Saturday, August 31, 2013

Commons Enabling Infrastucture

This two-part series explores the physical, technical and governance infrastructures that are needed to create and sustain a commons. It takes "the commons" beyond the realm of utopian ideology and into the physical reality of how to make a commons work.

Chicago Transit Authority Control_loop_junction on Wikimedia CommonsCommons and Infrastructure.* This is, IMHO, one of THE issues we have to deal with if we want to expand the commons. The following is a personal summary of the debates at the Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC, Berlin, May 2013). It will be published in two parts. The first one is based on the Keynote of the Infrastructure Stream at ECC (presented by Miguel Said Vieira; prepared by him & Stefan Meretz). While re-listening the keynote, summarizing their ideas and paging through my notes from the European Deep Dive, I added some of my own ideas and a few examples that came into my mind. The second one will be based on the discussions during the stream sessions.
Let’s start with a few quotes from the (pretty compelling) framing of the respective stream at ECC, which was called. „New Infrastructures for Commoning by Design“:
„Commons, whether small or large, can benefit a lot from dependable communication, energy and transportation, for instance. Frequently, the issue is not even that a commons can benefit from those services, but that its daily survival badly depends on them. … When we look at commoning initiatives as a loose network, it does not make sense that multiple commons in different fields or locations should have to repeat and overlap their efforts in obtaining those services (infrastructures) independently…“
We need to sensitize commoners about the urgent need for Commons Enabling Infrastructures (CEI). That is, we need infrastructures that
  • can “by design” foster and protect new practices of commoning;
  • help challenge power concentration and individualistic behavior
  • are based on distributed networks (as extensively as possible)
  • provide platforms which enable non-discriminatory access and use rights (for instance: a “ticket-free public transport system” is not cost-free, but it is designed in such a way, that the funding of maintanance is not tied to the traveller’s individual budget)
The good news is, that we don’t need to start from scratch (as we’ll see). Such infrastructures have always existed. They clearly CAN enable the creation and maintenance of commons, if they are designed for and if they are run by communities or networks. The problem is, that this crucial point is often dismissed – even amongst commons-sensitive communities. The talk delivered by Free Software advocate Eben Moglen at Re:publica 2012 shows in an almost dramatic way how even in the digital world we lose the fight on infrastructures.
„But Freedom of Thought needs free media and free media needs free technologies.“ (Moglen).
It’s that simple. In other words: It is not enough to use free software and protect it by the General Public License. Legally protected Free Software remains technically and structurally vulnerable. If everything is run on enclosed platforms sooner or later these platforms (and those who run them) will cannibalize the freedom of users. Free Software needs free hardware and community controlled infrastructures. If not, cooptation is right around the corner. (The Freedom Boxproject deals with this.)
To build commons enabling infrastructures,
„there are at least four critical factors that must be properly structured for the infrastructures to succeed: the social organization of management systems, technical issues, system protocols and legal governance regimes. […] However, conventional economics discourse barely recognizes this distinction and usually treats infrastructure as a resource, pure and simple, with little regard for the actual or potential role of commoning.“ (from the Deep Dive protocol)
There are plenty of questions that arise when we think about Commons Enabling Infrastructures, questions such as:
* What could be the roles of the state – currently the main provider of infrastructures – and the market?
* How those actors conflict with commoning initiatives, and how could they be useful in infrastructures provisioning?
* While some emerging infrastructures have progressive dimensions (using distributed networks, promoting local access), they may be minor parts of larger, regressive infrastructures that still depend upon individual transportation, centralized power grids and concentrated industrial structures. Is this avoidable, and how so?
Why is the issue so challenging? –> Because it is rather unexplored and because it transcends the issue of limits / size / scale.
* … and many others, feel free to add in the comments.
But first and foremost the question is: What is infrastructure at all?
  • It is not a given, but historically/ socially constructed.
  • It is a system that enables activities of multiple actors, just as our veins, neuronal networks and musculature allow all parts of our body and elements within to act and interact.
  • „Why don’t we think of a single car as infrastructure?“ Because infrastructure is about something that lies infra > latin „beneath“ the single thing or activity p.e roads, traffic signals and traffic rules, that can by used by many actors –> Infrastructures are social systems.
  • It is usually too expensive to be paid by an individual.
  • It can be related to layers/ systems/ resources we all use (spectrum), or to things we value collectively (health, sanitation, education).
  • It is something we share, it has a social character and therefore, the potentialto be commons.
Today, most existing infrastructures are related to commodity production,that is: they are market-logic driven, but the market provides only indirect (and very imperfect) indicators of societal needs; thus; many of the current infrastructures foster environmentally harmful and individualistic behaviour. Thelack of certain infrastructures does as well; just think about the public transport system vs the highway system in Germany.
Stau by Wikimedia CommonsMost of these commodity driven and commodity reproducing infrastructures were built by states and not by private actors. In fact there is a trend towardsmega-infrastructures (pushed by States and corporations),many of them related to energy-supply, mining and agribusiness companies.
„These large energy, mining and infrastructure investments are frequently cross-border“ (Baker &Mc Kenzie) and set up as Public Private Partnership. This kind of infrastructure usually promotes and enables dispossession.
Therefore, the question is (again): How can the infrastructures be related to commons production? How can we promote and build commons enabling infrastructures? And how can we deal with the following challenges:
  1. to turn existing infrastructures into commons: → via appropriating existing, state provided infrastructures or (re-)designing CEI with the State? What are the limits of such infrastructures? (example: Does car-sharing spur the change of the underlying infrastructures?)
  2. to turn commons into infrastructures on a wider societal level, so that society is less dependent on commodities. Here the problem is the current ties of many commons to a region/ a territory within given boundaries.
To, both, show where we are at and show what’s possible, here are a fewalternative approaches (practices) to infrastructures:
1. – „the open, free and neutral network; Internet for Everybody“, which is a large and successful community built, shared and controlled internet infrastructure; an example of it’s application: It is
“based on a peer to peer agreement that lets anyone join the network by providing her/her connections, which in turn extends network connectivity to others. is an independent network owned by commoners, but also constituted as a foundation that lets it dialogue with the state and market in order to have access to other infrastuctures (such as the electro-magnetic spectrum) and grow.”
There are other such networks based on common WLAN hotspots and a bit of antennas and software programming in Athens, Barcelona or Vienna. The European Union is funding research projects about their potential. Because, if
“many of such community networks are set up together they can form a distributed network, based on so called »Linux-Containers« (LXC). This would be a new and light-weighted, community-controled p2p form of enabling communication beyond the big corporations and based on computers of relatively low performance. ( CONFINE »Community Networks Testbed for the Future Internet«
Indeed, in post-Snowden times an infrastructure of free, distributed networkes to enable our (digital) communication seems more important than ever (see
They could help spur commons based, distributed energy production by many countless projects and initiatives. But there is a similar problem as in the case of telecommunication: if those initiatives would like to exchange energy among themselves, they would need to use the market based grid → which makes them vulnerable. Moreover, the current trend favoring Smart Grids is not driven by commons but by the Green Economy idea which basically ignores the factor of excessive consumption.
3. Education: Marabá Rural Campus
crmb_correctedThis is an example of a Public Higher Education Institute that offers technical and undergrad degree in agroecology and rural education. It is an interesting case that shows how communities appropriate themselves of usually state run infrastructures. Peasant movements involved with land reform, indigenous people orquilombos are involved in student selection mechanisms, that is: extremely diverse communities, but usually pro commons and some of them even strictly commons based, sharing and producing collectively. Along with trade unions they pressured the State to set up the Campus. The land was donated by the Movement of landless people, MST. The location choosen for the campus was particularly relevant as it is close to El Dorado dos Carajás where in 1996, 19 people were murdered by the police.
In a way the place of the Marabá Rural Campus is a battle ground between commons based initiatives and neo-extractivists.
Eldorado_dos_Carajas_massacre_by_Latuff2Carlos Latuff Cartoon about the massacre in El Dorado do Carajás; Images from Carlos Latuff are copyright free).
Marabá Rural Campus has small scale family farming, agroecology and food sovereignty as principles and blends them with research focused on the community's needs. One of their strategies is called: alternation pedagogy, that is students spend one third of their time in their respective communities; this allows for a process orientied learning and research, it minimizes rural exodus etc.
Btw; there is an interesting conceptual link to a recent article by Prof. Uwe Schneidewind (Director of the Wuppertal Institute) who calls for a citizen university concept in Germany. We need to commonify education. Pioneer work we can build upon is done in many places; one example is the Future-Foundation Eduction of the GLS-Trust) This will be the main pillar of commonifying public services and infrastructures.
4. Transportation and Urban Planning:
… infrastructure as a commons can include car-pooling and car-sharing, achieved through a distributed sharing of transportation needs and routes. Shared cars could have preferred access to key roads. In Tallinn, capital of Estonia, a system of free public transport was recently instituted that lets registered residents of the city use the system at no cost, while visitors from other parts of the country and foreigners must pay. The idea is that citizens have already paid via their taxes for the transportation.
“To be entitled to freely use public transport in Tallinn, citizens of Tallinn have to purchase the so-called ‘green card’ (EUR 2) and personalise it. People from outside Tallinn can also buy the ‘green card’ which enables them to load the needed amount of money to use public transport. Since the implementation of free public transport, a significant increase of the number of registered Tallinners can be observed.”
So, it seems to help densifying urban spaces which to a certain degree is desperately needed to leave the urban surroundings untouched.
Urban planning and public spaces can be considered infrastructure as well. And from that perspective, urban gardening or urban agriculture are attempts to reclaim spaces that have been taken over by development and/or abandoned. Other approaches to convert urban infrastructure into Commons Enabling Infrastructures (CEI) are social housing projects or Community Land Trusts. To mention just two examples out of many: The Ca La Fou in Spain (Catalunya) – “Colonia Ecoindustrial Postcapitalista – is an industrial colony that has built low-cost housing that is owned, managed and governed by the community. And theCommunity Land Trust in Brussels developed organizational forms (the trust) to convert urban land and housing into something used and stewarded by the communities themselves on a pretty ambitious scale.
Obviously in all those areas there are plenty of tensions:
  • the government shows a lack of committment to land reform
  • guaranteeing participatory management is a constant struggle
  • corruption is not unknown in the commons, nor is conflict
  • etc, etc…
But once we conceive Commons Enabling Infrastructures in a clearer way, once we understand, why they are so crucial to expand the Commons and how many thrilling initiatives can be (already) connected to each other, once we have a more commons-friendly environment in which these experiments evolve, each project can focus with major strength on these issues which won’t disappear but can be commonly addressed and resolved.
Chicago Transit Authority, Control Loop Junction Control Tower on the Chicago L; Wikimedia Commons by Daniel Schwen; GNU Free Documentation Licence
Stau: by Alexander Blum
Marabá Rural Campus, Brazil by Sanderlei Cruz

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Short History of Progress: Book Review

short history of progress
A Short History of Progress
by Ronald Wright (2004 Caroll and Graf)
Book Review
The theme of A Short History of Progress is social collapse. In it, Canadian historical archeologist Ronald Wright summarizes humankind’s biological and cultural evolution, as well as tracing the role of ecological destruction in the collapse of the some of the most significant civilizations (Sumer, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Easter Island and the Mayan civilization). Exhaustively researched, the book advances the theory that many of colossal blunders made by modern leaders are very old mistakes made by earlier civilizations. Wright starts with the mystery of the agricultural revolution that occurred around 10,000 BC, when homo sapiensceased to rely on hunting and berry-picking and began growing their own food. Twelve thousand years ago, the global population was still small enough that there was more than ample wild food to feed them. Yet for some reason, a half dozen human settlements in widely separated regions simultaneously domesticated plants and animals. Why?
The Importance of Stable Climate
Citing extensive geological and archeological evidence, Wright suggests plant and animal domestication may have been triggered by unprecedented climate stability. Prior to 10,000 BC, the earth’s climate was wildly unstable, with ice ages developing and abating over periods as short as a decade or so. These sudden periodic changes in climate forced our hunter gatherer ancestors to continually migrate in search of food. The climate stabilization that occurred following the last ice age (around 10,000 BC) enabled them to settle in larger groups, save seeds to cultivate crops that took months to harvest, and engage in trade for other basic necessities.
Wright goes on to describe a number of diverse civilizations that arose and collapsed between 4,000 and 1,000 BC – and their unfortunate tendency towards mindless habitat destruction and runaway population growth, consumption, and technological development. In each case, an identical social transformation takes place as resources become increasingly scarce. As prehistoric peoples find it harder and harder to feed themselves, inevitably a privileged elite emerges to confiscate communal lands and enslave their inhabitants. They then install a despotic tyrant who hastens ecological collapse by wasting scare resources on a spree of militarization and temple or pyramid building. This process is almost always accompanied by wholesale murder, torture, and unproductive wars.
Wright relates this typical pattern of ecological destruction and collapse to a series of “progress traps,” in which specific human inventions turn out to have extremely negative unintended consequences. Instead of fixing the underlying problem they’re meant to solve, the inventions create an even worse environmental mess. It’s a pattern so common in prehistory that it’s become enshrined in the Adam and Eve and similar creation myths. All describe how the quest for knowledge ended humankind’s access to freely available and abundant food and forced them to produce their own.
Our Ancestors Wipe Out the Neanderthals and Mammoths
According to Wright, the first of these “progress traps” was the invention of weapons (for hunting) by early homo sapiens. Wright blames this early invention of weapons for the first (archeologically) recorded instance of genocide – namely the wiping out of homo Neanderthalis (Neanderthal man) by Cro-Magnon man between 40,000 and 30,000 BC. This was followed by other important mass extinctions as homo sapiens spread out across the globe between 30,000 and 15,000 BC. The most recent archeological evidence suggests the mammoth, camel and horse became extinct in North America during this period because of perfected hunting techniques that allowed homo sapiens to carry out mass slaughters (involving as many as 1,000 mammoths or 100,000 horses simultaneously).
Some archeologists attribute the end of hunting as a predominate food source (in numerous regions simultaneously) and the rise of plant-based diets to the decline in game animals stemming from this indiscriminate slaughter. The birth of agriculture, in turn leads to widespread deforestation and soil erosion in all the ancient civilizations, accompanied by soil salinization from over-irrigation. According to Wright, the entire cycle takes around a thousand years, which happens to be the average lifespan of most historic civilizations.
Turning Iraq Into a Desert
The first civilization to collapse in this way was Sumer (in southern Iraq, which flourished between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. The Sumerians invented irrigation, the city, the corporation (in the form of priestly bureaucracies), writing (for trade purposes), hereditary kings and slavery. By 2,500 BC, soil salinization (from irrigation) had caused a massive drop-off in crop yields. Instead of implementing environmental reforms, the ruling elite tried to intensify production by confiscating communal lands, introducing slavery and human sacrifice and engaging in chronic warfare.
From Sumer the cradle of civilization moved north to Mesopotamia(Babylon, in the region of northern Iraq and Syria, and humankind created one of the first man made deserts out of a region lush in date palms and other native vegetation.
Around 1,000 BC, similar civilizations also appeared in India, China, Mexico, Peru and parts of Europe. The Greeks (around 600 BC) were the first with any conscious awareness that they were destroying their own habitat. Plato writes a vivid description of the dangers of erosion and runoff from deforestation. The Athenian leader Solon tried to halt increasing ecological devastation by outlawing debt serfdom, food exports, and farming on steep slopes. Pisistratus offered grants to farmers to plant olive trees for soil reclamation.
Wright makes a good case for similar environmental destruction, rather than barbarian invasion, causing Rome to collapse. By the time of Augustus, Italian land had become so degraded that Rome was forced to import most of their food from North Africa, Gaul, and other colonies.
The Role of the New World
The most interesting section of the book concerns the role the New World played in rescuing the environmentally decimated European civilization. According to Wright, it was mainly New World gold and silver that capitalized the industrial revolution. However he also stresses the importance of the New World foods that were added to the European diet at a point where the population had outstripped their food supply. Maize (sweet corn) and potatoes are twice as productive (in terms of calories per acre) as wheat and barley, the traditional European staples. He also makes the point – ominously – that, despite all our apparent technological progress, humankind hasn’t introduced one new food since the Stone Age. In fact, homo sapiens hasn’t evolved culturally or intellectually since our ancestors failed to confront resource scarcity in a way conducive to their survival.
If anything, given mass extinctions, potentially catastrophic climate change, and a growing scarcity of energy, water and fertile soil, we seem to be repeating the old maladaptive pattern. As examples, Wright cites the idiotic war on terrorism, which has ironic parallels with the chronic warfare the Sumerians launched 4,000 years ago. He also cites the rise of the New Right and the folly of trying to address resource scarcity by consolidating wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Foucault, Power, Truth and Ecology

Dan Bednarz brings together Foucault's theory of power with an ecological theory of power. I tried to do the same in my DOE (demonstration of expertise), with equally limited success. Aside from his crazy run-on sentences, Bednarz stab at this synthesis is worth read through.

Understanding the interplay of power[i],[ii] identity, and social change is critical to those who recognize that modern societies are at the limits to growth, in ecological overshoot[iii] and undergoing a first phase reaction of economic contraction;[iv] disintegration of modern finance, as evidenced by massive corruption and wealth destruction;[v] and political upheaval[vi]. While responses to these dilemmas can take the form of involvement in community localization, disengagement from modernism, studying yoga and Zen Buddhism, shrugged shoulders, political activism, or focusing on one institution –like health care, education, transportation, public banking, or the food supply, they all contain layers of nuance involving the relationships among power, identity (personal and collective) and social change.   
I want to speak to those who feel, as the cultural, thermodynamic and biophysical clocks enter the eleventh[vii] hour,[viii] either confounded or bludgeoned and “powerless” facing the deep-seated cruelty, incapability and intransigence of modern civilization to recognize overshoot and the limits to growth. I speak also to those who have a seemingly contrary reaction: flickers of intrepidness and hope despite recognition of enormous obstacles and dilemmas. This essay in addition is addressed to health professionals, most of whom do not comprehend overshoot and the limits to growth but find themselves in hierarchical bureaucratic systems that will increasingly malfunction and are susceptible to punctuated collapse[ix] or “failure cascade”[x] –which will present the best opening for fundamental change- as the world lunges into degrowth.
Almost all contemporary governments are ignoring or misinterpreting economic contraction, resource scarcities and biophysical crises and dilemmas by intensifying their servility to the neoliberal[xi] model of society, which operates in terms of debt-based economic growth; class exploitation; and fundamentalist faith in “The Market,” where individuals are told “there’s no such thing as society” and, therefore, they are free to be “entrepreneurs of [themselves]”[xii][xiii] –and are personally to blame if they fail to climb an economic ladder of  opportunity[xiv]. Those cognizant of ecological dilemmas realize this system cannot be resuscitated and is in fact beginning to break apart. They realize that modern culture remains captive to the neoliberal[xv]political/economic/cultural paradigm as it produces further ecological destruction, increasing socioeconomic inequality – allegedly to revive the economy, a side “benefit” is the spoils of class warfare- and proceeds with the temporarily successful privatization of public goods and services, social control measures of secrecy in government policy[xvi] making[xvii] and embracing embryonic[xviii] totalitarianism[xix] in the guise[xx] of protecting[xxi] the homeland.[xxii]
Simultaneously, neoliberal governments delude themselves[xxiii] and propagandize their citizens that this corporatocracy[xxiv] is not just the best option, but also the only feasible model of governance in the modern world. Since they believe the status quo offers the only way forward, corporatocracy members regard themselves[xxv] as the select evolutionary elite[xxvi] to manage[xxvii] 21st century society.[xxviii] The opposite is the case;[xxix] and this will become manifest even to them as, for example, the power of climate change, water scarcity, ocean acidification, nuclear disaster[xxx], bee population die-off, peak oil (immediately and directly through its impact on the economy and finance), etc. mounts and proceeds to undermine neoliberal shibboleths –as well as the neoliberal “Masters of the Universe” collective identity- about how the world works.
Neoliberal ideological hubris is built upon the modernist mythology that human’s ability to fashion the social world is infinite, the earth’s resources are essentially limitless and its biophysical systems are passive and resilient vassals absorbing industrial society’s wastes and toxins. This is a colossal conceit as the further we go into overshoot and hit against resource limitations the more inept, desperate and downright socially and ecologically destructive neoliberal policies become[xxxi] and the fewer options modern culture has to reconcile its practices with ecological realities.
As things look, neoliberal governments will continue to do their utmost[xxxii] –that is, use their waning but still potent power- to preserve the current political/economic hierarchy and ecologically destructive social order.[xxxiii]However, their power is not stable, nor is it insurmountable and -this must be stressed- it does not derive exclusively or primarily from cultural and historical phenomena, such as media propaganda and other forms of rhetoric and symbol manipulation, institutional inertia, incentives and rewards, tradition, appeals to fear and xenophobia, vested interests, and the implicit threats of surveillance and state sanctioned violence.
To make my argument requires a brief tour of how social science has reflected cultural ideas about power and how Michel Foucault, in his mid to late career writings, challenged the conventional view, arguing “power is everywhere,”[xxxiv] regarding the location and function of power in society. Foucault’s concept of power is then synthesized with ecological theory to recognize resource scarcity and biophysical forces as agents (of power) shaping personal and collective identity and proscribing the possibilities for social change.
From the conventional behavioral viewpoint, Max Weber[xxxv] writes, “Power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance…” from another actor. Simply put, power is the ability of actor A to compel actor B to do something actor B would prefer not to do, all things being equal. “Authority” connotes legitimate power; “coercion” indicates the illegitimate use of power, ultimately through the threat or application of harm or violence.[xxxvi] In Weber’s view power is a force that actors and institutions possess and at times use to assert their will upon others with less or no power. The implication is that power is a tool or resource, not a constitutive feature of all interaction.
Foucault challenges the received understanding of power, where it exists and how it functions. He writes,
We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production[xxxvii].
Cole summarizes in plain English Foucault’s  “power is everywhere” thesis:
Foucault explains that all social relations -between persons and between people and institutions- are imbued with power relations. Wherever there are points of contact between persons, or between persons and institutions, power relations -which is to say, force relations -exist. Power exists in the spaces between us. It is present in all our interactions. Power, as it exists in power relations, is dynamic. Power is not permanently possessed by any one actor or institution. It cannot be protected or guarded. Rather, power is constantly in circulation -always in adjustment, as our interactions with one another take place in time. [xxxviii]
Critically, in this conception power is unstable and is –theoretically- up for grabs whenever people interact. Social reality is, after all, merely a contingent human arrangement; that is, socially shared definitions of situations where people are expected to behave in terms of the established “rules of the game” of social organization and human interaction.[xxxix] In short, an actor’s sense of power -or powerlessness- and, also, the individual’s identity –identity motivates people[xl]- rests upon the rules she believes to be governing social interaction. Change the rules[xli] and you change the power relations and identities among actors. Admittedly, changing the rules that define the situation is in many social interactions not at all easy, and in any given instance it may prove all but impossible to do. Nonetheless, Foucault’s point is that the essence of power is a socially constructed definition of the situation with –again, simplified- negotiable and unstable rules.[xlii]
The rules of a social situation define what identities are acceptable to display, that is, what an individual can (openly) think, feel, say and do. So when people challenge or resist rules, they take on an oppositional identity, which undermines social reality and established power relationships; and this is why seemingly trivial indiscretions or objections to authority or rules are often severely punished. Put differently, the instability of the definition of the situation -something voicing protest, offering criticism, satire or “inappropriate behavior” can expose (think of George Carlin’s humor)- explains why governments and all large organizations engage in propaganda and severe punishment: Is Edward Snowden -and Bradley Manning- a criminal and a traitor? Is he a whistleblower doing a public service by exposing unconstitutional activities by the US government? Is he something else?[xliii]Or is the question of his character itself not the right one to be asking?[xliv]
Pickard notes,
Insofar as those [definitions] can never be fixed, then, power relations are not and cannot ever be inevitable, unchanging, or unalterable … Power is not seen to radiate in a single direction [as with Weber’s conception] from a specific source, and is not solely a matter of force or coercion, but permeates every aspect of social life, exercised from an infinite multiplicity of positions. People, then, are not so much victims of power, as vehicles…[of its application].[xlv]
 From this insight that power is relational, not fixed in roles or institutions, Foucault argues that cultural “truth”-which in his view is always associated with dominant, legitimated knowledge- is socially constructed. That is, the relationship of “power/knowledge/discourse” (derived from an episteme or paradigm which organizes collective thought) like neoliberalism has power relationships encoded in its dogma. So “a rising tide lifts all boats” connotes the legitimacy of massive disparities in wealth distribution, and “There Is No Alternative” implies the Borgism “all resistance is futile.” And if people believe all resistance is pointless then power appears absolute, ones identity is subservient and tightly constrained and political opposition need not be considered.
Foucault writes:
Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true[xlvi].
Rainbow adds: “These ‘general politics’ and ‘regimes of truth’ are the result of scientific discourse and institutions, and are reinforced [and always threatened by the possibility of resistance] constantly through the education system, the media, and the flux of political and economic ideologies.”[xlvii]
Again for emphasis, this is why the use of propaganda, control of narratives, and the suppression or exclusion of counter-narratives and bodies of knowledge/discourses -like realistic discussion of peak oil or the limits to growth- from consideration in mass media, businesses, medicine and higher education is critical to perpetuation of established regimes of truth (which are rules for the definition of situations) and power relationships. Dominant institutions are not seekers of truth, they are in charge of allocating imprimatur to “legitimate discourses” and fields of knowledge, which also means isolating or suppressing bodies of knowledge that threaten established constructions of social reality and power relations. (This explains the cluelessness of government, business, medicine, the media and higher education as we enter degrowth –fear of the unknown, vested interests and the decadence evidenced by massive corruption pretty much round out the model.)
Foucault’s thoughts on power developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and, according to Pickard, are tinged with anthropomorphism and modernism, and therefore lack the contributions of ecological theory. For example, Cole’s summary of Foucault’s work, cited above, holds that power is present in all “contact between persons, or between persons and institutions…” Put differently, Foucault’s view, for all its departure from convention, begs the question, “Where do the rules come from?”
To supplement this social construction of reality perspective, Pickard argues that all ecological science –which he refers to as complexity theory- shares the premise that humans, nonhumans and environments are interconnected. That is, they are networked agents exercising power -force- in the construction of social reality. This suggests, argues Pickard, that power in human affairs should be thought of as social, a la Foucault, and ecological.
Pickard writes:
Modern notions of agency are not only insufficient to the task of acknowledging that humans exist within material, ecological environments, but because their binary construction [power seen as zero sum] serves to limit access to agency [power], they also reinforce Modern power relations that have legitimized the discrimination of those who are constituted as non-agential [e.g., women, ethnic minorities, animals, children, low wager earners, “the environment,” and so forth] (see footnote 45).
Because a relational power is necessarily dispersed throughout every relationship, and because it constitutes nonhumans and environments as well as humans, such a relationality implies a radicalness that even Foucault did not acknowledge. In this sense, a more radical relational agency recognizes that humans, nonhumans and environments are all participants within relations of power [they all contribute to the definition of the situation and identity formation]. Foucault’s thought both implies a radical relational agency, and yet, does not quite acknowledge it (see footnote 45).  
At this point we can ask, so what? Is this merely academic autoeroticism? It’s that and more.
For example, Pickard’s formulation helps us ask questions (readers will think of others, and may reject these) as degrowth tightens its grip on society:
  1. Can this formulation of power aid people to remain sane[xlviii] as they undergo, and observe in others, changes in personal and collective identity?
    1. The differences between a growth-based modernist identity and a sense of self that is rooted in an understanding of ecological theory are many and profound.
  2. How can this conception of power inform a cultural narrative that explains why degrowth is occurring?
    1. How can it guide us to develop strategies to both overcome neoliberalism –a negation of the present- and live within ecological boundaries –an affirmation of what is emerging?
    2. How can this narrative help to ameliorate identity crises and enable personal and collective identity transformations?[xlix] In other words, taking care of oneself is not narcissistic but healthy[l].
    3. What does entering into degrowth mean for the possibility of some form of genuine political/economic democracy[li]?
      1. How to prevent neoliberalism from transforming into a neo-feudal, totalitarian, authoritarian, or non-egalitarian dystopia?
Pickard goes on,
The importance of recognizing that humans exist in relationships with nonhumans and environments is that it extends a relational agency to include not only the limits imposed by [human] power relations, but also recognizes that there are material, ecological limits on human power relations [e.g., peak oil, climate change, and so forth]. While Modern systems of thought are characterized by the recognition that Man is a natural being, such systems of thought nonetheless constitute human beings as superior to Nature [faith in technological fixes, regarding Nature as passive, whether to be exploited or protected] and, hence, as distinct from Nature. In this sense, the emergence of Man [the Enlightenment] did not include a recognition that humans are bound by ecological limits. (See footnote 45)
For illustration, let’s ponder the current cultural hegemony of neoliberalism and the biophysical reality of degrowth. This reveals two diametrically opposed forces at work in the social world, the first of which pales in strength to the second:
  • Neoliberalism currently has massive power –“regimes of truth”- in the cultural/mythological and political/economic dimensions. A sociologist laments,  “We face a system that is now much more integrated, and dominant groups that have accumulated an extraordinary amount of transnational power and control over global resources and institutions.”[lii]To be fair, there are also critics and observers who believe that neoliberalism is in decline,[liii] and many who know it’s moribund but marvel that its power persists[liv].
  • However, the “amassed power” of neoliberalism is merely a social construction of reality –or collection of definitions of situations. Indeed, peak oil and other ecological forces, following Pickard’s thesis, are undermining neoliberalism’s cultural and political power and producing degrowth –the situations in Greece and Egypt are illustrative. This juxtaposition is well known among those who understand the limits to growth and ecological overshoot, but baffling to those unaware of ecological theory.
Briefly, neoliberalism is capable of tremendous devastation as it succumbs to its many contradictions and arrant incompatibility with a social world entering degrowth.
Let’s consider an historical case to demonstrate Pickard’s thesis, which I hope will be eye opening for those readers unaware of the ecological dimension of power in shaping human society.
Thomas Mitchell, in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil[lv]argues that the use of coal to build industrial society fashioned a social context for the diffusion of political power and the spread of democracy, while the exploitation of oil has had the opposite effect of fostering a social construction of reality that concentrates political power, neoliberalism is the current manifestation. Mitchell’s analysis shows how the fact that coal had to be dug from the earth and shipped via rail set up a relationship between capitalists, labor and coal which allowed workers to exercise significant control over the extraction and shipment of coal (the primary source of energy at the commencement of the industrial revolution). Resistance to capital exhibited labor’s ability to align with the physical force, which labor could provide, needed to extract and use coal. This in turn enabled labor to make successful economic demands of capitalists for a more politically and economically democratized life. In contrast, the fact that oil is pumped out of the earth and then sent through pipelines onto giant tankers allowed power to be concentrated in the clutches of political/economic elites, both governments and corporations, who typically worked in tandem.
Today, the supremacy of neoliberalism ultimately rests, if one accepts Pickard’s thesis and my interpretation of Mitchell’s book, upon the flow of oil,[lvi] not on the ephemera of “accumulated power,” which treats a fragile contingent social construction of reality as virtually immutable.
One astonished reviewer, whom I quote because he is not a peak oiler or otherwise steeped in ecological theory, summarizes Carbon Democracy this way. He describes this book as:
a history of the relationship between carbon-based fueling sources and modern political systems… and after reading it, it’s hard to imagine thinking about political power the same way again.
Everything in our politics flows through dense carbon-based energy sources, and has for three to four hundred years.[lvii]
Carbon Democracy, combined with Pickard’s synthesis on power confirms what those who grasp overshoot and limits to growth already know, either implicitly or explicitly about power and politics. And it opens the door for mainstreamers and fence sitters to understand what is occurring in the social world in a radically different manner that can give them new identities and strategies to simultaneously accept degrowth and overcome neoliberalism.
Let me close with a caution. First, at present everyone’s identity is subject to crisis. Numerous surveys indicate growing numbers of Americans suffering from high stress, depression, and other mental illnesses, which sociologically indicates identity crisis. We see that collective and personal identities are subject to significant modification as degrowth unfolds. Marshall McLuhan, always good for a reprise, wrote years:
When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity…So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change.[lviii]
Awareness that natural forces are changing society is a great advantage, yet it places those who know it on a psychological tightrope. They are living in two social worlds: one that is passing and the other inchoate and to varying degrees unknown and potentially threatening. The passing of the growth-based system cannot be halted –this is where the neoliberal identity is trapped in morbid resistance and denial. Those living in two worlds are tasked to fashion “truthful existence”[lix] identities, which ideally are characterized by lucidity, flexibility and strength in sync with degrowth, while simultaneously using strategic –perhaps pseudo- identities to triumph over neoliberalism[lx],[lxi] as it continues to demand privilege[lxii] for the 1% despite a shrinking economic pie.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Democratizing Capital at Scale: Cooperative Enterprise and Beyond

by Joe Guinan, Thomas M. Hanna, originally published by Open Democracy 

Faced with spiralling social, economic and environmental problems, many people are turning to economic democracy for solutions. But what shape should this democracy take? And how can it establish an effective process for the distribution of wealth?
Flickr/*eddie. Some rights reserved
Last year, total private wealth worldwide stood at $135 trillion. Of this, $52.8 trillion – almost 40 per cent – was held by the wealthiest one per cent, the true beneficiaries of three decades of upwards-distributing neoliberalism. Even through the locust years of economic difficulty and self-defeating austerity, the colossal wealth of this tiny global elite continues to grow. Over half of all bank assets are now routed offshore. Given such staggering concentrations, the capacity of governments around the world to hold the line against rising inequality through taxation and redistributive spending – even when they actually wish to do so – is ever more reduced. Faced with a downward spiral of debt, poverty and climate destruction, it is unsurprising that more and more people are embracing economic alternatives in which new wealth is built collectively and from the bottom up. After Keynesianism, after neoliberalism, serious thinking about the next economic paradigm is increasingly converging on the overriding principle of economic democracy, with the remaining questions being about what form it should take. For many, the jumping off point into alternative political economy is cooperative enterprise – and, in particular, employee ownership of the firm.
The five years since the financial crisis have been good to cooperatives. Today they are one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy overall picture of stagnation, falling real wages, rising inequality, public retrenchment and social and environmental decay. Against such a tide, more than a billion people now stand as members of one or another form of cooperative in which producers, consumers and stakeholders in various combinations are the collective owners and principal beneficiaries. Since 2008, the UK’s co-op sector has grown a whopping 19.6 per cent while the economy as a whole contracted by 1.7 per cent. In 2011, the cooperative economy grew by 1.5 per cent, more than double the rate of the overall economy (0.7 per cent). Even judged against narrow capitalist criteria of economic efficiency, many cooperatives are outperforming the rest of the private sector. A 2013 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report found that, during the crisis, financial co-ops and mutuals outperformed traditional banks by almost every measure.
Political support for cooperatives is concomitantly on the rise. From the Archbishop of Canterbury to the United Nations Secretary General, “all the Powers of old” – to borrow a line from the Communist Manifesto – “have entered into a holy alliance” in their favour. Even the retrograde Coalition government has climbed on the bandwagon, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg calling for a ‘John Lewis society’ of worker-owners: ‘The 1980s was the decade of share ownership. I want this to be the decade of employee share ownership’.
On the left, cooperative ownership has an agreeable horizontality that endears it to a new generation of activists suspicious of hierarchy and centralisation. Crisis-driven worker-led transitions of previously capitalist enterprises into collective ventures in countries as diverse as Argentina, Greece, Italy and the United Statesoffer hope for a new future rising out of the ashes. The growing sophistication of co-op networks in the Basque region of Spain and Italy’s Emilia Romagna (as well as of lesser-known examples in Venezuela, Quebec and elsewhere) have proven the viability of such models over time and at scale.
Flickr/[Duncan]. Some rights reserved.
These are welcome developments. As Frances Fox Piven has argued, worker-owners – because their interests are “multifaceted, going beyond a singular preoccupation with the bottom line and the short-term to include concerns with, for example, job security and community well-being” – will “likely be better corporate decision-makers”. Marxian economist Richard Wolff sees “worker self-directed enterprises” as a solution to the problem of surplus value and alienated labour. Such thinking has an impressive lineage. For Karl Marx, inaugurating the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, the ‘value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated’:
“By deed, instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolized as a means of domination over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”.
Some Problems
There is no question that co-ops, together with kindred ownership forms, are a powerful tool for democratising wealth. But because many people are now gravitating toward them it is important to recognise their limitations. Some of the problems can be seen in the recent strike of out-sourced cleaning staff at John Lewis and the ongoing financial tribulations of the Co-operative Bank. We must interrogate these difficulties to identify problem dynamics built into the institutional forms themselves.
To begin with, there is the familiar problem of externalities – the interests of the worker-owners of a given enterprise are not completely identical to those of the community as a whole. While they may not relocate overseas, what is to stop worker-owners, any more than traditional capitalists, from maximising profit by passing on pollution costs and other negative externalities to the wider community? For firms free-floating in capitalist markets, this is often not a matter of choice, but of necessity: the pressures of competition force behaviour detrimental to wider social and environmental purposes.
Distributional problems, too, will persist. Markets, left to their own devices, are powerful engines of inequality and likely to overwhelm economic models based solely on worker ownership, producing undesirable outcomes and power relationships. As Gar Alperovitz has pointed out, “workers who “own” the garbage companies are clearly on a different footing, for instance, than specific groups of workers lucky enough to “own” the oil industry”. What limited evidence we have suggests that workers in ‘democratised’ firms can easily develop narrow ‘worker-capitalist’ attitudes. Edward Greenberg’s classic studies of the plywood cooperatives in America’s Pacific Northwest found that, far from potential recruits for Marx’s International, worker-owners were more likely to adopt the petit bourgeois mind set of the conservative small business owner  – hardly the stuff of Gramscian counter-hegemony.
Also discouraging is a tendency toward capitalist recidivism. In the absence of preventative legal structures, co-ops can display the unfortunate habit of pulling up the ladder after themselves, setting extremely high standards for future participation and hiring new workers on a wage basis rather than an ownership one. The SACMI cooperative in Italy, as John Restakis has shown, is “still owned and directed by its 390 members … but [its] operations include control of 60 capitalist firms, 37 of them abroad, and sales in 100 countries”. All told, it employs around 3,000 non-member employees, making worker-owners a tiny fraction of the total workforce. Potential new members must have worked for the company for five years, be nominated and assessed by other members and pay a membership cost of around $300,000, made as a loan and paid back over fifteen years though salary deductions. Mondragón’s use of “non-member wage labour” and “external non-voting capital stakes” raises similar issues. Far from economic democracy, all this is reminiscent of the exclusionary practices of medieval craft guilds.
Accompanying regulatory strategies could constrain such dynamics. But relying on ‘after-the-fact’ interventions in political economy is a risky proposition – witness the crisis of social democratic redistributive taxation. To achieve genuinely different outcomes we must look to the deeper engineering of institutional arrangements. It is time to get much more serious about systemic design
Systemic Design
Fortunately, there are solutions (or the beginnings of them). In Cleveland, Ohio, theDemocracy Collaborative has been helping develop a linked group of worker co-ops embedded in overarching community structures. The companies are nested under a community-serving non-profit corporation and return 10 per cent of their annual profits to a revolving fund, the purpose of which is to develop additional co-ops and thereby grow the network. Moreover, the ‘Cleveland Model’ seeks to incorporate a quasi-public community planning system using the partially protected market of massive purchasing power (over $3 billion a year in goods and services) by large local ‘anchors’ (hospitals, universities) that are themselves beneficiaries of considerable public support.
Such innovations incorporate worker ownership, but also reach beyond to “the democratisation of wealth and community building in general”. The ills of capitalism do not all reside at the level of the ownership of the firm. Capitalism also operates and impacts at the level of the city, the region, the nation and internationally. Alternatives must do so as well and must include mechanisms and transition strategies for the democratisation of capital at a variety of scales.
There has been a great deal of innovative new thinking along these lines in recent years, spurred in part by the failure of traditional social democratic solutions. Alternative system models (or partial models) are now on offer from an array of thinkers, including David Schweickart, Richard Wolff, Gar Alperovitz, Michael Albert, Herman Daly and Erik Olin Wright. For example, in place of the traditional elements of capitalism – private ownership of the means of production with markets in capital, labour, goods and services – Schweickart proposes worker self-management of enterprises and social control of investment. His model has neither capital markets nor labour markets in the usual sense, for the good old-fashioned reason that "when the market extends beyond goods and services to capital and labor, it begins biting the neighbors, urinating on the carpet, and worse”. Alperovitz sets out the lineaments of a system based on different ownership and growth paradigms he calls the “Pluralist Commonwealth”:
““Pluralist” to emphasise the priority given to democratic diversity and individual liberty; “Commonwealth” to underscore the centrality of new public and quasi-public wealth-holding institutions that take on ever greater power on behalf of the community of the nation as a whole”
This conversation is increasingly sophisticated, but must grow even more so. Such models point past the embrace of one economic institution or another to crosscutting themes of systemic design. Take investment: “control over investment”, as Adam Przeworski has reminded us, “is the central political issue under capitalism precisely because no other privately made decisions have such a profound public impact”. At present, decisions about what portion of society’s resources should be set aside from consumption and how they should be allocated are treated as private prerogatives. This is particularly objectionable given that finance – the rentier province of the economy par excellence – has been the site of major crises at catastrophic economic, social and human cost.
Flickr/Kake Pugh. Some rights reserved.
One solution, of course, is cooperative finance. Globally, more than 50,000 credit unions already serve nearly 200 million members in 100 countries. Europe’s cooperative banking sector comprises almost 4,000 co-op banks with 50 million members. But there is probably also the need for a strong public utility function in banking. Retaining community control over investment through public banks, or even community control over fixed capital in enterprises (in effect renting out the means of production to self-managing groups of workers), could help internalise externalities, the community being the ultimate universal owner.
Public ownership more generally, should be reclaimed from its fate as a bailout mechanism for private capital. Andrew Cumbers, Professor of Geographical Political Economy at the University of Glasgow, argues convincingly for a democratised public ownership that is “not only an increasingly urgent requirement but also a practical possibility in the years ahead”. His “preliminary sketch” of a system designed around public ownership extends the definition of “public” to encompass “all those attempts, both outside and through the state, to create forms of collective ownership in opposition to … capitalist social relations”. Overall, he concludes, “we should aspire towards examples of democratically controlled forms of public ownership that are technically necessary at higher levels while relinquishing control of other activities as far as possible to the local level”.
Finally, after three decades of market expansionism and the impoverishment of the public domain, a strong dose of decommodification should be included in any model with regard to public space, the environment, health care, education and all the other crucial ingredients of a flourishing commons. “Only this”, Robin Blackburn argues, “can ‘neutralise’ the floating electric charge of capital by tying it to the ‘earth’ of mutual or public property, which can no longer be bought and sold”.
Democratising Capital at Scale
Part of the intuitive appeal of co-ops is their practicality and immediacy, such that it is easy to imagine an economy in which cooperative forms proliferate. But there are plenty of other real-world examples of democratic wealth-holding institutions and strategies that work in practice and can also be taken to scale. 
Take public banking: the US federal government currently operates around 140different banks and quasi-banks, from the Import-Export Bank to agricultural lending programs. At the state level, the Bank of North Dakota has contributedmore than $300 million to public revenues over ten years and has been highly successful in promoting community lending by local banks and developing the state economy. In Germany, in addition to more than a thousand cooperative banks there are over 400 Sparkassen, publicly owned savings banks that together have nearly 250,000 employees and 50 million customers. Unlike some of the larger banks (private and public), these two pillars of the German banking system have, according to the Economist, “come through the crisis with barely a scratch”.
Other opportunities for democratic control over investment abound. City and local government economic development programs increasingly lend to – or make direct investments in – local businesses. Economically targeted investments channel public pension assets into job creation and community economic development. Venture capital funds give public authorities an equity stake in local investments. Municipal enterprises build infrastructure and provide services, raising revenue and promoting employment and economic stability, diversifying the base of locally controlled capital. New experiments with participatory budgeting allow for direct citizen engagement in the allocation of public funds. ‘Commons management systems’ cover everything from the Internet to public libraries, parks and blood banks. Public trusts receive revenues from timber and mineral rights to grazing and oil production, in turn providing funding streams that (as with the Texas Permanent School Fund) underwrite public spending or (as with the Alaska Permanent Fund) issue a citizen dividend. 
Two additional intermediate strategies are suggestive of possibilities for a transition to economic democracy: mobilising ‘labour’s capital’ in the form of workers’ vast pension assets, and enacting a share levy on major corporations.
‘Pension fund socialism’ may not be emblazoned on many banners, but proposals going back to the seventies and eighties have called upon the trade union movement to ‘harness pension power’ by taking command of the huge pools of capital amassed by workers’ retirement funds as a critical first step toward a democratic investment agenda based on the premise that workers generate capital and should also direct its uses. As Tony Benn has argued, pension funds “belong to the workers, they are their own deferred earnings. Workers want them not only as income when they retire, but to sustain and create jobs while they are at work, and so to guarantee that they will retire in a buoyant economy”. 
Any such strategy by trade unions or public agencies should be focussed on “the potential for using pension capital as an opening wedge in the development of basic economic alternatives”, shifting the power that flows from control of pension assets to advance “a worker-owner view of value in the allocation of capital by firms and markets”. 
Lastly, there is the example of the Meidner Plan. Rudolf Meidner, chief economist at the Landorganisationen, the Swedish trade union federation, outlined his visionary proposal as a radical response to the strategic challenges facing the labour movement in the 1970s. He wrote: “how to increase the level of savings but not inequality of wealth, and how to ensure that an increase in savings would translate into the kinds of investment that would sustain full employment, real-wage growth, and continued welfare-state expansion”. Against the backdrop of a solidaristic wage policy, and based on the moral claim that corporate profits derived in part from hidden public subsidy, the Meidner Plan required that corporations return a percentage of their profits to workers as equity. These shares would be entrusted to regional public bodies – ‘wage-earner funds’ – which would direct the eventual returns to meet agreed-upon social purposes. 
Companies with over 50 or 100 employees (depending on the version) would thus have been transferred to collective ownership as the funds increased their holdings through the receipt of new shares. Meidner estimated that it would have taken wage-earner funds 35 years to acquire 49 per cent of the equity of a corporation operating at an annual rate of profit of 10 per cent. But the real beauty of the scheme was that the higher the profits, the faster the socialisation: the mirror-opposite of the various instances of ‘lemon socialism’ which have seen public ownership extended only to those sectors of the economy where enterprises were operating at a loss. 
With transition strategies, what matters are the broader political consequences of institutional reforms. “From a democratic socialist perspective”, Jonas Pontusson points out, the issue “is not the immediate results of a given reform, but what possibilities it opens up for further reforms by altering the terms of public debate or encouraging popular mobilization”. This is critical. A re-emboldening vampire capitalism is seeking a return to profitability through the extraction of every last drop of value from the public domain. In our “loaned out” economy, as Michael Hudson has warned, a “neo-feudal rentier class” is turning to outright ownership, forcing debt-burdened governments into sell-offs in order to extract monopoly rents. Almost everywhere, supine political classes are inclined to surrender.
This need not be the case. There are real alternatives capable of moving us away from neoliberal austerity and in the direction of democratised ownership of the economy. Many of these alternatives – which go beyond cooperatives to public and quasi-public capital strategies – are already being put into practice in states and localities around the world. As the wave of asset-stripping privatisation comes crashing in, threatening to engulf schools, hospitals and public services, we must resist the sly voices of resignation and hold instead to the simple determination that, whatever else may happen, they shall not impoverish our imaginations too.
This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by OurKingdom in partnership with Politics in Spires.