All commerce is not capitalism: Looking back at Day 4 of #Degrowth14

#Degrowth participants chat in front of graffiti mural East and West Germany. On a short film walking tour of Leipzig, Friday evening of the conference, equipped with a projector, sound system, generator and short films, plus several hundred people.

#Degrowth14 participants chat in front of a graffiti mural of East and West Germany, on a short film walking tour of Leipzig, Friday evening, equipped with a projector, sound system, generator and short films, plus several hundred people.

This blog is the fourth in a series of five, each digesting and reflecting on a day at the Degrowth conference in Leipzig, 2nd – 6th September. You can read about Day 1 here, Day 2 here and Day 3 here. Below is a summary of my experiences of Day 4 – Friday 5th September – Visions and strategies for transformation.

The Transition to a Sustainable Commons Society in Ecuador and beyond

In his keynote, Michel Bauwens, from the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives (P2P), pointed out that a huge proportion of the cost of a product is debt, (global) transport and Intellectual Property (IP) rent. Furthermore, the planned obsolescence of products is not a bug, it is a feature; in the capitalist economy there is barely a product around not designed to break down. If instead, you designed a product according to need, to be produced in a local, micro-factory, you’d design it to be sustainable, biodegradable etc – you don’t have to be an environmentalist to do this, it just goes with the territory. Bauwens promoted the idea of a global open design commons with local, distributed production: if its light its global, if its heavy, its local. Moreover, if we can unite digital commoners, greens, new transformation left parties, and even progressive social liberals, we could have a social majority around the commons, in Europe, as a counterweight to rise of radical right (which have socialist policies, when our socialist parties have neoliberal policies!!)

Bauwens also talked about how a technology, say for example the 3D printer, cannot be magically responsible for anything – it is the social-tech relationship. He noted that the growing open source community, using commons licences, has had a perverse effect – the more common the licence, the more capitalistic the result, simply because big corporations are then freely entitled to use it (e.g. IBM can use Linux). Thus, there has been some move to bring reciprocity back into commons, by allowing every common good institution, non-profit activity (and even by for-profits who will contribute to the commons) to use the commons licence, but if not, a licence fee has to be paid.

We’re moving towards peer to peer systems and networks in many domains of social life, Bauwens argued, but the issue of control must remain central (naming, for example, Facebook as a centralised, for-profit, P2P system). We need to move towards more distributed structures, away from the dominant form, controlled by capitalism, to a commoner paradigm. It was also noted that many P2P systems are not digital (though may be facilitated by digital P2P networks), with bottom up, grassroots examples like local currencies, new supply chains for local food (e.g. Community Supported Agriculture projects – CSAs) and transition towns. Bauwens suggested that whilst these initiatives are great, a global vision remains a crucial component.

Economy of Liberation, Solidarity Economy and Good Living (bem-viver)

Euclides André Mance, in his keynote, presented the perspective of the Solidarity Economy in Brazil, which seeks to provide the economic means for Good Living, or “bem-viver”, to all. Why, Mance asked, do workers subject themselves to exploitation? Because they have needs, and to satisfy them they need money. Hunger, for example, is due to lack of money, not lack of food – it is about demand in the market. Thus, labour is subordinated and becomes human capital, with other people’s decisions determining how their lives are led. Corporations are able to accumulate money, and to continue producing products that destroy the environment and are designed to foster scarcity. The power to control knowledge and its transmission is also too concentrated, too much of a monopoly.

The economy of liberation on the other hand represents millions of people, in collective networks across world, struggling to create dignified, ecological economies. Mance spoke extensively about building cooperative networks, solidarity ownership and self-management of the means of production, all key parts of the solidarity economy. As is creating balance within ecosystems, for unless economic activity is truly ecological, the pursuit of bem vivir will not be possible at all. He noted the importance of mutually reinforcing horizontal networks, so that cooperation between people isn’t the kind of cooperation that is subordinated to the capitalist system. Putting the forces of production in the service of the good life does not however mean taking steps backwards regarding technology, but using technology to extend the liberation of both public and private life.

Mance talked about the deprivatisation of the state, and reducing the power of capital by creating a new society that is economically just and solidary. The solidarity economy encompasses the creating of new social structures, based on cooperation between people, democracy and solidarity, and in which public power is not subordinated to the state, enabling the forces of reciprocity to become active. The exchange of knowledge, information, education, must also be reorganised on a horizontal level, to be owned and controlled by communities and peoples themselves. Communities need to be able to decide autonomously how to do this, as well as to determine their own system of value, and tokens of value. Such tokens of value can can form part of exchange systems (without being capitalist money), and international networks can be created to exchange these, enabling them to be used throughout the whole solidarity economy.

Liberating ourselves, Mance argued, is a precondition for dignity and bem vivir. This is why we need to build productive networks that serve everyone’s wellbeing, that reorganise flows of production and knowledge. Building solidarity economy networks requires us to take stock of the needs that actually exist, the needs of communities, of political organisation, of the organisation of production. Mance also noted that we do need markets, not “the market”, a single capitalist entity, but market places, market squares where exchanges take place. What can be produced at local level should be produced at local level, what can’t, elsewhere.

Commons, Economy for the common good and Solidarity Economy: What do they share?

In a session looking at the convergences between various initiatives and discourses (both micro and macro) that revoke the logic of profit maximisation, have an ecological perspective, promote sharing, sufficiency and/ or care, I was left with a sense of both diversity and confusion. Confusion about the different concrete solutions – or ways of “creating cultural change” – that were being talked discussed.

Asked how can we can visually show what this movement is about, Lisa Muhr, representing the Economy for the Common Good, showed a picture of a dandelion, comparing the many people contributing and sharing goals to its seeds, their ideas dispersed across the world. David Bollier, from the Commons Strategies Group, chose a photograph of a group of women in a village outside Hydrabad, India. This group, through seed-sharing (and the participation and sense of fairness this engendered) and uncovering of forgotten agricultural practices more suited to their arid region than the monocultures of the agro-industrial farms they’d previously laboured on, gave them greater means of subsistence and the dignity of controlling their own fate. This, for Bollier, illustrates how the commons can be transformative, as well as the lessons to be found in the South, for the North. The Solidarity Economy was once again represented by Euclides André Mance, who chose a picture of the Natural Assembly of Solidarity Economies in Brazil, demonstrating the democratic and participatory process of people organising their own societies and the ways they engage in society and consumption.

On the subject of what distinguishes these different movements, there were, from the audience, questions of the utility of creating many definitions of commons and commoning (from a research approach to a way of doing business to the basis for the solidarity economy, etc), which make the notions unclear and the movements harder to distinguish. Others felt that we should be putting the focus not on what separates us but on what brings us together, trying to understand and build on our common ground. There was a shared feeling of the danger of getting lost in definitions, for both the experts and the new-comers. Partly in response to this, Bollier pointed out that human experience is diverse, so a diversity of representing experience is also natural – there should not be a monoculture in how we express our relationships with the world. And, a shared set of principles can have wildly diverse realisations. In the subsequent discussion, Mance also noted that the transformation process can vary greatly, and there is a  lot to learn from different countries.

The session also considered the growing number of CSAs around the world, which were agreed to represent elements of both commoning and solidarity economy; the self-determination to meet one’s own needs and the needs of the community, and the element of relocalisation. Questions of power structures and empowerment, laws and ethics, the role of business (business structures, drivers for profit and ‘common good balance sheets’), the tools and instruments we need for the future, and the (re)design of cities and homes, were all touched upon. It was noted that commoning has often been criminalised, as it threatens market interests, and that sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to do what is legitimate, rather than what is legal. The general challenge was conceived of how to build collective networks from the many disparate and distinct groups, sharing knowledge and dialogue, to build a world of diversity. More dialogues and collaboration on specific projects was seen as one way towards doing this (in part because of the personal relationships that grow out of these), as was learning and better understanding the different language used by different movements.

With respect to the links between the commons, solidarity economy and degrowth/ post-growth, Mance pointed out that there are not only ecological reasons for degrowth, but also ethical ones. Nonetheless, he argued that the concept of growth must be looked at in its different contexts, e.g. people living below the poverty line. Thus, degrowth must be implemented in all areas which are unsustainable and which exploit/oppress human beings. But whilst there must be degrowth in every unjust and unecological area, there will at the same time need to be growth in sustainable and just aspects of the economy, that satisfy needs. Bollier concluded that the commons and degrowth movements share a great deal – the logic of self-determination and sufficiency (meaning limits to what one needs) – but added that the commons also emphasises creative, alternative forms of production, based on a broader sense of humanity, fostering new social relationships of cooperation.

Post-growth society: How to get there

In an energising and packed session on how to leave the growth obsession behind, Marko Ulvila, from Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam Network, Finland, reminded the audience that the 7 billion people living on this planet are living in very different contexts. These, he argued, could be split into two basic groups: those whose basic needs are met and those whose aren’t. There is no argument that higher income levels correlate with higher levels of environmental harm, and so, Ulvila argued, different transformational scenarios are appropriate for different income-based classes. For the 1 billion drastically over-consuming, the pathway should be immediate degrowth; for the 1 billion consuming, a more gentle degrowth; for the 3 billion in middle, living at a sustainable level of consumption, a steady state should be maintained; and for the 2 billion struggling/hungry, the pathway should be immediate and thorough empowerment. In response to comments that income is not necessarily a good indicator (some in the poorest 2 billion, <$750/year income, may be living well in subsistence lifestyles) and that no matter how income is distributed, there will still be exploitation in a capitalist system, Ulvila readily agreed, noting that his dissection is primarily to show that major and immediate degrowth needs to be for the high income.

Rajni Baskshi, from Gateway House, India, talked about her book ‘Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom’, the central tenet of which is that bazaars/local markets are places to meet, discuss, and  to buy. And more importantly, that bazaars are/were embedded in social mores, or values, and reflect a society deciding its terms of reference and the norms in which the bazaar will operate. A bazaar is thus very different to “the market”, which is removed from a social structure/society. Capitalism is a creature of this modern “market”. We thus need to make a distinction between commerce and capitalism; all commerce is not capitalism.

Every society that ever moved from hunting and gathering to cultivation has created bazaars/ exchanges in some form. But some from of reciprocal exchange precedes the money system by around 4000 years. Commerce is very ancient, and history is important for understanding the diversity of knowledge, wisdom, experience and the many different forms of exchange. In response to the comment that traditional bazaars may have been great in some respects, but they were also based on relations of inequality (e.g. in India, the caste system), Rajni agreed, suggesting that as long as we work towards new systems of equity, we can learn from old Bazaar systems, for example on reciprocity, leaving the bad stuff out and combining instead with today’s values of equity, dignity, etc.

Ruby van der Wekken, from the Finnish Solidarity Economy Network, pointed out that discussions about the economy are discussions about how we organise life – which is a discussion that should be for and by everyone. All these movements and initiatives taking part in the Degrowth conference are part of taking back our economy. Van der Wekken noted that creating different kinds of currency (to money) does different things to our social relations, giving the example of time banks. People exchange services based on time – everybody’s time is worth the same, and through the time bank you see what others need, and share what you need, facilitated by a system of time credits.

Leena Gupta, from the Society for Promotion of Wasteland Development, India, presented a case study of how traditional-style, top-down “development” projects destroy local livelihoods. The case was of what she called green development (a grassroots eco-restoration project in Kalpavalli) vs. “clean development” (a top-down mega-energy project funded by the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)). Over twenty years, ten village communities in Kalpavalli worked hard, in tune with nature, to restore a barren and arid area, using soil and water conservation techniques, seed dibbling and reforesting. They successfully rejuvenated the area, valleys becoming densely vegetated again, streams reappearing, species returning, resulting in a tenfold increase in biodiversity.

A CDM project however changed all this, with the erection of 48 mega wind turbines, the construction process for which destroyed swathes of vegetation, flattened hills and made massive land cuts for roads, leading to erosion and landslides, and a myriad knock-on effects (streams drying up, animal death from throwaway plastics and dangerous holes, etc). The project moreover did not have real community participation or informed consent, broke numerous laws in India, created no jobs for local people whilst destroying their livlihoods, and yet was still awarded carbon credits through the CDM – even though it did not have host country approval. Whilst wind energy is an integral part of climate mitigation, this type of top-down, capital intensive project is based on the profit model of big business interests, and destroys local livelihoods and resources. In other words, it is a renewable energy project based in the same neoliberal development model that has been causing harm in the global South for decades, only providing clean energy to those who can afford it and are connected to the grid (i.e. not most of India’s rural poor), and one which the business and market-oriented UNFCCC has all too readily embraced.

There were a number of other speakers in this session (Bhuwan Pathak of the Himalaya Niti Samwad and Vijay Pratap, from South-Asian Dialogues for Ecological Democracy, India), whom I unfortunately did not get the chance to hear, as I had signed up to help out with food preparation. The local, organic and vegan kitchen collective Le Sabot, who were each day preparing two meals for 2000 people, relied on the active participation of people attending the conference. Thus, whilst I no doubt missed some interesting interventions in the rest of this session, I did get to chat, peel and chop (onions) for an hour and a half in the sunny courtyard of Leipzig University.

* * * * * *

This blog is the fourth in a series of five posts, each focusing on one day at #Degrowth14. Read about Day 1 here, Day 2 here, Day 3 here and Day 5 here

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