The Commons Connection

This is the twenty-fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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For Silke Helfrich, editor of The Wealth of the Commons, the commons is both a ready replacement for capitalism and the empowerment we need to act. “I see the commons everywhere,” she says. She describes the commons as a practical application of the African concept of ubuntu: your well-being depends on the well-being of other people. “If you feel connected, the commons is in you,” she says.

However, Silke sees a crisis that Nafeez failed to mention: the crisis of the way we’re taught to think. “What do you learn at school?” she asks. “To get a job and be better than other people.” Not a particularly illuminating education. For Silke, the commons gives us a way to reconnect our ideas to society in a useful way. At the moment, she says, “the social state is not with the people”.

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Felix Stalder, professor of digital culture and network theories at the Zurich University of the Arts, agrees. “We’re seeing a fundamental transformation of social institutions,” he says, “the hollowing out of representative democracies and centralised, repressive institutions taking over from more civil government.”

Felix sees our social organisation moving out of democratic reach, under secretive policies that mean we can’t know what’s happening, but “must simply trust that it’s for our good”. He also makes the point that surveillance, as Nafeez’s revelations about the Minerva Research Initiative would suggest, is intended to manage internal security because “they do a crummy job on external threats”.

However, this rise in what Shoshana would call “surveillance capitalism” faces growing opposition from the commons movement. “These two contradictory things,” Felix observes, “are based on the same structure: the internet.” Currently, the construction of repressive institutions is happening much faster than commons collaboration, but Felix is keen to stress that there is a conflict going on and we can take another side. “What makes commons so valuable,” he says, “is it’s a way of overcoming capitalism: I am because you are.”

However, Felix also warns that it will be almost impossible to properly scale the benefits of the commons without what he calls the “transformation of the state to a commons-enabling state”. That’s not to say that such a transformation is impossible or unthinkable, but it will require radical change, if not quite revolution.

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Nafeez, though, cautions us not to create a third ideology of the commons, to go alongside the market ideology and the state ideology. He believes that we can transform the state through the commons without necessarily needing to scale everything. “Act as individuals creatively in the context that you’re in,” Nafeez says, recalling Antonino D’Ambrosio’s theory of creative-response. “There’s no way I can stop the NSA,” he explains, “but I know what I can do in my community.”

This theory of creative-response is an important weapon for taking on the challenges we face with optimism, even when pessimism might, as one audience member daringly suggests, be more realistic. “We’re going to have to take direct action and be ready for that struggle,” Nafeez says in reply. “Whoever said pessimism is more realistic?” He looks out at the audience, challenging. “You’re part of the problem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re pessimistic. Stare into the face of the abyss and be optimistic about it.”

Felix looks confused, however. “You don’t have to be an optimist,” he says. “This is not a spectator sport; you’re not supporting that team or that team.” He is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. “I don’t think capitalism will innovate itself out of existence,” he says, “but I think there are interesting possibilities that they can be nudged in one way or another.”

The economist and activist Friederike Habermann is perhaps optimistic about being optimistic. “The struggle for life is life,” she says, rather philosophically; engagement in struggle, political or otherwise, is what makes us feel alive. Friederike cites a study by neuroscientist Tania Singer, which shows that, if we are trained for one week in solidarity and cooperative techniques, then our tendency to show solidarity and cooperate increases.

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“We have been constructed the way we are for hundreds of years,” she says, “and within one week we can change a little bit. That’s encouraging.” Although she concedes that the pessimists are probably right, Friederike will not stand with them. “I work with people I feel the optimism with,” she says.

A twelve year old girl in the front row stands up to ask a question: “How can we interest other people who aren’t doing anything?” Silke turns to her and replies, “It’s not about interesting them,” she says, “it’s about being interested in them. It’s not about convincing them, it’s about touching their hearts; and you can only do that if you are interested in where they come from.”

You can call it whatever you like: empathy, ubuntu or the commons; it is our humanity and we must find a way of lacing it like a connecting thread through every aspect of our socio-economic organisation, or else run the risk of mutually assured oblivion.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing Debate: Can Capitalism and Democracy Co-Exist?

This is the twenty-second in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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The fact that everybody at Elevate seems to be so bothered by the idea of another person using our data to make a profit, raises a question from the audience: Can capitalism and democracy co-exist?

According to Shoshana, actually, yes. “There are good arguments to be made that democracy emerged as a condition for capitalism to work,” she says. “Because the populations were required for industrial capitalism to be successful, over time, there was enough pressure on elites to give up some power.”

You could argue that democratic power was only gradually extended to all working age men as part of the deal to provide labour for capitalists after the industrial revolution – and that women were included only because they were needed to expand the workforce after the First World War.

“The rise of market-based capitalism and the rise of democracy have been very imbricated, very intermeshed,” Shoshana says. “There are very salient ways in which they depend upon one other.” This is why Google’s new business logic is such a threat to democracy.

Shoshana is somewhat optimistic about what this tells us about capitalism. “Capitalism has survived for many centuries,” she says, “not by being the same thing, but actually by always changing, by being very plastic.”

For the last five hundred years, our economic system has oscillated between embedded (“cooked”) and disembedded (“raw”) capitalism. In times when capitalism was “cooked”, Shoshana argues, it has been very productive for society, resulting in higher standards of living, better education and healthcare. But in times when capitalism is “raw”, such as early nineteenth century Britain, it has resulted in huge inequality, struggle and conflict.

According to Shoshana, capitalism has this flexible quality and, luckily for us, raw surveillance capitalism is only one market form that it could take. There are many other forms of capitalism that we can create and adapt for our society – including the commons. “I don’t think that we just give up on capitalism,” she says, “I think we take it and we make it what it has to be for us.”

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Building Alternatives

One way of addressing the future of Dark Google would be to build alternatives to the technology of surveillance capitalism. “The problem,” Micah says, “is that the alternatives aren’t as good.” He finds DuckDuckGo, an alternative search engine, unsatisfactory for his needs, for example. “A third of the time, at least, I have to search Google instead,” he says. Personally, I’ve been using it since last year’s Elevate and have no complaints.

A search engine is one thing, but how can you build a new social network when you need, not just you, but all your friends to move from Facebook as well? Daniel suggests Diaspora, a dispersed social network that runs on personal servers. “Everyone could switch, invite all their friends and change,” he says, massively underestimating the technological capacity of most people on Facebook.

“This isn’t accessible to many people at all,” Micah argues. “And it’s hard to get out of this corporate dominance because these big companies are able to hire the best engineers in the world and pay them two hundred thousand dollars a year to make software that doesn’t crash.”

Daniel’s answer is to form technology solidarity networks with geeky friends, like CryptoParty. “I switched to Linux in 2006, but I had a friend to help me,” Daniel says. “Since then, I’ve learnt to love it.” It’s also important to remember that alternatives become better when more people use them and it’s not necessarily a case of either/or: there could be a transitional period where we use both Facebook and Diaspora; Windows and Linux.

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But Felix is less optimistic. “I don’t think social change happens by adding small pieces into a pie,” he says. “We’re within a highly structured space that really constrains these things. The first hack is easy, the second hack is more difficult and it gets more and more difficult because it’s such a slanted space.”

In the early days of the internet, programmers deliberately designed protocols without a slant. Why, for example, can you change your email provider without losing your address book? Because that’s the way it was designed, without a slant; it is a network, but it is not a monopoly.

“You can’t do that with Facebook,” Felix says; it is also a network, but it is a monopoly that will not communicate with others. The Facebook protocol is slanted. “I’m sceptical about lobbying the government to do stuff,” he adds, “but this would be one thing to do: force these protocols so that different logics can interact.”

Micah isn’t so sure. “Even if Facebook made it easier to interoperate with other systems like Diaspora or email,” he says, “they could choose to do this, but they’re not actually being governed by a spec that we’ve collectively agreed on.” They would still be a company and their business model would still be surveillance capitalism; their assets would still be our data.

Micah is also critical of Ello, a new social network gaining traction from saying that their business model is not about tracking people. “But it’s also just a company,” he says. What they do in the future is their choice. “For this stuff to work,” Micah adds, “we need to agree on standards that make us all equal.”

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Daniel wistfully describes how, in the EU, we discuss in excruciating detail the regulation of the light bulb, but do nothing about the technology that’s actually running our lives. “There is a lot of unreflective use of technology,” he says. For Shoshana, this is down to the modus operandi of the tech companies. “First they assert,” she says, “then they wait for push-back.”

Despite “hundreds and hundreds” of law suits against these companies, Shoshana wants much more from us. “So far there hasn’t been very much push-back,” she says. “They end up paying a small fine, which is pocket money or less, and so what they have institutionalised is what gets to stand,” she adds, sternly. “That’s why, when I talk about institutionalising, I’m not talking about just a building or a new kind of parliament; it’s a lot of more subtle stuff.”

Nevertheless, Shoshana is optimistic about the potential of capitalism to satisfy this need for institutionalising. “If enough of us decide that we’re fed up with the surveillance capitalism protocols of Facebook,” she explains, “that translates into economic demand and so there is, slowly constituting itself, a new kind of market place.” She gives the example of the 2013 launch of Qwant, a search engine that does not track users. “There are many other companies beginning to constitute themselves in this new space as a response to the crisis of surveillance capitalism,” she says. “That’s another way that capitalism works positively, to evolve in a way that is aligned with our interests.”

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From the audience, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has what sounds like a wildly optimistic proposal. “We had unions, we had consumer organisations,” he says, of twentieth century capitalism cookery. “How is the Facebook user union doing? Is there any sense in expecting some kind of organisation of the users of these platforms?” I look up to see if he’s joking; he’s not. “Maybe we should be fighting within because not many people are going out,” he adds. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” Shoshana replies. “These are creative examples of new kinds of institutionalising!”

Micah is also optimistic about the direction in which programmers are taking encryption, a vital tool to combat the seizure of your data as surveillance assets. After the Snowden revelations, software developers realised that usability is an important security feature. “Now there’s all these projects to make encryption usable by everyone,” Micah says. “This is where things are shifting,” he adds. “It’s not in trying to get governments to change policies, it’s in trying to fix the broken holes in the internet.”

These holes are being steadily filled by programmers; you can take Facebook chat “off the record” with apps like Pidgin or Adium, for example. “We’re at the very beginning of this,” Micah says, “but it’s going in a good direction right now.”

So perhaps there is room for optimism; perhaps alternatives are on their way – Ello, Qwant, Loomio, CryptoParty, Pidgin, Adium, FreedomBox, Diaspora, Cryptocat. After all, as Elf Pavlik, a computer programmer who has lived without money or passport for five years, says, “A falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest.” Perhaps all we need is to support each other in making the right choices, conscious of the direction in which surveillance capitalism is taking us and determined to change course.

“I would like to end this session with a quote from another time when revolutions were going on,” Daniel says. “I would just modify it slightly,” he adds, with a smile. “Be realistic; demand the possible.”

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Reality is the Next Big Thing: Keynote

This is the seventeenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor, is beamed into Forum Stadtpark from the US over a live videostream. She sits in a leather padded chair in a wood panelled study decorated in luxuriant high taste. The scene could be straight from a 1930s Hollywood film set, if it weren’t for the microphone on the desk in front of her and the black dog who wags back and forth in the background.

If her taste in décor is embedded in the past, her taste in the politics of business couldn’t be more futuristic. Shoshana begins her keynote speech with a simple question: “Why does Google matter?” But her answer penetrates far beyond the company’s profit and loss, share price or market capture to address the root existential threats Google poses to our society and democracy.

(Shoshana explains later that she is “focusing on Google as emblematic of a new mode of practice and a new mode of capitalism”. It’s not just Google, as demonstrated this summer by the revelations that Facebook have been manipulating the emotions of their users without permission.)

Shoshana starts her analysis by describing the new business model that she and her colleagues have seen rising since the 1970s. “You can call it neo-liberalism, financial capitalism, shareholder capitalism,” she says. “The label is less important than understanding its consequences.” And the consequences have included, not only social exclusion, stratification and inequality, but also reactions to those consequences – fundamentalism, despair, violence – and the reactions to those reactions – repression, resistance and extremism. “This is a business model that I consider to be contemptuous,” Shoshana says. “Contemptuous of humanity and contemptuous of our planet.”

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Thomas Piketty, a French economist, has written an incomprehensible modern classic critique of twenty-first century capitalism, called, not incomprehensibly, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Shoshana is one of the few people who have read past the introduction and she reports back from the trenches. “I’ve been able to reduce this very thick book to one sentence,” Shoshana says, snuggling up to the microphone like a magician. “Ready? Okay: Capitalism is not intended to be eaten raw.” There’s a titter in the audience.

She elaborates: “Piketty demonstrates that the problem we’re facing is not capitalism per se, but rather what happens to our societies when capitalism is allowed to develop without any social constraints.” According to Piketty, that’s the kind of raw capitalism that produces such pernicious inequality. The solution is therefore simple: “We need laws, we need social institutions and we need the collaboration amongst us in a democratic spirit in order to cook capitalism and make it edible,” Shoshana explains. “And that’s the stuff we have lost in the last thirty years.”

While neo-liberalism (or whatever you want to call it) has been merrily dismantling the laws, social institutions and collaboration that made capitalism palatable, many people took refuge in this new thing called the internet, which promised autonomy, freedom and creativity. “But the thing we need to understand now,” Shoshana warns, “is that the online world, which used to be our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways.” By which she means the capitalism of, among others, Google. The critical question for us is: Will these new forms of capitalism, developing in the networked world, solve the problems that we face today – or are they going to make them worse?

Although Shoshana sees some positive developments for capitalism online, she also sees some really dangerous developments, “developments,” she says, “that are really hard to grasp because they have been designed to be undetectable”.

This is the context in which Google matters. Now back to the original question: Why does Google matter? Google matters because they have pioneered a wholly new business logic, new in the history of capitalism. This new logic, Shoshana says, has already become the model for most new online businesses, applications and start-ups. If the Google model is already the dominant model in the online world, then, assuming that the current rush from offline to online commerce continues, it follows that the Google model will become the dominant model of the entire capitalist system. And that, says Shoshana, is a very dangerous prospect indeed.

In what way is Google’s business logic so innovative? In order to understand the answer to this, we have to first understand that capitalism has always depended on its populations for two things: customers and employees. This is no longer true. We, the service users, are not Google’s customers. Google’s customers are the advertisers and others who purchase its data analyses. As users, we are simply the source of the data that it analyses for its customers. We are not needed as customers.

Google, the third most valuable company in the world, employs less than 48,000 people. For comparison, the largest private employer on the planet today is Walmart with 2.2m employees. The success of twentieth century capitalism was founded its employees; at the height of its power in 1958, General Motors was also the largest private employer on the planet. “That gives you an idea of how we’ve flipped this model,” Shoshana says. Google and its dominant business model simply does not require many workers. Most of us are not needed as employees.
So if the people are not Google’s customers and they are not Google’s employees, then what does Google need people for? Only one thing: data.

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“Data is becoming everything,” Shoshana says. “The ugly truth here is that this so-called big data is actually plucked from our lives without our knowledge and without our informed consent.” This big data, which Shoshana calls big contraband or big stolen goods, is sucked from our social media, from our smartphones, from our every networked click, type and touch. “I call it the poisoned fruit of a rich array of surveillance practices,” she says, “designed to be invisible and undetectable as we make our way across the virtual, but now also the real world.”

These practices are complicated by collaboration between corporations and state security services in the surveillance of citizens, and further complicated by the accelerating pace of these practices. “Google is now investing in drones,” Shoshana points out, “in wearable technologies, in the smart devices for our homes, the internet of everything.” This is creating a massive infrastructure of big contraband collection.

This new economic logic, where we are not required as customers or employees, but only as data sets, has created a new asset class, which Shoshana calls surveillance assets. They attract a lot of investment: surveillance capital. What we’ve created in Google, she explains, is a new logic of accumulation: accumulation by surveillance. And this new economic model is, of course, called surveillance capitalism. “What is key to understand is that populations, that is all of us, no longer exist to be employed and served,” Shoshana says. “We exist to be harvested, harvested for behavioural data.”

These developments are moving very quickly. Google have already progressed from collecting the data of things we have done, through the data of things we are doing, to making predictions of things we might do. Now, according to Shoshana, they are “actually intervening, in thousands and thousands of very subtle ways, to modify our behaviour, to shape our behaviour, in order to try and determine what we will do next”. No, wait, there’s more good news.

“Every single point in that process is going to be monetised and marketised,” Shoshana says, “turned into revenue streams for Google, for its advertisers, for the others who are bidding on opportunities to modify our behaviour to serve their financial interest.” This is becoming the new economic model, this is becoming the new reality of our lives. “Reality is being turned into a new commodity class called behaviour,” Shoshana says. Reality is the next big thing.

You might think this would hail the end of privacy. Far from it. There is actually a lot of privacy, but it has been redistributed. “Instead of everybody having some privacy,” Shoshana says, “the surveillance capitalists have usurped our privacy rights: they have all the privacy and we are left with no privacy.” The surveillance capitalists use their privacy power to prevent us from being able to inspect or control their behaviour.

Shoshana sees this unilateral usurpation of our rights as going far beyond simple business; this is now serious politics. “Google represents a revolutionary new politics,” she says. “It’s a revolution from above. It’s not a coup d’état, it’s a coup des gens – it’s an overthrowing of the people, not of the state.” This is a remarkable reappraisal for a company whose company slogan is Don’t be evil. “That’s why Google,” Shoshana continues, “which began as something that intended to empower us, has become something that represents one of the darkest threats for our future.”

This overthrowing of the people, Shoshana says, is caused by an “automated passivity, that attempts to reduce us to our animal condition of stimulus and response”. Shoshana compares what Google is doing to behaviourist researchers who put rats in a maze and give them rewards and electric shocks in order to determine their behaviour. “That’s the direction that surveillance capitalism is taking us,” she says.

Shoshana now returns, somewhat sardonically, to the question of whether surveillance capitalism will solve our socio-ecological problems or make them worse. “Is this going to fix our problems of income and social inequality?” she asks, rhetorically. “Is this going to fix the divisions in our society? Is this going to fix the problems that a contemptuous capitalism has produced?” The questions hang, hopelessly. “My answer to that is no. Instead, it’s going to institutionalise these problems in a universal digital infrastructure to which people must submit if they want to participate.”

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Must this be our destiny?

Shoshana urges us to turn and make eye contact with the person sitting next to us. “When you look at the people beside you,” she says, “you are not seeing illiterate serfs. This is not the fourteenth century. What you see is an educated, thinking, critical, opinionated individual.” I’m flattered. “That’s who we are,” she adds, “and people like us are not going to let Dark Google be our future.”

Staying positive, we have to remember that surveillance capitalism is still very young. “We are only at the beginning of this new information civilisation that will dominate the twenty-first century,” Shoshana says. In 1914, the Ford Model T car had only been in production for six years and General Motors was a small start up company; both became giants of twentieth century industry and neither destroyed democracy. Shoshana puts this success down to “the gradual development of legal and social institutions that amplified capitalism’s social benefits and tamed its excesses”.

In other words: we cooked twentieth century capitalism. “Just what Piketty was talking about,” Shoshana says. Capitalism in the nineteenth century was very raw and great political battles were fought for the social welfare state that made capitalism fit for human consumption in the twentieth century.

Now we must fight those political battles all over again. To avoid the risks of slipping back into a nineteenth century world of inequality, where raw surveillance capitalism gives us all bellyache, we all must now don our aprons, our oven gloves and our toques and become economic chefs. Google’s raw economic model must be made palatable through a reassertion of democratic rights, oversight and law.

Our future depends on us finding alternative, pro-social forms of information capitalism that, as Shoshana says with passion, “do not subjugate us, but serve us, that align with our needs for effective life and do not try to usurp our rights, but rather allow us to flourish”.

For Shoshana, it is essential that we develop our solutions through our democratic process. “In the shadow, in the gloom of today’s Dark Googles, it has become fashionable to mourn the passing of the democratic era,” she says. “But I want to say that democracy is the best that our species has developed so far and woe to us if we abandon it now.” Shoshana’s support for state democracy seems to be less a warm endorsement and more a cold fear of likely alternatives: despotism, oligarchy or military junta.

“The real road to serfdom,” she continues, “is to allow ourselves to be persuaded that these declarations of democracy that we have inherited are no longer relevant to our digital future, that they will be overwhelmed by these powers of surveillance capitalism.”

Having raised the spectre of a future where democracy has been obliterated by surveillance capitalism, Shoshana tries to reassure us. “This is the wasteland,” she says, “but I do not fear it because I do not anticipate it and I do not anticipate it because I believe in you.” She jabs a finger at us and smiles. “My hope for the future rests in you, in each one of you.” She leans back into her leather padded chair on the other side of the planet. “That’s the promise of today. So go, do.”

Shoshana beams into her web cam, sending the smile down the fibre optic cables, patiently watched by the NSA and Google.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Research for Transition

This is the fifteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Michel Bauwens, director of the P2P Foundation, starts the workshop by quoting anthropologist Alan Page Fiske. Fiske describes four basic ways of interacting around resources. The first is the gift economy, which is based around equality matching. The second is authority ranking, where what you get is relative to your rank. The third is market pricing, the dominant model in capitalist society. But the fourth is what interests us: communal shareholding, where an individual exchanges, not with another individual, but with a collective. This is the commons.

Because of the networks that we’re building on the internet, Michel believes that we’re beginning to put the commons at the heart of our economy. This new way of creating value, he says, is profoundly different to the usual capitalism. Firstly, it’s not based on labour; it’s based on contributions and, secondly, we’re not creating capital; we’re creating commons.

Michel outlines his ideal three-level structure for a functional commons economy. At the base is commoning itself, the creation of the commons or “peer production”. Next, Michel envisages the creation of cooperatives based on the commons, so that people can actually make a living. This is “peer property”. Overseeing both these levels, would be enabling institutions, so that cooperation can endure through time. This is “peer governance”. I would repeat that, unfortunately, this is Michel’s ideal, not yet the reality.

The reality is that, rather than cooperatives, the value of the commons is predominantly extracted by “for profit” companies. Facebook is Michel’s most extreme example of this. The value of the company comes almost entirely from volunteer contributors: its users. But Facebook Inc. extracts 100% of the value. Hypothetically, if Facebook had been happy with “only” the five billion dollars they asked for when they floated on the New York Stock Exchange instead of the sixteen billion they got, they could have paid over a hundred thousand contributors a hundred thousand dollars each. An extraordinary thought, especially when you consider that Facebook is now worth ten times that initial public offering.

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The problem with this current economic model is that most of the value created is not put back into the commons. This is what Michel calls the “value crisis”. Thanks to advances in technology, more and more people are able to create “use value” – by writing interesting blog posts, uploading funny videos or beautiful photographs – but, of that use value, only a marginal amount is being put on the market and, overwhelmingly, that marginal amount is captured by platforms such as Google, Facebook or Twitter. As Michel says, “The feedback loop between creation of value and distribution of value is not working.”

The P2P Foundation, of which Michel is director, aims to observe these emerging economic processes and ask: How do we transition to a system where we have a thriving economy based around shared resources?

Michel had the opportunity to explore this question in unprecedented depth when he was appointed director of the FLOK research team. FLOK is a research project at IAEN, the Ecuadorian university for public services, who were invited by the government of Ecuador to “fundamentally re-imagine” the country, based on the principles of the commons. This extraordinary opportunity emerged from Ecuador’s five-year strategic plan published in 2009 called the “Plan of Good Living”.

“Ecuador is a new colonial economy that depends on extractive exports: bananas, oil, agriculture,” Michel explains. These are, however, low margin profit items and Ecuador is forced to import high margin goods, such as information technology, from the west. “Part of this problem is intellectual property rights,” Michel says. “The Chinese manufacturers make three percent profit on the iPhone, but Apple make seventy percent profit.” These high margins keep developing countries like Ecuador in a state of dependence.

Thanks to intellectual property protections, such as those covering iPhone technology, knowledge is largely privatised. One direct consequence of this is that there are only three science labs in Quito. A patent-protected microscope costs six thousand dollars. According to Michel, however, we could build an open source microscope for only six hundred. “If there was a commons,” Michel says, “you could have thirty science labs in Quito.” These sorts of open hardware projects are already happening, at L’Atelier Paysan and Farmhack for instance, but we need to scale up.

Intellectual property rights are antithetical to the knowledge commons, but are one of the foundations of capitalism. So any transition away from dependence on patent or copyright protected products would be a radical, if not revolutionary proposition. That radicalism derailed the FLOK project. Although Michel had been invited into the country by the government, who had promised to sign any conventions that came out of the process, it was obvious that there were many powerful interests who did not want FLOK to be a success.

Michel is proud of the participatory FLOK process, however. They held twenty-four workshops in the twenty-four provinces of Ecuador, using Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, covering topics such as the high price of medicine and “terminator” seeds. These workshops were aimed at common citizens, to elicit their reactions. FLOK also held conversations with around seventy organisations, including indigenous farmers, a Linux usergroup and a 3D printing hacker space.

“On the basis of this input, we created the first proposals,” Michel says. They ended up with eighteen legislative proposals, covering topics such as biodiversity and open hardware. They took these to the government. After three days of discussions, the government refused to sign the conventions. “The reality is we were not paid for three months,” Michel says. “Clearly a number of people didn’t want us there. The president of the country didn’t even know what we were doing.”

Despite this failure, the project was still a success in terms of developing a commons transition plan, which can now be acted upon by anyone interested in transitioning to a commons-based society.

One limitation of the FLOK project in Ecuador was that it was only about the knowledge commons. In addition to knowledge, Michel counts three other “fake commodities”: land, labour and money, making four commons in total. We need to ask the question, how would land, labour and money function if they were commons, not commodities? Through answering questions like these, Michel aims to create a culture of commons policy-making. “We want to politicise the commons,” he says, warning us that this isn’t some fancy theorising, but a pressing need to protect ourselves from the aggression of capitalism.

The welfare state is an achievement bequeathed to us from the politicisation of labour in the last century. “This is structurally dissolving in the west,” Michel warns. “All our achievements based on labour are in danger and are being dismantled as we speak.” Michel’s solution is this politicisation of the commons. “If you want a new narrative,” Michel says, “you need to start thinking about the commons, of which labour is a part.”
Michel defines commons structures according to two axes. On one axis is who has control of the commons, ranging from totally centralised to totally distributed. On the other axis is about what happens to the end product of the commons: Is it for private profit or for community benefit?

Facebook is an example of a centralised and for profit commons. “Facebook extracts capital from our exchange, from our human cooperation,” Michel says. “You could argue that capitalism is moving towards letting us do the work and extracting from our exchange.”

Bitcoin is an example of a distributed and for profit commons. According to Michel, ninety percent of Bitcoin is not used for exchange, it’s hoarded. “It’s the anarcho-capitalist dream,” he says.

Local community benefit farming is an example of a distributed and for benefit commons. This is preferable to the two above structures, but Michel thinks this is not enough. He prefers the centralised and for benefit commons, on a global scale. We have states, multinationals and NGOs that operate on a global scale, but no body that represents the commons. “Make it locally, organise globally,” Michel says.

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The reason why we need a global organisational structure for the commons comes down to the realities of putting food on the table. “The key problem working in the commons is it’s easy to volunteer,” Michel says. “But after a few years, you have a choice of either going back to a hierarchy or you try to make a living on your own.” But how can individuals profit from their work contributing to the commons when, by definition, it is a commons? “You cannot commodify your commons,” Michel says. “If you asked YouTube to pay you, you wouldn’t be making commons, you’d be making commodities.”

This problem could be partially solved by cooperatives using an open value accounting system, like Sensorica. Sensorica allows people to log their contributions to the cooperative and received in return a “karma score”. If anyone in the cooperative wins a contract off the back of the commons, the money earned from that contract would flow back to all members according to their “karma score”, not just to the person who won the contract. This is a way of ensuring that all effort is rewarded fairly, even before there is any financial return on that effort.

But there are more fundamental reasons why we need a global organisation for the commons: capitalism simply doesn’t recognise “externalities”. This could be anything from pollution that kills fish in the sea to the cost of bad working conditions to the national health service. “If it’s legal, it’s okay,” Michel says of capitalism. “We want an economy that recognises externalities.”

Michel’s answer is a reciprocity licence for businesses that do commons production. He explains: “Everybody with a common good orientation can use our commons. Every not for profit and every for profit who contributes can also use the commons. But for profit businesses who don’t contribute have to buy a licence.” This licence embeds the concept of reciprocity. “It’s still a market, but it’s not a capitalist market.”

Michel finishes by introducing an alternative market that already exists: the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC). Their ideology is: Everything they can do outside the capitalist market, they will do outside. They only use the capitalist market as a last resort. “They try to create a cooperative circular economy,” Michel says, “which also creates a commons, because everything they do is open.”

For example, CIC pay the bare minimum amount of taxes to the Spanish state. “They don’t recognise the legitimacy of the Spanish state,” Michel explains, “but they realise its reality.” Instead, they have an internal tax system with social and environmental characteristics. This “tax” is shuffled around between internal departments; they operate, ironically enough, exactly like a multinational corporation in this regard. This “tax” is re-invested into the community, healthcare, food, shelter and support. Over eight hundred freelancers work inside this system and are “taxed” by CIC. Now CIC are trying to demonetise their internal economy.

Michel’s dream is for a global community of commons contributors, bound together by a social charter, using open book accounting and an open supply chain, to create a global economic system that is both outside of the capitalist market and outside state planning.

This is the commons.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Header image © Lia Rädler

Elevate the Commons

This is the eighth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Addressing the oft-repeated accusation from the mainstream that alternative thinkers have no practical proposals for a replacement to capitalism, I hereby present Exhibit A: the commons. In an echo of John Holloway’s opening speech, Silke Helfrich characterises the commons as “putting hope into practice”.

The idea of commoning is that there are certain things that all of humanity holds “in common” and that responsibility for and access to those things should be shared equally among us all. Examples might include the air we breathe, the languages we speak and the water we drink. Commoners seek to extend and protect these basic shared resources; while capitalists seek to privatise and profit from them. Unless you happen to live right beside a fresh water spring, the water you drink has already been turned into a commodity that you pay for. Perhaps you believe that the air you breathe is a more genuine commons, free of commodification and profiteering. But would you say that you had an equal share in its pollution? Does this pollution make its way onto the balance sheets of industry in a way that reflects the damage done to your lungs?

What other resources should we have in common? Perhaps you might think the seeds that grow our food should be a common resource, provided by Mother Nature herself. But genetically modified “terminator” seeds that die after harvest have already been developed, so that farmers are reliant on buying more from the supplier. What about life-saving drugs? Private pharmaceutical companies using patent protection are systematically withholding life-saving drugs from the people who need them most. Or the internet, should that be a commons? According to a 2013 study, a quarter of all US internet traffic goes through Google’s privately owned servers; in 2011, that figure was just six percent. What about democracy, surely that must always be a commons? The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, currently being negotiated behind closed doors by the US and the EU, threatens to extend intellectual property rights and could clear away the national regulatory rights of individual EU countries, raising the prospect of the corporate imposition of genetically modified organisms and shale gas fracking. In return for this gift from our commons, TTIP promises the average household an increase in earnings of about fifty dollars per year by 2027. Not exactly win-win.

Silke Helfrich is so obsessed with commoning that she has, quite literally, written the book (well, co-edited it, at least). “The definition of the commons is a commons itself,” she says, slyly. “It is always developing. Commons are a process, another state of being.” As a process, Silke explains that it takes hard work to maintain the commons; they have to be made over and over again.

Michel Bauwens, the founder of the P2P Foundation, describes the commons as “any shared resource which is governed and owned by its community”. He also makes the distinction between material and immaterial commons; the distinction between common land and common language, for example, or between open hardware and open software. Michel sees a problem in that the material world is still governed by the old world, the corporations. “Capitalism destroyed the old commons,” he says, “and the socialist state was even worse!” While there are organisations working for the immaterial commons, like Mozilla and Wikimedia for the open software and knowledge commons, there are no organisations working for the material commons.

Silke Helfrich sees no such distinction between material and immaterial commons. “I’m convinced there are no immaterial commons that do not grow out of material,” she says. “Programmers need to eat.” She prefers to look at what these different commons have in common. “It’s about sharing resources that aren’t owned by any one person and never will be owned by any one person,” she says. Michel Bauwens responds by agreeing that, although the material and the immaterial are inseparable, the nature of the differing goods demand different rules. “The immaterial,” he says by way of example, “doesn’t mind freeloaders.” For Michel, this means that we have to create new forms of governance, new forms of ownership, “to create a seed from which something new can grow”.

Michel Bauwens is excited about the potential for commons production to help us move, as he says, “from anti-capitalism to post-capitalism construction”. He would like to combine open source knowledge and distributed machinery to create a new means of production that will not bear the hallmarks of capitalism, such as planned obsolescence. “If we add green – cradle to cradle design, shared resources – to the hacker mentality,” Michel says, “then we have a revolution.”

One obvious question suggests itself: If the commons are such a great idea, then why don’t we have more? What are the threats facing the commons?

“The value capture,” Michel answers, simply. “More and more people are creating commons, but the use value is created and the market value is captured almost exclusively by capital.” For Michel, this is a real problem in our society. “As a commoner,” he says, “I can’t make money from it unless I become labour for capital.”

This is an obvious contradiction and one that makes a commoning life currently unsustainable; under the economic conditions of today it is not possible to remake the new world in the shell of the old. For Michel Bauwens, we need to build commoning institutions and regulatory frameworks that allow us to make a living from our commoning work. This work, trying to move from theory to reality, is exactly what John Holloway meant when he talked about hopeability. Hope needs to find an echo in the world; there needs to be potential in the old world for the new, fertile ground for the seeds.

For Silke Helfrich, another threat to commoning comes from what she calls the “monoculture of thinking”, meaning classical economics, taught in universities and parroted in the media, which restricts what people are able to imagine as possible. For many years, classical economics has almost ignored the commons because it does not produce financial capital. A monoculture of thinking such as this returns us to the idea that change is not possible if you can imagine the end of humanity more easily than you can imagine the end of capitalism.

Talking of the end of humanity, Silke Helfrich raises a more serious threat to the commons: the ongoing depletion of natural resources. “At a global level we have little time,” she says. “Natural resources are becoming scarce.” And, without natural resources, there will be no material basis for the commons; without anything to share, there can be no commons. “This, in my opinion, is the bigger threat,” she says. “But I’m really enthusiastic about the opportunities.”

Silke Helfrich’s enthusiasm for the commons shines through in her optimism for the future. In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, Silke was studying in Leipzig, East Germany. “We didn’t know in the summer what would happen in the autumn,” she says. “We didn’t know what the world would look like.” She sees a similar potential for radical, overnight transformation in the commons. “Technology means we can get the commons idea out into the world,” she says. “Big infrastructures and investment are not needed. We are in a transition where people are taking things into their own hands. We have to redefine what work means in terms of commons, what infrastructure means, what a unified state means.”

Michel Bauwens, however, sounds a warning note. “The only reason we have a welfare state is because we have a labour movement,” he says. “But that is weakened and can no longer defend the welfare state.” His solution you should be able to guess by now: “We need to change from labour to commons. We need to rethink politics around the commons.” Michel is hopeful, not for the labour parties, but for the new transformative political parties springing from the wreckage of European austerity: the various European Pirate Parties, Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece.
“Everything is connected,” Silke Helfrich says, in conclusion. “The commons are older than every state in the world and they have a future,” she adds. “The commons are the basis of an emancipatory society.”

From Wikipedia and Mozilla to urban gardening and food cooperatives, we can help build this emancipatory society by joining our local commons movement. Let’s continue putting that hope into practice.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

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