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An alternative political philosophy of systemic change

Towards a working theory of the commons

An article I wrote ahead of the WOW where we will be participating in a working group to explore an Heuristics for the commons and a pattern language based on commons logics was published in Italian research magazine lo Squaderno, issue nº30 on the commons – Practices, boundaries & thresholds. 

In this article titled Show me the action and I will show you the Commons! I challenge the definition of commons based on the nature of goods, addressing the topic from the perspective of experience: how commons are created or emerge from a process that intimately associates people and the participatory and mindful ways in which they produce, manage or care for their shared resources or assets. I also outline how the essential principles of a commons logic which is not only found in what activists typically calls 'the commons', could help amplify the action of other sustainability and social change initiatives in a way that can be geared towards growing the commons as a whole.

In preparation of the Indiana workshop, we are working on framing what we are trying to achieve here, which is not that easy as it spans across several disciplines such as anthropology, epistemology, political economy, developmental psychology, linguistics, design, trying to understand the interactions between social organization, cognitive processing, intercultural and inter-subjective communication, leadership development, dynamics of engagement and change.  I received the following comment on my article in a P2P discussion group:

It seems that you have created a "working theory of commons" (analogous with Marx' working theory of value) when you said – "show me the action, and I will show you the commons". I think you are on the right track with it and it is worth of further consideration by any means. It could be the beginning of a political economy of commons.

And well, this is what we are trying to do, discovering the commons where they exist, taking them out of the marginality where they have been confined and bringing them into the light as the underlying principle/logic for existence and multi-faceted working transformative image for a paradigm shift. And we are thinking of developing a pattern language to do so.

Philosophy is not my discipline (Helene), so I welcome participation of people who are researching the subject.

R.C. Smith – Essays for an alternative philosophy of systemic change

I serendipitously came across the work of RC Smith today, he is a writer and researcher in the fields of philosophy, with special interests in existential-phenomenology, epistemology, anthropology, psychology, systems theory, education and literary theory. His Series of essays introducing an alternative philosophy of systemic change points to the need to move beyond 20th century totalizing ideologies and provides some insights on what would be needed to get there. At the same time, the commons stand out as a key piece for what he suggests. What we are doing may well be the "working theory" and tools that will enable what he describes. Here are some quotes to ponder as we move further.

While so many leftist intellectuals wear the ‘radical’ badge, the question remains for me whether much of leftist critique today is really that critical? I mean this according to the lack of not only any coherent theory of an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology, but also a coherent systemic alternative and understanding of the process of ‘social change’.

> our approach is systemic and based on processes of change. It is to empower various forms of engagement, more or less radical in a way that they can complement each other.

It is the affirmation of the efficacy of people, who can change their sociohistorical situations that we must build an alternative philosophy of social change around. On the basis of an integrative and holistic approach, taking the best from what already exists as a means in the transitory process of sustainable social (historical) change, revolution should be understood in a ground-up or grassroots sense (Wilding and Gunn) that is in constant dialectical relation with the systems it wishes to put in place. Simultaneously bottom-up and top-down, rooted in a foundational theory of recognition (Hegel) as a many-sided human transformation (Gunn/Wilding) as well as an alternative theory of epistemology, cosmology and anthropology that works down toward a concrete phenomenological ethics – this approach at least glimmers of the theoretical horizon of the best we can take from everything that we know.

> we work on empowering people and on catalyzing agency in all its diversity in a way that (self) coalesces efforts by finding the commons logic of the various forms of engagement.

On my reading of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, moreover, the very idea of ‘emancipation’ resides in a foundational change in how we relate with ourselves, each other and the phenomenal world. In this respect, not only does ‘Systemic change’ represent a many-sided human transformation (i.e., a holistic or multidimensional theory of change), it also represents the process of a true alternation of present social coordinates: economically, politically, ecologically, relationally, epistemologically, psychologically, etc. This approach is not idealism, nor is it another utopian illusion or false Idol because according to this theory of change there is no ‘end point’. Change is a forever unfolding, fluid and working process that is given direction in often the most basic, grassroots and concrete of ways.

> The pattern language would be designed around the multidimensionality and diversity of contexts, scales, action logics, theories, disciplines, languages, generative processes > creating an ecology of possibilities organically implemented at various levels and scales

Accordingly, I argue that fundamental ‘systemic change’ requires an understanding of the ‘truth context’ of ‘social progress’ to underpin its qualitative and quantitative evaluation: in other words, there needs to be a ‘truth context’ that acts as a backdrop to how we measure holistically the ins and outs of ‘social progress?’ To put it differently, we need to ask ourselves: ‘How do we identify whether a certain form of change is truthful to the notion of ‘social progress?’ Here, I totally agree with Adorno. The very concept of ‘social progress’ must remain at all times grounded in the problem of needless social suffering. In formulating the question, we need to ask: what is ‘social progress’ if it does not remain engaged with the problem of needless social suffering and its systematic elimination?

> The elements of commons logic or pattern language would be conceived as a way to vet the sustainability of any activity, policy, initiative in relation to whether it progresses or depletes the commons.

Quite some commonality here! Need to take a look at Adorno 🙂

Marina Garcés – Un Mundo Commun

In this line of thought we also have Marina Garcés, describing the foundation for a political philosophy in her latest book, Un Mondo Commun, based on discovery of self an other. Here are some extracts of a review of this book by Rubén Diaz.

For Garcés, a common world is not [a collective production or] a representation of the world but a condition for its existence; it is neither a wonderland we long for nor an ideal place that we continuously miss or feel absent from, but a fact that we must assume; it is not a Utopian aspiration but a departure point.

Or as Garcés puts it: “The sum of you and me is not two. It is a between where any of us may appear. When this happens, we can say that we have an experience of us who not only defies the laws of arithmetic, but above all a certain scenario of power relations. We have drawn the coordinates for a common dimension. A world between us has emerged.” As storytelling beings, A Common World suggests we recognise that our life story is involved in the stories of others.

How should we commit politically today? Both community and exceptionality are not a satisfactory response to this political impasse, according to Marina Garcés. At least not in the terms by which the notion of community is usually assumed: something that, as soon as it emerges, disappears. Or something we do not have but we long for. A Utopian, idealised image of unity – including this romantic idea of unity in diversity – harmony. Community is constituted by either reactionary imaginaries or Utopian imaginaries, Garcés states. The idea of a common world suggests that we overflow these limits of community and politics as ‘exceptionalism’. In order to do so, we should think of ourselves as politically sustainable, being able to perceive the present and abandoning the illusion caused by the new.

Once we discover ourselves in a common world, we give up searching for what unites us and we start thinking what isolates us one from each other.


Agency on Demand, the historical problem of Agency

This article in the Resilience blog of the Post Carbon Institute takes a historical viewpoint to discuss "to what extent, if any, can humans be purposeful agents of historical change", making interesting relationships between narrative and agency, and how the perspective people have on their own agency and agency in general shapes their choices and actions or creates frustration…

The author distinguishes three perspectives of Agency in history:

History was henceforth scrutinized all the more closely in search of the underlying patterns, the perennial pitfalls, or the necessary virtues and the poisonous vices. History would reveal the possibilities and limits of reason and human agency.   One might categorize the responses in any number of ways, but some trends have been widely recognized, and I would isolate three major types of response.

The Liberal response

… suggests that we can make history as we please if we maintain the proper virtues and qualities of leadership.  Thus history is a battle between great men and presumptuous villains and fools, just nations and misguided tyrannies.  Choice and free-will are highlighted in this version that stays closer to the original Enlightenment ideal as summarized above.   The moral of these stories is be wise, be prudent, be brave, and so on for as many virtues and values as can be imagined.  

The Deconstructive response

…sees history as little more than chaos, disorder, and chance; According to this view, history doesn’t have a narrative; rather humans tell historical fictions by selecting  between details and by choosing a causal connective tissue that serves the interests of his or her story and the will to power it represents.  This view was articulated by Nietzsche and has maintained a strong presence in existential thought and post structuralism, which deconstructs the constructed artifice of narrative.  Agency, in this story, cannot be effectively purposeful, but results in unintended consequences and self-delusions.  But the deconstructive historian is unable to escape the lure of narrative in his or her story about failed historical thinking past.  

The Marxian response

…argues that history has its own underlying logic.  This logic tends to be the product of human activity; but, importantly, it is not the conscious choice of any single or group of individuals making history as they please.  Rather the struggles and interactions of humans follow some sort of progressive or regressive laws of development, growth, or decline.  The most prominent example… is, of course, Marx, who following Hegel, believed that history was moving towards some inevitable or nearly inevitable end.  Marx’s contribution was to place the primacy on economic relations and to look at “mode of production” as the ultimate driver of history.  

The author goes on to analyze the shortcomings of each of these views, and how they have formed the narratives of peak oil and climate change, and how choices in political action are so difficult to make. He notes:

These philosophical dilemmas might strike some as rather abstract, but they have weighed like a nightmare on the minds of many activists and the plans of most radical politics.

What is interesting to note is the authors own puzzlement and hesitations on which views to chose and course of action to take, and his call for an approach that is not foreign to what we are doing here:

I don’t know what I should do, nor how I should recommend my friends and family to act and react.  I do, however, believe that we in the post-carbon world need to reassess where the lines between hope and possibility, reality and fantasy might lie.  We need to start thinking more deeply about politics and the discourse of power.  We need to reflect upon the possibilities and limits of human agency, the logic of collective action, the mechanisms of social change.  Moral philosophy and deep spirituality may be our solace and salvation.



R.C. Smith – The "mediating subject" or efficacious agent

A comment by R.C. Smith

Not sure where to start when contributing to this discussion, so I thought I would just add a few comments regarding the above on 'the problem of agency in history'. I would be inclined to question the general analysis of above, particularly its line of conclusion.

Moreover, I think one will find that the liberal view is far more bound to private property and a sort of pseudo-individualism. As colleagues of mine Gunn, Wilding would say:

"Once upon a time, in the dim movements of its historical beginnings, liberalism oriented itself towards notions of Enlightenment and human dignity (Ernst Bloch The Principle of Hope, Blackwell 1986, p. 543). Even then, however, entanglement with bourgeois values were present. The natural rights tradition, from which liberalism emerged, propounded a natural right to self-defence together with a natural right to property – with the consequence that liberal values came to be values of a "possessive individualist" kind. According to liberalism, the human self came to be seen as an owner of his or her individual moral area or sphere – and notions of liberty as "negative" liberty grew apace."

The importance of this is understanding the historic genesis of the 'liberal subject' as rooted, firstly, in history, and secondly in the problem of the '(de)formation of the subject' and 'colonisation of the ego' that coincides with the historic unfolding of the institutional structures of capitalism. Following this line of thought in terms of the question of the modern subject under neoliberalism:

"If we fast-forward this sketch of liberalism to the neoliberal era, what we find is that liberalism has long since shed its early involvement with dignity and Enlightenment autonomy. Rather than dwelling on notions of responsibility and accountability and real (as distinct from merely formal) self-determination, liberalism has come to see individuals as owners of rights that they may or may not possess. An image of the world as seen by neoliberal liberalism is that of suburban gardens – where each proprietor glares at each other suspiciously, from behind his (it is usually 'his') car-port or hedge."

More pressing, the questionable status of the subject needs to be seen I think as a product of the historic unfolding of 'coercive society' which produces a dominating epistemology, subject-object relations, and a more or less closed subjectivity (Adorno). In turn, I would argue not toward abstract moral philosophy or ethics but toward a theory of the efficacious, mediating subject (a la Adorno; Sherman, 2007; Smith, 2014) who can change their sociohistorical circumstances and a phenomenological (lived) ethics. I think this theory would be better able to support any theory of fundamental systemic change, let alone a theory of the commons or alternative collectivity (and so on) which must be grounded in a many-sided human transformation (not just as transformation of the system itself, which becomes authoritarian). I think one will find a similar notion of the 'efficacious subject' in the traditions of existential-phenomenology and even in more progressive Marxist traditions, which leads me to comment that the above analysis of the 'Marxian view' isn't entirely correct.

(Politically, on this account, an emphasis is therefore on grassroots politics as the drive of 'change' because all grassroots politics is essentially an extension of the efficacious agency of the subject).

In Closing: I would summarise quickly that given this analysis of the problem of the status of the subject, an alternative theory of the subject rooted in the notion of "efficacious subject" (Smith, 2014) would include a theory of subject-subject relations (as opposed to subject-object), a democratic theory of knowledge and what I call "experiential coherence" (see past studies).

Just a few thoughts.


Agency & structure, hacking the code – Karatzogianni & Baudrillard

Athina Karatzogianni and Michael Schandorf's paper : Surfing the Revolutionary Wave 2010-12: A Social Theory of Agency, Resistance, and Orders of Dissent in Contemporary Social Movements  and Jean Baudrillard's work on distinctions between reality and simulacrum in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death, provide interesting insights on the question of engagement for systemic change and in particular in relation to R.C. Smith's reformulation of a question of mine, on how to bring about systemic change 'from the inside' in addition to political engagement at the edges:

"…how to create or support fundamental change within an alienated, dominant society. Understanding the efficacious agency of human beings is one thing, but then understanding that we are all forced to exist today within a largely coercive, fundamentally 'bad' social circumstance is another. How are legions of people, whether working in corporations, schools, factories or whatever, who cannot stand the present system any longer and have very interesting ideas but cannot find any leverage, to act or to help create change within a largely coercive social reality?

The paper inquires about why the network logic fails to transform the system for the better, and attempts to bridge the "incommensurability between the conceptualisations of individual agency and the disciplining powers of social structures" by looking at the relationships between the two and at the various 'types' of agency reflecting various types of orders of dissent and possibilities for resistance.

It describes agents as 'actants' and agency as 'force vector for action' within:

"an ecological model of competing systemic social logics dominated by the global-hegemonic capitalist code, in order to conceptualize the intertwined possibility spaces of individual and social resistance".

Building up on Baudrillard's 'logical orders' in relation to which 'agency' operates, that they define as local, national and global orders, the authors suggest that dissent must be expressed at a 'higher order' than what it is up against and note that very few movements have managed to achieve this, though they do not quite offer an alternative way to do so.

"The thesis here is that contemporary dissent against this capitalist code, in any of its manifestations, such as protest, uprising, or revolution,  fails when the dissent is not of a higher logical order than that to which it is opposed."

Motivated agents (people) have the capacity to choose the discourse that shape their actions as part of and in response or reaction to an assemblage (system) of intentional agents (mostly non 'human' technologies or instruments, or processes involving humans and technologies operating toward predefined outcomes, such as a corporations).

"Agency is understood as ‘the ability to make a difference, to produce effects, or even to initiate action distributed across an ontologically diverse range of actors’, which are themselves understood variously as entities or forces, as well as assemblages of those entities and forces (see Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter, a political ecology of things)"

The goals of motivated agents are largely driven by pre-conscious, embodied affective social identifications that can be culturally determined. The authors refer to Rotman's work (see The distributed Human Being) and relate distributed individual agency as capacity for action to affective discursive ideological practices, that can be multiple and of various nature for the same individual, and derive from there a 'person-subject-agent' model. Something akin to R.C. Smith's mediating subject – efficacious agent that underlies p2p agency in subject-subject relations?

Political action and dissent push political agents into virtual ‘possibility spaces’ of action toward particular sets of goals. The question becomes as I understand it how accessible and 'actionable' these possibility spaces are, and how they can be leveraged 'effectively' in a way that they can teleologically complement.

Whereas the ideas of distributed agency 'moved' by individual affect-related 'engagement logics', and political action and instrument choices that combine to produce emergent effects with converging intentionality are close to my own, the questions that I have here are about the formulation of these logical orders, and how a higher logic that can 'counter' the current logic of the system can materialize. There's a discrepancy between the orders defined in the paper and Baudrillard's logical types. And I'm not sure how the model described in the paper would be applied.

In the chapter "Symbolic Exchange and Death" in Mark Poster's Baudrillard Selected Writings 1st Edition p119 to 148, Baudrillard describes the current order of the system as the order of simulation:

"Value rules according to an ungraspable order: the generation of models, the indefinite chaining of simulation. Cybernetic operationality, the genetic code, the random order of mutations, the principle of uncertainty, and so on: all of these replace a determinist and objectivist science, a dialectical vision of history and consciousness. Even critical theory and the revolution belong to the second-order simulations, as do all determinate processes. The installation of third-order simulacra upsets all of this, and it is useless to resurrect the dialectic, "objective" contradictions and the like, against them; that is a hopeless political regression. You cannot beat randomness with finality; you cannot beat programmed dispersion with prises de conscience or dialectical transcendence; you cannot defend against the code with political economy or "revolution." All these old weapons (including those of the first order, the ethics and metaphysics of man and nature, use value, and other liberatory referentials) have been progressively neutralized by the general system, which is of a higher order. Everything that gets inserted into the definalized space-time of the code, or tries to interfere with it, is disconnected from its own finalities, disintegrated and absorbed — this is the well-known effect of recuperation, or manipulation: cycling and recycling at each level. "All dissent must be of a higher logical type than that to which it is opposed.""p.122

What I understand here is a description of the current order as assemblage of code of various forms with a finality that tilts things currently in one direction (accumulation of power, money, toxins etc…), absorbing dissent in the process. I'm not sure what type of higher logical type Baudrillard had in mind to 'transcend' the 'code'. And it is possible that what he qualifies as 'higher' order is not of the transcend and include type. Reading abstracts of the book reminds me of the excellent BBC documentary by Adam Curtis All watched over by machines of loving grace. It seems to me Baudrillard does not see much of a way out as he speaks of death and ex-termination… Nothing to rejoice about! Though at the time, Adam Curtis' documentary inspired a more optimistic article on my part.

I see the code Baudrillard describes as 'omnipresent' hence it 'absorbs' anything that is produced. And it absorbs everything because it's 'the system' not 'a system', it's the 'milieu' in which we all operate. A milieu which is open ended, not something 'closed' or 'circumscribable' that we can step out of or that can be 'transcended' or 'overcome'. It would be the embodiment of the 'invisible hand' in other words?

As suggested by Baudrillard, the co-option and neutralization of dissent does not happen through 'annexation' but by 'absorption by the code', by 'dilution into the code'. So couldn't dissent, inserting new pieces of code at multiple levels and scales via praxis, actually 'dilute' the existing code by praxis after having been diluted by it to the point that it will have dissolved it? Something that generally happens once a tipping point is reached? Maybe this is how the network can help transform the system for the better.

Wouldn't the complementarity of many sided human transformation through 'mediating subjects' and exercise of 'efficacious' agency (as suggested by RC. Smith) at various levels and scales in mutual recognition bring about the 'higher order' of dissent that could change the system? The current 'dissent' is failing because it is largely based on the attempt to prioritize action and modes of dissent and 'funnel' everybody into a 'higher order' logic or 'higher order movement' through higher consciousness, higher degree of complexity, higher order of dissent… Alternatively, wouldn't a new order rather than a higher order emerge from the 'occupation' of the whole action space and the leverage of agency at each level of maximized motivation and dissent?

The paper was discussed recently in a conversation about whether change could be 'organized' and 'coordinated' vs the possibility for change to occur from the grassroots or from the 'inside'. A big worry that people expressed is that 'change from within' whatever the intention and dedication would be neutralized, while 'getting on with new business at local levels' would be a 'waste of energy' in the urgency we are faced with.  We should keep in mind though that because of the embodied affective social identifications that drive engagement, priorities are not interchangeable, and people won't choose discourses and courses of action or go into 'possibility spaces' that they feel too distant from especially if these courses of action are 'prescribed'. There's also a level of perceived disempowerment that annihilates any motivation to act when something seems too hopeless and remote. So the double challenge to solve here is 1/ how 'possibility spaces' and their complementarity can be made visible and intelligible, and mutually recognized (this involves discovery and recognition of languages and frames of reference of various engagement logics), and 2/ to help motivated agents, whichever their engagement or action logic, explore the possibility spaces in their reach (adjacent possibles), those that can change the intentionality of the technologies and instruments they are evolving with so that the 'code' starts to change (I think this is what Bernard Stiegler's organology is about). In other words the challenge is about helping people find the 'maximum' or optimum level of dissent they can operate at and the tools that can help them do so.

That's why the commons are so powerful, because the commons logic contains not only a finality of thrivability that can be expressed in multiple ways, but as archetype it also provides possibilities for modeling processes and taking the role of vetting system to measure 'progress' towards a shared intentionality, that can be 'encoded' in effective ways, anchored in reality of everyday praxis at multiple levels and scales.

The goal would be to 'encode' the commons in the general system code languages as well as new languages so that the general code mutates… This could be done via a pattern language.

Hacking the code, i.e. inserting in the 'matrix' some code genetically modified for growing the commons could be the higher logical type we are looking for…

We still need to figure out though the best ways to deal with state repression and the largely coercive nature of social reality.

Total revolution breeds helplessness and totalitarianism – Bruno Latour

In a talk at the Royal academy of science and humanities in Copenhagen last february (video & transcript), Bruno Latour explores how to overcome the contradictory "affects" of capitalism, an odd mixture of "fate and hubris".

According to Latour, our 'first nature", the world we live in, governed by the laws of physics and nature, that science helps us discover, providing margin of maneuver and allowing 'unexpected agencies to spring up' has been transcended by capitalism as 'second nature', governed by the immutable laws of economics,  'parading as immanence'.

As a result of interpreting the world from the prism of capitalism:

we obtain, on the one hand, binding necessities from which there is no escape and a feeling of revolt against them that often results in helplessness; on the other, boundless possibilities coupled with a total indifference for their long-term consequences.

Qualifying capitalism as poisonous in that it affects thought so as to render alternatives unthinkable, Latours goes on to examine counter-poison and alternatives, and this does not come from 'total revolution' which is a poison itself too:

Overthrowing capitalism does not seem to be a very good solution. It appears that capitalism enjoys being overthrown as long as it is attacked as a total system to be totally subverted. Because, quite naturally, the more systematic you are the surer you are to resist any attempt at being overthrown: that’s what a system is made for! It depends how you read the
sad experience of the 20th century, but it seems to me that the net result of such an attempt at “revolutionizing Capitalism” (this should have been obvious since the start) has been a triumph of Capitalism and a fantastic increase in its systematic projection. In the search for total revolution, only the adjective “total” has remained, in the sense of total helplessness on the part of the losers and even more total totalitarianism on the part of the winners.

Here is a call for looking at things in a totally different way. For interpreting the world rather than trying to 'change it' wholesale.

"To be radical a “radical critique” of an unfair, destructive and unsustainable “system” should abstain from falling into the trap of fighting a system. It is because it is not transcendent and because it obeys no superior laws that any “market organization” may spread and it is for the same reasons that it may be amended, modified, corrupted, reformed or reorganized. To be radical a critique should follow the exact same paths through which the extension of standards, templates or metrological chains occurs. As soon as it jumps to another superior level, it ceases to be radical — that is, close to the roots of the problem."

And a little earlier in the paper:

""Is there an alternative? It appears that the solution will not come from dialectics with capitalists “digging their own grave” but from the first nature. It is ironic to think that so much saliva has been spent to save higher values from the risk of commodification when the question should rather have been to bring this whole enterprise down to earth. But which Earth? How to resist the transcendence of capitalism parading as immanence?"

It seems we are closing the loop here. A 'mutation' of the code at the grassroots, reconnecting with 'the nature' of things not with higher laws?Back to RC Smith's approach of a political philosophy of systemic change rooted in mutual recognition of grassroots praxis in its diversity, prefigurative of a shift to come which imo is deeply infused with commons logic.  

In an interview on France Culture (in French) at the end of last year, Bruno Latour visits the limits of modernism and post modernism. In particular he criticizes the dichotomy between subject and object, a two pattern (gabarits) approach that is not the reflect of the pluralism of reality. Latour calls for a new relationship with Gaia which in his view is not 'mother earth' or the world, or the concept of globalism, but rather a plurality of agencies inherent to our existence. He outlines the need more patterns (gabarits) to describe and interpret this plurality of experience and for various collectives to understand each other… (>> I need to dig into this further)

Saving higher values from the risk of commodification

From Latour's talk in Copenhagen: "It is ironic to think that so much saliva has been spent to save higher values from the risk of commodification when the question should rather have been to bring this whole enterprise down to earth."

One of the major objectives of a political philosophy for the commons is to save the commons from the risk of commodification. This means finding ways to prevent capture and extraction of wealth and socialization of cost and risks for the benefit of the few. This includes reclaiming the commons as part of the first nature in the sense of Latour, as common sense and praxis. But many activists of the commons movement also include in this drive the political idea or ideal of the commons that they fear would be captured and diluted if the ideal and discourse was brought into everyday's reality of the system.

Saving the ideal of the commons as a totality could actually be quite detrimental to the commons. It is important to keep the commons at the level of first nature: the objects we care for, the processes of care and ethos by which we generate commons, and the outcomes that result from these processes. All these elements are part of praxis and the reality of life, the experience, generative of life themselves. Commons as ideal governance system become of the order of the second nature, one that would want to transcend the existing system although presenting itself as immanent as well. Commons forms cannot live independently from the environment in which they are embedded that can be more or less favorable. They are submitted to the forces of the existing system they operate within, and with which they must 'compose'. So opposing them 'wholesale' as an alternative system may not be a service to render to the commons. That's what I tried to demonstrate in the article Show me the action I will show you the commons mentioned above where I posit that commons are archetypal and ubiquitous and are embodied in whole or part in much of the grassroots praxis for political change, and this should be leveraged as such to 'mutate' the code of the operating system itself, rather than trying to prescribe a new operating system. My thoughts are a bit more nuanced and I should probably reformulate this.

As far as a working theory of the commons is concerned, the mutual recognition of the various components of commons logic manifested in the grassroots praxis RC Smith describes is the prefigured condition for the shift itself and for the formation of "a sustainable and far reaching theory of the commons". The commons as system emerge from the praxis of (re)generating commons in various forms, and at various levels and scales, and the shift unfolds as a result of the aggregation of the many streams of commons logic that operate in awareness of each other, in other words, with the information flow necessary to create feedback loops that can accelerate and amplify the change…

I also suggest that the ways to assess whether and how a given change initiative (re)generates the commons (or is driven by a commons logic) could be used as a vetting system to evaluate whether a change is truthful to the commons (and therefore a 'true social progress' as you define it) or a mere cooptation of the concept.

Growth of the commons becomes both the goal of the system and the metrics by which sustainability is assessed.

Reinventing movements

There has been a very interesting roundtable in the US last November on reinventing movements following Occupy.

Douglas Rushkoff had initially talked about the need for "bringing together all these kinds of real time experience movements into something that can shape our collective agency"

I particularly liked Ben Knight's intervention. Ben is co-founder of Loomio, a platform for collective decision making. Some quotes here:

"We need to develop a clear framework -not rules-; a cultural, political, economic context that increases the likelihood to generate and consolidate behaviors that don't alienate or marginalize people, and that build community bonds and relationships between people. Something that gets everyone involved in the decisions that affect them.

We need a framework that takes the mass of mobilized attention and channels it towards a positive direction. A broadly defined, distributed movement that moves the system in a consistent direction, towards a more sustainable and equitable world. With a broad narrative that has no single stated goal, but rather an emergent goal, opening up public conversations that can help us hold up, step back and break ourselves out of the distractive state and framework of an economic, political and social system which makes the world less sustainable and more inequitable, and is moving in the opposite direction causing more and more harm to the world.

Sustainability and equitability are the two basic elements that keep coming up everywhere, and feel like a pretty good baseline to work with to construct a narrative that is going to direct this growing mobilized energy. With a baseline foundation of sustainability & equitability, we can judge whether things have moved us further away or closer to more sustainable and equitable outcomes. In particular when you know you can have sustainable outcomes that are not equitable and equitable outcomes that are not sustainable…"

Ben's approach of sustainability + equitability as framework and vetting system resonates quite a lot with the approach for systemic change that we are talking about here, with the growth the commons in its various dimensions as emergent goal and as the way to assess the sustainability and equitability of outcomes.

Unity without convergence

In a similar line of thought, here is an interesting article translated from Spanish on new forms of political self-organizational models for multitudes based on the analysis of recent up-rises including 15M in Spain.

The article highlights how traditional organization based on unity through convergence have reached their limits. In particular they outline the necessity of keeping conversation on-going to allow for multiple level synchronization to occur. Though I am not sure I agree that the process at play is unity without convergence. Rather I would argue it is convergence without unity. But not quite convergence of goals and action either though, rather convergence of aspirations and outcomes.


Discussion (16)

  1. A document opened to discuss connections between our approach of commons logic as transformative vision and pattern language for a paradigm shift and what philosopher RC Smith starts laying out for an alternative philosophy of systemic change.

  2. Helene,  I'm sorry I wasn't able to continue the discussion a couple weeks ago, on the pattern language of commons.  I have a little time for the next week, though.   

    How would my feeling fit here, that observation may tell us more than politics, as when you look at the various kinds of economic communities as "commons" what you find ecologically are "niches", that communities build for themselves?    Any business does that, as well as any species or other community, as their way of establishing their "environmental home".   It's also where the "rules can be cooperative and in the interest of the whole", so it's those ways of working together that all members share, as their basic way of all caring for the whole.

    Does that have a place?    … 

    • Of course there's a place. There's a place for everything that enables systemic change that grows the commons and the sustainable capacities they generate :D. And there's a place for politics too!

      Why don't you start looking at how your approach could be expressed in pattern language form? What are the questions that need to be asked, 'conditions' that need to be filled for economic communities to thrive away from over-exploitation, abuse, enclosure? 

      Let's continue this conversation on the pattern language doc. And leave this one for the political philosophy :). I moved your pattern language and natural systems language related comments to the Natural Systems Language conversation/document

  3. Very interesting @r-c-smith! Thanks for stepping in the discussion. I like the idea of mediating subject and efficacious agent.

    I bounced off the "need to reflect upon the possibilities and limits of human agency, the logic of collective action, the mechanisms of social change" in the agency & history article. Your work points to the limits of the three responses. We're indeed talking of p2p agency here, whith efficacious agents as hubs?  I will read the lecture notes on foundational approach to systemic change you sent me via Twitter:

    What would be interesting would be to look at how such foundational principles could be embedded in a pattern language generative of commons geared to empower change agents…

    It's political not as politics seen as struggle games for power 'winner takes all', but rather as 'local' / agent empowerment for finding ways of holding disparate and possibly conflictual elements of 'society' together and making it 'efficacious' as you say… Probably clumsily put here, but just to start with…

    More later 🙂


  4. Hi Robert (@r-c-smith), I've gone through your lecture notes. Very insightful indeed, and showing a way ahead. The question that comes to mind with your idea of mutual recognition and your critique of traditional political forms of engagement is how change agents within the mainstream system (I'm mainly talking of people in corporations -there are legions who can't stand it any longer and are deploying interesting ideas without much 'leverage' though) can move things from within to contribute to a shift… They don't act in a political position. In a way they are a part of some form of grassroots movement, and they usually come up with things that are radical in their own context, not enough to marginalize themselves in this context and shift the system, and not enough either to be 'belong' to a radical aternative…

    What can they do and what is their margin of manoeuvre? There's a lot of potential for efficacious mediation and agency there… A huge potential I think actually…

  5. @r-c-smith, going back to your lecture notes and through the additional reference on the mediating subject you provided via twitter:

    I like the idea of a political philosophy rooted in mutual recognition of grassroots praxis in its diversity, prefigurative of a shift to come which imo is deeply infused with commons logic. I'm seeing the commons logic as an archetype. Not sure if this makes sense (my background in 'formal' philosophy is rather limited). So it's at the same time the underlying prefigurative logic and what we are heading towards…

    I also like the idea of abandoning ourselves to the object to know it better vs trying to dominate it.

    …the concrete experiential level of everyday experience, is guided by what he describes as “mimesis” (Adorno, 1992). As David Sherman summarises, “mimesis, on Adorno’s account, is the truly “experiential” moment in the process of experience. In contrast to the preconceived concept, which dominates the object that is perceived by hierarchically classifying it before it is really experienced …/ mimesis opens itself up to the object, and thus attempts to grasp it in its multifariousness [multidimensionality]” (Sherman, 2007). Mimesis therefore resembles the human ability to “abandon ourselves to the object, and thus come to know it better” (Ibid).

    So we are not rejecting the notion of object, but shifting from object of domination and possession to objects of inquiry and care, and moving away from

    one‐way power relation to an intimate subject‐subject, almost intersubjective relation rooted in what I consider as an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology.

    As a personal note, I find it very difficult actually to untangle the object / subject duality…

    • Helene, I'm still mulling over which stack of old notes to start with on that "Natural Systems" page, but your intro to this caugh my eye:

      I like the idea of a political philosophy rooted in mutual recognition of grassroots praxis in its diversity, prefigurative of a shift to come which imo is deeply infused with commons logic.  

      That's a pretty good semantic equivalent of what an common natural system is physically, an multi-scale organizational construction relying on collective design at each scale… 

  6. Profile photo of Robert Robert says:

    Some great thoughts here, Helene. (Apologies in advance for a very direct reply, I'm a bit short on time).

    With regards to the first post, there's probably a bit of a language barrier in terms of our different backgrounds. But I would say that the notion of the "mediating subject"/efficacious agent is foundational and is what underlines the notion of p2p agency. Hubs then are perhaps an extension of the efficacious agent in practice, such that in the same way Occupy-style events evidence the "mediating subject". But there could be a language barrier here and we could very well have different definitions of p2p agency.

    On another note: you're right, I think, that "it's political not as politics seen as struggle games for power". This harks back to a critique of politics – and power, for that matter. But what we're discussing here is deeply political, but 'alternatively political' principled on a broad critical theory of society. I spend a lot of time studying dominating social systems, power-relations, and so on., so this 'alternative political horizon' which, as Richard Gunn, Adrian Wilding and I have written in an extended series of works, is evidenced by Occupy-style events, emphasises grassroots, mutually recognitive, direct radical participatory democracy and is based on a 'many-sided human transformation' (including a shift from subject-object to subject-subject).

    In your second comment you raise a very important question: namely how to create or support fundamental change within an alienated, dominant society. Understanding the efficacious agency of human beings is one thing, but then understanding that we are all forced to exist today within a largely coercive, fundamentally 'bad' social circumstance is another. How are legions of people, whether working in corporations, schools, factories or whatever, who cannot stand the present system any longer and have very interesting ideas but cannot find any leverage, to act or to help create change within a largely coercive social reality? I think there's a great deal of complexity here, particularly regarding state repression and the oppressive and coercive nature of capitalism. The answer is perhaps too far-reaching to entertain within this space, but what I will say is that this is the power of capitalism: it produces a fear that one will die under the weight of an indifferent economy. If one strays the course, one will not be able to 'earn a living' and thus we often hear people explicitly say that one's 'livelihood is a stake'. So that economic coercion plays a big role, psychologically, emotionally and even existentially. Obviously under the right state of affairs there would be no such fear, and the subject would feel free to open himself up to the world (Sherman, 2007). Within existing social conditions, we witness people all the time try to combat this fear, take up protest and demand revolutionary change, quit their jobs at a corporation to do something more meaningful to them or more ethical – recently I heard a story about a teacher in a public school, who acts subversively by doing only the minimum when it comes to the corporate curriculum she is given, spending the rest of the time practicing more radical pedagogy. She's of course under constant pressure and scrutiny by her boss, excluded by some of her peers who have subscribed to the dominant ideology, so the situation is always precarious. This plane of social thought/action is limited, but also empowering to a certain degree. I think it is important to recognise these daily efforts & more support should be provided from critical theory. Secondly, an ideology critique must also enter in the equation here regarding those that openly defend the present Order. Thirdly, the problem of state repression is an important one to consider: as we saw with Occupy Wall Street, which was made up by sucha diversity of people and which managed to carve out an alternative public space that was prefigurative and potentially revolutionary – it was absolutely destroyed by the state. How we manage with such an extreme degree of state repression within a self-proclaimed democratic society is a big a question.

    Regarding more specifically the large body of people, which you identify brilliantly: that do not take up a traditional political position and in a way are a part of some form of grassroots movement, usually developing things that are radical in their own context, not enough to marginalize themselves in this context and shift the system, and not enough either to be 'belong' to a radical alternative'. I agree with you that there's tremendous potential here, and a lot of people in critical theory seem to either completely overlook this particularly group or conflate them with liberalism. I think this identified group is certainly 'liberal' to a degree, but perhaps more of the radical liberal sort: the sort that doesn't function in concert with capitalism (i.e., liberalism) and possess an emancipatory potential. How this large body of people can be encouraged or supported to expand their horizon more to demands for change that directly challenge capitalism is, for me, one of the biggest issues. Lots of alternatives are being developed within this particular region of the populous, and I often observe that they display a grassroots – nigh to mutually recognitive – politics that emphasises direct, radical democracy. But these alternatives largely exist within the confines of capitalism or cannot find much political leverage, because they (rightfully in my opinion) reject 'left' milieus.

    You might have noticed in my lecture notes that I address this issue to some degree, but more advanced discussion certainly needs to take place. Be interested in your thoughts. Ultimately I think their margin of manoeuvre is that they need to intensify their grassroots politics, which is one reason why I wrote that series on an alternative philosophy of systemic change – in hope that it could offer some guidance or contribute to the discussion of how this particular group of people move forward (See also: As a start, I do think critical theory and the more progressive leftist organisations/academies need to start supporting the development of these grassroots movements.

    “I like the idea of a political philosophy rooted in mutual recognition of grassroots praxis in its diversity, prefigurative of a shift to come which imo is deeply infused with commons logic. I'm seeing the commons logic as an archetype. Not sure if this makes sense (my background in 'formal' philosophy is rather limited). So it's at the same time the underlying prefigurative logic and what we are heading towards…”

    Yes, I think this notion of ‘prefiguration’ is extremely important (overview here: . My colleagues Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding are the ones really developing this notion as well as the notion of ‘mutual recognition’. Their entire series of work is on Heathwood, which I recommended checking out. I’ve basically been applying their ideas to the greater ‘alternative philosophy of systemic change’ that I’ve been developing over recent months.

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘archetype’. There are a few different theoretical definitions that could be applied. I would say that nothing is more fundamental than a shift to mutual recognition (from contradictory recognition) and that, as a result of this shift, a ‘many-sided human transformation’ unfolds which I described a bit in my lecture notes. In this way, I would suggest that commons logic as a pattern, a model, emerges from out of this shift precisely because I argue that in order for any theory of commons logic to be sustained, it must be rooted in an alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology.

    What I find really interesting, in passing, is how a foundational apporach, an foundational understanding of the fundamental shifts needed to support emancipatory, systemic change foster the conditions for a sustainable and far-reaching theory of the commons. (Not sure what you think of this?). I see the increasing commonising of society as a basic goal in the 21st Century, but far deeper 'transformations' must also occur in order for any theory of the commons to sustain itself (a shift to subject-subject relations being one).

    Lastly, regarding “the idea of abandoning ourselves to the object to know it better vs trying to dominate it:” I ground this primarily in a shift from the subject-object paradigm to the subject-subject parable. If one strictly follows Adorno’s line of thought, we are not rejecting the notion of the object per se. Adorno was basically working through the subject-object dialectic. Therefore you are right to suggest that we are, in a sense, shifting from object of domination and possession to objects of inquiry and care. One could even insert a theory of empathy or intimate subject-subject relations (as I sometimes describe it).

    In my retrieval of Adorno, I tend to argue more toward the rejection of the subject insofar that the object is, too, in many cases a subject. Animals, for instance, also possess or evidence agency. They, too, are subjects and not objects to be dominated. I see the subject-object paradigm as almost wholly coercive, exploitative, dominant and epistemically violent.

    Untangle the subject-object paradigm isn’t too difficult, but it does require a foundational critique of epistemology, anthropology and cosmology.

    I’m presently writing an extensive study about all this, advancing discussion on the mediating subject, a shift to subject-subject relations, a critique of epistemology, power, etc., which will be published as a book later this year. Meanwhile, the following two paper offer some more insight in this area:



    • Thanks a lot Robert! @r-c-smith. Especially as you had little time!

      Reading your 'understanding occupy' piece, what comes to mind is the conditions needed to foster mutual recognition and keep its momentum at a wider scale. One feedback received from friends at Occupy London was the challenges of 'speaking different languages' and coming with 'different logics' that in several instances came in the way. How does this 'many sided transformation' operate? What would the alternative anthropology, epistemology and cosmology supporting mutual recognition look like? And how could it be described in a 'many sided' way so it doesn't marginalize itself as soon as described…

      I'll be looking at the work of your colleagues more closely.

      Back to the commons logic, I've been looking at two definitions of archetype, one is the jungian psychology definition: "a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches", the other is as "original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are derived". In this sense, commons logic as archetype is prefigured as it belongs to the past and present… and as you say, it emerges from out of the on-going shift… into the future…

      AS far as a working theory of the commons is concerned, I would say to answer your question that the mutual recognition of the various components of commons logic manifested in the grassroots praxis you are describing is the prefigured condition for the shift itself and for the formation of "a sustainable and far reaching theory of the commons" as the shift unfolds as a result of the aggregation of the many streams of commons logic…

      Also I suggest that the ways to assess whether and how a given change initiative (re)generates the commons (or is driven by a commons logic) could be used as a vetting system to evaluate whether a change is truthful to the commons (and therefore a 'true social progress' as you define it) or a mere cooptation of the concept.

      I will come back to continue the discussion on the subject-object and the political leverage of mainstream change agents. Don't hesitate to point me to anything new on the subject.


  7. Just added two sections bringing the work of Bruno Latour in the reflection. This is relevant to our subject in several aspects:

    1/ The subject-object dichotomy is addressed in the radio interview in French. Leading to a call for more categories to interpret and describe roles and a pluralistic reality. So relevant to pattern language.

    2/ He addresses the divide between the law of nature that governs reality and the laws of economics that govern much of our behaviors


  8. Very interesting! Someone in a discussion on systemic change from a complex adaptive systems perspective explained Entropy -that I am always struggling to understand- like this:

    "Suppose you get a glass of milk from the fridge. It is evidently colder than the kitchen, so when you leave it on the kitchen table, there is a difference in temperature between the milk and the table.

    That is a difference in entropy

    Now you go out for an hour and when you come back, the milk is at the same temperature than the table. That's no difference in Entropy.

    That is the Second law. Reality tends to thermal equilibrium, i.e: maximum Entropy, i.e.: no difference

    Now you just have to think about the whole universe in terms of the glass of milk and the table. Two objects can only be at different temperature, have different energy or different information if there exist a difference of Entropy between them.

    But that difference can also be created by warming the milk in the microoven; i.e.: by adding 'negentropy' "

    That I interpret as the 'part' of the system, adopting in time the characteristics of its 'mileu' or the system it is part of. Bringing to may mind that maybe what Baudrillard describes as the absorption or neutralization of political dissent by 'the system' is nothing other than enthropy… Which ties back to the idea I have developped these past weeks of the embed hack the code… and embedding the code of the commons as factors of opportunity and renewal into the system. That would be introducing on-going systemic generation of negentropy…

    Here's a paper by Ricardo Alvira with an excellent explanation of complex systems change of state:

    "This text is chapter 2.1 of the book 'A mathematical Theory of sustainability and Sustainable Development'. It reviews and conceptualizes sustainability/sustainable development from six different theories: Systems Theory, Complexity Theory [as both 'organization' and 'emergence']; Coevolution; Ecology; Chaos Theory and CAS Theory. "

  9. @r-c-smith Look ^ And next piece in Heathwood is taking shape!

  10. Helene, I think that description fits diffusion processes, like heat transfer by conduction, or chemical diffusion by osmosis, as statistical processes in which area of high concentration tend to diminish and result in more uniform distributions.    The link to Alvira's paper attempts to explain that saying that the "organization" that systems emerge with is a barrier to that diffusion of differences.  

    What it leaves out is where "organizaiton" comes from except to offer an abstract theory, as if organizational development that results in concentrations of energy that don't disperse wasn't most often quite concretely observable..   To understand it you can hyphenate the word to emphasize the derivation as a verb as ""organ-izaiton", referring to the making of whole units of coordinated and connecting parts.     

    You don't need theory for things you can directly observe as much as you just need to learn how to observe them more and more closely.    Then some theory for what you are observing can help a bit, but without that connection to observation theory doesn't give you practical for applicaions. 

    The first observable sign that a new form of organziation is emerging in your environment is recognizing a pattern of change over time exhibiting "accumulative proportional change", what identifies systematic "growth" in the emerging organization of the system developing.   When you one indicator of growth you then look for how widely it and related indicators are distributed, to identify the domain of the  "organ-ic" emergence being observed.   To put it more simply, those signs of growth are nearly always the first sign of *someting happening.

    Does that help? 

  11. @jessie-henshaw, I understand pattern language offers some help to recognize things in real when you observe clearly. That's what you describe in your 1979 Unhidden patterns of events paper that I find great! Need to revisit this.

    Let's continue this discussion in the Pattern Language group. I'll be opening a doc there with the summary of a complexity economics paper that explore these directions.

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