Commoning systems: Organize, don’t jargonize

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Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, 2011. Photo by Marco Clausen.

This is a lovely article about what an actual sharing economy might look like. It’s suffused with hope and energy and good practical ideas, and that I can see there are three huge gaping problems with its premise:

– First, if the service ecosystem described in the article is in any meaningful way a “glimpse of the future,” the future glimpsed can only be the future of Berlin. There’s a well-developed, sustained, long-term local culture in Berlin, with ethics and values that support such activities; grown out of various anarchist, feminist, squatter and immigrant-rights struggles, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe that culture as one of resistance to the late-capitalist status quo.

So if you want this sort of sharing to thrive in your city, you’ll have to develop — or better yet, rediscover and reinforce — the values and the political culture that underwrite it. (Even in Berlin, initiatives like Prinzessinnengarten struggle to surmount the barriers thrown up by developers and well-intentioned but clueless bureaucrats. It should also be pointed out that while I personally think Prinzessinnengarten is fantastic, it’s faced accusations that it’s merely the thin edge of the gentrifying wedge, and comes no closer to serving the needs of a vulnerable local population than do Smorgasburg or Boxpark in Shoreditch.)

– There is also the fact that in most developed-world places I am familiar with, people’s desire for consistency and reliability of service can be seen to trump concerns with sustainability and equity, pretty reliably. Three or more generations of life in a consumer economy have trained them — let me be frank: us! — to prefer packaged, managed, branded services to quirky informality.

So you can have all the free community fridges you want, but in all likelihood all you’re doing is performing R&D and market research for the bozo entrepreneur who’s eventually going to come along, break off whatever part of the service can be monetized, do just that…and probably displace the free community alternative. Actually, worse: they’ll displace the community fridges, all right, but their poorly thought-out, stupidly-named, under-resourced startup will fail after having shited up the entire “space,” practically and psychically, leaving everyone back at square one.

– There is a third and deeper challenge to the broader adoption of informal sharing services, which is that this is how poor people have always lived — both in the favelas and slums of the “developing world,” and in the deprived communities of our own cities. (They don’t call it “social innovation,” by the way; they just get on with it.) And I have doubts about the degree to which significant numbers of people raised in Western culture’s last full flush of middle-class prosperity will adopt ways and means of daily survival they’ve been taught to associate with poverty, until and unless they have no choice in the matter.

One response to this challenge is indeed to package collective services, to brand them brightly and make them trendy, so people can harvest the specific frisson of social distinction we associate with luxury consumption from performing their virtue in public. (This strategy strikes me as being analogous to Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian Design project, the aim of which was to encourage the design of products that would allow people to consume their way to ecotopia.) And perhaps there’s some canniness to this insight: we all know that there’s a socially performative aspect to consumption, so why not harness it?

But while that social performativity does cut both ways, under the present dispensation it cannot help but do so in ways that work disproportionately to favor the time-honored modes of conspicuous consumption. While you can be sure there’s someone dying for you to notice that they’re restocking the Little Free Library on the corner, we can be sure that there are ten or even a hundred times as many seeking more conventional reinforcement — preening in the window at Drybar, perhaps, or making sure you see them climbing into an Uber.

And worse still, to build a service ecosystem on such foundations is to endorse the mayfly logic of the fashion cycle: that which is trendy this season is by definition a dead letter next year. By contrast, to function effectively in support of a community over the long term, participation in the commons has to be something more than a fad or momentary fashion. It has to be able to rely upon institutions, practices and arrangements that stabilize it and make it tenable as an approach to living. If those institutions, practices and arrangements are ones broadly associated with life under conditions of deprivation, the ingrained psychological resistance to adopting them may be the hardest of all these barriers to overcome.

The bottom line is that the practical insights that are necessary to render any such thing as a “sharing economy” workable at all get lost when this idea is depoliticized, as it all but invariably is in the “social innovation” literature and the popular press. If those of us who do not happen to live in a place like Berlin truly want to live this way, we’ll have to learn (or relearn) the preferences, habits, patterns of association and daily life that make peer-based commoning systems a realistic alternative to late-capitalist service provision. We’ll have to deal intimately and honestly with people outside the “innovation” subculture — not so much an issue for some of us, naturally, but evidently a major problem for others, including if we are honest some of those talking loudest about participation and the commons. We’ll have to develop (or redevelop) a vibrant, active, living culture of commoning, not because it’s convenient or trendy but because it responds to our values. We’ll have to organize the communities we live and work in. We’ll have to do so even if, for some of us, it means admitting that we are choosing to live in ways that have always been adopted by people facing hard times, at whatever cost to the self-image as a dynamic, successful, self-reliant competitor in the late-capitalist marketplace we’ve cherished and have worked so hard to uphold. And these investments of effort and energy are fundamentally a matter of the politics we choose to live.

6 responses to “Commoning systems: Organize, don’t jargonize”

  1. Greta Byrum says :

    I found this article very interesting, and agree with 90% of your contentions. Two thoughts:

    1) Highly organized sharing systems exist in many places — yes Berlin is good at it (for whatever reason… Maybe that German sense of Pflicht and proper social behavior, even among the Autonomen.) I think the key is about finding a way to scale or share tools or solutions without setting up systems that are at odds with their context (highly organized or otherwise), but rather can grow there like a particularly beneficial fungus or epiphyte. The tyranny of “scalability” among founders has robbed a lot of good projects of this potential.

    2) Organizing is more than innovating in scarcity conditions. It is about explicitly identifying, challenging, resisting, and finding alternatives to oppressive systems. So yes in a way, poorer people have always just “gotten on with it” with sharing systems — but they also see these tactics as a way to resist multiple intersecting oppressions and apply them deliberately. One of my greatest objections to the terms “sharing economy” and “civic technology” is that they do not understand or respect (or work to support) the histories of struggles against oppression. “The commons” I’m more patient with as an avid fan of Ostrom.

    I appreciate you sharing your work so generously!

  2. August says :

    “but they also see these tactics as a way to resist multiple intersecting oppressions and apply them deliberately”

    I’m going to say “yes and no” to this statement. When I was poor (which was basically the first 33 years of my life–and I’m 36 now–that wasn’t even slightly on my mind. Couldn’t care less about “resistance” except in ways that would have a direct impact on me. I would–and did–work for companies I considered then and would still today consider oppressive, and happily toed the corporate line, because I had rent to pay and needed food to eat and my shoes had holes in them and because honestly, poverty doesn’t automatically associate you with a philosophy or community where “resistance” is an ethical/ideological prime concern.

    The poor folk I knew (it’s not a club; most of my friends were middle class, because I’m educated and got good at “passing” for one of them) who most embraced the ideology of resistance were those who were worse off than I was in terms of unearned privilege though not necessarily worse off in terms off class (women, PoC and WoC in particular, non-Anglos), and generally better off financially–even when not the only poor person I knew, I was usually the poorest. There were a few others who embraced “resistance” in their poverty: the lifestyle punks.

    Mostly the other pale Anglos, men and women both, who were concerned with “resistance” were the tourists and the lifestyle punks. When I lived in Sudbury, perhaps the point at which I was worst off and the first time I found myself homeless, the scruffiest, poorest person I knew, who lived in a hovel and ate literal trash and was nearly the only person I knew who was deeply concerned–or concerned at all–with initiatives and programs like those mentioned in this article turned out to not be poor at all. She was an upper middle class girl, daughter of a powerful lawyer, who was interested in “the lifestyle” and had quite literally a legal team on retainer if she got arrested for her quasi-legal scrounging, protesting, and so on. She was invested in resistance as lifestyle, she wanted to be a London punk kid of the ’70s, which by the time of the early aughts not only wasn’t a thing in a tiny northern Canadian city (and squatting was likely to get you killed from exposure), it was the sort of thing that actual poor people were working like mad to get as far away from as humanly possible, resistance be damned. We’ll sort out systemic ethics once we no longer have to worry about whether or not we need to compromise our interpersonal ethics just to put food on the table (sometimes we starved, sometimes we ate). She’s an anecdotal example, but 10+ years later she (well, other people like her, men and women) is still there, enacting the politics of poverty with a thousand dollars wadded in her sock in case shit gets real and she needs to bail.

    Anyway, as a result I think I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who puts forward “resistance” as a primary motivator for how they live their poverty (especially if they associate with any sort of punk ethos), because while it may have been a real and serious thing people did because they had to a generation or two before I came of age, by the time it was my turn to be a young and disenfranchised poor person, it was little more than the costume of poverty tourists, and will forever carry that stink for me. I got lucky, managed to find a good job where I get paid to do things like build necessary public infrastructure, and the chip remains on my shoulder, but I’m so utterly terrified of going back that the righteous indignation is nearly all that remains. I won’t give my business to anyone I think of as oppressive (no Uber, no Amazon, no WalMart, etc), but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go, because I won’t go back, and sticking your head up gets it knocked off.

    Anyway, that was a long-winded way of saying that resistance is something that you get to do when you either a) have nothing at all left, or b) or it’s a luxury. Most of us (I still think of the poor as “us,” which is weird) live in the crunch point in between.

  3. AG says :

    WordPress evidently won’t let me respond in a thready manner, at least using this template, so consider this a response to both of you.

    Greta, I’m just as skeptical of the logic of scalability as you are — in fact, I was hammered the other day for suggesting that perhaps not all projects needed to scale to shed benefit, value and meaning on both participants and the surrounding community. As you can see from my response to August below, however, I do think there’s room, and need, for some loosely overarching framework that connects local interventions, so they can learn from one another, so they can benefit from a sense of common purpose and maybe even so they can shed logistics and other forms of overhead onto a shared infrastructure. (I’m acutely aware of the dangers that attend that latter suggestion.)

    I do think, as you know, that community-based social provision is meaningless without some account of the way power works in the world, and especially the ways in which power makes that provision necessary in the first place.

    August, so this is super-interesting, and of course your experience is your experience and unimpeachable on those grounds.

    What I believe, though — and this is what I just wrote up, in the blog post just down the line from this one — is that there’s a value to recovering the politics behind community activism that goes way beyond the frisson of rebellion. That value, as I see it, is that only a consciously-articulated mutualist politics can bind individual projects together and reveal them as part of a (formally discontinuous but meaningfully linked) collective endeavor. And further, that this is of value because it gives us a pretty robust signal as to which kinds of projects and institutions lead to outcomes we believe in and wish to see upheld.

    At least, when I invest my time, energy and attention in a project these days, I’m very much inclined to understand this as an investment in both something bounded and particular, and at the same time the broader political project it instantiates. And I choose my commitments by the degree to which they respond to the latter concern.

  4. August says :

    I certainly agree that recovering politics where they exist is important; absence of genuine context is very rarely a good thing. My worry is adding context that isn’t there. For those to whom poverty is academic rather than experiential (and I make no claims one way or the other for anyone who has commented here) I worry that a certain kind of poverty, or perhaps a certain way of being poor, a deliberately political way, becomes the de facto norm for poverty in discussions around systems accessible and useful to the poor because those are the poor people that sociologists find interesting, not because they represent the majority of the poor. If that makes sense.

  5. August says :

    Unrelated to my other comments here: I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see this blog updated (twice!) so quickly. I quite honestly despaired when the last Dispatch arrived.

  6. AG says :

    Meh, I think it’s a matter of public record, FSVO “public” anyway, that the only situation I’ve ever experienced that one could reasonably describe as poverty lasted no more than a matter of months (and even then I could have chosen to end it at any moment by swallowing my pride and turning to family for financial help). I was born into the professional middle class, was raised with middle-class values, and had for many years enjoyed a solidly upper middle class standard of living by the time I left home to make my way in the world.

    I have slept in doorways, though, and I have fed myself from the unsalable bread left in bags behind the bakery at the end of the workday, and I have lived in a car for weeks at a stretch. It gave me an acute sense for how perilously close to the edge any of us actually are at any given moment. The constant, overwhelming paranoia and desperation that march up on you when you’ve been on the street a few days and haven’t gotten anything like deep sleep two or three nights running is something I never, ever want to experience again.

    If you add on top of that the five years of my life I spent utterly immersed in and weighed by the culture of working-class America, as an enlisted man in the US Army, and all the work I’ve done alongside poor people, both in the US and overseas, as an advocate, as a researcher and as a front-line aid worker, I feel like I understand deprivation a little more than intellectually. And specifically what I feel like I have some sense of are the intimate, soiling humiliation of feeling like you can’t provide for yourself and your loved ones, the grinding worry that goes on so long that the future ceases to register as anything but a generator of threats, the terrible options you’re confronted with and must still somehow choose between, and above all the shame you feel when you can’t meet the judgmental, superior eyes cast on you.

    And so hell yeah I would want to know that there was an organized tendency looking out for me — that would ask of me that which I had to give and, in return, beyond simply fulfilling my material needs, would let me feel like I had something of value and worth to offer others. Hell yeah I’d want to contribute my talent and energy to ensuring neither I nor anyone else ever had to feel that mortifying humiliation again. And, actually, forget “I would want”: I do want, even though I’m not poor. Because I am precarious, like so many of us are these days, and I do worry about what tomorrow holds, and I do take comfort amidst that worry from the thought that human beings have known dark times before and figured out what they had to do to survive them…together.

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