Freedom technologists and the future of global justice

In the wake of early 2010s upheavals such as the Arab Spring, Spain’s indignados, or the global Occupy movement, many commentators were quick to either invoke the presumed tech-savvy of ‘digital natives’ or the purported ‘cyber-utopianism’ of net freedom advocates who supported the protests. But what role have internet freedom activists – or ‘freedom technologists’ – played in ongoing struggles for progressive political change around the world and how can the pursuit of liberty be combined with the struggle for social justice?

The past five or six years have seen an explosion of political initiatives around the globe in which tech-minded actors of various kinds (including geeks, hackers, bloggers, tech journalists, digital rights lawyers, and Pirate politicians) have played leading parts. From whistleblowing to online protests, from occupied squares to anti-establishment parties, their political actions can no longer be ignored, particularly following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the mass digital surveillance capabilities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and allied agencies. 1

In my writings, I use the term freedom technologists to refer to those political actors – both individual and collective – who combine technological know-how with political acumen to pursue greater digital and democratic freedoms. Indeed, freedom technologists regard the fate of the internet and of human freedom as being inextricably entwined. Far from being the techno-utopian dreamers or ineffectual “slacktivists” of a certain strand of internet punditry, my anthropological research shows that most of them are, in fact, techno-pragmatists; that is, they take a highly practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change.

In the wake of popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring, Spain’s indignados, or the global Occupy movement, many commentators were quick to either invoke the presumed tech-savvy of “digital natives” or the purported “cyber-utopianism” of net freedom advocates who supported the protests. Yet not enough serious attention has been paid to the contribution of freedom technologists to ongoing struggles for progressive political change around the world. To address this neglect, in this essay I review some of the recent political successes and setbacks of freedom technologists of various kinds (geeks, hackers, online journalists, digital rights lawyers, Pirate politicians, etc.) in three countries that experienced mass protests following the global financial crisis of 2008: Iceland, Tunisia and Spain. I conclude by drawing attention to an unresolved issue in most freedom technologists’ projects – namely how to reconcile the pursuit of liberty with that of social justice – with Spain as a curious exception worthy of closer inspection.

Floppy disk revolution

From WikiLeaks to media freedom laws

A good place to start our enquiry into the contribution, if any, of freedom technologists to progressive political change is Iceland.

One October morning in 2008 Icelanders awoke to the shattering reality that their seemingly prosperous country was bankrupt. In other words, Iceland could no longer pay back its external debts and its currency, the krona, had become valueless. 2 It soon emerged that Icelandic banks had been making staggeringly large loans to their own shareholders. As a result of this “huge scam”, over 50,000 people – or one sixth of Iceland’s population of 320,000 – lost their savings. It also transpired that a financial clique of about 30 people controlled the country’s economy through a “revolving door between finance, politics and the media”. Not surprisingly, a deep crisis of legitimacy ensued after long decades of citizens’ faith in a political system customarily hailed as being among the most transparent and advanced in the world. As the information freedom activist Heather Brooke aptly put it, Iceland was “ripe for reform”.

A key turning point came on 1 August 2009. The then unknown WikiLeaks had obtained documentation that exposed the tight grip of cronyism on the country’s financial system. When the bankers realised that this documentation had been posted online, they forced the Icelandic judiciary to impose an unprecedented gagging order on the news media. Undeterred, the state TV news anchor, Bogi Ágússton, circumvented this order by simply directing viewers to the WikiLeaks website. This incident made WikiLeaks an instant phenomenon in Iceland. Shortly thereafter its spokespersons, Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, were welcomed to Iceland as heroes. Interviewed on the nation’s most popular TV chat show, a cheerful Assange proposed that Iceland become an information freedom haven: “A crisis is a terrible thing Iceland needed to change, and it would only take a few committed activists, particularly when they had technological skill and political currency, to change society in a profound way. Freedom technologists and the future of global justice to waste and Iceland has a lot of opportunity to redefine its standards and its legislation”, argued Assange. The message from WikiLeaks was that

Iceland needed to change, and it would only take a few committed activists, particularly when they had technological skill and political currency, to change society in a profound way.

Inspired by this message, a team of Icelandic and foreign freedom technologists – predominantly hackers, geeks, lawyers, journalists and politicians – launched the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). The aim of IMMI was to strengthen information freedom both in Iceland and globally, particularly “the rights of journalists, publishers and bloggers”. The team’s techno-pragmatism was in evidence from the outset. Thus one of its leaders, the self-defined computer “nerd”, poet, and MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir explained how “we went on a scouting mission looking for the best [information freedom] laws, not just laws that looked good on paper, but that actually worked in reality”. 3

To their delight, on 16 June 2010 the Icelandic parliament unanimously passed IMMI as a resolution. However, the process of translating the resolution into legislation is proving to be long and tortuous. While some provisions are now law (e.g. source protection), others are currently pending, and still others are on hold. An added hurdle is IMMI’s realisation since Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations that legal innovations may not be sufficient to protect whistle-blowers and other sources from the digital prying of powerful states and corporations. This led to calls for greater support for privacy technologies in view of the fact that “legalistic schemes are never going to work” as powerful governments can always “flaunt [sic] international law”.

In 2013 Birgitta Jónsdóttir became the leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party, which holds only three seats of the national parliament’s 63 but currently leads the polls in voting intentions for 2017. Instead of a populist revolution, she calls for a gradual “rEvolution” while advocating for greater digital freedoms and direct democracy tools, describing herself as a “pragmatic anarchist”, Jónsdóttir believes her mixed background as a geeky poet gives her a different perspective on democratic reform to that of mainstream politicians. For people like her, all systems, including political systems, are there to be continually tinkered with – i.e. hacked – so that they can be improved. 4

Viva the Tunisian Revolution

Framing the revolution

In contrast to Iceland’s slow process of techno-political reform, in late 2010 Tunisia experienced a swift uprising that put an end to the autocratic regime of Ben Ali, ushering in a new constitution and parliamentary democracy. Tunisia’s revolution was counterintuitive, for it took place in a hitherto stable country governed by lifelong presidents.

The revolution can be divided into two main phases: before and after the Kasserine massacre of 8-12 January 2011 – with freedom technologists playing a particularly important role during the first phase. Let us begin, then, with the pre-Kasserine events. The December 2010 uprising resulted from two separate histories of struggle converging for the first time, namely the labour struggles of impoverished “inland Tunisians” (Nuzuh) and the internet activism of the urban middle classes living in the capital, Tunis, and other affluent areas at home and abroad. Online bloggers and activists had long contended with one the world’s harshest internet censorship regimes and felt closer to global outfits such as WikiLeaks, Reporters without Borders or Global Voices than to the plight of Tunisia’s working classes.

As in the Spanish protests reviewed below, WikiLeaks’ release of US diplomatic cables helped to prepare the protest ground. On 28 November 2010, within hours of the original WikiLeaks release, a first batch of 17 cables undermining the Tunisian government was published by Nawaat. org, a site set up in 2004 by the constitutional lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali. The leaks, amplified by Al Jazeera TV, gave many Tunisian activists the false – yet consequential – impression that the international community, and particularly the USA, now supported their struggle.

The trigger for the protests was the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in the town of Sidi Bouzid after being reportedly humiliated by a female government official. Unlike previous self-immolations, this one was filmed. The veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, a distant cousin of the victim, recorded it on his Samsung mobile, edited it with technical help from a friend, and shared it via Facebook where it was discovered by journalists from Al Jazeera – banned from entering Tunisia – and broadcast to the nation. Al Jazeera journalists relied on information shared on social media by Tunisian activists and other citizens to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground. When the government censored Facebook, the online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens.

Much has been made of how the video of Mohamad Bouazizi’s death “went viral”, triggering numerous “multi-channel” protests across the country that the Tunisian government was unable to stifle. Far less well known, however, is the fact that his cousin Ali Bouazizi added two “white lies” to the story that accompanied the video, namely the notion that Mohamed was a university graduate (in fact, he never completed high school) and the scene in which a woman slapped him in the face (we now know that this humiliating event never took place). As the internet scholar Merlyna Lim explains:

By adding these two ingredients – a university graduate and a slap – to the story, Ali rendered Mohamed’s burning body political, affixing to it the political body of a citizen whose rights were denied. Mohamed Bouazizi no longer represented the uneducated poor who struggle to provide food on the table, but represented all young people of Tunisia whose rights and freedom were denied.

For Lim, this compelling story functioned as a “bridging frame” that appealed to all Tunisians, becoming the endlessly rehearsed “master frame” of the uprising both domestically and internationally. Also important in this connection were the framing activities of the country’s lawyers. Thus the Association of Tunisian Lawyers backed the protests from an early stage, as did many lawyers in a personal capacity. For instance, the “lawyer-turned-activist” Leila Den Debba portrayed the events as “a revolution where the young people did not rally for food but for a dignified life”.

The turning point came on 8–12 January 2011 with the massacring of protesters in Kassarine, in central Tunisia. This slaughter led to mass protests in the capital, with the national workers’ union (UGTT) and the urban middle classes now conspicuously present, and the military exerting pressure on Ben Ali to step down. In his final speech of 13 January, the tyrant declared an end to the firing of “real bullets”. But it was too late to save his regime and he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia with his family.

Standard journalistic accounts of the Tunisian uprising have it that the country’s youth forced a regime change. In fact, as the above sketch suggests, the reality is far more complex, and it involves journalists themselves. While young street protesters were indeed a powerful force, we should not neglect the contribution of less visible protest agents. Thus, during the pre-Kasserine phase three familiar types of freedom technologist (hackers/geeks, lawyers, and journalists) from WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Al Jazeera, and other sundry outlets played crucial roles in framing the issue, aided by a broad band of other specialists and a sizeable portion of the population led by impoverished youths. This ad-hoc coalition dramatically expanded after the Kasserine massacre when two powerful non-netizen forces, namely the trade unions and the military, entered the fray, along with the vast majority of the Tunisian population. This spelled the end of Ben Ali’s regime.

Five years on, Tunisia is unique in the Arab world for having a working democracy, a new constitution based on human rights, a national unity government made up of secularists and Islamists, and a truth and reconciliation process. Yet despite these advances, Tunisia remains a deeply divided country, with the urban “digerati” enjoying unprecedented freedoms while the rural population still suffers from economic deprivation as violent jihadist cells seek to fill the void. 5

El 15 de mayo cientos de miles de personas en todo el estado espanol salieron a la calle a manifestarse por Una Democracia Real Ya. Despues de la manifestacion la policia nacional reprimio brutalmente a los manifestantes y detuvo a varias personas. Fue entonces cuando comenzo la acampada de la Puerta del Sol en Madrid que duraria has el 12 de junio. Ese tiempo, desde el 15 de mayo al 12 de junio crecio y se fortalecio el Movimiento 15 M y el campamento de Sol. Esta es la historia en imagenes.

From “Yes we camp!” to “Yes we can!”

Meanwhile, in nearby Spain, local and foreign commentators concur that the indignados (15M) protests of 2011 were long overdue. Spain’s housing market “bubble” had burst in 2008, leaving almost half of the country’s young people unemployed and millions more citizens in a precarious situation. In addition, a series of high-profile corruption scandals had discredited its political class, as had an electoral law seen as perpetuating a two-party system. The vast pool of qualified young (and not so young) middle-class Spaniards unable to find jobs or further their careers enjoyed a surplus of free time while still living “at home”. Many were therefore in an ideal position to join the fledgling movement. This was also a period of rapid growth in the uptake of social and mobile media in Spain, with a dramatic increase (65%) in mobile internet usage between 2010 and 2011. With the precedent of popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt fresh in people’s minds, the scene was set for a Spring of discontent. Lastly, Spain had a proud history of internet activism whose personnel, ideals and practices were not dissimilar to those that had been used in North Africa to great effect.

The connections and overlaps between Spain’s digital freedom scene and its indignados (or 15M) movement are numerous. Indeed, free culture activists played a crucial role in the movement’s conception, gestation, birth and growth. Spain has boasted an active netizen (in Spanish, internauta) scene since the 1990s. In December 2009, a manifesto in defence of fundamental digital rights was published in opposition to the so-called Ley Sinde, a proposed bill aimed at curtailing “internet piracy”. Other protest methods included DDoS attacks, Twitter hashtags and offline actions. In December 2010, a group of tech lawyers and other freedom technologists launched a successful online mobilisation against the bill, now renamed Ley Biden-Sinde in honour of the US Vice President Joe Biden. This renaming came after WikiLeaks confirmed that the bill was drafted under pressure from the US government and its culture industry lobby. The mobilisation was supported by Anonymous, and other hacker formations, and widely covered by both mainstream and alternative news media. For hacktivists like Margarita Padilla, the Ley Sinde struggle brought together networked “swarms” such as Anonymous and traditional movements, forging “monstrous alliances” that presaged the indignados movement.

Disregarding the netizen outcry, on 15 February 2011 Spain’s ruling socialist (PSOE) government, backed by Spain’s other major parties, went ahead and passed the anti-piracy bill under US pressure. Very shortly thereafter, the internet lawyer Sánchez Almeida with fellow freedom technologists created No Les Votes, an online formation that called on Spaniards to respond to this betrayal by not voting for any of the major parties in the coming municipal and regional elections. No Les Votes marked a radical break, a schism, between Spain’s netizens and its political class that would shape subsequent events. It soon joined forces with Anonymous, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), Democracia Real Ya (DRY) (Real Democracy Now) and other platforms to call for mass demonstrations across Spain on 15 May 2011 under the slogan “Real democracy now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”.

The marches were well attended but they failed to achieve the media visibility protesters had hoped for. However, a small group of protesters in Madrid decided to spend the night at Puerta del Sol, the city’s main square. Freedom technologists were well represented among these “first 40” campers, including an “Anon” who had broken into the Goya award ceremony, a copyleft lawyer formerly employed by a leading law firm, and a member of the hacktivist group, Isaac Hacksimov, who described the occupation as “a gesture that broke the collective mental block”.

By 17 May the number of occupiers had grown to 200 and by 20 May nearly 30,000 people had taken the square in full view of the national and international media, with dozens of squares across Spain following suit in rapid succession.

Although the role played by hackers and other computer experts in lending the indignados (15M) movement its strong free culture character is crucial, it is important not to overlook the part played by both amateur and professional journalists. In the 15M discourse the mainstream news media were often portrayed as an integral part of a monolithic “system” hostile to the protesters, while “citizen journalism” and other form of “horizontal” and “networked” communication were celebrated. In fact, without the support of sympathetic journalists and editors from major news organisations, it is unlikely that the campers would have reached such wide publics during the month-long occupation of Spain’s squares and their aftermath. For instance, Joseba Elola, a journalist with the centre-left daily El País, could barely contain his emotion when reporting from the Sol encampments, portraying the occupiers as “young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change”. It is telling that it was precisely Elola who secured the participation of El País in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables in November 2010, following a secret meeting with Assange in London. This experience changed Elola’s professional outlook. He came to realise that the news media had been “a little bit asleep” and that WikiLeaks had “brought something really good for journalism and for society”.

Let us fast-forward to early 2014, when a number of new political parties in Spain announced their intention to campaign in the European elections of 25 May 2014. The pioneer was Partido X, a “citizen network” (red ciudadana) created in early 2013 by the same group of Barcelona freedom technologists behind DRY. Partido X is no ordinary party, for it draws on hacker/free culture principles and practices and regards itself as a “methodology” for political change that can be freely borrowed and remixed by other parties – as long as the borrowing is publicly acknowledged. Indeed, soon after the new political party Podemos (“We Can”) was founded in early 2014, its leaders announced that they would borrow some of Partido X’s techno-political methods. Podemos was one the biggest surprises in the European elections, obtaining 8 per cent of the vote in Spain and five seats in the European Parliament.

Podemos is a leftist formation rooted in the indignados (15M) movement and led by the charismatic political scientist Pablo Iglesias, aged 37. For its European campaign it carried out a successful hybrid media (or transmedia) strategy right across the establishment vs. civic media divide by banking on its telegenic leader. In contrast, Partido X relied heavily on social media and opted for not playing the charismatic leader game, paying dearly for it at the ballot box, for they did not win any European seats. Iglesias became a masterful practitioner of Spain’s tertulia genre. Tertulias are popular TV and radio panel shows devoted to discussing current affairs. These media sites would often become arenas in which Iglesias often emerged victorious.

Exactly a year later, on 24 May 2015, local elections were held across Spain. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and other major cities, new antiestablishment candidates either won or came very close to winning, signalling a major change in the country’s political landscape. In Barcelona, a new municipalist platform named Barcelona en Comú (‘Barcelona in Common’), derived from the anti-eviction group PAH, gained power. Like Pablo Iglesias before her, its popular leader, Ada Colau, opted for a low-budget but highly effective transmedia strategy. Their electoral programme, drafted by over 5,000 people, was based on input from both online platforms and open assemblies. 6 The new platform also gave birth to SomComuns, a network of internet activists campaigning on social media, as well as a collective of designers and artists calling for the “graphic liberation” of Barcelona. SomComuns volunteers were free to experiment with language and media formats. As one of its initiators put it, “If a message works, we promote it, regardless of who created it. In fact, some of our top virals were made by anonymous people”. An example of this “new electoral narrative” is the video “El run run” (“The buzz”), featuring a joyful Ada Colau. Not only did “El run run” strike a chord with Colau’s supporters, it also found its way into the mainstream media.

For Carlos Delclós, the success of Barcelona en Comú and similar platforms marks the rise of a “new municipal agenda” in Spain. This agenda echoes the ideas of the founding father of libertarian municipalism, Murray Bookchin, who identified its four main features: “a revival of the citizens’ assembly, the need for confederation with other municipalities, grassroots politics as a school of genuine citizenship and the municipalisation of the economy”. Underlying this programme, argues Delclós, is “a recovery of a new participatory politics structured around free, self-empowered and active citizens”.7

In late October 2015, Barcelona en Comú announced it would join Podemos to stand in Spain’s general elections on the coming 20 December 8. As expected, their joint campaign displayed a rare admixture of techno-political savvy and neo-leftist/social justice ideals. Together, they came first in Catalonia, securing almost 25% of the vote and 12 MPs from Catalonia’s share of the Spanish parliament. Nationally, Podemos became the third political force in Spain with over five million votes, surging to 20.66% of the total vote, which gave the new political party 69 MPs and put an end to the country’s twoparty system, in place throughout the post-Franco era.

Digital Rights are Social Rights

Digital rights are social rights

Beyond the specificities of each national context, success in the application of techno-political ideals and practices to democratic transformation consists of three main elements: a deep economic crisis, interdisciplinary expertise, and grassroots populism. First, it is no coincidence that countries that managed to weather the post-2008 economic storm (such as Germany, Norway, Singapore or Indonesia) did not experience mass protest movements in which freedom technologists could play an important role. By the same token, it was countries like Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain or the USA – i.e. those worst hit by the global financial crisis – that saw a spectacular growth of political contention. Second, no techno-political project can have societal impact if it is founded solely on the IT expertise of hackers and geeks – it must be an interdisciplinary endeavour. To succeed politically, these specialists have to join forces with other technology experts (such as digital rights lawyers, online journalists, geeky politicians) as well as non-technological experts (for instance, artists, intellectuals, social scientists) and ordinary citizens with no specialist knowledge through inclusive initiatives where all can make a contribution. It is the coming together of everyday people, technology nerds and other political actors via social media, mainstream media and in physical settings such as streets and squares that drives processes of change. To achieve this convergence, would-be democratic reformers (and revolutionaries) must find innovative ways of bridging the chasm between the frames and interests of the middle and lower classes through grassroots populism. We saw this most dramatically in the martyrdom story of Mohamad Bouazizi, which served as a “bridging frame” that appealed to both working- and middle-class Tunisians, in the Occupy movement’s “We are the 99%” slogan, and in Spain’s “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”.

In this connection, it is worth noting that Spain – a country that is far from being a global technology leader – currently boasts what is arguably the world’s most advanced techno-political field. Even more remarkable, Spain’s civil society has achieved this leading position while pursuing agendas that are as much concerned with social justice as they are with liberty. In contrast, the techno-political scene in the rest of Europe is dominated by Pirate Parties with “pro-social” agendas (such as. guaranteeing citizens a basic income or free health and education) but who seem unwilling, to quote Bart Cammaerts, “to clarify the[ir] ideological position and the precise relationship between a libertarian freedom-related agenda and a social justice agenda”. 9

The problem is even more acute outside Europe, where freedom technologists rarely make the link between liberty and social justice. Take, for instance, the case of Southeast Asia. This is a pioneering region in the use of information technologies for political change following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to the birth of new pro-democracy movements across the region, most notably in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

A personal research experience will drive this point home. In March 2015 I was in the Philippine capital, Manila, to attend the fourth RightsCon meeting as a participant-observer. According to its organisers, this series of digital rights conferences, usually held in Silicon Valley, seeks “to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the tech sector”. All in all, RightsCon 2015 was a successful event. As its organisers noted during the closing ceremony, the Manila conference provided a safe, genderbalanced space for civil society and technology actors from numerous countries to meet and network.

Yet something about this event kept nagging at me as the sessions passed by, namely its inattention to social inequality. This global issue is glaringly obvious as soon as one steps out of the comforts of an international hotel to walk the streets of Manila (or London, for that matter). By way of an experiment I attempted to enter a beautiful gated community aptly named “Arcadia”, located across the road from the conference venue. Disappointingly, I was refused access by the security guards for not having a contact name and address inside the vast compound. “Sorry sir”, one of them apologised, “it’s SOP, Standard Operating Procedure”. Meanwhile, Arcadia’s army of workers streamed out on foot, while the occasional luxury vehicle was allowed entrance through the gates.

Economic inequality has been on the rise worldwide for decades, which have witnessed the concomitant emergence of a global plutocracy and the consolidation of corporate “illegitimate power”. 10 In the opening ceremony, “structural inequality” was identified as one of the conference’s main concerns, yet little was said about it in the remainder of the conference.

Arguably, the most urgent issue to tackle in these and other digital rights events is precisely how to use our collective techno-political and research savvy to address the present global system’s grotesque inequalities. There is a crucial debate to be had between freedom technologists who argue for multi-stakeholder approaches to the future of the internet 11 and those like Aral Balkan who advocate a post-plutocratic world order in which the internet is a global public good, not a corporate and state battlefield. A case in point is the problematic sponsorship of these events by giant Silicon Valley corporations. As Balkan tweeted in connection to RightsCon 2015:

Having #rightscon sponsored by Facebook, Google, & Microsoft is like having #healthcon sponsored by McDonald’s, Coke, and Lucky Strike.

But how can the social justice impasse be overcome beyond these small internet freedom circles? First, academics, public intellectuals, mainstream journalists and others have a crucial part to play in exploring the relationship between freedom in its various forms – including its technological dimensions – and social justice. They should do this through evidence-based public discussions across a range of media and physical settings, taking care not to assume that Silicon Valley’s venture capitalism is the only technological business model available to us. Second, we must start thinking of what a post-venture capitalism age of socio-technical innovation might look like, and how it could contribute to democratic renewal in different cultural contexts. Third, it is amply clear by now that the so-called digital divide cannot be bridged through technological means alone, as it must be understood within broader systems of entrenched social and economic exclusion. Digital rights are not only human rights, as we often hear in net freedom circles: digital rights are social rights.


1. The first three sections of this essay are adapted from Postill, J. (2014). Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence, 20 (3), 402-418. Unless otherwise noted, please refer to that piece for bibliographic references.
2. Michael Mandel (200). Iceland goes bankrupt, Business Week. 10 October.
3. Lázaro, Paula (2014). Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. (16:50-17:15).
4. See Rushton, Steve (2014). Anarchist and Parliamentarian, Iceland’s Birgitta Jónsdóttir Talks Big E-Revolution. Tuesday 4 January.
5. See Eakin, Hugh (2015) Why Tunisia?,The New York Review of Books, 2 July.
6. Shea Baird, Kate (2015). Beyond Ada Colau: the common people of Barcelona en Comú. Open Democracy, 27 May.
7. Delclos, Carlos (2015a). Towards a new municipal agenda in Spain. Open Democracy, 26 May.
8. Delclos, Carlos (2015b). Barcelona en Comú joins Podemos in Spanish elections. Roar Mag, 5 November.
9. Cammaerts, B. (2015). Pirates on the Liquid Shores of Liberal Democracy: Movement Frames of European Pirate Parties. Javnost-The Public, 22(1), 19-36.
10. Freeland, C. (2012). Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. London: Penguin; George, S. (2014). State of Corporations – The rise of illegitimate power and the threat to democracy.
11. For a thorough exposition of the internet multi-stakeholderism position, see MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the Networked: The Struggle for Internet Freedom. Basic Books: New York.

Originally published in TNI. This article is also available as a PDF Download.

Lead image from the original post. Additional images by Luiz Eduardo, Michael Thompson, Olmo Calvo and Luiz Eduardo.

How the Digital Media Environment Enforces Boundaries

In the 1980’s, the ultimate television president, Ronald Reagan, went to Berlin and implored Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Thanks to the global spectacle of electronic age as well as the unifying image of the earth from space, we were on our way to becoming one world. For better and for worse, both the spirit of kumbaya and the new power of the global market were in full force. This was utterly consistent with the media landscape of that society.

Today, the ultimate Internet candidate, Donald Trump, offers not to tear down a wall but to build one between the United States and Mexico. Thanks to the discrete bits and binary logic of the digital age, as well as the frightfully alienating spectacle of beheadings on social media, we are becoming obsessed with divisions and identification. For better and for worse, both the spirit of decentralization and the latent power of nationalism are in full force. This is utterly consistent with the media landscape of our society.

Consider the current argument over Ted Cruz’s status as a “natural born citizen.” No matter how disingenuously the question was raised, it proved wiggly enough to bring Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe to explain on CNN that “the Supreme Court has never fully addressed the issue one way or the other.” Even though Tribe believes Cruz’s eligible to run, he nevertheless wants this grey area to be rendered in black and white.

This is a digital-style problem. I don’t mean it’s caused by digital media so much as reflective of the qualities, the biases of the digital media environment in which we live.

For just one example, as we transitioned from emulsion film to digital photography and projection, we replaced smooth, random specks of silver with discreet pixels of numerically rendered tints. Each pixel required the computer to make a decision about what color to enter into the pixel. Back when there were 16 colors, that was a very crude estimate. Is it blue or purple? Whichever is closest.

Even with millions of colors and retina-display density, the decision must be made.
Definition is forced, and once the decision is made, fidelity is assured forever more. Everything has been made discrete (not discreet, but distinct).

That’s why we’re either Americans or Mexicans, Canadians or natural born citizens. Red states or blue states. Where pixels are getting mixed up, well, that’s where we have to build better walls. Get Supreme Court decisions that something is one way or the other. All the wiggle room, the undefined nooks and crannies that may have created ambiguity but also helped soften the edges of our societies, is taken away.

I was thinking our goal should be to re-establish the ambiguity?—?find new tolerance for ill-defined and undefined places on the spectrum. But even in those places, like the increasingly nuanced definition of gender, most are gravitating toward evermore specific names for their sense of self.

So now I’ve started to wonder if it’s better to push through. Maybe forcing definitions, as our digital environment seems to be doing, will lead to more granular definitions and categories. But each time we do this process, we will also be forced to come to terms with the arbitrary nature of all these categories and distinctions. Each one is a compromise, no matter how many decimal places we use.

A New World, Struggling to be Born

In an article at Alternet a while back Richard Eskow (“Rise of the techno-Libertarians,” April 12, 2015) made some excellent criticisms of the capitalist model of “techno-libertarianism” centered on Silicon Valley. Most of his points relate in some way to the profit-driven business model of the tech industry, which treats products primarily as a source of revenue — or more accurately rents — rather than an end in themselves. This primary evil carries with it a number of secondary symptoms, like the pathological culture of motivation-speak and buzzwords and the cult of “Great Men” like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel. Monopolies transfer income from workers and consumers to rentiers. And the authoritarian form taken by the technologies, as they are developed under a proprietary information regime, regards users less as the ultimate reason for the technologies than as a revenue stream to be permanently locked in via user agreements and licensing.

So if networked communication and cybernetic technologies are so potentially liberating, why are they so authoritarian in the forms they currently take? The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who died in Mussolini’s prisons in the 1930s, once wrote that “the old world is dying, and the new one struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.” In the case of the new world offered by liberatory technologies, most of the birth struggle results from the principalities and powers of the old world fighting to imprison the forces of the new world in their old institutional framework.

Lewis Mumford borrowed a term from geology — “cultural pseudo-morph” — to describe the process by which new, potentially liberating technologies were instead incorporated into the institutional forms of the old world, like new mineral deposits that gradually formed a fossil in the shape of buried organic matter. He was referring in particular to the technologies of what he called the neo-technic age, like the electric motor, which by nature were low-overhead and decentralizing. The optimal use of such technologies would have been to replace the paleotechnic order (in which large factories were built to economize on steam power by running as many machines as possible off a prime mover) with a new model of manufacturing where a motor of any size could be built into a machine wherever it was used, the machine could be scaled to production flow, production flow could be scaled to immediate demand, and the site of production could be located close to the point of consumption.

Instead, the forces of the old paleotechnic world were strong enough to put the new wine of electrical power into the old institutional framework of Dark Satanic Mills, in the form of mass production (which threw away all the special advantages of electric power for decentralized, lean production).

Although Mumford didn’t live to see it, the internal crisis tendencies and inefficiencies of mass production eventually led, from the ’70s on, to the outsourcing of actual production to small job-shops owned by independent contractors. The new technological wine still remained in the old corporate bottles, thanks to the use of patents and trademarks to enforce a corporate monopoly on the distribution of a product they didn’t actually make. But the rapid implosion in cost and scale of tabletop CNC machinery, especially open-source versions, are unleashing productive forces that are making “intellectual property” unenforceable. It’s only a matter of time before garage factories using small-scale general-purpose machinery to produce on a craft model are ignoring patents and trademarks and making goods for local neighborhood markets all over the world.

The same is true of network communications and digital culture. Libertarian Marxists like the Oekonux group in Germany and the autonomists Negri and Hardt see “commons-based peer production” as the kernel of a post-capitalist society that will gradually emerge from within the interstices of the present system, coalesce into a new system, and supplant the old one.

These new technologies of abundance are still held captive within proprietary frameworks like Windows and OSX operating systems, corporate-owned sharing apps like Uber and AirBNB, and the like — enclosed in a neo-feudal “intellectual property” framework to enable the extraction of rents.

But the days of this intermediate stage are numbered. The productive forces unleashed by these new technologies cannot be contained by the old authoritarian class relations. Proprietary “sharing” apps like Uber, which create no value beyond interposing themselves as toll-gates between providers and users, are eminently vulnerable to replacement by hacked, open-source versions. And when communications technology enables horizontal networks to coordinate their projects more efficiently than corporate hierarchies, and open-source micro-manufacturing technology is so cheap that six months skilled blue collar pay can stock a garage factory with tabletop machinery, there’s nothing to stop producers and consumers from “Exodus” (Negri’s and Hardt’s word) from the system, to deal with each other as human beings and treat the technologies as means for their own dignity and empowerment.

Translations for this article:

A new era of global protest begins

In line with the steady rise in social unrest over the past decade, it’s likely that we will witness an unprecedented escalation in large-scale citizen protests across the globe in 2016 and beyond.

Research by Dr. David Bailey provides empirical evidence for what many activists and campaigners have long suspected: that we have entered a prolonged period of dissent characterised by an escalation in the magnitude and diversity of public protest. The UK-based data clearly indicates that the catalyst for this upsurge in social unrest was the financial crisis of 2008, which continues to have a detrimental impact on economic security for the vast majority of citizens – even while the combined wealth of the richest 1% continues to soar.

Although many would regard 2011 as the year that mass civil disobedience peaked across the world (as exemplified by the emergence of Occupy and the Arab Spring, or ‘The Protestor’ being named person of the year by Time magazine) Dr. Bailey’s calculations show that 2015 was in fact the year that public mobilisations in the UK hit a record high. It’s not hard to see why protest activity is on an ascending trajectory, especially in light of government policies that continue to redistribute wealth upwards to an affluent minority. As opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in response to the current direction of policymaking in the UK, “[this government is] slashing public services, especially at local level, for those who rely on them for security and a decent life. It is driving the NHS and social care into crisis, while accelerating the privatisation and break up of our health and education services.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the protests reviewed in Dr. Bailey’s research were austerity-related and convened in response to concerns around pay and working conditions in the public sector, cuts to social services, the privatization of essential services or the lack of affordable housing. More recent catalysts include climate change and the refugee crisis – pressing international issues that remain wholly unresolved and likely to cause further mobilisations in the period ahead. Indeed, with continuing economic stagnation, more austerity measures and growing levels of hunger and poverty anticipated in the coming months, there is every reason to believe that the scale of public disaffection and dissent in the UK will continue to escalate in 2016 and beyond.

Rising protest as a global trend

The evidence from the UK tallies closely with the situation in other countries, as well as the general perception that social discontent is on the rise across the globe. A spate of studies and meta-analysis in recent years depict how large-scale citizen mobilisations have been intensifying for more than a decade, reaching a new peak in the past five years. According to the conclusion of an extensive study examining the complexities of global protests“The current surge of protests is more global than the wave that occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s, reaches every region of the world, and affects the full range of political systems—authoritarian, semiauthoritarian, and democratic alike.”

But it’s not just the magnitude of protest that has been multiplying; the number of people engaged in public rallies is also rising. A study analysing 843 protests that occurred between 2006-13 in 87 countries concluded that 37 mobilisations attracted one million or more participants. For example, in 2013 around 100 million people marched against inequality and dire living standards in India, and 17 million citizens mobilised in Tahrir Square to oust Egypt’s President Morsi – possibly two of the largest demonstrations in history. Commentators also acknowledge the instrumental role that the internet and social media have played in engaging the population during Occupy-style campaigns, and that global communication networks have even facilitated the spread of protests across national borders. In terms of motivation, the evidence suggests that most protests take place in response to pressing socio-economic concerns, the violation of basic human rights or a lack of democratic governance. Put simply, the majority of protests constitute a demand for wealth and political power to be shared more equitably among citizens.

Skeptics might argue that citizen protests are unnecessarily disruptive and do more harm than good, or that they are ineffective at changing laws and regulations. However, the research demonstrates that this is not the case. Although some 63% of stipulations made by protestors between 2006-2013 were not met by their governments, many of these were for systemic reforms which can only be implemented progressively over time. Moreover, the influence that large-scale demonstrations have on public consciousness should not be underestimated – a point well-articulated in the film ‘We are Many’, which details how the anti-war marches that took place prior to the invasion of Iraq influenced Egyptian activists during the Arab Spring almost a decade later.

A new expression of democracy

It’s reasonable to conclude from a simple analysis of these trends that a revolutionary change is taking place in the global political landscape. As policymaking becomes increasingly subverted by powerful vested interests, the resulting democratic deficit is being filled by concerned citizens who are demanding that governments take heed of their collective demands. This signifies a fundamental shift in the relationship between citizens and the State, and heralds a new expression of democracy that is still in its infancy but already capable of shaping public opinion, influencing policy discussions and even toppling governments.

The peoples’ voice is likely to strengthen dramatically during 2016, especially in response to a deteriorating geopolitical, socio-economic and environmental situation that necessitates a far more effective form of intergovernmental cooperation than has yet been achieved. In response to this epochal challenge, perhaps citizens campaigning on separate issues or based in different countries will also begin to coalesce their activities more concretely around a common set of principles and global priorities, such as a united demand for governments to finally secure basic human rights universally. Without such expressions of international unity and solidarity among both policymakers and protesters, it is difficult to imagine how today’s converging crises can be addressed in a way that upholds the global common good.

The only certainty is that government ministers will invite further social unrest if they fail to act on the rising demand for real democracy and justice that is at the heart of the current wave of popular unrest. The way forward has long been clear to global activists and engaged citizens: curtail the power of elites and corporations, and ensure that governance systems truly serve the people and protect the biosphere. As a minimum – and in line with the growing demands of a disaffected majority – this necessitates a radical decentralisation of power and the redistribution of wealth and resources across the world as a whole.

Image Credit: Nathan Keirn, Wikipedia Commons

Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons

One of the more complicated, mostly unresolved issues facing most commons is how to assure the independence of commons when the dominant systems of finance, banking and money are so hostile to commoning. How can commoners meet their needs without replicating (perhaps in only modestly less harmful ways) the structural problems of the dominant money system?

Fortunately, there are a number of fascinating, creative initiatives around the world that can help illuminate answers to this question – from co-operative finance and crowdequity schemes to alternative currencies and the blockchain ledger used in Bitcoin, to reclaiming public control over money-creation to enable “quantitative easing for people” (and not just banks).

To help start a new conversation on these issues, the Commons Strategies Group, working in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, co-organized a Deep Dive strategy workshop in Berlin, Germany, last September. We brought together 24 activists and experts on such topics as public money, complementary currencies, community development finance institutions, public banks, social and ethical lending, commons-based virtual banking, and new organizational forms to enable “co-operative accumulation” (the ability of collectives to secure equity ownership and control over assets that matter to them).

I’m happy to report that a report synthesizing the key themes and cross-currents of dialogue at that workshop is now available. The report is called “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons: Strategies for Transforming Neoliberal Finance Through Commons-Based Alternatives,” (pdf file) by David Bollier and Pat Conaty.

Money-325x219You could consider the 54-page report an opening gambit for commoners to discuss how money, banking and finance could better serve their interests as commoners. There are no quick and easy answers if only because so much of the existing money system is oriented towards servicing the conventional capitalist economy. Even basic financial terms often have an embedded logic that skews toward promoting relentless economic growth, the extractivist economy and its pathologies, and the notion that money itself IS wealth.

That said, commoners have many important reasons for engaging with this topic. As we put it in the Introduction to the report, “The logic of neoliberal capitalism is responsible for at least three interrelated, systemic problems that urgently need to be addressed – the destruction of ecosystems, market enclosures of commons, and assaults on equality, social justice and the capacity of society to provide social care to its citizens. None of these problems is likely to be overcome unless we can find ways to develop innovative co-operative finance and money systems that can address all three problems in integrated ways.”

To continue with the Introduction:

A key driver of these pathologies is debt-driven growth and deregulated finance, which are central elements of the neoliberal economics introduced by Thatcher and Reagan in the early 1980s as the successor to the Keynesian paradigm. This shift was marked by the abolition or relaxation of legal interest rate caps in most countries, which has resulted in usurious rates for many conventional loans and rates as high as 5,000% for payday loans. While such predation was once mostly directed at the poor, precarious workers and the global South, it spread under other forms to middle-class Europeans and Americans in the 1990s and in the 2000s. Over-indebtedness has become a ubiquitous condition that has, deepened since the 2008 crisis, strangling economies all over the world and inflicting great social injustice. Yet business-as-usual continues and mainstream politics has no interest in fundamental reforms.

Fortunately, new opportunities to pursue systemic change are arising. As the internal contradictions of capitalist finance become more evident and more damaging, insurgent critiques of the money system are gaining ground as is the development of practical alternatives. Near-forgotten historical models of cooperative finance are being rediscovered as new technologies enable novel DIY credit systems, alternative currencies and cooperative organizational models. One might say that a post-capitalist vision for finance and money is fitfully emerging.

But can the eclectic jumble of piecemeal solutions – alternative banks, currencies, lending systems, cooperative digital platforms, policy proposals, and more – be synthesized into a coherent new vision? Can the various projects and players in this sprawling realm find each other, initiate deeper collaborations, and attract wider support?

This was the goal of the Deep Dive. You can download a pdf version of the 54-page report here – and here is a seven-page Executive Summary.

My co-author Pat Conaty and I wish to thank the participants of the Deep Dive for sharing their deep wisdom on so many important topics, and for helping us refine the text of the final report.

To give you a better idea of the material covered, here is the remainder of the Executive Summary:

I. Why A Transformation of Money, Banking and Finance Is Essential

Neoliberal capitalism, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown, is demonstrably unable to meet basic human needs in socially fair, ecologically responsible ways. Its obsession with economic growth and private wealth accumulation has become predatory and socially parasitic, and the overall system is wired to produce recurrent, catastrophic booms and busts. But it is not widely appreciated that money and the money system are social creations that act as invisible instruments of social engineering and order. To many, they seem a kind of natural economic order. But it is entirely possible to recapture public (government) control of the ability to create money from the private sector so that money can be used to serve public, democratically determined needs rather than the narrow profit-making goals of private banks and financial institutions.

The general public is not aware that money is created by private banks through the creation of new debt, repayable by governments and households with interest. However, instead of seeing money as something that government must borrow from banks, we might also see it as a common good – a public supply of currency that could prioritize socially necessary expenditures, including investments in the private economy, without first raising revenues through taxes. There need be no “deficit” resulting from public borrowing from banks. Money would simply represent a public source of new currency, a function that private banks already perform by generating money as debt. The difference would be that public currencies would be interest-free and support democratically determined needs; they would not need to meet the commercial, profit-driven priorities of private lenders. Money for the common good could be democratically created as a public service and allocated for the public interest.

II. How Can We Finance Commons and Commoning?

The conventional financial system is dedicated to an economy of exploitation and extraction. It amounts to a pyramid scheme with a built-in growth imperative because in order to repay interest – an add-on to the initial sum of money created by banks – the general population must take on ever more debt, and at a faster rate than the economy grows. This debt treadmill driven – by compound interest – invariably leads to speculation and boom-and-bust economic crises. Unlike 1929, which led to Keynesian reforms and a New Deal in the US and the emergence of the modern welfare state, the global banking and money system since 2008 has been shored up without any fundamental reform. Our money and banking system is now based on rent extraction that uses privatization, the division of labor, and the enclosure of common resources to create a surplus.

This process is supported by a diversity of financial instruments that create a variety of constraints and claims on the privatized resources and labor. These financial realities prohibit the generation of new capital for public and common uses and frustrate the capacity of commoners to create their own value and capital for common purposes. Instead the existing production and financial system is designed to siphon all value creation into private pockets. Thus, the only hope for commoners and those committed to finance as a tool for promoting the public good lies in dismantling the existing rentier system and reintegrating the realms of nature and social value into a reconceptualized whole in which capital serves the collective aims of societies.

In short, we need to reimagine and reconstruct the role of money and credit if we are to create a commons-based society that is both democratic and equitable. This means using finance to enable people to engage in commoning and the promotion of economic and social co-operation through a process of envisioning, articulating, and creating shared resources as common goods. This is a very different mentality than the feverish buying and creating of private assets which is the primary aim of conventional lending. It’s about funding a process for mutualization. This requires a wholly different set of institutions, legal regimes and social practices for managing (and mutualizing) money, credit and risk.

III. Nine Innovative Institutional Forms to Transform Finance

But we need not start from zero. The good news is that credit and risk can be reconceptualized to serve the commons. It has been done before in various limited ways. There are a wide variety of historically proven and promising examples that have already emerged to address these issues. The Deep Dive explored nine innovative models of finance.

1. Social and Ethical Lending.

Ethical social banks such as Fiare in Spain and Banca Etica in Italy are actively concerned with the social and environmental impact of their loans. They therefore focus on borrowers associated with the fair trade movement, corporate social responsibility, local businesses generating local good work, and other co-operative and social concerns. With its linkage to over 400 local government administrations, Banca Etica has a strong public sector and community component. The co-operative bank’s equity, currently 52 million euros, is owned by over 35,000 shareholders and 90 local groups, which actively help develop the bank’s products and services and hold it accountable to its social mandate.

2. Community Development Finance Institutions.

CDFIs are a species of cooperative and mutual lending institutions that have proliferated in the U.S. as a way to democratize access to credit, especially in the face of racial discrimination. Thanks to strong support from Presidents Clinton and Obama, there are now more than 1,000 mission-driven organizations officially recognized as CDFIs, and another two or three times as many institutions doing similar work but without official certification. Their collective assets amount to tens of billions of US dollars. CDFIs have also been developed in the UK and are growing in similar ways.

3. Public Banks.

An attractive alternative to the boom-and-bust economy spurred by the commercial banking system is public banks. Public banks can immediately lower public borrowing costs; provide capital to address social needs in ways that are not extractive; and lower the cost of infrastructure investments by half by reducing the interests costs of such projects. One example is the Bank of North Dakota which provides low-interest loans for small businesses, students, and farmers while generating over $300 million in dividends over ten years for North Dakota’s 600,000 residents. Between 1938 and 1974 the Bank of Canada operated in this way through a public banking arm and on a national scale. Some of Canada’s largest infrastructure projects – like the St. Lawrence Seaway – were financed in this way. There are many good examples of public banking internationally, including municipal banks.

4. Transition-Oriented Credit.

One key problem with traditional banks is that they struggle in circumstances of non-growth, or when the market rate of interest is low. Some ecologically minded communities are therefore trying to devise a credit or finance model that can work well in circumstances of no growth that can still support a resilient local economy. The Sambruket community in Sweden has concluded that it needs to establish both a natural resource commons and a complementary financial commons to work sustainably. As a co-operative, it is experimenting with a crowd-equity nonprofit mechanism as a way to support local sustainable development.

5. The Blockchain Ledger as a Community Infrastructure.

Despite controversy about its role in speculation, Bitcoin is a significant financial advance because of its innovative “distributed ledger” or “blockchain” technology. This breakthrough system allows people on open networks to validate the authenticity of an individual bitcoin (or digital certificate or document) without the need for a third-party guarantor such as a bank or government body. This has far-reaching ramifications because blockchain technology can be used reliably to manage social relationships on network platforms, such as the establishment of “distributed collaborative organizations” based on digital networks, or frameworks for collective governance of a group. If users can avoid the usual need to verify the reliability or trustworthiness of other users, it allows an indefinitely large number of participants to engage in exchange relations on open network systems.

6. Complementary Currencies.

Community Forge – – is a social networking platform that lets communities create their own local currency, manage exchanges and member accounts, and advertise individual and collective needs. More than 400 communities use the Drupal-based platform to manage their complementary currencies. By the end of 2014, Community Forge supported 550 LETS projects in France, 113 in Belgium, 63 in Switzerland, and 150 timebanks. One interesting alternative currency is uCoin, a project in France that seeks to implement a basic income through the use of cryptocurrency.

7. Crowdfunding for the Commons.

One of the most innovative crowdfunding enterprises is Goteo, a Spain-based open-source platform dedicated to advancing commons projects and principles. Goteo differs from standard crowdfunding sites in that it invites public participation in improving projects and greater accountability to donors. To date, Goteo has funded more than 400 projects, with a 60-70% success rate in meeting fundraising goals. It has more than 50,000 users and has raised more than 2 million euros since its founding in 2011.

8. Enspiral and Commons-based Virtual Banking.

Enspiral is a New Zealand-based network of entrepreneurs, professionals and hackers who are “using the tools of business and technology to make positive social change.” The enterprise uses software platforms to create novel organizational structures for hosting new types of collective self-provisioning and financing. One such platform, my.enspiral, allows the members of the Enspiral Services freelancer and contractor collective to use an internal banking system within a walled garden of autonomy and flexibility. Enspiral also has a Cobudget platform that lets participants allocate money in the collective budget in proportion to how much they contributed to it.

9. New Organizational Forms for Cooperative Accumulation.

Some organizational forms are showing great promise in fostering new types of “cooperative accumulation” – i.e., the collective accumulation of financial resources for mutual benefit. One notable example is the “solidarity economy” and multi-stakeholder cooperative models, especially as developed in Italy, Quebec, Canada, and more recently in New York City (Solidarity NYC). The issuing of Co-operative Shares, developed in the 1990s by the Fair Trade movement in the UK, has been revived since 2008 to raise capital for a wide diversity of local and community needs, including the development of renewable energy, saving rural shops, the community buy-outs of pubs, land acquisition for local food production, and other purposes. The UK community shares movement, which has spread to Canada, highlights how co-operative forms of equity capital can be raised to help meet common needs.

IV. Strategies for Moving Forward

Participants identified five key strategies for moving forward:

1. Democratize Money. Commoners must re-capture the money-creation system for public purposes and replace debt–based money. The government of Iceland has produced a 2015 report showing how to do this.

2. Get Beyond Money (As We Know It). Since money tends to promote social relationships that require the exchange of equivalents (agreed upon prices for the purchase of goods) and behaviors that exclude those with no money, many commoners wish to move “beyond money” by honoring the indirect reciprocity of commons and to welcome different types of money in different contexts as ways to give communities greater self-determination.

3. Back to the Future: Blending the Old and the New. The historical experiences and wisdom of the older co-operative models associated with the labor movement and left politics should be blended with new models based on digital technologies that are being developed by a younger generation. Many time-tested models such as JAK fee-based banking, demurrage (negative interest) currency and the WIR currency developed during the Great Depression to stimulate local economies, are inspiring innovative forms of money.

4. Engineer Systems for Cooperative Accumulation. It is essential to devise new organizational forms (not just financial systems) that have the capacity to enable “cooperative accumulation” – i.e., to accumulate financial reserves or assets that can be mutualized, democratically managed, and mobilized to develop and sustain forms of capital that create commonwealth. Multi-stakeholder co-operatives like in Italy, Quebec and Japan can provide guidance on how to develop convivial legal structures for commoners, co-operators, and sustainable community development.

5. Macro-Map the New Monetary System as a Commons. We must differentiate between the “Real Economy” that meets people’s everyday needs and the “Unreal Economy” that is dominated by parasitic “rentier-finance.” A macro-mapping of a commons-based credit and finance system can help us visualize the relationships for structuring and operationalizing the new economy.

Next Steps

A number of specific action steps were identified for moving the above goals forward. They include: Theoretical and conceptual research; policy development and outreach; the development of a richer, broader discourse about finance and the commons; the creation of new venues for collaboration and activism; the intensification of experiments in new currencies; and funding for project development and commons institutions. One immediate proposal was to advise and support Syriza and the people of Greece as they struggle to develop effective responses to the social and economic crisis ravaging that country.


The Deep Dive discussions showed that a commons-based system of money and capital based on democratic and equitable principles is entirely feasible. Many existing and emerging models can overcome the prevailing system of debt and interest, and bring about the transformation that our societies need. The challenge is in achieving root-and-branch change and the creation of transition institutions within a system that has so many complicated and seemingly disconnected facets. It is therefore difficult, both practically and strategically, to transform the current system so that it can be made inclusive, democratically accountable, socially constructive, and ecologically benign.

However, it is also clear from the discussions that there are many options to pursue and that they should not be seen as either/or choices, but as both/and challenges. We can find inspiration and guidance from many historic and current examples of interest-free money, public sector money not based on debt, and forms of public, social and co-operative banking. Each of these innovations serve different needs and functions, but all are complementary and can be integrated in a convivial money system that can provide equitable capital and other ethical and useful financial services for commoners and their communities. The evident problem with developing the available options today is the disjointed and weakly organized character of existing reform initiatives. There is not yet a shared meta-narrative to galvanize and unite a monetary reform movement that is both democratic and devoted to sustainable and humane forms of development.

Commons principles and practices can help establish a dynamic and integrated agenda for change, and draw upon many robust tools and policy proposals. A unifying narrative is also essential for both resisting and offering concrete alternatives to the unaccountable private-sector power of banks to create debt-based money out of thin air. The state and the people need to strip bankers of this sovereign power. Co-operative and democratically accountable forms of organization can provide a feasible alternative social architecture that can protect, maintain, and steward these practices in service to the common good.

But immense popular pressure is necessary to achieve these changes. Money needs to be democratized. Debt bondage needs to be abolished. New systems of co-operative finance, banking, and publicly generated currency need to be established. Only in this way will the commons be protected, promoted, and placed at the service of all – not enclosed and expropriated for the benefit of the privileged few.

The World Post-COP — System Reboot, Not Plug-and-play — Part Two

This is part-two of a two-part blog – the first part examined the post-cop landscape. This second part links to the need for systemic change for a new economy

The current landscape — shifting from ‘what’ to ‘how’ post SDGs

Clarity on where we go with the SDGs is also lacking. As SDG advisor Alex Evans says, now that the Open Working Group (OWG) on the post-2015 SDG agenda has reported, « minds are shifting to the ‘how’ as opposed to the ‘what’ — and what a new Global Partnership on development might look like. There is a risk that the soaring ambition of the OWG’s Goals will not be matched by adequate action on the delivery side. »

Many of the answers on how to solve the challenges we face now on climate and the SDGs will need to come from society at large, from social movements, communities and citizens. This calls for a p2p revolution, the end of top-down and the beginning of people-power. The institutions of today can, and indeed must be involved in this revolution. But power needs to disperse and so does the conversation.

So delivering on the SDGs will require a host of tough issues to be resolved and delivered on including those same climate finance, loan and developing world support details so missing from Paris.

Other key issues which need to be included in delivering on the SDGs include; strong action on tax avoidance and subsidies, stretching private sector ambition and support for SD, recognition of natural resources like land, water, and the atmosphere as a special category of property right, with dividends from their use accruing to society at large, a radical overhaul of the financial system, consideration of a universal basic income and some fundamental questioning of issues such as the growth paradigm, limits of decoupling and the need to shift from consumerism to a world of intrinsic values and wellbeing.

This starting list of key SDG delivery issues represent radical changes to the status quo.

This changes everything — why we need to think ‘system reboot not plug and play’

As the post COP party hangovers start to wear off people are recognising the momentous, perhaps paradigm shifting, scale of the challenge facing us as we attempt to deliver on the highest ambitions from Paris. As Richard Heinberg has said post COP, the required transition is « not plug and play, its civilisation reboot ».

And as Professor John Foran puts it, « Despite their beautiful words, our leaders remained trapped in a broken system and a crashing worldview. »

Coming out of Paris IPCC scientist Professor Kevin Anderson has concluded that we have to make: « Fundamental changes to the political and economic framing of contemporary society…let Paris be the catalyst for a new paradigm. »

The social justice narrative of ‘system change not climate change’ has now gone mainstream with voices such as UNFCCC Chief Christiana Figueres now calling for ‘a new system’ at COP21.

Delivering on these radical changes will require a sea-change in the process of change. Policy-wonkery and lobbying may play a role but above all what is needed is a new society-wide Big Conversation on paradigm shift and systems change.

The emerging new economy vision

Many of these issues are the staple diet of those involved in the wider ‘new/next economy’ world which is the focus of the Real Economy Lab I convene.

This new economy space is a vibrant hot-bed of innovation. As Professors Gus Speth and Professor Gar Alperovitz of the Next System Project put it, « just below the surface of media attention literally thousands of grass roots institution changing, wealth-democratizing efforts have been quietly developing. »

Hundreds of movements, alliances and organizations around the world are experimenting with a new-economy – new ways of living, of making, of commerce and of ownership — open-coops, social solidarity, Transition Towns, Commoning, Sharing, initiatives from groups like the Club of Rome, Nef’s Great Transition, the Next System Project, the New Economy Coalition, Neon, the Just Transition movement of labour, Movement Generation and Edge Funders and many others.

But between the current policy landscape and this vision of the future lies an unmapped territory on which we need to start to plot a roadmap to system change.

Where do we go from here?

Very different actors inhabit the worlds of the current policy landscape and this emerging vision of a new system. Some bridge both worlds — but too few. What is needed is a common vision and narrative and an inclusive conversation we are all part of.

I see this as a journey. For a journey to be worth taking you need a roadmap. Right now we have only the slimmest of clarity and agreement on even the shape of the landscape we need to cross let alone where we want to get to. Many of us are too busy looking at our feet, fearful of stumbling, few ever get even a glimpse of a possible horizon let alone the peaks we need to aim for.

Those working in the foothills need to be helped to see a vision of where we need to head. Those with their heads poking through the fog need support to keep their feet in reality and real-politic.

Above all what will be needed is to take everyone with us on this journey. What that will require a new form of conversation built on deliberative, participative dialogue, open-enquiry and inclusiveness and powered by digital democracy.

This dialogue will need to bridge the here and now with a desirable and achievable future which is truly fair and sustainable for people and planet.

Whats crucial is that the dialogue of the deaf between so many of us needs to end and we need to find a way to develop one big conversation about system change and transformation.

Perhaps our attitude to this journey needs to take a hint from another of Marvin Gaye’s songs What Going On.

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on