The past couple of years have been rather unsettling for many of us who look out at a world we hardly recognise and certainly don’t feel much confidence in — environmental destruction, gaping social inequality, greed and shallow materialism, corporate monopoly, cultural toxicity and political atrophy. It isn’t a pretty picture, and if the future is a continuation along this path, it does not come with great promise. Thankfully there are solutions out there; the key now is how to inject those initially uncomfortable solutions into a resistant mainstream.
In 2012 I interviewed Chiang Mai resident and Belgium social entrepreneur Michel Bauwens [May 2012: When Capitalism Ends and P2P Markets Thrive], who sits on the (en)rich list, alongside Mahatma Ghandi and the Dalai Lama as one of the people whose ‘richness’ is not defined by their bank balances, but by what they can offer back to humanity. He talked about his belief that the end is nigh for capitalism and advocated a solution in the formation of commons through the sharing of knowledge, technology and wealth. He warned that the earth’s resources were limited and that the gobbling up of our resources by the propulsion of capitalism was simply no longer viable or sustainable. Bauwens is Co-founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives, which researches peer production, governance, property and the open and free participatory modes of human cooperation.
So I thought it was time to catch up with Bauwens again to see how far along he has come in his search for and implementation of solutions to humanity’s current challenges.
“If you are a farmer using pesticides on your land, you are impoverishing the land every year, so after a certain amount of harvests your land is dead. If you are an organic farmer, each year you farm your land is better and better. You can simply apply the same principles to people,” explained Bauwens. “Each year Airbnb and Uber are active, the more social problems they create. For instance in Barcelona, Airbnb is chasing away all the poor residents from their neighbourhoods and think about Uber drivers who have no pensions, no insurance. Did you know that freelancers are the fastest impoverishing social category in Europe?”
Bauwens is the strategic advisor for SMart, a social enterprise founded in Belgium, but which now boasts over 250,000 members across nine European nations. Members are mainly freelancers who contribute around 6.5% of their earnings to the collective. In return SMart provides shared resources such as IT systems, accountants and business advisors while also helping with the collection of invoices and paying members as soon as a week after invoicing as well as covering unemployment benefits, taxes, pensions and health insurance. SMart saw a 17% growth last year.
“Private platforms are designed to make labour as cheap as possible by letting individual workers and suppliers compete against each other for the lowest prices, exploiting resources and manpower to satisfy shareholders, whereas cooperative platforms guarantee wages and create ecosystems,” explained Bauwens who is currently working on an ecosystem between Berlin, Brussels and Barcelona, boycotting the morass of nationalist politics to create an alliance of cities as a transnational form of governance where the development of co-ops and unions will fund alternatives in areas such as housing, land, energy and communication. “Housing is so expensive in Europe now that progressive cities such as Ghent has set 15% of new development areas to be leased for 99 years as a community land trust. This means that the land becomes a common and is managed by a group of people through a trust. This is an ideal way to protect resources so that housing co-op members can be guaranteed rental prices for life, even able to pass down the property to their children, though they won’t be allowed to sell it. In Ghent they are also now doing collective and non-profit car sharing. These new projects are for neighbourhood blocs so that a neighbourhood will figure out its members’ transport needs, pool resources and purchase cars to be shared. It has been proven that one shared car can replace 12-14 cars, after all, according to Uber’s research, most cars are idle 96% of the time. In Germany 40% of the energy is now renewable and 60% of the markets is in the hands of consumer owned energy co-ops. It all started with co-ops of 50-60 people who decided to collectively invest in solar panels, selling off their surplus to neighbours who can also join the co-ops for as little as 250 Euro shares. Once this system began to work and more and more co-ops were formed, the minority became the majority. In 2006 there were 50 similar urban commons projects in Ghent, in 2016 there were 500. There are studies which are showing exponential growth in these types of initiatives in Europe. My contention is that through mutualisation we can reduce our footprint by 80%.”
“This doesn’t mean that such systems can’t be transnational, actually, what I propose is inherently transnational, but not inter-national, i.e. the cooperation of citizens and organisations rather than a collaboration between nation states.”
Bauwens also believes in working on the political level, though he contends that nation-states are currently too weak, when compared with entities such as international corporations, to be effective in leading the charge for change. He is instead focusing on creating parallel infrastructures, working mainly with cities and collectives who can come together, boycotting the interests of corporation and the quagmire of national politics, to create a groundswell for a more sustainable future.
“This doesn’t mean that such systems can’t be transnational, actually, what I propose is inherently transnational, but not inter-national, i.e. the cooperation of citizens and organisations rather than a collaboration between nation states” he clarifies. “In fact, I am working on creating transnational infrastructures for entrepreneurial coalitions to slowly build a counter power to the current monopoly situation. Look at Uber, it is powerful not just because of its ride-sharing software, but because of AI which learns from the behaviour of people, generating valuable data which they then sell. You need massive capital to do that and small groups can’t begin to compete, that is why you need to mutualise.”
Pointing to the 25,000 members of Chiang Mai’s various digital nomad groups as an example, Bauwens explains that these 21-35 year olds are what he calls labour aristocracy or the cognitive class; well paid, well-travelled and connected to opportunities. “That’s when things go well,” he explains, “but the downside is they are completely unprotected, there is no health insurance, no pension, they own nothing tangible. The question is how do we create a transnational solidarity mechanism to protect them when states won’t or can’t. We are thinking of virtual nations right now and though there are definitely emerging global infrastructures of support, it would be great if we could create a safety net for these bright young minds so that they can have a level of security.”
The general idea is that nation states are leaking from both top and the bottom and while they are aware of it, they are unable to change, hence the exponential response to peer to peer ideas and initiatives. On one hand technology is taking the lead in many areas of change. Look at Bitcoin and Blockchain, a revolutionary human- and government-free currency which promises to level the playing field. Yet with all technological advances, it comes with its benefits and its threats. While we can all, in theory, mine and profit from these currencies, the cost of a computer to mine effectively is prohibitive to the average person and while arguments still rage as to the exact number, it has been reported that Bitcoin uses up as much energy as the Republic of Ireland, and that’s not to even go to the black market trade and all the social woes it encompasses.
“For me the key issue is governance, not technology,” says Bauwens. “That is my biggest critique of Bitcoin and Blockchain where the prevailing thought is that the machine is the solution. Because of the current imbalance of power by those who control technology, transforming the power from the states to corporations — surveillance, data gathering of our activities, management and control of social networks — anarcho-capitalism was born. Anarcho-capitalism doesn’t trust human foibles and believes that you can create codes to manage everything. But this vision means that everything is reduced to market transaction and contracts. Have you ever played monopoly? We all start off as equals but because we are competing for scarce resources there will always be a winner and losers. I am totally against money ruling us. I believe that it is the dialogue between citizens and the governance of systems that should determine the market. The market should serve people and you should have markets which have checks and balances imposed on them so that they do not destroy the environment, create social tension or increase inequality. Because then you have fascism… and Trump.”
“We are running out of possibilities for growth, and historically that is when revolutions happen. “
Bauwens acknowledges that human greed is an integral part of problem, but contends that in spite of what many think, this isn’t our only nature or driving force. “We are mixed beings and our current system stimulates this greedy part of us,” he explains, “but if we have a system to keep our greed in check for the purpose of the collective, and one which helps to stimulate other human characteristics, then I think we can have a brighter future. We are currently short-termists, seeking instant gratification. It wasn’t always so. In nomadic days the results of activities weren’t sold, but were shared with the family, with small communities pooling their resources. When the agriculture revolution occurred the gift economy emerged with people keeping peace by giving things like food surplus or manpower, the more you give the more people will feel obligated to give back. It wasn’t until Adam Smith in the 18th century that the free market emerged, along with the belief that self-enrichment was something good. I think we can all see now that this isn’t so and it is time for a new way of thinking. What I’m proposing is not about abolishing greed and markets altogether, but rather to re-embed them into society. Markets and states should serve society, not the other way round.”
“Look at Chiang Mai, at co-ops and collectives like Pun Pun or shared working spaces,” points Bauwens, “They are there, they are working, and they are effective. Next, look at Europe where these co-ops are forming larger networks and gaining social and political clout. Once you have the power to negotiate, then you can go to the government and demand change, such as subsidies for renewable energies. It is blatantly obvious that we must combat exponential resource growth, so what are the solutions? One of course is technology; and there are great strides being made to find alternative sources of energy as well as ways to reduce our consumption. But with the population exploding and large scale threats such as climate change on the horizon, technology may not be efficient and effective enough to support the survival of all seven billion of us. That is why I propose a change in logic. If we have purpose-driven companies where there is a wall between management and investors, where there is a limit on the number of years for return and where funders, founders, workers and users are all beneficiaries of the company, then the aim becomes collective. The entire way of thinking naturally shifts to the common good.”
Bauwens uses British Petroleum, where he used to work, as an example of a corporation which spent millions buying up renewable energy companies and shelving their patents which threatened their monopoly, retarding the evolution of renewable energy in the UK for three decades. “It worked great for BP’s shareholders, but was a disaster for everyone else.”
“What is so exciting about when the internet became available to the public was that we suddenly had the capacity to wire our brains together, this coming together of our collective intelligence was akin or even greater in fact than the 15th century intellectual revolution following the founding of the printing press which suddenly mass produced and shared information and ideas across Europe. The challenge now is that we can either regress, which has happened many times through history, look at the Roman Empire for instance, when over stretching of resources led to its collapse, or we can reform and move to a higher complexity, a higher level of integration. The only way for capitalism to survive is to grow because it needs to accumulate capital and increase profits to operate. We are running out of possibilities for growth, and historically that is when revolutions happen. To avoid that we need to act now.”
“I am going to make a bold claim,” ended Bauwens, “that we can actually already see the underlying structure of the coming society. When the bigger crisis arrives, and it will, then we can either choose an unhealthy solution, or if we already have a good foundation, the natural path will be the healthy solution. We need to change the idea that man is only motivated by selfish behaviour. I believe that we are more complex than that and that people do things for more than one reason, so let’s give them a reason and a pathway to be more than they think they are.”
If greed is not our main drive, if human nature contains characteristics more complex than the satiation of the self, if we are able to be satisfied, not with less, but with enough, if we derive gratification and pleasure through contributing towards the whole and the future, if these ideas can become our propulsion and creed, if we can get over the limitations we have set upon our abilities and our ambitions, seeing that we are able and should aspire to more…then ours is the earth and everything that’s in it.
To find out more about Bauwens and his works please visit commonstransition.org and p2pfoundation.net.