The Commons – a new European concept? Inaugural meeting of the European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup.
May 31, 2015 § 2 Comments
As we gathered for it, this European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup meeting, promised to be intriguing… was the Parliament about to embrace the commons as a template for a more participatory politics?
It was indeed a political meeting, with the banners of the four parties who had come together in support of it prominent behind the podium, a coalition that, as Sophie Bloemen details in her excellent account of the intergroup’s formation, had required the mutation (dilution?) in its title, of ‘commons’ into ‘common goods’.
Such concerns were quickly overshadowed by the mix of culture shock, optimism, contradiction and sheer linguistic struggle that Europe-wide mutuality turned out to entail. But then this is 28 nation politics and I was new to it.
Shock and awe at the huge scale of the Brussels European Parliament building and the hushed modernity of its vast interior – the Charlie Hebdo effect piled onto the Bin Laden effect meant the whole place seemed imprisoned in that other aspect of modernity, security. There were also the twin Britshocks of realising during the meeting that what I was hearing were the voices of southern Europe, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, and that of the 50-60 participants, I was apparently the only Brit. Coupled with this was the reminder that however good the four-language interpretation was, it put a huge burden on attention, and being able to grasp what was being said – Italian man speaking in the room – English woman interpreter in the ears.
The meeting started half an hour late, which despite effective facilitation put all the speakers under pressure. And speakers there were in plenty, arrayed in one-to-many conference style. There were repeated calls for ‘the need for debate’ but debate was overwhelmingly subordinate to a series of charismatic and often vociferous presentations mostly from the podium, peppered with multiple exhortations that the commons and common goods ‘were a good idea’, ‘we must…’ ‘we need…’ ‘we have to…’ etc., etc. Lot’s of talk about commons not much apparently from commons. When I spoke to ask the other delegates ‘who we were’ and how many had direct experience of commoning, around a third of the audience put up their hands, an indicator perhaps that less preaching to the converted would have been appropriate.
This was an inaugural meeting, so uncertainty and clumsiness can be excused, however on balance the presentations had a lot to say about common goods resources, i.e. a city’s water supply and much less about commoning, often a fragile flower growing out of peer-to-peer governance, commitment and emotional competence. The meeting certainly seemed in no doubt that a wider extension of the common goods theme might be one way to shape a new and very necessary politics. As Marisa Matias the impressive Portuguese MEP who had convened the meeting said at the end of her introduction, ‘the Left is lost’.
Was this a meeting then, as it perhaps seemed, where the old left was trying to befriend a new and promising flavour of the political month? There was no coffee break and apart from casual chat before the meeting, no interaction between the assembled delegates –the old paradigm of a representative polity?
And yet… in her introductory remarks Marisa Matias outlined two agenda items, ‘how to think outside the logic of the state’ and ‘how to handle the management of the commons’, both radical contradictions of neoliberal preferences. Perhaps this Common Goods Intergroup event was a way of introducing to an old politics, news of political innovation that was proving unexpectedly and improbably successful.
Only days before, Barcelona and possibly Madrid had elected officials with a ‘commons’ agenda; and… Anne le Strat outlined the successful Eau de Paris return of the Paris water supply to municipal ownership (paralleled by at least one other commune I know of in the Ardeche); There were several references to commons rights progress in Spain, and in Italy a supreme court decision had opened constitutional protocols to commons forms of organisation, along with the adoption of ‘beni comuni’ as a legal concept. Alongside this, as Benjamin Coriat outlined, in Barcelona the recovery of the commons appeared to be afoot.
A delegate from Transform made a reminder that there was a continuing need for recovery of the many public goods had been given to exponents of capital, she also argued for the establishment of a federation of commons. Paoli Napoli from CENJ, a French judicial research centre argued convincingly in favour of questioning the validity of state monopolies as a way of discovering commons. Ricardo la Fuente a Portuguese Free Culture activist drew attention to the scale of the capture of the internet commons by Facebook and Google, US dominated vertical monopolies that threaten the integrity and freedoms of the internet. He argued that safe-guarding access to the public sphere of the internet was a vital aspect of the commons agenda.
Michel Bauwens, a long-time peer to peer exponent, spoke about the digital commons, a driver of the unprecedented social change that underlies the commons movement. Bauwens outlined three digital commons institutions, one: the huge numbers of people who are contributors to the building of open public goods such as Linux, Arduino and Wikipedia etc (not to mention the countless millions of blogs like this!); secondly: the digital enterprises that feature peer-to-peer governance and transparency, he gave as examples: Loomio, Inspiral etc.; and third: for-benefit foundations such as the P2P Foundation and many others.
Bauwens warned that digital innovation presently tends to be compromised, since to pick up the resources to expand and develop an innovation, means becoming a ‘start-up’ with the likelihood of capture by venture capital. Devising alternative ways of financing commons innovation, he seemed to be saying, will be a vital part of an emerging commons economy. Bauwens left early to talk to the mayor of Ghent about another current proposal – Assemblies of the Commons – he also mentioned generating Chambers of the Commons, mirroring, at least in the UK, the ubiquitous ‘chambers of commerce’ and lastly the need, as he put it, to develop an ‘operating system’ for the commons. All welcome news.
In conclusion: Encouraging evidence from across southern Europe that there were a variety of instances of participatory politics inspired by, or already implementing commons/common goods. Great resources: the whole meeting was streamed live and by the following morning a video of it had been posted by the EFDD group with English interpretation.
And… the meeting had a classroom format – people sitting in rows facing expert speakers. As a groupwork facilitator I long ago learned that such a format inhibits or prevents the kind of face to face (and peer to peer) cooperation and communal knowing that commoning requires. This is not a minor matter, conversations are shaped by context. If this is the only Parliamentary format for commons/common goods discussion/negotiation/interpretation, I’d be concerned that this infrastructure could inadvertently exclude the intended benefits.
And yet… perhaps too much should not be expected from a body such as the Parliament which is devoted to scrutiny and correctivity, not usually a recipe for innovation. The European Parliament is an extant political forum, it mends and bends the proposals of European institutions. Diemut Theato, an MEP I happen to have met, some years ago demonstrated this when, due to her leadership and financial perspicacity, the entire European Commission had to resign. The Parliament’s potential ability to bounce back European legislation that ignores, compromises or damages the common good is very welcome. With regard to the common good, every little helps!
Video of the meeting: https://youtu.be/2WYHEWTHDek
Common Goods Intergroup members: the Greens, the left group GUE, the Social Democrat party (S&D) and the EFDD (joint president Nigel Farage) and which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party.
The Common Goods Intergroup and this meeting was facilitated by Elisabetta Cangelosi and Pablo Sanchez Centellas
June 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
This is a second post of reflections following my participation in the Economics and the Common(s) Conference – From Seed Form to Core paradigm in Berlin May 22-24, 2013. Find the first post Beyond Market and State – the Commons and Commoning here.
Courtesy of the generosity of the Heinrich Böll Foundation an enormous amount of material from the May 2013 Berlin conference is online here, alongside this I thought I’d post a few headlines of strategies, tactics or perspectives that I found valuable. And in recognition of an emphasis in the conference on the economics of commons and commoning I’ll follow this with a longer account of the talk about money by Jem Bendell that for me was the highlight of the event.
First a few headlines:
Commons culture emphasises a move from transaction to relationships
In a psyCommons context this means letting go of a deferential bow to the transactions of professional psychological expertise framed as assessment, diagnosis and treatment, and moving to giving or receiving help or care based on relationship that includes rapport.
We need to make a move from developing ‘exchange value’ to ‘use value’
As I’m coming to understand this it means letting go of money as a yardstick of value and moving toward utility – towards liking, or love as an indicator of validity in a service, object or relationship.
Patenting is only the tip of a vast iceberg of trade secrets
Patenting and copyright have seemed reasonable as due protection and reward for creative effort until, as the conference reminded me, they become increasingly enclosures encroaching more and more into daily life – the public face of its commoditization. Also from a psyCommons perspective, much of the contents of patent and copyright enclosures have been paid for from public funds.
Establish commoning principles but have the humility to know they are only provisional
This is my intention with the psyCommons proposal i.e. that it is a proposal subject to revision and update (and contribution!).
Don’t be over-interested in definitions of the commons – a tomato doesn’t need to know whether it is a fruit or a vegetable
I agree but I have learned to distinguish between what amounts to a common pool resource and what I see as a functional commons – groups of people in relationship held and sustained by negotiations about principles and procedures. Here is a listing from the commons I belong to.
Caring for the Health Commons: What it is and Who’s Responsible for it
Michael D. McGinnis February 20, 2013
I came across this at the commons conference, McGinnis gives a helpful overview of priorities.
Resist claims which suggest that anything that doesn’t belong to the state is bad, dangerous or invalid
I can’t now recall who said this but I have long supported the need to honour wilderness both in the sense of unfettered imagination and in resisting the desire for enclosure of people in flight from their own and other’s creative chaos.
Reclaim subjectivity from the distortions of capital
If the first task of the psyCommons notion is recognition of a thriving common pool resource of ordinary wisdom and shared power, the second task is to make whatever contributions we can to dissolving what Negri and Hardt call the empire within, the extent to which we have become entranced by the imperatives of capital.
Commoneering, Money Markets and Value
A talk by Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria gave what was for me an electrifying outline of the huge formative influence money has on lives and well being. The video of his talk is available here. The following account is an appreciative review of what he had to say.
Jem defined a commons very technically (he’s a professor!) ‘a commons is a system of relations between people and phenomena that has an emergent property of sustained sufficient access for all’, and then moved on to talk about money.
The current mainstream money system he told us represents an almost total enclosure of our ability to trust each other. Governments, central banks and private banks work together to generate the dominant means of exchange, the dominant way we relate to each other. This banking system drives further enclosure and it works against a commons culture because of the way that credit is created.
Where does money come from? 97% of money, he pointed out is issued by private banks. When we take out a loan, the bank, through extending credit to us, is creating new money.
While there are a lot of different currencies world-wide, the bank-issued debt system behind them is the same. What does this mean, he asked? The shocking answer was that we are all in debt for ever because all this money is issued with interest. This means that there is more debt than there is money to pay off what has been borrowed. The system can only continue if there are ever increasing amounts of money loaned each year. As I type this I find myself asking, isn’t this a Ponzi, i.e. ‘pyramid’ scheme on a global scale?
Jem went on to say that the scale of the indebtedness feeds massive inequality and it also means the economy has to grow because loans will only be issued to service economic activity.
This creates an intense growth imperative that drives the commodification of more and more of daily life and planetary resources, there is a pressing need to turn everything into a commodity that will yield a profit so as to service the interest on the debt.
Jem Bendell argued that this monetary system is anti-commons, it prevents the growth of a commons economy. It shapes the way we experience life, we think that wealth is scarce, that we must all compete for a share of it when actually, as he emphasised very strongly, the wealth is us.
How to take this economic perspective into commons life, or daily, or indeed any aspect of life was less clear but I did come to understand why there is so much attention given to alternative currencies that are attempting get outside what he called the ‘bankertarian’ or ‘bankocracy’ of money based on indebtedness.
Shocking too to realise that money whether global and personal is a very elaborate form of fiction, as I mentioned earlier a story, apparently in the Ponzi tradition, in which constant growth is a precondition for the scheme to continue.
But as Jem Bendel pointed out in his conclusion, it can’t continue, we are already over the critical threshold of 440ppm of carbon dioxide and half the Arctic ice has been melting each summer for a while now. Here is the slide he showed us.
We need a new story. Urgently. And if it was the intention of the Commons conference to bring this home, it worked for me.
While my understanding of capital has been poor but improving lately, I have long seen a belief in the inevitability of capitalism as a form of trance induction. Historically, people, courageous people risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to extricate themselves from the cradle-to-grave grip of medieval Roman Catholic trance induction, I suspect that with capitalism we are faced with an equivalent task.
Trance inductions reinforce beliefs through disallowing discrimination, while I don’t suppose it is news to see capital as a particularly archaic but virulent heritage religion, we need to step off critique and make up a new story that breaks capital’s self-serving trance, one that serves mutuality and reciprocity rather than bankers and their cronies. Can the commons provide that story? I suspect the commons is the story.
Do we have the time? That remains to be seen.
I’ll update this post with links to the Commons conference key-note videos and other documentation when they become available.
December 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
After 27 years as a psy practitioner and something like ten years as an activist in the task of confronting the micro-fascism of therapy professionalization in the UK, my attention shifted. Too much ‘against’, too much ‘they’re terrible’, not enough ‘what do we want’, not enough ‘big picture’.
And then I fell upon a big picture, or rather it fell upon me, the institutions that we had been opposing were offensive because they were fencing in, making enclosures, of a field of mutual caring, rapport and cooperation that belonged to all of us, a commons, the shared power and ordinary wisdom of the psyCommons.
I realized recently that I had written several separate introductions to the psyCommons, (see pages left) it was time to broaden the enquiry and to reach an audience outside the therapy world.
Welcome to the psyCommons blog.
The psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.