The right to see things as a Commons

(This writing was originally published in Peruste Lehti, 24.4.2018 (in Finnish))

We know there are tremendous global inequalities. However, less talked about, is that there is actually a coming together between actors in global North and South not only in empathy or in a quest for justice, but actually, despite very different conditions, in very similar forms of organising tackling inequalities. These can be seen as struggles for the right to be seeing things as commons, and as such for the right to be commoning around them. One idea with a potential to strengthen the possibility to exercise this right, is the idea of a basic income, partly funded by a complementary currency, for instance by a timetax.

Seeing things as a Commons

Activist and writer Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies group has put forward a working definition of the commons, which suggests that commons can function as lenses to be approaching economy. From such a point of view, fishing waters, food, genetic inheritance, cooperatives, language, oxygen,community supported agriculture, minerals, currency… all of these can be  commons, referring to when things are held in common and co-produced in different ways.

So we can then speak of for instance ecological, social and network commons. Ecological commons including oxygen and water are the basis of life, the existence of which is being eroded by destruction and privatisation processes. Social commons then can be thought of as language and feelings, working and doing together. Network commons will be used to refer to different information technology which has seen a rise, with the issues of open knowledge and open source having been core debates. Co-production is a core concept here, based on voluntary contributions to a common production process.

The commons, whether it is forest or ideas, are said to best understood by referring to the social practices of commoning, a term coined by historian Peter Linebaugh. This refers to the process of co-producing, co governing, co-managing by a community or network of commoners of a commons, whether these are natural resources or ideas, whilst including the principles of sustainability, fairness and social control of the users (as for instance often found in Vernacular law). As such there are no commons without commoning. And as such seeing things as a commons refers to allowing for direct democracy processes around a commons, for fair distribution.

Seeing thing as a commons in practice also means getting clarity on relations to state and market. Commons can be seen as being about use value being created without the interference of state or market, something which has been described by Helfrich as going beyond state and market, whilst this need not mean without state and market. What is important then when seeing things as a commons, is to make a distinction whether a commons is corporately sustained and ultimately benefited from, or whether increased commonifying and commoning is  the outcome of solidarity economy development, the increased linking up of economic actors which have other values then monetary profit at their core.

Seeing currency as a commons

Global Inequality will for many give rise to thoughts with regards to richness and poverty in terms of monetary wealth. The commons lenses shed light on the issue of money going beyond that of equality produced by redistribution.

As is today no secret anymore, and as was nicely summarised by Jem Bendell (Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria) during his talk at the Commons conference in Berlin in 2013, 97% of money is created by private banks as they issue loans to us, and because almost all money is created through instruments which require repayment and interest, there is always more debt than money. Loans are issued to serve economic activity, and as such a growth imperative is created which purports the need to increasingly exploit (commodify) more of life, of resources, to pay back the interest on the debt.

This debt based money system also shapes our relations, basing them on notions of scarcity and competition, whilst producing massive inequality. “We think that wealth is scarce, that we must all compete for a share of it , when actually the wealth is us”. As Bendell put it, the current money system as we know it, represents almost total enclosure of our ability to trust each other. To come to a different economy in which values of social and ecological sustainability are determining, means we need new forms of money.

One approach in the discussion around the need for new forms of money puts forward that in a commons economy going beyond artificial scarcity, money as we know it and markets have no place, and promotes demonetization.  The issue of equal exchange is contested, and whilst that premise holds a good basis to think of co-production and stigmergy (selforganisation), it does bring up questions as to how to make for an inclusive process.

Another approach is concerned with redesigning currency itself as a commons, and poses as a central question, how do we design currencies to foster human relationships?  Out of the experiences of the development process around Helsinki Timebank another angle can also be discussed, namely that of the development of a currency and the currency itself as a pedagogical process and tool, bringing people together to learn and engage in commoning (in the case of currency as a commons the co-governing and carrying of responsibility for our currency commons). In the case of Helsinki Timebank, the community of users developed a charter of principles which among other set out what values economic actors joining the timebank must adhere to. This point to the fact that when a currency is a commons, the community of users gets to set the rules as an answer to the question What is encouraged and facilitated through a currency?

The debate around currency as a commons related to the question of who and what does a currency benefit, is also alive and growing in the Global South. Last year August, activist Kemy Seba set fire to a 5000 CFA note (equal to about 7 euro’s) in Senegal, and demonstrations against the CFA were organised in different European and African countries, as also in Haiti. There are 14 countries in the CFA zone (which in itself has two CFA currencies), and with the putting on fire Seba drew attention to the question marks surrounding the shared currency, which is more like a voucher pinned to the euro, and, which with its origin in colonial relationships is seen as serving more than anything else French bank and trade interests, as such being a case of French monetary imperialism.  The dots are then connected between the phenomena of marginalisation and the consequences of these countries having no money of its own to conduct public policy with, with the role then of the IMF, WB and its structural adjustment programs obliging under debt exigences to open up the country to large extractive industries leaving hardly anything in the country.

An excellent concrete example of a succesfull complementary currency commons for instance in Africa, is coming from the work of Will Ruddick and comrades of Grassroots Economics organisation, with the Bangla Pesa, a complementary currency in the Bangladesh slum of Mobasa, Kenya. The currency was launched in 2013, and wants to support the economy of the informal settlements by organising small-scale enterprises into networks, through which members can utilize a community currency to mediate trades. Credits are issued in the form of paper vouchers as payment for goods and services.

Currency as a commons, unlike the commodity it is in our mainstream financial system which produces a great deal of inequalities, can come to construct relations increasing equality.


Seeing Food as a Commons

Besides money, another issue which will also quickly come to be referred to in any discussion about global inequalities is food. Again, the issue of seeing food as a commons takes us beyond the notion of equality as being an issue of mere redistribution.

To see food as a commons with commoning around it, can be seen in the want for food souvereignty in both South and North.  The concept of food souvereignty was put forward by La Via Campesina, which is today arguably the world’s largest social movement, being made up of some 200 million small scale farmers’ organisations, rural workers, fishing communities, landless and indigenous peoples globally.

As will be explained by movements writing about the history of the concept, agricultural policies and agribusinesses were becoming globalized, peasants in the South were up against competition from cheap exports from the hyper productive, highly subsidised European and American agriculture. Small farmers in the South needed to develop a common vision and struggle to defend themselves, and to participate directly in the decisions that were affecting their lives. Food sovereignty put agricultural producers and consumers at the core of the debate, and wanted to support all peoples in their right to produce their own food, independent of international market conditions, and to consume local foods. Food sovereignty is then the right of all people to democratically decide how food is produced, distributed and consumed, which brings us to the notion of food as a commons.

In the last decade, also people working in the food system in the ‘Global North’ have come to realise that food sovereignty is also relevant to them, in the face of the expansion of the agroindustrial model of food production, and increasing corporate control (global institutions, WTO etc) over many aspects of the food system.

Food souvereignty importantly refers to a paradigm shift, to the need for systemic change,  As Jukka Lassila (farmer of Oma Maa food cooperative, Tuusula, Finland) puts it: ” Food is a core societal thing.  Food is first of all what joins all of us. And in whose hands the control of our food system is, including of course water, in those hands the control of society lies. In other words, people can more govern their own lives, if food (the food system) is in their control. In that sense, all efforts done to get food back under the control of people is very important for the development of society, and only by addressing this, we can change our society into being more just and fair. “

And as such, today there is a growing push for organics and local products also in Finland. In addition, different groups/initiatives exist also to take out the middlemen (so there are different food exchange rinks, using for instance facebook). However, that what brings us the closest in terms of that seeking for systemic change (and not reformism tinkering with consumerism), of food as a commons, is Community Supported Agriculture.

In a CSA, members are making a commitment  to share the risks and the bounty of ecological farming, to strive for socially (importantly wages for the farmer) and ecologically sustainably produced food. In this way the farmers and families form a network of mutual support. Within this general framework there can be wide variations as to how organised, but a CSA does provoke us how to see our involvement with food, to engage in the commoning around our food commons.

Also food as a commons brings along the need for a recognition of interdependence, which acknowledges no food souvereignty in the South can be reached if there is no food souvereignty in North. In other words, it is the answer which farmers responded in India to Niklas Toivokainen when he asked them in 2013, after listening to their stories of extensive hardship, of the suicides, what it is we here in Europe, in Finland should do : Grow your own food.


Funding the right to commons and commoning : A basic income funded by a timetax

In the above, the struggle for equality was approached from the point of view of the struggles for currency and food as a commons, and referred to was also to different concrete initiatives in that area. Not written about were the challenges which the initiatives fase to flourish.

One of the challenges that are faced at large with regards to other economy building is the issue of lack of resources and time. It can be difficult and time consuming to build up initiatives which are not functioning according to mainstream logic, before they can become sustainable and for instance pay out salaries. People find themselves bound up in what gets described as hectic and chaotic lives, and feel it is largely impossible to engage with any commitment to any systemic change alternatives. Even if would want to do so more, the need to work for an income will often determine the choices made. On the other hand, policies with regards to the receiving of unemployment benefits may be as hampering to the possibilities to engage with commons projects.

An interesting proposal is then the idea of a basic income which would be partly funded by a timetax. The idea, which is as it were a different use of the timetax operating in Helsinki Timebank, is followingly worded by Susana Belmonte, an economist from Barcelona who is involved with the development of a complementary currency there : “The Basic income would be an opt-in possibility and that if you do opt-in to it, then you have the right to receive basic income and also the liability to pay the timetax, or however it would be called, in a complementary currency. The time tax is something you pay by creating money, so Basic income beneficiaries have a debt in complementary currency as they get into the basic income program in which they receive a certain amount of euros. This means they have the need to collaborate with projects developing the commons to get paid the complementary currency and pay their debt in complementary currency. As the complementary currency is created, it would go to the commons projects for them to pay collaborators (commoners) and get the projects done. “

This basic income proposal enables the putting into circulation of a complementary currency, which would be governed by a democratic citizens platform, and put to common good projects, which could for example come to include a local CSA. In this picture, in different ways more equality is being achieved by both currency and food becoming more of a commons, and which would be in harmony for struggles for increased (food and currency) souvereignty elsewhere.

Strengthening the right to see as a commons, and thus the right to be commoning around it, means to move beyond the circulating of commodities for capitalism to the circulating of commons for another kind of system.

Ruby van der Wekken



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