“The two could become rivals on many issues — but commons chambers should not be designed simply as contrarian mirror-like opponents of commerce chambers. The commons chambers have a more distinctive long-range challenge on which to focus: the rise of +N. (networks)”

Excerpted from David Ronfeldt, in the context of his TIMN theory (tribes, institutions, markets and networks):

“For generations, the concept of the commons has mostly meant natural commons — e.g., the clear air, clean water, and open land that even President Nixon once deemed a “birthright” of every American. Lately, because of the Internet and related digital technologies, the concept has expanded to include information and knowledge — the cyber commons. Whether and how to include other social matters — e.g., health, education, housing, public/civic infrastructure, insurance, law, etc. — is under discussion, along with ideas about whether to emphasize the contents of “the commons” or the practices of “commoning”. More debatable is whether to include social entrepreneurs (e.g., with “B Corps”) interested in marketing information-age products and services in post-capitalist ways; their activities may belong more in the market (+M) sector than a commons network-based (+N) sector.

Yet the concept’s revival has barely touched public awareness. U.S. political leaders and party platforms don’t mention it; nor do news and opinion shows on radio and TV — but for rare exceptions on rare occasions. For example, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, Thom Hartman’s The Big Picture, and The PBS News Hour often discuss commons-related issues, like those mentioned above, but I have yet to see them mention the revival of “the commons” idea or the prospects for a “commons sector”. Instead, pro-commons ideas are mostly advanced piece-meal by dispersed issue-specific civil-society NGOs (e.g., Sierra Club, Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Ferment around commons ideas is growing mainly on the Left (e.g., via The P2P Foundation) — but only parts of the Left. Awareness among Centrists is difficult to find, despite Elinor Ostrom’s winning the Nobel Prize, and Yochai Benkler’s writings about the advantages of “network-based peer production”. Interest on the Right is sorely lacking, held back by notions about “the tragedy of the commons” as well as by ingrained adherence to traditional public-private distinctions — though conservative concepts about stewardship, protection, and conservation could contribute to pro-commons ideas.

An advantage of the chamber-of-commons idea is that it looks ahead to the emergence of a sector of activity that will cut across all sorts of issue areas, political ideologies, and advocacy organizations. That the concept still lacks definitional clarity and public support is a problem — but it may also be an opportunity that well-designed chambers may help address and resolve.

My inspiration in 2012 for the idea of a U.S. Chamber of Commons derived partly from my adverse reaction to what had become of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), at a time when I was already wondering about the rise of pro-commons thinking and what that might mean for the emergence of a new network-based (+N) sector alongside the existing public (+I) and private (+M) sectors. My long-term vision became that someday we’ll see issues covered by media where representatives of both a chamber of commerce and a chamber of commons are asked to present their views and answer questions about some hot topic — in other words, a U.S. Chamber of Commons will achieve public parity with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

While that inspiration and vision are about Chambers of Commons serving to counter-balance the USCC and its affiliates, there is much in the USCC’s history that looks worth emulating. It was created by assembling dispersed pro-business forces (e.g., existing local chambers and businesses) around a national center in 1912, at the behest of President Taft and with the approval of Congress. The goal was to improve the representation of business interests in Washington; but motivations also included counter-balancing the increasingly well-organized labor movement. This new Chamber was deemed a “social welfare” organization worthy of tax-exempt status. And it was said to be an advisory organization, particularly to advise the government about business matters — though it soon became an advocacy organization as well. All those points — assembling and networking dispersed forces, creating a high-profile national center, gaining recognition from Executive and Legislative leaders, serving significant advisory (and advocacy) roles — amount, I’d say, to a few historical “lessons” for developing a network of new Chambers of Commons.

A key development for the USCC’s history was the “Powell memo” (authored in 1971 by Lewis Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer, whom President Nixon placed on the U.S. Supreme Court a little later). In this memo, Powell argued that “the American economic system is under broad attack” by anti-business forces. So he laid out a sweeping strategy for defending and advancing American business interests. One consequence was the creation of influential new pro-business think-tanks, media, and advocacy networks.

According to two analyses,

“Though Powell’s memo was not the sole influence, the Chamber and corporate activists took his advice to heart and began building a powerful array of institutions designed to shift public attitudes and beliefs over the course of years and decades. The memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. Their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.”

“Powell’s memo is widely credited with leading to an extraordinary transformation in public opinion about free-market economics, government regulation, and the efficacy of government. The transformation resulted from the creation of a loose network of business people and advocacy organizations that organized around the ideology of unfettered free market economics.”

So, that may be another another historical experience worth emulation. If/as a U.S. Chamber of Commons takes hold, it may benefit from someone writing its own kind of “Powell memo” —a variant designed for pro-commons (and pro-social) rather than pro-commerce actors.

And indeed I have come across progressive calls for a new “Powell memo” — notably by an analyst who wrote several times about the USCC during 2015-2016: Anthony Biglan (co-author, The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World, 2015).

Here’s what he concluded in two posts about social and cultural evolution:

“So let this be my Powell memo. If you don’t like where the evolution of capitalism has taken us in the past forty years, join with others who share your understanding of what humans need to thrive and build a super-coalition of individuals and organizations working to influence public understanding, public policy, and direct action.”

“There is no shortage of organizations that can contribute to our evolving in this direction. What is needed, however is higher level selection of a super-coalition of organizations just like what Lewis Powell advocated for the business community.”

That fits well with TIMN. But notice that his call for a new “super-coalition of individuals and organizations” is focused on building a broad-based progressive movement to correct the adverse effects of capitalism. Moreover, by now I’ve seen many calls for creating progressive new organizations and coalitions, and most have similar emphases on countering capitalism. Some even note a need to counter the USCC specifically (e.g., Gar Alperowitz, as noted in an addendum to my 2012 post on the commons). In other words, all these progressive proposals are far more about reforming +M than building +N.

Yet, if TIMN is valid, what will prove strategically wiser is for some innovations — Chambers of Commons in particular — to be focused primarily on building +N sectors, and tangentially on rectifying what’s gone wrong with capitalism and its +M sectors.

As I stated in a comment at another of Biglan’s posts:

“My point, as I argue elsewhere, is that America is entering a phase of cultural evolution that will add the “network” level to the foregoing. A cutting-edge for this new phase appears to be clustering around new (and old) ideas about “the commons”. Thus an innovation that I would urge adding to your list is for a network of Chambers of Commons, including a U.S. Chamber of Commons. If viable, it could help generate the kind of new “super-coalition of organizations” you favor, in order to help propel the rise of a “network” sector and counter-balance actors like the Chamber of Commerce that reinforce aging “institutional” and “market” practices. I’d wish for a Powell-type memorandum on behalf of a Chamber of Commons.”

While a U.S. Chamber of Commons might emulate the USCC in such regards, the purposes would be different, as would governance, sponsorship, membership, audience, and areas of interest. The two could become rivals on many issues — but commons chambers should not be designed simply as contrarian mirror-like opponents of commerce chambers. The commons chambers have a more distinctive long-range challenge on which to focus: the rise of +N.”

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