Cooperation and the Commons 2014 in Review


Quito viewed from Pichincha Volcano by Kevin Flanagan

At this time last year, I had just arrived in Ecuador as a researcher for the FLOK Society Project at the National Institute for Advanced Studies (IAEN). I was part of an international research team that had been recruited to develop policies for a “social knowledge economy” that could transform Ecuador’s productive matrix away from neo-liberalism and the dependence on oil extraction, to an economy based on the free and open access to knowledge.

Ecuador was the first country to explicitly promote open knowledge and the development of the commons as a strategy for systemic transformation of the nation’s economic model. I was responsible for co-ordinating the research stream focusing on Social Infrastructure and Institutional Innovation. In this, I was bringing my own background in co-operative economic development and social economy to examine how the notion of a social knowledge economy relates to the kinds of social institutions that could both reflect and sustain such a model.

It was the first time I had engaged seriously on the interface between commons, co-operatives, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and the broader civil society as components of an integrated strategy for changing the idea and praxis of political economy as practiced both by the neo-liberal right and the traditional statist left. It was a period of intense intellectual stimulation and engagement with fields of study and practice that extended and challenged my previous experience with the co-operative movement as a factor of progressive economic social change.

To this, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Michel Bauwens as my key interlocutor and collaborator during this period. It is a collaboration that has continued beyond our joint work in Ecuador to extend now into the broader terrain of envisioning and articulating how the notion of an open, co-operative commonwealth can be implemented in regions across the globe. The work completed by FLOK provides a crucial first reference and basis of analysis and policy development for adaptations and applications abroad.

Other close collaborators to whom I am grateful include the other members of the FLOK research team and associates such as Robin Murray, Margie Mendell, and Pat Conaty. I was ultimately responsible for the authorship of four papers for FLOK: Social Knowledge and the Social Economy; Public Policy for a Social Economy; ICT, Open Knowledge, and Civil Society; and Public Policy for a Partner State. A key aspect of my work during this period was the examination of the Partner State as a paradigm for a new political economy, and an area I am pursuing in new research, writing, and policy formation.

The other stream of work that has preoccupied me over the last year (and more) has been the development of the Synergia Project, an effort to promote the convergence of the co-operative, commons, and sustainability movements in the articulation of, and transition to, a new political economy of co-operative commonwealth.

Synergia is currently a network of about 30 people and organizations that are engaged in social change work from across a variety of fields and who see co-operative/commons /sustainability convergence as indispensible to the formation of an ethical political economy in service to the common good.

As a vehicle for gathering and synthesizing knowledge and praxis on co-operative/commons convergence, Synergia has networked key thinkers, practitioners and organizations from the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, and includes among its supporters BALTA, Athabasca University, the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, Co-operatives UK, the Plunkett Foundation, Schumacher College, the P2P Foundation, and RIPESS.

Over the last year, the Synergia work has focused on the design and development of a series of online learning modules (MOOCs) that would provide a platform for the sharing of knowledge and information on system-changing paradigms and practices that utilize the theory and practice of co-operation, commons, and sustainability to foster alternative paths of development. Key issues and sectors include Ethical and social finance; Commons-based land and housing; Renewable and sustainable energy, User-controlled health and social care; Local food systems; Organizational structure and democratic practice; and Transition to co-operative commons and the Partner State.

After the end of the FLOK Project in June, I participated in a series of dialogues and conferences organized by the Commons Strategies Group and the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Germany, OpenEverything in Ireland, and the Poulantzas Institute in Greece. These sessions with Michel Bauwens allowed us to reflect further on the findings of FLOK and how the convergence of co-operative and commons thinking could be developed and applied to the political and economic realities of widely divergent settings.

A Deep Dive Session in Meissen, Germany engaged 25 leading thinkers on the subject of “open co-operativism”, and this truly remarkable session over a three-day period has been documented in the report “Open Co-operativism” co-authored by Pat Conaty and David Bollier. In it is contained a trove of ideas and practices that lend to the further convergence of these two movements in a common agenda for systemic social, political, and economic change.

This past year’s work with FLOK provided the foundation for my current work in Greece. With Syriza now positioned to form the first anti-austerity leftist government in Europe, all eyes are on whether this neophyte party will be able to fashion a truly alternative political economy to the neo-liberal model of austerity that is now ravaging the country.

I am contributing to the formation of a “master plan” for the social economy in Greece, which for many has become both inspiration and last refuge for a model of political economy that takes Greece in a wholly different direction from the status quo as dictated by the European centres of capital, the IMF, and the corrupt political class that has led Greece to the precipice. Along with myself, the task force that is working on this project includes key individuals linked to Syriza and to the commons movement in Greece and the newly emerging co-operatives, collectives, and social economy groupings that have arisen as a response to the economic crisis in the country.

Key among the proposals being developed for Greece are the creation of an “ecosystem” of institutional supports for the development of the co-operative and social economy and the development of an Institute for Social and Political Economy. Many of these formulations were first articulated in the context of FLOK in Ecuador.

Without question, the past year has been a time of intellectual expansion and broadening contacts that link my co-operative past with the personalities and organizations of newly emergent and vanguard groupings that bridge commons, digital technology, distributed production systems, and co-operatives into a new synthesis that marries the social technologies of the past with the emergent digital and social technologies of a globalized future.

The P2P Foundation, and the numerous other groups that have played a part in my last year’s work are all part of a catalyzing role in a common effort to understand and articulate a political economy imaginary for our time.

I am lucky indeed to be a part of it.

– John Restakis, Jan. 2, 2015

This week we are launching our new platform for Commons Transition, premiering January 7th.

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