The Commons – a new European concept? Inaugural meeting of the European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup.

May 31, 2015 § 2 Comments


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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.

Lets start with the downside and get that out of the way.ParlPanoDSC07824CC4kpxEuropean Parliament Building Brussels

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!

NOTES
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

Beyond Market and State – the Commons and Commoning

June 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

This is the first of two posts 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  See also the second post Making Money.

In this post I’ll offer some reflections on the conference experience and in the second I’ll say something about what I’ll take away from it into commoning.

I had three agendas for the four days of the Berlin Commons conference; the first was to gain perspective on the psyCommons perspective, the proposal that there is an existing and thriving commons of human rapport, ordinary wisdom and shared power. Done. It was easy to see how the psyCommons notion sits within an emerging worldwide cultural/political movement focused on commons and commoning, plus rolling back or interrupting enclosures of commons of any kind. What is being sought is a way of structuring human social relations that reaches ‘beyond market and state’.

My concerns about whether the psyCommons proposal had legs were dissolved by the experience of discovering at the conference a vast collection of global and local networks of commons action and intention, many of them wildly divergent but in ways that spoke of the emergence of powerful cooperative ethos. Agenda item two: make connection with key exponents of the emerging commons, over two hundred people from 30 countries attended the conference. Done.

The positive zizz of the conference was overwhelming, how to keep discrimination awake was sometimes a struggle.

Each morning at breakfast in the hotel the muzak played Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow. Might the commons movement and with it the psyCommons proposal be only a tiny blip on the event horizon of capital accumulation? Might commoning be co-opted as a band aid for its woundings? An ever present danger perhaps but aren’t we also inhabitants of an inflection point in history equivalent in its scope to transform our economic life as Gutenberg’s press? And if so doesn’t the re-emergence of the commons as a way of structuring social relations provide an antidote to the supposed inevitability of capital?

The Commons conference could hardly have been more richly placed to support the notion of the dissolution of apparent cultural inevitability. The Heinrich Böll Foundation hosted it and fifty metres away across the street from Foundation’s somewhat cubic building…

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….was another cube, a 1942 WW2 air raid shelter, icon of an earlier, apparently immutable, institution that nevertheless perished…

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…albeit following the application of considerable force.

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And a certain optimism could be held to permeate the very ground beneath us in the conference venue. The Heinrich Böll Foundation occupies a site in the Mitte district of central Berlin that until 1989 was behind the Berlin Wall.

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In that year the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, a client state of the USSR that had for decades maintained a barbed wire and guard post grip on millions of German people, succumbed to determined peaceful resistance (though not without enormous pain and recrimination). Optimism about the commons as a ‘world beyond market and state’ could still be misplaced but the Berlin wall fell, an unimaginable event for those of us old enough to have seen the horror of it in operation. So too in some countries have civil rights been transformed (not to forget slavery) and there have been local successes too, the toxicity of smoking seemed immutable but sustained effort has created smoke-free offices and other buildings.

And then there is the matter of scale, how can the re-emergence of commons and commoning match the scale of the interplay of market with the transport commons that we met on arrival at the Berlin central station?

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Here again might not threads of optimism about commoning be found? What makes such an elaborate infrastructure and huge complexity of processes feasible both in design and management? Isn’t it software and internet interoperability? And isn’t this, as was very apparent at the Commons conference, now available to anyone and everyone? So far as the psyCommons proposal suggests that human rapport is ubiquitous, don’t we now through the internet and associated software, have the means of production for communities of global and local commons?

A third agenda I took with me to Berlin was the expectation of being able to contribute, to find people for whom the psyCommons proposal would seem like a gift. The richness of the presentations, perspectives and diversity of takes on what the commons might be, should be, or already was, ran wall to wall, and some of it was vividly memorable, however contribution turned out to be more problematic and I remain unclear why this was (but read on).

In the infrastructures stream I gave a brief account of the Independent Practitioners Network (IPN), a long-standing commons infrastructure, but there were no followup questions, no further interest. I raised the notion of psyCommons in the culture stream but again it was received politely but without questions or followup. Did I run into, as I suspect, some (appropriate) aversion to psychology as a pariah domain of distress and stigma? (there’s an understanding among therapists that at a party never say you are a psychotherapist – people will disappear).

Awkward this and it could be mindfluff. However for all its value (see post 2!) I did tend to experience some aspects the conference as leaning towards the technocratic –  technocratic in the sense that there is a technical solution to any and every problem and away from the subjectivities of heart and body (though the food was great!).

I had expected to meet far more lived experience of commons and commoning, instead intellectual/academic conversations ‘about’ commons often seemed to prevail – there was a strong ‘digital commons’ story – that sometimes morphed into a ‘knowledge commons’ narrative which seemed to presume that everything of consequence can be digitised – there was even an assertion that ‘all commons are knowledge commons’.

And it needs to be acknowledged that this was framed by a repeated emphasis on the need to move from transaction to relationship. I take this as a reminder that human relationship is based on a commonality of presence, of gaze, of body language, where feeling and emotion, sustained through rapport precede and shape discrimination and action. But oops… might we be back to the pariah domain of psychology?

If any of this seems mean-spirited, this is not my intention, that my lived experience of being in a long-standing commons with at least two significant fruits, didn’t find significant engagement, was disappointing but the feeling of disappointment rests happily on the richness of an otherwise phenomenal event – for some further details of which, see post two, Making Money

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