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Raj Patel on How to Break Away from Capitalism

By Chris Winters - Yes! Magazine, October 23, 2017

Capitalism has been the world’s dominant economic system for more than 700 years. And as it brings the planet to new crises, author Raj Patel believes it’s important to imagine what might replace it.

But reform won’t happen unless we understand capitalism’s appeal and historical rise, says Patel, a food justice activist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s remarkably resilient and can be traced to a process he calls “cheapness.”

Together with Binghamton University professor Jason W. Moore, he has written The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017), which aims to put it all together for us. The seven “things” of the title aren’t physical objects as much as they are a hidden social, ecological and economic infrastructure: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. The point being that cheapness is a process of responding to economic crises by devaluing each of those forces so that capitalism can continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the already-wealthy. In that sense, “cheap nature” refers to the way in which land and its resources are systematically given away to businesses for exploitation, “cheap work” refers to slavery and other anti-worker tactics that keep wages low, and so on.

Capitalism values cheapness above all else. And through this lens, Patel and Moore explore the evolution of capitalism from its roots in the late medieval period with the collapse of feudalism in Western Europe caused by climate change and the Black Death to—now.

Raj Patel spoke with YES! Magazine senior editor Chris Winters in Seattle. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Let’s Own Everything Together

By Jacob Stringer - P2P Foundation, October 24, 2017

We live in times of high political turbulence. Surveying flailing governments from Spain to the United States, it seems a good moment to face up to the evidence of system failures that face us. Millions going to food banks or unable to afford decent housing in the richest countries in the world reveals a systems failure. An epidemic of mental health problems reveals a systems failure. An inability to deal with climate change reveals a systems failure. A constant anger at government and at the institutions of government, channelled – largely ineffectually – through ballot boxes, reveals a systems failure.

Why systems are failing

What is visibly failing is management of large scale societies, management of us, by those who seldom fully understand our problems, management regimes too big to adapt as needed. It is not stated often enough that we live in a heavily managed society. Yet people instantly understand what is meant by this: they have experience of being managed. Sometimes we are managed well, sometimes badly, but at some point in a large system, the former state will always give way to the latter. Eventually a sense of lost control comes over us all. We must take back control, we feel. It is hard to know how, hard to know who to target, for no leaders or parties seem to return power to us.

Many see that capital has become a dominant force in these large systems, re-shaping our cities, our very lives, flinging aside humans as detritus of the development process. As a solution we are constantly offered better management. We can keep casting around for better managers, but as the ‘Accidental Anarchist’ Carne Ross has been arguing, we live in complex systems that cannot successfully be controlled from the top down. The point is not to simply be angry with the managers for doing the wrong things, or for being the wrong managers, or for not advantaging us rather than others in these huge dynamic networks around us. Intention anyway becomes lost in such large systems. It’s true that some managers do transfer wealth from poor to rich, and others attempt to do the opposite. But each of the managers fails at some point, often fatally undermining any good work they have done. Perhaps it’s time to start entertaining a new line of thought: perhaps we should stop asking to be managed.

Re-imaging Politics through the Lens of the Commons

By David Bollier - David Bollier, October 2, 2017

The rise of so many right-wing nationalist movements around the world—Brexit, Donald Trump, the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-immigrant protests throughout Europe—have their own distinctive origins and contexts, to be sure. But in the aggregate, they are evidence of the dwindling options for credible change that capitalist political cultures are willing to consider. This naturally provokes the question: Why are the more wholesome alternative visions so scarce and scarcely believable?   Political elites and their corporate brethren are running out of ideas for how to reconcile the deep contradictions of “democratic capitalism” as it now exists. Even social democrats and liberals, the traditional foes of free-market dogma, seem locked into an archaic worldview and set of political strategies that makes their advocacy sound tinny. Their familiar progress-narrative—that economic growth, augmented by government interventions and redistribution, can in fact work and make society more stable and fair—is no longer persuasive.   Below, I argue that the commons paradigm offers a refreshing and practical lens for re-imagining politics, governance and law. The commons, briefly put, is about self-organized social systems for managing shared wealth. Far from a “tragedy,”2 the commons as a system for mutualizing responsibilities and benefits is highly generative. It can be seen in the successful self-management of forests, farmland, and water, and in open source software communities, open-access scholarly journals, and “cosmo-local” design and manufacturing systems.   The 2008 financial crisis drew back the curtain on many consensus myths that have kept the neoliberal capitalist narrative afloat. It turns out that growth is not something that is widely or equitably shared. A rising tide does not raise all boats because the poor, working class, and even the middle class do not share much of the productivity gains, tax breaks, or equity appreciation that the wealthy enjoy. The intensifying concentration of wealth is creating a new global plutocracy, whose members are using their fortunes to dominate and corrupt democratic processes while insulating themselves from the ills afflicting everyone else. No wonder the market/state system and the idea of liberal democracy is experiencing a legitimacy crisis.

Given this general critique, I believe that the most urgent challenge of our times is to develop a new socio-political imaginary that goes beyond those now on offer from the left or right. We need to imagine new sorts of governance and provisioning arrangements that can transform, tame, or replace predatory markets and capitalism. Over the past 50 years, the regulatory state has failed to abate the relentless flood of anti-ecological, anti-consumer, anti-social “externalities” generated by capitalism, largely because the power of capital has eclipsed that of the nation-state and citizen sovereignty. Yet the traditional left continues to believe, mistakenly, that a warmed-over Keynesianism, wealth-redistribution, and social programs are politically achievable and likely to be effective.

Kate Raworth on 'Doughnut Economics'

Kate Raworth interviewed by Adam Simpson - The Next System Project, August 23, 2017

This week on The Next System Podcast. Adam talks with Kate Raworth about her Doughnut Economics model. The pair discuss economic justice, unpaid labor, the commons, and much more. You can learn more about Doughnut Economics at Kate's website or purchase the book wherever books are sold. You can also follow Kate on twitter.

The Next System Podcast is available on iTunesSoundcloudGoogle Play, and Stitcher Radio. You can also subscribe independently to our RSS feed here.

Adam Simpson : I'm joined today by Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Kate is a senior visiting research associate at Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and a senior associate at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Her previous work at Oxfam and the United Nations, centered on confronting human deprivation, a challenge quite literally at the center of her new doughnut economics model.

Kate, thanks for joining me today.

Kate Raworth : Oh, my pleasure.

Simpson : Obviously, we're talking about your new book, Doughnut Economics but before we get started I did want to get a sense about your own trajectory into writing this book and your experiences and the concepts that led you to becoming an advocate for this doughnut model of economics.

Raworth : I studied economics at university 25 years ago because I wanted to change the world. I was really frustrated and disappointed by what I was taught because it pushed or marginalized most of the things that I cared the most about, like environment integrity and social justice. At the end of three, four years of study, I was too embarrassed to call myself an economist because who would want to be that? So I walked away from academic economics and immersed myself in what I considered to be real world challenges. I spent three years working in the villages of Zanzibar with bare foot entrepreneurs. I spent four years at the UN helping to write the human development reports, so working very much on the global understanding of what is ‘human development.’

Then I spent a decade working with Oxfam on the front line of campaigning, from women workers rights in global supply chains to climate change and adaptation and who should pay. And then I became a mother of twins, and immersed myself in the household economy and really lived the reality of that. Through all of this, I realized that you can't just walk away from economics because it frames the world we live in. It's the mother tongue of public policy. And if I wanted to change any of these issues that I fundamentally cared about, I believed that actually, economics needed to change. So I decided to walk back towards economics but to try and flip it on its head and put front and first, the values that I think are the most important in the world, of what we're trying to achieve as human well-being. Then ask ourselves, what kind of economics would even give us half a chance of achieving that? And that's the goal at the heart of the book.

The root of the climate crisis is capitalism, not demographics

By Michael Friedman - Monthly Review, August 15, 2017

Growing concerns about climate change and other environmental trends have set off the next round of old Malthusian diagnoses and solutions.

As a case in point, ecological economist William E. Rees recently wrote in the Canadian alternative magazine The Tyee (“Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse” July 17, 2017):

The “competitive displacement” of other species is an inevitable byproduct of continuous growth on a finite planet. The expansion of humans and their artifacts necessarily means the contraction of everything else. (Politicians’ protests notwithstanding, there is a fundamental contradiction between population/economic growth and protecting the “environment.”)

As a first sweep, one might assert that “common sense” would dictate that as a population increases, so does pressure on resources, all else being equal. This is the logic behind the ecological concept of the “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem. It is the basis for the old Club of Rome report, “Limits to Growth.” And it is also associated with some versions of the “planetary boundaries” concept.

All else is not equal.

Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation

Edited by Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean - Transnational Institute, June 2017

You would be forgiven, especially if you live in Europe, to think that public services are by nature expensive, inefficient, maybe even somewhat outdated, and that reforming them to adapt to new challenges is difficult. It would seem natural to assume – because this is what most politicians, media and so-called experts tell us continuously – that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for services of an ever lower standard, and that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. It would seem that private companies will inevitably play an ever larger role in the provision of public services, because everything has a price, because politicians have lost sight of the common good and citizens are only interested in their own individual pursuits.

This book, however, tells a completely different story. Sometimes it may feel as though we are living in a time when profit and austerity are our only horizons. In reality, below the radar, thousands of politicians, public officials, workers and unions, and social movements are working to reclaim or create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to our social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Our research shows there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services worldwide in recent years, some of them involving several cities. In total there have been more than 1600 cities in 45 countries involved in (re)municipalisation. And these (re)municipalisations generally succeed-ed in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

Read the text (PDF).

R&C02-Is renewable energy a commons?

By Cécile L. Blanchet - Energy, commons and the rest, August 24, 2016

How relocating energy in the commons helps scaling-up renewables & saving energy
Is energy a mere commodity, or is it a common good? Why is this relevant in the first place? Here we look at why energy is part of our commons, from the sources to the product itself. In a second time, we will see that relocating energy in the commons has very important implications: it helps solve the energy efficiency dilemma (i.e., we need to reduce our energy consumption but who’s going to pay for that?) and scale-up renewables.

Article also published on the Commons Network.

What is a commons?

Once upon a time… there was an alpine pasture, where cattle from the village came to graze. The air was fresh and brisk, there was enough grass for the animals. But it was also a delicate, sensitive environment: put too much pressure on it (too much cattle) and it would be ruined in no-time… In other words, the pasture was a finite resource, which could support a finite number of cattle.

A (finite) natural resource, that is necessary to all: that’s a natural commons.

There are three way of dealing with natural commons:

  1. The commons (e.g., the pasture) is claimed by someone, who controls its access and monetize it: it becomes a commodity and the usage profits mainly to a few. 
  2. There is no communication in the community and no rules are set to use the commons. Individuals tend to exploit the commons as much as possible in order to maximise their own profit and compete for accessing to it. Eventually, the commons is destroyed. This is how Garrett Hardin described modern humans’ behaviour in the “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, which led him to argue that only privatization (as in 1.) or state regulation are successful mode of governance for the commons.
  3. People actually talk to each other and are conscious of the problem of over-using their commons. Therefore, communities organise themselves and set some rules, compensation mechanisms and sanctions against free-riders. Benefits are shared and sustained. This is what Elinor Ostrom (and her colleagues) reported upon throughout her career: communities are able to (and do) manage their common goods by themselves.

Next to the finite or physical resources defining the classical commons framework, we can think of other non-finite and more abstract resources that can be treated as commons and referred to as social commons: digital commons, knowledge commons, health commons, urban commons… Shifting the paradigm from commodity to commons helps to reduce the (artificial) scarcity of these resources (created and sustained by privatisation and monetisation) by having a common-ownership or no-ownership. This is best illustrated by the creative common licences, which allow (for some of them) companies to sell a product but not to claim its ownership (which means that other companies can sell the same product, modify it, etc…).

And finally, there’s the act of commoning: doing together, sharing, benefiting from each other. As we saw in the previous episode, this is one of the recurrent arguments given by members of energy cooperatives as a ground and as a co-benefit from their project.

Building The Commons As An Antidote To Predatory Capitalism

By - Popular Resistance, February 22, 2017

NOTE: This article initially appeared in the book “Moving Beyond Capitalism,” published in September 2016 by Ashgate Publishing Limited. The book was edited by Cliff DuRand of the Center for Global Justice. We participated in a week-long conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico during the summer of 2014. The book came out of that conference. We thought it would be appropriate to post this chapter now because we are in a renewed wave of privatization and predation. We must build resistance to it. – Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese

(Based on an article originally published in Sept. 4, 2013)

 “We are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, people around the world are searching for alternatives.” David Bollier in “The Wealth of the Commons”

These are times of radical change. We are in the midst of an evolution. The old world is one of concentrated economic power that hoards wealth; that creates corrupted and hierarchical governance to serve and further concentrate wealth through exploitation of people and the planet. People are experiencing the ravages of this global neoliberal economy in which the market reigns supreme and everything is a profit center, no matter the human and environmental costs.

We are at a crossroads in the global economic order. If not stopped, the two massive “trade” agreements under negotiation at present, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (known as TAFTA), will cement this globalized neoliberal market economy through greater deregulation, profit protection and an extra-judicial trade tribunal in which corporations can sue sovereign nations if their laws interfere with profits.

There is another way. We’ve reached a tipping point in awareness of the effects of the current global economy that has erupted in a worldwide revolt as we can see in the Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and Indignado movements. People are searching for alternative ways of structuring the economy and society that are empowering and more just and sustainable. Part of this work includes understanding and building the “commons,” which is the opposite of the predatory market economy.

As we will describe below, concentrated wealth is derived by taking from the commons for personal gain in an undemocratic way. We can reverse the current trend toward privatization and wealth inequality by claiming the commons and using it for mutual prosperity. The commons cannot exist without a participatory governance structure. Therefore, building the commons is a fundamental step toward real democracy.

Bollier makes the case that there is “enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.” Understanding the commons gives us a vocabulary, vision and practical opportunities to create a new world in which governance builds from the bottom up and connects us from the local to the global level.

Transitions towards New Economies? A Transformative Social Innovation Perspective

By Flor Avelino, et. al. - Transformative Social Innovation (TRANSIT), September 2015

There are numerous social innovation networks and initiatives worldwide with the ambition to contribute to transformative change towards more sustainable, resilient and just societies. Many of these have a specific vision on the economy and relate to alternative visions of a ‘New Economy’. This paper highlights four prominent strands of new economy thinking in state-of-the-art discussions: degrowth, collaborative economy, solidarity economy, and social entrepreneurship.

Taking a perspective of transformative social innovation, the paper draws on case studies of 12 social innovation initiatives to analyse how these relate to new economies and to transitions toward new economic arrangements. The 12 cases are analysed in terms of a) how they relate to narratives of change on new economies, b) how they renew social relations, and c) how their new economy arrangements hold potential to challenge established institutional constellations in the existing economy.

Read the text (PDF).

Tragedy of the Commons Versus Common Ownership

By A Johnston - Socialism or Your Money Back, May 3, 2011

In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin invented a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would make matters worse. This was sweet music to the defenders of capitalist ownership of the means of producing wealth, and Hardin’s parable was soon incorporated into the arsenal of anti-socialist arguments.

Called "The tragedy of the commons", his parable went like this: Picture a pasture open to all, assume its a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle. In these circumstances, it is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  • 1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  • 2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. In the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons bring ruin to all.

Hardin's solution to this tragedy of the commons is "mutual coercion". An appeal to conscience, he argues, is altogether futile. Mutual coercion can be effected through, as it were, enclosing the commons and instituting a system of private property which will enforce a sense of responsibility among herdsmen as to the appropriate number of cattle their land can provide for without resulting in overgrazing. Since they cannot encroach on land owned by other herdsmen, the consequences of keeping too many cattle will be exclusively borne by them. This knowledge will therefore deter them from acting irresponsibly in the first place. Governments drew from Hardin’s theorising was that in existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions.


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