and also on
Ivor Stodolsky & Marita Muukkonen
The absurdity of our times is palpable. Climate change is like a slow-motion atomic bomb whose red release-button we are gradually pushing deeper and deeper. While fully aware of the havoc we wreak, we subsidize this trigger-pushing on the order of trillions of euros a year. Mass extinction of life on earth is an accepted byproduct, the “collateral damage” of this extractive economy. An ideological privatization of everything animate, inanimate, (un)conscious or affective puts every aspect of existence in the hands of the profit-motive — and nature, health, welfare, liberty and the very fabric of our societies is being torn apart in the process.
In December 2016, Ivor Stodolsky and Marita Muukkonen of Perpetuum Mobile attended the first European Commons Assembly (ECA) in Brussels. This gathering represented a demand by “commoners” from all over Europe and beyond for political cooperation in face of this truly planetary crisis. Meetings organised by a loose and open international organising committee were held at a local commons-friendly space called Zinneke and at the EU’s European Parliament itself, in coordination with the parliamentary Commons Intergoup. The events gathered 100-150 commoners, both as individuals and as representatives of commons-oriented initiatives from across Europe and beyond.
In the run-up to the ECA, online discussions via commoning tools such as Hackpad and Loomio (links to discussions) had allowed the preparation of general themes, issues and questions, and even some developed preliminary policy proposals. With many major and lesser-known commons leaders and organisations in attendance, an open and eager group of MEPs ready to cooperate and listen, and assembling at the heart of the EU’s only directly democratic institution, the European Parliament, the events may be described as historic. A promising start was made, with a declared will on all sides to see this as the beginning of a process in which ordinary commoners would help to co-write and develop European Union policies.
But what, you may be asking, is a “commoner”, and what does “commoning” mean? How can practices of commoning provide practical solutions in the here and now — as the current system loses both efficacy and legitimacy in tackling burning issues? How can the movement for the Commons claim to go beyond (without even being in life-or-death opposition to) both the State and the Market? In what ways is commoning more inclusive, and how does it address the widely-felt “democratic deficit” in our supposedly advanced democratic societies? How can one go beyond peer-to-peer (p2p) software systems to develop p2p social and cultural initiatives?
These are some of the key questions, some of which Perpetuum Mobile has addressed through proposals and interventions at the ECA, but also in our work at PM’s PLURIversity, PM’s Common Collection (CC) and another long-established PM platform called The Arts Assembly (Manifesta 8, 2010). All can be considered practices of commoning in the field of art.
First, however, what is “the commons”? As David Bollier put it in his exemplary How To Think Like a Commoner (2014) this notion includes
the vast public lands containing minerals and forests, the broadcast airwaves that TV stations use for free, urban spaces, the human genome […] the wonderful community festivals in my hometown, the “gift economies” of blood donation systems and the commons of language itself — a resource that is free to anyone to use, but whose letters and words are fast becoming proprietary trademarks. Then there are the fisheries, farmland and water that an estimated two billion people around the world manage as commons to meet their everyday needs.
In the 21st century, the re-imagining, re-creation and survival of forms of the commons is the source of great hopes and synergies. Its highly practical successes – in the form of Wikipedia, open software, communal gardening, co-working, co-operative enterprises, co-housing, car-sharing, etc. etc. – have been adapted in an increasing plethora of sectors. Much has been happening in the world of open/integral co-operatives, alternative currencies, open-source hardware, peer-to-peer decision making communities, solidarity and real-sharing economies.
All this gives some hope for the future in these dark times. The commons offers a viable and realistic framework for progressive thinking, with little compulsory ideological baggage. In many ways, the language of the commons has built bridges between old and new technologies and social formations, radical and traditionalist sentiments, and has the potential to overcome the impasse faced by society in the form of often indistinguishable mainstream political camps beholden to the market. It creates not only new imaginaries but new practical realities.
Commoning often works better than any state or private system. To start with a whole field, take the entire scientific community, which depends on sharing and openly co-developing ideas, experiments, confirming facts and co-developing technologies. Currently, science is fighting to reclaim rights to its own knowledge-commons – which oversize, rapacious publishers such as Elsevier receive at zero price from researchers and universities, but have been selling back to them at exorbitant prices.
To take a more specific example, consider internet security, where there is a consensus that the safest encryption must be open source – for with so many “eyeballs” on the open code, any bug or loophole will be detected and removed without delay. Proprietary and hence non-open code can harbour bugs, and being secret may be abused without report. Or look at Linux, an open-source operating system, which is so successful that it has become the kernel of Android, the world’s widest-used mobile phone operating system. Apache servers, again running open source software, serve more websites than any other system, decades after their first introduction, providing the backbone of the internet.
Further commons stories could be told that range from co-managing the fishing rights to a lake, to holding a potluck party, to the honour of surfing on the most beautiful waves found on certain beaches in Hawaii. It’s something as simple as talkoot, the Finnish name for the tradition of a community getting together to accomplish a task nobody could do alone. Or it can be something as difficult as defending indigenous lands and clean water – such as the ongoing battle at Standing Rock against the depredations of the corporate oil lobby laying the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Clearly the scope of the commons is vast. The commons is everything that is shared, nobody in particular owns or should own, and is co-managed by those who care most. Indeed, that is why it is often preferred to talk of commoning. It’s an everyday practice.
The field of art has been practicing forms of commoning at least since the early 20th century. Conceiving these practices as “commoning” is more recent.
PM’s The Arts Assembly (The AA) is one example of commons-thinking without the title. Held in the context of Manifesta in 2010 (Murcia, Spain) the first public AA was an experiment in collective “valuation” of artworks. Artists participating in the biennial were invited to submit their work exhibited at Manifesta to the scrutiny of the “Valuation Chamber”. This approximately two-hour procedure was carried out in an amphitheatre in which members of the audience, together with a jury of leading art figures, determined the criteria according to which a work/artist “demanded” to be valuated (for short videos click each Chamber under Manifesta AA Events here). Designed to encourage a deepened form of art appraisal and critique in a field in which friendly criticism is often bland or vague — even while the commercial art market cuts a razor-sharp edge — The AA harnesses the thoughts and opinions of an entire amphitheatre to clarifying our non-monetary “valuation” of a work, a concept, a procedure. (N.B. from 2011 the form of “assembly” regained popularity with the Indignados in Spain and Occupy movements more generally, each developing their own forms and methods of commoning.)
The Commons Collection (CC) is a more recent initiative, and is currently under active development. As the curators of the CC, Perpetuum Mobile’s directors guarantee the quality of the artworks, and the coherence and integrity of the collection. The CC is however collectively owned by the artists in the collection with the curators. As the CC acquires more pieces, status and renown, the works will appreciate in value. This means that costs like storage, potential exhibitions or promotional costs can be shared. These benefits therefore come back to the CC’s participants. Even more importantly, it means that both established and younger artists in the collection, whose works are of little market value at the time of joining, are collected for the good of the entire CC and hence its members. Young artists’ works are often thrown away after shows, for lack of market value or wider fame, and providing storage avoids this misfortune. In these ways, the CC is a form of long-term co-operative which accrues value and hence potentially acts as a form of insurance. CC works might be sold to help members in financial difficulty, for example. As the CC gains in stature, all involved will benefit commonly.
PM’s most recent initiative directly focussed on the commons is the so-called PLURIversity:
A ”université populaire” and school of the arts, the PLURIversity cross-seeds artistic, P2P and social imaginaries to develop new pedagogies, skills and solutions for a diverse, pluricultural future. The PLURIversity is initially intended for its participants — and that’s potentially everyone. We are engaging local youth, associations, communities and cooperative initiatives to co-develop new models. With the hope and enthusiasm generated so far, here some preliminary field reports from the ongoing learning-by-doing “faculties”.
In Helsinki, where the PLURIversity was launched, a diverse set of commoners from all walks of life joined the faculty of PLURIeconomy’s so-called ‘Co-Op of Co-Ops’ process. These included participants of a music school, DIY-enthusiasts, theatre artists, members of Commons.fi, Aika Pankki (Time Bank) and the Pixelache Festival, as well as representatives of YMBIcon and Open Knowledge. Following the experience of the ECA in Brussels, these groups are joining in a new shared commons forum.
The first Assembly of the Commons took place in 2016, and cooperation is growing, involving many different actors, including individuals, entrepreneurs, politicians and civil society. The second Assembly is planned for January 20, 2016. The outcomes of this process is still to be seen. However, the most ambitious long-term local aim is to build an “integral cooperative”, that is “a co-operative of co-operatives” (Co-Op of Co-ps) which establishes a stable and vibrant economic infrastructure for ethical economic association. Successful experience of such initiatives exist. The Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) is an inspiring model for regional cooperation. Related experiments in global “open” or “integral” co-operativism such as FairCoop (which is developing the currency FairCoin) are another model.
Seen from a wider perspective, it is important to realise that many of the innovations of the commons movement have and will be compromised by corporate logic, especially in the shorter term. Airbnb and Uber are examples of how financialization can turn “sharing” into another extractive business — undercutting hard-won housing and labour laws to further precaritize housing and jobs. They have created the largest real-estate and taxi companies respectively, without owning a single house or car — but this is not the commons. This is falsely-named “sharing economy” is growing fast. Similar issues can be discussed in relation to practices such as crowd-funding for commercial purposes, or using copyleft “creative commons” licences through which free labour is used to generate profit for corporations.
In short, the profits are not going back to the members organised “horizontally”. Instead, they accrue to a centralized “vertical” financial power. To counter this misappropriation of horizontal P2P methods, commoners have developed the notion and practices of Platform Cooperativism. Movements such as #BuyTwitter show its revolutionary potential. More modestly, an alternative form of copyfarleft licencing called the Peer-Production Licence aims to recuperate profits from the commercial use of otherwise creative commons copyrights.
At this important fork in the road, their ability to stand up to big finance remains to be proven. What is clear, however, is that P2P practices are infiltrating the very heart of old hierarchies.
In our writings, we have often argued that the crisis that came to a head starting in 2007 might well be ”the capitalist antipode to the communist collapse of 1989”. In this historical context, is important to realise that
During the era of perestroika, under Gorbachev, many people experienced a sudden “break in consciousness”, as realisation dawned that the fall was imminent. But until then most people behaved, spoke and even thought as if the Soviet system was permanent. And despite their cynicism about its brutality, they went on parades, participated in meetings and performed the rituals demanded by the state.
Are we living through a similar moment? What would happen if we replace the fraudulent notion of the ”people’s state” with the equally fraudulent notion of the ”free market” in the above account? Are we living in an equally unsustainable bubble, one that is on the verge of/is bursting? In Walter Benjamin’s terms, is ours a time of an exception to the normalised state of exception, the palpable absurdity of which this article began with? Perhaps the most important question is, what comes after the bubble bursts?
If/as the ancien régime of the 0.001% plutocracy falls apart around us, just as all absolutisms have before it — and we are sincere in our intentions to “never again” see the barbarism which followed Great Depression, the global collapse of capitalism in 1929 — then we have no choice but to begin to constructively re-imagine a post-capitalist world. As scholars of post-communist transformation like to say, it is a question of “rebuilding the ship at sea”. If we are not to capsize through sudden shock-waves leading to great-power war or indiscriminate revolt, or sink beneath the filthy rising tide of nationalism, we will have to replace plank by plank, beam by beam of this rotting structure.
Despite the clear need and the obvious advantages in terms of productivity, efficiency and value for humans and all life on this planet, the commons faces a formidable set of entrenched powers. It has always taken the many to achieve democratization. In our time, it will take the feat of recreating the commons.
 http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2884881/imf_reports_fossil_fuel_subsidies_worth_56_trillion_per_year.html, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/18/fossil-fuel-companies-getting-10m-a-minute-in-subsidies-says-imf
 Bollier, p.15.
 http://artseverywhere.ca/20…/…/14/has-the-art-world-lost-it/. This methodologically non-linear juxtaposition of historical epochs is intentional. It is also famously found in Walter Benjamin – what Rolf Tiedeman called Benjamin’s ‘dialectics at a standstill’.
 From a recent article by The Guardian’s economics writer Paul Mason, who picked up on the work of Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at Berkeley University, and author of “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation”. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/05/soviet-union-collapsed-overnight-western-democracy-liberal-order-ussr-russia