Our entry into the Global Challenges Prize 2017

We are extremely happy to tell you that we are entering a version of the Interactive Electoral System into the Global Challenges Prize 2017: A New Shape — Remodelling Global Cooperation. This competition will award US$5 million in prizes for the best new models that re-envision global governance. The Global Challenges Foundation was founded in 2012 by Swedish financial analyst and author Laszlo Szombatfalvy because he recognized that the impacts of the world’s current major challenges — especially climate change, large-scale environmental degradation, violent conflict, extreme poverty and continued rapid population growth — are being seriously underestimated by political and business leaders who too often instead focus on short term interests. So, the goal of the competition is “to incite deeper understanding of the most pressing global risks to humanity and to catalyse new ways of tackling them”.

Did someone say re-envision governance!? No problem, we’re on it! The proposal we are entering has us busy scaling up the IES since the original version was conceived as a solution to a perceived violation of constitutionally guaranteed rights in Canada. Namely, while Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says Canadians have “the right to vote in an election of members of a legislative assembly”, the fact is that periodic elections leave long stretches of time where voters have no way to exercise this right. Consequently, they have no means of switching their vote if (or, sadly, ‘when’ is perhaps more apropos here) the representatives they formerly chose end up failing to keep their commitments or make choices counter to the voter’s values. (Excitingly, our members have agreed that, in the event we win the Prize, some of the money awarded will be devoted to going to court regarding this Charter violation.)

For those unfamiliar, the Interactive Sovereign Society (ISS) was founded in 2010 to test out the IES. For six years now ISS members (which today include US citizens) have functionally exercised major changes to contemporary democratic practice. First, elections are not periodic (hence are ‘aperiodic’), allowing every individual to change their vote at any time.

Critics of this system usually argue that any such electoral process would suffer instability and fall prey to mob rule. However, the ISS has developed unique practices to ensure stable governance in ways superior to the prevalent techniques of manufacturing majorities. These include measures that provide extremely smooth transition between candidates. What has resulted is that in times of crises or during proliferation of new beliefs through the electorate there may in some cases be a swift progression of elected officials but during times of relative agreement an incumbent’s tenure may be prolonged extensively. The continuous nature of the aperiodic system ensures representatives are always accountable to their electors.

But an aperiodic electoral process is only one aspect of an Interactive Electoral System. This system also reeducates citizens on the key concepts that are fundamental to true democracy and justice: what is sovereignty, and how are consent and authority employed and recognized or usurped? Voters using the IES become conscientious that it is citizens’ consenting to be governed that provides elected representatives the authority to govern. Thus voters using this system do not presume that a majority is morally justified in imposing decisions on minorities.

Further, our submission argues that conventional modern political paradigms are ostensibly sovereign-states that grant the authority to govern to representatives chosen by the people. This decouples the power of sovereignty from the will of the people, and can see those representatives handed the ability to ‘rule with absolution’ whereby they seemingly have the ‘right’ to take decisions and actions simply “because they are the government”. This abstraction is how the world has seen purportedly democratic governments taking actions counter to public sentiment or that could arguably be described as objectively immoral. The ISS has proven that when we instead acknowledge that it is not the state that is sovereign but the people, then the will of the people cannot be overruled by state representatives with self-serving agendas.

Stay tuned for more about our entry into the Global Challenges Prize competition!

Economy of ecology: Should we rethink our capitalist views?

I know, I know… me and my extracts from other people’s essays. Interesting stuff though, and sure, some might dismiss “the commons” as an environmentalist/hippy type of concept, but who can argue with this gem of wisdom:

“To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life.”

So please read on, dear ISSers, and see whether you feel, as I do, that the commons and the viewpoints below could very much inform what we are trying to create.

Natural anticapitalism

A new economy can become a realistic alternative if we can challenge the mainstream biological view that sees life as an endless process of optimization. A new picture of life indeed is overdue – particularly in biology itself. Here, in fact, the Hobbsean paradigm of “war of all against all” is being overcome. The biological view of the organic world – and the picture of man within it – is changing from the idea of a battlefield between antagonistic survival-machines to that of an interplay of agents with goals and meanings. The organism starts to be seen as a subject who interprets external stimuli and genetic influences rather than being causally governed by them, and who negotiates his existence with others under conditions of limited competition and “weak causality.”

This shift in the axioms of “biological liberalism” leads to an emerging picture of the organic world as one in which freedom evolves. This is particularly evident in the following issues:

  1. Efficiency: The biosphere is not efficient. Warm-blooded animals consume over 97 percent of their energy only to maintain their metabolism. Photosynthesis achieves a ridiculous efficiency rate of 7 percent. Fish, amphibians and insects have to lay millions of eggs only to allow for the survival of very few offspring. Instead of being efficient, nature is highly redundant. It compensates for possible loss through incredible wastefulness. Natural processes are not parsimonious but rather based on generosity and waste. The biosphere indeed is based on donation, but it is not reciprocal: the foundation of all biological work – solar energy – falls as a gift from heaven.
  2. Growth: The biosphere does not grow. The quantity of biomass does not increase. The throughput does not expand – nature is running a steady-state- economy – that is, an economy where all relevant factors remain constant toward one another. Also, the number of species does not necessarily increase. It rises in some epochs and falls in others. The only dimension that really grows is the diversity of experiences: ways of feeling, modes of expression, variations of appearance, novelties of patterns and forms. Therefore, nature does not gain weight, but rather depth.
  3. Competition: It has never been possible to prove that a new species arose from competition for a resource alone. Species are rather born by chance: they develop through unexpected mutations and the isolation of a group from the remainder of the population through new symbioses and cooperations (as our body cells have done, for example). Competition alone, e.g., for a limited nutrient, causes biological monotony: the dominance of relatively few species over an ecosystem.
  4. Scarcity: The basic energetic resource of nature, sunlight, exists in abundance. A second crucial resource – the number of ecological relationships and new niches – has no upper limit. A high number of species and a variety of relations among them do not lead to sharper competition and dominance of a “fitter” species, but rather to a proliferation of relationships among species and thus to an increase in freedom, which is at the same time also an increase of mutual dependencies. The more that is wasted, the bigger the common wealth becomes. In ecosystems where only a few nutrients are freely available, as in the tropical rainforest, this limitation brings forth more niches and thus a higher overall diversity. This is the result of an increase of symbioses and reduced competition. Scarcity on a biological level does not lead to displacement, but to diversification.
  5. Property: There is no notion of property in the biosphere. An individual does not even possess his own body. Its matter changes permanently and continuously as it is replaced by oxygen, CO2, and other inputs of energy and matter. But it is not only the physical dimension of self that is made possible through communion with other elements, it is the symbolic as well: language is brought forth by the community of speakers who are using it. Habits in a species are acquired by sharing them. In any of these dimensions the wilderness of the natural world – which has become, and not been made, and which cannot be exclusively possessed by anybody – is necessary for the individual to develop its innermost identity. Individuality – physical and social/symbolic – thus can only emerge through a biological and symbol-based commons.

Commons as relations of the living

A thorough analysis of the economy of ecology can yield a powerful methodology of the commons. Natural processes are able to define a blueprint to transform our treatment of the embodied, material aspect of our existence into a culture of being alive. The term “commons” provides the binding element between the natural and the social or cultural worlds. To understand nature in its genuine quality as a commons opens the way to a novel understanding of ourselves – in our biological as well as in our social life.

If nature actually is a commons, it follows that the only possible way to achieve a productive relationship with it will be an economy of the commons. The self-realization of Homo sapiens can be best achieved in a system of common goods because such a culture – and thus any household or market system – is the species- specific realization of our own particular embodiment of being alive within a common system of other living subjects.

Although the deliberations that have led us to this point stem from a thorough analysis of biology, their results are not biologistic – but rather the opposite. The thorough analysis here has revealed that the organic realm is the paradigm for the evolution of freedom. Therefore, even if we determine that the commons is the basic law of nature, the necessities resulting from that basic law are non-deterministic – contrary to the prevailing ideas of optimization and growth. The basic idea of the commons is rather grounded on an intricate understanding of embodied freedom and its relationship to the whole: the individual receives her options of self-realization through the prospering of the life/social systems she belongs to. To organize a community between humans and/or nonhuman agents according to the principles of the commons always means to increase individual freedom by enlarging the community’s freedom. (See Table 1).

Table 1: Existential Consequences of Various Modes of Householding

Neoliberalism Darwinism Commons (ecological & social together)
concentration displacement diversity
dependency resource dependency freedom-in-relatedness
fragmentation sequential optimization integration
customers survivors subject-in-community
local vs. global local local and global (holistically integrated)
sustainability = victory sustainability = victory sustainability = relationship & commitment
patents mechanisms of predation and defense open source
winners monopolize most resources winners transmit most genes winners are interwoven most deeply with the community
efficiency efficiency diversity of expressions
monopoly dominance self-expression as culture
egos in hostile environment species under selection pressure constant recreation of community
separation participation

Embracing the possibilities of a legitimation crisis

Just sharing some hopeful excerpts from a very interesting new essay that I came across on openDemocracy to lighten the mood here, after Psam’s last post!

[….] Now for the good news. Social democracy may be at an impasse, but history is once again on the march. From Cairo to Wall Street and from Santiago to the City of London, change is in the air (Schiffrin and Kircher-Allen, 2012). 2011 has already joined 1848, 1968, and 1989 as a ‘year of revolution’. More recently, a wave of industrial action has broken out across southern Europe, culminating in general strikes in Spain and Portugal and associated stoppages in Greece, Italy, France and Belgium. As part of this mass political mobilisation, growing numbers of people – especially the young – have begun to conclude that traditional policies to achieve equitable and sustainable social, economic and ecological outcomes simply no longer work. A full-scale legitimation crisis is in the making. Growing income and wealth disparities are seen to be corrosive of democracy. Governments are judged as lacking the will or capacity to regulate corporations effectively. A generation of young people expects to be worse off than their parents.

Confronted with these realities, more and more people have begun to ask ever more penetrating questions. They see traditional politics as no longer even attempting to address the issues that matter most. To do so would in fact require confronting the need for fundamental systemic change. But what would this entail? And what would a different system even look like?
Now is not the time for timidity, for all the old fears about frightening horses with manifestos for radical change; quite the reverse.

The social pain arising from the continuing economic crisis has made it possible – for the first time in decades – to pose these questions in a serious fashion. But despite this new space for a major public debate about fundamental change, serious political challenges to the system – from ‘Occupy’ protestors, community activists, environmentalists and others – have thus far been contained by the continuing sense of a lack of viable alternatives. The only choices have seemed to be corporate capitalism, on the one hand, or state socialism, on the other. Neither seems capable of addressing the problems of the twenty-first century. Neither commands the intellectual and ideological support of a new generation of indignados. But is there any alternative?

Today there is a real need for – and hunger for – new understanding, new clarity, and a new way forward. At the same time, growing despair at the inability of traditional politics to address economic failings has fuelled an extraordinary amount of practical experimentation. Over the past decades, literally thousands of on-the-ground efforts have been developing. Even experts working on such matters have rarely appreciated the sheer range of activity.

As popular movements and new institutional developments converge, there is the glimpse of a new world in the making.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the lack of many of the social democratic features of European countries, a lot of this experimentation has been taking place in the United States. The Democracy Collaborative has been gathering information on the steadily building array of alternative economic institutions in communities across America. They include social enterprises that undertake businesses to support social missions; non-profit community development corporations (CDCs) and community land trusts that develop and maintain low-income housing; and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) that now invest more than $5.5 billion a year in creating jobs and housing and providing services for poor communities.

Most of these projects, ideas and research efforts have gained traction slowly and received little attention. But in the wake of the financial crisis they have proliferated. They illuminate how new community wealth-holding principles and approaches can work in practice and generate new solutions to political and economic challenges. It is slowly becoming possible to see how, by projecting and extending these practical experiments, the underlying structural building blocks of a new political-economic system might be assembled. What is needed – besides more capital to build up the sector over time – is an integrated and strategic effort to bring all this together and show how, in total, it forms the lineaments of a radically different system capable of delivering superior social, economic and ecological outcomes. […]

The challenge is not technological but organisational and political. It is a matter of systemic design. Work is already underway to flesh out the elements of what a system based on pluralist forms of democratic capital ownership might look like (Alperovitz, 2013, forthcoming). That there is political space to be occupied in this regard is increasingly evident. […]

Now is not the time for timidity, for all the old fears about frightening horses with manifestos for radical change; quite the reverse. The upside of an almost total disenchantment on the part of the electorate with politics-as-usual is that they are now ahead of the politicians in this game. People buy the argument that things are not working any more. They experience directly the growing inequity, the insecurity, the unfairness. They are no longer creatures of a discredited media. Now people want to hear, boldly and clearly, an authentic message about change that will make a difference.

As popular movements and new institutional developments converge, there is the glimpse of a new world in the making. Embracing these possibilities will require abandoning some of the mental furniture acquired from long residence in the house of power.

Food for thought: ‘small d’ democracy

Found an article (“Democracy from the ground up“, which is actually an extract from a book by historian/political economist/activist Gar Alperovitz) that includes some very thought provoking points/reminders, a few snippets of which I wanted to share:

“Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggested that a decline in associational activity, in turn, had produced a decline in trust and ‘social capital’ foundational requirements of democracy in general. His response was straightforward: the nation should develop as many ways as possible to encourage local involvement the only way, he held, Americans could hope to renew the basis of democracy throughout the larger system.” […]

“In his study, Democracy’s Discontent, [Michael] Sandel holds that it is important to recover the meaning of the ‘republican tradition’ in American political life — a tradition that ‘taught that to be free is to share in governing a political community that controls its own fate. Self-government . . . requires political communities that control their destinies, and citizens who identify sufficiently with those communities to think and act with a view to the common good’.” […]

“City Limits, an aptly titled study by Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, demonstrates that as a result of the underlying relationships, policy choices are often ‘limited to those few which can plausibly be shown to be conducive to the community’s economic prosperity’. Partly this is because business owners have more money, hence usually more political influence. But quite apart from such considerations, local political leaders feel they must promote economic development, and they accordingly feel they need the help of the business community.” […]

“Commonly, too, the thrust of decisions favorable to business groups radically constrains all other choices. The use of scarce resources to develop downtown areas, and especially to attract or retain major corporations, inevitably absorbs funds that might alternatively be used to help low- and moderate-income neighborhood housing, schools, and community services.”