Michel Bauwens is the founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives and works in collaboration with a global group of researchers in the exploration of peer production, governance, and property. He is a founding member of the Commons Strategies Group, with Silke Helfrich and David Bollier, organizing major global conferences on the commons and its economics. In the first semester of 2014, Michel Bauwens was research director of the floksociety.org research group, which produced the first integrated Commons Transition Plan for the government of Ecuador, in order to create a ‘social knowledge economy’, with fifteen associated policy papers.
Q: I usually ask the people I interview if they feel we are living through a transition. As one of the main contributors to the Commons Transition website, I might forgo the question and simply ask you to describe what the Commons Transition is.
I define Commons as a shared resource managed by a community following its own norms and that neither falls in the State nor private enterprise realms. It is a third way to manage resources.
The reasons why these Commons are so necessary today are first, that we are amid a systemic crisis and that many of the solutions to solve our issues are hidden away in the hands of private companies. These solutions are not being used because no one has found a way to make money out of them or because they threaten their existing legacy systems. To have such solutions available as Commons, i.e. to have them available as shared resources for all who can use and improve them, would enable the transition to take place much faster. I cannot see solutions such as the circular economy working if they are not open source.
Secondly, we have to consider the way we collectively use the Planet’s resources. Some figures tell us that we are currently using 1.5 Planet Earth’s worth of resources every year, but others, from REBus for example, have calculated that we are using 3 Planets worth of raw materials. So, the sharing and mutualisation of resources is vital to our survival. According to the study of the French engineer Francois Grosse, who was asked to do this by Veolia, the circular economy cannot work if the growth of consumption of raw material is above 1% per year. If we grow more, we can only postpone ‘peak resources’ for maximum 60 years. We simply cannot maintain a modern civilization at the current rate of resource usage.
We are currently experiencing both a failure of the State and of the market, and so we need new initiatives from civil society to address and solve these issues. I can give you an example: Wikispeed is a community project that has led to a car that claims to be five times more fuel-efficient than any other on the market but, they can’t seem to gain interest from financiers because they refuse to use patents, and so their ‘business model’ is teaching their method, which means such a car is not being produced.
We must rethink the way our economic system works. I believe in “cosmo=localization”: everything that is heavy should be local and everything that is light is global. Another way to name this would be to talk about ‘subsidiarity in material production’, i.e. to produce as close as possible to the place of need. This is important because transportation nearly has three times the environmental cost of production. We need to reorganise the world’s industrial system with distributed manufacturing. Think about the coffee cups you get from your local Starbucks. They are made from petrol extracted in Saudi Arabia, which has taken nature one million years to produce (!), this is then shipped to China to be turned into those plastic covers, then reshipped across the world. Think of all the resources used for items with an average lifespan of 15 seconds for an espresso cup. There is such a waste in our current system, that we desperately need a transition. A transition towards decentralised, on-demand manufacturing which has access to common global knowledge, using only what we need, with biodegradable and modular constituents, rather than ‘planned obsolescence’.
I am not at all against globalization, quite the contrary. However, concerning physical goods we need to relocate production. It is absurd that a tennis ball used in a Wimbledon match has travelled 40’000km during its production.
To lower this growth of our usage of materials to under 1%, the mutualisation of goods is our best way forward. A shared car can replace a very large number of individual cars for example. We need to apply this principle systematically.
Q: You mention sharing or putting in common knowledge, how do your answer criticism about the lack of competition in such a system, so useful for innovation in classical economics?
Today, it is as if we were playing football. There are teams (companies), within these teams there exists cooperation, but outside is permanent competition, and you never share the ball.
I would prefer to see a revolution in how we deal with technical knowledge. I am not for the abolition of competition, which I think is rather impossible, and not sure it is a good thing either, but for its contextualisation in larger collaborative ecosystems. Companies collaborate on the technical knowledge but compete for the deployment of said technology. This is to stop the artificial scarcity of ideas and knowledge and to locate the competition where it belongs, i.e. a struggle for excellence in servicing customers. This being said, I am also positive about new ways of production and consumption that create solidarity between consumers and producers, for example such as in community-supported agriculture. The huge Seikatsu cooperative clubs in Japan are a great example of this.
Some people are afraid that this would reduce innovation. Actually, the opposite is true. There is more innovation before and after a patent than during its lifespan. The patent only allows a company time to recuperate its investment in research in development, which does work but only during the initial 5 years. I am not for the eradication of patents but for example the reduction of their length and I am for the restriction of the duration of copyright terms, which are now an absurd 90 years after the death of a composer, which mostly serve to make money for corporations late after an artist’s death.
Compare Polio and Aids. The research for Polio was in the public domain and a vaccine was massively distributed within 5 years of its discovery. The research for Aids was held privately in pharmaceutical companies during 15 years during which these companies refused to sell the drugs at a reasonable price. Millions died waiting, and millions more got infected. In the greater scheme of things, I am not convinced our current model works so well for society. To stay with the pharmaceutical industry, 99% of investments are directed to 1% of illnesses, mainly those affecting developed nations. For example - I read this yesterday - the number one cause of death for Americans under 45 years of age is physical violence. There is very little money being directed towards fighting trauma because it mainly is an issue for underprivileged segments of society.
I’ll give you another example. I’m from Belgium and over there, we have universal healthcare and the choice in the hospital you wish to go to. So, we have the best of the competitive American model let’s say, and the best of the British NHS mutualistic model. There is still incentive for a hospital to be good but the fact that its income comes from the State insures that all citizens have the same quality care, which is not the case in privatized systems.
In Commons, companies share knowledge but there will always be companies that will be better at developing better services and will be more competitive that way.
Q: Reading some of the research and proposals on your site, I understood that, as an answer to the “threat” of automation, you were for the development of co-ownership of machines which work would generate income for the coops that owned them. Did I understand this proposal correctly and if so could you tell me more of this one-one exchange between man and machine?
I am for open cooperatives. The real challenge in this transition is to find the right interaction between the entities that work within the Market and the contributors to Commons. I am for a transition from extractive models to generative models.
Let’s take Über or Airbnb for example. There is a mutualisation of means but these companies generate a heavy social cost: Über undermines the social security of workers and Airbnb has an extremely fast gentrification impact on some neighbourhoods which drives out permanent residents. Could we imagine models in which companies that use commons instead of negatively impacting society, generate social value? A good example is industrial agriculture where each year the soil is loses in nutrients compared to ecological agriculture where each year the soil is richer than the previous year. We need a pro-generative approach.
The solution for me is to use open cooperatives: coops that create commons and those commons then need to be integrated into generative business models. This can be applied to machines as well. The problem is not automation, bu that the gains of automation are not put in the productive economy, but in the speculative activities, creating huge inflation in housing and other non-productive stocks. In contrast, if the machines are owned by the direct producers, the surplus can be re-invested in new activities.
Surprisingly in the world today, there are more people who work for coops than for multinationals. A French study I believe has proved that ecologic coops have a lifespan 3 to 5 times greater than their purely for profit start-up counterparts. So, the change I am describing is not going to be easy but neither is it impossible. Through mutualisation we can achieve lower production costs which make these models competitive.
Q: Maybe a stupid question but who gives ownership to these commons? Who enforces the right to ownership?
At an international level, the answer can only be a political one. Peter Barnes, in his book With Liberty and Dividends for All, describes what he calls a “Sky Trust”, a national organisation where citizens agree to consider air as a common. Everyone has a right to use the resource to a certain percentage. If you over use, you pay people who underuse it. It resembles Cap and Trade but it has the added advantages of means redistribution among citizens, on top of incentivising prudent management of resources and taxing waste.
There are also a lot of very interesting initiatives at city-scale, particularly in Italy. There was a constitutional change during the Rodotà Commission ten years ago. Also the Bologna Regulations on the Caring and Rejuvenation of Urban Commons gave the right to citizens to legally claim a resource such as industrial blithe or an under-cared for park, and turn it into a common and manage the resource. Usually the citizen groups who take advantage of this law install a polycentric governance with representatives from the city, neighbourhood, local businesses, etc.
Q: This actually leads me to a question I had on the governance models you recommend. Which are they?
With regards to material resources, Elinor Ostrom has published much on the topic of the governance of physical resources, but that is not my speciality. I am more focused on digital organisations. The difference there being that one is dealing with non-rival goods, so there is a lesser need for negative management such as sanctions. What we see emerge in these cases are tri-archical structures. There is a self-managed community made up of the contributors (for Wikipedia, the content writers and editors), then you have an entrepreneurial coalition and finally, there is often a Governance Foundation (for Wikipedia again, the Wikimedia Foundation) that manages the cooperation infrastructure. The Foundation doesn’t direct the work and doesn’t function following market rules but it guarantees that both the contributors and the entrepreneurs can work on the long run.
My hypothesis is that these foundations form a kind of State for the commons. They constitute a virtual territory, and constitute a “for-benefit association” which manages the ‘common good’ of this virtual territory.
I imagine using the Commons and in particular Digital Commons, for the creation of new transnational structures, which would live next to existing inter-national structures. Karl Polanyi, in his book The Great Transformation, talks about what he calls the “double movement”. The History of capitalism moves back and forth between free market periods, which are phases of economic liberalisation, and regulatory periods, roughly changing every thirty years. Unfortunately today, this pendulum is broken. Capital is transnational but regulations are still decided at a State level, so popular revolts (either on Bernie Sanders’ side or Donald Trump’s side) are incapable of leading to market regulation. So, our economic system is broken.
The solution I propose is that the ethical and generative coops and civic coalitions which great commons throughout the world, start being organised transnationally and trans-locally. This includes city coalitions such as the 40-city coalition to regulate Über. This shows that this transnational regulatory movement is both top-down and bottom-up. The crisis in the Nation-State model is leading to the emergences of this new counter-power.
Nobody knows where this will lead to but I believe we are slowly moving to a post-Westphalian model. Our time resembles the 16th century in a way. Before the Peace of Westphalia, there were many forms of public governance: Germany was somewhat of a feudal federation, you had the Hanseatic League, city-states in Italy, etc. Before the hegemony of the Westphalian State model, there were many models and we may be returning to such a plurality of models, at least during this time of transition.
I like quoting Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”. He said this to describe fascism but today, one can wonder if it doesn’t apply to right-wing movements of national-protectionism that we see with Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen in France, etc. I doubt that these reactionary movements or a continuation of neo-liberal deregulation are realistic given their consistent failures of such a long period of time. Cosmo-localisation would be for me a better way forward.
Q: You are for Universal Basic Income (UBI) and we could talk about this complex topic for a long time, so I will just ask one question. How would you finance it?
There is currently in left-wing parties, a great debate about UBI. After initially being very keen on the idea, there are a growing number of critics favouring other solutions. For example in the U.S., a growing number of people support a “Job-guarantee” scheme, in which the state doesn’t provide an income but a job to everyone. I believe both solutions are actually compatible but the arguments for each go as follow:
UBI gives the opportunity to an increase minority of people to finance their transition. I believe UBI is a transitional demand to allow people to develop a more social-oriented life. On the other hand, the Job-Guarantee scheme remains within the existing societal system which has too many external negative externalities. Within our given context, UBI is a better solution but I do not know how realistic it is so, I prefer to speak of “Transitional Income”. By which I mean, that society decides to transition from our current Market / State bipolar system to one with the added Civil Society power balance – and I am happy to witness a growing number of people who wish this – and society decides to subsidise let’s say 10% of people to work out the transition. The way I imagine it would be to start creating Common platforms (of food, clothing, housing, etc.) and redesign the way these sectors are currently structured to minimise their negative external impacts on society and the environment.
There is a historic precedent to all this. If during the Middle Ages, people were capable with their limited education and means to subsidise 15% to 25% of people to exit the feudal system and work as monks, we should be capable to do the same today for the survival of the species. The argument that we cannot “afford” to finance a UBI or any other scheme enabling the transition is a false argument, since we are massively subsidising the banks through compound interest. It is just a question of priority.
To answer more specifically your initial question on how to finance a UBI, I am a big supporter of Yanis Varoufakis’ idea to finance it with Commons. The idea is that today, we have many perpetual annuities generated by commons, for example real estate speculation. You own a house and the city decides to put a metro station nearby, the price of your home will increase but not thanks to anything you have done. This added-value is not yours but society’s and should be returned to the community when you sell the home (at least to a certain degree of course, it is okay for individuals to make a moderate profit). We need to start taxing non-deserved incomes. Yann Moulier-Boutang also proposes a variation on the Tobin tax to finance the Commons.
Q: One of the most interesting large scale explorations of Commons is the FLOK Society in Ecuador. Could you please give me an update on where this project is today?
At the national level, it finally did not have many results except concerning reforms of their Intellectual Property regulations. The country has decided to maintain its extractive economic system and has even strengthened it, massively leasing their forests to Chinese mining firms. However, it gave birth to a number of local and municipal projects, for example in the district of Sigchos.
A piece of good news is that I will soon be working with the city of Ghent in Belgium, to study in partnership with all the local actors of the collaborative economy to propose a set of public policies in favour of Commons.
All this shows me that cities are the right partners to move forward, because nation states are in crisis. Many cities are doing very interesting things such as Bologna which I have already mentioned, but also Seoul, Barcelona,…
Q: You have started to answer this in part (partnering with municipalities, basic income, etc.) but I wanted to ask you specifically, how do we move gradually from our current state to the next? How do we transition?
The way we see things is to change through “seed forms”. By which I mean, that when a crisis arises, people try to find solutions. Because of the systemic nature of our current crisis, the solutions we need to adopt must come from outside our current framework. We will find our solutions in seed form among social innovations. For example, during the feudal systemic crisis at the end of the Middle Ages, we see the creation of Italian City States which laid the groundwork for capitalism, through the creation of accountancy, financial instruments like bonds, etc.
I believe we are witnessing today the seeds of the “Commons system”, a system centred around Commons which doesn’t mean that will be the only economic or governance form. There will still be States and a Market, it is just a question of what the centre of the system will be. Today, we are centred around the market, tomorrow, I believe we will be centred around Commons, as Paul Mason and Jeremy Rifkin have also been predicting.
We can’t predict the future but we can analyse in detail what is happening. Oikos, a Belgian ecological think tank, showed in a study recently that in the last ten years, civil and citizen initiatives have increase 10-fold. This was confirmed by other studies. So, at the very least for western cities, in particular in Europe, we are seeing a real explosion of alternatives. In East-Asia for example, Taiwan also shows some very interesting examples in terms of civil governance. I just finished a project which analyzed 40 urban commons project, half of these from the Global South, so it is really happening across the globe to some extent at least.
Q: As an expert focused on Digital Commons, what is your point of view on the use of the Blockchain in the future you describe?
There are a couple issues with the Blockchain. First, the environmental cost is currently much too high. Because the chains need to be checked with high computing power, the energy cost of the blockchain is not sustainable. Secondly, there is a lot of hype but very little reality as of yet, though I expect to see a number of prototypes and pilots in 2017.
I believe more in other tools. I actually just recently wrote a report entitled Value in the Commons Economy: Developments in Open and Contributory Value Accounting. Another study on P2P Value, showed that out of 300 commons analysed, 78% of them used or were working on contributory accounting. I also have just read an analysis of fisheries in Africa by Chimere Diaw, showing the existence of similar practices for hundreds of years. We are not very familiar with this in the West, but there are very sophisticated systems which combine Commons and market functions, long before the advent of capitalism.
Today, Open Design Communities in the digital space are doing the same thing but in a digital environment.
The second tool I am very interested in is Open Logistics. If we wish to create a circular economy, it is not possible to stay within a given private competitive company, no matter how large, even in one sector of the Market economy. We need to develop participatory ecosystems, entrepreneurial coalitions centred around certain commons and the best way to do this is to create Open Supply Chains. And maybe for this, the Blockchain could be useful, maybe to guarantee the provenance of goods or services, their quality, etc.
Again, some people might criticise opening Supply Chains, which are seen today as areas of strong competitive advantage within the Market economy but as I mentioned, we need to exit our current system somehow because we can’t continue consuming multiple planets which we don’t have.
We need to develop alternatives so that when crises hit, we have them available as prototypes that others can learn from. Similar to the monastic world which offered a way out of the war-based Roman economy in crisis at the time, and eventually led to feudal economies with a entirely different functioning based on local domains and production. Jean Gimpel gives a very interesting description of this transition in his book La révolution industrielle du Moyen Âge. In it, he shows that 90% of technical innovations at the time came out of monasteries. They did this at a cost which was much lower than that of the Roman elite.
 Ecuador’s FLOK Society (Free-Libre, Open Knowledge) project was originally commissioned in 2013 andmarked the first time a nation state commissioned a practical plan to transition to a mature Peer to Peer Economy. It was initiated to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador”, based on the principles of open networks, peer production and a commons of knowledge.