An open conversation between Michel Bauwens (MB) and Evi Swinnen (ES), moderated by Laure-Anne Vermaercke (LV)

It’s May 2020. The world is suffering from a pandemic never seen before, riots for social justice are spreading all across the United States and Europe, and we are heading into one of the hottest summers ever. At the same time we see that grassroots and commons initiatives are resurfacing during these times of crisis: the maker community is saving lives by providing protective equipment against Covid-19 faster than traditional supply chains; solidarity initiatives are becoming more visible; and care economies are gaining ground on extractive economies. Lockdowns have put the rat race on hold and have revealed all the excesses of capitalism. Artists and commoners are taking a stand to imagine a post-coronavirus world of solidarity and care. 

With this context in mind, Evi Swinnen, initiator of Timelab1, and Michel Bauwens, founder of the P2P Foundation2, discuss the re-emergence of the commons in times of crisis, but also the danger of enclosure by forces of capital and state. They talk about the threat of exclusivity and polarisation of the urban commons and explore ways to renegotiate power, leadership and collaboration. They also tackle how hacking the existing capitalist structures in a time of need is a great example of what a possible future, which challenges the current system and creates a transformative scenario, might look like. By way of conclusion, they don’t propose ‘one specific way out’, but rather accept that there are different possible scenarios.  

LV: Welcome, Michel and Evi. Michel, in an interview published in 2019 on OuiShare you stated that “every time a civilization is in crisis, there is a return of the commons”. Maybe we can start this open conversation by elaborating further on that statement.3 Do you see the current crisis we are now facing as an opportunity to move towards becoming a more inclusive society?

MB: I believe that looking into the history of the commons shows us that their fortunes rise and decline.4 Both here and in the interview you mention, I refer to the concept of wave-pulse theory.5 There is evidence today that the urban and other commons are re-emerging.[/efn_note] During the more extractive periods of historical time, in which resources are overused, the commons tend to weaken and are enclosed, but during regenerative periods, the commons re-appear as a central human institution in order to restore societies’ ecological and social balance.6 There is evidence today that the urban and other commons are re-emerging.  

ES: I definitely believe that opportunities are emerging during times of crisis. It is an interesting observation to see the rise of commons as a prelude for change towards a more regenerative period. There is indeed a tendency of revival of co-ops, citizen initiatives and a strong rise of community currencies and local production, which could be seen as elements of a transition towards a regenerative period. At the same time, however, I think we both must acknowledge that many commons are still subject to enclosure today. And as much as we see opportunities arise in times of crisis, we also have to be aware that change needs time.

MB: I think what you are describing is the difficulty of seeing clearly what is happening in an intermediary period. Take for example the financial crisis of 2008. It has engendered precisely what one would expect in the context of wave-pulse theories, i.e. a revival of the commons. We saw not only an explosion of shared knowledge and open source/design communities and the growth of makerspaces and other spaces of collaboration, but a tenfold increase in urban commons projects in several European cities. A concrete example is the city of Ghent: there were about 50 urban commons projects in 2006, but over 500 in 2016.7

ES: I remember the crisis of 2008 very clearly, because that was the foundation to establish Timelab. We wanted to strengthen the position of the arts and makers’ attitude as a driving force in social and economic change. My organisation was part of what was later called the maker movement. At the core of the movement were the hackerspaces around the year 2000, open communities with non-hierarchical organisational models that were switching from open source software to hardware and therefore started sharing space. The whole movement has its roots in activism, debating topics such as property, privacy, autonomy and collaboration. I think what happened over the past years was great and it was inspiring to see how experimenting became a legitimate form of innovation. Unfortunately, to repeat the argument I made earlier, the maker movement has also been enclosed many, many times. 

MB: Under capitalism, the extractive system ‘par excellence’, the commons have been massively enclosed, a process usually dating as far back as the 13th century8, and they are indeed still subjected to further enclosures to this day. The Marxist geographer David Harvey calls this “accumulation by dispossession”, which he describes as a strategy for neoliberal capitalism to centralise wealth and power. Capitalism can thus be equated by the privatisation of commons, and commoning is transforming capital into a common resource, but that does not belong to the state.

ES: The link between a strong market and state and accumulation by dispossession is very clear when we look at the development of shared spaces in the European territories after 2008. The South of Europe was hit harder by the financial crisis of 2008, and has, in comparison to the North of Europe, a lot more co-creation hubs, such as multi-factories, makerspaces, co-offices and shared workshops. In fact, we see that in the North of Europe there are not only fewer co-creation hubs, but they are also less autonomous and political, because they often operate in strong partnerships with the market and/or the state where the Global South was stimulated to come up with other models of working independently from market and state. This is of course a generalisation, because there are places in the North where spaces are run by independent communities and places in the South and East of Europe that were established through European funding. What is certain, however, is that there is a relationship between the presence and type of shared space and the level of trust in the market and/or the state. This might seem like a paradox, because a lot of people consider the partnerships as a great success, but I think there is a very thin line between the strong partnerships with the market and/or the state and the process of enclosure and disempowerment. 

MB: A large-scale study of 1,000 urban commons, undertaken by LabGov9, confirms your conclusions, Evi. Effectively, in the Global North, there are now political forces, mainly present in public administration, that acknowledge the need to support commons-based initiatives and have developed a support infrastructure and protocols for public-commons. In the Global South, on the other hand, the commons are considered as something of the past that has no progressive role. So commoners in the mega-cities in the Global South, such as Mumbai, Lagos or Bogota, are most often acting against governmental pressure, which paradoxically makes them more autonomous. Nevertheless, I still see the public-commons alliance and resulting protocols of cooperation as a necessity and counterweight to the ‘socialism of the rich’ represented by neoliberal policies. Much of our success will depend on the attitudes of the commoners themselves: do they see themselves as transformative actors of the deeper societal structures, or just as local actors, behaving as the plebeians of ancient Rome, i.e. ignoring the larger issues unless they are directly affected. 

LV: To summarise your opinion, Michel, you acknowledge the fact that commons in the Global South are, paradoxically, more autonomous and political than the commons in the Global North, but at the same time you still believe in the value of a public-commons alliance, i.e. a partnership between the commons and the state. Do public-commons alliances have the potential to bring about systemic change? And, directed to you Evi, what changes must the existing alliances undergo in order to make them work? 

ES: Let me start by discussing a few challenges within public-commons, and also private-commons, coalitions in a real and recent example. At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, many countries ran out of protective equipment for care workers and tests and material to protect their citizens from the virus. So the only option was a total lockdown, with all its associated socio-economic consequences. In the meantime, the ignorant brutality of the neo-liberal market started to unfold: the strategy of scarcity and war on resources overruled the goal to save lives. To help address this urgent problem, we developed the MASK ADAM project: an open available model for 3D printed face masks adjusted to individual physiognomy, context of use and available materials. During this project, a couple of striking obstacles were revealed. For instance, testing facilities needed for accreditation can only be realised when the mask is developed within an established institution authorised by the government. The tests are executed on the standardised white male test dummies. On top of that, scientists are falsely declaring that techniques such as 3D printing will never produce safe masks and companies and research institutions are not interested in collaboration as long as the development stays open. An important question is, therefore: how can you imagine a public-commons alliance when you want to change the system in which one of the partners is anchored? I see that the maker movement is gaining trust and there is a genuine interest in collaborating, but it is also subject to disempowerment strategies and enclosure. The example of MASK ADAM is not a unique case. In Italy, makers copied a vital part of ventilators for respiration because they ran out of stock. By doing so they saved lives, a goal they share with the company. Yet instead of partnering with the makers, the company sued them.

To specifically answer the question, I think the public-commons alliance can only work with a clear definition of roles, and even then there is still the threat of enclosure. The LabGov approach Michel mentioned with the Co-City protocol10 is inspiring when it comes to understanding a possible public-commons partnership. The linear development strategy the study proposes can perhaps be questioned, but otherwise offers a great methodology that positions the role of the state towards commons initiatives in terms of a sustainable, shared and open future. By acknowledging the practices and prototyping protocol, the state takes the role of prototyping adjustments to the legal context based on the observation of practice. The adjustments are tested in practice and modelled based on the feedback from the practice.

MB: The example of MASK ADAM shows how our current capitalist system is unable to meet both ecological demands and social and cultural demands for P2P and commons driven autonomy. The priority of capitalism is and remains to guarantee short-term profit and capital accumulation above all else. However, the example also shows that Covid-19 truly presents a massive challenge to the system, and I find it significant that the medical sector was able to override the power of capitalism and the economy, which both suffer gravely from the lockdown. Covid-19 is a great revealer and accelerator of the global systemic crisis. My expectation is that we will never fully recover from it and that we have entered the ‘intensive’ phase of chaotic transition, in which a series of interlocking crises will prevent any return to normality. I strongly recommend looking into the interpretative scheme of Peter Pogany in his book Rethinking the World11, which focuses on the interplay between succeeding stable systems and the intermediary chaotic transitions that occur between stable states. We now have to mobilise for a positive outcome that solves both the ecological and social crisis. That a city like Minneapolis decides to abolish its police force is a perfect indication of what can be achieved by social mobilisation. If we fail, what comes next will be much worse than capitalism, as McKenzie Wark has argued in her critique of the new information-based ruling class with its vision of total control.12 

ES: You suggest that we have entered the ‘intensive’ phase of a chaotic transition and that a series of crises will prevent any return to normality. The question is of course: what is normal? What is recovery? To go back to what? Recent history has indeed shown how pandemics – from SARS, Swine Flu, Zika, Ebola to the current coronavirus – can have a tremendous impact on the economy, social life, political hegemony and state stability. At this moment there are many innovators, artists and disruptive actors envisioning another future post-coronavirus. It is a time to dream big. Can we embrace hybridity, dissonance and care and imagine a world that is not cyclical, evolutionary or pulsatile but open and unknown?

LV: Michel, you suggest that we have reached a ‘turning point’ of systemic transition towards a post-capitalist reorganisation, and Evi, you believe that the time to ‘dream big’ is now. How do you envision this post-capitalist, and post-coronavirus world? 

MB: I think the vision of Yanis Varoufakis13 captures the duality of this turning point in a really interesting way: he argues that it is the task of the left to ‘stabilise capitalism’, but also to use this moment to construct post-capitalist alternatives. I tend to be sympathetic to this vision, to the degree that it seems hard to imagine the total abolition of this form of capitalism ‘in time’ to ‘save the world’. Based on the earlier described insights into the dynamics of chaotic societal transitions of Peter Pogany, I believe that the disintegration of the old system, and the ensuing chaos, carry with them the seeds of new solutions. Only after the consolidation of the new system will we be able to say which of these seeds had evolutionary capacity and has caused ‘real traction’. The creation of imaginative scenarios can help in discerning the major choices and bifurcations. In the context of our work at the P2P Foundation, we use four different scenarios in terms of how possible futures deal with the commons in specific ways.14 In short, if we combine the axis of the centralised versus decentralised nature of socio-technical organisation with the axis of for-profit versus for-benefit, we get four quadrants of possible socio-technical worldviews. That of the centralised platforms, which gives us surveillance and precarity; that of distributed capitalism, promoted by libertarian blockchain proponents; but also a worldview where local urban commons are thriving; and a possible world of global open source communities, which operate at a trans-national level. Global scientific collaboration was prefigurative of this.15 These four potential futures are each being developed and growing at the same time. 

ES: Regarding what a post-capitalist system might look like, I’m very interested in the approach of researchers such as Ron Eglash. In his Decolonizing Digital Fabrication16 and Of Marx and Makers17, Eglash offers the ‘parasite-host relationship’ as a model for post-capitalism, in order to strive towards generative justice. He describes the open source production model as a parasite of the mass production extractive industry, which is characterised by alienated labour. He gives the example of the arduino lilypad: an open source microcontroller for smart textiles. To use it, one still needs mass produced parts, such as sewing needles or chips, but it creates unalienated labour that enables the condition for what he calls ‘generative justice’. This is consistent with a system that is not built on property, debt and extraction of all forms of bio and planetary resources and, therefore, not supporting the ends of capitalism. 

Going through a global crisis of the extent of a pandemic and the many riots for justice that are happening right now has also made me more aware than ever of the prevailing cultural hegemony. Covid-19 shows us how world leaders are exploiting the chaos to enforce their power – China comes to the rescue, Sri Lanka uses the virus to suppress Muslims and right-wing Schengen leaders see the opportunity to close borders for people and resources – and how they use military language and strategies. The result is another rise in polarisation and suppression of groups who are not empowered to follow the rules and demands, or who are already dealing with exclusion, racism and violence. In other words: we have to be aware that the crisis brings opportunities for innovation, but we also have to be aware that deep ruptures have a high impact on power shifts between the market, the state and commons. Attempts to change the power relations, as a lot of urban commons and grassroots initiatives undertake, are often answered with a reaction that comes from a place of violence. In a way this shows that power is shifting, but the exponential rise of violence in different forms is at the same time very alarming and asks for care, safe spaces and political voicing. In this context, I would like to circle back to David Harvey and the concept of accumulation by dispossession. An important insight of Harvey is that he not only talks about property, land or resources in terms of enclosure, but also about identity, humanity, social justice and voicing.

MB: You mention the problem of power, and this is indeed vital to consider, especially because we cannot escape it. In fact we should create commons that can maintain and protect themselves as seed forms within a dominant regime that is not favourable to it. We have to think through what kind of market forms and state forms can be commons-friendly, because we cannot separate individual commons from the wider political economy in which they exist. I envision an appropriate state form as a set of common good institutions that guarantee and sustain ‘commons of capabilities’, so that every citizen is assisted in the development of skills that can contribute to the commons. I would also like to refer to the work of Genevieve Fontaine here, on how to make commons more inclusive. Ron Eglash and his team, who have been working on generative justice, have also been active in this domain, focusing on racial disparities induced by the current socio-technical frameworks.18 These are not easy things to do, since commons are also elective. Right now we have the paradox that theoretically inclusive civic commons attract the better educated sections of the population, while the theoretically closed ethnic and religious commons reach the excluded sections of the population. We have to work on commons-based ecosystems that can integrate these different populations.

LV: As you both state, the question of power, and how the existing power relations are challenged in these times of crisis, is indeed very interesting and important to consider. Michel, you mention that we ‘cannot escape’ power, can you elaborate on this? 

MB: It has to be possible for people to exercise power, but defined as ‘power with’. That’s why I don’t believe in pure horizontal power, which needs continuous heavy processing and often requires consensus based on the lowest common denominator. It usually leads to a very small group of core activists to decide for everyone else. We should think instead about how to replace ‘vertical’ power with ‘diagonal’ power, or ‘heterarchical’ power, which means distributed power, ‘leaderfullness’ rather than ‘leaderlessness’.19 It is in this context that Jo Freeman wrote her famous essay about the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’20, i.e. that the lack of formalisation of power doesn’t mean there is no power, but rather that it is hidden. So, yes, I have observed these contradictory dynamics, but I don’t think these are solvable through any utopian solution; rather this tension has to be recognised, and transcended through hybrid governance systems. What is crucial is that action is always possible rather than paralysed. If you want your project to advance, mere empathic and affinity based coordination is not sufficient, and you need to exist ‘over time’, which means, inevitably, to form an institution that can last. And such an institution cannot last without sufficiently strong measures against centrifugal forces.

ES: I think it is notable you talk about leadership in this context. In practice, perhaps the concept of horizontal power is not the problem, but rather the lack of tactics to voice the unarticulated. Horizontal decision-making often creates the illusion of equal voices. Unclear or, as stated in the tyranny of structurelessness, hidden power relations can further violate unarticulated voices. When these decisions are presented as representing the voice of all, we are building oligarchies and fostering exclusivity. There are effective methods to get as close as possible to a decision that represents the whole group. In my practice I like to work with fluid temporary roles and unconsolidated power without being structureless, but, on the contrary, very explicit. This formalises the power without installing permanent hierarchy. It must be combined with a consent decision-making method. Sociocracy 3.0 describes this as ‘artful participation’.21 

Recent movements, such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives matters, are being perceived as unorganised but are actually characterised by unconsolidated power. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri22 enquire into how leadership works in such social movements. One of the known critiques is that these movements did not always realise what they promised, supposedly because of a lack of leadership in the groups. This critique presumes that only a strong charismatic leader can bring about true political change. This is historically incorrect. Studying feminists, anti-racial, students or labour movements shows that there is an historical inaccuracy of recognising the political successes of the movements only as successes of their leadership. One could ask: where have all the leaders gone? They are in prison, killed or put on trial. What we see is that anti-revolutionaries have a variety of oppression strategies to destabilise. That is why we need social movements with decentralised hybrid power to make the change. Here we see another type of leadership unfolding. There is an internal mechanism within these movements that avoids power concentration. Consequently, this undermines the rise of a charismatic leader but not the question of leadership. In addition to this, in Assembly, Hardt and Negri (2017) bring in a third argument, that combines the lack of leadership with a strong organisational body, in which the strategy is based on polycentric decision-making and the leadership is both temporary and practical and therefore the movement is more resilient to oppression. This really resonates with the experience of my practice. Commoners are searching through practice how to build organisational bodies. Inspired by nature ecosystems and old and new forms of governance experiments are taking place in local communities. My observation includes not only the internal need to question centralised power and the need for an organisational hybrid body, but also the various ways disempowerment strategies are built. Open protocols of governance become a way to build resilience and panarchical structures of organisations. 

LV: Michel, you propose ‘distributed power’, which can also be understood as distributed leadership, as an alternative to ‘horizontal power’. Evi, you rather advocate for ‘unconsolidated power’, i.e. power that is not consolidated in one or a few leaders, but that is structured through consent decision-making processes, such as Sociocracy 3.0. If I understand correctly, a parallel in your lines of thought is that you both believe in inclusive democracy, where, ideally, all voices are heard, or, to put it in the words of Donna Haraway, ‘articulated’. How can we structure truly inclusive democracy? 

MB: Evi’s concerns about the dangers of power concentration are entirely legitimate, and a lot of experimentation will be needed to get this right. We need democratic forms that are inclusive, but at the same time they must also lead to effective action. Besides ‘ailing representative democracy’23, there are a lot of other new forms of democracy that are evolving in the experimental communities: ‘participatory’, ‘deliberative’, ‘lottery-based’, ‘liquid feedback’ and more. My own contribution to this debate is the concept of ‘contributive democracy’, where people obtain a voice through contribution. This works in peer production communities, but was also the principle that governed mobilisations such as Occupy and 15M. In this context, the role of common good institutions, which I mentioned before, is to stimulate ‘commons of capabilities’, which ensure that every member of the population has contributory capabilities.

ES: Yes, indeed, in many self-organised communities decision-making and accompanied power dynamics are not discussed, where this is actually very decisive. To understand the power and leadership dynamics we have to question: who is a member, who is excluded, and how is the governance of these communities structured? Who may/can speak and whose voice is not being heard? In the case of contributive democracy: is contribution voluntary or monetised. Is it open to choice? And how is that contribution measured and validated into a voice? 

In many of these communities, from citizen participation initiatives to pseudo unions, a shared goal, obtained by consensus, is the value-driven legitimation of existence subscribed by members of the community that are represented by the spokespeople of the group. The next step towards representation is to form a legal entity, which is submitted to a legal framework that has a hierarchical character. These entities are then encouraged to partner up with the market or the state in order to get, for example, state support or sponsorship. This legitimation gives them the responsibility to represent the political voice of a group, which gives them a major responsibility to be inclusive. When the need of a transparent and unconsolidated power is not taken into account the result is a pseudo or anti-democracy, which, I believe, is an extremely harmful tendency that can lead to exclusion and concentration of power and resources. And I must say, I see that happening in a lot of initiatives today.

So is there a way to make all unarticulated voices equally heard, and can entities become hybrid, in order to obstruct power consolidation and to ensure that the system stays adaptive and resilient in a non-violent and safe way? On a political level, the most important lesson here might be to recognise agonistic pluralism, a radical democracy in which differentiation is as important as unification and conflicts don’t necessarily have to end in consensus to be democratic. Chantal Mouffe24 adds the aspect of ‘mutual admiration’ as a key ingredient. I believe now is the time to start practising our ability to admire. 

MB: So, as I indicated above, rather than ‘leaderlessness’, we should perhaps advocate ‘leaderfullness’, i.e. distributed leadership. This means that people can take their responsibility, but that there are also mechanisms in place to remove these people from power, when the confidence of the community is damaged. I think this is what open source organisations show us: open source leadership is an interesting innovation, because it is definitely a hierarchy, but not a command hierarchy. It is a ‘control’ hierarchy, based on recognised merit and with ‘forking’25 (i.e. the capacity to use the same source code for a new project) as the ultimate balance against the abuse of power, along with many other innovative techniques for the distribution of power.26 They can say ‘no’ to any contribution, based on quality reasonings, but they cannot interdict anyone to work on their preferred solutions. Unlike capitalist power, this is not a power of sabotage. It’s ‘power-with’ rather than ‘power-over’. I think we should start from the question: is the power appropriately distributed, according to the principles of subsidiarity, which states that decision-making should take place at the ‘lowest appropriate level’? That appropriate level is itself subject to democratic decision. There is no escape from that circularity, this is what founding charters and constitutions are for.

ES: That is an interesting perspective on democracy, Michel. From the makers’ movement point of view, the organisational dynamics of open source development and the success of open hardware has always fascinated me. It is very enlightening that you see forking in the context of power, because from a market(ing) perspective it is perceived as a failure of not keeping control, a form of competition you create yourself, disloyalty of the brand, or even theft of ideas. Ten years ago one of our makers made an open source milling machine. This was our first encounter with the economic model of open hardware. Only two of the open hardware developed back then were a success: arduino and makerbot, and later also Ultimaker. The machines were open sourced at a very early stage. In no time, other machines, often improved, were developed and we lost control over the development in terms of quality and values. The same happened and is still happening with MASK ADAM. Members of open source communities all know the moment when their contribution ‘vaporises’. Surprisingly, this didn’t happen with Arduino nor Ultimaker. Ultimaker adjusted to the market logic and took over the R&D from the community. Arduino was different. It defied the market logic. Texas Instruments (TI) created the ‘launchpad’ to kill the Arduino and capture that market. It was one third of the price. They produced the chip as well as the board, so they did not have to rely on the existing supply. It failed, not because of Arduino’s customer loyalty, but because customers had created and ‘owned’ what actually constitutes the Arduino value: its massive code commons.27 However, maybe the unconsolidated power of the vaporised research and prototyping contributions into commons is the real power that drives change in today’s knowledge economy. Maybe not consolidation, but vaporising into plasma IS the ultimate state of matter? 

LV: That is definitely an interesting insight, Evi. Could you maybe elaborate a bit further on this ‘state of plasma’? And can you give a specific example? 

ES: Open source or open-ended technology and production can shift the question of ownership to the creation of commons. Which also shifts competition to contribution and labour to care and maintenance. This shift turns around the concept of consolidation and the urge for humans to state and own to the ultimate goal to vaporise. Maybe a philosophical question, but let’s try to imagine the impact on material and social production. Together with the sprinters – a group of internationally based artists who reflect on aspects of commoning through artistic practice – we at Timelab decided to prototype a new form of residencies from the perspective of ‘maintenance’. We started to define the concept of resources as the residue of (cultural) creations and interactions in an undefined endless accumulation, without extraction. There is no hierarchy within the interactions. There is no measurement to calculate the contribution and exchange. The collaboratively built resources are shared values. This almost immediately leads to the development of another economy with more collaboration and value for the invisible social production and solidarity. As well as resources, they question curatorship, production, identity, autonomy, collaboration and mediation.

This is how it works: at their annual gathering or ‘sprint’, the current artist community outlines their concrete actions for the following year, nominates and selects new artists to take on board in the residency programme. These new artists are then introduced into the community and participate in the next year’s residency. Afterwards they participate in the annual assembly to reflect on the past year including the process and rules, thus completing the circle and making the knowledge community grow. The created value benefits for the whole group without direct allocation of resources, labour and capital. They executed important research on their role as ‘maintainers’ through care, not by producing or presenting, but by opening up their practice in the neighbourhood of Timelab as a mediator to see the invisible, hear the unheard, feel the untouched, with socio-political intentions. This project seems to be confirming the bravery of the artist stepping into the unknown, and again increasingly convincing me that artists can play an important role in the process of transition, within and through organisations and centres like Timelab.   

MB: May I refer here to the work of Alexandr Bogdanov28 and the Proletkult movement, which were active in Russia before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Bogdanov was convinced that the workers of Russia were not ready to lead the country, due to lack of skill. He believed that Russia needed a new institution instead. One could say that, in a way, he foreshadowed the contemporary maker movement. In his Proletkult centres he brought together workers and artists, letting them develop together skills for common governance. I feel this is still missing today, i.e. that artists see themselves as part of a broader social movement and learn how to work with commons and citizen collectives, as part of a larger ecosystem. I think the new commons-oriented cultural collectives, such as Furtherfield, Art is Open Source, Casco and, of course, Timelab, are indeed moving in that direction. This is somewhat pop spiritual theory, but, if you are familiar with the work of Laurence Taub on the Spiritual Imperative29, a book that sees history as a history of ‘caste’ struggle (and with caste interpreted as being psycho-cultural types), you could suggest that we must evolve to a new synthesis of Brahmins and workers (i.e the last caste of one long historical cycle, and the first caste of the next cycle). For me this is what the maker movement represents: it transcends the Cartesian and Taylorist division of labour30 between thinkers and makers, and creates people who design, execute/make and then reflect again on their creations. Could we envision art and culture that is embodied in this new reality?

ES: I see the artist/activist as a super competent knowledge creator; a master in developing a new vocabulary that must also be allowed to question its own institutions. I’d like to dream of collectives that incorporate the power of institutionalisation as a means to develop the articulation of unheard voices, without falling prey to the market or the state. That is how I envision the development of knowledge on the logic of the commons at Timelab and elsewhere, if we are to maintain a tradition of critical, autonomous thought. 

I think the biggest challenge for the arts will be to create hybrid entities of groups of artists and others that can develop transparent governance structures with fluid and non-consolidated power dynamics. And the biggest challenge for all of us will be to practise mutual admiration, be curious and open for unlearning and questioning what we define as our world and truth. I am hopeful when I see artist’s groups like State of the Arts (SOTA) in Belgium developing a political and social power. In their practice there is no distinction between making and thinking, there is even no definition of art as production, but rather a necessary political stance in an ongoing changing world.

LV: We started the conversation questioning if crisis is an opportunity for change towards a more inclusive society. You mentioned radical thinkers, including Ron Eglash, McKenzie Wark, Genevieve Fontaine amongst others, and gave examples and methodologies such as MASK ADAM and the Co-City protocol as attempts to grasp the dimension of a systemic transformation. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. Hence the conversation stays open, we could carefully conclude, it’s a challenging exercise to define power, leadership, democracy and advocacy. So, maybe to define is to limit and we have to accept horizons are constantly changing as we move.

  1. Timelab, an arts organisation, based in Ghent, Belgium, born out of the need for an artistic/activist stand in the 2008 crisis. Timelab opened the first Fablab in Belgium in 2010 and combines a maker environment with an artists in residence program. This resulted in a network of affiliated artists that are reflecting on the world and the position of the arts. The Timelab community uses practical research and moral imagination as a method to dream of possible futures.
  2. The P2P Foundation (officially, The Foundation for P2P Alternatives) is a non-profit organization and global network dedicated to advocacy and research on commons-oriented peer to peer (P2P) dynamics in society. The foundation supports the creation of common goods through open, participatory production and governance processes. For details, see
  3. See
  4. For an introduction to macro historians who see history in the context of ‘wave-pulse theory’, see this introductory synthesis: Michel Bauwens with Jose Ramos. (2020). The pulsation of the commons: The temporal context for the cosmo-local transition. Draft version of 25 March 2020;
  5. Wave-pulse theory is discussed here at: Michel Bauwens has attempted to synthesise several wave-pulse theories in this draft essay:
  6. Mark D. Whitaker. Ecological Revolution: The Political Origins of Environmental Degradation and the Environmental Origins of Axial Religions; China, Japan, Europe.
  7. Analysis of the commons in Ghent is summarised in Chapter 3 of this report: Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Niaros. (2017). Changing Societies through Urban Commons Transitions. P2P Foundation and Heinrich Boll Foundation, (original database at currently disabled).
  8. For more dates, see
  9. The first Co-cities report on the Urban (Commons) Transitions by Christian Iaione, Michel Bauwens, Sheila Foster et al. (2017). Towards a Co-City: From the Urban Commons to the City as a Commons. LabGov & P2P Foundation, The main analytical conclusions of the study are listed here at
  10. The five-step methodology of LabGov, cocities, is described here at
  11. Peter Pogany. (2006). Rethinking the World. iUniverse,
  12. McKenzie Wark. (2019). Capital Is Dead. Is This Something Worse? Verso,
  13. See for a mention of ‘stabilising capitalism’:
  14. They are outlined in our book: Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens. (2014). Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy. Palgrave Macmillan UK,
  15. Ron Eglash writes: “professional science is actually a pretty good model for the commons in many ways. It is the original open-source collective. See And of course DIYbio is massively underfunded – if it had the same flow of tax dollars imagine what it could achieve?”.
  16. See
  17. See
  18. Ron Eglash et al. (2020). Race-positive Design: A Generative Approach to Decolonizing Computing: CHI2020 conference presentation, April 2020,
  19. Gerard Fairtlough (2007). The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy & Responsible Autonomy in Organizations. Triarchy Press.
  20. Jo Freeman. (1970). ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology,
  21. For more information on Sociocracy 3.0 and ‘artful participation’, see,grow%20the%20necessary%20skills.
  22. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. (2017). Assembly. Oxford University Press.
  23. See for example: Thomassen, J. J. A. (2015). What’s gone wrong with democracy, or with theories explaining why it has? In T. Poguntke, S. Rossteutscher, R. Schmitt-Beck, & S. Zmerli (Eds.), Citizenship and democracy in an era of crisis. London: Routledge.
  24. Chantal Mouffe (2013). Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically? Verso. Mouffe argues that, despite experience of conflict, politics and political institutions, Western societies are mainly consensus-oriented and unipolar on a higher plane; meaning they lack alternatives to, for instance, capitalism. In other words, they are not agnostic. Agnostic approaches to democracy include, unlike antagonism, respect and concern for ‘the other’. The Greek ‘agon’ refers to an athletic contest oriented not merely towards victory or defeat, but emphasising the importance of the struggle itself – a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. And agonistic discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict, but just as importantly by mutual admiration.
  25. For more details on forking, see:
  26. The actual range of mechanisms for bottom-up control in open-source is broader than forking, which is more like ‘the nuclear option’ in many cases. See pp. 82-83,
  27. See
  28. An excellent introduction to the importance of the Bolshevik dissident Alexandr Bogdanov is the first chapter of: McKenzie Wark. (2015). Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso; Chapter two introduces the artistic implications of the Proletkult movement.
  29. Lawrence Taub. (2011). The Spiritual Imperative: Sex, Age, and Caste Move the Future;
  30. Descartes could be seen as the first thinker who explicitly creates a dualism between the dematerialised spirit and the despiritualised body of humanity, and between humanity (the realm of spirited beings) and ‘dead’ nature. Taylor, the engineer who helped Ford design the new car making factories, concretised the division of labour between decision-making managers and engineers, and workers who, at the service of the machine, simply execute repetitive tasks. See the book, La Religion Industrielle, by Pierre Musso, for a detailed intellectual history of these ideological moves.