was simply in the vanguard of what the rest of us could well face.

Greek commentator Akis Gavriilidis writes that the real reason that Syriza is so feared and reviled by international capital and neoliberal governments is that the party is engineering an “epistemological break” with the history of the Greek Left:

“It breaks a long tradition – perhaps the only tradition – of the Greek left: the conception of separateness, the concept of the ‘fortress party,’ as the only possible form of leftist politics. Up to now, this politics had almost exclusively organized itself on the founding principles of unity and purity, and considered ‘pluralism’ as an insidious weapon used by bourgeois ideology in order to undermine and bring discord in our ‘camp.’  Now it is the first time when somebody tries to abandon uniqueness (or duality, which is practically its synonym) and work with multiplicity as a means to increase their strength and bring about a transformative and emancipatory effect.

Gavriililis suggests that the Greek left may be following “the essential lesson of Asian martial arts: the good strategist is not the one who crushes the enemy’s forces, but the one who uses them in his/her own favor.”

 

Updates:  Here is a well-produced independent video documentary, directed by Theopi Skarlatos, about the last 23 days of the Greece election campaign, with an emphasis on Syriza.

For English-language news about the Greek situation for global readers, check out the Press Project.

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A Critical Review by Brian Holmes of the “Network Society’ book by Bauwens / Kostakis

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th December 2014


A great but critical review by Brian Holmes:

“Thanks for this book, Michel and Vasilis. “Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy” is exceedingly timely and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Commons specifically, or in political economy more generally. In response, I’ve written something in between a review and a letter to the authors. I address Michel because he posted it. Hopefully he will respond to a few of my comments!

I like the book, Michel, but I must also say, I’m somewhat mystified by it. I like the very sophisticated strategy that it sets out at the end for a possible transition to a society of commons-based production. I’m mystified by the rather simplistic presentation of contemporary capitalism at the beginning. What explains the gap?

In Part I you adopt the theoretical framework of “long waves of capitalist development” as put forth by Kondratiev and Schumpeter, and more recently, by Freeman and Perez (Trotsky and Mandel aren’t mentioned). In its most general form, the long-wave idea is that capitalist society periodically goes through major depressions, during which investment is withdrawn from production. Meanwhile inventions accumulate until such time as conditions look good, and a massive wave of technological investment lays the foundations for a new growth cycle. Right now we’re in such a depression. Therefore you try to analyze the possible futures of the current “techno-economic paradigm.”

There is some ambiguity here, but that’s OK. On the one hand the book follows Carlota Perez, explaining that the information technology paradigm has run up against a set of internal contradictions and that a mature phase of sustained growth can only come under new political and institutional arrangements. On the other hand it hints in certain places at the emergence, in the upcoming years or decades, of an entirely new paradigm (which, according to Schumpeter or Freeman, implies a distinct set of technologies and organizational forms). And then near the end it quite strongly claims, with Marx, that capitalism must now be overcome in favor of a different system. The upshot seems to be that the new society will emerge from the old, perhaps not entirely smoothly, but not through an apocalyptic rupture either. That’s realistic and desirable, in my view.

I too think some kind of new growth wave is almost inevitable, within a decade or so – and though it will probably not be on anywhere near so intensive as the postwar growth wave that so many theorists take as a norm, it could well be more extensive, reaching far more people on our densely populated planet. I also think such a new long wave does imply distinctly new technologies capable of attracting new investment; but in the absence of radical breakthroughs, the big difference is most likely to be in the political and institutional structures that govern those technologies. In other words, the current technology set is more likely to be augmented and institutionally inflected (as early mass manufacturing was by postwar Keynesian Fordism) than it is to be radically transformed (as Keynesian Fordism was radiclly transformed by the IT revolution). In other words, we are likely to get an extension and amplification of the certain aspects of the current paradigm, but under new institutional arrangements.

The problem is, Michel, you never really discuss the current techno-economic paradigm in any serious way. What you and your co-author are talking about, in Parts I and II, is a small though important field of activity, the one that can be identified with keywords such as P2P, social media, crowd-sourcing, sharing economy, etc. The best parts of the book contain significant insight into these activities, as one would expect. However, by claiming to discuss the future of the entire capitalist system and then not really doing so, you blur the issue and diminish the potential value of your work.

One can follow Manuel Castells and call the current techno-economic paradigm “Informationalism” – or better, “Neoliberal Informationalism,” to give some idea of how this mode of production is governed. But Informationalism does not mean that the only significant commodity on the contemporary market is information. Nor does it signal an eclipse of industry, as you suggest in chapter 1. Instead, Neoliberal Informationalism has been based on a “lead technology” which is new kind of producer goods, namely IT in all its facets (computers, software, cables, mobile telephony, communications satellites, etc). These goods in combination with networked organizational forms are used to create transnational supply chains, constituting what is generally called “just-in-time production” or “the global factory.” The characteristic companies of neoliberal informationalism are not Facebook and Google, as one would gather from your book, nor even less, recent start-ups like AirBnB or Uber. They are giant networked firms like WalMart and Apple, which have their products manufactured in China, coordinate their work forces and supply chains through sophisticated IT systems, and sell their wares on the web as well as in the store. Or they are specialized corporations like Cisco, Verizon and IBM, which furnish the hardware and software for the new mode of production, distribution and sales. All these corporations have evolved under the anti-welfare policy mix of neoliberalism, and with the resources allocated by speculative finance, which has largely replaced the central planning of national governments. Not coincidentally, finance itself is crucially enabled by IT. Computers, cable and satellite networks, transnationalism and financial governance are key aspects of the current techno-economic paradigm.

Now, it’s necessary to add that older sectors, such as petroleum, steel, chemicals, automobiles, engineering, grain production, etc, remain tremendously significant for the global economy. They are not just going to disappear in the next ten or twenty years. However, the way these sectors are articulated, both internally and between each other, has effectively been transformed by IT, and that’s why we can speak of Neoliberal Informationalism as a distinct techno-economic paradigm. As you and Vasilis point out, this paradigm has been predicated on low-wage precarious labor, and it has called on finance to furnish the means of consumption through the extension of credit to individuals. The debt burden of the working and middle classes has risen tremendously and now, in the overdeveloped world at least, these classes can no longer consume enough to prop up economic growth. So the system is in a deep crisis, one which cannot be resolved by simply pumping money into asset markets as various governments have been doing. That crisis is further intensified by geopolitical factors (rise of Asia) and by climate change (which has been made a lot worse by the rise of Asia). How will the global political economy reconfigure itself under these circumstances? And what can civil society do to influence the next redeployment of capital? That’s what we need to know.
In Part II, it’s really interesting how you present a diagrammatic field of four distinct yet neighbouring scenarios, divided on the one hand between distributed and centralized organization (or local and global scales), and on the other hand, between capitalist and commons-based development paths (or “for profit” and “for benefit” activities, as you also say). However, for the reasons already stated, the capitalist or for-profit side of the diagram is not very convincing. In chapters 4 and 5 we are introduced to two supposedly emergent categories. First, a corporate-scale “netarchical capitalism” where sharing and cooperative production are enabled by interfaces with closed, privately controlled backends that facilitate the harvesting of monetary value from social interaction. And second, an individual-scale “distributed capitalism” where everyone is asked to become a networked entrepreneur of him- or herself, creating their own backends for profit. Now, without a doubt these are already both realities. The first has already undergone significant expansion, partially wiping out the old media sphere with some inroads on the hobby, transport, in-person service and vacation sectors. The second has all the reality of neoliberal ideology: it is the computerized version of the entrepreneurial ideal, where everyone freely competes in an open, unregulated economic realm. But the claim that these figures represent the capitalism of tomorrow could only hold true if “we are not talking about monopoly capitalism” – which is a crucial caveat that you supply early on.

The problem is that we are talking about exactly that, Michel, just look around you. The great oligopolies that corral major sectors of the world economy, fixing prices and blocking the entry of smaller actors, are alive and despicably well in every major economic sector, including IT; and they are supported by very solid forces of the national and transnational state. To suggest that monopoly capitalism is on the way out through some force of networked nature is just plain mystifying, and that’s the principal argument I have with this book.

Something else really is changing, though; and this is where the book’s proposals, and more generally, those collected by the P2P Foundation over the last decade, are really worth one’s attention. What’s happening is an impoverishment of the former “First World,” which is losing out to the newly developed countries at the same time as it starts being subjected to the environmental stresses of climate change. What one can see on the horizon is a gradual evening-out of global wages, leaving much of the former West in decaying housing with legacy appliances and amenities, while populations in the East and South rise up to a roughly similar level and then stagnate. That’s already happening: and the frustration it engenders was behind the wave of protests in 2011-2013, whether in Egypt, Brazil, Russia and Turkey, or in Spain and the US. It is precisely the existence of the oligopolies and the financial elites (the famous 1%) that account for this dynamic. And we’re likely to see even more intense frustration and anger as these populations have to confront the difficulties of climate change. Under these conditions, both newly unemployed people and those who have gained or retained a precarious hold on middle-class status are likely to find great attraction in what the book calls “resilient communities” and “global commons.” Additionally, intellectuals with a capacity to see the dead-end future, whatever their class, will start to look for serious alternatives.

The discussion becomes tremendously interesting when the “for benefit” categories are discussed, in their local and global forms. This is the Marxian part of the book, where a change of the system itself starts to look desirable. Both the for-benefit categories are based on the generative matrix of the Commons, and I love the clarity with which you’ve expressed its basic principles: “It could be said that every Commons scheme basically has four interlinked components: a resource (material and/or immaterial; replenishable and/or depletable); the community which shares it (the users, administrators, producers and/or providers); the use value created through the social reproduction or preservation of these common goods; and the rules and the participatory property regimes that govern people’s access to it.”

At this point (Part III), the strict focus on information production is abandoned and what comes to the fore are the new possibilities presented by the maker revolution: not only 3-D printing, but all the computer-controlled tools which can use freely circulated open-source designs to create practical objects ranging from housing to automobiles. One can easily see the relevance of such productive capacities for impoverished communities, especially when they are beset by the stresses of changing climates, violent storms and soon, rising water levels. What’s more, to take a page from Jeremy Rifkin’s recent books, it becomes clear that with falling costs for solar and wind generation, energy production itself could potentially be decentralized and managed according to commons principles so as to build resilient communities. The combination of alternative energy sources with micro-manufacturing techniques represents a possible basis for a new form of economic growth that could cater to very large numbers of people despite, or rather because of, their inability to reach Fordist and Neoliberal levels of grotesque hyperconsumption. If the development of capitalist production during the next upswing could be influenced so as to furnish the infrastructure and toolkits of decentralized energy production and micro-manufacturing, then the next wave of growth could have many positive consequences. That’s the paradigm shift that we need, and Part III makes that quite clear, bravo. The question is, how to make it happen? What are the “new institutional arrangements” that we need, and how to achieve them?

Or as you and Vasilis write:

“Arguably, the issue is not to produce and consume less per se, but to develop new models of production which will work on a higher level than capitalist models. We consider it difficult to challenge the dominant system if we lack a working plan to transcend it. A post-capitalist world is bound to entail more than a mere reversal to pre-industrial times. As the TEPS theory informs us [ie, the theory of techno-economic paradigm shifts], the adaptation of current institutions and the creation of new ones take place in the deployment phase of each TEP. We claim that the times are, finally, mature enough to introduce a radical political agenda with brand new institutions, fueled by the spirit of the Commons and aiming to provide a viable global alternative to the capitalist paradigm beyond degrowth or antiglobalization rhetorics.”

Now, that’s not Carlota Perez talking anymore. That’s a utopian Marxist strain that has affinities with Italian Autonomia, to the extent it believes that progressive use-values slumber within the technologies of capitalist exchange, and that these use-values can be liberated through the kinds of self-organization that the Internet facilitates. The question is, how to avoid making this a purely utopian thinking, as Autonomia has proven to be so far? How can commons-based peer production reach deeply into daily life? And how can it expand globally, both as a philosophy and as a set of informational tools that can take full advantage of the new decentralized energy and manufacturing toolkits? Or, to put it in strategic terms: How can civil-society actors find the opportunity, in the current depression and in the upswing that will almost inevitably follow it, to push corporate production into supplying the toolkits for a society that will finally escape the worst and most life-threatening consequences of the capitalist system?

In chapter 8, I feel that you are groping for a way to bridge the gap between two rather different things. First, the many specific micro-examples of (mainly informational) commons-based production that you do provide, in welcome detail. Second, a full-fledged economic praxis that could rival with the existing forms of Neoliberal Informationalism, which you (and the rest of us) can only imagine somewhat fuzzily. The way you approach this problem suggests that you do recognize the difficulties of overcoming the norms imposed by monopoly capitalism: after all, they are exemplified by the trajectory of Free and Open-Source Software, which has still not been broadly adopted even though the operating systems are now perfectly serviceable and perfectly free. You cite two very promising projects from what could become the next techno-economic paradigm, namely the Rep-Rap 3-D printer project and the Wikispeed automobile project, both of which are impressive and point the way toward a new articulation of social production. But it’s clear that without support from either large social movements, or powerful economic actors, or more likely both, a new wave of capitalist growth will render these projects insignificant – or at least, no more significant than Free Software is currently. Traditional monopoly capital will put the breaks on Wikispeed. The coming wave of investment and development has to be bent to fit collaborative priorities. Otherwise, a no-future scenario looms.
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It is in this context that you introduce the “Partner State Approach”: “The PSA could be considered a cluster of policies and ideas whose fundamental mission is to empower direct social-value creation, and to focus on the protection of the Commons sphere as well as on the promotion of sustainable models of entrepreneurship and participatory politics.” This is absolutely true: commons-based production requires infrastructure investments that commoners themselves cannot provide, at least, not as individuals or a members of small and fractious voluntary networks. The implication (which I don’t think is anywhere clearly stated in the book) is that we need collective investments in order to stimulate forms of growth that are very different from those seen under Neoliberal Informationalism. We need a government capable of shaping an environment in which Commons-friendly investments will be possible. Yet so far, not a single state has emerged as a reliable partner. I’m curious: How do you feel about this today, Michel (and Vasilis), after the difficulties that the FLOK project encountered in Ecuador, in the attempt to generate exactly such a Partner State Approach?

The problems that our civilization faces are vast. The extension of commons-based peer production from the software to manufacturing and energy production does suggest a path forward. But support for it, in the form of something like a Partner State, can only be generated from a far broader civil-society movement than we have today. Such a movement is being called into existence by the rising awareness that the current form of development is literally a dead end. On one hand, it is important to nurture this movement (and ourselves, as parts of it) with pragmatic principles of hope, of the kind provided by experiments with Commons-based peer production. On the other, it’s necessary to cultivate a very lucid of what’s actually happening in society, not to paint an apocalyptic picture but just to identify the really existing obstacles. That kind of analysis is often lacking on the postmodern left. You could have used a little more Trotsky and Mandel, imho.

I think that civil-society movements have a tremendous amount to learn from experiments with peer production, and therefore, from the reflections in the last third of this book. However, I don’t think any of this will go anywhere without a more realistic assessment of the forces currently in play. A broad movement needs to know both what to ask for and what to create, in view of pushing the really existing political-economic system towards a fundamental structural change. That means clearly facing the structure and power of corporate monopoly capital in its transnational form. I feel you have dispatched that issue too quickly and on that level, the book could definitely be improved. Actually, a careful read of this book has left me with the desire to rewrite parts of it, while keeping others intact – which I guess is a pretty good outcome for a book that reccomends the use of Peer Production Licenses!

Let me close this long review/letter with one more quote from Bauwens and Kostakis, a particularly astute and admirable one:

“According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2011) ‘When the changes happen faster than expectations and/or institutions can adjust, the transition can be cataclysmic.’ To avoid such a cataclysm, we arguably need political and social mobilization on the regional, national and transnational scale, with a political agenda that would transform our expectations, our economy, our infrastructures and our institutions in the vein of a Commons-oriented political economy.”

I could not agree more.”

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John Michael Greer on intermediation and the end of the market economy

photo of Stacco Troncoso

Stacco Troncoso
16th December 2014


France, Château de Beynac Window

Extracted from his blog, John Michael Greer talks about the historical role of intermediation in both thriving and declining economies. This extract forms part of larger series of posts entitled “Dark Age America”


One of the factors that makes it difficult to think through the economic consequences of the end of the industrial age is that we’ve all grown up in a world where every form of economic activity has been channeled through certain familiar forms for so long that very few people remember that things could be any other way. Another of the factors that make the same effort of thinking difficult is that the conventional economic thought of our time has invested immense effort and oceans of verbiage into obscuring the fact that things could be any other way.

Those are formidable obstacles. We’re going to have to confront them, though, because one of the core features of the decline and fall of civilizations is that most of the habits of everyday life that are standard practice when civilizations are at zenith get chucked promptly into the recycle bin as decline picks up speed. That’s true across the whole spectrum of cultural phenomena, and it’s especially true of economics, for a reason discussed in last week’s post: the economic institutions and habits of a civilization in full flower are too complex for the same civilization to support once it’s gone to seed.

The institutions and habits that contemporary industrial civilization uses to structure its economic life comprise that tangled realm of supposedly voluntary exchanges we call “the market.” Back when the United States was still contending with the Soviet Union for global hegemony, that almost always got rephrased as “the free market;” the adjective still gets some use among ideologues, but by and large it’s dropped out of use elsewhere. This is a good thing, at least from the perspective of honest speaking, because the “free” market is of course nothing of the kind. It’s unfree in at least two crucial senses: first, in that it’s compulsory; second, in that it’s expensive.

“The law in its majestic equality,” Anatole France once noted drolly, “forbids rich and poor alike to urinate in public, sleep under bridges, or beg for bread.” In much the same sense, no one is actually forced to participate in the market economy in the modern industrial world. Those who want to abstain are perfectly free to go looking for some other way to keep themselves fed, clothed, housed, and supplied with the other necessities of life, and the fact that every option outside of the market has been hedged around with impenetrable legal prohibitions if it hasn’t simply been annihilated by legal fiat or brute force is just one of those minor details that make life so interesting.

Historically speaking, there are a vast number of ways to handle exchanges of goods and services between people. In modern industrial societies, on the other hand, outside of the occasional vestige of an older tradition here and there, there’s only one. Exchanging some form of labor for money, on whatever terms an employer chooses to offer, and then exchanging money for goods and services, on whatever terms the seller chooses to offer, is the only game in town. There’s nothing free about either exchange, other than the aforesaid freedom to starve in the gutter. The further up you go in the social hierarchy, to be sure, the less burdensome the conditions on the exchanges generally turn out to be—here as elsewhere, privilege has its advantages—but unless you happen to have inherited wealth or can find some other way to parasitize the market economy without having to sell your own labor, you’re going to participate if you like to eat.

Your participation in the market, furthermore, doesn’t come cheap. Every exchange you make, whether it’s selling your labor or buying goods and services with the proceeds, takes place within a system that has been subjected to the process of intermediation discussed in last week’s post. Thus, in most cases, you can’t simply sell your labor directly to individuals who want to buy it or its products; instead, you are expected to sell your labor to an employer, who then sells it or its product to others, gives you part of the proceeds, and pockets the rest. Plenty of other people are lined up for their share of the value of your labor: bankers, landlords, government officials, and the list goes on. When you go to exchange money for goods and services, the same principle applies; how much of the value of your labor you get to keep for your own purposes varies from case to case, but it’s always less than the whole sum, and sometimes a great deal less.

Karl Marx performed a valuable service to political economy by pointing out these facts and giving them the stress they deserve, in the teeth of savage opposition from the cheerleaders of the status quo who, then as now, dominated economic thought. His proposed solution to the pervasive problems of the (un)free market was another matter. Like most of his generation of European intellectuals, Marx was dazzled by the swamp-gas luminescence of Hegelian philosophy, and followed Hegel’s verbose and vaporous trail into a morass of circular reasoning and false prophecy from which few of his remaining followers have yet managed to extract themselves.

It’s from Hegel that Marx got the enticing but mistaken notion that history consists of a sequence of stages that move in a predetermined direction toward some as-perfect-as-possible state: the same idea, please note, that Francis Fukuyama used to justify his risible vision of the first Bush administration as the glorious fulfillment of human history. (To borrow a bit of old-fashioned European political jargon, there are right-Hegelians and left-Hegelians; Fukuyama was an example of the former, Marx of the latter.) I’ll leave such claims and the theories founded on them to the true believers, alongside such equally plausible claims as the Singularity, the Rapture, and the lemonade oceans of Charles Fourier; what history itself shows is something rather different.

What history shows, as already noted, is that the complex systems that emerge during the heyday of a civilization are inevitably scrapped on the way back down. Market economies are among those complex systems. Not all civilizations have market economies—some develop other ways to handle the complicated process of allocating goods and services in a society with many different social classes and occupational specialties—but those that do set up market economies inevitably load them with as many intermediaries as the overall complexity of their economies can support.

It’s when decline sets in and maintaining the existing level of complexity becomes a problem that the trouble begins. Under some conditions, intermediation can benefit the productive economy, but in a complex economy, more and more of the intermediation over time amounts to finding ways to game the system, profiting off economic activity without actually providing any benefit to anyone else.  A complex society at or after its zenith thus typically ends up with a huge burden of unproductive economic activity supported by an increasingly fragile foundation of productive activity.

All the intermediaries, the parasitic as well as the productive, expect to be maintained in the style to which they’re accustomed, and since they typically have more wealth and influence than the producers and consumers who support them, they can usually stop moves to block their access to the feed trough. Economic contraction, however, makes it hard to support business as usual on the shrinking supply of real wealth. The intermediaries thus end up competing with the actual producers and consumers of goods and services, and since the intermediaries typically have the support of governments and institutional forms, more often than not it’s the intermediaries who win that competition.

It’s not at all hard to see that process at work; all it takes is a stroll down the main street of the old red brick mill town where I live, or any of thousands of other towns and cities in today’s America. Here in Cumberland, there are empty storefronts all through downtown, and empty buildings well suited to any other kind of economic activity you care to name there and elsewhere in town. There are plenty of people who want to work, wage and benefit expectations are modest, and there are plenty of goods and services that people would buy if they had the chance. Yet the storefronts stay empty, the workers stay unemployed, the goods and services remain unavailable. Why?

The reason is intermediation. Start a business in this town, or anywhere else in America, and the intermediaries all come running to line up in front of you with their hands out. Local, state, and federal bureaucrats all want their cut; so do the bankers, the landlords, the construction firms, and so on down the long list of businesses that feed on other businesses, and can’t be dispensed with because this or that law or regulation requires them to be paid their share. The resulting burden is far too large for most businesses to meet. Thus businesses don’t get started, and those that do start up generally go under in short order. It’s the same problem faced by every parasite that becomes too successful: it kills the host on which its own survival depends.

That’s the usual outcome when a heavily intermediated market economy slams face first into the hard realities of decline. Theoretically, it would be possible to respond to the resulting crisis by forcing  disintermediation, and thus salvaging the market economy. Practically, that’s usually not an option, because the disintermediation requires dragging a great many influential economic and political sectors away from their accustomed feeding trough. Far more often than not, declining societies with heavily intermediated market economies respond to the crisis just described by trying to force the buyers and sellers of goods and services to participate in the market even at the cost of their own economic survival, so that some semblance of business as usual can proceed.

Read the full text here.

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