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”.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Hope explodes, volcanically, with rage.” It just so happens that John Holloway lives next door to a volcano in Mexico, and can contemplate the aptness of his metaphor every day. “Revolutions for me are volcanic,” he says, “the burning lava is always just beneath the surface.”
It’s early Friday morning and John Holloway, Professor of Sociology at Puebla University, is sharing his ideas of hope and crisis. Two extra banks of chairs are pulled out, students perch on the floor, the balcony door is opened for ventilation, someone is sent to copy another thirty sets of workshop notes. The people of Elevate are eager for hope, it seems.
John begins by recalling recent expressions of popular revolution and rage, in Oacaxa 2006, Athens 2008, Cairo 2011, Istanbul 2012, Rio and Sao Paulo 2013. “Explosions of anger are at the same time explosions of hope,” he says. “People go out on the street and break windows because they actually believe things can be different.”
But before you drop this book and rush out to smash some windows, you might want to ponder Greece.
Greece has suffered the most terrible consequences of the crisis of capitalism; at the same time it has the most militant anti-capitalist tradition in Europe. In Greece over the past few years, there has been action after action, protest after protest, against the imposition of austerity. And it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the imposition of capitalist aggression on the people.
“We need to re-learn hope, we need to think rage into hope,” John says. “It doesn’t make any sense to say you shouldn’t be angry – of course we should be angry!” But, starting from this rage, how do we think this rage into hope? The question reminds me of Deanna Rodger and the channelling power of her teenage creative writing workshop. For John, the answer is the Zapatista concept of digna rabia, dignified rage. Even this dignified rage, however, must find an echo within the world, as Ernst Bloch writes in The Principle of Hope. For us to have true hope, the world must at least be able to respond to our hope. Or, as John says, “We have to find the hopeability of the world.”
“Across the world,” John says, “we’re getting the sense that we’re banging our heads against the wall and we’re getting no response.”
I have felt this frustration myself, as one of millions of citizens who participated in the global anti-war demonstrations of 2003: no response, only the endless bombing of Iraq. And again in 2011, as one of millions of Occupiers around the world trying to find an alternative to the excesses of capitalism: no response, only a multi-trillion dollar bail out of the richest in society. This total lack of response to democratic protest is an enormous challenge for hope and our struggle. “When governments are so distant from society that there is no response there at all,” John asks, “how do we think about the hopeability of the world?” The question is open and increasingly urgent: Can we even imagine the possibility of change in the world?
Hope explodes volcanically, but hope also ebbs – or is commodified and religionised. This ebbing of hope in the last twenty-five years, John calls The Great Disillusion. “The Soviet Union was horrible,” he says. “But it was, in spite of that, and paradoxically, a symbol of hope for many people.” Even if no one would want an alternative society like the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was at least proof that we could create something that was different. “Over the last years, there hasn’t been a reduction in anger, but there’s been a shrinking of horizons,” John says. “People no longer think of how to get rid of capitalism and this narrows our mind.”
John’s generation, anti-capitalist hippies in the sixties, over the course of the Reagan and Thatcher eras, became disillusioned with the possibility that capitalism could be opposed. This culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall and “the end of history”. Their view, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, has become: “Capitalism is the worst form of economy except for all those others that have been tried.” This disillusion was passed on as blind acceptance to their children. For their children, the question of questioning capitalism was never considered until the 2008 economic crisis and, more specifically, until the Occupy movement brought the idea that “capitalism is crisis” to the mainstream.
For most, however, the question is once again creeping away under the every day threat of austerity and poverty.
Hope and Historicity
This generational difference hints at the basic Marxist point that capitalism is a historically specific form of organisation. “Marxists believed that we were able to go beyond capitalism and have a happy ending,” John says. “I think we can no longer believe that.” Instead, John follows German philosopher Walter Benjamin in characterising history as an express train rushing us towards our doom: “We are locked inside and we don’t know how to get out.”
But capitalism has only been around for a few centuries. “There is no reason to assume that capitalism will go on forever,” John says. “And yet, it is easier to think of the end of humanity than the end of capitalism.” With the newspapers full of runaway climate change, the Mayan apocalypse and nuclear holocaust, people talk a lot about the end of humanity. What they don’t do is talk about the end of capitalism.
Unlike the Marxists, John believes that the hope of a happy ending is not inevitable, but only possible. “To think hope is to feel the push of the world that is not yet,” John says, before adding, “this is Bloch or my Bloch.” Ernst Bloch wrote that hope depends upon the push of the world that does not yet exist. John’s been doing some hopeability research while here in Austria. “In the last ten years in Graz,” he says, “there are five social centres that did not exist before, there are the urban gardening projects – these are the pushes of a world that is struggling to be born.”
But, despite these nascent struggles and despite the fact that capitalism is proving itself over and over to be a disaster, we continue to lose the battles for hopeability. We get no response from government, or from the media or from broader society and, as John says, “we think of ourselves as the eternal losers, morally justified – perhaps there’s no way out”.
Marx was in exactly the same situation, in a world of struggle. What Marx wanted to ask was how to go beyond hope and ground that hope in reality. “If we can only see that the system is weak or mortally wounded, then that will help us think how we can go beyond it,” John says. “What we want to find is some sort of fragility in the system that we can latch on to and think: We are not the losers in all this.”
If we are the ones who suffer from crisis, then perhaps there is no way out, no way of turning crisis into hopeability.
But John has found a way out. “Capitalism is a system of domination and we refuse that,” he says. “Therefore we are the crisis of capitalism.” Our suffering is only apparent if we externalise the crisis. We must instead internalise the crisis and embrace the fact that, by being human and wanting to be free of this system of domination, we are throwing the spanner in the works. “Once we say that the banks caused the crisis, we’ve lost,” John says. “No: we are the crisis of capitalism, that is our pride.”
Huh? I don’t feel much like a crisis, John. But that’s just my perspective. John has other ideas.
I don’t wake up in the morning and look forward to a productive day of creating value as part of a capitalist economy; I wake up in the morning and start working on this book. But, according to John, I’m deluding myself; there is another way to look at my day’s work. “We create capital,” he says, “But because of the thingification of social relations, we don’t recognise that is what we’re doing.” Even this book creates capital value for someone out there, if only the printing and recycling companies.
As John says, the fact that we are the ones creating capital, “has to be understood as capital’s weakness”. All systems of dominance suffer from the dependence of the rulers upon the activity of the ruled, and capitalism is no different. If we can find a way to refuse capitalism, then we do become the crisis.
Furthermore, this dependence of capitalism on our labour is only sustainable through constantly renewed aggression. Constantly renewed aggression, however, will inevitably only provoke more of us into becoming the embodiment of crisis: strikes, protests, riots, occupations, refusals. “The class struggle,” John jokes, “is the struggle of the alarm clock – get up out of bed and create some value!”
I suppose the question now is why shouldn’t we just surrender to the aggression and the dictates of capitalism? After all, isn’t it the “worst form of economy, except for all those others that have been tried”?
The critical problem with capitalism is that, as John says, it is driven by its own inadequacy. A profit is never enough; capitalism demands greater and greater profits, as measured in economic growth. This demand drives a process of what John calls “totalisation”, the integration of all human activity into the pursuit of profit.
Driven by its own inbuilt sense of inadequacy, capitalism will not rest until all human life and all planetary resources are funnelled through its profit motive. And then it still won’t be happy. The more capitalism dominates, the more capitalism must dominate. This is a basic factor of the way capitalism measures itself: in growth. Capitalism never says “that’s enough now”; economic growth of 0%, where things stay the same, is a disaster for capitalism. The aim of capitalism is growth on growth, year on year; the more capitalism dominates, the more it must dominate. And that economic growth represents another portion of the world funnelled into the totality of capitalism and swallowed up.
Debt is another expression of the incapacity of capitalism and the inadequacy of its domination. “We don’t generate enough surplus value for the system,” John explains, “so we create it in the hope that tomorrow we will.” The vertiginous rise of what economists call “consumer debt” in the last two decades is little more than a bribe or a white lie to cover the broken promise of capital growth. Most people simply don’t benefit from capitalism, but it can’t be seen to be that way, so we give them interest-free credit cards and zero deposit mortgages.
“Debt expansion is the basis of an increasingly fictitious world,” John says. “This world is volatile, aggressive, fragile, random.” Debt is one of capital’s tools of totalisation, sucking more and more people down the funnel. If capitalism was a success on its own terms, then why do we have government stimulus packages, bank bailouts and subsidies for the automobile industry?
“We are pushing against the process of totalisation,” John says. “In universities, students don’t just want to learn; they want to think. Farmers don’t just want to use pesticides; they want a good relationship with their animals.” Revolution, therefore, can be seen as a process of “de-totalisation”, a movement against the centralising aggression of capital. To borrow a line from the Zapatistas: How can we create a world where many worlds fit?
Not without a fight is the answer. Remember the example of Greece? If you don’t do what capitalism wants, then be prepared for a fight. “The chronic inadequacy of domination,” John says, “pushes capital into fiercer, more violent measures to control human activity.” This aggression will naturally provoke a defensive reaction in us, the victims.
“This defence is usually conservative defence,” John explains. “We want to go on living the way we were living before, even if we weren’t enjoying it much.” But this conservative defence can overflow into something else: the Zapatista movement grew out of a conservative defence against the Mexican government selling off communal land, for example. Now, the Zapatistas self-govern their entire region, almost independent from the government.
“The growing aggression of capital is something that that will go on for a long time,” John warns, “but capital is unable to subordinate us sufficiently; most people at some point will say no.” Indeed, John argues that capitalism, at some level, is antithetical to our very humanity. Capitalism’s drive of inadequacy bleeds into our every day lives as an insidious neuroticism, a feeling that we ourselves are inadequate: We are not beautiful enough, we are not intelligent enough, we are not working hard enough, we are not rich enough, we are not happy enough, we are not enough.
In other words, if such a small change to our discourse can have such a large impact on our well-being and our politics, then what kind of an effect will living completely submerged in the logic of capitalism have? What kind of effect is the impossible aspirational logic of advertising having on our natural altruism? What kind of effect is the acquisitive logic of consumerism having on our treatment of the planet’s resources? What kind of effect is the transactional logic of money having on our human relationships?
But the very toxicity of capitalism to humanity is a cause for optimism for John. “Our desire for love is the obstacle for capitalism,” he says. “We are the crisis of capitalism and that is the basis for hope.”
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.
Dr Vandana Shiva fills the screen, a fifteen foot pixilated message from India. Vandana was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel prize”, in 1993 for her work on the social and environmental costs of development, particularly the violence of India’s Green Revolution.
We also face an economic crisis, which has brought about a widening divide between rich and poor. Perhaps more significantly, however, this crisis is the crisis of a system. This modern capitalist economy has left half the population of the world redundant. Echoing John Holloway’s earlier remarks, Vandana says that, in this economy, “there is no place for small farmers, no place for future generations”. She describes it as “a world of corporations and oligarchs, extracting the last bit of profits from the earth”.
Finally, we face a political crisis and the erosion of democracy. “What we now have,” Vandana Shiva says, “is not a public state, working for democracy in terms of of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a corporate state, working for the interest of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”
For Vandana, these crises arise from a particular way of thinking about the world: the scientific capitalist paradigm that describes the universe as solely mechanistic. This viewpoint encourages division and separation between ourselves and the resources of the planet. “The reality of our lives,” she says, “is that there is an earth that gives us everything and we are co-creators and co-producers with the earth, to produce our food, to harness the water, to make sure all our human needs are met.” Gandhi’s words are never more appropriate than today: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for some people’s greed.”
Vandana Shiva states her anti-capitalist thesis explicitly: “The economic model that turns nature into land and a commodity, people into labour and a commodity, and capital as the creator of value, is at the root of both the exploitation of nature as well as injustice.” She goes further. “Capitalism is a system that was wrong to start with,” she says. “It has been held in place for a few centuries by shifting every policy to make the false assumptions of capitalism work for a while.”
If you think that this sounds like a lot of balony, then consider the fact that these kind of bizarre legal agreements are already in place. One Swedish energy firm is currently suing the German government for billions of dollars of “lost profits”. Why? Because, having seen what happened in Japan when the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded, the German government took what would appear to be a perfectly reasonable public health decision to stop using nuclear power. The final cost to the German tax-payer of this ghoulish pursuit of profit will not be settled democratically either: the matter will be decided through an arbitration tribunal, as if the needs and desires of profiteers and of the people bore equal weight. TTIP threatens to give unelected corporations the power to force policy on elected governments, and you can be sure, as Vandana Shiva says, that corporations “will make decisions for themselves, to keep raping the earth and to keep ripping off from society”.
All of these examples of policy manipulation are described by Vandana as “life support systems for a dying order”.
The insecurities caused by the failures of capitalism create social polarisation. “Insecurity deepens divides,” Vandana says, “so we have the rise of politics of exclusion.” This politics of exclusion leads to a rise in fundamentalism, pitting people against each other on the grounds of religion, sect and ethnicity. “Diversity has been turned into a major problem,” Vandana says, before turning the whole argument on its head. “But diversity is the solution for the future.”
Vandana Shiva believes that the crises of capitalism also represent an opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that puts humanity to work, not in the service of exploiting the earth, but in healing her, by saving seeds, planting trees and rejuvenating water resources. “It’s limitless how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Regenerating the earth needs our hands and our hearts and our minds.”
Who will lead this regeneration? “Every worker fighting for justice. Every unemployed youth demanding a place in the scheme of things. Every small farmer telling the world that it is small farms who feed the world.” The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s food production comes from the work of small farms, rather than from industrial production. Vandana Shiva singles out women for special responsibility. “Women,” she explains, “through having looked after the economy of care and the economy of sharing and an economy of responsibility, can shift to make the entire economy based on these principles of caring and sharing, not exploitation and destruction.” These shall be the leaders of our regeneration, but, as Vandana says, “there is no person who is irrelevant to the transition we must make if we have to survive”.
“The message I have for you at Elevate,” Vandana Shiva says, “is what your festival is about: We need to elevate. We need to elevate our knowledge. We need to elevate our consciousness. Let us elevate our energies, let us elevate our solidarity, let us elevate our imagination.” She raises an eloquent hand and a smile burbles about her lips. “There is nothing beyond our dreams and there is nothing to prevent our dreams from being turned into reality if we are committed.” Her voice takes on a playful warning tone. “In any case, there is nothing to lose but our extinction.”
She leaves us with a beatific smile.
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.
An introduction to straw bale building by Hugh Makins. Hugh is driven by his passion to find innovative solutions to the economic, environmental and social crises faced by humankind today. Affordable and sustainable straw bale building is just one aspect of his vision for a better world.
Hugh is a resident of Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about straw bale building by joining one of his experimental weekend building courses.
I am an anarchist. Now I’m not that interested in whether you know what anarchists do or what anarchism is – you can look that up (Clue: It is nothing to do with petrol bombs and masked violence), but here I’ll address a much more interesting question: Why am I an anarchist? Or, more precisely, why was it inevitable that I and thousands of others like me should become anarchists AND why will millions of people like you join us?
It starts with a little history…
Why did I become an anarchist? (A short history, 1971-2011)
The story of my inevitable progression towards anarchism begins in 1971, some 11 years before I was born, when Ronald Reagan made the unilateral decision to move the US dollar off the gold standard. From then on, money would no longer be real. This has had serious consequences, not least that banks and other lenders could now create money out of thin air in the form of credit or loans.
And the story ends in 2011, when, like the rest of the world, I watched on as the Middle East erupted into revolution, and then joined hundreds of thousands of people in creating horizontal public spaces under the banner of the Occupy movement.
So why was this progression inevitable?
I spent my childhood living under the rule of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1992). I started going to secondary school, where politics started to trickle into my consciousness, under the government of John Major. The country was struggling to recover from the recession of the early nineties and I remember well the chaos of constant scandals of that long discredited Conservative regime.
And so it was with a euphoric feeling of relief and excitement that I stayed up all night to listen to the election results of 1997. Labour, under Tony Blair, had won a landslide, with a mandate to do anything they could possibly dream of. A number of policies did indeed emerge to check the shocking growth of inequality under the destructive decades of Conservatism: the minimum wage being the leading example.
But then, shortly after Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001, two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. This appeared to change everything. It is probable that Tony Blair had always intended to intensify his pro-business and anti-human policies, but 9/11 gave him every excuse.
By this time, I was at university and not remotely political. I had my beliefs and disillusions, but I made no attempt to participate in my democracy and I knew no one who did.
That changed in 2003. I joined over three quarters of a million people marching through the streets of London to protest the invasion of Iraq. This was the biggest protest ever organised in the UK – and organised is the word. Unions, students and pained lefties were mobilised by a hierarchical coalition known as Stop The War. It was extraordinarily successful and we were jubilant. But we were ignored.
Demoralised at my first failure of political action, I continued to speak out against the war, but no more. Then the 2008 recession hit and I, like others I’m sure, felt a certain schadenfreude as I watched the stock market plummet. We’d had it coming, with laissez-faire financial policies that encouraged reckless speculation and remuneration packages that rewarded bankers and lawyers disproportionate to their value to society.
Then I watched as the opportunity to restore equality to our society was missed; the banks were bailed out; homeowners and tax payers hung out to dry. Inequality soared.
Still I did nothing.
Then, at the end of 2009, I joined a political movement, completely by accident. I wanted to travel to Gaza, to see for myself the country that I had written about for my masters in Middle Eastern history. Independent travel to Gaza is almost impossible, so I found a group going to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008.
The whole trip was a farce, involving the Egyptian dictator Mubarak’s wife and a job lot of roses. However, it was led by a feminist group called Code Pink and, while in Cairo, I learnt the principles of consensus decision making and direct democracy. Without really meaning to, I had my first encounter with anarchism.
Finally, in October 2011, I joined the Occupy movement at St Paul’s in London. Here I saw up close how anarchism can bring people together to create a community from nothing more than a few tents and a lot of goodwill.
I saw anarchism create the very society that our new leader David Cameron was begging us for: The Big Society. The only problem for Cameron was that Occupy didn’t look right, he wasn’t in charge and most of the people involved hated him and his policies.
As a society sleepwalks towards greater and greater inequality, the bulk of the population will seek a politics that is based on radical equality, a politics that is based, not on a vertical hierarchy, but on horizontal power structures. That is why I and so many other people are turning to anarchism to address the problems in society.
Hierarchy and anarchism
“Anarchy” means “without rulers”. I have worked in all kinds of organisations, from warehouses to offices, from film sets to human rights organisations. I have ended up hating every single one of them. Why? Hierarchy. I could not subsume my individual existence as a human being to another human being. It bred in me hatred, paranoia and outright rebellion.
This sort of hierarchy is found throughout our society, most insidiously within our own homes. The ubiquitous system of private housing and landlords is a form of hierarchy. Every decision you make for your rented flat is at the mercy of an overlord.
After six months of living in London under a landlord, I wanted to kill myself. And it would have been a small mercy: I was working 37.5 hours in one of the aforementioned office jobs for the sole purpose of paying my landlord usurious rates of rent. I was working for someone else at my place of work, and the money I exchanged for my freedom there went directly to my master of my own home.
No wonder I was depressed. Hierarchy dogged me at home and at work. Now I live in a housing cooperative run by members, with no landlord and no hierarchy. I am empowered to make decisions for myself and for my home.
Why you should be an anarchist too
If you’re still wondering why you should join us, then consider this: Maybe you are already an anarchist.
Think about it. In your favourite relationships, where is the hierarchy? With your partner, who is the boss? With your family, who is the boss? With your friends, who is the boss?
Wouldn’t you rather make all of your relationships, at home and at work, based on true equality? This is the aim of anarchism and it is possible, cooperatives are just one example.
But isn’t hierarchy only natural?
The most common counter-argument to the idea of anarchism is that hierarchy is natural. Some people will always be stronger, faster, more capable than others and these people will naturally become leaders.
This is, of course, idealised nonsense.
Think about it among your friends. There are some things that you are the best at, say cooking Mexican food. You are the best cook out of all of your friends. When you all get together, everyone wants you to cook because you make the best meals. But you still wouldn’t dream of shutting them out of the process. No. You would encourage them to give it a go, to get involved. You would want them to cook because then they’ll get good enough that you won’t have to cook every time. You understand that sometimes you let them cook, so they can improve their skills. And you understand that this is better for the group as a whole. And what happens when everyone fancies Vietnamese food? Are you still the best cook?
But a hierarchy generally comes about when one person or group puts themselves at the top and says: We’re better at everything than you – and we’re not even going to let you try because then you’ll improve your skills and eventually want to take our place at the top of the hierarchy and we can’t let that happen!
I suppose it all comes down to a simple question: What kind of relationship do you want to have with the rest of humanity? One based on inequality, superiority and dominance or one based on equality, respect and partnership?
In 2002, Dave Eggers (the writer) set up a pirate supply store. And that’s why, on Monday, I spent an evening writing a story about a fish called Bob, who was distressed by the colour of his tail.
826 Valencia was Eggers’ stab at creating a literacy program for kids. As you can imagine, from the mind of the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this was never going to be a normal after-school homework club.
The idea (once you’ve got past the pirate supply store frontage) is that kids come to 826 for story-writing workshops, mentoring, cartooning, ‘zine creation, homeworking, poeming – anything really. And the idea has been wildly successful. As a result, six other chapters opened up in the States. But, now, most excitingly, London has its very own: The Ministry of Stories.
The Ministry of Stories
As soon as I heard about it, I cancelled any plans I had for emigrating to the US to join Dave, and instead I emailed the Chief Minister at The Ministry of Stories. To my delight, he invited me for a training session, which is where I found myself on Monday night, pretending to be an eight year-old, writing a story about Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.
My kind of (volunteer) job!
The Ministry of Stories was set up in November 2010. They take about three field-trips a week from local (and not so local) schools and also have two one-to-one mentoring sessions a week to help young writers (8-18) work on their stories.
Plus you can buy the finest human snot at the monster supply store, while you’re there.
Minister in Training
So, hot-tail, hip-top excited, along I went, down Hoxton way, to meet Ben and Anne, two of the Chief Minister’s aides, for an evening’s hard training.
To start off, we pretended to be eight year-olds and wrote a story together.
First we made a list of things that go into a story. Things like villains and danger and feelings, but also words and punctuation.
Then we had to decide who we wanted our main character to be. We shouted a few things and then had an anonymous (and blind) vote. By democratic decision, it would be Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.
Then we did the same thing for a second character: Archimedes, Bob’s hairdresser.
Then we chose Bob’s dream in the same way: to wear jumpers; and Bob’s greatest fear: that he would turn completely blue.
Finally, we chose a location for the story: a pub.
Then, together, we wrote the first page and a bit, trying to build up to a cliff-hanger. The gist of the story was that Bob really wanted a jumper to cover up his embarrassing blue tail. Archimedes offered to make him one (out of Bob’s hair) – but it would cost him. The problem was that Bob didn’t have any money. So Archimedes suggested that Bob go and ask the elephant in the room for a job. And that’s where we had our cliff-hanger: “But isn’t he…?”
At this point we all split up into mentors and writers and we finished the story on our own, with the help of the mentors. Frighteningly good fun.
The Fish’s Arms
Here, for your edification, is my (unedited) story. See if you can spot the logical inconsistencies; editing is a wonderful thing…
“But isn’t he…?” Archimedes stopped cutting Bob’s hair and touched him on the shoulder. “Listen. Finish your pint and just go over to him. I’m sure he’s not as mean as the stories say.”
Bob gulped and looked over at the elephant from the corner of his goggles. The stories were horrible.
Archimedes reached over and took the pint from Bob’s fin. “Go on.”
Bob vomited a little bit in his mouth. “But they say his trunk can strangle a shark!” Bob said in a small voice.
“That’s true,” Archimedes said. “I’ve seen him do it.” Then he saw Bob retch again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Bob shivered and watched the muscles in the elephant’s back as he sucked up an entire gallon of brine. “I can’t do it!”
Archimedes shook his head at his old friend, picked up his scissors and said, nonchalantly, “Your tail’s looking very blue today…”
Suddenly, Bob shot out of his chair, spilling the rest of his whelk juice all over the elephant’s foot.
There was a rumble and the whole pub started to shake. Bob quivered and whimpered as the big fat elephant turned slowly around and bellowed in Bob’s face. “You! Blue-buttocks! Are you looking for a snorting?”
Bob could hardly move for his quivering and shook his head scarcely. There was a tinkle as the scissors fell from Archimedes’ hand and Bob felt his friend creep away…
Chapter Two to follow!
And so I signed the Ministry contract:
WILL BRING YOU VICTORY
Huzzah! Can’t wait to get my first ministry appointment.
You can watch Dave talk about 826 Valencia – and the network of similar ventures it has spawned – here:
Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.
Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:
1l washing detergent @ £2.96
250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
680g sauerkraut @ £1.67
And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.
However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!
Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.
They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.
It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!
Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE
I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.
What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).
So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:
80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
1kg of raisins @ £2.95
6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
12 eggs @ £2.62
Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.
Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.
I’m not going to write about slaves. I’m going to write about hirelings, people who depend on a wage for their livelihood, people who could not be alive without that wage. Wage slaves.
The abolition of the slave trade made the buying and selling of slaves illegal – and rightly so. But consider this: after buying his slave, a slave-owner would have to continue paying to keep the slave – to care for him, to feed him, to house him, to prevent him from getting hurt, to cure him of illnesses – because the slave was a capital asset. It was in the master’s interest to keep the slave at an operable level of health.
In today’s society, we need only rent the slave. We can pay a small amount of money directly to the slave and it is his responsibility to manage his livelihood. If the slave fails to maintain an operable level of health, if the slave breaks down, then others are ready to fill his place – at no capital cost to the slaver.
Incredibly, this modern state of affairs, post-abolition, is a much better arrangement for the slaver and no better for the slave, offering only the inducement -the illusion – of freedom. If the slave is lucky enough to break out beyond the earning power of a wage slave, then it is true: he may buy his manumission. More likely, however, he will earn only enough to keep slaving away for his master until he breaks down. Then he is done for, he must throw himself on the mercy of his family, his community or the welfare state, a shaming embarrassment.
But, hang on, isn’t that all of us? Aren’t we all slaves for hire?
This probably sounds a little extreme, but two hundred years ago it was a natural response to the introduction of wage labour, the decline of self-employment in artisan trades and the rapid increase in industrialisation. Nowadays, large businesses, corporations and governments represent the most likely source of employment. We sell our freedom hour by hour, day by day, in exchange for money; if we are lucky, enough to subsist.
I am not, of course, making an argument for the return of slavery; there are much better models out there to learn from.
Firstly, there is self-employment in a trade that is of permanent use to society. This is still a good way to guarantee sufficient employment to cover living expenses and the opportunity to save money in addition to this subsistence earning to pay for our dotage.
Secondly, there are worker cooperatives, where the workers participate in the democratic operation of the business and profits are divided among the share-holders: one share for each worker.
Thirdly, there are self-sustaining communities, like Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. Braziers Park is a working farm, an adult education college and a venue for hire. The income generated from these activities support a permanent community of approximately fifteen people all year round. These people do not pay rent to Braziers Park, but rather donate their labour on the farm and in the house. They run the business and are rewarded handsomely with organic locally-grown food, shelter and a vibrant living community.
It could be worth your while calculating whether you are being paid a slave wage or not. If you are paid only the minimum you need to subsist – or less (and this includes the means to support your family) – then you are being paid a slave wage and you would be better off seeking out alternative means of living, such as the examples above. If you are being paid more than the minimum you need to subsist, then that is great – as long as you enjoy the work that you are doing. If you do not, then remember that you are also giving away your freedom and your autonomy, two things that contribute greatly to our happiness as humans. Perhaps consider if you would be better off exchanging a wage-profit for greater autonomy.
I’m comfortable with wage slavery; it is a fact of modern life. But I’m also lucky enough to know it when I see it. I know what I am getting into when I exchange my freedom for money.
At the dog end of summer 2009 I spent two months living and working at Braziers Park, a community hidden away in the Chiltern Hills, just the other side of the river from me. It is a constant source of incredulity for me that I never knew of this place until about a year ago. Now it seems as much a part of my countryside as Wittenham Clumps or The Bull’s Hole.
About Braziers Park School of Integrative Social Research
Braziers Park isn’t just a community; it is an on-going intellectual social experiment set up by Norman Glaister in 1950. The aim of this experiment is: “To make concious in ourselves the shape of the process of which we are a part, so that we may facilitate its development more efficiently and harmoniously.” And this is all done on a small-holding estate in the middle of the Chilterns, where the community members work the land, raise the animals, cook, clean and host courses.
So how have the members – and Braziers Park is 60 years old in 2010 so there have been many and a lot of work has been done – facilitated the development of the process of which they are a part?
The central concept at the heart of Braziers Park is called the Sensory / Resistive method. This basically contends that there are two types of mental activity, the Sensory and the Resistive. Sensory is fond of abstract ideas and cogitation and Resistive is given to executive decision making. Hence, to facilitate the cooperation of these two halves of our nature, Braziers Park has two kinds of meetings: Sensory meetings and Executive meetings.
The Sensory Process
No decision are made in Sensory meetings. This can be very hard for newcomers to understand. It is, essentially, a talking shop. That is not to disparage it either – I love talking shops! People can voice their concerns, their feelings, their ideas and their facts about the topic under discussion. It is a ‘safe place’ for all views because decisions are not made. You could make an outrageous suggestion without fear that it would be laughed out in favour of something more ‘practical’; you could criticise another idea without fear that your criticisms will be made personal – everyone has a cooling off period to cogitate before the Executive meeting and the dreaded decision making.
This is how it all works in theory.
There are a number of problems, however. Different people (as Glaister knew well) are different in their tolerance of Sensory or Resistive processes. Some people get frustrated with the Sensory process because it seems full of air, with no substance. Likewise, some people prefer not to get involved in the dirty business of the Executive meetings and are then surprised when the decisions taken there do not seem to tally with how the topic was discussed at Sensory.
Furthermore, this doubles (at least!) the number of meetings that the community has to gather: one to discuss the topic at Sensory and a second to make a decision at the Executive. Sometimes the topic then has to go back to Sensory for more thinking – and then back again to the Executive!
I am rather fond of the Sensory process, however I am aware that the problems are real and have been cropping up again and again over the last 60 years at Braziers Park. A solution has not been reached, but I wish them all the best in their endeavours and hope to be involved again soon.