On the Transition to a Commons-Based Economy

An interview with Commons Transition first published at CommonsTransition.org and republished under a Peer Production, P2P Attribution-ConditionalNonCommercial-ShareAlikeLicense.

Can you define Commons Transition, tell us what it means to you?

Chris: To me, a commons transition speaks to the process of communities progressively controlling and self-governing more and more of their collective resources, by and for themselves and future generations. The “transition” implies that we are moving from one system of organizing society – in this case, global capitalism – to a wholly distinct socio-ecological paradigm rooted in age-old practices referred to as “the commons.” What’s particularly interesting about this transition is that, in many ways, it’s a return to principles of managing our homes that evolved over millennia before the onslaught of industrial capitalism. Our contemporary context is obviously much different from the indigenous and peasant cultures that sustained commons-based societies for thousands of years, but we have much to learn from them in how to undertake this transition.

I think this Commons Transition involves both a confrontation with the forces of neoliberalism – the ideology of privatization and commodification of common resources – and a flourishing of economic and political practices deeply rooted in the diverse cultures and ecologies of communities around the world. It’s ultimately about a movement toward the collective management of our common wealth, and ensuring that everyone shares access to and decision-making about the resources they depend on to thrive.

Can you share with us some examples of Commons transitions? Continue reading

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Toward a True Sharing Economy

Commentary on Juliet Schor’s “Debating the Sharing Economy”

Chris’s Commentary, and Juliet Schor’s full article “Debating the Sharing Economy,” first published at Great Transition Initiative.

Juliet Schor offers us one of the most lucid, insightful, and well-researched analyses of the so-called “sharing economy,” examining the self-proclaimed social and environmental transformations that for-profit companies have claimed, and concluding, rightly I think, that the capacity of sharing economy users to organize themselves is a central factor in truly unlocking the potential of the sharing model.

Indeed, the very diversity of projects and enterprises that might fall under the “sharing economy” umbrella begets a certain potential for more socially inclusive and ecologically responsible economies. However, given the urgency of our planetary situation right now—cascading social, ecological, economic, and climatic crises unfolding around the world – it seems imperative to ask whether more profound transformations are required than what the current “sharing economy” promises. As Schor’s initial research suggests, the social and ecological impacts of many “sharing economy” enterprises are ambiguous at best, and in some cases, they are demonstrably furthering the very ills of social segregation and increased carbon emissions they purport to solve.

It’s time to deeply question whether the economic practices that comprise the mainstream sharing economy—including the recirculation of goods, peer-to-peer service exchanges, and co-production of assets—can be meaningful catalysts for a just and sustainable transition without fundamentally changing the ownership and governance structures of our entire economy. After all, accumulation (of wealth, power, decision-making) is the antithesis of sharing, and that is precisely how many sharing economy companies are structurally designed to function.

Read the full article at Great Transition Initiate

Governance Matters: Replicable Rules for an Accountable Economy

Re-posted from the New Economy Coalitions’ New Economy Week 2014, 10/15/2014

nonprofitA new economy must do more than distribute goods and services. It must also more equitably distribute meaningful opportunities for participation and wellbeing to the communities – human and ecological – so long exploited by our dominant political economy. A clue to how this can be achieved may lie in the very word “economy” itself. Derived from the Ancient Greek word οἰκονόμος, meaning “management of the home,” oἶκος is, of course, the same root found in “ecology,” meaning “study or knowledge of home.”

So how can the management or governance of our shared home – this one fragile yet resilient planet – be more deeply rooted in knowledge of that home?

The entities that provide for our most fundamental needs – food producers, grocery stores, energy utilities, water utilities, banks, housing providers, hospitals, schools – can be far more accountable to the people and communities that use them. Around the world, a multitude of projects are adopting more democratic, fluid, and purpose-driven governance models that are meeting our needs in more socially just and ecologically regenerative ways: worker cooperatives, community-supported farms, renewable energy cooperatives, cohousing communities, seed saving collectives, community land trusts, local currencies, credit unions, healthcare collectives, child-care cooperatives, community-controlled water districts, and more.

An insight emerging from these democratic projects and our understanding of ecosystem functioning is that “system structure is the source of system behavior,” as Marjorie Kelly of the Democracy Collaborative has said. Governance matters. Our governance structures must both reflect the diversity of our communities and embody the values of the growing new economies movement through democracy, justice, and appropriate scale. At the Sustainable Economies Law Center, we are working with a diverse range of new economy entrepreneurs to create replicable governance models for a wide range of projects that generate and keep wealth circulating locally: Spanish-language bylaws for an immigrant-owned catering cooperative, a distributed governance system for a freelancer-owned tech platform, and our own publicly-available organizational policies for democratically-run non-profits, to name a few.

A new economy demands new operating systems for the entities that make it up. The operating system of the status quo economy – highly centralized and multinational corporations accountable only to wealthy shareholders – has proven inadequate for the depth and breadth of change our economy requires. To the extent that new economy organizational structures empower communities to decide and co-create their own economic future, replicable innovations in governance can be a catalyst for deep transformation at scale.

As the study of our home has shown us, ecosystems are only as resilient as the health of their component parts. A more resilient economic future calls for more accountable and democratic ways of governing our home that ensure the health and fulfillment of all members of our communities.

Read more on building power and bringing a new economy to scale.

(image courtesy NEC)

The People Who Don’t Go to Law School, Part 3: Growing the Farm Workers’ Movement

Re-posted from LikeLincoln.org

How do you create the country’s most historically successful farm workers union? A quick study of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker of America turns up a couple essential tools – bullhorns and an in-house legal team.

chavez2Cesar Chavez helped catalyze one of the most successful non-violent social movements in US history, winning civil rights for farm workers and challenging the political power of industrial agriculture. Through a highly sophisticated strategy of union organizing, farm worker strikes, consumer boycotts, and impact litigation, he built the largest and most successful farm workers union in the country. What is perhaps less well know is the integral role of lawyers and the law in growing the farm workers’ movement.

In a compelling and comprehensive study of the UFW’s legal strategy in the 60s and 70s, Jennifer Gordon uncovers some significant insights into the role of lawyers in building social movements (Gordon, Jennifer. “Law, Lawyers, and Labor: The United Farm Workers’ Legal Strategy in the 1960s and 1970s and the Role of Law in Union Organizing Today,” U. Pa. Journal of Labor and Employment Law. Vol 8:1). One of the key insights is the impact of power dynamics between lawyers and organizers within social movements: by growing an in-house legal team embedded in the organizing culture of the UFW, the farm workers’ movement was able to successfully avoid “lawyer domination” – a pattern that has derailed other social movements as power shifts away from the grassroots. The UFW’s legal team played an essential role in the overall UFW strategy, but they were never the leaders of the movement [that was always clearly Chavez and others like Dolores Huerta]. Lawyers were held as equals within the movement, and thus never unintentionally disempowered or overshadowed the farm workers themselves as the central force in building the political and economic power of the UFW. These “movement attorneys” hung out in the fields, attended strikes, and understood the role that lawyering played in the organization – to serve the farm workers and advance the movement.

Could there be a more fitting context in which to train attorneys from within a community via a legal apprenticeship?

Chavez recognized this. In the early 1980s, when the UFW’s early legal strategy began to change in response to the changing labor law landscape, Chavez ordered the creation of a UFW legal apprenticeship program. Self-educated himself, Chavez saw an opportunity to cultivate a new generation of attorneys that deeply understood and represented the very community of farm workers they served, and could advance a new approach to labor law based on the experience of working within the farm workers’ movement.

According to Mary Mecartney, a UFW attorney and former apprentice who passed the bar in 1993, “the six alumnae of the UFW apprenticeship program have contributed over 100 collective years of experience as attorneys working with the non-profit sector.“ Mecartney is currently supervising two legal apprentices, both the children of farm workers with passions for social justice and a desire to use the law as a tool for progressive social change. Tom Dalzell, the first UFW paralegal to become an attorney via apprenticeship in 1976, has gone on to become a noted author and union leader. Two other early and successful legal apprentices, Marcos Camacho and Barbara Macri, helped design the UFW apprenticeship program.

In a 2004 profile of UFW legal apprentices in the La Times, Camacho said, “I would do it all over again. I think it really gives you a whole different approach to law, a practical approach that really serves our clients.” He also noted that, at the time, UFW’s program had a 100% success rate for first-time bar exam takers — “better even than Harvard.”

UFW1As the UFW’s history demonstrates, combining grassroots organizing with a sophisticated legal strategy requires a unique approach to lawyering and a team of lawyers that embody the culture of the movement itself. The apprentice path offers several advantages over law school in this context: lawyers will not be saddled with debt that limits their ability to work for social movement organizations; their training will be deeply infused with the needs and unique experiences of the communities they are serving; and they will be allies to their fellow organizers, rather than held up as experts in ways that have diffused the collective power of other social movements.

In fact, the UFW has invested more resources into their apprenticeship program in recent years and is currently hiring for a law apprentice position. They seek applicants with an interest in becoming labor (union-side) attorneys, and who can demonstrate a commitment to social change and economic justice. Apprentices work at the UFW headquarters in Keene, CA and are paid a monthly stipend to support their work as a paralegal (and eventual staff attorney). For more info on the job opportunity, please see the job announcement here.

Given the unique needs of social movements for creative legal minds that can push the boundaries of existing law and understand the organizing imperative, the UFW legal apprenticeship program could serve as a model for other social movements to cultivate their own home-grown attorneys. The need for mass social movements has arguably never been greater. Rapid changes in our economies, climate, demographics, and resource availability are opening huge new legal gray areas that will similarly require creative legal approaches combined with deep organizing strategies.

Social movements, take note – the legal apprenticeship could be just the tool needed to grow more successful movements for progressive social change.

(images courtesy Creative Commons on flickr)