Latin America Commons Deep Dive

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Regional preparatory workshop for a conference on commons-oriented economics. Context via Overview of the Economics of the Commons Conference

Please note this is a closed invitation-only meeting for a small group of participants, which intends to sollicit deep and free-form conversation.

This workshop took place in Hotel Casa Inn, calle Rio Lerma, Mexico City on November 12 to 15, 2012.

The two other continental workshops are:

  1. Europe Commons Deep Dive
  2. Asia Commons Deep Dive

Context

From the Commons Strategies Group, the invitation:

"The commons as a focus of productive work, political activism and public policy is gaining momentum with each passing month. But it is less clear how commoners should engage – theoretically and practically – with mainstream economics. Since this is such a core question in advancing the commons paradigm, we believe that it is time for some of the world’s most serious, creative and internationally minded commoners to meet each other and begin a shared dialogue about this topic.


We therefore would like to invite you to participate in a retreat to discuss the linkages between the commons and the field of economics, with particular attention to the Asian context. The event is co-organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Commons Strategies Group, with support of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation, and will be held from October 12-14 at the Böll Foundation’s office in Bangkok, Thailand. (We appreciate you arrive on the 12th by mid-day/early afternoon to be present for an evening round to socialize and get to know each other and to leave any time on the 15th thus making time for two full working days).


We see this event as a logical next step following the first International Conference on the Commons held in Berlin on October 31-November 2, 2010, an event that brought together a wide variety of commoners from both the physical and digital commons in more than 30 countries. Now that the commons is gaining currency/momentum in countries from India to Austria, Germany to Brazil, and Mexico to the United States and beyond, we believe that it is imperative to examine in greater depth whether and how we can transform the political economy with commons principles in mind.


This conversation is also becoming more urgent as interest in a major new book of essays about the commons attracts attention. In April, the Böll Foundation and Commons Strategies Group published the German edition of “Commons: Für eine neue Politik jenseits von Markt und Staat” [“Commons – For a New Politics Beyond Market and State”] (http://www.transcript-verlag.de/ts2036/ts2036.php ). The English edition, “The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State,” will be published in English in the US in September (http://www.levellerspress.com/newreleases/newreleases.htm ).


We are currently planning three focused, intense gatherings – we call them “Deep Dives” – on economics and the commons. The two-day meetings will be held in Mexico City, near Paris and Bangkok in October, and November and December as a way to draw upon knowledge and expertise on three different continents and to help in the planning of a major international conference, “The Economics of the Commons,” to be held in Berlin on May 22-24, 2013.


At each Deep Dive, we will be convening about 15 to 20 thinkers, activists and writers who have a demonstrated expertise in and commitment to the commons or related fields of study and activism. Our goal is to develop more sophisticated understandings about the commons as seen through the lens of economics – and vice-versa, to re-imagine economics through the lens of the commons. How does economics need to change and grow? What kind of society would emerge if land, money and labor, and other crucial commons, would no longer be considered as commodities, but as inalienable commons belonging to humanity?


We want to pull together a wide range of knowledge, creativity, contacts and resources to discuss these questions, and identify promising avenues for future research, writing and political action. This will be a retreat, not a conference, i.e. the focus will be on the free flow of deep discussions among peers.


The Commons Strategies Group consists of Silke Helfrich of Germany, an commons-activist and blogger formerly associated with the Heinrich Böll Foundation; David Bollier, an American author, activist and blogger at Bollier.org; and Michel Bauwens, a political scientist, economist a researcher into the emergent practices of commons-based peer production, peer governance and peer property.


Jost Pachaly, director of the Böll Foundation’s Bangkok Office, and Heike Löschmann, Head of International Politics Department at the Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin, are our partners in organizing this event, along with Nicolas Krausz of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation."


General Themes To Be Discussed

Prepared by Commons Strategies Group, October 4, 2012


In addressing the themes raised by economics and the commons, our workshop will deliberately use a flexible and open-ended format. We do not wish to present an fixed, structured agenda so much as elicit your special knowledge and perspectives on the topic. In previous gatherings on the commons, we have found this a highly effective way to surface ideas, identify major points of disagreement and consensus, and develop a more coherent understanding of the challenges we face.

Having said that, we have assembled below a series of themes and questions that may be useful in spurring discussion. This is an incomplete “discussion draft” of issues that will likely deserve attention (in this and further conversations). But this list should not be regarded as a comprehensive, prioritized or “correct”; it is merely as a springboard for discussion. We urge you to bring your own ideas, open questions and issues so that we can collectively decide how the discussions should proceed. We are confident that this process will help us highlight fundamental ideas and develop new narratives and projects.

We would like to start our workshop by addressing the basic questions: What does a commons-based economy consist of? What are its basic principles and how can we “know it when we see it”? Does it require specific (infra)structures, principles and policy approaches?

Some commons scholars suggest that a commons-based economy is one that combines production, consumption and governance into a unified needs-based system, such that it is impossible to distinguish among them. Another definition is that production cannot be distinguished from reproduction because everything contributes to the reproduction of livelihoods. Perhaps there are other salient features of a commons-based economy that we should identify and explore.

Some specific issues worth exploring:

THE ONTOLOGY AND THE VALUE PROPOSITION OF THE COMMONS

  • Why and how does a commons generate value? Let’s get down to some basics of the human condition and relationships (ontology) and knowledge categories (epistemology) to understand the value-proposition of the commons.
  • The very idea of “the economy” is a social construction, not a natural fact. Yet if we wish to transcend the familiar paradigm of “the economy” – i.e., the capitalist market and its logic – what are the handful of key principles that let us define a commons-based “economy”?
  • What is the purpose of a commons-based economy? How can we starkly differentiate the commons worldview and provisioning model from that of market economics?
  • How do the processes and social relationships of the commons differ from those of the market, and how does this matter? Can we consider this from an anthropological perspective?
  • Are there identifiable typologies of commons? Do these conform to types of resources, cultural patterns, or something else? For political purposes, we may wish to assert a universal template of commoning (“principles of commoning”) and declare that the type of resource is a secondary matter. But is this entirely true?
  • Can any general statement be made about the ontological power of the commons – i.e., how and why it self-organizes, generates value and innovates? Or is a commons destined always to be a subsidiary form that is necessarily embedded in markets and the state and dependent on them?
  • How do commons protect themselves from free riders and abuse? What sorts of technological, legal or social innovations can work?
  • How can the yearning for collective management and participation be “locked in” and secured?
  • How do commons get started in the first place? Can we identify general differences between commons and commoning in the global North (which is “rediscovering” the commons) as opposed to the global South (where commoning has a long, deep and continuous history)?

CIVIL SOCIETY AND THE COMMONS

How does the debate on commons-based economy relate to those of…

  • feminist economy, especially the care economy and the subsistence economy;
  • the Solidarity economy;
  • the Transition Town movement
  • gift economies (academia, blood and organ banks, community groups)
  • the degrowth-debate
  • Buddhist economy or other discourses present in the region

What can we learn from these various economies? Where are the overlaps and where the differences?


THE COMMONS AND ECONOMIC GROWTH

  • What role can the commons play in arresting relentless economic growth, and how?
  • What are some practical, incremental scenarios for using the commons to reduce growth and internalize externalities (without falling into the trap of market-based mechanisms that favor monetization of the value of nature or reproductive work)?
  • Is a commons-based economy and peer production a force for “de-materializing” the economy? If so, how?


THE STATE AND THE COMMONS

  • How can the personal engagement and informal nature of the commons (in its canonical form) be preserved if the state is involved with it?
  • How might we conceptualize a State that “enables the commons”? What are the politics of such a scenario?
  • Does the formalization of a commons and external legal/financial support for it undermine the social practices and relationships that lie at the heart of a commons? If so, how can commons design themselves to be quasi-autonomous while securing support (or at least, non-interference) from the market/state duopoly?
  • Michel Bauwens has proposed the idea of the “partner state” and a triarchy of governance in which market, state and commons co-exist and support each other. Is this a realistic vision, and if so, how might this vision be advanced?


MARKETS AND COMMONS

Tell us about a particularly stable or popular commons in your country or region. Explain why it has succeeded and what impact it has.

  • How does a commons interact with markets or not?
  • If the commons is primarily a nonmarket form of provisioning, can it have any fruitful relationship with markets? If so, what sorts of limits or protections are needed to assure the long-term integrity of a commons? How can they be maintained?
  • What are the patterns by which commons and market activity can interact constructively? Or are they necessarily hostile and adversarial?
  • Given the structural economic and policy biases against recognizing the value of infrastructure-as-commons, how can commoners secure necessary infrastructure – roads, telecom, water, land, Internet – as commons?

LABOR AND MONEY IN THE COMMONS

  • What does work, productive activity and labor mean in the context of a commons?
  • Can money be converted into a commons?
  • Is it possible (and desirable) to de-commodify them? If so, why?
  • What are the viable alternative models?"


SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF A COMMONS-BASED ECONOMY

  • Does a commons necessarily reduce inequality or what circumstances are needed to do so?
  • What can make a commons socially regressive?
  • What about people who do not have the education or basic resources to participate in commons (e.g., Internet commons)?
  • Why and how does a commons foster social justice, stability and sustainability?
  • Doesn’t a commons reduce incentives to work hard and innovate?
  • Does the commons promote unsustainable live-styles? (e.g., a 3D printer for everyone!)
  • How can the social solidarity and cooperation of a commons persist as it scales (i.e, as coordination and communication becomes more difficult)? Or perhaps there are different “tiers” of commons that should be regarded differently – much as a “state trustee commons” will differ from a small-scale tribal commons for water?

ALTERNATIVE ECONOMIC MOVEMENTS AND STRATEGIES FOR MOVING FORWARD

  • Who are the key thinkers and activists involved in developing alternative economic paradigms that work and are philosophically coherent?
  • What are some of the key alternative economic organizations and movements?
  • How to “bridge” with them?
  • How do we begin to develop actual projects to advance a commons-based economy?
  • What sorts of knowledge, networks of people and organizations, and experiences are needed?

Miscellaneous

On the Internet:

  • Can we make any useful generalizations about the differences and commonalities between open platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) and digital commons (Wikipedia, open-access journals, collaborative archives)?
  • Are open platforms helpful to a commons-based economy or mostly a means for corporate co-optation of social sharing and collaboration?
  • Should we consider “open business models” a form of commoning (where open networked platforms are used to leverage social sharing) – or are they mostly a capitalistic form that seeks to exploit open networks?
  • Should commoners welcome open business models or regard them with suspicion? What factors might affect a determination?
  • If inalienability is important to preserving a commons – i.e., a community-managed resource that may not be monetized – then how can this be accomplished in reliable, lasting ways? How can we link inalienability with the value proposition of the commons?

Localism and commons:

  • Is a commons necessarily local? And if a commons can work at larger scales, how does subsidiarity actually work?


The commons and a theory of power and hierarchy:

We should not succumb to romanticized visions of happy egalitarianism within commons. Issues of power relations must be addressed.

  • Do commons empower people to break down predatory or hierarchical power relationships?
  • Are there certain structures of power and governance within a commons that are essential?
  • Can we imagine a typology of commons-based governance structures?

Workable commons seem to imply a different sort of culture than those associated with markets. But how and why do commons produce a different sort of culture?

Does a commons-based society entail a different form of spirituality or religion? Is institutionalized religion (which implies hierarchies and imposed norms) part of the problem today?


Participants

  • The selection process is reflected in this page
  1. Alain Ambrosi, Canadá
  2. Xavier Basurto, México
  3. Carolina Botero, Colombia
  4. Ileana Gómez, El Salvador
  5. Silke Helfrich, Alemania
  6. Santiago Hoerth, Costa Rica
  7. Franco Iacomella, Argentina
  8. Ana de Ita, México
  9. Gustavo Marín, Chile
  10. Conrado Marquez, México
  11. Rubén Martínez Moreno, España
  12. Leticia Merino, México
  13. Camila Moreno, Brazil
  14. Enrique Dussel Peters, México
  15. Elizabeth Peredo Beltrán, Bolivia
  16. Miguel Said Vieira, Brazil
  17. Gustavo Salas, Venezuela
  18. Dolores Rojas Rubio, México
  19. Annette von Schönfeld, Alemania-México

Discussion resumes

Ordered by days

Ordered by topics

Preparation documents

Bibliography

Logistic details

Photo albums

Full gallery available in Santiago's album and Alain's album.