Denis Postle, of psyCommons, on the Berlin Economics and the Commons conference

Two reflections stimulated by attending the ECC2013 conference.

By Denis Postle:

(version without notes)

Part One: Beyond Market and State – the Commons and Commoning

This is the first of two posts of reflections following my participation in the Economics and the Common(s) Conference – From Seed Form to Core paradigm in Berlin May 22-24, 2013

In this post I’ll offer some reflections on the conference experience and in the second I’ll say something about what I’ll take away from it into commoning.

I had three agendas for the four days of the Berlin Commons conference; the first was to gain perspective on the psyCommons perspective, the proposal that there is an existing and thriving commons of human rapport, ordinary wisdom and shared power. Done. It was easy to see how the psyCommons notion sits within an emerging worldwide cultural/political movement focused on commons and commoning, plus rolling back or interrupting enclosures of commons of any kind. What is being sought is a way of structuring human social relations that reaches ‘beyond market and state’.

My concerns about whether the psyCommons proposal had legs were dissolved by the experience of discovering at the conference a vast collection of global and local networks of commons action and intention, many of them wildly divergent but in ways that spoke of the emergence of powerful cooperative ethos. Agenda item two: make connection with key exponents of the emerging commons, over two hundred people from 30 countries attended the conference. Done.

The positive zizz of the conference was overwhelming, how to keep discrimination awake was sometimes a struggle.

Each morning at breakfast in the hotel the muzak played Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow. Might the commons movement and with it the psyCommons proposal be only a tiny blip on the event horizon of capital accumulation? Might commoning be co-opted as a band aid for its woundings? An ever present danger perhaps but aren’t we also inhabitants of an inflection point in history equivalent in its scope to transform our economic life as Gutenberg’s press? And if so doesn’t the re-emergence of the commons as a way of structuring social relations provide an antidote to the supposed inevitability of capital?

The Commons conference could hardly have been more richly placed to support the notion of the dissolution of apparent cultural inevitability. The Heinrich Böll Foundation hosted it and fifty metres away across the street from Foundation’s somewhat cubic building… ….was another cube, a 1942 WW2 air raid shelter, icon of an earlier, apparently immutable, institution that nevertheless perished… …albeit following the application of considerable force. (3 pictures in original article)

And a certain optimism could be held to permeate the very ground beneath us in the conference venue. The Heinrich Böll Foundation occupies a site in the Mitte district of central Berlin that until 1989 was behind the Berlin Wall.

In that year the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, a client state of the USSR that had for decades maintained a barbed wire and guard post grip on millions of German people, succumbed to determined peaceful resistance (though not without enormous pain and recrimination). Optimism about the commons as a ‘world beyond market and state’ could still be misplaced but the Berlin wall fell, an unimaginable event for those of us old enough to have seen the horror of it in operation. So too in some countries have civil rights been transformed (not to forget slavery) and there have been local successes too, the toxicity of smoking seemed immutable but sustained effort has created smoke-free offices and other buildings.

And then there is the matter of scale, how can the re-emergence of commons and commoning match the scale of the interplay of market with the transport commons that we met on arrival at the Berlin central station?

Here again might not threads of optimism about commoning be found? What makes such an elaborate infrastructure and huge complexity of processes feasible both in design and management? Isn’t it software and internet interoperability? And isn’t this, as was very apparent at the Commons conference, now available to anyone and everyone? So far as the psyCommons proposal suggests that human rapport is ubiquitous, don’t we now through the internet and associated software, have the means of production for communities of global and local commons?

A third agenda I took with me to Berlin was the expectation of being able to contribute, to find people for whom the psyCommons proposal would seem like a gift. The richness of the presentations, perspectives and diversity of takes on what the commons might be, should be, or already was, ran wall to wall, and some of it was vividly memorable, however contribution turned out to be more problematic and I remain unclear why this was (but read on).

In the infrastructures stream I gave a brief account of the Independent Practitioners Network (IPN), a long-standing commons infrastructure, but there were no followup questions, no further interest. I raised the notion of psyCommons in the culture stream but again it was received politely but without questions or followup. Did I run into, as I suspect, some (appropriate) aversion to psychology as a pariah domain of distress and stigma? (there’s an understanding among therapists that at a party never say you are a psychotherapist – people will disappear).

Awkward this and it could be mindfluff. However for all its value (see post 2!) I did tend to experience some aspects the conference as leaning towards the technocratic – technocratic in the sense that there is a technical solution to any and every problem and away from the subjectivities of heart and body (though the food was great!).

I had expected to meet far more lived experience of commons and commoning, instead intellectual/academic conversations ‘about’ commons often seemed to prevail – there was a strong ‘digital commons’ story – that sometimes morphed into a ‘knowledge commons’ narrative which seemed to presume that everything of consequence can be digitised – there was even an assertion that ‘all commons are knowledge commons’.

And it needs to be acknowledged that this was framed by a repeated emphasis on the need to move from transaction to relationship. I take this as a reminder that human relationship is based on a commonality of presence, of gaze, of body language, where feeling and emotion, sustained through rapport precede and shape discrimination and action. But oops… might we be back to the pariah domain of psychology?

If any of this seems mean-spirited, this is not my intention, that my lived experience of being in a long-standing commons with at least two significant fruits, didn’t find significant engagement, was disappointing but the feeling of disappointment rests happily on the richness of an otherwise phenomenal event – for some further details of which, see post two, Making Money.”

* Part Two: Making Money

“Courtesy of the generosity of the Heinrich Böll Foundation an enormous amount of material from the May 2013 Berlin conference will eventually be online, until then I thought I’d post a few headlines of strategies, tactics or perspectives that I found valuable. And in recognition of an emphasis in the conference on the economics of commons and commoning I’ll follow this with a longer account of the talk about money by Jem Bendell that for me was the highlight of the event.

First a few headlines:

Commons culture emphasises a move from transaction to relationships

In a psyCommons context this means letting go of a deferential bow to the transactions of professional psychological expertise framed as assessment, diagnosis and treatment, and moving to giving or receiving help or care based on relationship that includes rapport.

We need to make a move from developing ‘exchange value’ to ‘use value’

As I’m coming to understand this it means letting go of money as a yardstick of value and moving toward utility – towards liking, or love as an indicator of validity in a service, object or relationship.

Patenting is only the tip of a vast iceberg of trade secrets

Patenting and copyright have seemed reasonable as due protection and reward for creative effort until, as the conference reminded me, they become increasingly enclosures encroaching more and more into daily life – the public face of its commoditization. Also from a psyCommons perspective, much of the contents of patent and copyright enclosures have been paid for from public funds.

Establish commoning principles but have the humility to know they are only provisional

This is my intention with the psyCommons proposal i.e. that it is a proposal subject to revision and update (and contribution!).

Don’t be over-interested in definitions of the commons – a tomato doesn’t need to know whether it is a fruit or a vegetable
I agree but I have learned to distinguish between what amounts to a common pool resource and what I see as a functional commons – groups of people in relationship held and sustained by negotiations about principles and procedures. Here is a listing from the commons I belong to.

* Caring for the Health Commons: What it is and Who’s Responsible for it Michael D. McGinnis February 20, 2013

I came across this at the commons conference, McGinnis gives a helpful overview of priorities.

Resist claims which suggest that anything that doesn’t belong to the state is bad, dangerous or invalid

I can’t now recall who said this but I have long supported the need to honour wilderness both in the sense of unfettered imagination and in resisting the desire for enclosure of people in flight from their own and other’s creative chaos.

Reclaim subjectivity from the distortions of capital

If the first task of the psyCommons notion is recognition of a thriving common pool resource of ordinary wisdom and shared power, the second task is to make whatever contributions we can to dissolving what Negri and Hardt call the empire within, the extent to which we have become entranced by the imperatives of capital.

Commoneering, Money Markets and Value

A talk by Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria gave what was for me an electrifying outline of the huge formative influence money has on lives and well being. When it is available take look at the video of his talk, until then here is an account of some of what he said.

Jem defined a commons very technically (he’s a professor!) ‘a commons is a system of relations between people and phenomena that has an emergent property of sustained sufficient access for all’, and then moved on to talk about money.

The current mainstream money system he told us represents an almost total enclosure of our ability to trust each other. Governments, central banks and private banks work together to generate the dominant means of exchange, the dominant way we relate to each other. This banking system drives further enclosure and it works against a commons culture because of the way that credit is created.

Where does money come from? 97% of money, he pointed out is issued by private banks. When we take out a loan, the bank, through extending credit to us, is creating new money.

While there are a lot of different currencies world-wide, the bank-issued debt system behind them is the same. What does this mean, he asked? The shocking answer was that we are all in debt for ever because all this money is issued with interest. This means that there is more debt than there is money to pay off what has been borrowed. The system can only continue if there are ever increasing amounts of money loaned each year. As I type this I find myself asking, isn’t this a Ponzi, i.e. ‘pyramid’ scheme on a global scale?

Jem went on to say that the scale of the indebtedness feeds massive inequality and it also means the economy has to grow because loans will only be issued to service economic activity.

This creates an intense growth imperative that drives the commodification of more and more of daily life and planetary resources, there is a pressing need to turn everything into a commodity that will yield a profit so as to service the interest on the debt.

Jem Bendell argued that this monetary system is anti-commons, it prevents the growth of a commons economy. It shapes the way we experience life, we think that wealth is scarce, that we must all compete for a share of it when actually, as he emphasised very strongly, the wealth is us.

How to take this economic perspective into commons life, or daily, or indeed any aspect of life was less clear but I did come to understand why there is so much attention given to alternative currencies that are attempting get outside what he called the ‘bankertarian’ or ‘bankocracy’ of money based on indebtedness.

Shocking too to realise that money whether global and personal is a very elaborate form of fiction, as I mentioned earlier a story, apparently in the Ponzi tradition, in which constant growth is a precondition for the scheme to continue.

But as Jem Bendel pointed out in his conclusion, it can’t continue, we are already over the critical threshold of 440ppm of carbon dioxide and half the Arctic ice has been melting each summer for a while now.

We need a new story. Urgently. And if it was the intention of the Commons conference to bring this home, it worked for me.

While my understanding of capital has been poor but improving lately, I have long seen a belief in the inevitability of capitalism as a form of trance induction. Historically, people courageous people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to extricate themselves from the cradle-to-grave grip of medieval Roman Catholic trance induction, I suspect that with capitalism we are faced with an equivalent task.

Trance inductions reinforce beliefs through disallowing discrimination, while I don’t suppose it is news to see capital as a particularly archaic but virulent heritage religion, we need to step off critique and make up a new story that breaks capital’s self-serving trance, one that serves mutuality and reciprocity rather than bankers and their cronies. Can the commons provide that story? I suspect the commons is the story.

Do we have the time? That remains to be seen.

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