Interview: Michael Bauwens

Issue 28, Winter 2020
written by
Michael Bauwens with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
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The P2P Foundation is now a 15 year-old organisation, promoting commons-based approaches. Could you introduce and define its work?

To start at the beginning, I left my business activity in October in 2002 for a two-year sabbatical to research ‘phase transitions’. Slowly I worked alone at assembling the P2P Foundation Wiki and blog. Then in 2005 I received my first invitation to speak at an activist conference in Budapest and since then the Foundation’s audience growth has roughly been 20% every year. 

From 2011 to 2014, I started working with the Commons Strategy Group and we hosted the first international conference on the commons in Berlin, which was supported by the Heinrich Boll Foundation. We also hosted a range of deep dives, bringing together two or three parties that had no communication with each other, such as the commons and co-operatives, the commons and ethical finance, even hardware and free software. You would be amazed that at the beginning of this work, these parties did not know the other existed. You would talk to a hardware engineer and they would have no idea about free software activists, you would have commons academics who would be visibly afraid of ‘hackers’ to the point of not sharing the same panels. 

I say this because we can’t forget that most people did not know about the concept of the commons in 2005, apart from historians or the small group of academics in Elinor Ostrom’s workshop. It was not common parlance or part of the discussion, even within activist circles. We brought people together, organised through deep dives, such as organisations who are now working on three-year projects on commons licenses and commons-based accounting. They have working groups and are publishing papers. This is one of the outcomes of this work. This is not about claiming credit, that’s not the purpose. It’s about planting seeds and bringing people together – it does have a visible effect. 

Over these years we did a lot of observation, theory building, and bringing people together, and attended roughly 50-60 conferences a year. The big breakthrough came in 2014 when we were legitimised through working with the Ecuadorian government. This created a big shift. I would also say, and you probably felt it, too, before 2008 you were considered crazy to talk about alternatives to the present system. Most people were largely not questioning these things. In 2008 people start to think something is wrong, then in 2011 we see the emergence of the Occupy movement and 15M. What we see here is a mass movement that is actually able to self-organise and scale.

There were many weaknesses that we could see at the time, such as the inability to develop a consensus about the demands and it’s lack of durability. On the other hand, they had many indirect effects, which were very positive. The question of equality was forced into the mainstream conversation in the US, which I see as a side-effect of the Occupy movement. In Spain, the 15M moved back into the neighbourhoods and were eventually part of the formation of Barcelona en Comu. So it did have interesting effects, though as a model, it was flawed. It showed that we can quickly organise in numbers, but it didn’t show that the movement can be meaningful and effective in the long-term. It is still, largely, a weakness of these kinds of movements.

So 2014 was a significant step forward – the idea that the commons could actually inform policy made it more realistic at the political level. Not that it worked in Ecuador, it was not a success in terms of implementation, but the mere fact that there was a faction within the government that thought it was a possible political direction was definitely new. 

It was the first time the commons was given high-level validation in a Latin America country that was moving politically leftwards and looking for new models. I think that, unfortunately, in the end, one faction within the government could not see how an economic model that did not rely on extraction could be viable. In effect, the government actually went backwards after experimenting with commons-based models, becoming more extreme in their policies for extractivism. 

To be complete, we did achieve some things. One of the mayors we worked with in Sichos was interested in our model, and one of my colleagues John Restaksis supported the creation of new co-operatives in the region. It’s not that it was not entirely unsuccessful, but our policy programme was not applied, though it still gave the impetus that a commons policy was possible. 

In the meantime, in terms of a political assessment of the situation, firstly, if I think in terms of ‘languaging’, the commons is now well known in activist communities. Everyone does not entirely agree, but it has become more dominant in Italian, Spanish and French cultures. It’s become normal. This was not the case before 2005 and the P2P Foundation were certainly one of the actors in this development, this meme, if you like. 

We should also not underestimate the Italian experience, which now involves 200 cities and 800,000 citizens who are involved in commons initiatives. Though the language in Italy is more around the ‘common good’, which is less precise than our own definition of the commons, and can be confused with the Christian concept of the ‘common good’, the 200 cities that are involved in such projects that improve their city together with other residents, qualifies as commoning. In France, there is an extraordinary grassroots activity around the commons, including a directory of 800 initiatives that are actively transforming their municipality. 

In Paris, commons-washing is already very common. There are even two lists that fight each other for el commune as their name. I can see like green washing, the fact they have to do it is a sign of change. Even if it’s a way of avoiding doing anything, it shows the pressure is starting to have a real effect on society. Then there’s Sardex, a mutual credit system used by small businesses in Sardinia, and a few other regions are now trying to replicate the model.

The re-emergence of the commons was popularised, in part, by the rise of the ‘sharing economy’, but it also had to disentangle itself from misleading economic practices. For those who are still confused by the use of a wide range of new economic terms, from the collaborative economy to the sharing economy, how would you describe a commons-centric economy?

We have a market-centric economy, or a capital-centric economy. Currently, the state serves the advancement of capital, supporting economic privatisation, liberalisation, and financialisation over the last forty years. It’s what Phillip Bobbit calls the ‘market state’, which I find is a useful term. Since the 1990s the Welfare State model has been replaced by something else, and it has weakened. Currently the only value that is understood is financial value that is created in markets. That is the dominant ideology. 

So I would invite your readers to think of capitalism as a way of capitalising the commons. Capitalism is an essential part of ‘decommonification’, extracting value from common and public goods. By putting it in the market, it can be traded, taxed, and redistributed. Commonification, on the other hand, is taking certain assets out of private markets and reclaiming them as public or common goods. I mention public goods, as in some cases, the commons can be managed and protected by the state. It’s a debate, but I think it’s true.The advantage of the commons over public goods is that they are, by definition, inalienable. The danger of public goods is that the state can change over time and consider them private goods. It also has top-down bureaucratic management, but a common-centric view would have to use multistakeholder governance. 

So basically, a commons-centric society would be centred around creating more commons and there are obvious reasons to pursue this model. Mutualisation is one of the key strategies for reducing the human footprint. All extractive and competitive societies, such as empires and monarchies, fight over what they consider to be scarce resources. In order to win the competition, they always will overuse their own resource base. This is not debatable, it happens every time. It’s not the exception, it’s the rule. So we look at how equality can have a role in reducing the crisis and shortening the period of reconstruction.

Since the financial crisis, many political commentators have suggested that we are at one of history’s 500-year turning points – what you call a ‘phase transition’ – with the right conditions to change to different modes of production. Now, looking back over a decade since the crash, how convincing is this historical narrative?

I recently read Peter Pogany, not to be confused with Karl Polanyi, who explores ‘phase transitions’ within complexity theory. He starts with a stable society, where you have common rules which are policed and defended by a system that is capable of protecting its integrity. Then after a while it stops working, creating new issues it can not solve itself. Then he says that stable systems do not get reformed over time and will eventually experience a period of chaos. The binding elements start unravelling, which in human society takes the form of war, political revolution, and strife of all kinds. He takes the mercantile system that lasted from the 1500s to the 1800s as a relatively stable system. It was interrupted with the French Revolution (1789) and the Nopelanic war (1815), so that’s a period of chaos. After these events, we see the introduction of a Smithian capitalist system, guided by laissez-faire, a domination of capital over labour. British workers are dying at the age of 35 in industrial cities like Manchester. That is then interrupted in 1914 and 1945 by two new systems – communism and fascism. This becomes what he calls ‘Global system two’, with the rise of a social democracy, a compact between capital and organised labour. Then this system broke down in 2008 and we’re in another period of chaos. 

The commons has developed more interest in the political sphere through ‘public-commons partnerships’, with your national-level work for the Ecuadorian government and more recently your involvement in a three-year Commons Transition Plan for the City of Ghent in Belgium. Could you outline what’s been enabled through working at these levels of governance and what the limits are? 

I think we should still look to Barcelona as a city that has implemented a commons-based agenda, from open data to other initiatives. Another part of this development has been reorganising the city around conviviality and support for the co-operative and solidarity economy so that it now represents 8% of economic activity. It is building into a whole infrastructure to support the commons, despite the political issues around Catalan independence. 

In Ghent, unfortunately, it’s not the same. Personally I was invited to Belgium as a consultant. My role was to speak to everyone, map the growing commons in the region, which had grown ten times in the last ten years, and work with 80 founders and leaders within each local organisation. We then created workshops for each local provisioning system. After we met with the Mayor, who announced that our commons plan was the future at least three times in public, the city coalition, which also agreed with the direction, the administration staff and the local commoners, a few things went wrong. 

The mayor had a heart attack and the head of strategy lost his position when the coalition changed in the elections. Apparently, the Greens did not support the plan at all. They put it in the fridge during both the elections and the negotiations. It came to a head because when Ghent requested I set up a delegation to visit Barcelona, none of the administration staff accepted the invitation, insisting they could only be negative about the plan at this stage of the process. That is when I found out, even though the narrative I received from members of the administration was that we were making progress. 

The situation here is that the commons exists and they are growing, but at the city level, they are going back to an older competitive model. This favours the citizens with strong connections and resources. My conclusion is that the progressive parties in the Flanders don't really understand the commons. At the same time, I also have a critique of the the local commoners as far too apolitical. The politicians only move when there is pressure. 

I am still hearing that there is at least some appetite from some members of the administration about pushing ahead, but unfortunately it has not gone very far.

Michel Bauwens is the founder and director of the P2P Foundation and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. Michel is also research director of commonstransition.org.

Issue 28, Winter 2020
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