What’s blooming? – Discovering patterns of financial commoning in Germany

Image by Rennett Stowe

By Thomas Mehwald and Wolfgang Hoeschele

The article describes  the design and working plan of a research study on finance commons in Germany. In the light of the current European currency crisis, approaches like the ones surveyed in the study assume increasing importance, across the continent. The research aims at providing new knowledge of how alternative currency arrangements are developed and maintained by users. In addition it focuses on how such approaches can support resource users in gaining of control over other resources crucial for sustainable economic development.

Blooming landscapes

Leo and Theo Wonneberger meet regularly with their group of young people. They organize the launch of a complementary currency, the “Spreeblüte” in the heart of Berlin. They discuss how the money they are about to issue would look like, whether it will be Euro-backed, what happens with value added tax declaration when revenue accrues in Spreeblüte. The German word for counterfeit money is Blüte, meaning “blossom” or “bloom,” quite a telling word. What the group of young people aims at is the blooming of something new, that breaks existing ways of doing things, democratically anchored in the city they live in. As economists and psychologists they have observed again and again how the money they are using, the Euro, supports unsustainable economic structures and directly contributes to the destruction of the earth which we all share.

Their outset is pioneering; they re-define the functions of money. Money can be defined in many different ways, including as a social relationship, a command over other people´s labor power, a means of exchange, a store of value, a definition of value. Bernard Lietaer defines money as “an agreement, within a community, to use something standardized as a medium of exchange.”[1] The Spreeblüte community imagine it as a resource governed by the users, they refine a certain function of their ‘money’ – the Spreeblüte is a means of exchange not a means for wealth accumulation. There are other initiatives which create their own agreements about money and how to use it, such as self-organized health insurances, community managed investment funds focusing on sustainable enterprises, and new finance instruments for commons such as crowdfunding. This article is about a planned research project in Germany which describes and deepens an innovative concept of finance commons – initiatives which apply the logic of the commons or the common good to money, and projects which aim at financing commons. Finance is rarely considered as an object of (rather than a barrier to) commoning,[2] but we believe that thinking of finance as a potential commons is a timely topic – after all, money is our culture´s primary tool for the allocation of resources, and it is important that we rework this tool so that resources can be allocated according to commons principles.

Blooming commons

The word commons relates to communities or groups of people who manage a common good and develop rules for its usage. To the extent possible everyone who depends on the usage of the common good, or who is affected by other´s use of that common good, should be able to democratically participate in decision making. User groups should bear the responsibility through appropriate forms of collective decision-making, to determine who should do what, how and when. These social processes of managing the commons are called commoning. For example, land is a commons if it is used and managed by a local community for mutual benefit for grazing animals, growing crops or as the location of a production facility. Knowledge is a commons when it is freely available to a defined group of users who organize the rules for its usage, the Wikipedia is an example.

Finance commons are initiatives which apply the commons logic to financial actions or which aim at having finance serve the creation of commons. Money as we know it is a crucial productive asset that is not democratically governed. Central banks and private banks create the bulk of the money available today; ordinary people, the users, have virtually no influence on how money is created or the rules that govern its circulation. Finance commons aim to change that, by a community of users coming together and collectively deciding on mutually beneficial rules for the creation and/or circulation and use of money. They aim at experimenting with the intangible assets of money and trust to create local value chains and other productive commons. The more resources are organized as commons the more do the producers – the people conducting the work – have control over the production process. The commons logic and the finance commons thus represent a real pathway to a people-governed and sustainable economy.

Research questions

The study project aims to compare projects across Germany which focus on different functions of money (means of exchange, saving, investment, loans, insurance) using the following questions:

  • How can finance commons contribute to the success of commons in rural and urban development?
  • What methods do finance commons use regarding gaining new members, selection of the legal form, decision making processes, dealing with money, and cooperation with partners in local government?
  • What experiences have they gained with these methods and which methods would be applicable for other initiatives?
  • How can the cooperation between local government administrations and finance commons be designed so that they can reach their common targets better?

Methodology and working program

The study looks at the phenomenon of finance commons from various perspectives. A crucial element is the conscious and enduring exchange among the participating projects: members of these projects visit each others projects and review them following a consistent methodology and set of questions. The researchers assist this process, contribute their expert knowledge and experiences and guide individual participants to reflect on their own work.

The use of “real-world laboratories” (Reallabore in German) is planned; here the insights and findings from research and practice complement each other. The research approach encourages participants in finance commons to reflect on their own processes and to learn from the exchange of experiences with other finance commons and the participating researchers. Research results will be made available as a collection of patterns of financial commoning and suggestions for action for the use of other, existing, emerging or blooming commons initiatives. This aims to support mutual learning, speeding up learning processes and enhancing their success.

The research is planned over a period of about 27 months with planning, survey and analysis phases followed by patterns workshops. The complete research concept and working plan are available with the authors. The project is in the phase of searching for funding, the authors are grateful for any suggestions and proposals for funding.

Ultimately the study takes an innovative look at the most contradictory, enabling as well as too often crippling resource for societal change: money. By studying how finance commons grow democratically, overcome traditional perceptions of money, and contribute to the emergence of cooperative economic structures, it is possible to assist more and more people and communities to walk towards a people focused and sustainable future, wherever ideas and talents bloom.

[1]. Bernard Lietaer and Jaqui Dunne. 2013. Rethinking Money: How Currencies turn Scarcity into Prosperity. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco: p. 57.

[2]. For a rare discussion of “credit commons”, see Thomas Greco, Jr. 2012. Reclaiming the credit commons: toward a butterfly society. In David Bollier and Silke Helfrich (eds), The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, pp. 230-235. Levellers Press, Amherst, Masachusetts.

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