Friday, 28 November 2014

8 Awesome Ways Cooperatives Strengthen Communities

by Nina Misuraca Ignaczak, Shareable: http://www.shareable.net/blog/8-awesome-ways-cooperatives-strengthen-communities

Cooperatives embody the values of sharing: distributed risk, common purpose, shared rewards, and solidarity. 

They are an avenue to stable employment in a tumultuous job market.

Ranging from factories to bakeries to cleaning services to buyers clubs, cooperatives offer a new way to structure enterprises that place value in the hands of all of those involved in creating it.

And they benefit society as a whole too, as evidenced by a February, 2014 report "Benefits and Impacts of Cooperatives" by Jessica Gordon Nembhard at CUNY. According to Nembhard, cooperatives:

1. Address market failure

Cooperatives do things markets won't do but people still need, like rural electricity, access to affordable housing, health care, child care, and healthy, affordable food.



2. Overcome historic barriers to development

By aggregating resources, cooperatives make it possible for enterprises to start that otherwise would not have been able to start via bank loans or other common financing methods.



3. Contribute an estimated 2.1 million jobs and $154 billion to the nation's economy 

Yes, you read that correctly. That's equivalent to 3 Rhode Islands.



4. Fail less often than traditional corporations

Cooperatives don't get too big to fail, and they do so far less frequently than other kinds of businesses; 90 percent are operating after 5 years versus  4-5 percent of traditional corporations.



5. Promote economic stability

Cooperatives are community-based; they tend not to leave for greener pastures (or seek exorbitant tax abatements in exchange for creating jobs).



6. Foster tax-paying, civically-minded community members

Coops and their members are good citizens; they pay their taxes, support local charities, and pay fair wages.



7. Foster higher-than-average wages

Members in WAGES in Oakland, CA, a housecleaning coop, make over the national average and nearly twice their non-coop counterparts annually.



8. Strengthen local economies

Coops take local to heart; they buy local, sell local and employ local. For every $1,000 spent at a food coop, $1,606 goes into the local economy.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Beyond the Sharing Economy in Gijon

Universidad Laboral de Gijón, Asturias. España...
Universidad Laboral de Gijón, Asturias (Wikipedia)
Last May, I was invited to speak at OuiShare Fest in Paris.

The night after a talk I gave on sharing cities, I bumped into my friend Mike Zuckerman of Freespace at BlaBlaCar’s reception.

He mentioned in passing that he was going into the catacombs later that night.  I responded, “don’t leave without me.”

After the reception, Mike and I headed to dinner with Chelsea Rustrum, Jason Fresco, and a couple others who would later opt-out of the catacombs adventure. We enjoyed a leisurely late dinner, Jason bought two bottles of wine to go, we said goodbye to the sensible folk, then took a cab to southwest Paris to find an entrance to the catacombs.

After being dropped off on a quiet street corner around midnight, Mike lifted the grate to a utility bunker underneath the sidewalk, lowered himself in, and disappeared.

After reporting back, Jason, Chelsea, and I descended one at a time following his instructions, contorting our bodies to make it through a series of tight passages - with cables, spider webs, and dust everywhere - only to discover that the steel ladder Mike had used just two weeks earlier to descend to the catacombs had been cut short by the “catacops,” a special police unit that patrols the catacombs.

We climbed out. I thought that was it. We were milling on the corner talking about what to do next when Mike struck up a conversation with a passerby. Coincidentally, this stranger, Marcus, was headed to another entrance to the catacombs.

We followed Marcus over a tall fence nearby, then down an abandoned rail line. Half of the trip was through a pitch dark rail tunnel. After about a mile, we stopped in front of a trench on the side of the tunnel.  This was an entrance to the catacombs. We prepped for a couple minutes. Marcus shared a few sage words of advice and gave each of us a candle. We descended, and began a long walk underground.

We spent the rest of night exploring the catacombs. We walked a few miles, 30 feet underground, in a series of tunnels, caves, and passages hewn from rock, some filled knee-high with water, some only passable by sliding on your belly, some filled with human bones.

We saw a surprising amount of art including sculpture, mosaics, graffiti, and Dadaesque gestures. For instance, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to drag two Velib bikeshares deep into the catacombs. I chuckled at that one.

Later we discovered an ornate mosaic street sign at an intersection. It was beautiful and useless. It mocked the rugged setting and the idea of getting your bearings down there. There was a situationist strain of humor in the art reminiscent of Burning Man. The irreverent, irrepressible creativity was surprisingly heart-opening.

After sharing some wine in the Ram Room, one of the many outlaw social spaces in the catacombs, and exploring a bone-strewn cavern adjacent to it, we headed out. Dawn was breaking when we made it to the street again. I felt exhausted, overwhelmed, and extremely grateful. I knew others felt similarly.

The five of us stood in a circle in the middle of the street. We hugged all at once shoulder-to-shoulder, then dispersed. I caught a cab back to the hostel for a couple hours of sleep before day two of OuiShare Fest.

This experience had a profound impact on me. At first, I only knew that I had experienced something important. I didn’t know what it meant. Later, I began to understand.

We had explored a 200 mile underground network of temporary autonomous zones together. The freedom and bonding found in that shared adventure was electrifying. It made me feel like anything was possible. It made me feel fully alive. And with that came a deep satisfaction, a deep gratitude.  

It got me thinking about my own struggle to become a fully-realized human being and help create a sharing movement that I felt in my bones was the best hope for humans to come into our own, and save ourselves. I began to reframe this struggle through the lens of my experience in the catacombs.

The next day I met David de Ugarte at OuiShare Fest. His reputation preceded him. He is a well-know Spanish cyberpunk, activists, and author. He is a self-described coop monk as well as a cofounder of Las Indias Cooperative, of which he is an active worker-owner.

He made his name in the early oughts with a trilogy about network society (highly recommended) that was a best-seller in Latin America. His intellect is only matched by his joie de vivre, optimism, and sense of humor. We hit it off.

In one exchange, I blurted out my new, though perhaps half-baked formulation, the one brewing in my mind from the night before, of what I thought the human experience (or maybe just mine) was all about - that we long to be on a great adventure with people we love to explore or create new worlds together.

Judging from David’s expression, that seemed to resonate. Later during OuiShare Fest, I suggested we do a project together. I had no idea what.

I was following an intuition about David, and also what I thought was possible in the Latin world, a world where people and quality of life seem to come first more often than in the United States, where a different development path seems to be unfolding, where cities are seen as temples of well-being rather engines than of economic growth. I wanted to explore this.

Fortunately, David took my suggestion seriously. We exchanged a few e-mails after the conference. Las Indias developed an event concept called Shareable Labs with my input. They shopped the idea around in Northern Spain where they are headquartered.

They hit pay dirt in Gijon, the largest city in the autonomous community of Asturias. The city was interested Shareable Labs, but a first step was a two day event, later named Beyond the Sharing Economy, which the city would support.

Before I knew it I was off to Gijon

I landed in Oviedo on Saturday October 4th in the late afternoon. Someone from Las Indias was to pick me up. I had a hunch I’d be greeted differently. They didn’t disappoint. The entire event team came to collect me - Natalia, Caro, Maria, and David. My travel fatigue was instantly erased. It was a heartwarming welcome, typical of the way Las Indias does things - people first. We crammed into their coop’s shared car and headed to Gijon.

After dropping my luggage at the hotel, we went to a cideria in the old Roman part of town for the first of many cider sessions. Cider is Asturias’ distinctive regional beverage, a charming leftover of the area’s ancient Celtic roots and a daily cultural experience.

The session began as they always did. A server held a bottle above his head and poured a small amount into a special glass held below his waist to “break” the cider. While the dramatic pour was satisfying to watch, it also served a practical purpose. It oxygenates the cider making it both more flavorful and digestible. He passed a glass to me. I consumed the cider quickly while still cold as instructed. It was delicious. I passed the glass back to the server to be used again for the next person.

We shared several rounds with plenty of time in between to chat and nosh. This paced our intake while ensuring that everyone got equally, yet moderately buzzed. We sailed into the night together in a co-created ship of cheer. This was my first experience of an ancient ritual, with sharing at its core, which binds Asturians to each other and the land in a simple, yet powerful way. I loved it.

Indeed, it was the perfect way to begin my stay in Gijon and get to know team Las Indias better. Over cider and tapas, they filled in some details of the coming event and the story they told me before I arrived and that I would hear many times over the course of my stay, their story of the Anchovy League. 

The Anchovy League

The story goes something like this. An innovator in seafood canning emerged at the start of the last century among Italian immigrant merchants who had moved to the Cantabrian coast decades earlier because of a shortage of fish back home.

These immigrants were loved by the locals. For one thing, they created much needed jobs. This innovator, Giovanni Vella Scatagliota, invented the anchovy product as we know it today, which catalyzed a period of industrial expansion along the Cantabrian coast including in Gijon.

Indiano Natalia Fernandez summed this up in a more interesting way, “the incredible story of a Sicilian guy who traveled to the Cantabrian looking for providers [of fish], fell in love with a girl from Santoña, invented anchovies in oil, created hundreds of jobs, and ended up changing the world’s diet.” Her longer history here is a fantastic read.

The lesson she draws from history is that a new, post-industrial cycle of development in the region is more likely if there’s links to innovators from elsewhere. Thus, the rationale for the Anchovy League, its inaugural event in Gijon, Beyond the Sharing Economy, and a global group of participants.

The Anchovy League is an emerging innovation network in the southern part of the Atlantic Arc that hopes to catalyze a new round of development using a commons-based strategy similar to FLOK Society’s approach in Ecuador, but by linking small to medium-sized cities in a multi-country region rather than through a single nation-state.

It’s also a story of rebirth, and it’s likely no accident that a fish, a very social one at that, is at the center of this history-backed, future-forward myth as fish are an ancient symbol of transformation.

The Main Event

Las Indias had designed the program for Beyond the Sharing Economy as a series of conversations among experts over two days. The discussions formed a narrative arc that lead from first principles and the personal scale to specific projects and the regional scale.

It was a well-thought out design with Las Indias’ distinctive narrative approach to economic discourse. The content went well beyond the typical sharing economy talk, which usually centers on famous for-profit companies like Airbnb, into familiar territory for Shareable - the commons. I was part of two conversations, one per day.

The event was held in an auditorium at Universidad Laboral, a gigantic Franco-era campus featuring monumental Neo-Herrerian architecture. It’s the largest building in Spain according to Wikipedia. Towering above the main courtyard is a huge stone eagle with Spain’s coat of arms held in its claws, a potent symbol of Franco’s tight grip on Spain during his 36 year dictatorship.

Laboral is underutilized due to the region’s industrial decline, though it’s being leveraged to revive the area. It houses a number of schools and an exhibition space for science, technology, and cultural events. And is part of a larger technology park that promises revival. Our event was a part of this mix.

David interviewed me for one of the opening talks. He asked about the origins of Shareable, which is fitting since Shareable was founded five years before almost to the day. I talked about what inspired me and the five years I co-hosted the Abundance League, a now dormant San Francisco salon about sharing that’s a precursor to Shareable.

My main point was that social isolation is a kind of living death. Sharing breaks it, unlocks our creative potential, and binds us in a cycle of mutually assured self-actualization.

At the break, the indie band G.P.S. Project played a spine-tingling acoustic version of the Police’s “So Lonely.” That was the perfect song for the moment, at least for me. I felt validated and grateful. The more I push for a life of uncompromised humanity, the more the world seems to open up to me.

That moment was topped by an incredible after-party - one part planned, one part improvised. The entire conference was bused to a llagares (cider cellar) for an Asturian espicha (feast) with plenty of cider, Asturian delicacies, and local organic wines curated by Malena Fabregat. The outstanding local fare was only surpassed by the people I met.

After being bused back to Gijon, a group of us including commons activist Helene Finidori, Carlos Alcalde of Open City Zaragoza, Antonin Leonard and Albert Cañigueral of OuiShare, Nadia EL-Imam of EdgeRyders, Julie Da Vara  and Valentine Philipponneau of Je Loue Mon Camping Car went out on the town.

We stumbled into an empty bar playing 80s hits and started a dance party. Somebody bought a round of shots, and the party got a big second wind that took us well into the night.  

Day two of the conference culminated in a lively, wide-ranging conversation facilitated by David between myself, Antonin, Matthew Scales of ShareNSave, and economist Juan Urrutia in which Juan really shone. That said, I disagreed with a couple his points, though I didn’t have the presence of mind to say so in the moment.

When speaking about the region, he talked about a brotherhood between cities forged in competition. It was poetic, but it’s an old model. It’s worth exploring something different; that cities learn together, share on common needs, yet work separately to bring out their own unique character.

Cities should not be fungible commodities. Each should be a niche unto itself. In theory, there are no losers with this strategy. In contrast, the race to the bottom to attract big corporations or become the next Silicon Valley among thousands of cities will result in mostly losers.

Then we spoke about the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage route that runs through the region and its potential for spurring social change. Prior to the panel, David and I had explored the idea of a new economy pilgrimage along the route with stops at coworking spaces, coops, and fab labs to create transformational experiences for “sharing pilgrims.”

I clumsily shared the idea in its not ready for prime time state on stage. It was hard to argue with Juan when he responded that nature was a better symbol of rebirth than the camino. However, human beings need ritual to help us leave one way of life and be born into another. Pilgrimage has long served this purpose.

I believe that the massive social change needed today can’t come about through technical means alone. There must be social, cultural, and, yes, spiritual dimensions. I knew from American history that the anti-slavery, women’s rights, and temperance movements emerged out of a great spiritual awakening during the 19th century. Big shifts require a level of commitment that can only be found in spirit.

After the panel, thanks to Jacinto Santos of PENSAR Consulting, I had the opportunity to keynote Cabueñes, an annual gathering of youth policy leaders in Asturias and beyond. I opened my talk about the sharing economy describing a moment I had on the beach in Gijon two mornings before.

Gijon is blessed with a large, beautiful, crescent shaped beach, the Playa de San Lorenzo, that’s their equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. The promenade bordering the beach is used at nearly all hours. Hundreds of people can be seen playing on the broad, flat sand beach during the day, even in the off season. There’s even an adult soccer league that plays on the beach at low tide.

I made of point of walking the beach every day. And on this sunny morning, the simple pleasure of this beach, and its centrality to the way of life in Gijon, hit home. As I was walked barefoot on wet sand along the surf, I heard the old church bell ring, construction work in the city center, and a bag piper playing for change on the promenade.

Young and old were enjoying the beach with me - some in surf, some on sand. A few feet away a municipal worker in an orange vest was taking measurements in the water. There were a couple surfers near the point. All of this registered at once. I felt part of this place. It was beautifully alive. I felt alive.

What’s an economy good for unless it frees us to enjoy nature and each other like this? I urged the group to not mistake the means for the end. The end is well-being. An economy is a tool that is only as good as its ability to foster it.

In the days following Beyond the Sharing Economy, I was fortunate to be the guest of Natalia, Caro, Maria, and David of Las Indias who showed me around Las Indias style, which means I was got the most fun, hands-on crash course about the region as is possible.

The first stop was a #MapJam with Mar de Niebla, a local nonprofit serving at risk youth in Gijon’s working-class La Calzada neighborhood. Jaucinto Santos, who impressed me at every turn with his creative dedication to the community, and Las Indias set up this commons mapping exercise with Mar de Niebla to coincide with Shareable’s Global #MapJam.

Before the #MapJam got underway, I got a tour of Mar de Niebla’s youth center, converted from a defunct grocery store, in the first floor of a no frills apartment block. It was rough going in La Calzada, but the staff of Mar de Niebla radiated optimism and determination. There were pooling their community’s resources - in every possible way including labor, money, and all manner of in-kind donations - to give the most disadvantaged neighborhood kids a leg up.

It was an inspiring setting for a #MapJam, which had some surprising results. Gijon’s mapjammers realized that much of the local commons is supported by the government. This has its advantages. However, the commons is vulnerable to austerity measures.  The mapping exercise helped participants understand their vulnerability and begin thinking about peer-to-peer alternatives.

The next day we spent exploring Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. The highlight for me was the Museo Arqueologico de Asturias. I’m not a big fan of museums, but this was an outstanding one made all the better by visiting it with Las Indias for whom it has special significance.

It’s the first place they encountered their wolf, an ancient Hispano-Celtic symbol meant to keep people safe from death (roughly, more on it here), which they eventually adopted for their cooperative’s logo.

An exhibit showing the migration of the first people to the Cantabrian coast also struck me. Humans first came to the area after being literally pushed west by ice as the ice age progressed.  The coastal mountains and sea-warmed weather blocked the ice’s advance. The abundant fish, game, and flora provided plenty of food. Humans have lived in the area ever since.

Some think the area, along with parts of Southern France, as a cradle of European civilization. It’s no wonder given the stable weather and food supply. Gijon itself has been settled almost continuously for around 2,000 years.

As we strolled the museum together, David explained that geographically advantageous, secondary cities like Gijon offer a haven from the disruptions of both global warming and global capital. As the museum showed, the stable coastal climate, plentiful rain, and ample food supply can sustain human life over many millennia.

In the case of capital, small to medium-sized cities like Gijon aren’t big enough to absorb the titanic sums institutional investors need to invest. The businesses and real estate in major cities along with big swaths of farmland in Africa and South America are prime targets. Speculators drive ordinary people out of these places. This resonated.

This resonated. The tsunami of capital flowing into San Francisco where I work has made it the most expensive place to live in the US with the fastest growing wealth gap. It has forced many of my friends out.

On my last day, the Las Indias crew took us to La Isla, the beach where their cooperative was conceived, followed by a hike along the sea cliffs on part of the Camino de Santiago. It’s a stunningly beautiful area.

The Indiano villas in the verdant hills overlook small villages dotting a rocky coast with time-worn, crescent-shaped beaches in between. Nearly every home features a horreo, a grain crib of ancient design, which adds a distinctive touch to the landscape’s rustic beauty.

While this post is on the long side, it hardly does my experience in Gijon justice. All the epic walks and meals with Las Indias, filled with great conversation and connection, and all the history and culture I took in but am yet to fully integrate, would be impossible to share completely. It was indeed a crash course.

Despite this, I came home with valuable lessons about myself and the sharing movement.  Indeed, my trip to Gijon took me well beyond the sharing economy. For one, I have little appetite for movement as they’re generally understood.

If this movement isn’t an adventure with people I love to create or explore a new world, I doubt I can contribute my best or continue for long. I felt this spirt with Las Indias, and it undoubtedly enables them to take on bold projects for social change year after year.

Similarly, I doubt the sharing movement can fulfill its transformative potential if it can’t somehow draw out the full-hearted commitment of ordinary people in a way that love and an epic adventure can.

I also came to see the world’s cities as a fleet of arks that has carried our delicate species safely through the storms of time. I came to see that our generation’s great adventure is to sail this fleet through our century, which is shaping up to be the greatest storm of all time, one of our own making, one that will kill or transform us.

Like all good lessons, I’m left with better questions. Will we rise to the occasion?  Who else is thrilled to their marrow for this challenge?  Who else can’t believe their good luck to be given such a gift? Can we create a sharing movement that uplifts those who join, models the change sought, and attracts a legion of indefatigable contributors? And how should we prepare our urban arks to ensure that our children make it safely through this century?

These are questions we’ll explore next summer at Shareable Labs in Gijon. More on this soon.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ferguson Decision Reaffirms Right Of Police To Use Deadly Force When They Feel Sufficiently Inclined

by The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/ferguson-decision-reaffirms-right-of-police-to-use,37542

WASHINGTON - Following a legal precedent established over the course of decades, the St. Louis County grand jury decision on Monday to not indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed teen reportedly reaffirmed the right of police to use deadly force whenever they feel sufficiently inclined.

“The outcome of this grand jury investigation further supports a police officer’s right to shoot to kill if, and only if, he feels absolutely willing to do so and it suits his purposes,” said Georgetown law professor Adrienne Hoffman, adding that reasonable suspicion to use lethal force is 100% optional when an officer fires on a suspect, regardless of circumstances.

“This decision makes it completely clear that, when confronted in the line of duty, police are legally justified in using extreme force against a suspect whenever they need to or just feel like it.” Hoffman added that the decision further asserts an officer’s right to claim self-defense against anyone within range of his weapon.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Democracy’s Crisis

Democracy in Crisis © Vazzermag | Dreamstime.com
Democracy in Crisis © Vazzermag | Dreamstime.com
by , Public Seminar: http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/11/democracys-crisis/

This lecture was given on November 7, 2014, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands, upon Nancy Fraser’s receipt of an honorary doctorate - J.G.

Rector Magnificus, Madame President, Esteemed Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,  we are currently experiencing a major crisis of democracy.

What is at stake here is the specifically political dimension of a broader, multifaceted crisis, which also has other important dimensions - for example, economic, financial, ecological, and social.

Taken together, all of these aspects, including the political dimension of democratic crisis, add up to a “general crisis.” It is at bottom a crisis of capitalism - or rather, of our current, historically specific form of capitalism: financialized, globalizing, neoliberal capitalism.

Among the many strands of this crisis, the political strand is especially important. Practically speaking, it is the key to resolving the others.

Absent a successful reconstitution of democratic power, there is no hope of successfully addressing the ecological, economic/financial or social dimensions of crisis. The crisis of democracy demands our attention, both for its own sake and for the sake of our other problems.

In what does the political strand of the present crisis consist? Fundamentally, there are two aspects: an administrative aspect and a legitimation aspect. Let me explain each aspect briefly before discussing the decisive question of how they relate to each other.

First, the administrative aspect: Democracy requires institutionalized public powers with sufficient capacity to actually solve problems and deliver results. Such powers must be able to take and enact binding decisions in the public interest and impose them on private powers, such as large corporations, who might prefer to evade political regulation.

No democracy is possible in the absence of this institutional aspect. No democracy can survive if it lacks the administrative heft to govern. It must be able to translate public opinion into effective public policy, even against the wishes of large and possibly recalcitrant private powers.

Next, the legitimation aspect: Democracy also requires arenas and infrastructures of informal public communication. These “public spheres,” as they have been called, are sites in civil society where all who are governed can participate in free and open discussions aimed at assessing the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of the powers to which they are subject.

Through informal public communication in the press and other media, those who are governed must be able to scrutinize alternative policy proposals, while also clarifying their own interests and needs.

Ideally, the result should be a body of “public opinion” that is normatively legitimate - because it is arrived at through a communicative process that is open, unrestricted, inclusive, and fair.

Ideally, too, public opinion should be practically efficacious: able to influence or constrain administrative power, so that the latter really does act in the public interest. Put differently, public opinion formed in public spheres should be translated into public will.

It follows that democracies can fail in two respects.

First, they can enter into administrative crisis, if and when they lack the regulatory capacity to successfully address and solve public problems. This is the case when, for example, the public powers of bounded territorial states are outgunned by huge oligopolistic corporations with a global reach.

Second, democracies can enter into legitimation crisis, if and when the channels of public-sphere communication do not permit free and fair communications among all who are governed and/or when the public opinion such discussions generate lacks practical efficacy. This is the case when public communication is exclusionary, restricted and/or ignored by governments who rush to do the bidding of private interests.

In the first case, the result is an administrative crisis. In the second, the result is a crisis of democratic legitimacy. But what is the relation between them?

In theory, an administrative crisis should lead to a legitimation crisis of a robust sort. Arrangements that block public powers from acting in the public interest should be exposed as illegitimate in the public sphere. In the ensuing ferment, a roused body of public opinion should clamor for democratic reform and, when necessary, for deep social-structural transformation.

By all rights, something of this very sort should be happening today. We have all the makings of a major administrative crisis, as I shall explain. In addition, we have many ingredients of a full-blown legitimation crisis.

In fact, however, the translation from the first to the second appears to be blocked. Neither democracy’s administrative crisis nor its accompanying legitimation deficits gives rise today to mobilized collective action for structural change - at least not in the Global North. Why is this? And what follows for the future of democracy?

Consider, first, the administrative crisis of contemporary democracy. Increasingly, our instituted public powers lack the capacity and the will to stand up to private powers. As a result, they are unable or unwilling to solve such pressing problems as global warming in the public interest. Consider the following:
  • At the geopolitical level, the dismantling of the Bretton Woods regime of capital controls unleashed unregulated flows of financial speculation and deprived territorial state governments of control over their money supplies. As a result, those governments faced major difficulties whenever they tried to manage economic crisis tendencies by introducing counter-cyclical deficit spending.
  • At the state level, governments prevented from resorting to “public Keynesianism” turned first to what Colin Crouch has called “privatized Keynesianism”: they encouraged consumer debt (home mortgages, credit card spending, student loans) in order to continue high levels of consumer spending under changed conditions of declining real wages, rising unemployment and precarity, not to mention a militant coordinated tax revolt by corporations and the wealthy, as amply demonstrated by Wolfgang Streeck. This policy of debt-fueled consumerism promoted what Jürgen Habermas called “civic privatism”: by encouraging citizens to focus their aspirations on private life and on commodified satisfactions, it managed to buy for governments political legitimation of a conveniently passive sort in the face of upwardly redistributive policies that might otherwise have elicited active protest.
  • When the 2008 financial crisis put an end to that scenario, the powers-that-be chose to sacrifice the interests of ordinary citizens and taxpayers to those of private investors. Bailing out the latter at the expense of the former, they tumbled straight into sovereign debts crises. Deprived of administrative capacity, not to mention democratic sovereignty, indebted states were then forced by the blackmail of “the markets” to institute “austerity.” The European Union, once considered the avatar of post-national democracy, rushed to do the bidding of the bankers, ignoring massive citizen protest, and forfeiting its claim to democratic legitimacy.
  • At the transnational level, meanwhile, we have seen the emergence of “governance without government,” i.e. the proliferation of private and quasi-public regulatory agencies which make coercively enforceable rules that govern vast swaths of social interaction throughout the world. Examples include NAFTA and TRIPS (the international neoliberal regime of intellectual property rights). Utterly undemocratic, these governance structures often operate in secret and are in any case accountable to no-one. Operating overwhelmingly in the interest of capital, it is far from clear that they could survive a genuine robust vetting in the public sphere.
  • Increasingly, such neoliberal policies are “locked in” (made invulnerable to future change) by what Stephen Gill calls “the new constitutionalism.” For example, various international courts and dispute resolution bodies lock in “free trade” strictures, which are held to trump any conceivable state policies (past, present and future!) that would regulate labor relations and the environment in the interest of democratic publics. As neoliberal macro-policy is effectively constitutionalized, the democratic agenda is narrowed, preempted in advance.
  • At every level, moreover, we see the capture of public power by private (corporate) power. Some examples include: overt and covert lobbying; the revolving door between government and private firms, which ensures that representatives of private interests increasingly write the very regulations to which they are subject; the increased contracting out of public services to private firms (e.g. prison management and military functions, in the USA); the rise of PPPs (public-private partnerships) oriented to serving “consumers” as opposed to citizens, which change the qualitative meaning and character of “public services.”
  • In effect, public power is internally colonized, as its modus operandi is increasingly modeled on that of private firms. Government agencies are now organized on the basis of internal “profit/loss centers,” which compete for zero-based budget allocations. The Foucault-inspired literature on “neoliberal governmentality” has described this well.
I could cite many other examples, but these should suffice to demonstrate the general point that democracy is being hollowed out at every level.

Political agendas are everywhere narrowed, both by external fiat (the demand of “the markets”) and by internal choice (corporate capture), as matters once considered to be squarely within the purview of democratic political action are now declared off-limits and devolved to “the markets” - which is to say, to oligopolistic corporate capital.

The response to those who question these arrangements is TINA: “there is no alternative.” This is just the way the economy, and therefore the world, must work - or so we are told.

The overall result is a major administrative crisis. With respect to “output,” public powers cannot or will not deliver solutions to those in whose name they govern.

So what about the input side? Is there a legitimation crisis today? Certainly, our political institutions face major legitimation deficits at every scale. But legitimation deficit is not the same as legitimation crisis. In fact, the Global North sees little in the way of coordinated militant campaigns that would subject the current structures of financialized capitalism to sustained critique and transformation.

What we see instead is a rise in right-wing extremism, increased demoralization, electoral abstention, and a general retreat from institutionalized political activity into private life or into neo-anarchist forms of “The Great Refusal” (Herbert Marcuse).

The most promising movements, such as Occupy Wall Street and its European counterparts, which won widespread support in the early days of the current crisis, proved to be ephemeral, dissipating as quickly as they erupted and leaving behind little in the way of programmatic thinking or organizational structure.

Spain’s Podemos represents an important exception. But far more typical, and symptomatic, is France’s “le Zadisme”: an acronym for “les zones à défendre,” this iconic oppositional movement is entirely defensive, aiming merely to shield delimited “zones” from corporate predation, relinquishing the more ambitious goal of transforming the larger order that enables such predation in the first place.

The absence of a real legitimation crisis in the Global North becomes palpably evident when one considers the contrasting case of Latin America.

There, one sees a major counter-hegemonic bloc committed to developing a true alternative to the present social order of neoliberal, financialized capitalism. This movement finds expression in the so-called “pink tide” of left and center-left governments that have been elected and re-elected on campaigns to resist neoliberalization and to build developmental states.

Its iconic figure today is Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, who has openly defied the blackmail of the bondholder “holdouts” and the U.S. courts that elevated the latter’s claims above those of democratic citizens.

Another important development in Latin America is the massive enlargement of the public to include masses of poor, indigenous people, previously excluded altogether from political life.

Along with this goes a major expansion of the political agenda through increased public-sphere communication; the continued proliferation and mutual coordination of progressive movements in civil society; the existence of healthy, open channels of communication and interaction between state and civil society; and a palpable sense of regional solidarity - in Latin America, unlike in Europe, there really does exist a “transnational public sphere.”

Nothing remotely resembling this sort of productive legitimation crisis appears in the United States, where neoliberal thinking remains hegemonic, and where many who suffer from it have been persuaded at least for now that their hopes for a better life are best fulfilled through “the market.”

Nor do we see any counter-hegemony of comparable breadth in Europe, where the palpable dislike of neoliberalism divides between authoritarian-populism and anti-Europeanism, on the one hand, and demoralized passivity and anti-programmatic neo-anarchism, on the other hand.

Why do matters stand like this today? And what is to be done?

For an administrative crisis to translate into a true legitimation crisis, certain enabling conditions must be in place. These have to do with political psychology and political culture, with the way in which people understand their place in history and their capacities for collective action.

Let me mention four presuppositions for the sort of crisis of legitimation that could lead beyond the current impasse.
  • A genuine legitimation crisis presupposes subjects who conceive themselves as potential members of a shared community of fate, jointly subjected to the basic structures of global financialized capitalism, which can become an object of common concern and public scrutiny. They must conceive themselves, in other words, as potential members of a public for whom the structures to which they are subject are matters of vital interest.
  • In addition, a productive legitimation crisis presupposes subjects who interpret the crisis dynamics they experience as manifestations of system failures, not as fatalities that cannot be changed, nor as bad luck. They must reject, in other words, the neoliberal mantra of “TINA,” believing instead that “another world is possible” and that it is worth engaging in collective action in order to build it.
  • Then too, legitimation crisis presupposes subjects who conceive history as an open process, subject to political intervention aimed at solving collective problems in the public interest. They must feel a sense of shared responsibility for the political work of making right the wrongs and failures of the current system by constructing a new world order. They must invest their hopes in public action and ultimately in democratically accountable public power.
  • Finally, legitimation crisis presupposes subjects who believe they have the right to govern themselves and to determine collectively along with others what sort of world they want to inhabit. They must have the courage and the will to insist that their social arrangements be subject to democratic scrutiny and that those arrangements be changed, if and when they fail to withstand such scrutiny.
Not all of these preconditions hold today in full-blown form, as neoliberal thinking has assaulted them at every point. But the seeds of many of them are present in latent form. And these presuppositions could in principle be reactivated, made to bloom, through processes of public-sphere communication that contest the neoliberal commonsense that has eroded them.

Whether and when that might happen we cannot now know. But the creation of robust, expansive, and inclusive public spheres on a transnational basis is key to this process.

Only a revitalized democratic publicity can revive the psycho-political-cultural experiences and attitudes that are required to turn our administrative crisis into a true legitimation crisis.

And only a legitimation crisis of that sort can lead to the sort of deep-structural transformation of the financialized capitalist order that is needed to resolve in an emancipatory way all the strands of the multi-dimensional crisis complex we currently face: ecological, social, and economic, as well as political.

Monday, 24 November 2014

A Campaign Lesson for Progressive Leadership in Australia

English: City council member Bill De Blasio sp...
Bill De Blasio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Gerard May, Online Opinion: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=16877

There is something remarkable happening in New York that aspiring progressive leaders who seek to make a mark on the political landscape in Australia can learn from.

The current Democratic Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, won the mayoral election last year by a landslide gaining 73% of the majority vote becoming the first democratic mayor of the city since 1993.

De Blasio is not your typical democrat that we are used to viewing from the other side of the world; like Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama. Instead, he is a genuine progressive.

Mayors in the United States have great responsibility and power. They have overall responsibility for departments like sanitization, police, fire, corrections, education, paramedics and much more. I learned about the mayor's influence first hand while attending a political rally where high-powered politicians spoke, including two United States Senators. The Mayor had top billing.

Even picking up the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or any other daily you regularly witness the mayor holding the political center stage.

The reason is the New York mayor is one of the most powerful political positions in the world. The numbers speak for why. With 8.3 million people and GDP of 609.4 billion dollars, New York City has a budget of a staggering 67,533 million dollars. Now for the first time since people can recall - there is a genuine progressive in charge.

Living in New York for the past three months I've witnessed him sticking true to his progressive agenda. This led me to do some research. To ascertain whether during his 2013 mayor campaign de Blasio played the safer middle ground that we are so used to seeing those on the left running to be elected in Australia.

After completing my research I found he ran a strong leftist campaign. De Blasio called his campaign a "Tale of Two Cities".

De Blasio preached a hike on income tax on New Yorkers earning $500,000 or more from 3.8% to 4.3% to pay for universal pre-school. His opponent, a republican named Lhota would not. Lhota wanted to continue the previous mayor's policy of closing failing schools, while de Blasio said failing schools should be fixed, not shut down.

Lhota vowed to keep Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, while de Blasio pledged to replace Kelly, calling him "the architect of the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has had such a negative effect on the relationship between police and ... many communities of color."

De Blasio said he wanted the city, not the state, to set the local minimum wage and to raise it from $7.25 an hour. While Lhota wouldn't saying it would hurt business. De Blasio wanted to expand coverage of paid sick days for workers. Lhota, mindful of business community opposition, would not.

After winning the election in a landslide de Blasio stated: "Make no mistake, the people of this city have chosen a progressive path." He has already stuck to his word on most of the policies above. De Blasio exudes empathy for those who struggle to pay the rent or put their children through college. He came from a broken family - his father walked out on his mother and later shot himself rather than die of cancer.

Since coming into power it hasn't been any easy ride. He and his allies have been attacked. However, instead of distancing himself from political allies like we have witnessed time and again by leaders of the left in Australia. De Blasio has not.

For example, political ally and leading civil rights leader in the U.S. Al Sharpton is often the center of hate-filled criticism in the media. De Blasio recently made his support clear: "Al Sharpton has been a blessing for this city. The more people criticize him, the more I want to hang out with him."

De Blasio doesn't distance his association from unions either. 60 percent of the 350,000 New York City employees that former mayor Michael Bloomberg left to work under expired contract deals between their unions and the city reached new agreements, thanks to successful negotiations between the de Blasio administration and seven labor unions. All within six months of taking office.

The deals have been praised by independent monitors like the city and state comptrollers' offices(the respective governments' Chief Financial Officers), the fiscally conservative Citizens Budget Commission and several bond rating agencies.

Union chief Michael Mulgrew who couldn't get a contract signed for his members for the five years during the previous mayor's time - stood next to de Blasio in announcing a new contract and said he couldn't "thank the mayor enough."

This doesn't mean he hasn't stood up when he believed the time called for it. This has been evident during his public battles with the powerful police union.

The mayor has inspired others. A host of progressives are now following the mayor. Their agenda: Seeking to increase the minimum wage, enact fairer campaign financing laws, and legislate a Women's Equality Act to ensure women get paid the same as men.

They have been inspired by de Blasio's success and have a unified message: The playing field has been geared for the rich to succeed at the expense of everyone else.

The lesson for progressive leaders in Australia: when you target the unfair wealth of the top 1% it resonates powerfully with the other 99%. When a leader in Australia on the left with support from a major party, who has intelligence, conviction and the guts to say what the rest of us are thinking - a landslide is there for the taking.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

How Hope Turned to Nightmare After the Berlin Wall Fell

by Sandra Bloodworth, RedFlag: http://redflag.org.au/article/how-hope-turned-nightmare-after-berlin-wall-fell

The scenes of people chipping away at the Berlin Wall are still as thrilling today as when I watched them 25 years ago.

But the hypocritical glee of the Western media and politicians was nauseating.

One social scientist declared “the end of history”, while economists blathered about the virtues of the market. Warmongers and class warriors intent on destroying workers’ organisations and cutting living standards in the West declared their support for the fight for freedom in the East.

One of the first acts in the Berlin Wall drama said a lot. When East German border police turned water hoses on West Germans dancing on the wall, they in turn were showered with champagne. As they hesitated, West German riot squads attacked the dancers.

This was not an isolated event. Millions were rising, challenging murderous tormentors across the Stalinist bloc. A gathering storm threatened the USSR - from Armenia and Azerbaijan a year earlier to Latvia in early 1989. The Karabakh region was under military rule, and the Ukrainian national movement faced similar threats.

In April tens of thousands had protested in Tbilisi, Georgia, bearing placards which summed up the mood sweeping the bloc: “Down with the decaying Soviet Empire.” Russian troops killed 19, injured or poisoned hundreds with batons and nerve gas.

In response, president Gorbachev declared his resolve to resist “extremism, anti-Soviet displays and destructive actions of adventurist elements”.

In August, 100,000 coal miners set up strike committees in Siberia. One of the leaders declared: “This is our revolution from below.” They added to their economic demands agitation for three years’ maternity leave on full pay and a 60 percent pay rise for women working in dangerous conditions. Whole towns were under workers’ control; thousands debated in the squares all day long.

Within weeks of the Wall coming down, tens of thousands confronted tanks in Romania, and on Christmas day the execution of the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife was televised. Organised workers played a key role in toppling the regime in Czechoslovakia.

By 1991, 400 million people had toppled dictators and smashed the secret police. Committees formed in the Romanian revolution stopped the export of food and coal so they could be used to feed and warm the poor; coffee appeared in the shops for the first time in 10 years!

Some politicians in the West sensed the dangers to themselves if workers in the East actually won freedom. Margaret Thatcher warned that “the very speed of change could put the goal of democracy in jeopardy”.

Tragically, the radicals who put themselves at the head of the masses limited their goals to joining the “free market”. But rather than the freedom trumpeted by the West, a massive restructuring of a significant part of the world system was carried out.

Everywhere, under pressure from the World Bank and IMF, new governments implemented neoliberal attacks. The freedom lovers bayed for profits. The US ambassador to Austria intoned: “Before the luxury[!] of humanising the system, there will be cruel changes.” Citizens of Czechoslovakia were told to take a 25% cut in living standards.

Profitable enterprises were sold to Western investors - or former Stalinist bureaucrats simply took them over. The rest were left to collapse. One group of economists described the next few years in Eastern Europe as “a great depression … virtually without historic precedent”.

Solidarnosc in Poland presided over food price rises of up to 600% while it froze wages. In 1991, East German industrial output halved. One year after the wall fell, a notice on the door of a Leipzig church read “with 2,000,000 unemployed we see little cause for celebrating”.

In the Caucasus, GDP per capita halved in two years. Life expectancy fell in many areas. In 1995 male life expectancy in Russia was 58 years. Romania’s population declined by 12% as those who could escaped. It remains the EU’s second poorest state.

Inequality has grown steadily in most of the old bloc. In 1990 the highest paid in Russia earned four times the average; today they earn a minimum of 17 times more.

For decades, the West had called for the iron curtain to be torn down. Now they set about ensuring it remained intact - under new terms that whipped up anti-immigrant fear and loathing.

The Council of Europe reported that “Western countries [are] disturbed - in some cases terrified - by the prospect of migration from … the former Eastern Bloc.” Italian and Austrian troops were mobilised to counter the “threat” from Roma, perceived as the most dangerous.

So the freedom that was promised - if only those overthrowing the Stalinist order embraced the market - turned into a nightmare.

Rabid racism abounds across Europe today. Ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the bombing of Serbia by NATO in the late 1990s, catastrophic cuts in living standards across most of the former Eastern bloc, repressive rule in many states have all led to profound alienation. Fascists are some of the best organised in Hungary.

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolises the core of the Marxist argument: that masses of workers, the poor and students can and will challenge class rule. Their uprisings are moments of joy, inspiration and hope. The masses of the Stalinist bloc proved it was not communism, but also that the free market cannot serve the interests of humanity.

Those who struggled to bring Stalinism to its knees should be honoured for illuminating these historic truths.

The Insatiable God

English: Cropped from :File:George Monbiot.jpg...
George Monbiot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th November 2014: http://www.monbiot.com/2014/11/18/the-insatiable-god/
The blind pursuit of economic growth stokes a cycle of financial crisis, and wrecks our world.

Another crash is coming. We all know it, now even David Cameron acknowledges it (1). The only questions are what the immediate catalyst will be, and when it begins.

You can take your pick. The Financial Times reports today that China now resembles the US in 2007 (2). Domestic bank loans have risen 40% since 2008, while “the ability to repay that debt has deteriorated dramatically”.

Property prices are falling and the companies that run China’s shadow banking system provide “virtually no disclosure” of their liabilities. Just two days ago, the G20 leaders announced that growth in China “is robust and is becoming more sustainable” (3). You can judge the value of their assurances for yourself.

Housing bubbles in several countries, including Britain, could pop at any time. A report in September revealed that total world debt (public and private) has reached 212% of GDP (4). In 2008, when it helped to cause the last crash, it stood at 174%.

The Telegraph notes that this threatens to cause “renewed financial crisis … and eventual mass default” (5). Shadow banking has gone berserk, stocks appear to be wildly overvalued, the Eurozone is bust again. Which will blow first?

Or perhaps it’s inaccurate to describe this as another crash. Perhaps it’s a continuation of the last one, the latest phase in a permanent cycle of crisis, exacerbated by the measures (credit bubbles, deregulation, the curtailment of state spending) which were supposed to deliver uninterrupted growth. The system the world’s governments have sought to stabilise is inherently unstable, built on debt, fuelled by speculation, run by sharks.

If it goes down soon, as Cameron fears, in a world of empty coffers and hobbled public services, it will precipitate an ideological crisis graver than the blow to Keynesianism in the 1970s.

The problem that then arises - and which explains the longevity of the discredited ideology that caused the last crash - is that there is no alternative policy, accepted by mainstream political parties, with which to replace it. They will keep making the same mistakes while expecting a different outcome.

To try to stabilise this system, governments behave like soldiers billeted in an ancient manor, who burn the furniture, the panelling, the paintings and the stairs to keep themselves warm for a night.

They are breaking up the post-war settlement, our public health services and social safety nets, above all the living world, to produce ephemeral spurts of growth. Magnificent habitats, the benign and fragile climate in which we have prospered, species that have lived on earth for millions of years, all are being stacked onto the fire, their protection characterised as an impediment to growth.

David Cameron boasted on Monday that he will revive the economy by “scrapping red tape” (6). This “red tape” consists in many cases of the safeguards defending both people and places from predatory corporations.

Today, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill is passing through the House of Commons (7), spinelessly supported, as ever, by Labour.

The bill seeks to pull down our protective rules to “reduce costs for business”, even if that means increasing costs for everyone else, while threatening our health and happiness. But why?

As the government boasted last week, the UK already has “the least restrictive product market regulation and the most supportive regulatory and institutional environment for business across the G20” (8). And it still doesn’t work. So let’s burn what remains.

This bonfire of regulation is accompanied by a reckless abandonment of democratic principles, not least of equality before the law. In the House of Commons on Monday, Cameron spoke for the first time about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (9).

If this treaty between the EU and the US goes ahead, it will grant corporations a separate legal system to which no-one else has access, through which they can sue governments passing laws that might affect their profits.

Cameron insisted that “it does not in any way have to affect our national health service” (10) (note those words “have to”). Pressed to explain this, he cited the former EU trade commissioner, who claimed that “public services are always exempted” (11).

But I have read the the EU’s negotiating mandate (12), and it contains no such exemption, just plenty of waffle and ambiguity on this issue.

When the Scottish government asked Cameron’s officials for an “unequivocal assurance” that the NHS would not be exposed to such litigation, they refused to provide it (13). This treaty could rip our public services to shreds for the sake of a short and (studies suggest (14,15)) insignificant fizzle of economic growth.

Is it not time to think again? To stop sacrificing our working lives, our prospects, our surroundings to an insatiable god (16)? To consider a different economic model, which does not demand endless pain while generating repeated crises?

Amazingly, this consideration begins on Thursday. For the first time in 170 years, parliament will debate one aspect of the problem: the creation of money (17).

Few people know that 97% of our money supply is created not by the government (or the central bank), but by commercial banks in the form of the loans they issue (18). At no point was a democratic decision made to allow banks to do this. So why do we let it happen?

This, as Martin Wolf has explained in the Financial Times (19), “is the source of much of the instability of our economies”. The parliamentary debate won’t stop the practice, but it represents the opening of a long-neglected question.

This, though, is just the beginning. Is it not also time for a government commission on post-growth economics? Drawing on the work of thinkers like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Kate Raworth, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, it would investigate the possibility of moving towards a steady-state economy: one that seeks distribution rather than blind expansion; that does not demand infinite growth on a finite planet. It would ask the question that never gets asked: why?

Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth when that growth is not delivering contentment, security or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all over outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/16/red-lights-global-economy-david-cameron

2. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e13e2cf8-6e48-11e4-bffb-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz3JP5QF3et

3. G20, November 2014. Brisbane Action Plan. http://bit.ly/1xk6mLR

4. Luigi Buttiglione et al, September 2014. Deleveraging? What Deleveraging? Geneva Reports on the World Economy 16. http://www.voxeu.org/content/deleveraging-what-deleveraging-16th-geneva-report-world-economy

5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/11129108/Mass-default-looms-as-world-sinks-beneath-a-sea-of-debt.html

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/16/red-lights-global-economy-david-cameron

7. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/smallbusinessenterpriseandemployment.html

8. G20, November 2014. Comprehensive Growth Strategy – United Kingdom. http://bit.ly/1yPuIv7

9. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/04/british-government-leading-gunpowder-plot-democracy-eu-us-trade

10. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm141117/debtext/141117-0001.htm#14111713000002

11. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-29181332

12. http://bit.ly/1xYr3L6

13. http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/scottish-government-demands-nhs-ttip-guarantees-1-3589393

14. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/us-trade-deal-with-europe-hype

15. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429932.800-ttip-beware-the-treatys-empty-economic-promises.html

16. http://pollystreaming.com/South-Park-Season-13-Episode-3-Margaritaville_v5905

17. http://www.positivemoney.org/2014/11/uk-parliament-debate-money-creation-first-time-170-years/

18. https://www.positivemoney.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Backbench-Briefing-Note.pdf

19. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7f000b18-ca44-11e3-bb92-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz2zsutuZis

The One Party Planet: An Analysis of the World Today

Post image for The One Party Planet: an analysis of the world today

Has the time come to revive the radical political pamphlet? /The Rules’ critique of neoliberalism as presented in The One Part Planet proves that it is.

Back when I was at university and feeling particularly idle one night, I had an idea to test my college magazine’s “we-publish-anything” policy and also have a bit of fun. 

I decided to make up a bunch of absurd ‘facts’ and submit them under the heading Did You Know?. 

Chuckling to myself, I made-up ‘facts’ such as: “Bhutan has two national flags: one for when it’s sunny, one for when it’s raining”, “In the Malay language, there are 4 words for ‘fridge magnet’ but none for ‘fridge“, and “There are no mice in Nicaragua”.

The whole thing was clearly silly and my intention was that readers might just about believe the first claim - that “pork is a mild aphrodisiac” - and maybe even the first few, but as the facts got increasingly ludicrous, they would realize the exercise had been a hoax all along.

Once the magazine was published the next week then, I was astonished to realize that barely anyone had got the joke. 

Everyone of course had instantly known that some of the facts were complete nonsense - the scientists, for example, knew full well that iguanas don’t have seven lungs, and I doubt any film buffs really believed the working title for Jaws had been ‘What a Big Shark!’ - but while they all discarded certain specific claims, very few questioned the validity of the list as a whole. The facts they knew to be false, they discarded; the rest they still took at face value.


I tell this story not just as a cautionary tale to any editors who receive submissions from me late at night, but to highlight one essential cognitive bias. 

Namely, that it is not particularly difficult to be skeptical towards individual details - the numbered ‘facts’ - but it is rare for that skepticism to broaden out into a questioning of underlying assumptions. In this case, the premise of the list as a whole. Sometimes all those trees just end up obscuring the wood.

It is this tendency that partly accounts for why so few people realized my list of made-up facts was complete bullshit, but which also helps explain one the conundrums of the progressive movement: that despite widespread acknowledgement of huge global injustices and inequalities, the underlying assumptions of the system tend to get an easy ride.

There is plenty of rightful outrage at corruption, endemic poverty and systemic exploitation, yet from most political discussions to mainstream media debates, and from well-meaning ethical consumerist actions to celebrity-sponsored charity campaigns, there appears to be an implicit acceptance that what we’re doing on a broad scale is basically fine. The problem, apparently, is that we need to do it a little better, tweak it here and there, or add something else on top.

It is well-known that workers’ rights in many places are systematically trampled on; that a billion people are chronically malnourished even though we produce enough food to feed the world one and a half times over; that the governments of developing countries lose at least $1 trillion each year through tax havens; that levels of greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating despite an apparent commitment from world leaders to decrease them; that the richest 1% of the world own half of all global wealth; and that, according to World Bank figures, 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10/day while 60% live on less than $5.

All this is acknowledged and provokes anger. But in the same way my college readers were skeptical of the claim that “Pope Benedict used to be a professional arm-wrestler” yet never questioned the integrity of the list as a whole, it is rare that outrage at global injustices translates into doubt at the efficacy of the system itself. 

It seems that no matter how extreme, numerous or engrained the inequality, poverty or oppression, the idea that large-scale change is necessary is still simply ‘too radical’ for most.

Of course, it is not just our cognitive biases that prevent a greater acceptance of progressive views. Advocates of market liberalism have been hugely successful in painting their ideology as non-ideological common sense. But the question remains: if knowledge of deep global problems is not enough to make people question the wisdom of the status quo, what can?

There are certainly many possible answers to this question, and any struggle of ideas has to be waged at several levels on several fronts. 

Some strategies will no doubt need to be smart and innovative, drawing on new forms of communication and technology. But at the same time, perhaps we also need to look back to older tried and tested tools: things like the humble political pamphlet for instance.


This is exactly what the activist organization /The Rules has done with The One Party Planet, a 60-page pamphlet that provides a detailed critique of neoliberalism and the unbridled power of the 1% (or rather 0.01%). 

We are essentially a “one party planet”, it argues, bringing together several different strands of reasoning and evidence, because the global political and economic elite all essentially hold the same worldview.

From American CEOs to Chinese party officials, and from African presidents to Russian oligarchs, there is an overwhelming consensus that unrestrained selfish competition is not only the best, but the only possible, way to organize society. 

This is not a conspiracy concocted in dark smoky rooms, and the individuals at the top don’t share some grand master plan. But the internal logic of their actions is one and the same, and this has contributed, the pamphlet argues, to a situation in which an unelected elite wield incredible influence over politics and inequality has reached outlandish levels.

In response to this, The One Party Planet culminates in a carefully argued call for a global uprising. 

This might seem like a contradiction - how can you carefully call for an uprising? - but that is perhaps where the power of the political pamphlet, and this one in particular, lies. 

Unlike books, which can be long and detached; newspaper articles, which can be brief and fleeting; and documentaries, which are received somewhat passively, the political pamphlet speaks directly to the reader with enough time and space to make a clear and detailed argument. It can make the apparently radical seem self-evident.

And perhaps this is one of the greatest weapons the progressive movement has right now. After all, the evidence and statistics about poverty, inequality and corruption are increasingly being understood and accepted - the facts have become mainstream. 

Maybe what we need first and foremost now then is fairly simple - something that will sit us down, talk us through it, and connect the dots. Something that can make the case that the foremost global problems of our age are not isolated but interconnected, not superficial but structural, and not inevitable but man-made. The One Party Planet does this with impressive depth, humility and conviction.

Download the pamphlet here
 
James Wan is the Senior Editor of Think Africa Press. His work has featured in a wide range of publications and in 2013 he was shortlisted for The Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition. You can follow him on twitter at @jamesjwan

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

G20 Climate Challenge Calls For a Rethink of Economics

G20 countries
G20 countries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Geoff Harcourt, UNSW Australia Business School and Anne Junor

Focusing on growth, the Brisbane G20 leaders' summit has not grappled with three key issues.

How much more growth can the planet survive? How can poorer nations raise their living standards to parity with the “developed” world? And within both rich and poor countries, how can a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth be realised?

The key problem of our time is the possibility of pursuing three goals simultaneously - ecological sustainability, economic development and a more equitable distribution of wealth within and among nations.

Harvard economist Steven Marglin argues affluent nations must limit further increases in their standard of living. Priority must be given to the development goals of poorer nations and to addressing poverty in the affluent world. But even this cannot be done within current wasteful approaches to growth. A radical rethink of the foundations of economics is required.

Six economists and sociologists from Cambridge, the Hague, India, Italy and Australia debate this challenge in the December 2014 issue of The Economic and Labour Relations Review.

Back to basics - a new economics?

Macquarie economist Wylie Bradford questions the need for a root and branch alternative to mainstream economics. He argues existing theory is soundly based in a view of humanity and nature that has continually been adapted since the ancient Greeks. Bradford argues it can be adapted further to address the present circumstances.

Conversely, Shachi Amdekar and Emeritus Professor Ajit Singh from Cambridge University UK argue global warming mandates a new starting point for economics. The conventional self-interested individual is no basis for conceptualising what’s needed to tackle the terrible threats to human survival resulting from modern economic processes.

New models for rich and poor 

Andrew Fischer, from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, says poor nations can develop, even while the world economy decarbonises.

Poorer nations need to accumulate capital to reduce poverty, and Fischer explores how the “developed” world can make environmentally-friendly changes in the composition of its consumption expenditure, to maintain effective demand in the world as a whole.

Stefano Bartolini, from Siena University, provides empirical evidence that declining social capital underlies rich nations' current unsustainable economic growth. He paints a picture of isolated people in gated communities, protected by security systems, spending their leisure on over-consumption. Bartolini provides alternative models of institutions, cities, social spaces and lifestyles, reversing the trend decline in social capital, creating benefits for both human well-being and the environment.

Wendy Harcourt, from Erasmus University, provides examples of academics and grass roots activists changing the ways in which communities function, building links between neighbourhoods in rich and poor countries and regions. She outlines a new community economics, based on “meshworks” - loosely connected networks of learning.

In response to the United Nations call for post-Millennium Development Goals Emeritus Professor Amiya Bagchi of Kolkata Institute of Development Studies proposed the following:

1) More effective regulation of global capital, through host country requirements for local procurement and utilisation of innovations; more effective regulation of pharmaceutical patents; and closure of tax havens

2) Stronger environmental protection through restriction of environmentally risky oil and mineral exploration and more public funding for research and investment in renewable resources and organic farming

3) Inter-regional measures such as a global fund to support the viability of small island nations; and enforceable international conventions on asylum seekers, with maltreatment of migrants justiciable in international courts

4) Intra-country redistribution through legislated minimum wages; gender equality in education and health care; pro-peasant land reforms, recognising women’s agrarian role; and communal models of property rights for forest-using people.

Whether or not economic theory moves beyond the utility-maximising individual, the survival of the planet is likely to depend on a new growth model based on social cohesion. The blueprints exist: the planetary risk may galvanise their adoption.
The Conversation

Anne Junor is Editor in Chief of The Economic and Labour Relations Review, a journal published by Sage Publishing under an agreement with the Business School UNSW Australia. A Senior Visiting Fellow in the Industrial Relations Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, she is Chief Investigator on two projects funded by Australian Research Council Linkage Grants, due to finish in 2014 and 2015, on topics unrelated to this article

Geoff Harcourt does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

INTERVIEW: Michel Bauwens on the Rise of Multi-stakeholder Cooperatives


A multi-stakeholder cooperative (MSC) is, as the name implies, a coop that’s governed by two or more stakeholder groups. These groups can include workers, producers, consumers, owners, volunteers and community supporters.

The brilliance of MSCs, also known as solidarity cooperatives, is that the various stakeholder groups throughout an enterprise have a shared vision that prioritizes equality, sustainability, and social justice.

Shareable connected with Bauwens to learn more about MSCs, their potential for social and ecological transformation, and why, facing the the peak of the extractive economy, rethinking how cooperatives do business is critically important.

Shareable: MSCs are like super coops, where producers, consumers and more are all working together. Why is this model important? What’s the most interesting aspect of it?

Michel Bauwens: Many traditional coops are for-profits that work for their members, and end up accepting the competitive logic of the neoliberal marketplace. An example that comes to mind is that Mondragon hires Polish workers at low wages to preserve its own corporate interest. So, the democratic aspects of one person, one share, one vote are certainly important, but no longer sufficient.

For us, multi-stakeholdership is part of a four-fold proposal for open cooperatives, which would involve four simultaneous changes. First, open coops should be oriented towards the common good, in their own statutes, i.e. not for profit, but profit being used to achieve the particular social goal; second, all people affected by the activity should have a say, this is the specific multi-stakeholder aspect.

These two characteristics already exist in the solidarity coop movement, especially in the delivery of social care in northern Italy (Emilia-Romagna) and Quebec, as reported by John Restakis in his excellent book, Humanizing the Economy. There are two extra requirements we suggest.

One is that the new coops must co-produce commons, whether immaterial or material. The Catalan Integral Cooperative is an example of a new type of coop that only produces shared knowledge in common pool resources but it is not yet global in orientation, as the name suggests. However, its project to create a global coalition of open coops through Fair.coop is a step in that direction. The Allianza Solidaria housing coop in Quito is an example of a coop producing physical commons, as it reclaims the polluted ravines in South Quito, giving it back to the community.

The final requirement is a global approach, to create counter-power for a global ethical economy consisting of cooperative alliances. An example of that is the approach of Las Indias. Their coop is oriented towards the global and they have the interesting concept of phylia, i.e. a global ecosystem that sustains a community and its commons. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to get in place, but they have as yet to find their integration in one clear example.

What kind of potential for transformation do MSCs hold, on a personal level as well as on a community level?

The problem with the capitalist market and enterprise is that it excludes negative externalities, [both] social and environmental, from its field of vision. Worker- or consumer-owned cooperatives that operate in the competitive marketplace solve work democracy issues but not the issues of externalities. Following the competitive logic and the interests of their own members only, they eventually start behaving in very similar ways.

One of the ways to integrate externalities is to integrate all affected parties in a multi-stakeholder structure, including bold moves like perhaps inviting in "representatives of nature," who make sure ecological concerns are heard. If we would add to this mix the requirement to co-create commons, then not only would such a structure avoid negative externalities, it would produce positive externalities beyond the interests of its own membership.

Where are MSCs taking off? Is there any place in particular where they are thriving?

The field of social care in Quebec is exemplary, and Margie Mendell tells us 98 percent of the new coops are solidarity coops. John Restakis has described the situation around Bologna. Key here is that the care services are funded as a public service by the state, guaranteeing universal access, but the crafting of the process is a co-production of all stakeholders, including the patient communities and their families. Patients have a quite different vision of what they need than process oriented industrial hospitals, resulting in soaring satisfaction rates.

In the commons transition plan that was crafted for the government in Ecuador ... we introduced two radical new concepts: one is public-commons partnerships, which should replace extractive forms of public-private partnerships which exclude the participation of civil society; and the other is the commonification of public services, as was done for public water in Napoli, which is now called Aqua Beni Communi, with a Commissioner for the Commons in place within the City of Naples.

MSCs require an advanced level of organization and communication, but committing to this process could prove to be revolutionary in creating vital, thriving organizations and communities. What are the biggest challenges to creating a MSC and what’s the benefit of working through these challenges?

The key issue for me is the balance between efficiency and participation; what is to be avoided is the weakness of time-consuming deliberations that end up exhausting the membership. So there needs to be trust between the various stakeholders, but once agreement is reached on the right direction, [there is] autonomy for those who have to implement it.

MSCs are about more than people making money - they’re rooted in democratic process and require a shared vision by all involved. What, would you say, is the higher purpose of these organizations?

In the old system, we have competing entities and within these entities there is cooperation. In the new system it is the opposite - everyone cooperates around shared commons, but within this cooperation, there is room for competition between various entities that build service and product models around these shared resources. In the old model, only self-interest is recognized, externalities are expelled from consideration, and “what is legal is ethical.”

In the new model, a plurality of motivations is recognized, including room for self-interest if it aligns with the common goal; and externalities are integrated in the market model. In the old model, exchange value is created for profit, and the new model, use value is generated and any profit is used to achieve that social goal.

What is the big picture vision for this movement?

The big picture is a move away from extractive forms of capital, to generative forms of capital, as defined by Marjorie Kelly in her book Owning Our Future: the Emerging Ownership Revolution. The problem is that even worker coops, like Mondragon, may end up behaving in capitalist ways on the capitalist market, without solving the grave problems that the world is facing.

With the emergence of peer production, we potentially have the hyper-exploitation of human cooperation, and generalized precarity, because the value creators, who are now often the users as well, are not getting any reward for their contributions.

Worker and consumer coops, to the degree they only work for their own members, are, in my view, insufficient models to integrate the new social and environmental externalities. Thus we need new models like the open coops I call for, which includes multi-stakeholdership and the co-production of the value chain by everyone affected by a provisioning service.

Is there anything you’d like to add? What else should we know about the multi-stakeholder cooperative movement?

The key question is: Are we creating positive externalities and taking responsibility for our negative externalities? Are we not harming the common, but rather adding value to it?
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Top photo by Esparta Palma (CC). Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter