Podcast Review – Commons-based peer production at the edge of a chaotic transition

In this latest podcast from Boundaryless Conversations podcast, hosts Simone Cicero and Stina Heikkila interview P2P Foundation founder Michel Bauwens. I have followed Michel’s work for several years and incorporated much of it into my work in the blockchain space. The conversation was quite rich, touching on societies as complex adaptive systems and the need to strengthen the emerging commons as a compliment to existing public, private and social institutions. The conversation focuses on structural change, cultural transitions and the need for coexistence among multiple mindsets and related institutional models.

Here are the key insights, my thoughts and links to related work.

On the commons complementing current institutions

Michel stressed the need for commoners to think of the commons as complimenting or building on current institutions rather than supplanting them.

And I think one of the critiques [ ] we could make of the commons movement is the idea that it’s a [ ] totalistic alternative, right? So, what I would argue differently is that the commons on its own is not sufficient, just as the market on its own is not efficient, sufficient. [ ] And so basically, what I’ve been suggesting is that commoners [ ] should be thinking not about, you know, doing it in our own 100% pure way, but we should be thinking: what kind of markets work for commoners? What kind of state form works for the commons?”

Simone then asked to what extent this complementary transition would be influenced by political and/or epistemological discourse. Michel cited several examples from his recent work The pulsation of the commons of how history has moved in waves pulsating through extractive periods and followed by regenerative reactions that revive the commons. Michel stressed a shift in consciousness occurring in younger generations that portends another rise of the commons.

“I mean, this is a real issue, where most young people cannot find meaning in a traditional job, or they want something else, they want to live other values. So, I would say in general, that we actually see a mutation of consciousness. [ ] And I think today, a lot of people want to care for the earth, want to be at the [service] of the planet. And the system hasn’t yet changed to make that possible. But I think the desire is already there.”

These historical pulsations make sense and I liken them to the mindsets one expresses as they progress through the alternating self-expressing and self-sacrificing 1st tier vMemes in Spiral Dynamics. What we are experiencing now is the shift between the extractive, self-expressing Orange vMeme and the commoning, self-sacrificing Green vMeme.  The model projects an end to this pulsating pattern once we’ve reached the point at which escalating existential problems mandate a continuous cooperative existence.  That point is near as the green vMeme’s growing global empathy and desire to care for the planet is fueling innovation of yellow vMeme models that make that possible by retaining what’s good about our current institutions and replacing what’s not. 

The pulsating nature of human consciousness.

I like Michel’s quote about the transition:

“And you probably remember this quote from Gramsci where it says the old system is dying but is not dead yet and a new system is being born but it’s not born yet, so it’s a time of monsters.” 

Indeed, it seems monsters are among us as this latest pulsation feels fundamentally different.  We seem poised to overcome the urges that have caused our pulsations in the past – the urgencies of individual subsistence that have blinded us to escalating global societal challenges. 

On the emerging relationship between institutions, Michel notes three communities we identify with.  

  • Nation states
  • Mult-lateral mediating institutions like IMF and World Bank
  • Trans-national, trans-local, virtual interest-based communities underpinned by the knowledge commons and give rise to a glocal model where knowledge is shared and production is local

He states that the current pandemic is stressing the need for the emerging knowledge commons, local production model. When asked about how these models can coexist, he said it’s a combined issue of currently weak commons institutions and states don’t yet have a means of cooperating with the commons although some examples of public/commons partnerships are emerging. He alludes to a need for viewing value in terms of flows rather than identity-based boundaries – states see territories and don’t conceive of how a more symbiotic flow of matter, energy resources, and information benefits them.

“There is no interface and I think that’s a huge weakness on both sides, because right now the state would — and also maybe say that in some more theoretical ways I think the state can see territory, it cannot see flows — and so we need a partner state with which is not just the issue of, you know, being a partner with civil society and allowing civil society to be autonomous, but it’s also related to the ability of the state to see things and accept the fact that flows enrich the nation. I am not sure that beyond the neoliberal market flows, commodity flows, that people in the states and traditional politicians are actually able to see how open source and international global maker spaces can enrich a territory can enrich, you know, the wealth of a nation state.”

I would add that there are examples of private/public/commons partnerships emerging also. Most notably the Sensorica Noice/LeVoice Fablabs of Verdun, Quebec.

On Boundary and Flow Accounting in Decentralized Networks

The conversation next turned to the need for co-existing mediating institutions to keep the peace (for order), but also the need to establish new institutions to account for resource use externalities through boundary accounting.  Michel shared details on the concept of stigmergy and how boundary accounting would govern globally coordinated use of natural resources within agreed upon boundaries of the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. He also referred to flow accounting or REA (resources, events, agents), which was actually created by my college Accounting professor, William McCarthy! REA accounting is a form of circular finance where value is accounted for as it flows throughout networks in contrast to traditional double-entry accounting between two individual organizations. He elaborated on a collective decarbonization effort.

“If you do circular finance, let me explain what that means. You create a public ledger, that public ledger allows every citizen, every collective to have its decarbonisation efforts to be verified. So you have it verified, you have been tokenized. And it either through taxation, or through contributions, those who profit from that positive externality, you fund these tokens and you create a circle. It can be very easy.”

Danielle Stanko and I have been exploring this approach for several years now. See our previous writings on enabling commons preservation, and accelerating social impact, and the co-existence of the commons and markets as well as blockchain-enabled developmental models and attempts to get traction around flow accounting

Simone brought up the problem with corruption if traditional mediating institutions were utilized to govern circular flow accounting.  He then pondered whether the mediating institutions of the future would be tools.

“So, maybe these connections that we are going to create, these multinational inter-networks and connections are more like you know, gonna be produced as tools.”

Michel then reiterated his view of the interdependent relationship between state and commons while stressing the need for commons independence to counter-balance the power of nation states.

This is precisely what decentralized technologies and Web 3.0 are attempting to accomplish – to establish a layer of trust at the technology protocol layer that protects against what Arthur Brock refers to as enclosable carriers – ie. information manipulated by power and corruption.

The pace of progress in mental models

Stina then asked more about how we can nurture emerging mindsets. Michel stressed the need for change in our educational processes and institutions which reinforce new mindsets and models. 

“And so, you know, changing our mind is the first step but to actually change the whole body-mind has to be mobilized. And I think this is something — you have to do some kind of programming of a worldview — and that has to be done very early.”

Michel and Simone closed by agreeing that the coronavirus represents a further catalyst for a mental reset that has been building since the 2008 global financial crisis and has been progressing in small steps ever since.

Simone: “A little step, and then another one, and then another one. And we end up maybe in a few years with a system that is completely different. So hopefully.

Michel: “We, you know, we shouldn’t wait for this magic moment. You have all these little changes and at some time, it will feel “Wow. Now the logic is already different”.

Final Comments

In addition to the extensive discussion around the relationship between state and commons, my own journey in introducing the value of the commons to the market sector has been equally challenging and riddled with barriers in consciousness and workable interfaces.  I think we should not overlook the impact the market can have on our future institutions with its strategic thinking, entrepreneurial drive and ingenuity.  We need to raise awareness in corporate initiatives to the epistemological progression occurring and its impact in terms of what they find motivating – business resilience.  In the end, business resilience is interdependent with community resilience and business needs to seek approaches that also prepare them for the future.  That means accounting  for value flows within and between itself, open networks, common pool resources and ultimately the communities upon which its existence depends.

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