Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A Shareable Explainer: What are the Commons?

  • What are the commons?
  • Is there an example of a commons business model?
  • In what areas are commons active?
  • Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?
  • How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?
  • What is the importance of digital commons?
  • What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crisis?
  • What are briefly the differences between commons and markets?
  • Further reading
What are the commons?

Commons should be understood as a dynamic, living social system - any resource that can be used by many could inspire people to organize as a commons. The key questions are whether a particular community is motivated to manage a resource as a commons, and if it can come up with the rules, norms, and sanctions to make the system work. 

Is there a clear example of a commons-based business?

The internet provider in Catalonia shows how commons can create a new paradigm of organizing and producing. This bottom-up, citizen-driven project has created a free, open, and neutral telecommunications network based on a commons model. This is how it works: People put Wi-Fi nodes on their rooftops, which is extended and strengthened each time a new user adds a node to the network.

Currently,'s broadband network has more than 30,000 active nodes and provides internet access to more than 50,000 people. The project started in 2004 when residents of a rural area weren't able to get broadband internet access due to a lack of private operators. The network grew quickly over the whole region, while the Foundation developed governance rules that define the terms and conditions for all users of the network.

Installation of a "supernode" of's network in the neighbourhood of Sant Pere i Sant Pau in Tarragona. Photo by Lluis tgn via Wikimedia Commons

The example shows that in creating any commons, it is critical that the community decides that it wants to engage in the social practices of managing a resource for everyone's benefit. In this sense "there is no commons without commoning." This underscores that commons is not only about shared resources - it is mostly about the social practices and values that we devise to manage them. 

In what areas are commons active?

Examples of commons can be found today in different areas:

1. Local food sovereignty
2. City commons
3. Alternative currencies
4. Web-hosting infrastructure for commons
5. Creative Commons license
6. Open-source software
7. Open-source design/cosmo-local production
8. Academic research/open education resources

It is interesting to consider the improbable types of common-pool resources that can be governed as commons. Surfers in Hawaii, catching the big waves at Pipeline Beach have organized themselves in a collective to manage how people use a scarce resource: the massive waves. In this sense, they can be considered a commons: they have developed a shared understanding about the allocation of scarce use of rights.

Wolfpak of Oahu manages access to the biggest waves in the world. Photo via

Is commons a new idea or are there examples from the past?

From a historical perspective, commons were an essential part of the economical and social system of rural societies before modernization took place. People in rural areas depended upon open access to the commons (forests, fields, meadows), using economic principles of reciprocity and redistribution.

When common grounds were enclosed and privatized, many migrated to cities, becoming employees in factories and individual consumers, and lost the common identity and ability of self-governance. The modern liberal state separated production (companies) from governance (politics), while in the commons system these were an inseparable entity. In industrial capitalist societies, the market with its price mechanism became the new central organizing principle of society. 

How do privatization and enclosure affect the commons?

Nowadays massive land grabs are going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Investors and national governments are snapping up land that people have used for generations. All over the world, all aspects of life are being monetized with the expansion of private property rights: water, seeds, biodiversity, the human genome, public infrastructures, public spaces in cities, culture, and knowledge. 

What is the importance of digital commons?

The internet has been an arena for experimentation and innovation, precisely because there is no legacy of conventional institutions to displace. Entire new modes of creative production have arisen on the internet that are neither market-based nor state-controlled. Open-source software, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons licenses have emerged as a new way of production that is non-proprietary and based on the collaboration of widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other.

Prior to the rise of the web, commons were usually regarded as little more than a curiosity of medieval history or a backwater of social science research. Now that so many people have tasted freedom, innovation, and accountability of open networks and digital commons, there is no going back to the command-and-control business model of the 20th century. The full disruptive potential of this profound global cultural revolution is still ahead. 

What role can commons play in the actual economic and institutional crises?

The commons offers a powerful way to re-conceptualize governments, economics, and global policies at a time when the existing order is incapable of reforming itself. The most urgent task is to expand the conversation about the commons and to ground it in actual practice.

The more that people have personal, lived experiences with commoning of any sort, the greater the public understanding will be. In a quiet and evident way, the commons can disclose more and more spaces in our everyday life in which we can create, shape, and negotiate our lives. 

What are the differences between commons and markets?

Commons: Rely on people's altruism and cooperation
Markets: Believe humans are selfish individuals whose wants are unlimited
Commons: Stewardship of resources
Markets: Ownership of resources
Commons: Individuals and collectives mutually reinforce each other
Markets: Separation of individual and collectives
Commons: Shared, long-term, non-market interests
Markets: individual consumers, short-term market relationships

Further Reading:
  • Benkler, Yochai, The Penguin and the Leviathan: The Triumph of Cooperation Over Self-Interest (Crown Business, 2010).
  • Bollier, David, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society Publishers, 2014).
  • Bollier, David & Silke Helfrich, editors, The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (Levellers Press, 2012).
  • Capra, Fritjof & Mattei, Ugo, The Ecology of Law: Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015).
  • Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio, Commonwealth (Harvard University Press, 2011).
  • Sennett, Richard, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press, 2012).
This piece was written by Bart Grugeon Plana, a journalist and contributor of the New Economy and Social Innovation Forum (NESI Forum). It is based on the book "Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons," by David Bollier.

Shareable is media partner of the NESI Forum, a nonprofit initiative that will bring together change-makers and thought leaders to conceptualize, discuss, and lay the foundations of a new economy, in Malaga, Spain, from April 19-22, 2017.

Header photo of Ballard Sunday Farmers' Market in Seattle, Washington, by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

What is Good Rhetoric? Plato Said We Ought to be Suspicious of Persuasive Speakers and the Appeal to Emotions, but Rhetoric Can be a Civic Good

Plato in his academy, painting by Swedish pain...
Plato in his Academy by Carl Johan Wahlbom (Wikipedia)
by Tushar Irani, Aeon:

Tushar holds a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the College of Letters at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He is the author of Plato on the Value of Philosophy: The Art of Argument in the Gorgias and Phaedrus (forthcoming, 2017).

Philosophers have had a longstanding problem with rhetoric. The standard view of the quarrel is well-known: philosophy is a truth-directed activity concerned with reasoned argument, while rhetoric is uninterested in truth and concerned merely with persuasion. This view is often traced to Plato, but it is too crude.

As Plato himself recognised, philosophers need to present their ideas in persuasive form if they are to gain acceptance, and there are uses of rhetoric that can further our commitment to truth rather than frustrate it. The power of an effective speaker to captivate an audience is apt to arouse our suspicion in democratic politics, yet we should also acknowledge that the practice of rhetoric can serve a civic purpose. The real question here is what distinguishes good rhetoric from bad rhetoric.

Plato was deeply interested in this question. Although a concern for truth pervades his thought, this is not the main or the most important problem he has with rhetoric in his dialogues. To understand Plato’s critique, we need to read it against the backdrop of a deep mistrust of persuasive speaking that he shared with his contemporaries following Athens’ loss of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta in the late fifth century BCE. Apart from the huge death toll and casualties suffered by the city, the loss had a monumental impact on the Athenian psyche. In the Laws, usually regarded as Plato’s last work, he has his Athenian Visitor state that ‘[E]very Greek takes it for granted that my city loves talk and does a great deal of it, whereas Sparta is a city of few words, and Crete practices cunning more than talk.’

No doubt there were many factors that contributed to Athens’ loss of the war, but if there is one thing we can point to above all, it is the fact that the Athenian people themselves were persuaded by charismatic statesmen and generals of the period to undertake a series of disastrous military campaigns. As many writers - historians, tragedians and comedians alike - would lament during and after the war, it was in large part the Athenians’ ‘love of talk’ that led to their defeat.

Athens’ downfall provides us with a cautionary tale in our own era. While it would be wrong to reject a persuasive speech simply because the speaker fails to belong to our preferred political party, it would be equally wrong to think that we should accept every speech that strikes us as persuasive.

Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies of the 1920s and ’30s were highly effective propaganda tools in consolidating power for the Nazi Party and influencing the views of the German people, but the wider effects of his ability to fabricate a redeemed Germany were devastating for the country. The principle here is simple: good rhetoric is not reducible to persuasive rhetoric. Persuasion might often be the goal of the rhetorician, but if rhetoric is to serve some civic good, it must serve the people on whom it operates. Plato was the first to observe that persuasion cannot in fact be the proper end of rhetoric, since it is an open question how it serves the interests of an audience to have their views influenced by a persuasive speech.

In his Gorgias and the Phaedrus, Plato therefore takes a different approach to the value of rhetoric. Together, these two works put forward a comprehensive theory of when and how a persuasive speech qualifies as good rhetoric. The Gorgias is best interpreted as a critique of the conventional practice of rhetoric. In this dialogue, Socrates argues that the chief purpose of conventional rhetoric is not (properly speaking) persuasion, but flattery. His point is that the practice of persuasive speaking typically achieves its effects by satisfying the pleasures and desires of an audience.

Notice that by moving here to the psychology of an audience, the rhetorician can now say something about how rhetoric serves the people on whom it operates. According to this view, the value of rhetoric lies in its ability to gratify and enlarge human appetites and impulses. Plato himself does not believe rhetoric functions best as a form of flattery, though he is correct that this is how the practice conventionally works. In addition to making direct appeals to people’s desires, a speaker can most effectively win acceptance for a particular policy or point of view by bolstering the entrenched beliefs of an audience and voicing their unspoken fears. Even if it is feigned, the reinforcement of these beliefs and fears can be thrilling for an audience.

Now, Plato knew well of the frenzy that such flattering rhetoric can provoke in others. Thrasymachus, for instance, while famous as Socrates’ main antagonist in the Republic, was historically one of the leading rhetoricians of his day. His ability to use speech to influence an audience was so remarkable that Socrates refers to him in the Phaedrus as ‘clever at inflaming the many and, once they are inflamed, at hushing them again with his words’ magic spell’.

So what is the problem with such flattery? Suppose a politician delivers an effective speech by gratifying the desires of his or her constituency. No-one can deny the sense of empowerment we experience when our feelings are confirmed and validated in this way. Why should such a speech not qualify as good rhetoric? Plato’s answer focuses on the object the rhetorician seeks to affect: human psychology. His problem with conventional rhetoric is that, by adopting flattery as its end, it assumes an utterly impoverished conception of human motivation - namely, that all we are essentially are pleasure-seekers.

Plato’s own account of human psychology is often misunderstood. On a common misreading, reason and passion are taken to be in conflict. In fact, as he stresses in the Phaedrus, the best life for a human being is one in which reason and the passions work together as a team. In this dialogue, Socrates turns his attention to how the practice of rhetoric might function productively as an art, but he also develops one of his most detailed portraits of the human soul in the Platonic corpus.

The pairing of themes is deliberate. For if the conventional use of rhetoric is no art because it assumes a poor view of human psychology, as Socrates claims in the Gorgias, then an artful use of rhetoric must operate on the basis of a good view of human psychology. In examining the nature of rhetoric, what we are really concerned with, according to Plato, is the nature of the human soul.

So what is the nature of the human soul? In the Phaedrus, Socrates defines the soul in general as a principle of self-motion in living things. He then proceeds, in his celebrated chariot allegory, to divide the human soul into different parts: a charioteer, representing the human intellect, trying to steer two horses, one of noble breed, the other wild (representing the rational and irrational passions). Plato does not deny our nature as pleasure-seekers in this allegory. But if we are to move ourselves as human beings, he believes it is crucial that we develop our nature as reason-seekers. Why exactly?

His main answer in the Phaedrus is that the reason-seeking part of us represents the power each of us has as a human being to engage in independent thought: to understand and appreciate for ourselves a set of ideals and aspirations we wish to live by. Indeed, he depicts our desire to develop this understanding as a force so compelling that it is best classified under the category of erotic love. 

Plato’s views on persuasive speech offer us a helpful set of tools in assessing the value of rhetoric in modern civic life. His critique explains, first of all, our tendency in democratic politics to respond suspiciously to the skills of a persuasive speaker. The problem here lies not in the use of persuasive speech as such, but in the aim of many effective rhetoricians to subvert or short-circuit an audience’s power of independent thought.

In Mein Kampf (1925), Hitler is startlingly open about this aim in expounding his views about the correct use of propaganda: ‘The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses.’ This is fundamentally a form of what Plato terms flattering rhetoric.

In addition to explaining the nature of bad rhetoric, however, Plato’s critique also helps illuminate for us the nature of good rhetoric. If to have a soul is to be a self-moving thing, and what is essential to the self-motion of the human soul is our ability to think for ourselves, then an artful use of rhetoric should cultivate that ability in particular. When we encounter persuasive speakers of this sort in the political sphere, we should not respond cynically. Instead, we should welcome such encounters, because they are opportunities to have our desire to understand enlisted, at the same time as - and even through - our passions.

Is rhetoric of this sort possible in civic life today? We are inclined to believe that the end of all rhetoric is persuasion or conviction alone, and that such a goal is ill-suited to the promotion of independent thought in an audience. Yet this is a mistake. An artful rhetorician might need to strike a balance between these two goals, but they are not incompatible. The danger to be avoided always is the kind of rhetoric that carries the authority of conviction at the expense of an audience’s independent thought. There have been speeches in the modern era that have moved their listeners profoundly while retaining this basic respect for the sovereignty of the human soul.

Consider Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863), regarded even today as a model of American oratory. In three compact paragraphs, the speech gives expression to a past, a present and a future United States. Lincoln delivered the speech on a formal occasion, at the dedication of a cemetery for those who fought and died at a key turning point in the American Civil War, but from the opening sentence he makes clear how he will use the moment to reflect on the theme of dedication more generally:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The rest of the speech deftly juxtaposes the dedication of the physical space in which the audience stands with the dedication of all Americans to this abstract proposition, expressed in the Declaration of Independence (1776): the ideal of liberty for all.

‘It is altogether fitting and proper,’ Lincoln affirms, to commemorate the dead, but in the pivot that gives the speech its rhetorical force, he states that ‘in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground.’ Those who fought on the battlefield had already accomplished that. For those looking to the future, for the living, Lincoln asks instead that they rededicate themselves to the cause of human equality and freedom:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The great power of the Gettysburg Address, full as it is with feeling and urgency, comes from its invitation to the listener to consider the basis on which the US was founded. The persuasiveness of the speech consists not just in its ability to stir the passions of an audience and instil conviction, but also in its ability to get ordinary Americans to think more conscientiously than they had previously about the coherence of their own ideals and the application of those ideals in practice. The audience is moved, but also (in Plato’s sense) self-moved, to the extent that they are led to think for themselves.

If this is right, we can see why the assumption that rhetoric serves as a pale substitute for reason and argument is too simplistic. Good rhetoric also does the work of reason, though in a different form than philosophical argument.

Plato came to be pessimistic about the rhetoric of his contemporaries in democratic Athens, which might be why he set up his Academy as a place where the practice of independent thinking could flourish. Yet there have been moments in history since then that should leave us more hopeful about the prospects for good rhetoric - or at least less doubtful.

The important question for us today is: ‘Can we conceive of a piece of political rhetoric that is both highly persuasive and at the same time spurs independent thought?’ That is not a rhetorical question. If we can’t, we might be in trouble.