Archive for December, 2009

Pirates, commons and finance

Friday, December 11th, 2009

A friend alerted me about this news about Somali pirates establishing a stock exchange and I thought it is worth posting it in a day in which President Obama — in his Nobel prise acceptance speech — referred to the pirates along the coast of Somalia as if they were among the world scum bags justifying the US use of force to promote world peace

“I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.

America’s commitment to global security will never waiver. But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone. This is true in Afghanistan. This is true in failed states like Somalia, where terrorism and piracy is joined by famine and human suffering. And sadly, it will continue to be true in unstable regions for years to come. (Obama)


Somali pirates show instead to be quite sophisticated, they establish a stock exchange so communities and expatriots can pool resources to sponsor their policing of their waters/piracy against foreign exploitation. As my friend argues,

“this is a community using a financial logic to articulate a common agenda (sponsoring their unofficial “security” against foreign exploitation) and using an exchange market to reclaim value from the transnational pirate cartels of capital. On the other, this is primitive accumulation and high finance rolled into one. I suspect the ROI here is very high, partly because the “costs” of this extremely dangerous labour are so minimal - investors do not have to compensate workers for the dangers of piracy, especially where there is such competition for the positions! Of course, I don’t expect Berkshire-Hathaway to make a big investment in this piracy market quite yet, but there is something deeply allegorical here.”

It is not only traditional finance they use. It looks like the stock exchange they set up is a means to pull all types of resources, and not only monetary and financial. Incidentally resource pulling is the first moment of a constitution of commons. As the articles says

“The shares are open to all and everybody can take part, whether personally at sea or on land by providing cash, weapons or useful materials … we’ve made piracy a community activity.”

so, you do not need liquidity to be part of the business . . . it would be interesting to see what conversions and weights exist — I read a great novel in Italian last summer by Valerio Evangelisti about story of old pirates at sea, which illustrated the negotiation/struggle within the community to measure ones contribution in kind … Melvin’s Moby Dick had some similar illustration of measuring of labour in the cooperative and hierarchical structure of the whale ship.

In any case, not bad return for a donated rocket propelled granade:

“I am waiting for my share after I contributed a rocket-propelled grenade for the operation,” she said, adding that she got the weapon from her ex-husband in alimony.
“I am really happy and lucky. I have made $75,000 in only 38 days since I joined the ‘company’.”

Atmospheric commons and social justice

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Literature on commons is abounding, and the term is increasingly seen as referring to practices that are alternative to both states and markets. The case of the “atmospheric commons” shows that states and markets are not alternatives to commons, but modalities of its management. Very problematic modalities to be sure, since the result of state and market access to the “atmospheric commons” in the context of capitalist production create hierarchies of power, reproduce social injustice and is leading us all to environmental catastrophe.

This interview with Angelica Navarro on Democracy Now!, the chief climate negotiator for Bolivia at the Copenhagen climate summit, makes the point very clear when she says:

“developed countries have over-consumed atmospheric—common atmospheric space. Twenty percent of the population have actually emitted more than two-thirds of the emissions, and as a result, they have caused more than 90 percent of the increase in temperatures. As a result, developing countries, we are suffering. Bolivia’s glaciers are melting between 40 to 55 percent. We have extended droughts. We have in the lowlands more flooding. And we are losing between four to 17 percent of our GDP in the worst years. That is climate debt.

And what we are asking is repayment. We are not asking for aid. We are not asking—we are not begging for aid. We want developed countries to comply with their obligation and pay their debt. “

Commons are not a substitute for justice. Injustice, and the struggle for justice, also occurs within commons. In the “atmospheric commons”, as in any commons, justice involves taking responsibility, and this is the basics for a relation of trust. Memories of past injustices can be put aside in moving on to a new terrain of commoning only after they have been truly recognized as injustices.
Instead, the idea that the North owes to the South a “climate debt” has been rejected at the COP-15 meeting by Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change. As if he was pleading insanity in a court of law, he defended himself by saying industrial countries did not know that CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution would provoke climate change (but theoretical knowledge of this exists since 1824).

Furthermore, the recently secret draft agreement leaked to The Guardian newspaper known as the “Danish text,” and worked on by a group of individuals known as the “circle of commitment” to include Britain, the United States and Denmark and a handful of countries — shows world leaders next week will be asked to sign an agreement that both in terms of decision making process among “commoners” and in terms of the projected outcome is quite problematic. In terms of process, it hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations. In terms of outcome, is sets unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for rich and poor countries in 2050, meaning that people in the former would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much as those in the latter countries.

Atmospheric commons is a commons, but the relation among the “commoners” — which at this scale and in the given political configuration is mediated by governments — is one in which equity and justice are foregone principles.

This is well captured by  Angelina Navarro

“What the Danish text seems to do is . . . [to] impose new obligations to developing countries. So we are the ones who are supposed now to be mitigating. And I’m asking, what will a developing country, rural men or women—indigenous women in Bolivia doesn’t even have electricity—will mitigate? And for what? So that developed countries can even have still have two, three cars? Or just like four times change their clothes in a year? What are they asking? Do they want all us to finance the problems they are causing? Why should I pay for them? But on top of that, why should we choose between building a school, a bridge or a hospital, and adapt? So that is what we think.

Why should a “commoner” pay for the abuses of another, especially when this other has far more means than the victims of these abuses?
Discourses on commons are often discourses that highlight the important questions of “responsibility”, “stewardship”, “trust” and “community”, but with a little or no preoccupation with the underlying power relations and hierarchies that construct these questions in the real world. I would go as far as to say that without making the questions of power relations and hierarchies as central to the issue of commons constitution in terms of both process and outcome, we risk to make of commons what previous generations have ended up making of democracy: ineffective in terms of outcomes and corrupted by money and power in terms of means.  And the catastrophic indication is already there. To put it again with Angelina Navarro:

“the level of ambition that was what is proposed in the Danish leaked text is definitely not enough. It will not solve the problem. It will not solve the climate change.”

Climate migration: Bangladesh

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

“Climate migration has already begun in Bangladesh. In the first of two films, two families struggle to cope with their new environmental reality - one abandoning the village, the other struggling on against the tides”

Here on The Guardian