Chamber of the Commons

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Context

Pat Conaty:

"Chambers of Commons have occurred historically with Kondratieff-wave downturns. In the late nineteenth century there emerged Chambers of Labour, Farmers Alliance, interest-free forms of investment, a scaling up of Co-op systems and indeed the pre-1914 vision for securing co-operative commonwealth. This vision was revived in the 1920s and 1930s, here and there and in 1970s and then disappeared. It appears to be resurfacing again today slowly." (email July 2013)

Discussion

A proposal by David Ronfeldt:

"In a previous article, we excerpted David Ronfeldt vision of a “Assurance Commons”, which is the totality of preconditions, to be fullfilled by state, market and civil society, for commons practices to flower.

In this second installment, David proposes a U.S. Chamber of the Commons as an enabling institution for such Assurance Commons to emerge:

“The commons are bigger, broader, more significant, and more complex than people generally realize. Yet, the commons also remain largely ignored. Their/its presence and importance get buried under today’s aging politicized preferences for rhetoric about public vs. private or government vs. market approaches. Ways should be found to use the term “commons” more often, and to elevate recognition of it/them. I’ll close this post with a proposal for doing so.

The characteristics of the commons are shifting: As noted above, the commons become more about practices than resources as societies progress. Moreover, commons are not as much about economics as many past analyses and current formulations on the Left (and elsewhere) imply. Lots of political, social, cultural, and other (cyber?) matters are involved. I should think it would benefit the revival of the concept of the commons if it were not so frequently analyzed in such intensely economic ways. Assurance is not automatically an economic concept; thus it might help broaden and refocus discourse a bit — at least that’s my speculative hope.

Much as I like the idea of a “commons sector” (from both TIMN and P2P viewpoints), an “assurance commons” would not correspond to a distinct sector. The concept presented in this post is broader. But its activities would help stimulate the formation of a distinct sector, perhaps especially if it were to impel monitoring by NGOs in ways that accord with monitory democracy.

An assurance-commons approach would not make governance issues any easier to deal with, but it might help illuminate them. As Elinor Ostrom’s work has shown, people are learning to manage common-pool resources in polyarchic network-like ways, without having to turn to old hierarchy- and market-like ways. But assurance commons involve more than common-pool resources. They also involve some of the knottiest governance issues around — e.g., in the field of health — requiring extensive coordination among multiple public, private, and other actors. Regulatory challenges abound. Thinking in terms of an assurance commons might (or might not?) help spotlight governance issues in ways that direct attention to needs for developing new network modes of governance alongside and intertwined with existing public and private modes.

A classic ideal about the commons persists in the assurance-commons notion: It’s up to people at large — civil society, not just government or business — what belongs in the commons. Much depends on their values and needs.

A bottom line for this post — perhaps its punch line — is to propose the creation of a U.S. Chamber of Commons, modeled somewhat after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC). Indeed, how about a whole series of chambers of commons, at local, state, and regional levels!? They could form into a sprawling network whose purposes might include assessing and lobbying on commons issues, helping shape a commons sector, advancing the monitoring of commons matters, and congregating interested actors.

Thus, even though a U.S. Chamber of Commons might be modeled after the existing USCC, or after chambers of commerce more generally, the purposes would be very different, as would governance, sponsorship, membership, and audience. I‘d imagine the two chambers would be rivals on many matters, but it may well be time for such a rivalry. It might help reform and rebalance the American system at all levels. In my TIMN view, this could aid America’s evolution from a stalled distorted triformist (T+I+M) system to an innovative quadriformist (T+I+M+N) system.

Who might be interested in seeing such a chamber created? Lots of businesses and NGOs, I’d suppose, that are already known for having some commons-oriented views: e.g., Wikimedia, Google, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Skoll Foundation, Ford Foundation, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Whole Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, Evergreen Cooperatives, Association for the Advancement of Retired People (AARP), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Cleveland Clinic — these are entities that come to my mind, with a little help from others*.

Yet these are just big names that come easily to mind. Greater impetus might come from numerous non-profit activist organizations, community associations, church organizations, for-benefit businesses, and other commons-friendly enterprises that I am not yet familiar with (and that might object to the risks of a chamber being co-opted by the big names). Once a chamber got founded, myriads would come forth — or so I imagine. They may amount to a seemingly eclectic set of organizations — but that would be part of the strength and appeal of having a U.S. Chamber of Commons."[1]


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