2022 saw record carbon emissions, after 27 years of useless COP meetings. We’re all doomed – happy new year!
My wife and I recently got chatting to a group of three 19-year olds in our local pub. After the initial pleasantries, things got deep quite quickly. One of them said that they’d decided not to have children, because there were horrors on the way that they didn’t think it fair to expose people to without their consent. The other two agreed. I asked if they were unusual, and they said that most young people feel that way. After chatting with several young people since then, sure enough, they said similar things (maybe it’s the circles I move in?).
What a horrific situation for the young to find themselves in, through no fault of their own. Sure, their concerns don’t exactly represent rigorous science, but just the fact that young people are fearful enough of what’s coming to decide not to breed is worrying enough in itself.
What kind of change is (and isn’t) required?
In 2023 I’d like to see a move towards a new system, rather than futile attempts to ‘fix’ capitalism. I don’t think it’s necessary to to try to persuade the majority of people about this. There are enough of us already to kick-start the necessary change. I’d like to talk about some new ideas that are emerging for building this new system – the commons economy.
In December, we uploaded a new topic to the site – housing commons. This is what we intend to do where we live (Stroud), and help replicate elsewhere. Have a look at that topic introduction, and do let us know in the comments if it makes sense. You can also ask questions for clarification, and we’ll get specialists to answer them for you. We’ll be blogging about progress, but first, let’s have a look at why we need a commons economy.
There are those who believe that we don’t need change at all. We just need more GDP growth, to generate the money to develop new tech that will lead us to a techno-utopian nirvana. I’m not trying to reach those people. They’re unreachable and solidly part of the problem.
Then there are those who believe that the only route to change is via the state. They honestly can’t see any other way, and seem to have a blind spot when it comes to state failures to date. I guess as COP numbers get bigger, this group might shrink. But currently, it’s huge. I don’t want to oppose / try to persuade this group, because a) some legislation might help the development of the commons, and b) many of them will see the benefits of a housing commons, and become involved. This group I’d rather invite than persuade or fall out with.
Third, there are those who advocate violent revolution. After the horrors of the 20th century, this is a shrinking band, but in the face of apparently intractable climate change and biodiversity loss, there’s a risk that more young people will turn to thoughts of violent overthrow in despair at the lack of alternatives. At the end of the 19th century, Bakunin pointed out that if violent men seize power, they’ll never redistribute it, and therefore violent revolution is a route to totalitarianism, not a better society. Now, this group I want to persuade that Bakunin was absolutely right, and that now we have a viable alternative.
Let me take a couple of minutes to enlarge on this, before focusing on the alternative.
The Communist Manifesto was a mistake. Marx and Engels saw a problem – that power was concentrated in too few hands, belonging to people with vested interests, unfit for leadership. Their ideas led to revolutions that introduced new a new kind of system, but unfortunately one that didn’t solve that problem. The new leaders that emerged were, if anything, even less fit for leadership. Over 100 years ago, Marx’s followers were warned of the dangers by anarchist factions in the First International, but Marx’s faction won, and the rest is (bloody) history. Now his experiment is more-or-less over, but power is more concentrated than ever, and we also understand the damage being done to the planet’s biosphere.
Unlike the communist party, the commoners’ movement, on establishing a national or even global commons, would allow perfect freedom not to be a commoner. If someone wants to be self-employed, or to live on a smallholding with their family and become totally self-sufficient, then good luck to them. Similarly, capitalists and wannabee capitalists would be free to offer employment in warehouses, delivery vehicles, sweatshops, telesales booths and supermarket checkouts at minimum wage – but why would anyone want those jobs if the commons provided better ones? And why would anyone want to buy their products and services if the commons offered better quality at lower prices?
Similarly with housing – anyone would be able to acquire mortgage debt to own a property that they have to insure, repair and maintain, and end up repaying almost double the original value of the property, due to interest. But how many would want to do that, in a world where they could be co-owners of commons housing that’s affordable, well-maintained, well-insulated and that provide secure tenancies that could be passed on to their children?
Many books claim to contain the solution to our problems only to disappoint with policy suggestions, that capitalist states are never going to implement. At least Marx and Engels understood this, and bypassed the capitalist state – albeit in a way that resulted in a state that was every bit as bad. The commons movement provides ideas that can, if successful, change the course of human history, without forcing anyone to do anything, with or without the help of the state.
At the other end of the political spectrum, there’s an argument from social Darwinists that a commons world is not possible because of human nature – that we’re selfish creatures suited only to a dog-eat-dog economy, and that capitalism is ‘natural’. This was the argument used by those defending feudalism before and during the French Revolution – that a hierarchy with God at the top, then kings, church, nobility, yeomen and serfs, was hard-wired and eternal, forgetting or not understanding that for the vast majority of human history people have lived in tribal groups where all the essentials of life are held in common. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about human nature – it always reflects the conditions in the society of the day. But if there is anything that we could call a ‘natural’ human condition, then it’s the commons, and we’re all (naturally) commoners.
Here’s an introduction to the concept of commoning, and below is an overview of the various aspects of a commons economy. These are new ideas, with quite boring-sounding labels, I have to admit – but once you understand them, I think you’ll begin to see their profundity, and the potential for change that they represent. I think the best way to present them is with a strapline (5-second intro), elevator pitch (30-second intro) and a link to a topic introduction (10-minute intro). Then, also in 2023, we’ll be introducing a forum, where experiences can be shared and specialists will be lurking to respond to queries.
There are 4 components of the new commons economy, that lead into and complement each other.
1. Credit clearing
Strapline: reducing the need for money and banks
Elevator pitch: it’s something the banks do, to reduce the need for money to pay debts. But we can do it too. Imagine A owes B £10; B owes C £10; C owes A £10. If everyone has all the information, it can just clear, wihout needing money to pay debts. For networks of trading small businesses, this can be done with algorithms, covering larger and larger areas.
More info: topic introduction
2. Mutual credit
Strapline: the means of exchange in the commons economy
Elevator pitch: a way for small businesses to trade without needing money or banks. Members get an account, set at zero. When they sell, they get credits, when they buy, they get debits. There are limits to how far anyone can go into credit or debit. It’s a means of exchange, but not a store of value, so it can’t be extracted from communities and concentrated.
3. Use-credit obligations (UCOs)
Strapline: the means of storing value in the commons economy
Elevator pitch: allows infrastructure to be brought into the commons without incurring debt, by issuing vouchers sold at a discount. Imagine a community energy group wanting to put up a wind turbine. At the moment, to get the funds, they need to go into debt or give away equity (which means the infrastructure will be in the hands of capitalists before long). Instead, they issue energy-credit obligations – vouchers denominated in kWh, not £ (which makes them inflation-proof). People will want them because they’re sold at a discount, and they provide a store of value – interest-free security for old age or sickness. UCOs can work in every sector of the economy.
More info: topic introduction
4. Credit Commons
Strapline: going global
Elevator pitch: all these monetary projects can be connected together into a global network, but owned and controlled in communities – to form the basis of a new global commons economy.
More info: Credit Commons Society
Where to start?
Housing is the ‘rock’ on which the commons economy can be built. Everybody needs it, it’s non-technical and it’s in a mess.
Last year, my wife and I were selling a house in London and moving to Stroud. We were hearing stories from young people we knew in London about the impossibility of buying a house, and more and more, even renting somewhere to live. We talked about keeping the house and renting it out at an affordable rate, to contribute to helping young people live in the capital. But after discussing it, we decided that this wasn’t the way to go – it was encouraging landlordism and contributing to the existing problematic situation: young people can’t find work in their towns, so they move to London to work in corporate jobs they hate, to be able to earn the money needed to pay London rents, enriching corporations and landlords, draining provincial towns and contributing to a pointless, boring, damaging economy.
We didn’t know of any alternatives at the time, but after researching and talking with specialists (whose ideas, to be honest, we didn’t understand at first), we decided to go the commons route, and to do it in public, to encourage and help other people to do it too. We wanted to promote a way to allow people to live and work in the town they grew up in, close to friends and family, rather than have them sucked into the corporate vortex that is today’s London.
We’re talking with switched-on people in Stroud about forming a ‘commoners club’ to help build the commons here. We want to get to know each other better, learn together, invite specialists to come and speak, recruit local people and look for opportunities. To be fair, Stroud is a bit of a rebel town, and fertile ground for something like this. But if it can work here, it can work in other towns too. It’s not about altruism or worthiness. Commons ideas can provide things that people need at better prices – exactly what’s needed for ideas to spread virally.
We’ll blog about progress, every step of the way. This is something that can be ‘replicated and federated’ to form the foundation of something completely new. It’s not a ‘solution’ – just a programme for mitigation and preparation for what’s heading our way.
- Read the housing commons topic introduction.
- Read the other ‘commons’ topic introductions (see above).
- Let us know your thoughts / ask questions in the comments.
- Sign up to the blog.
- Get together with a few like-minded people in your community, show them this article and discuss forming a ‘commoners club’.
- Contact us and let us know how you’re getting on. We could send speakers, provide information, network with you, discuss possibilities, promote you etc.
- Share this / let other people know. We want this starting in as many communities as possible.
- Whenever you come across the standard question: ‘yes, but what can we do?’, show them this article.
- … and if you live in Stroud, let us know if you’d like to be involved.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1William Messenger January 19th, 2023
Fantastic stuff, we need the step by step account of how you pull this off.
What became of the house in London? Is this a second home you are commoning?
2Dave Darby January 20th, 2023
William – yes, we want to document it so that it can be replicated anywhere. We’ve just discovered that a town in Sweden is going to try to set up a housing commons, after they read our housing commons topic introduction. We’ll try to keep in touch with them to see how they get on.
We’re having a first ‘commoners club’ meeting in Stroud on monday evening. I’ll post about how we get on. I’ll also put together an ABC guide to setting up a housing commons, and post that too.
The house in London has been sold now, so it’s gone. We were going to rent it out, but decided that’s not the way to go. So we’ve got enough money left over from the sale of the London house to buy another house in Stroud. We’ll live in one, and put the other into the commons.