Creating Common grounds


        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

This is a planet under severe construction, surely with no end of history. State socialism has failed two decades ago. Now neo-liberalism and the belief in unregulated markets have failed in a similar devastating way. The crisis of capitalism on a global scale opens up spaces to experiment with new models, practices, institutions, and social relations. New ideas how life on this planet could be improved are badly in need. This is a rare chance to start dreaming again.

Global capitalism has created social inequality on a scale that is completely and utterly insane. There is so much wealth and so much poverty, there is excess and there is hunger. Consider the following figures. According to a research paper by UNU-DER in 2008 the richest two per cent of adult individuals own more than half of all global wealth, with the richest one per cent alone accounting for 40 per cent of global assets. In contrast, the bottom half of wealth holders together hold barely one per cent of all global wealth. 

It is this extreme accumulation of global wealth in the hands of very few people which has produced the current crisis and which will eventually lead to the collapse of the global economy if we fail to redistribute global wealth.

Capitalism is in crisis and change is executed from above and from below. It is encouraging that quite a few changes executed from above have a lot in common with the changes constructed from below. What an amazing opening up of possibilities! For the first time in my life the U.S. has a president who has emerged from social movements and bottom-up political activism. While Obama does not come across as anti-capitalist, his agenda for change seems to be driven by values such as fairness, equality, solidarity, and social justice. His election is closely linked to another encouraging process, which started much earlier but has really developed momentum in the last ten years. For the first time in my life the political Left can do more than merely oppose or resist neo-liberal politics. It can now create alternatives, not just alternative ideas, but alternative realities (note the plural).

This building of alternative realities is most obvious in the realm of digital technologies. This is about social production and non-market production. It started with the most basic digital product, with raw information and the programming of code. The product was free and open source software. With the development of social media non-market production spread from software to everything that could be produced and distributed digitally, to text, sound, images, and moving images, to links and tags, to entertainment, knowledge production, news production, and education.

The reason for this rise in non-market production lies very much in the political economy of digital media. The production and distribution of cultural objects have become democratised as the means of production are now available to a large percentage of the population in post-industrial societies. This refers to hardware and software. Now software is free anyway and hardware is relatively cheap. (Even though hardware is relatively cheap, it is not affordable for the majority of the people on this planet. I will briefly return to this problem at the end of the paper). One doesn’t need to own a newspaper or a broadcasting channel any more in order to produce cultural objects and distribute them all over the world. As digital objects can be reproduced endlessly without any (or hardly any) additional costs it is easy to share them with others. This is the difference between material scarcity and digital abundance, between sharing a car, a house, a pair of trousers on the one hand, and a digital file on the other hand. In contrast to material objects the sharing (better: multiplication) of digital objects doesn’t have any negative implications for the person who decides to share (multiply).

But social production and the multiplication of the things being produced has severe implications for everything that is holy to the spirit of capitalism. It challenges the notion of (intellectual) property and ownership, it rejuvenates the notion of voluntary and free labour, it privileges collaboration over competition, and it creates new forms of organisation, new commons and new communities. These are communities of volunteers who are extremely productive but pose a threat to the notion of capitalist productivity. Non-market production of digital objects has created havoc in traditional media organisations and in the creative industries, with newspapers and the music industry being hit particularly hard. At the moment it seems that non-market production of digital objects is an extremely effective challenger of immaterial objects being produced for a market.

The cost of non-market production of digital objects resides to an overwhelming extent in labour. In the digital realm labour seems to be stronger than capital. In general, the labour invested for non-marked production has resisted becoming useful for capital. Thus, the more non-market production in the digital realm, the more the internet will evolve into one huge commons which operates distinctly different than capitalist markets. As mentioned, the implications of these developments are severe for the creative industries, to those industries that produce immaterial things, but they do not (yet) pose a threat to capitalist economies at large.

How can we reclaim non-markets, peer to peer production, and the commons in the material realm? This is the first of three core questions that need to be addressed; the first challenge to be tackled. It is obvious why this is causing problems. Cars, houses, and T-shirts can not be multiplied and distributed with marginal costs (at least for now…). Their reproduction and distribution requires material costs, labour costs, costs for the means of production, storage costs, and transport costs. This is what makes them rival goods. Rival goods are not scarce per se, but their reproduction is not comparable with the near zero costs for the reproduction of digital things. In the realm of material things abundance doesn’t happen naturally. Sharing music files is unlikely to create conflicts, particularly if the person who shares is just a consumer of this music and not its producer. Sharing houses, cars and land is different, as now self-interest and competition over the use of finite assets comes into play. A T-shirt cannot be used by two people simultaneously. In the realm of the material, the commons is fragile and can easily fail.

However there is also an argument why a large scale expansion from a digital commons to a material commons can succeed. This argument challenges the strict distinction between the realm of the digital and the realm of the material. This is an analytical distinction which in reality is not so clear cut any more. Post-industrial economies are increasingly built around information production and immaterial labour. Digital technologies are pervasive. They are penetrating material things, cars, houses, tools etc. In fact they are permeating our lives. Many aspects of the production of material things such as information, knowledge, design and planning are now digital and thus free, available as open-source and open access. According to this argument digital technologies will become so central for all production (material and immaterial goods) that the building of commons in the material realm will become easier.

Indeed, there are a growing number of initiatives across the world that aim to establish alternative economic models, based on solidarity, collaboration, sharing, openness, and voluntary contribution. These values which have come to define what the open-source movement stands for inspire now more and more people to apply them to ‘real life’. The culture of sharing is beginning to spread. We are what we share. Some of these initiatives rediscover the value of co-operatives, with workers being owners of their co-ops rather than selling their labour power to companies’ shareholders; some focus on openness and the sharing of expert knowledge, such as open-design, open-architecture, and open-manufacturing; some create new cities with the aim to establish self-sustaining lives and self-sustaining communities; some experiment locally and globally with new currency systems, with interest-free monetary systems, and with various ideas towards gift economies. All these initiatives and their many hybrid forms should be understood as new social movements that take risks and build as they go along. These autonomous groups are DIY cultures mostly, ecologies as much as economies, theoretically well informed but most of all interested in practice, in the creation of alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism.

This is the downside: All these initiatives are driven by enthusiasts. Enthusiasm is important but never lasts long. What can we do to establish commons-based production as a real alternative to both, state socialism and capitalism? How can we create a multitude of commons on a large scale, on a scale that truly transforms life on this planet? What sort of support would make commons-based production attractive not just for a bunch of leftwing enthusiasts but for the majority of the people on earth? This is the second challenge to be tackled.

Obviously there is no straight forward answer. This is a debate which needs to evolve. We need a global conversation to develop solutions (again, note the plural; we need to work with difference, we need solutions that are case specific). The following remarks are an attempt to contribute to this conversation.

In my view these initiatives need financial support, support for the making of creative innovations and support for those ones who engage with them. This is where policy suggestions come into play, this is about state funding or funding on other levels of governance (local, regional, global). Interesting policies are currently developed in Latin American countries, especially in Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Usually these policies are based not on representative forms of democracy, but on more participatory forms of democracy. Participatory budgeting gives citizens a say how money should be spend and what it should be spend on. Some of the results produced with participatory budgeting are truly amazing. Belo Horizonte for example – Brazil’s fourth largest city – developed a scheme to end hunger and provide food for all 2.5 million citizens.

There are a number of scenarios how state money can be spent to assist and subsidize commons. One possibility is to target funding for commons based initiatives only. Another possibility is to broaden the scope and provide financial support for all citizens. This could either take the form of a general basic income (on a national or even better on a global level), or it could involve the rebuilding of a welfare state. A welfare state fit for the digital age should support basic food, water, basic shelter, health services, basic amount of electricity, access to the internet via computers or mobiles, and local public transport.

All these scenarios are problematic in a number of ways (which I won’t be able to discuss in detail). The most important argument raised against any of these suggestions is the simple comment that most nation states have massive debts, are close to bankruptcy, and are in no way able to provide funding on such a scale. This objection is rather correct, which brings me back to the beginning of this essay and to the third core challenge to be tackled. What can we do to redistribute global wealth? How can we take the colossal wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the commons of this world? What would Robin Hood do in the digital age?

As this is such a monumental task, the question has not been very prominent in public debates over the last few decades. Even now with capitalism in deep crisis calls for the redistribution of wealth are not getting much louder. The difficulty does not so much lie in a lack of adequate policy suggestions (such as progressive tax schemes that don’t reward excessive profits, that in fact penalise the hoarding of capital), but in other things. Firstly they lie in a lack of will of the global political elite to tackle the problem, and secondly in a lack of unity among all political leaders to act as one. In order to stop capital flight all states would have to work together. Sure, there is progress, more and more tax heaven states feel the pressure since Obama came to power. But we seem to be far away from a unification of all states against inequality.

This doesn’t sound extremely encouraging, but due to digital technologies the people are in a far better position to exert influence and shape public debates. We can put the redistribution of global wealth on top of the agenda. We can connect and communicate globally and our networks don’t need political parties and representational politics. Also we don’t need to rely on old media any more to be heard. We have our own media. Now we are the media. Look’s like a pretty good starting point.

 

Many thanks to Nelson Pretto and Ulrich Janssen for oomments on a draft of this essay 


 

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