Commons Association

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Description

Concept proposed by Christian Siefkes:

"The aim is a commons association with a collective economy that is based on needs and contributions. The participants receive primarily non-monetary benefits: goods of all kinds that they need or want.

Money circulates to the extent necessary, but nobody should be excluded for lack of sufficient financial resources. There can also be fairly paid jobs, but only as long as they are necessary for carrying out the tasks required. The goal is to phase them out completely over time.

There is no exchange – instead, people contribute to the common pool and costs as well as benefits are shared according to collective agreements (“From exchange to contributions”). To this end, the participating projects draw up their own budgets, which are then combined together in an association-wide budget (including both the monetary and labour needs).

Who contributes what, and how much, are decided in offer rounds that extend across projects. The goal is a needs-based economy in the old Greek sense of “oikonomia”: the provision of necessary and useful goods (cf. Aristoteles macht aus der Ökonomie eine Wissenschaft [DE]).

Another goal is to organise a kind of reciprocal trust that enables individuals to participate in collective provision, without compulsion or competition and without the worry of being excluded." (https://commons-institut.org/2016/commons-associations)


Discussion

A proposal by Christian Siefkes:

"We have tried to address the following questions:

How is it possible to create connections between commons-based projects that facilitate horizontal and vertical cooperation between them and that encourage the formation of more and more such projects? Which kinds of structures allow people to organise most or all aspects of life according to commons principles, while keeping the barriers to entry low? (Some intentional communities succeed at the first task, but their barriers to entry are high.) How can such projects be made attractive enough that more and more people want to get involved and so that more and more of their needs can be satisfied in this way?


The basic idea of our attempt to answer these questions is: we want regional project associations connecting commons-based, self-organised projects.

We call the envisaged organisation a commons association. The name may still change – other names that came up during brainstorming include commons network, commons coalition, commoning association, commons syndicate, common pool, commoning portal, city of workshops (for urban associations), scalable network community. Any other good ideas?

What’s more important is the concept: an association connects various projects in the same geographical region, which join forces to provide good solutions for (ultimately) all spheres of life. This could include providing members with food (CSAs), electricity (community-supported energy = CSE), living quarters (residential communities or housing co-ops, Mietshäuser Syndikat), childcare, places for experimentation and for the production of means of production and other useful things (open workshops, Fab Labs), software and computer support (hackerspaces), libraries for borrowing tools, household items, and other occasionally required things (in Germany and Austria there are various noncommercial “Leilas”, short for Leihladen or borrowing shop), clothing (clothing distribution centres, sewing workshops), the redistribution of things their former owners no longer need (free shops), and much more.

Additionally cooperation should take place at a superregional level, particularly regarding the production and usage of free knowledge (free and open-source software, open-source hardware, free seeds etc.) But when it comes to the satisfaction of physical/vital needs, regional cooperation should be most important, augmented by superregional cooperation when needed (how to organise such additional superregional cooperation will be discussed below).

Anybody who’s a member of any one of the participating projects becomes a member of the commons association automatically and can benefit from anything it offers. (How this can work in practice is discussed below).

Thus the commons association makes it possible to find suitable solutions for all spheres of life without personally having to get involved in many separate projects. (Having to participate in separate offer rounds and other organisational matters of each distinct project would be impractical and very time-consuming.) It provides access to the benefits offered by various projects and allows contributing in suitable ways. Its ultimate purpose is to mediate the various needs, activities and contributions of all its members.

The commons association is not just a loose network of projects. It organises a collective needs-driven provisioning system, bringing together those who need or want certain benefits and those who can provide them. There is no strict separation between producers and consumers, but rather a smooth transition from one group to the other; all can cooperate on an equal footing.

...

This proposal cannot – and does not intend to – “prescribe” all of the details of how a commons association should be organised: a lot of things will only become clear in practice, when such associations start to spread. The following are some points that still require some discussion or which could perhaps be solved differently to the solutions suggested here.

One point which is still not completely clarified is how the offer rounds are carried out within an association, which after all could potentially involve thousands or even hundreds of thousands of members. Obviously, getting everyone together in one room will quickly prove impossible. One idea for a solution developed by the SolE project is to use nested offer rounds: for example, an association with 10,000 members could have 100 separate offer groups (“small groups”), each with 100 members. Each small group is expected to raise the sum of the guideline contributions for its members as a whole, but exactly how those contributions are distributed among the individual people is arranged at a face-to-face meeting of the small group’s membership. The contribution expected from each small group would, however, be fixed and non-negotiable.

A variant of this concept is to understand the contribution required of the small groups as a guideline as well, and to allow each small group to deviate from it upwards or downwards. As per the Sociocracy principle, each small group then sends two representatives into a circle to establish whether the small groups’ contributions are sufficient in total, and to renegotiate them where necessary. Here the concept of self-organised solidarity is used more consistently, albeit with the disadvantage that small groups might have to be called back several times if their contributions have turned out to be too low in total.

An alternative may be to carry out the offer round for the entire association over the Internet instead of in personal meetings. The individual members would then make an “offer” via the software. As soon as everyone has made an offer, they learn whether the total amount is too little, enough, or too much, and can then modify their offer upwards or downwards – and this continues until there is enough. Just as with the other processes, the individual contributions (offers) can remain confidential. People only need to know that the overall total is enough, but not how much other people are contributing.

A relatively innovative element in our concept is the idea of income-dependent guideline values. It is still an open question as to whether this idea conflicts with the low barrier to entry that we are striving for, since everyone would need to disclose their income. It doesn’t necessarily have to be public, but it would have to be disclosed to a trustworthy group of people in the association who calculate the individual guidelines from this data and then delete it. It remains to be seen whether this would still deter people. It’s conceivable that the income won’t be asked for exactly but rather in five or ten tiers.

Or the association could dispense entirely with asking people their income and use income-independent guidelines instead. The contributors could then adapt the suggestion at their own discretion: people who have more, give more; people who have less, give less. Admittedly the differences between individual contributions emerging from this method would probably be much smaller than if the real income differences were used as the basis of the guidelines.

In order to achieve a fairer approximation of the paid contributions to the real income differences, the association could, while still not asking people for their income levels directly, supply some advice for estimating their contribution: “The average income in our region is XY. If your income is double/half of this, could you perhaps contribute double/half as much?”

A further open point is whether other duties can be expected of people alongside participation in the offer rounds. Above this was rejected: “unpaid engagement is welcome …, but it’s entirely voluntary rather than mandatory ”. There are, however, CSAs that oblige their members to make a certain amount of labour contributions. How does that fit in – do such projects absolutely need to change their practice in order to become part of an association?

The idea of labour assignments in individual projects is problematic because it doesn’t “scale” very well (amongst other reasons). If I benefit from the products of a dozen projects, I cannot make separate labour contributions to every one of these projects without hopelessly overburdening myself and probably losing interest in the whole thing. Clearly such compulsory assignments have to remain the exception and not the rule. In principle it would nevertheless be possible for the association to agree that its members have to actively participate in one or two of the member projects instead of just contributing financially. But it would still be up to individuals to decide exactly which projects and activities they would engage in.

Such rules are conceivable, but ultimately we have to wonder whether an encouragement to participate (“we would be pleased if…”) wouldn’t actually be more pleasant and perhaps also more motivating than a mandatory regulation (“as members you must…”). It’s also possible that any necessary tasks that aren’t undertaken by paid workers could also be divided up via offer rounds: nobody is personally obliged to take on particular tasks, but collectively all of the tasks have to have somebody who will carry them out.

With some communes, the whole wealth of the participants is collectivised (that is, transferred to the commune), at least gradually. With some recent communes the rule is that ten percent of your personal assets has to be collectivised/redistributed each year. Whoever has been there for more than ten years and then leaves the commune, takes away only the average of all the wealth that was paid in (in the simplest case). Alternatively there can be fairer solutions based more on need (exit contracts), but this takes a lot more discussion to organise.

For a commons association, this kind of collectivisation would probably not be practical. This is because most participants in the initial stages are using the association as just one source of support – they get some of their goods from the pool, and they continue to buy the rest of them from the market. It is conceivable, however, that some housing co-ops that belong to the association could carry out this sort of wealth collectivisation, and then also organise a communal fund for anything that doesn’t come from the association." (https://commons-institut.org/2016/commons-associations)