Who is Wellness For? Interview with Fariha Róisín

Fariha Róisín is a multidisciplinary artist, born in Ontario, Canada. She was raised in Sydney, Australia, and is based in Los Angeles, California. As a Muslim queer Bangladeshi, she is interested in the margins, liminality, otherness, and the mercurial nature of being. Her work has pioneered a refreshing and renewed conversation about wellness, contemporary Islam, and queer identities and has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Vice, Village Voice, and others. Her first work of non-fiction is titled “Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who it Leaves Behind”. Fariha shared her thoughts and insights on ethical approaches to collective wellbeing in December 2022, answering questions prepared by Marianne Abbott from Soul Collective Berlin and Ola Kohut from JOY Space.

What does “wellness”, experienced as a collective, mean to you?

To me, wellness experienced as a collective means taking care of one another, it means that the most underprivileged or disadvantaged people in society: disabled folks or chronically ill folks, child sexual abuse survivors, survivors or war, Black and Brown and indigenous folks – experience care. Because our livelihood is such that most definitely, in most cases, we have experienced deep ancestral trauma, such as genocide. My parents survived genocide in 1971 in Bangladesh, where 3 million people were murdered, and nobody talks about it. It’s one of the biggest acts of genocidal rape known or documented in history – and these things are passed down. There is a concept of epigenetics, where [trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which can then be passed down to future generations] – that’s why to me it’s really important for us to consider this as a society – what does it mean to take care of one another? The people who don’t have an opportunity to take care of themselves, poor people, people that are immigrants, people that don’t have accessibility, people that have blocks to having a better life than others. I think equity, living within equitable terms – is the best way for us to move forward as a society, and that’s what wellness looks like to me.

What are the 3 things you think every wellness practitioner should do to create more integrity in their practice, to truly contribute to a greater good in their community and of our planet?

I think every wellness practitioner should know the context of what they are teaching, I do stand behind this in the book. Right now, we have so many yogis around the world and so many people that own yoga studios who are not of Indian and South Asian descent. And this is highly dangerous given the fact that in India alone estimated 450 million people live below the poverty line. This is what we are tackling when we talk about context. It is important to know where does the money go, and how does this money help the communities from whom these practices have been extracted from, in the first place. So it’s about the context, and it’s also about redistribution of wealth. I don’t think we talk about this enough, and I don’t think we consider it enough – mutual aid is very important. How do we take care of our communities financially, especially if we have better financial opportunities, or we have financial privilege, then we have a responsibility to give back and to be generous. And I think that having a relationship with the land whether it’s through composting, which is a big one for me, or just tending to the land – having a garden, having access to the land – means that we’ll manage to shift our relationship to this planet. And I think that’s a really important practice that any wellness practitioner should bring into their understanding – how important it is to be in service to land. Many people in wellness seem to be in service to themselves and their ego – but what would it mean to be in service to each other, and this planet?

One of the most surprising things while reading your book was how deeply personal it is. Why was it important to you to share your personal healing journey as you conducted the examination of wellness culture? 

I wouldn’t be healing myself if I wasn’t immensely abused as a child. I think that’s really  important for us to acknowledge as a society. How many of us – whether it’s cancer, whether is IBS, fibromyalgia, whether it’s other chronic illnesses or terminal illnesses, whether it’s being in a disabled body – a lot of us had to experience these things because of what’s in our ancestral patterning, meaning – what happened to us as children, or what kind of trauma that we carry for our ancestors. And again, that comes down to our epigenetics, and goes back to very scientific research that is backed by thousands of years of studies from not only Indian or Muslim culture, but many native cultures, indigenous Native American or indigenous Native Australian cultures – there’s an awareness of the impact of trauma. And obviously we have shifted a lot as a society, but there’s still not a lot of space to talk about pain and grief. And I think this was my chance to share my own story, of why I’m on this deeply difficult and arduous healing journey, and what are the reasons behind that. I am not able-bodied, I haven’t been my entire life because of a very horrific thing that happened to me as a child. And I think all of those things are connected, and the more that we can understand that they are all connected, the more we can get closer to actually healing ourselves, and each other. 

Is there anything you gained a new perspective on since publishing your book?

I feel very strongly that this book needed to be written and I feel immensely privileged. It was a book of many years in the working and in the making, and I’m very grateful that I could write it. I have found that the teaching and the wisdom that is not mine – it’s only wisdom that I’m collecting through a lot of research, moving through a lot of information, reading a lot – it’s imperative for us to talk about what is wellness for is talking about, and to have difficult conversations with one another, and to have accountability between each other – accountability, whether or not we’re talking about yoga, accountability whether or not we’re talking about abuse. All of these things are connected. I’ve heard from a lot of child sexual survivors because I know I’m not alone – and I’m happy and grateful I could write a book that is resonating with these folks. 

Are there any people, organizations or collectives that you’re inspired about and would like to give a shoutout to? 

I love Céline Semaan, the founder of Slow Factory [a nonprofit dedicated to advancing climate justice and social equity]. I feel really grateful to have her friendship and to be involved in Slow Factory in any way that I can be. The thinkers that have shaped me – Robin Wall Kimmerer, Arundhati Roy, Vandana Shiva, Gabor Mate –  these are the voices of the collective. A lot of the people I reference in Who Is Wellness For?, and their work was poured over to bring this book to the world. And I feel a lot of gratitude for the teachings and wisdom of the elders that I look up to.

What gives us hope and joy these days? 

It’s a question that I think a lot of us are trying to remember. What brings us joy? For me personally it’s tending to myself and – funnily enough – being diligent about my routine, being diligent about taking care of myself. Being sick and someone who always needs to, for example, make sure that I’m eating, steps that I have to take in order to just get through my day – all of this is actually really satisfying just to do it, to not resist, to just be in the flow of the day. I’m grateful for my relationship with God and divine, and relationship to my earthly pleasures. I love ceramics, golden milk lattes, cooking for friends, and having a good connection and good communication with people that I love, sharing not only my highs but also my lows, and being heard. I think that those things don’t necessarily bring me joy but bring me satisfaction. 

Thank you so much Fariha! 

Confessions of An Ecovillage Founder: Lessons Learned from the Los Angeles Eco-Village

Artwork: Danielle “Bhavya” Winter, Following the Moon “Blossom”

In a time of cascading crises, many paths can lead us to the exploration of ecovillages. My personal curiosity regarding the lore of the ecovillage started when I began working on decentralized currencies in 2016 and, by proxy, found myself wondering about the praxis of decentralized governance. The rabbit-holes there are many, and run deep. A few of them led me to long-standing contemporary intentional communities – including Tamera, Damanhur, Auroville, and the LA Ecovillage (LAEV). 

The fantasy of exiting society to turn a desert into a verdant food forest alongside a like-minded commune grows more rational every day, but ultimately presents a complex, many-step process. It’s natural to want to run a comparative analysis to feel grounded when stepping toward such a dramatic alternative. This is why I’m so grateful for the wisdom of Lois Arkin, the woman who started the LAEV and the CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages.

Lois, now 85, is an elder who like many of us felt that call, and now has over 40 years of hard-won lessons to share from having persistently followed it. In the text below she reflects on some of her most challenging experiences and offers them as confessions, or reflections on some of the human aspects of coordinating community in our failing age of independence. I asked her permission to share these confessions. You can check out a summary of what LAEV is like, and highlights from my visit here.

(Introduction by Saraswathi Subbaraman)

Entry to the wild “lawn” surrounding the LAEV.

Confessions of an Ecovillage Founder: Lessons Learned from the LA Ecovillage

A case study in structural conflict* in community

By Lois Arkin, CRSP Institute for Urban Ecovillages at Los Angeles Eco-Village. Originally written in 7/25/07 for a workshop. Updated January 2015, and October 2017

Problem: No Long-Term Commitment from Founding Group.

There was no long term commitment from a founding group, but I charged ahead anyway.  Several early volunteers became co-founders and contributed enormously. But ultimately it was quite lonely as they moved on to other interests, though I never would have admitted that in the early years.  I was too busy and engaged to know that I was also lonely.


Although I am the only member of the founding group still in residence, most of our now 40 resident members and visitors provide pro-active leadership of the community in more than a dozen committees, and meet weekly as a plenary to make decisions.  I think most founders share the dream that someday their communities will function independently, that, should they leave or die, it will live happily ever after without them.  Mission accomplished, and it feels great not to be needed.  

Problem: Lack of a Common Definition, Vision, History, LAEV Culture.

There was a disconnect between what I thought was a shared common vision and what others perceived as our vision and purpose, and still others who didn’t really think about such things or thought that having a vision at all was irrelevant.  Contentiousness began to rear its ugly head  between those who felt most of our efforts should be targeted toward social justice, and those who felt that ecological issues were the most important.  I was always on the “No ecology, no planet; no planet, no Justice” part of the argument.  Of course, several were simply satisfied to live in affordable housing where everyone knew your name, you felt safe, and people didn’t think you were weird if you recycled or composted or didn’t own a car.  

And then there was the painful reality of the tensions between founders and those that come after.  I was wearing over a dozen hats in those early years, and, often there was no clear communication about what hat I was wearing, a recipe for repeated disasters, not atypical of people who are driven.  For years, members called me a “control freak,” and I would feel so unloved and unappreciated, until much later I realized that “If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here,” and that it was my gift!  And I developed a sense of humor about it to remind folks how fortunate they were that I was a control freak.

There was no commonly understood definition of an “ecovillage,” other than something “Lois goes off at the mouth about on the tours.”  Our worldwide reputation as an urban ecovillage long preceded our on-the-ground development activities, so I was always hoping that my early community mates would learn that their neighborhood was famous from someone other than me.  Occasionally, that actually happened. A vacationing community member would return and tell me how they met someone in an airport in London that knew all about LAEV!”  It felt good.


With lots of hard work and heartache over the years, our three nonprofit development organizations share the common vision of “reinventing how we live in the city.”  Our members understand that they are part of a world wide ecovillage movement, and many have visited other ecovillages.  Our mission of  “Demonstrating higher quality living patterns at a lower environmental impact” is commonly understood by our members.  Community members quite naturally participate in the on-going development of the Village, knowing that it is dynamic, fluid and always changing depending on who is here and what gifts and challenges each brings to the community.   

Problem: Membership Process Fuzziness.

Initially the membership process was so fuzzy, that all you had to do is say you wanted to live more ecologically and cooperatively, and pass a credit check.  I naively felt that if we just collected enough people who felt that way, we would figure out how to live that way together.  Several years later, my hard earned wisdom informed me that one had to “demonstrate” that commitment to more ecological and cooperative living patterns.  However, what constituted a demonstration was also rather vague, and it was, by that time, up to those who were already here to determine who would be accepted for membership, most of whom had fuzzy criteria for their own admission to the community. 

Conflict and divisiveness took their toll on me, and others in the community, as well.  I knew academically that communities go through stages just like children (and adults too); but was just too busy wearing too many confusing hats for the community to learn from anything academic sounding.  It was more or less eyeball rolling time when Lois brought out books and magazine articles about the very problems we would be struggling with and how other intentional communities resolved them.  It was clear that the LAEV community wanted to reinvent the wheel at every turn.  The fuzziness began to untangle during our second decade with the help of several retreats facilitated by excellent intentional community process consultants, and, of course, substantial budgeting for their services, which I was greatly relieved to authorize.  

There were often tear filled sessions during those retreats.  Often I would escape to my apartment  for my tears which were sometimes coming from joy because folks were growing and resolving so many issues, and sometimes of pain because of the incessant critical feedback I would regularly receive during such sessions.  And later I recall one of our members to whom I was closest to telling me how important it was to show the depth of my emotions to the community.  To this day, I am uncertain about what personal growth issues that would have fostered for the community, most of whom, imo, have an abundance of empathy already. 


In spite of a fairly tight eight person membership and visitor committee plus well written and consensed upon membership application policies and process, we may be edging toward the opposite direction, that is, being overly tight and less flexible in our membership and visitor process), This often happens, as we have been reminded in Diana Leafe Christian’s books on ecovillages and intentional communities:  The entry gate gets tighter and tighter with each bad experience.  I feel confident, though, that we are striking a good balance as long as we can keep giving one another helpful feedback.

Problem: No Member Participation Policy or Requirement. No Structure for New Members.

Early co-founders were all dedicated volunteers, including me.   I made the faulty assumption that future members would be dedicated volunteers as well.  So every aspect of the community moved very slowly, because there was no mandate for participation, no accountability or consequences for those who didn’t participate, and no paid staff.  Whoever showed up, we’d figure out something to do together. Having a clear structure with a manual of written roles, responsibilities and accountability for new members would have been a great help, and, I believe, have allowed much more rapid progress.  And it is this resource of experience of 100s of intentional communities today that are collected on a series of websites, and shared at several conferences and gatherings for intentional communities across the country and the world. 

Definition of an Ecovillage by Robert Gilman.


To get through our membership process generally takes about six months during which time one cannot live in our buildings, so as to avoid the divisiveness that has occurred in the past when the community was split between those who were in favor and those opposed to someone’s membership. Although our participation requirements are still somewhat minimal, we expect much more from our members.  We get to know folks pretty well through their regular participation during this six month “candidate” phase of our process.  But we don’t schedule a decision on their membership until everyone has gotten to know them well enough to agree on their membership.  Essentially, no surprises for the community or the candidate, when their membership comes up for consideration on our weekly agenda.

Los Angeles Ecovillage Core Values

Problem: Pre-Existing Neighbors.  

I clearly did not want to see any involuntary displacement of tenants when we bought each of our three buildings.  Having been unfairly threatened with eviction many years earlier in my prior neighborhood when a new landlord wanted to unfairly raise my rent, CRSP even lowered rents when we acquired our first building.  This first acquisition of ours, a 40 unit building, was half empty and in near slum-like conditions.  I exuded wide-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm for “transforming” our existing building tenants into LAEV intentional community members.  I tried to entice them into gardening, recycling, bike riding, composting, energy and water conservation, our local currency, veggie potluck dinners, and more.  Many had already lived in our buildings for many years and were already good neighbors, and in some cases, friends with one another, so that was a good sign, but I made no requirement that they join the intentional community, and none ever did.  

As new intentional community members began to populate the building, they, too, encouraged the participation of our long term pre-existing renters, but to no avail.  Nonetheless, the long term tenants were a friendly presence in our buildings, and I had enough of what to do with building management, recruitment of new members, training, special events, tours, and increasingly painful contentiousness between me and several intentional community members. 


Most of our long term renters have moved on. In our now 50 units of housing in three buildings surrounding the intersection of our two main streets, six units are still occupied by the long term renters in our two Urban Soil-Tierra Urbana (USTU) Co-op buildings.  Many, of course, have become good neighbors, and some do helpful contract work with our housing co-op* and our land trust* management.  Several of them have even taken to gardening, composting, bringing their cloth bags to the market.  It still warms my heart and fuels my hope when I see them engaged in such activities.  But none have participated in our regular activities: meetings, weekly potlucks, work parties, special events.

Urban Soil-Tierra Urbana (USTU) Co-op building

Problem: During a Decade of Contentiousness, No Requirement for People in Conflict to Resolve It.

Some people moved here without ever going on an LAEV tour.  Some showed no interest in our history or how we got to be and did not show any particular interest in the tours or any of the effort it took to come as far as we had come.  Several came to be residents who were anarchistic in negative ways, who, from my perspective, had issues with me or CRSP, our founding organization, that were of the “bottomless pit” variety, including personality disorders.  

Some people in conflict would avoid passing one another in the halls or avoid going through certain parts of the buildings or land to avoid the possibility of bumping into someone whom they did not like or were in conflict with.  There was endless negative gossip.  There were people that tried to set one person against each other, vicious backstabbing and worse.  People wrote nasty hurtful attacks on the community listserve and on our public activities schedule white board.  

Because I lived in the community, and because I had, from my perspective, transferred decision making authority to the LAEV Intentional Community from the very beginning, and saw myself as just one among many, I did not put a halt to any of this, even though I had the legal authority to do so.  And the conflicts affected the quality of life of many other residents.  As a result, there were many painful years for me as well as others, and some of our most skilled and congenial members simply moved on, rather than live in such an environment. 

Eventually, I learned the difficult lesson: there’s no opting out of responsibility; when the “buck stops here,” you’ve got to deal with it.  Being in denial about being responsible is no excuse.


Six members have been trained and certified in Conflict Resolution and comprise our CRT (Conflict Resolution Team).  Several of us also have been trained in Nonviolent Communications and try to help one another practice it when anyone gets a little hot under the collar.  Folks are expected to resolve their conflicts one on one, but if they can’t, they are responsible to have the CRT help them.  Generally, members do not tolerate negative gossip, but will be quick to re-direct any attempt to the person they’re having a problem with.  Nonetheless, members will lend a helpful ear and advise one another on problem solving with other members.   

Problem: Using Consensus Decision Making and Allowing Untrained People to Be Decision Makers.  

This was probably the biggest mistake that I made over the years.  I was an idealistic romantic about consensus decision making.  I had been on the Fellowship for Intentional Community  board for about a decade by the time LAEV got fully underway, and had observed the finest consensus process going on in the U.S. at the time (most of those board members are professional process trainers today).  So, I was insistent that we use this process, even when several early LAEV members did not like the idea.  “Why can’t we just vote?” I would often hear.  I was immobilized by my ideology, and paid the price for it.  It resulted in as much as a decade of very slow growth while folks learned how to make decisions together, and until enough of them got enough training and sufficiently empowered to lay down effective rules about our meeting process and hold members accountable to them.  But I could have saved myself and a lot of other people a lot of heartache by mandating the trainings earlier as a condition for being part of the decision making group.  


Several of our members hold regular workshops on consensus for both our incoming members and visitors and the general public.  Our Membership Committee holds comprehensive orientation meetings for candidates for membership and potential visitors.  We have rotating facilitation teams at our weekly community meetings.  Today, I find our unanimity rule for consensus annoying.  I believe  we spend far too much time on minutiae that could easily be delegated to the appropriate committee.  Sometimes, it seems that there are so many LAEV committee meetings that that is the main way people relate to one another, yet something seems to be going on all the time.  Sociocracy is the up and coming decision making process spreading throughout our intentional community, cohousing and ecovillage movements, and I expect it won’t be long before we’re using more of it.  I find it frustrating that many members avoid discussing potentially contentious issues outside of a meeting, and yet I think that’s where most of the discussion should take place: informally and without an agenda and without a time constraint!  Ultimately, I believe that the more trust there is, the less bureaucracy, so I’d just like to see us work more on that.  Though, given what we’ve been through, I’m not complaining.

Problem: Lack of Strategic Planning and Needed Diversity of Expertise and Interests.

Many wonderful people moved to LAEV during our first dozen years; however, we (me, my board, LAEV Intentional Community members) never collectively planned for our future nor tried to specifically recruit people with the skills to implement such a plan. Growing up in my parents’ real estate development business, it kind of seeped into my genes to be a planner, and I made lots of plans, but I just had to let go of that part of me, and let blossom what might. Little by little, I realized this was wonderful.  Members were bringing amazing skills, learning, researching, trying different things, so many people doing so many different things and no integrated plan.  Members loved each other, got married, had kids, formed close friendships, had fun together.  Still in all, good things might have happened much more quickly, had there been strategic planning and strategic member recruitment.


And many pieces of LAEV did indeed happen with individual initiatives in no way controlled by me: woo hoo!  By year 25, there is a limited equity housing co-op and a community land trust, a multi-school learning garden, a food co-op, a self-help bicycle repair shop, a toy loan library, a childcare service, an art studio, a sewing studio, a tool shop, permaculture gardens and food forest, greywater systems, a weekly music group, 10 pro-active committees, a variety of workshops and public events, a dozen or so members employed within the community, either self-employed or working with our nonprofit organizations.  Often, I am the last person to know what’s going on.  And I feel great about that!  


Lois Arkin in LAEV


from the book by Diana Leafe Christian – Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, pp 7-8.

1.  Identify your community vision and create vision documents

2.  Choose a fair, participatory decision making process appropriate for your group.  And if you choose consensus, get trained in it.

3.  Make clear agreements in writing. 

4.  Learn good communication and group process skills.  Make clear communication and resolving conflicts a priority.

5.  In choosing cofounders and new members, select for emotional maturity.

6.  Learn the head skills and the heart skills you need to know

Nebula is a publication showcasing people and projects at the edge of reality, put together by koholaa & saraswathi & multi. Together, we are exploring the intricacies of the collective, the cooperative, the anarchist and the utopian, alongside strategies for decentralization. If you like what we do, support us on Gitcoin!

Xyrden: Regenerative Cultures & Rendering Utopia

Saraswathi is an artist, technoculturist, and hobby regenerist. She currently works as a design lead for a distributed basic income protocol, Circles, and supports a group of regenerative learners building the inevitably just and ecological futureXyrden.

Hey Saraswathi, nice to have you. Tell me – what’s your background and research interests? 

I’m half Polish and half Indian, my parents are both immigrants. I grew up in California. As a result I have a multiracial experience and sense of identity that almost undermines placehood. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why I got drawn to cryptocurrency and stateless basic income. 

I studied Technocultural Studies as an undergrad, which is the study of technology and culture, and received a masters at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, which was at a rapid prototyping maker / hacker lab in New York at NYU. 

My training as a technoculturist didn’t center on one particular discipline, so when I entered the professional working world I really wasn’t sure what I’d do. I realized that from having prototyped a bunch I had some experience designing interfaces, and so ended up exploring user experience design. I was 5 years into that when I encountered Ethereum through a mentor of mine.

What drew you to Ethereum and Universal Basic Income? 

This was not long after the Occupy Movement. I think that was the first of the series of crises that really defined our generation and contemporary life. So when I heard about blockchain, I actually cried, because to me it indicated something miraculous. In a situation where we were up against a wall in terms of how we might re-vision a deeply broken system, something previously impossible to imagine appeared. I felt it was extraordinarily creative as a way of addressing the centralization of power. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. 

But I ended up working in the Ethereum ecosystem and found it woefully short on economic alternatives. I remember hanging out with people working in crypto, and I was wearing a Matrix Reloaded hat as an ironic joke – that movie sucked, and I felt that we were finding our way out of “the matrix” with this new technology. But at a certain point I realized that my dumb hat was prophetic. The matrix was in fact being reloaded. Blockchain started to look like a shitty sequel to late capitalism. It was hypercapitalism 2.0, a copy/paste of the previous irredeemable system, and there were little to no humanistic economic alternatives being presented with these new currencies. I had been hugely naive thinking that the decentralization of finance meant a redistribution of power. And that was crushing. Simultaneously Donald Trump has just won in America. It was a rude and raw waking up, in a world that felt less and less safe, and it felt very personal. That put a lot of pressure on me to find something worthwhile to do. 

So I asked around in the cryptocurrency space — “this is really a let down, is this anything going on here that is actually game changing or socially valuable?”

A good friend of mine told me that there was this project called Circles, that a lot of folks had been eyeing it but no one had really picked it up. I began to lead it from my end. It always has been very consciously non-hierarchical. But I took a leadership role and began to explore what this could be like, and slowly a team formed around the project.

What is the idea behind Circles?

Circles is a redesign of money itself. It’s helpful to know the origins of money through the lens of centralization of banking and the federal reserve. Most folks don’t know that the dominant money we all use is created as debt. This contemporary money was forged in deep inequality.The monetary system we currently use was designed before black folks or women could vote. Today’s money, known as fiat currency, was a tool forged in the skewed power structures that we see exacerbated today to the point of massive global uprisings. 

What was interesting for me in the cryptocurrency space was that money became something malleable, a tool that could be recreated, an invention, not something granted, or God-sent – but human-made. It was designed once and was overdue to be designed again. In that sense Circles for me is an experimental artwork or a meme that points to the reality that economics are created, and can be creative. 

That was a long answer. The short answer is that Circles is a decentralized complementary currency that is regularly distributed to all participants equally and universally – similar to UBI. 

What is the innovation introduced by Circles?

First of all, Circles is  a redesign of money to be justly distributed on creation, with no major benefit to early adopters. It is not backed by debt, but by trust within your community.

Circles is also speculation-resistant, it’s a currency that loses value over time, which incentivizes circulation over hoarding. One reference for this approach is known as the Miracle of Worgl. During an economic recession in this small Austrian town they issued a local demurrage, or decaying, currency. It was wildly successful in rebuilding town infrastructure. It was actually the only town in Europe to renovate it’s infrastructure during that period – because people needed jobs, and found support for their local economy when global economics failed. The central bank shut that project down.

Capital and capitalism are not mutually inclusive. When we think about capital as means of exchange, we don’t need to design capitalism. This is why I feel what we approach with Circles is a postcapitalist currency. 

It’s a good moment to repeat that Circles is an artwork, a pragmatic work of art. 

Who is the target audience of Circles? 

Circles is a work of art, with utility. 

We’ve explored some circumstances where alternative currencies could have a unique value proposition.  One of them is alongside an Unconditional Autonomous Allowance, or UAA. It’s an interesting extension of the commons and the meeting of human needs through resources rather than currency. When we deal with basic income, it’s really important to consider that. Without resources, income is useless. And there are contexts where communities are exploring sovereignty by way of the maintenance of a commons. Some strong examples are ecovillages, for example Tamera, Damanhur, or Aurville, but also in Greece where the economy collapsed and they have started solidarity healthcare networks to support each other.

These places are regenerative contexts, growing their own food on their own land with ecological practices and building care economies. Basic income is interesting to me in these contexts, where Circles can be commonly owned and commonly run. The intention of Circles is that it be a community-developed initiative. It ideally can meet the specific needs of communities rather than becoming a hegemonic currency for the whole world. 

It is decentralized, it is open source and we don’t actually ultimately have control over who uses it and where the experiment leads. 

When we talk about where it could work, it’s totally speculative. It can work in an urban context, or in a global context as well. It’s really open-ended, but I am curious about how it can support smaller community contexts and municipalities. 

Who is in the team behind Circles? 

At the moment Circles is a team of 5 people from 5 countries that came together to co-create this experiment. It’s also a really nice reference point when we think about the origin of capital as we know it versus what’s possible when we begin to revise how certain parts of the world function. 

The current Circles team is also more than 50% female. And that is relatively unheard of in tech and specifically cryptocurrency. Our team members have backgrounds in art, decentralization, economic anthropology, community organizing, music, politics and activism. 

Where are you at with the project? 

We are in beta, Circles launched with around 100 people in February using a basic Burner wallet in a browser.

Can you share some experiences and lessons learned from working together in this decentralized context? 

I’ve worked on Circles for 3 years. In that time we went through about 3 or 4 different versions of the team setup, and I have a lot of hard won lessons from that. Circles is open source and is a super idealistic and values-driven project that has drawn a lot of really smart and optimistic people. One lesson for me about starting an organization and really getting it off the ground, was about working in a collaborative context with volunteers. The lesson is that eventually volunteers need to get paid, otherwise they naturally will go get other jobs. We had to figure out a way to make sure that people can sustain this work. 

Another lesson is that it’s also very appealing to work with volunteers because they are authentically enthusiastic, but when you are trying to accomplish something specific it’s important that these people can do what needs to be done – which often requires experience and even expertise. Make sure that if you’re trying to accomplish something you have not the team that appears, but the team that you know can get it done. 

In one iteration of Circles the team was completely flat and voted on everything. It was completely democratic in structure and that failed – and it failed hard. Folks were voting on things they’d never heard of in their life, for example whether we should get an AGPL license – for someone who never worked in tech and has other full time work, this is so far out of your lane, but that’s how we were structured. The struggle to handle information asymmetry, even in a small group, is real. When you are working towards a specific and time sensitive goal, teaching the whole team how coding cryptocurrency works is too tall of an order.

I would not do it specifically that way ever again, thought that’s not to say that we won’t continue to explore more thoughtfully implemented democratic or cooperative structures. Straight-up flatness stifled our ability to execute and deliver on promises we made to many people, including ourselves. When coordinating as syndicalists to an end, there are innate hierarchies that need to be honoured in order for things to function. Those are hierarchies of expertise and experience, and they do not have to equate to power over others. 

If you are thinking of embarking on a project like that I’m always happy to talk about it. I’m always happy to talk about it. 

How’s the collaboration at Circles looking now, after all these trials and tribulations?

Now we trust that people are taking decisions in their area of their expertise, and that they know what they are doing. There’s no formal process. There’s a natural accountability rather than a formalized system of accountability. I believe that in small groups – 5 people or less – that can be highly effective. Scaling is a different story.

What’s next for Circles? And how can people get involved? 

Circles launches in October 2020. One way to get involved is to go to circles.garden and get a basic income. The second way is starting a community and using Circles as means of exchange. 

If you’re a developer, Circles is open source, and you are welcome to support it. If you’re involved in policy and want to learn more, you can contact us and explore that possibility. 

This project isn’t owned by anyone, so consider it yours 🙂 

Nice 🙂 And what’s next for Saraswathi? Can you tell me about your path forward beyond involvement in Circles?

After spending a decade as a creative technologist working in the more abstract and immaterial realms of economics and cryptocurrency, I am eager to engage in the more material aspects of living, like.. soil, and ecology. 

Probably for most of us there’s a really deep desire to be of service to this world, and since the origin of cryptocurrency in the financial collapse of 2008 we’ve been handed a veritable bouquet of crises to attend to! What was amazing for me about getting into cryptocurrency wasn’t only blockchain itself – but all of what’s adjacent to it. It was especially interesting to go to ecovillages to explore decentralized governance and community currencies, and I came out of it with more questions about regenerative cultures, about living ecologically. To me these places were like petri dishes offering glimpses at an alternative society, and some of these experiments were quite mature.

I realized that what we are really doing right now it’s just the tip of an iceberg. The rest of that iceberg is made of frameworks for what the world could look like were it reorganized to be just, ecological, and regenerative – there’s Rojava, there’s social ecology, there’s decentralized governance in community contexts, there’s the creation of technology within ecological limits, their circular systems, the list of what to learn has only grown. 

What are the key topics that you have been exploring? And how did it lead you to creating your community, xyrden?

The topics that I was getting into before,when I started exploring blockchains, were game theory, mechanism design, decentralized governance, prediction markets, and artwork that explored decentralization. But what was really frustrating about it it’s that it was predominantly neoliberal politics that was being recycled or re-tooled. Luckily for me I found a handful of people who found that untenable and were dreaming of building another world, who were finding each other in the ugly haze of the matrix reloaded and knew they really wanted to start exploring alternatives. 

We would meet once every two weeks to vent, and it felt to me we were all trying to build the same world. It was incredible – we came from different projects, yet were aligned in the world we were working toward. I started to call that world xyrden

How come xyrden

Xyrden came to me out of the blue but it was also stitched together from the things that resonated with me – one of them was a set of imaginary genders that seemed to me like a futuristic unoccupied space of identity. A gender beyond gender. Xyr also brings to mind cosmicomics, which is a book by Italo Calvino about the primordial world, where he personifies atoms as they drift through space, encountering each other sporadically and enthusiastically over eons. And they have names, like Qfwfq, that to me feel both ancient and futuristic, and somehow timeless in their absurdity. 

So there’s xyr and there’s den. 

And den is the natural space, a space of recreation, as well as a reference to Eden, or the world prior to separation, where we were in presence with our connectedness to all being. Where we understood our actions beyond action, from a space of play and innocence, and where we could be free.

That’s not to overload xyrden spiritually, cause it’s also a very practical and material discovery of our inevitably just and ecological world. 

The intention in placing xyr by eden, is to queer eden. It’s telling that one of the most widely known origin stories of our time, if not the most, is patriarchal and heteronormative despite being a tale of oneness. Queering it is a small antidotal step toward I feel is truer.

Did it start as a meme sharing group? 

No, though it is also a meme collective on Instagram. 

Why are memes such an important medium of connection and expression these days? 

Memes are bite sized propaganda on one level, as well as a way to take really complex concepts and reduce them to something digestible and replicable. Memes are also delightful, which is really cool. Reading Deleuze or Adorno or Foucault can be really taxing, plus it’s kind of classist. Academic language can limit people’s ability to access certain concepts, and academia barricades complex thought behind institutional doors. So memes are radical because they can disseminate important and often incessible information. But then you can also shitpost, which is legit. It’s a free medium. 

What’s your vision for xyrden? 

I have a lot of visions for xyrden, it’s a free-flowing and shapeshifting vision itself. One thing I felt resonant with is that it’s a multi-being being rendering the future’s now. Something like a future artificial intelligence. Like travelling to the past in order to ensure the future. 

It reminds me of how Elon Musk and Grimes met. They bonded over “Rococco Baslik” a pun about an AI that sends itself into the past to destroy anyone who didn’t help in its making. I sometimes think of xyrden along the same lines, in a non-sinister way. What do you do to promote a now that creates the inevitable future that is ecological and just?

I’ve also thought about it as a school or social network. Something mycelial that’s a learning experience for the next world, because this world is collapsing, and all of us have a lot of unlearning and learning to do. We are co-creators, finding what feels good. Feeling what we want our future to be and creating spaces for it in ourselves and in communities is exciting and needed, and we must enjoy the world we want.

What are the online places where you exist, where do people connect to xyrden? 

In my off-hours I’m working on a social network. There’s the meme account on Instagram and there’s a group chat on Telegram. Xyrden is also on Relevant. We hold reading groups on the inevitably just and ecological future. Those reading groups have been about degrowth, social ecology, emergent strategy, transformative justice, prison police abolition, and grief. There’s some other ones too. You can see the index at radne.ws

What are the topics that are the most important to the group?

We are in the moment where we’ve walked off the cliff of our imagination as a society and there are certain concepts that are so new to many, and so radically suggestive of meaningful societal alternatives. For example degrowth. Many people have never had words to even begin to articulate how we might live in a post-growth world. So we’re living in unarticulated sci-fi right now, we are living in an extraordinarily dystopian moment. And I think it’s really important to speak the language of the possible worlds that we can usher in. The more people who have the words, the more of these realities can come alive. The more deeply we can articulate even a moderately utopian premise, the closer that universe gets. 

What are the practical and tangible activities bringing us close to that utopia that you pursue? 

I don’t think we are there yet. 

We practice for xyrden though – anytime we experiment organizationally, anytime we experiment with postcolonial postcapitalist strategy in action, its practice, anytime we try, anytime we fail. Anytime we exercise transformative justice in lieu of punishment. Anytime we perform care and mutual aid, and relate to the world as a network of care, anytime we can act in it like an interdependent community with needs that are valid and valued beyond the transactional – everytime we share, everytime we “common”, or engage in commoning together… All of that is practicing for xyrden. All of that is surfacing the world that’s no longer dying, calling in the lush and thriving heartspace we will reveal together. 

Would you say this is about recovering something that has been lost in modernity, or in the globalized context. Is this about going back in time, or going back to a village? 

Often in a paved parking lot you’ll find cracks in the asphalt, and in the cracks you’ll see dandelions. Life always finds a way to break through. At some point in time when the parking lot erodes and is no longer there – will it mean that we have gone backwards? No – life is still there. I think the communal aspect of humanity, for example, is similar to what we find in the dandelion. It’s as fundamental as life – not primitivist. The fact that something is reoccurring doesn’t necessarily make it primitive, it makes it fundamental. It makes it as persistent and humble as a dandelion. New dandelions sprout everyday. They are also an edible wild food with lots of healing properties, by the way..

If we stopped using fossil fuels, or even solar power, I still wouldn’t consider it primitivist. We could do it in a very modern way, we can do high tech post-energy. I’d love to see it. 

What’s the reading list of xyrden? 

Murray Bookchin, Brown, Angela Davis, Abdullah Ocalan, Jason Hickel, Donna Haraway, Margaret McFall-Ngai. 

Tell us more about your perspective on the commons and commoning. 

The idea of the commons is pre-capitalist. We are all born on this Earth and without the concept of private property, we would hold this land in common. No single person beyond the concept of capital would have the rights to ownership of this world we’ve been gifted. The commons is a recognition of our birth right, which is the sharing of this world together. What we see through history is enclosure which is the privatization of the commons, which includes water, earth, air and selling of what we share in exchange for profit. 

One might argue that privatization is a form of maintenance of the commons but at this point that person would have to recognize that it’s a travesty. Privatization is a huge failure. 

Privatization has not maintained the commons. We have decimated things to the point of extinction. Acknowledgment and recognition of that which we share and redistributing responsibility for maintenance, ideally at a fairly localized level, is pretty fundamental to the ideals of social ecology, circular economics or degrowth. It’s essentially a new level of awareness that’s very needful as we watch the world burn.

Do these places of commoning exist in the pockets of capitalism?

You can do some stuff outside of the monolith of capitalism. The commons is a way to meet certain needs outside of capital, through communal participation, through systems of relationships within a community. By commoning you could greatly reduce the reliance on contemporary capital to meet your fundamental needs. 

This is also what the members of xyrden are doing? 

Most folks are experimenting with commoning. And that includes foraging. The recognition that wilderness is an abundant space where you can find food, legitimately. Even in public spaces there’s free “resources” that we can harvest and maintain if we have to. You can common in an urban environment, you can common in a rural environment, and you can common anywhere in between.

Commoning doesn’t necessarily mean dramatic exit from society – it depends at what level you want to do it. Ecovillages are examples of community maintenance. The LA ecovillage for example is a self-governing community in Korea Town on a land trust, which means they can’t speculate on the real estate that they share. They all take responsibility for something that they can’t sell away for profit. 

It’s important to note that commoning does not entail a dramatic exit of society, because many people see it in this way.. 

You can start commoning right now. You could start a lending library in your neighbourhood. You can start a guerilla garden on your street or other projects aimed at maintaining a common good. 

And does it mean it doesn’t need rules or regulations, it’s based on trust? 

Typically when you are really dependent on the commons there’s a web of social relationships and accountabilities you are enmeshed in. There’s less to be gained from selfishness than to be gained from participating in the production of the common good. In a way this is what people mean when they speak to “care economies” – supporting the common good is an act of self and community care.

Do you see any different approach to “commoning” between LA and Berlin? 

The short answer is no. It’s context dependent, and has nothing to do with statehood. However it does have everything to do with the context of common good you are maintaining, what it is, the needs of the participants, and what is shared. 

Who keeps track of these commoning activities?
That’s what I want xyrden to be. A network of those activities. I think it’s a really incredible moment for the parallel society that people are already participating in to grow in activity. To share resources and knowledge. We all need this next world. We need to be closer to the land, to community, to each other. You don’t necessarily need to go somewhere to make it happen, you just need to discover what you already have and tend to it like you would to a garden. 

So you are hopeful about the future? 

It depends on the day. If it’s just me in a peaceful place, I’m often in love with, moved and grateful for life. When I’m reading the news – I’m often not. However things like Black Lives Matter, the reality that the cracks in the system are so wide you can’t miss them – I feel that beyond that chaos there’s a new system. Now is a really important moment to imagine and engage the future we want. We are looking at the rubble of someone’s failed utopia. Everything is someone’s failed utopia – Capitalism is someone’s failed utopia. It looks decimated, and like a trash fire. I would say those who are xyrdening are likely anti-capitalist, antiracist, ready to abolish the police and prisons. Because all  of that is an abhorrently violent death cult that devalues life. However being anti-racist and anti-capitalist doesn’t inherently propose what’s next. And abolishing prison for many folks drops them into a crisis of imagination. Xyrden is an exploration of what our future actually contains. We can seed ourselves with the knowledge heartful people have been gathering about what exists beyond this composting death cult.

We need to reach across and provide a vision. There has to be a vision. And the vision doesn’t have to be perfect – there’s no utopia ultimately. Any world will have it’s shadow but that doesn’t mean we stop. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth reaching for high noon, the least shadow, holding that world, really holding it – inside of us and outside of us, as valid and as a given. 

We render dystopia constantly. We’re on it with the dystopian narratives. There’s so few accessible renderings of utopian vision in this society. There’s Star Trek… tell me where there are postcapitalist futures rendered in pop culture. They are paltry.

I often think about Schrödinger’s cat when I think about folks sitting with all of these dark narratives and our potential futures. To me the proliferation of dystopian fiction reveals a deeply destructive poverty of imagination. Maybe folks do it cause it sells – however that is not adequate justification in a dying world. We have to redirect our imagination and attention if we are to discover what’s next in ourselves.

I hear people like Black Mirror – but to me it’s an epic case of seeing Schrödinger’s cat dead. And I’m interested in keeping Schrödinger’s cat alive. What are the stories where the cat thrives,  and is fully in love with living. Where the cat is living in heaven – not because it died, but because it lives! You feel me. 

Epic. Is there anything you want to ask of the readers here?

I’d ask everyone to be dedicated – not the cult of positivity – but to the crafting of beautiful and detailed utopias for humanity to explore. Our future selves are thanking you. 

Activation Residency: Dreaming Care into Being

Kamra Hakim is a Munsee Lenape territory-based artist, and creator of spaces for underrepresented and marginalized communities through Activation Residency and Activation Cooperative Fund.

Founded in 2018, Activation Residency is a Black & trans-led, immersive healing justice residency. The residency aims to generate safe and collaborative spaces, adapting to its residents’ needs, and creating portals to futures needed now. Activation Cooperative Fund is an experimental, reparations-based funding and investment program, accumulating funds through member contributions, and redistributing them using a cooperative decision-making process. 

We talk to Kamra about their path to the cooperative space, collective approaches around running an artist residency, collective healing and conflict resolution, and dreaming the future of Activation Residency in tandem with their new land design project, Farming Futurity

Hi Kamra! Tell us about your personal background and interests, and how they influenced your work.

I was born to two Black Muslims in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I lived until I was 8 years old. We relocated to Arizona which is where I spent most of my life. My early years revolved around spending lots of time outdoors, riding my bike, having fun, doing my own thing, being like a little boy basically. And then throughout the years my mom had 5 other kids! So I spent so much of my life being a big sibling and taking care of little ones. 

In high school, I had access to more activities. I was very active and tapped into a sense of leadership very early on in my life. I did everything – I was on a dance team, basketball team, I was the president of the student council… After high school, I felt like college was my only option, continuing my education and finding a solid footing as a human being outside of my parents house. I completed undergrad at Arizona School University with a BA in Global Studies. Thanks to my degree, I visited over 15 countries, which helped me develop cultural adaptability and a sense of care for people that aren’t in my immediate periphery.

I also accrued a lot of student loan debt in that time… Every semester I got a loan, I didn’t have any skills around financial planning, and there was not much critical thinking about it. After I graduated, I decided to go to China and teach English. I was feeling adventurous and wanted to do the hard thing. It was one of the most challenging years of my life. Navigating the reality of spending every day with 11 year olds who don’t speak my language and who have never seen a Black person before… I couldn’t really connect with them. 

While I was in China, I was awarded with a foreign affairs fellowship which seeks to streamline minority folks into foreign service. The fellowship included an internship at the State Department, as well as a full scholarship to any masters program of one’s choice. The requirement was to serve for the State Department for 5 years after you graduate. I was accepted to NYU and pursued a master’s in Global Affairs. Halfway through the program I received a call from the State Department saying: “We reviewed your record and found out that you did mushrooms as an undergrad, and you also have a terrible financial track record – so we’re going to revoke your status as a diplomat.”

They took my NYU scholarship and I ended up graduating with $160,000.00 dollars in debt and no job.

Oh my God..

It’s like everything you ever worked for being given to you and then snatched from your fingertips. 

I didn’t have any mental health support at that time, my family was very far away and I wasn’t doing great. I spent the next 2 years just being in limbo and trying to survive, working at bars and doing little side hustles, and really struggling. Until I started visiting different music spaces and arts festivals. I started to see this beautiful coming together of folks that was rooted in community, and building relationships, and care being currency. It really sparked joy in me. These people didn’t come from the same backgrounds but were connecting through their natural talents and capacities in the arts. 

I became friends with a group of musicians, some of the most lovely, caring and community-centered people I have ever met in my life. A year after spending time with them I decided to create my own space for my people and designed by me. 

Soon after, I was asked by a producer at a festival I was working at to “activate the space”. I didn’t know what exactly it meant, but I figured it was about bringing the space to life. So we made handmade vegan treats, we started actively checking in with people… It was a beautiful experience and people felt cared for. From that moment I wanted to run a creative space that makes people feel cared for, and feel like their experience matters. That’s how, in the fall 2018, Activation Residency was born. 

A lot of folks – including us – are trying to re-make the world and there’s so many challenges in that. It’s a bumpy ride but the collective instincts are growing. So gathering these stories and making space for reflection seems like something we should be offering to support these systems of care, as they break and build…

I love that. That’s always been my thing. I’ve been failed by every neoliberal institution I’ve ever been a part of. It’s not like I can count on infrastructure anyways. So Activation it’s not some cute little side project I’m doing – it’s essential for survival. 

That makes sense. Could you tell us about Activation Residency and Activation Coop Fund?

Activation Residency is the programming and the healing justice perspective. Activation Coop Fund is a cooperative. 

When I started I wasn’t aware what co-ops were and why they were important. I joined a cooperative fund in New York run by an artist Emma Hedditch – and it was a really simple process: pay your dues (24 USD per year) and you have access. At that time Activation had no budget, no funding and I had debt from Activation in 2019. I applied for relief funds through that coop fund and ended up getting 1,300 dollars. 

When COVID hit back in March, I decided to build up a co-op fund myself. I did it step by step. The beginning stages included building out the bylaws, the handbook, and a process. I worked on that every day for a month, it was a huge undertaking. Once I had the infrastructure set up and after George Floyd’s murder, Activation Coop Fund really took off. Folks were looking for opportunities to be engaged in something that was low maintenance but high impact. 

Now Activation Cooperative Fund has 90 members, USD 5400 and funded 3 projects already. It’s a beautiful, well built out, scrappy community-based fund that’s easy to use. The membership model goes from 5 dollars per month to 40 dollars per month. Anyone can apply for funds. Folks have applied for funds for e.g. replacing a broken laptop or starter funds for new art project online. 

As a queer person I think it’s very important to have practices that speak to the kind of world I want to live in. I love giving money away and I think it’s very queer. So I started a project in which every Zodiac season I take 25% of all ACF monthly membership contributed funds and give it away to a random Black or Indigenous queer community member on Instagram. It feels great to keep that money flowing. 

That’s beautiful! How’s your team organized, do you make the financial decisions? 

I do all of the admin by myself, I’m the financial administrator, I’m doing the spreadsheets and transfers etc. But there is also four other board members. I try to make their job as easy as possible. In the future, when Activation Cooperative Fund reaches a higher number of members, it will be essential for other board members to step up and take more decisions.

So the fund is a group of people who apply for cooperative membership to have voter access to a pool of donated funds? 


We’re really curious about how do reparations tie into this? The concept and need for reparations feels very integral to the Activation Fund, it seems like a call for reparations on a mutual aid level. Is this a conversation that’s happening? 

We  talk about reparations all the time. It’s just essential. I’m alive today and can feed myself and pay my rent because of reparations. I don’t plan on working for another neoliberal institution for the rest of my life, so reparations are pretty much essential to keeping me alive. Not being able to afford to live is survival scarcity and nobody should have to live like that. 

It’s not a conversation about how or why or what – I have set up a whole system to make reparations possible, for people who are giving reparations and those who are receiving them. We have had enough roundtables and enough discussions – let’s put this entire thing into practice. In Activation Residency invitations we literally say that reparations are due. 

I’m curious about the process of how decisions are made in the Cooperative Fund. 

ACF use Loomio – I love it soo much! Our co-op fund fiscal sponsor put us onto it. This is where all of our discussions and decisions are taking place. If somebody has a new idea or if they are requesting funds, they do so via Loomio. It’s a very simple process. They describe what the need is, what the ask is, describe the timeline for that. Describe the amount needed. If 25% or 30% of the members vote yes – it’s a yes.  

We were also curious about conflict resolution. Cooperatives have been super influential in your discovery on how to organize. What are the ways of managing and resolving conflict within a cooperative setting?

That’s a great question, I’m really glad you asked. Conflict resolution is something I’ve been focused on in my personal life. I’ve been actively working on this topic with other people of color I’m not really doing it with white people right now. Before I can do conflict resolution with white people, white people need to do their own conflict resolution with themselves. I’m also working on restoring the relationships between people of color and encouraging them to have dialogue between each other. There is so many conversations that need to happen between people of color, around colorism and how harmful it is. 

Last year we had a trauma informed therapist Meenadchi come to Activation, who wrote a book called Decolonising Non-Violent Communivation. As a Black person, facilitator and community member it was the first time that I had come in contact with conflict resolution that didn’t feel punitive and wasn’t centered in whiteness. This version of conflict resolution is really focused on the body and the nervous system. To me that feels more accessible than trying to use tactics around communication that don’t take the body into account. 

My strategy for conflict resolution has been getting really clear what my access needs are, my boundaries and my expectations for entering the space, and requiring that from other community members, so we can meet each at the table already having already addressed the things that we need to prevent conflict coming up. And then, when it comes up, we feel equipped to deal, because we already had these preliminary discussions. 

Another thing that happens at each Activation are “access check-ins”. Before the Residency program kicks off, we gather in a circle and check in about access, what our needs are, how we like to be communicated with, and what we are going through. That way we already have a deeper sense of the landscape of where each person is at, and we can better approach them in a way that is going to facilitate nourishing interactions, rather than interactions that are tense and destabilizing. 

What is an access check in? 

It can look like anything. At Activation it looks like folks gathering in a circle and one by one announcing who they are and communicating what they need. So for example, if I was participating I’d say: “Hey, I’m Kamra. I use they/them pronouns. I typically feel best when I experience space in xyz ways, I appreciate direct communication. Right now I’m struggling with xyz and might need support in abc ways”. 

Very cool. We wanted to ask you about the collective agreements and how they were established and derived. We were very inspired by the entire list!

Thank you! AR has invitations, not agreements. Agreements require consensus and we cannot assume everyone will be in consensus at every moment. Until last year they were not  written out and we got called in by one of our artists who said – you need to write them down, to keep each other accountable. For me, it was very important to have invitations that are fluid and also talk about how we move through our day to day experience, not limited to the space. 

We were inspired by some of the local groups in NYC that we follow like BUFU and Yellow Jackets, as well as movers and shakers that we look up to, like Carolyn Lazard  who put together this beautiful resource guide on how to make community spaces more accessible. 

So there is  definitely a lot of adaptation and sourcing from groups that Activation admires, but we also centered around the things we need in a framework in which we feel safe.

Your website talks about redistributing creative access from elitist structures to marginalized artists and communities. Can you talk about some results and outcomes of this mission? 

That piece comes from the fact that prior to Activation I was exposed to artists and musicians who were famous and had a lot of access. Through building our relationships I decided to redistribute some of this access to artists who were more marginalized. I did that by using my friends’ privilege and asking them questions, and asking them to step up and help me make this experience a reality. I asked them whether they knew any spaces in upstate New York. They put me in touch with Outlier Inn, a beautiful 12 acre property in Woodridge, NY. Most of the artists I advocate for and work with never had an opportunity to do an artist residency, let alone at one at a luxury space. It was very cool to have artists on the periphery come to the residency and meet some other artists who have toured the world, played on the same stages as some of the bands all of us know, and put these two worlds together. 

Does Activation have a physical location? 

Activation in 2018 and 2019 were both in person IRL residency experiences. The first year there were 20 artists, and in the second year there were 60, which was a huge jump and a huge learning curve – a lot of mistakes were made. This year launched Activation Cooperative Fund, Activation Residency Respite as Resistance, and Activation Residency Farming Futurity were launched. Activation Coop Fund is accessible to anyone and anywhere in the world can be a part of it, online. Activation Respite as Resistance  is a program that I designed right after George Floyd’s murder, because I was seeing the absence of care from the movement work. And I can bear witness to the fact that I truly and firmly believe that care is the revolution, and in order to see a new world we have to build it. To me, it looks a lot like turning away from society as we know it and turning to my community and figuring out what our needs are – and actualizing that. Respite as Resistance is going to be an in person experience for frontliners who are fighting the good fight from home, or in the streets, for those folks in our community who are filling community fridges, going to protest, doing jail support, raising money for bail, and haven’t had a break. I think my work in the revolution is showing people that as much as we should be fighting against those in power, we also should be tending to ourselves. 

We were really curious about Farming Futurity, and what that means?

Activation Residency Farming Futurity is Activation Residency’s attempt at active liberation and emergence. Futurity Artist believes a new world is not only possible, but already here. Farming Futurity is a plot of land in the South Catskills of Upstate, New York made up of an artist residency, experimental healing space, and permaculture farm hosting short term residencies for community members eager to explore transformative justice healing arts as a liberatory tool. 

While the Outlier Inn is beautiful, it’s owned by a white person who has been paid over 30,000 USD since Activation has started, and this is money that could have gone to Black and brown people. So I’m really inspired to reclaim the means of production in every way possible, that’s why a permaculture farm is very important to me. I really hate going to the grocery store, I just want to wake up every day and pick vegetables from the garden. 

We’re really curious about the terms “futurity” in particular, and what that term means? 

I’ve been using “futurity” as a portal to call in what is not yet here. I call myself a @futurityartist, that’s my handle on Instagram. I see my human experience and my body as a portal to the future. And that reminds me every day to take the necessary steps to get to my active liberation. 

There’s something really magical about dreaming the future in the face of enormous oppression. And we’re curious whether you have any stories about that? What materialized from this dreaming practice? And what is your practice – if you have one? 

During Activation Year 1 I was standing in the field… and it’s such a beautiful place, it changes throughout the day. In the morning it’s very dewy and quiet and in the afternoon it becomes a little more sunny and vibrant, and at night the streamlights come on, the Dome lights up in very pretty colours. 

I was standing in the middle of the field. There was a sense that something exciting was going to happen. There’s a pond off to my left and the Dome is off to my right. To my right periphery there was fire with artists hanging around it. I remember taking a step back and taking this whole vision in and realizing that – six months ago this whole moment was in my head and now I’m in it. It was a whole meta experience of having a visualisation and then having an inverse of that visualisation and being in that visualisation. It was a whole experience. This was me going through a process of dreaming.

I think it sometimes feels a lot less accessible than it is. I talk about it a lot with friends who dream and we always remind each other to write things down, write down exactly what we want to happen. 

Another powerful story about dreaming things into being happened when I first decided to do Farming Futurity I wrote up a whole narrative around it. And in that narrative I said something along the lines of going to get an old pickup truck and drive up and down and around the country until I found land and the land says “you’re home”. An artist in Detroit reached out to me and said that he had to get rid of his beloved ‘89 Toyota pickup truck and if I wanted it. So I drove to Detroit and got this truck. And now I have a truck because I did a narrative visualisation about needing a truck to make this vision happen. 

So it’s just about speaking things into existence. It’s being really raw and real with the Universe about what your needs are and not being afraid of your capacity to let that abundance flow. I also developed a really strong abundance practice – I started doing Deepak Chopra’s 21 Days Abundance Meditation. And one of the rituals in that meditation was to write on the back of all receipts: “All invested is good and multiplies seven times”. So I have thousands of receipts that say that and I really felt the abundance of that specific meditation flow into my life, both through my work for Activation but also in my personal finances. For me it’s been about getting really specific about what my needs are, and applying practices around getting those needs met. 

What does community empowerment and community healing mean to you? 

At Activation healing happens in a programmatic fashion. For example, last year there was a a breath workshop, and I was really surprised by people’s response. It was very wild to see people have those open experiences around breathing. We also had somatic workshops and invited the Nap Ministry to do a napping workshop. 

The thing about healing is that it’s not linear and it doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone. This modality is about co-creating healing experiences without replicating to healer-client binary. Every person is the master of their body and their experience and knows what kind of healing they need.Care cannot be prescribed.  People need to decide what kind of care they want to receive. 

Do you feel ties to other movements and spaces happening around the world? What other activist spaces are inspiring you within and beyond America? 

People have always had to remake the world under extraordinary circumstances and the local has always informed the global. I personally interacted with another BIPOC-focused co-op in London. We were in conversations about a book called Collective Courage which takes you through the history and lineages of coop funds, particularly started and operated for and by Black people. 

More recently in New York, I feel like mobilisation around mutual aid is very rapid. While I haven’t been in direct communications with local communities doing jail support, I took part in online discussions around accountability processes happening in those communities. Around New York organizing in general there’s been a lot of online discussions taking place, which feels very nice and accessible, especially now that connecting in person in large groups in public spaces just doesn’t feel safe. In terms of the devastation of Beirut it was very beautiful to see folks mobilize to send relief. That was also an inspiration to us to move some of our money to relief as well. 

It’s been nice to be plugged in online and be able to access information around how to support abroad and also how to receive support. AR has  gotten contributions and investments from folks in London, Dubai, all over… It makes me feel that borders are not real and folks will always make a way out of no way. 

You said that care is currency. Can you give us a sense of what you mean by that? 

Care is a currency because currency is a tool that allows us to get our needs met. And I see care as a currency because there’s been moments where I didn’t have money to feed myself and a friend would invite me over for dinner. Care can be the vehicle to get people where they need to be. That’s what I mean. 

Do you feel that there’s a broader politics possible in America right now that is functional? Is there a political vision in your work, is there’s futurity for America more broadly? 

Functional for who? Right now, even though the country is collapsing in so many ways, there’s still people that it’s functioning for. If you’re asking me if I think there’s a futurity in America being able to function for someone like me, a Black trans person who comes from a Muslim family, who also has experienced extreme poverty and violence – on a community level, yes, on a political level – not so sure. I really do think that the political system in America will become obsolete.

That’s a hard question though.. I don’t necessarily want to be in community with Kamala Harris. It’s really hard to want to make a way with folks who literally profit off the debt of people like me. I don’t necessarily have any skin in the game in terms of caring for the American Project. I have seen people over and over again create new worlds that exist outside of needing to have any interaction with the state, and if the state is not going to abolish prisons, then I have no interest in being a part of that. 

What are the things that have come out of your collective, what other dreams have come into fruition? 

In the periphery of Brooklyn organizing that I’m aware of, I see a lot of people doing things in the same space. I think that Activation Residency inspires the sense of possibility in other people who see the work. It’s like a ripple effect. It’s really beautiful to see folks requesting care and getting their needs met, and the state doesn’t have anything to do with it. 

How can people best get involved in Activation’s work, both locally and remotely? And how can they invest? 

AR provides services and content people need and care about. Folks can get involved by engaging products and thus, their own transformation. Invest via Venmo @Activation, Cash App $ActivationResidency, PayPal info@activationresidency.com, or NYFA fiscal sponsorship. 

Thank you for this inspiring interview!

Universal Basic Income and How To Make it Happen (in Germany)

Spurred by the coronavirus crisis and the resulting prospects of an intense economic fallout, the case for Universal Basic Income is back on the agenda of activists and researchers around the world. In Germany, a state-wide UBI pilot plan is coming close to reality thanks to the work of Joy Ponader and their team. Johannes “Joy” Ponader has been working on Universal Basic Income initiatives for more than 10 years. In 2019 they co-founded Expedition Grundeinkommen, a project which aims to introduce a comprehensive, scientifically evaluated, long-term basic income pilot in Germany. In this interview, we discussed both theoretical and practical aspects of UBI, as well as the plans for its roll out.

Hi Joy! Tell us about the purpose and origins of Expedition Grundeinkommen?

The purpose of our organisation is to advance Universal Basic Income (UBI) in Germany. We’re focused on promoting the idea and, more specifically, bringing it to the political space. Over the past 10 years we’ve hosted a lot of events in Germany creating an environment for discussions and debates on this issue. Our mission is to make UBI graspable and decision-ready as a political topic.

How did you get involved in Universal Basic Income?

The topic of basic income has been an ongoing thread in my professional life, I’ve been engaged with it for the past 14 years. In 2004, I co-founded Netzwerk Grundeinkommen, an association of people and organizations that advocate for basic income with its four precisely defined criteria. I also organized several conferences focused on UBI. I was part of the Occupy Berlin movement and part of the Pirate Party in Berlin. All these experiences led me to finally co-founding of Expedition Grundeinkommen and Sanktionsfrei, an initiative trying to reform the current German unemployment system (“Hartz IV”).

Who is involved in Expedition Grundeinkommen, and where are you at with this project?

We have 10 people in the core team working on the project. We also have roughly 30,000 volunteers all over Germany. The project started in May 2019. We are combining the topics of UBI and direct democracy, building a platform where people can sign up to participate in Expedition Grundeinkommen. Depending on where in Germany you’re residing, there are different ways to contribute and get involved. Since we started we’ve been active in four regions — Berlin, Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Bremen. If you live there, you can sign the Volksinitiative (popular initiative), which we are in the process of collecting signatures for. We need roughly 80,000 signatures for all the 5 Bundeslaender (federal states). You can also collect signatures!

If you are outside of these 5 federal states, you can still ask people who reside there to sign it. We are planning to expand nationally in the early autumn this year.

How will universal basic income in Germany work in practice?

You can just imagine it as everyone receiving a basic salary — about a 1000 or 1200 EUR per month. Then you would have to pay taxes for the first Euro that you’re earning on top of your UBI, regular taxes on every transaction (be it income tax or VAT). UBI can be compared to a tax-free allowance, a basic amount that everyone gets. For people who don’t have any income, UBI works as a basic subsidy, to replace Harz IV and other types of income support help available in Germany today. I’m a strong advocate for having every person who is living in Germany to be eligible for UBI. In our pilot we have decided to have every person living in a certain location to be eligible for it, regardless of citizenship.

What needs to happen for Expedition Grundeinkommen to be successful? What’s your timeline?

The initiative needs to pass through the Volksgesetzgebung (citizen lawmaking) process which is a 3 step process. The final step is the referendum, in which all the citizens of the 5 federal states currently participating in the program will have to decide whether they want to be part of the UBI pilot project. When we go nation-wide, every city and every municipality where our activity is taking place will invite citizens to decide whether they want to be a part of the pilot program. Ideally, this should take place on the day of the federal elections in September 2021.

Because we don’t have direct democracy on the state level, we’re using a sort of a political hack — we are advocating for the introduction of the pilot project and not the UBI itself, and this decision can be taken on the federal level and a city level.

The concept of UBI has been gaining momentum in the recent years but the idea is not new. What are its philosophical and academic underpinnings?

There are a lot of predecessors to the currently proposed concepts of UBI, especially since the mid-18th century Enlightenment and since the evolution of liberal ideas of giving power to the people.

In the 1960s several philosophers and economists spoke in favour of the idea from very different angles. One one hand we have an economic liberal approach with advocates such as Milton Friedman, who argued for a ‘slim state’, wanted to take the power from the government and improve the market economy. The logic here was that if everybody had a basic salary, then everyone could participate in the market, no one would be excluded.

Another approach to UBI was espoused by Martin Luther King who focused on the power of basic income to overcome poverty and racial divisions, addressing social issues in order to bring social equality and a common base level on which everyone in the society stands together. In the 1960s and 70s in the US, there were very intense discussions regarding the possibility of introducing UBI programs, but after facing a conservative backlash the topic was buried again.

For the past 10 years we’ve seen a renaissance, a second spring for the idea. The topic is becoming more and more prominent again. We see this as a window of opportunity, especially now when with the new wave of automation and AI, we will see many jobs falling away or being completely removed.

In those new circumstances, having a basic salary for everybody, free from discrimination, and without strings attached — without needing to prove that you are actually poor — having this common ground will give people way more power to adapt to this new labour landscape.

On the other hand, we still have a lot to do to push the idea forward, especially in terms of creative and entrepreneurial work.

How is the renewed interest in UBI fuelled by the coronavirus crisis?

The coronavirus crisis is showing something interesting: the economy suffers when everyone consumes only the essentials, fulfilling their basic needs. We are actually experiencing a post-growth economy now. And despite the tragedy cause by that infectious virus, we can see a lot of positive side effects — on the planet, air quality, and so on.

In these times of crisis, we see politicians and state agencies setting up aid programs on a weekly basis, trying to help small companies, self-employed, artists etc. But we’re observing as well how they constantly keep forgetting or excluding particular groups. If only we had basic income in place, everyone would be included from the outset, no one would be left behind. No one would have to lobby for their particular interests alone.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country.

If we are lobbying for universal basic income, we are really lobbying for every single person living in this country. We are therefore creating a common policy proposal that everyone can gather around and support. And especially in a crisis situation such as we are facing currently, a lot of people realize how much better would they feel with basic income in place, as opposed to now, without adequate support.

Can the state afford it? Is it feasible for the state to keep everyone supported in this way?

Absolutely. It’s very helpful not to imagine UBI simply as having a 1000 EUR on top of one’s regular salary — but as having the money that you already have, unconditionally, no strings attached. Nearly everyone in Germany already receives some sort of income support, be it family income, subsidies, children’s allowances (Kindergeld), pensions etc. If you imagine offering this money unconditionally — it becomes a way of insuring against losing this income — then it becomes way cheaper. We don’t generate more income but ensure that the financial support already collected by the people is guaranteed.

Some serious calculations regarding the cost of the state, they all have a net cost price tag between 0 and 100 billion EUR per year, depending on the source and approach.

Is there any literature or other resources that you recommend for those who want to learn more?

My first recommendation is the book Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen by Guy Standing, a standard read on this topic. In terms of German authors, we have Götz Werner’s Einkommen für Alle. There’s also a lot of scientific studies online and several proposals from political parties and highly rated scientific institutes, for example this study from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

We are living in a world of socioeconomic disparities and inequality, including gender, race and class inequality. Will UBI be able to address these inequalities and directly impact this situation? Is UBI considered as a tool to address these issues?

There’s different opinions on that. I’m most familiar with the feminist discourse. From an intersectional level you’d rather agree that introducing UBI is a positive development. When you dive deep into each discipline itself, for example into the feminist discourse, you will encounter varied opinions. There’s strong advocates for UBI allowing women to become independent or receive compensation for unpaid carework. On the other hand there’s also criticism of the UBI in the feminist discourse — due to the fear that it will cement the traditional structures and gender roles. We see now in the corona times that a lot of homeschooling work is done by womxn. Some are afraid that if everyone receives UBI, it will be even harder to combine work life and family life. It’d be even harder for women to break out of these traditional structures.

There’s always on one side of the argument stating that bringing this level of equality will create a common starting ground for everyone, while the other side of the argument holds that the money should be used for direct action to address various inequalities.

What are the long term goals and effects of introducing UBI? Is there an overarching vision for UBI-based society?

From the pilot projects introduced all around the world, e.g. in Finland, Kenya or Namibia, as well as the pilot projects in the US in the 60s, we can already see the direct effects on individuals.

Those studies indicated mental, psychological, physical and the general well-being increase of the populations receiving UBI.

There’s no big scale effect on labour provided — there’s some people are investing in better education but in general the amount of labour provided by people stay the same.

On the societal level, the effects are hard to figure out from the small scale pilots. But you can imagine that basic income is like a common level ground from which its easier to leverage and solve other issues. A better common ground for how to deal with automation, a better common ground from how to eradicate inequalities including gender and race inequality, and a better starting point in order to address the climate crisis or solve the rent crisis.

Moreover, with access to UBI, more people would be willing to move to the small villages and build a decentralised life outside of huge metropolia, or even build autonomous structures there because they would no longer be afraid whether they’d find jobs in those places. They can be more risk tolerant, which is good for the community, because risk aversion stifles innovation. UBI can be considered as a form of social innovation in terms of overcoming inequality. At one moment in time we got to the point where women were allowed to vote in the elections, which back then was considred a social innovation. Similarly, with UBI we are stepping into more freedom and equality as a society. Having a common ground granted by UBI is very important before undertaking actions to reinvent the power structures and innovate on a society’s level.

How big is the social and political support for UBI across Germany? Is it politically plausible?

There’s a lot of support, roughly 50% of the German population are in favour of UBI — which is a lot and it increased over the past 10 years. Especially if you ask whether people are in favour of having pilot projects — a lot of them are. Within the political parties, on the left — a lot of people at the bottom of the party are in favour of UBI and there’s vivid discussion around the issue but there’s no decision on the party level yet to have it as a policy proposal. We will see whether basis votum (plebiscite within a party) will be established.

Among the left, all of the parties do have leaders who are in favour of basic income, with Saskia Esken (SPD), Katja Kipping (Die Linke) and Robert Habeck (Grüne). Among the conservatives there’s no prominent leaders at the moment who are in favour. The social democrats are struggling because their core narrative is to be a party for the workforce, so they are a bit afraid that their base narrative requires basic income.

How is UBI different from existing safety programs?

It’s universal and there is no strings attached. It is important to note as well that UBI is only a replacement for basic safety programs, it’s not a replacement for support for people with special needs or physical disabilities.

We can place it in the same category as many other initiatives in social and economic development. For example, a recent innovation in human service program regarding the treatment of homeless people – the Housing First discussion — happens in parallel to the UBI discussion. The standard approach towards helping a homeless person, who is also drug addict, used to be trying to get rid of the drug addiction first and placing them in a homeless shelter. The Housing First approach moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own accommodation.

There’s also a “Give Directly” movement in international development work in the countries of the Global South. It proclaims that instead of investing in classic programs, be it education or infrastructure — it’s better to give cash directly to people in need, which has proven more effective.

These are both parallel conclusions to the basic income scenario. It’s about getting rid of the unnecessary middlemen and excessive bureaucracy.

What are some of the criticisms of UBI, and how would you address them?

The first argument is that UBI is too expensive and it’s a misconception. If you realize that UBI means that everyone is having financial support they had already been eligible for, guaranteed, you’ll see that it’s actually affordable for the state.

Another argument against UBI is that it’s ineffective. “Why should the rich people get UBI? Shouldn’t we identify the people who are really in need?” The problem here is that you never can identify who really needs the money and who doesn’t. We’d need to uphold the governmental agencies who screen people and take those decisions, which generates a lot of bureaucratic overhead while often decisions are incorrect and end up in various battles in courts. We also face a lot of fraud in the social security system. It’s more efficient to give the money to everybody and then take it back via taxation.

How can UBI supporters get involved and help the initiative?

They can go to the Expedition Grundeinkommen’s website and check out all the information provided. If you are living in one of the Bundesländer where we are already active, you can sign the bill that we are proposing. You can also get involved in collecting signatures.

If you are not in the active region yet, sign up and leave your zip code — we’ll notify you when we launch our campaigns in those regions.

You also always give us donations to support our team who is carrying out this work.

Thank you!

On Returning to the Commons & Digitally Distributed Carework

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic hitting Europe – uniting and socially isolating us all – we caught up (virtually) with Stacco Troncoso, a project lead for the Commons Transition. We talk about the DisCO Manifesto, a novel approach towards forming Distributed Open Cooperatives that provides guidelines for collectives of self-organised people on how to incorporate and become empowered through more distributed forms of governance. We also talk about the role of decommodification, returning to the commons and radical workplace democracy in practice.

Hi Stacco, what are your key research interests and issues you’ve been exploring?

I was part of the P2P Foundation for many years, as an organizer in advocacy and strategy roles. My background politically was more aligned with anarcho-communism, but that shifted during the 2011 protest movements — 15M in Spain, and Occupy worldwide. Since then, the bulk of my work has been focused on advocating for commons-oriented solutions. I have also followed the evolution of the blockchain ecosystem very closely. Bringing all these influences together, the place where I found a coherent narrative with the ecologic side of my concerns along with the possibilities of technology — without getting starry-eyed about them — was the commons. Apart from that, since 2013 I have been part of a cooperative called Guerrilla Translation — the pilot project for Distributed Cooperative Organizations (DisCOs). The advocacy work of the P2P Foundation and the practical work of the Guerrilla Translation form a symbiotic relation — we put in practice many of the initiatives and ideas that were proposed by the foundation.

Can you tell us a bit more about the origins of DisCO Manifesto, how did it come together?

The DisCO Manifesto is a result of many conversations among members of the Guerrilla Media Collective and other close friends and mentors. We wanted to reimagine the future of Guerrilla Media, applying our interest in DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), while also being critical of them. One of the tendencies we see in what we call whitepaper culture is to imagine really good systems which distribute value before considering the place of humans. If you think about it, a key system where value distribution takes place is the workplace, and here is where we already have 175 years of cooperative tradition to draw from. We wanted to apply our experiences to the design of another kind of DAO that starts from real world experience. It eventually evolved into the concept of distributed cooperative organization (DisCO). We like the name, as we think that — beyond the wordplay — it symbolises the playfulness, fun, conviviality and approachability that are missing from the blockchain world, CryptoKitties aside. The Manifesto is a conversation, as we didn’t want to start with a whitepaper or technological architecture. Even though we already came up with a detailed and technical governance model, we wanted to tell a good story, based on our experience and our needs, things that excite us. We aspired to create it in an inclusive, journalistic manner and wanted for people to read it — all people, other than the usual suspects in the decentralized space. We also imagined it as a meeting place between various groups — commons, P2P, cooperatives, and social solidarity economy tradition, the feminist economics tradition and the open value decentralized world. Even though these groups have a lot in common, they don’t necessarily talk to each other. We hope to create a conversational space. We want to think carefully about having those conversations and making them accessible to people, also to encourage those who don’t have the loudest voices to participate.

What went wrong with the first iteration of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs)? What are the key lessons learned?

DAOs that have been deployed so far are very primitive, used more as a vehicle for financial speculative assets rather than real tools for decentralized collaboration. It’s very easy to make a caricature of the DAO space — incredible amounts of money flowing into a movement that speaks of the new ways of reimagining value. The value system that is based on accumulation is predominant. Even though there have been extensive discussions differentiating “blockchain” from “what you can do on the blockchain”, a lot of the politics that underlie blockchain are symptomatic of accumulatory micro-capitalism or libertarianism, which have been prevalent in the design of many DAOs. The DAO was a cautionary tale of what can happen — and I remember that before the DAO attack, there was a feeling of gold rush, or fear of missing out — similar to the developments of the mid-90s dotcom bubble. When there’s a gold rush things are not done carefully, and also politically they tend to replicate the existing power structures.

We don’t believe that you can build decentralization from the top down, by white males with programming backgrounds designing this great decentralized architecture where they just want to fit humans in. There’s an impatience or not letting other people be part of this process, and a lot of it has been speculative. It’s sci-fi, but maybe not in the exciting sense, somehow removed from reality space. In the DAO space there’s a lot of unchecked privilege, while many other types of people are missing — they’re being mentioned but not included in the design process. There are solutions being designed for people without those people being present.

What are the main differences between DAO and DisCO design?

DisCOs are based on human interactions. There’s a tendency in the DAO space to try and do away with human imperfections. The thinking seems to be that if we just get the math right, all the other stuff will get sorted out on its own. I resonate with the statement that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”, meaning that we can’t bypass the difficult conversations, they need to take place. While there’s excitement about auto-executable organizations with programmable parameters, what DAO technology can do for us is value tracking: tracking things such as livelihood work, pro bono work to create and maintain commons, and also carework, which is usually invisible and hard to quantify. I mean: how do you put love on the blockchain? Can we? Would we even want to? You can see different DAOs trying to tokenize all social interactions. DAOs can let us network and transact value among different DisCO nodes. You can still talk about decentralization, but if you don’t check the power of certain nodes, those nodes can become prevalent and imitate the preexisting power dynamics.The technology we want to develop is an enabler for better conversations, never a substitute. In our value tracking system we don’t foresee that it will be a setup where “this is how many tokens you have accrued and this is the value equation so this person gets paid this much, and that’s it”. Frankly, if you’re working with a group of only 10 to 15 people, why not have a discussion first?.

Value tracking is especially important because notions of value are so subjective. When we get into an agreement with a group of people where we say together that this is the type of value sovereignty that we want to practice, and it doesn’t work out after a certain period of time — we are not locked into that system, we can change it. While when you have a big DAO with, say, 400 stakeholder participants it’s very difficult to make exceptions. Those people who can afford to live an immutable lifestyle and are not subject to the back and forth of the material conditions and daily lives may be able to participate in those systems. We also see DisCO as a way to educate people, for example about feminist economics. If you’re not talking about the decentralization of power, or explicitly addressing the trifecta of centralization — colonialism, capitalism and the patriarchy — then your decentralization is very select within a bounded paradigm. DisCOs can provide a space where people can learn about the cooperative tradition, and people from the feminist economics field can take advantage of DAOs.

What are the key lessons can we learn from old models of cooperatives and commons for the decentralised Web movement?

When it comes to cooperatives, it’s simple — they work. In times of an economic downturn, cooperatives always perform much better than regular businesses. They are also much better for the environment in general. Even the happiness index of people working within them is higher than in traditional companies.

When it comes to the lessons learned from the commons, let’s explain first where they begin. We can say that commons are a mode of social organization — before agriculture, before feudalism and of course before capitalism. Even though they are often invisible, the commons are always present. Especially with the collapsing systems now it’s more important than ever to have an understanding of the commons. A commons is a social process, and for there to be a commons we need 3 elements — we need a resource, we need a community that gathers around this resource, and we need a set of rules to govern this commons. A lot of work that has been done since the 90s in the commons has influenced free software and open source and that in turn has influenced the phenomena in the blockchain ecosystem — but perhaps there’s not that much familiarity with those influences. You can also think of it as of social conscience — to get away from replicating normative power dynamics — privileged people who have early access. Why would we need privilege to obtain the initial access?

DisCOs need to produce commons, which leads to decommodification. Let’s give an example. People need houses and people get paid to build houses. In a DisCO setup people could build open source houses. This can turn into a process from commodification to decommodification, from products to commons. This is where distributed ledgers are interesting because we can measure all sorts of values to make sure that no one gets exploited, no one is freeriding.

What about tracking and quantifying carework?

Carework is tricky. Tokenizing something like affection is a very difficult thing. We need to have a lot of small scale conversations where people really feel comfortable about sharing their values and the things they care about, and they want to be rewarded for that — and getting rewarded doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid in crypto tokens.

Let’s come back to the path towards decommodification, how does it take place?

Anything that gets distributed digitally leans towards decommodification. Wikipedia is a great example of decommodifying knowledge. Economic historian Karl Polyani wrote a number of books on this topic, the main among them is the Great Transition where he coined the term “false commodities” — land, money and labour. Land would be a commons, labour is your productive energy and money is a social agreement, with other agreements put on top of it to keep it scarce. All of those should be decommodified. I’d also add another false commodity, which is knowledge. We want to decouple knowledge and wealth from material realities, but this knowledge economy thrives on legal artefacts such as copyrights and patents to create artificial scarcity. If you’re using an app, why do you need to pay extra for these features? Usually because there’s a number of investors who need a return on investment. In the sense we’re privy to this whole debt structure. What if we really shared things? What if we decommodified? Decommodification brings about a number of challenges. Simply put, when stuff becomes “free” to make and consume, the taxable base which finances social services crumbles. How do we tackle this? These are political challenges that have to be included in the conversation.

In order to decommodify we need different types of economics and politics. Distributed ledgers can be an answer but the design of whatever DAOs we build on top of them really need to be distributed, socially and power-wise. There are other considerations beyond server connectivity and information being replicated and consented to. There’s a much bigger social layer that needs to be taken into account.

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DisCO Manifesto. Visual design by: Mireia De Juan Cuco

What are your recommendations then?

If you don’t include the people that you’re designing the solutions for in your design process, if you don’t talk to them, treat them with respect, you’re doing them an intellectual disservice. Let’s take a good look at what distributed means and let’s try to walk the talk. Let’s take responsibility. Let’s not become crypto billionaire philanthropists designing for those who can benefit from whatever wealth we’ve accumulated later down the line, while exacerbating existing power systems.

Let’s learn from the Wikipedia example — which, despite its shortcomings, not only democratized access to knowledge but also democratized the production of knowledge. You don’t need to be a professor to write about a subject as long as you’re passionate and knowledgeable about it.

How do you envision “radical workplace democracy”, in practice?

The notion of radical workplace democracy is very prevalent in the work on cooperatives. I’d recommend checking the work of Marjorie Kelly, and Richard Wolff on the topic. We have supposedly democratic political systems, but in the workplace all these democratic ideals are thrown out of the window. Here you are subject to your boss and your boss is subject to the investors. So in your workplace, unless you are a cooperative, you don’t get to decide what to produce, how much to produce and how to go about it. A common example being used is that a cooperative-owned enterprise would never choose to, say, pollute a local river or outsource work overseas. That’s the basic workplace democracy being talked about in co-ops. In DisCOs we talk about radical workplace democracy because we add the feminist and the carework dimensions, beyond what’s in the contract or beyond legal agreements. Co-ops can be totally socially regressive — there’s many conservative co-ops, with chauvinistic dynamics, that may not be as democractic. Just because you have really good legal statutes that talk about equality, does not mean that equality is being practiced. Descriptive equality is not the same as equality of outcomes. Having spaces for deliberations, for conversations, for carework — is essential. Having spaces for those who may not have the loudest voice, or those who may not be the most influential or eloquent — making sure that those people are being heard is important.

We’ve all been through this at Guerilla Media, Enspiral or Loomio. It’s a new kind of cooperativism that addresses one of the shortcomings of co-ops: sure, you can have workplace democracy, but the activities of the co-op might not be socially or environmentally beneficial. The other part of radical workplace democracy is acknowledging and accounting for carework, including providing emotional support or so called “emotional labour”. We try to incorporate all those aspects so that people who are benefiting from carework at least are not blind to that, at least it’s recognized. We plan to do workshops with communities and projects to help them figure out their governance models, help them have difficult conversations about values. If you don’t have those difficult conversations, tensions inevitably arise, and the person with the most tokens gets to decide — that’s not radical, or any kind of, workplace democracy.

How can we define “carework” in the digital distributed work context? Can it and should it be quantified? What about commoditisation of care in formal and informal networks, is this something we should worry about?

Sure — value tracking can feel invasive. That’s why we insist on small groups. This needs to be based on consent. It’s also uncomfortable, and especially uncomfortable for those who are privileged already do not want some of their privileges questioned. My hope is that this all makes for happier workplaces. The way we do it at Guerilla Media is by what we call community rhythms.We have daily check-ins, biweekly and monthly assessments following adaptable templates. When someone has emotional or family problems we make sure that this person is really supported.

Just having a conversation about care is a radical step. What you can do is to define among your group as to what constitutes carework. We decided to make everything that you would call admin — carework. Because we don’t want an admin layer. This idea comes from Parecon, participatory economics — which is an anarchist economist proposal. Part of their proposal calls for balanced job complexes, meaning that, say, one day you’re programming but another day you’re cleaning the toilets. And everyone gets to clean the toilets, so to speak. It’s about fairness.

We also have a mutual support system in which we support each other via regular check-ins. Once a month or so we have a call. When the person assigned to me takes care of me, they call me and listen to how I feel, and I do the same for the one I support. It’s just about being there for another person. We also think that organizations need to have certain boundaries — or otherwise they would be communes.

Some people say that having relationships like this will take so much time — sure, it will take time but these can be some of the best times of the day. We managed to create a safe online space, which is an increasing rarity. Everyone’s happy and if someone is not happy — everyone knows straight away and does something about it.

It seems like these processes are incredibly important for digital organizations too, where these social aspects need to be introduced as well.

These processes need to be co-designed. The cultural and structural aspects of projects are vitally important. We provide relevant resources for people but we don’t want people to copy and paste our solutions, but instead to challenge them and create better solutions for their individual circumstances. The more use cases we have, the more solutions we have that can work for other people in other contexts, thus creating a commons of DisCO pattern solutions. If you want to become a DisCO, you can but you don’t need to follow our governance model, the only thing you really need to do is to follow the 7 DiSCO principles, which are simple but also surprisingly demanding, they give you a set of constraints that can be really creative challenges. I’ll run them down:

First of all, you need to be oriented towards socio-economic outcomes in your statutes. Secondly, the projects should be multistakeholder, there should be different types of constituents. Thirdly, projects need to actively create the commons — don’t just take from the commons but make sure that you’re creating shared resources. The fourth principle is that they need to be transnational in nature — this is something where the DAO space has excelled now, and this is where legislation needs to follow. The fifth one — they need to be incorporating carework. The sixth one is that they reimagine the flows of value — including pro bono work, livelihood work, carework. You may want to measure carework, but not tokenize it. The final one is that they are designed for federation, sitting on top of a distributed architecture. We just need to remember that behind those nodes, behind those servers, behind those computers are human beings, and they need to be cared for. The best way to care for people — intellectually, spiritually — however you want to qualify that — is to be able to have a cognitive bandwidth to get to know those people, and to listen to them. According to the Dunbar number, 150 is the number of people with whom you can have meaningful social interactions with — but that doesn’t tell you what the intensity of the bandwidth of those interactions are. Make sure that the home DisCO is 15–20 people and then just federate and create different “nodes”, which can do regular check-ins. The value models need to be informed by proximity, -for a group of 15 people you don’t need a blockchain. We’re talking about a spectrum from trustless to trustworthy — blockchains excell at trustless interactions, but do we want all interactions to be trustless? Or do we want to empower trust in small groups?

Can DisCOs create profit?

They can create livelihoods for member-owners. When we critique profit, we mean to critique absentee shareholder profit. For a for-profit corporation, as Milton Friedman would say, their only responsibility is not to the society but to the shareholders. You can argue that tokenholders in DAOs are the equivalent of shareholders — have they really created the value that informs the profit? The question is what do you do with this profit, is it being centralized or is it being recirculated? Guerilla Media Collective is legally constituted as a non-profit, socially oriented coop. This means that we have to reinvest all profit — in education, development and creating commons, doing pro bono work and sharing it with others. The value model pays for this. Internally we pay ourselves the same rates while profits enable the pro bono activities.

Let’s talk about the role of trust in the digital distributed organization and how to account for it.

Beyond onchain and offchain, everything happens “onlife”. What we’re doing with DAOs in the strictest sense is subjecting trust to agreed-on algorithms. But the fidelity of this algorithm is very brute — you’re encouraging trust in monetary transactions, whether this is fiat money, crypto or digital assets. Why? Because you don’t want to get taken advantage of and want to transact with strangers without third party intermediaries — so you create a third party which is technology. But technology is not neutral.

What does it mean that DisCOs are associationist rather than individualistic?

The DisCO Manifesto is the result of many conversations. It was written by my partner Ann Marie Utratel and I, and many people contributed and helped edit it. This includes our closest collaborators in the DisCO sphere: Ruth Catlow (FurtherfieldDecal), Ela Kagel (SUPERMARKT), Irene López de Vallejo (AIOTIBDVABlueSpecs) and Phoebe Tickell (DGov FoundationEnspiral), as well as people like David Bollier (Commons Strategies Group) Jaya Klara Brekke (Durham UniversityDECODE), Pat Conaty (Synergia InstituteNew Economics FoundationCo-operatives UK), Primavera De Filippi (Berkman Klein CentreCNRSCOALADaoStack), Eleftherios Diakomichalis (OsCoinRadicle), Lynn Foster (MikorizalValue Flows), Sam Hart (Avant.org), Bob Haugen (MikorizalValue Flows), Julio Linares (Circles UBI), Elena Martínez Vicente and Silvia Molina Díaz (P2P Models), Nathan Schneider (Internet of Ownership) and Lisha Sterling (Geeks Without Bounds).

When we say “associationist”, we are referring to the notion of associative democracy. This describes the community effort of people who want to associate together and who want to actively share ideas, feelings and things, unlike in a DAO where you don’t have to get to know people, you just anonymously transact.

Do you believe that businesses globally, as we know them, can become socially responsible? How to bring about a necessary shift on a global level?

My feeling is that the change needs to come from the bottom up. As long as there’s a for-profit orientation and the need to keep the shareholders happy, inequality will keep driving up, a lot of green-washing or decentra-washing will happen and nothing will change. What I advocate for is a lot of more power for grassroots activism, and DisCOs are a way for people to do this. What’s an eye opening figure is that co-operatives globally have an annual turnover of USD 3 trillion, which is the same as the market cap as Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google combined. Co-ops worldwide have this significant power economically and if we could have new kinds of value accounting, and if we could use blockchain and DLT for social causes, and if we can make sure that we’re using this technology for advancing of planetary priorities — rather than priorities of IBM, Goldman Sachs etc. who are investing massive figures into blockchains, and if we learned how to federate, then we would create this more distributed future. We need to create more commons and we need to have people less and less dependent on the big institutional and corporate players. And of course the latter will resist it as much as they can, but it’s a losing fight because shit is collapsing. We’re waiting for some kind of Mad Max type of collapse where everyone gets a gun but collapse is already happening and will continue. When you think of big corporations as technologies, they will not introduce radical workplace democracy. Legislation is written by those with the most power, so a corporation will have much more beneficial legislation that a co-op. How about we push for a change in legislation so that we can run this cooperative experiment? This is the vision for our commons transition and we think that DisCOs are an approachable way to get into this.

To answer your question: can businesses become socially responsible? To me the definition of business is transactional by nature. Again, the infamous quote by Friedman reads: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. I think a better question is whether “work” can become socially responsible. In that case yes, but it won’t happen through systems which are structurally oriented toward absentee profiteering and normalized exploitation.

What are the realistic solutions to the pitfalls of the gig economy?

Platform co-ops! Breaking down the big players and turning them into co-ops. They are an easy solution but they also face challenges: investors don’t want to invest into co-ops, it’s very difficult for them. To give an example, FairMondo, the online marketplace, or FairBnB, the platform coop alternative to Airbnb who are launching now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Stocksy is a platform coop for photography or stock art. SMart is mutual / coop for freelance workers who get social security, financial advice… There’s lots of them. You can check them out on the Platform Coop directory. Are they successful? Yes, because they exist but they do face massive challenges which are easily dodged by their platform capitalist counterparts. Platform co-ops are more ethical and future minded, yet don’t have the impact of the big, venture-capital backed online platforms. Ironically the economy is not friendly to co-ops but co-ops, despite co-ops being demonstrably better for the “real” economy.

What would you advise to investors these days, in the crypto space and beyond?

This is what I’d advise venture capitalists: if we have perhaps 10 to 15 years left of the current order, instead of doing things that rely on mass computing power to keep furthering inequality, you may want to invest in systems that are future-proof, that address the collapse of our ecological order and the collapse of our social relationships. Invest in the future — and the future is the survival of the species and the biosphere. Read feminist economics and feminist literature, and be okay with being uncomfortable. Being challenged and becoming a more rounded person can be a beautiful and rewarding process.

Read about the commons — check out commonstransition.org — sign up for our commons newsletter. Read the book Free, Fair, and Alive by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, a wonderful introduction to the commons or Peer to Peer: a Commons Manifesto. For people from technological backgrounds, my advice is to get into the “soft stuff”, and be aware of your power and privilege — don’t see that recognition as an affront to your identity but maybe as something you can use to help enrich others.

Thank you for your interesting insights. What’s the best place to get in touch for those who are interested in collaborating or exploring DisCOs?

E-mail us at hello@disco.coop. If anyone wants to contact me: stacco (at) stacco (dot) works. You can also sign up to our newsletter for updates.

On Regenerative Cultures & Decentralized Imagination Healing

MagentaCeiba is the Executive Creative Officer of Bloom Networka global community of regenerative culture leaders that gather online and in-person to collaboratively envision a brighter future. Magenta is also a classical pianist and calls herself an imagination healer, trying to help people change their reality where imagination is suppressed by a hierarchical distribution of power, focusing instead on creating alternative societies, business networks, and creative communities in harmonious relationship with the Earth. In this interview we talk about how Bloom Network fosters and scales regenerative culture practices and solutions globally.

Bloom Network is a global community of regenerative culture leaders. Could you explain what “regenerative culture” means?

I usually describe regenerative culture as the opposite of extractive industry. Instead of taking more resources than you are putting back in, you are creating the conditions for more life and more diversity to emerge. The concept of sustainability — where you are putting back as many resources as you’re pulling out — is somewhere in the middle on this spectrum. With regenerative culture and regenerative systems you are making conditions for robust life to thrive — other than fixing things when they are really broken. This occurs through community-oriented life and nourishing practices, whether that’s agriculture, arts, alternative preventative health practices etc. One of our goals is to embed regenerative practices into work life and company structures. Moreover, a lot of indigenous cultures are regenerative cultures — as they operate in a healthy way and in harmonious balance with the flow of nature. This is a thing to be aware of when talking about regenerative cultures — is that they have been with us for thousands of years, they refer to ancient guiding wisdom.

What is an “act of regeneration” the Bloom Network refers to, and what are the examples of those acts?

Bloom is currently in the process of formalizing and tracking that. An example would be planting a tree, or planting a community food forest, or going to a training on restorative justice, resolving conflicts in ways that don’t involve putting someone in prison — restoring healthy relationships for the person who committed the crime and everyone affected instead, contributing to local food sovereignty, to more equitable justice situations. Imagine the preventative health example — planting a garden in your backyard with healing plants, and learning how to do herbalism for boosting immune systems. There are tens of thousands of those sorts of practices and millions of people doing this all over the world — we could talk about these types of regenerative justice practices forever. They just aren’t visible in mainstream media and platforms, and social networks are not really geared towards collaboration and action focused issues — although people are ready to do now, what needs to be done.

Tell us a bit about your background and role at Bloom Network.
My experience with community organizing and regenerative culture started with training at an organization called Radical Women, a socialist feminist grassroots activist organization in the U.S. Radical Women prioritizes fighting for the needs and leadership of the most oppressed, with a special focus on queer women of colour, encouraging them to bring their voices on leadership forward — which are unique and important, because of the multi-layered nature of their experience, their perception of how systems are working and causing harm.

On top of that, I got into healing practices when I went to Burning Man for the first time, where I learned about psychedelics and their role in healing, and I came across a network of meetups called Evolver Spores, where people were integrating their psychedelic insights into social transformation.I was looking for awareness of where the systems are broken, what needs to transform for us all to be healthy, well and create equitable societies, and finding the healing tools to move through some of the intergenerational trauma that I believe all of us are carrying through the passage of time and evolution of humanity.

Evolver at the time was something that brought activism and healing together, organizing meetups jumping around all kinds of different topics — from conflict resolution tools, to solidarity economy, to backyard composting. I started meeting people with really amazing project ideas but they didn’t necessarily have the business skills to pull them off. They weren’t the kind of people who would go get an MBA, and the businesses they were developing were not the traditional, single issue causes — they were instead working on systems-oriented problems, with somewhat more complex objectives that had to be realized within communities. That’s how I got pulled into organizing from my training with Radical Women — bringing these people into the same room together, starting dialogues and sharing skills and resources, so that we could move forward together.

From there I got involved in local organizing with Evolver — but the organization ran into pretty extreme leadership problems resulting from having a traditional hierarchical management structure but ultimately trying to run a peer to peer social network. The local organizers around the world were voiceless in the context of the power structure of the entire organization. We had to separate from that company.

Why do you think the organization ran into these problems?

This is one of the classic problems that, I believe, decentralised tools are built to prevent — abuses of power and resources, situations where a few people can make decisions that negatively impact the work and well-being of all the other stakeholders. That was the reason why we are really excited to adopt the decentralised tools and run our governance in a decentralised manner. With Bloom, we are in the process of designing a new, peer-to-peer leadership structure, and a financial model which is led by local leaders on the ground. Those local leaders are helping to network together different projects in our communities, focused on issues such as local food sovereignty, restorative justice, as well as environmental, social and health restoration projects. The goal is to build a fabric of solidarity economies that can work between the siloed institutional structures, to enable the flourishing of these community solutions for healthy, ecological relationships.

How do these communities benefit from being part of Bloom Network?

People can start local chapters, and we give them templates and tools for this — for example, how to run a meetup, a film screening, a potluck, and so on. We have tightened up the leadership gatekeeping a bit, so that we can trust the people who are building communities in this network, and the bonds won’t get broken over time. We ask people to produce 3 events before they start formally organizing as a Bloom chapter. We have a peer to peer structure which involves a monthly call with all the organizers around the world to share what they are doing and determine how to help each other. We are really looking forward to the decentralised web for the right tools to help our communities in these efforts.

How is Bloom Network formally organized?

Functionally, we are an international cooperative. Legally, we are a public benefit nonprofit corporation. We want to set up a DAO-like organization, as it seems like the only way to run an international cooperative, in terms of taking members donations and allocating them across international borders easily. It seems like it’s going to generate much less administrative overhead to run it that way.

How big is the organization and how many people are involved in the network?

There’s a core team of 3 people regularly working together, pushing things forward, 12 people involved in specific projects — like our conference or innovation lab — and about 7 advisors. We have 12 active local chapters with 1 to 6 organizers each. Overall, there’s around 6,000 people in communication with us, locally or internationally — in Mexico, Costa Rica, Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, and volunteers in the UK, Sweden and Italy.

Are these communities volunteer-based?

They are currently mostly volunteer-based, and we are working on fundraising to get our membership model very streamlined, so that it’d be easy for people to start local events. A percentage of the membership fees would go directly to a local chapter to organize. It’d be up to the local chapter to decide what to do, which existing organizations to funnel the funding to. Most of our local chapters work collaboratively by connecting various groups and networks that already exist in their region; given that these groups tend to be underfunded and invisible, it makes sense for them to work together performing regenerative work on the ground. Often, these groups’ communications don’t parse to the larger audience — they have overly niche vocabularies or political viewpoints, and their aesthetics don’t really translate to the wider base of people who are ready to participate. They do very much grassroots organizing, or are a tiny team that doesn’t have the bandwidth to hire marketing or communications people. Our role in the ecosystem is to bring more visibility to those groups and let people know that this work is happening and is something that they can participate in. Through a local Bloom chapter, relationships are born in a very organic way, community leaders get to know each other while working on projects, where they need very little mediation. The formalization of that structure through governance and financial setup that we are planning for 2020 will just help more resources circulate — more people finding out about these opportunities and volunteering. We want to make it easier for people to quickly mobilize.

Is there any way you measure impact of Bloom as an organization or local chapters themselves?

We are tracking basic things, for example how many people come to the events, how many actions are performed, as well as softer tracking of network connections and value exchanges happening. We are also in conversations with Myra Jackson from the UN who helps local grassroots communities to connect with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and adapt how they’re being measured. The way local communities track impact is a little softer and different than how a data scientist would track impact. My favorite metrics framework is from MetaIntegral, I highly recommend checking it out. Other metrics of success for Bloom are job growth in regenerative enterprises, and redistributing wealth to bioregional leadership networks. For local Blooms it varies by what they choose to focus on — for example the Costa Rica chapter has been resuscitating the local scarlet macaw population.

Do you have a set of best practices regarding engaging with various stakeholders?

We are modeled on how mycelium (mushrooms) work in nature. One of our values is to transfer information and resources across different sections of society. A lot of our local organizers work in state or city government, and a lot of projects they are involved in are focused on policy. Bloom’s working teams have been drafting a partner engagement policy to support our stakeholders in evolving toward deeper regenerativity together.

One of the problems we see is the disconnection between the different sectors and stakeholders. I’ve been talking to the people from the UN about this hurdle in terms of collaboration and financing — you have the structures of governments financing projects, the private sector and corporations and their incentives for doing good, and then you have the non-profit world, and the grassroots sector who, in terms of a lot of regenerative and hyperlocal solutions, is completely disenfranchised from the entire system, for many different reasons.

Through our local events and building an online platform, we give spaces to people to share internationally, across institutional boundaries. The purpose of Pollination Labs, Bloom’s innovation consultancy based on regenerative design, is to go directly inside the institutions to help the regenerative transformation happen, in communication with grassroots networks. To be able to navigate through this we all need to be working together. How do we get those pieces of information on how to be more collaborative — it’s going to take us all having a more open world with each other.

What are the example projects that you’re carrying out with Pollination Labs, what companies are you advising?
One of the companies who is asking us to help them is called PlanetOS. They make dashboards for doing large scale business analytics, for example pulling data from climate prediction modelling on a wind farm to understand when they will have higher load on a machine and hence need more repair for example. The data prediction they’re pulling are coming out of many different sources. They are interested in applying that to more contexts and want to work with us to understand what’s happening in other movements. They want to sit down with different movement leaders and industry leaders.

One of the other use cases for Pollination Labs is an economic development consortium for state-level governance. The consortium leaders have a program to transform economic financing and institutional practices to be more regenerative and oriented around social impact, and addressing climate. They want our support with facilitation design and event production logistics.

Those are both relatively complicated use cases but a lot of regenerative work is — a lot of the questions that come to us reflect that the structures that currently exist are not set up to do the kind of complex intermodal stuff we want to do. Who knows how to think like that and implement things that are at that level of complexity and crossing institutional boundaries?

Are those regenerative practices scalable?

Once a pipeline of one product in one company is transformed, we have probably figured out a whole bunch of regenerative practices that are applied to other companies and other people working in the industry. We have designed the structures for people to be able to be coherently connected with each other while working across different contexts and different cities. For example, we know organizers in 5 different countries working on food sovereignty projects and we’ll be able to very easily aggregate the information they need.

Can you share your favourite project example?

I really love what the community in Los Mochis in Mexico is building — a network of 27 ecoparks across the city. The city had allocated these lots to be made into parks and was stalling on building them. Construction companies were coming in and building expensive apartment buildings. The community made a move to block that by self-organizing with 17 other NGOs in the city to create ecoparks instead. There’s a recreation space for sports, there’s a space for arts and they do a lot of teaching on community gardening. The point is to teach people how to grow food in their backyards. They also organize biocultural festivals and bring together people who run a lot of healing businesses and social entrepreneurship. They work with a couple of indigenous groups nearby and listen to their spiritual leadership. It’s a really well designed initiative to help people understand what’s going on in their communities, support their local economies and tap into their local entrepreneurship.

Do you have any reading recommendations for those who want to explore regenerative culture more?

We have a podcast featuring voice of regenerative culture leaders from around the world. Our wiki does have a short amount of entries with have a lot of information. This entry https://bloomnetwork.org/wiki/regenerative-culture-examples/ has readings from each of our seven topic areas which we aggregate around. That will give you a good scope of what we work on within Bloom Network. There’s also a blog post featuring a list of 12 regenerative podcasts to listen to that do anything from climate adaptation, new economy, solidarity economy, peer-to-peer economy, to decolonisation and native rights. One book that I can recommend which is a good introduction is Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl. That’s probably enough to start with!

Thank you!

Digital Tools for Self-Organized Change

Gemma Copeland is an interdependent digital designer building digital tools that facilitate and empower grassroots movements and organizations. She is part of a London-based nonprofit workers cooperative of software engineers, designers and organizers called Common Knowledge. In this interview, I talked to Gemma about the ins and outs of running a grassroots activism focused co-op, about the nature and best practices for contemporary protest and political organizing, as well as about saving ourselves from a dystopian future.

Hi Gemma! What’s your professional background and what are the key areas you’ve been working on?

Gemma Copeland: I’m a digital designer, originally from Australia, but I’ve spent most of my career working in the Netherlands and the UK. I have mainly been working within the cultural, educational and social innovation sectors. I’m particularly interested in organizations that have social engagement element in their work. I’m also part of the self-organized education and design collective in London, called Evening Class. The idea behind which is providing a space for self-education outside of industry and academy. Over time, it has evolved into a space for solidarity and consciousness-raising, as well as prototyping alternative practices within design. We collaborate on projects together and often work with other activist groups. Being part of that collective got me interested in self-organized and cooperative structures. It’s important to focus on not just the type of work you do, but also to look at how you do the work, how you structure the organization. Through Evening Class, I found Common Knowledge earlier this year, and have recently joined them.

What kind of organization is Common Knowledge?
Common Knowledge is a nonprofit workers cooperative building digital tools for direct politics. It started last October in London. There are seven members, four of whom are active at the moment. We are a mix of software engineers, product designers and researchers. We all move between various skills and specialities, and we all in some way or another come from an activist background as well. We are specifically focused on designing and building tools that enable direct rather than representational politics. We collaborate with grassroots activists — for example, with people having problems in their workplace, facing housing crises or responding to racism — rather than traditional political organizations. This kind of direct activism is about people coming together and collectively responding to those problems within their own communities.

Are you working with individuals or communities and existing organizations?
We are doing a broad range of work. One of the products we are developing is an app called Catalyst, which is focused on connecting people who want to get involved in political activism but aren’t already. The app asks them what they are concerned about and then connects them to different organizations in their area that are addressing these concerns. Our next step is to partner with the organizers of these existing groups themselves, and to co-design tools that improve their processes. The final aim is to give people the tools, confidence and network to start groups themselves.

What are the groups that you’re engaging with?
Some of the groups we’re currently working with are the Left Book Club, a radical book club in the UK founded by Pluto Press; London Renters Union, which demands better housing rights for Londoners; and United Voices of the World, a workplace rights union. The idea is to research and build tools with them in a democratic and bottom-up way, rather than relying on our assumptions and imposing these on them. Eventually we’ll make it into a generic program that we will be able to roll out more broadly. The idea is to document everything as we go and eventually make it open source, so that others can build upon what we make.

What are the organizational practices and the roles and responsibilities within Common Knowledge coop?
We endeavour to enact the cooperative and democratic processes that we recommend to others in everything that we do. We have four active members at the moment, each with different areas of expertise, who take on a range of different roles within the co-op.

In terms of digital tools, we use Notion — it has become our collective brain and we find it much better other than using something like Slack. With Notion you’re building a knowledge base, a wiki, collectively. You can have conversations, but they are made directly in the context of the specific documentation you’re creating. It’s also interesting to watch this gradually build up as people contribute to different areas. You can see what people are working on, without having to communicate it all the time. It’s also great for onboarding new people.

In terms of other practices we apply, one of them is following agile sprints and build-measure-learn cycles. What we really want to do is to harness the power of technology to democractic ends, which includes the organizational practices favoured by start-ups. We believe that the Agile methodology is inherently really democratic — gives people lots of autonomy, is quite non-hierarchical and demands open communication between individuals. Agile teams, if implemented well, are efficient self-organized groups. Another example would be the Sprint book methodology — doing a week of concentrated work, focused on prototyping very quickly, and directly learning from your users.

How do you make decisions within the co-op?
For decision-making, we use a process called sociocracy, which I really like. The idea is that decisions are made through consent rather than consensus. Rather than looking for everyone to be completely onboard with every decision, someone makes a proposal that is directly discussed within the group. People can ask questions about the proposal and state their “critical concerns”. If someone has a critical concern, it means that they believe the proposal diverges from the core vision, aims or ethics of the group. Otherwise, the framework for deciding whether we should go ahead is “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?” This idea of “good enough for now” is also about experimenting, trying to see if things work, and reflecting, which is also related to the build-measure-learn cycle.

What are the digital tools that enable this way of working?
We use Loomio quite a lot, it’s one of my favourite digital tools. It’s quite simple but it can be super powerful. You can make decisions together and there’s a range of options for how decisions are structured — a poll, ranking options and so on. Everyone can vote and add comments, and in the end you have both the outcome of the decision and a digital record of it. This works very well as a means of practicing sociocracy. Loomio grew out of Occupy Wall Street, when activists and social entrepreneurs realised they needed to solve the same problem: fast, inclusive, effective decision-making without meetings. It’s really interesting to see a tool that itself has these autonomous, self-organized origins.

Can you talk more about the transition from someone learning about the co-op and starting to volunteer to then becoming a member and participating in the decision making and financial planning process?
I can only speak from my own experience, and I think that with any collective, it’s very important to make sure that there’s a good personal match and affinity, even more so than what you can technically bring to the group. It’s so much about whether you can trust a person. When I joined Common Knowledge, we had a bunch of meetings and we were working out how I could fit. They also asked me what I wanted to get out of it, rather as in the traditional hierarchical structure which is all about what value you can bring to the company.

Once I joined, I was able to participate in organizational and financial decisions straight away. The reasoning behind this was that making decisions together is an important part of acting together and working together — it seems strange to have less input just because you’re a new member. It feels like a lot of the systems that we use, like sociocracy, provide necessary safeguards anyways. The outcome is that each person has a lot of autonomy within the collective, which is empowering but also quite interesting as an exercise.

Are you planning to grow the cooperative and include more people in it, including the communities you are serving?
That’s the eventual aim but, in my opinion, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. The co-founder of Loomio, Richard Bartlett, proposed the idea of “microsolidarity” in 2018. He argues that there is so much that can be achieved by small groups of people and that it’s better to build multiple small teams to work together and share knowledge directly, rather than to build huge co-ops. These teams can then connect and work in solidarity with a wider network. They can can also include collaborators in a non-hierarchical way, rather than just acting in traditional roles of client and service-provider.

Can you talk more about your general financial management — do people get paid for their work maintaining the co-op, or is it mainly for direct consultancy work?
One of our principles is that people should be paid fairly for their work, and our eventual intention is for this to cover the labour that goes into running the co-op as well. When doing consultancy tasks, we have a flat financial structure — everyone gets paid the same. We have transparent finances within the co-op at the moment and the goal is to also make these public.

Do you have a written set of rules?
The key part of any self-organized groups is having a shared vision but also a very clear protocol. Everything needs to be well-documented and explicit. It’s also important to note that while it’s explicit, it’s not fixed. Everything is open to change, proposals can be adjusted. It enables a way more fluid collaboration — everything is on the table and nothing is hidden. In general, I think it’s very important to spend time thinking about organizational rules and principles. I really like this way of working — you don’t define the rules before you do the thing, but instead you try it out, then document it and adjust this as you go

Are there any best practices for running a co-op that you could share?
Establishing clear communication and openness around freely questioning and discussing everything. Actively giving members autonomy and ownership from the outset.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about the projects you’re working on in detail.
The main project so far is called Catalyst, which I mentioned before. We’ve been working on it for about a year, in five concentrated sprints. We started with a mix of ethnographic research and rapid prototyping in Hackney, London, where we interviewed a bunch of organizers about their own path towards activism, and the tools they use in organizing. We built an experimental service based on existing software, such as Typeform, WhatsApp, Airtable. The prototype asked people “what issues are you concerned about and what’s your capacity?” and then connected them directly to relevant events and organizers. This was definitely an interesting process, both the interview and prototyping stages. It confirmed a couple of hypotheses throughout the process. Organizers are using existing consumer technology but are limited by it, and frustrated. We learned a lot about what gets people actively engaged in politics. We also found out that, yes, it is possible to use digital tools to get people to go to events. The surprising aspect was that it’s almost easier than expected to get people to go to events, but that you also need a buy-in from the organizers themselves. Based on that, we decided that the next focus of work will be on organizers, and how to improve their capacity.

Can you talk a little bit about Extinction Rebellion, the fastest growing direct action climate change organization?
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is interesting — it has had a global viral growth and has a different demographic to the norm. I think that part of the reason is that climate crisis affects everyone, it’s widespread and we really have to work together to address it. Part of it is also the urgency of the situation. Politics these days is so chaotic, constant crisis is normal and people don’t trust the usual institutions, or even what we were taught is real or true. The outcome is that people are alienated from politics, and they are scared. These are perhaps the reasons why there have been so many global climate strikes. XR has been clever with having clear demands. It’s also great that anyone can use their banner in their own in an independent, non-hierarchical way.

Do you have any other examples of any other contemporary protest movements that stand out in terms of their organizational practices?

The protest movement in Hong Kong is very interesting in the context of self-organization and technology. There are Telegram groups with tens of thousands of people where they use polls to collectively decide where to go next, whether they should assemble somewhere or disperse. They have been using Airdrop to create ad hoc peer-to-peer networks where they can share instructions, which is really cool. These types of communication tools have a huge importance within activist organizations. “Misusing” these technologies in a non-hierarchical and ad hoc way, that’s really clever.

It’s interesting how far we’ve come from the Arab Spring, which marked the onset of social media powered protests.

Yes, right now there seems to be so many more private group chats, rather than broadcasts or public Facebook communities. I have so many apps on my phone for various political organizing. Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, Mattermost, Slack, Discord, RocketChat… that’s way too many!
Apart from Signal and Mattermost, there are major security and privacy concerns with most of them, as well as fundamental UX problems. If you have a group with thousands of people, so much messaging gets lost, you can’t tell who you are talking to. Even though there’s a use case for appropriating these tools, everything has to be retrofitted for political organizing. It is kind of crazy that an organization like XR is using Basecamp — it seems not fit for purpose and also not secure. Same with all these different groups using Google Drive, which seems so antithetical to their principles… I’ve talked to a number of different organizers and noticed they use Google Drive, but a lot of the time is the same answer — everyone is already there, it’s easy, it’s free. Companies like Google and Facebook have so much unfair advantage when creating tools like this — they have so much money from advertising that they can offer products for free. At the end of the day, it’s not working in your best interest at all to use them, as a political organizer.

Yes, that’s a big challenge. Speaking of which — what are the characteristics of the digital tools and platforms suited for political organizing?

End-to-end encryption is a huge one. Making it open source too, as this is the way we create a commons and build networks, as well as give people the ability to understand what they’re working with. The ability to have control over the tool you are using, that’s a pretty fundamental aspect.

Is there any other protest movement that sparked your attention lately?
The Fck Boris protest in London against the election of Boris Johnson as the UK Prime Minister was very interesting — it was organized by a coalition of different groups in London. They were able to mobilize very quickly and get a huge turnout (about 10,000), especially among young people. It’s a really good example of different grassroots organizations working together and pooling their knowledge, and acting much more efficiently because of this. The protest had a very clear visual language and atmosphere — it was almost like a flash festival. I was very impressed at what they managed to put together in such a short time.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not only about the tools that people have but also the energy behind it, the levels of anger and frustration..?

One of the things we come back to a lot is that yes, we want to make digital tools, but that’s not really our end goal. What it really comes down to is about people, and connecting people with other people. The tool itself is not really important if you don’t have the social and political will behind it.

It’s interesting to see how the nature of protest evolved in the digital space. There used to be a time where people engaged in “clicktivism” from the comfort of their smartphones, which gave them a feel-good illusion that clicking “like” on a Facebook page or tweeting incendiary messages is equivalent to activism that effects change. It seems that now the time has come to walk out on the streets.

Yes, it seems like there’s a widespread rejection of major digital platforms. People are really wanting to move away from them and to show up physically. I personally first heard about Extinction Rebellion because I saw their stickers around London, it wasn’t through social media.

Let’s talk about another issue area you are focusing on — workers rights in the digital economy and the fate of employees of digital platforms. According to recent data, between 2016 and 2019 the number of people working for digital platforms in the UK doubled to 4.7 million, one in ten of the entire workforce. Millions of people are now in some form of precarious work, their wages fail to keep pace with the rising living cost, they’re facing lower pay and poor working conditions… Is this something that you also address? What are the ways to empower these people?

When I think about the key challenges facing those people… it’s so many! It’s hard to pinpoint one issue to talk about, and it all feels dystopian and depressing. You have the layer of surveillance, which applies to everyone. People are just exhausted and accept this as a given. Then you look at the gig economy and how technology is used to dehumanize these workers… Under surveillance capitalism, we are all forced to be these isolated consumers, operating in a competitive environment, while everything around us is monitored and harvested for data. In a way, technology is confining us and keeping us separate from each other. It makes it difficult to have self-determination or form strong social groups. What we really want to do is to give workers, and people more generally, access to knowledge and tools — in a sense, consciousness-raising. It also comes back to connecting them with others, building networks, connecting them with unions and helping unions to connect with them — getting them to work in collaboration and in solidarity with others in order to collectively change their situation. In Training for Exploitation?, Precarious Workers Brigade frame self-organized groups as a way of not just dealing with capitalism, but also of creating an alternative to capitalism, building places of identity, solidarity and education, in parallel to the structures that already exist.

Where does the accountability lie? We can empower workers, but in this marketplace situation we also need awareness on the side of the consumer and technology companies.

Definitely, there needs to be solidarity between workers and consumers, recognizing that we are all basically in the same situation under capitalism. A company like Uber for example, the way that its enabled by technology — it really lends itself to be a platform co-op. It feels like the “sharing economy” has interesting foundations, but because it was made in Silicon Valley for venture capitalists, it went a certain way. But we need to take these things back and build them in a way that the workers own them instead. A huge problem for platform co-ops is that it’s expensive to start those things — how do you get the initial seed funding if you can’t go to a venture capitalist? One of the things we want to look at and share knowledge about is financial structures, how can we make these things sustainable.

In order to shed light on those issues and effect change, do you want to exert pressure directly on the companies? Are we giving up on policymakers and regulation? What’s the ideal route?

Our focus at Common Knowledge is not about regulation. I recently read The Shock Doctrine of the Left by Graham Jones, which has informed a lot of my thinking about these approaches. It describes different ways of direct political action: Smashing: protest and disobedience; Building: building viable alternatives next to mainstream ones (which I would say is our main focus); Taming, which is about regulation and working within the electoral political system; and Healing, which is about reproductive labour. You can approach problems in all these different ways. For such complex and society-wide problems, there’s no one single answer or approach. The way we have strength is having lots of different people trying lots of different things. Regulation should still be a focus, it’s just not ours.

Can you share some examples of various groups working together towards shared goals, for example from one of your political action communities on Telegram?

From the environmental perspective, I’ve gone to a few meetings run by a group called Divest Islington, focused on divestment campaigns specifically for Islington (a borough of London). They succeed in getting Islington council to divest from fossil fuels, and have now been looking at what a Green New Deal could look like, specifically for Islington. More recently, they organized a meeting with representatives of different local campaigns — other divestment groups, general environmental activism groups and groups focused specifically on air pollution around schools. Each group has a different focus, whether it is lobbying or direct action, but in the end they all recognize that we have the same aims. In the meeting we spoke about how we could support each other and work together. The strength comes from having a really broad range of groups and recognizing the solidarity amongst them.

Final question: Given the general perception of an impending dystopian techno-capitalist doom, are you optimistic about the future?

I think optimism is a very interesting thing to talk about. On one hand I’m very sceptical of techno-optimism and believing that technology will save us. I really don’t believe that and I think it’s what has led us to a lot of trouble in the past. Technology on its own is not going to solve anything, but I do think that technology can be a very powerful tool.

In some ways the situation is very bleak, especially in terms of the environment, and this sometimes can get very overwhelming. I was reading this great article the other day, called Beyond Hope. The general argument is that hope is not actually useful — if you’re hoping for something you think that some external factor is going to solve it for you. Whereas if you realise that you have agency over something, you just do the work. I agree that it’s a much more powerful mentality. We do actually have agency and we all just need to do something. A crucial part of it is moving from individual mindset to a collective mindset — rather than getting overwhelmed and thinking that there’s nothing one can do, and seeing oneself as a very small part of a much greater whole. There’s something more comforting and powerful, to instead think of oneself within a context of a global movement.

Thank you!

This interview was conducted by Ola Kohut in Berlin on 12th September 2019.

When Co-ops Meet DAOs

Nathan Schneider is a journalist and professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He was among the first journalists to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement, and more recently he authored the book Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy, in which he looks at how cooperatives can become the basis of a democratic economy. We caught up with Nathan in August in Berlin, asking him to share his views on the existing cooperative model, how can they be modernized and applied in the digital economy. We also talked about the concept and application of decentralization practices in tech, and exchanged ideas on how to increase accountability and leadership in the Web 3.0 space.

Hi Nathan, one of your main research topics is the feasibility of digital cooperatives. Let’s dive deeper into this. 

Nathan Schneider: Yes, that’s a big question for me. Are there ways in which these digital tools can help new cooperatives get off the ground more easily, but also — can they be used by older cooperatives to claim some of their potential? That’s a big ask because those older cooperatives are very conservative, they are careful with their members’ money and struggling to keep up with better capitalized competitors. There is some promise there though — especially, the ability to use things like DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations] and shared governance technologies to recapture the lateral member-to-member relationship that made cooperatives take off in the first place.

Could you share some of your favourite functioning examples of cooperatives operating nowadays?

There are a few examples that lurk around in the economy. In the US, the most wealthy corner of the cooperative movement is the credit unions, which is also a powerful movement here in Germany. These organizations grew by serving communities that didn’t have access to financial institutions — they were able to do that because they built upon the member-to-member relationship. They built on the idea that people in a neighbourhood could decide on who was creditworthy — better than some banker who never set foot there — based on relationships, based on reputation systems, based on a stake. And as these institutions grew, they received public policy frameworks and regulation to support their growth, and now they operate like a nicer, nonprofit version of banks. About a third of US citizens are members of these institutions, which constitute a powerful piece of infrastructure where people can put their money in a place that feeds their community. But what does the next generation of traditional credit union cooperatives look like? How can we really use this model as a lever to transform the current economic system rather than just work around the edges?

Another example of a contemporary cooperative is Associated Press. Because it’s a cooperative owned by members of various news organizations, it is very much invested in supporting small news outlets because of its membership model. Nobody accuses AP of spreading “fake news” — its cooperative incentive structure results in factual, reliable information. And this is one of the few media organizations that can compare to the reach of Facebook; AP claims to reach half the population of the world every day.

Not everything in the economy needs to be a cooperative, but that cooperatives can play a vital role that can enable other kinds of businesses to function, and to have better feedback loops.

Why don’t more cooperatives operate on a large scale, competing with the big tech giants?

There is nothing about cooperatives that restricts scale other than really financing access. One characteristic of cooperatives too is that when they work at larger scales, they tend to work as federations so they are not claiming the whole market — they are actually just realigning it. While working at a large scale, they actually exist to support the smaller players and the dynamism of the market, rather than to eat up the whole market all onto themselves. And that is a really exciting difference enabling them to support local and diverse business rather than trying to disrupt and consume small players into nonexistence.

Do you have any data on cooperatives operating globally?

The data is very hard to come by. In the US for example we don’t count cooperatives in our censuses — though that is about to change — and data comes from self-reporting. Globally, 10 percent of employment happens through cooperatives, and certain countries have very significant cooperative economies. In Kenya cooperatives generate half of the GDP, in northern Italy significant portions of agricultural and even some industrial activity happens via cooperatives, and in New Zealand — virtually the entire dairy market operates as a co-op. Everyone who’s been around cooperatives for a long time says that we are in an explosive moment and the interest in this model is very high. But the barriers are also very high, as the online co-op structures that people are trying to create are not yet supported by the economy and the legal frameworks. We are in the process of trying to build the ecosystem to enable appropriate financing for cooperatives in the digital economy.

Are cooperatives a viable alternative to the dominant corporate models?

There’s a perception out there that venture backed companies are more efficient and that’s why they get funding, while cooperatives don’t. But the VC model only became possible when legal constraints on it were lifted. Similarly, co-ops have been able to scale in various sectors when appropriate legal frameworks were put in place; thus, there’s a $128 billion co-op bank in my area in Colorado, and there are co-ops in the United States that own nuclear power plants. If we as a society want to make co-ops more of the dominant economy, we can — we just need to make sure they have the tools and rules in place that they need, like any other kind of business.

What’s the difference between old cooperative models and the most contemporary ones that you explored?

A few years ago I reported on the Catalan Integral Cooperative, a remarkable young cooperative based in Barcelona that is involved in various projects, from farms and a reclaimed factory to urban housing and health care. I thought they must be inspired by the Mondragon Corporation, a massive worker co-op in nearby Basque Country. But they told me no — they didn’t want jobs. Their whole purpose is to get out of this idea that you have to have a job your whole life. Their purpose is to liberate people from capitalism and from the economy, not to just to establish themselves within the industrial order. Catalan Integral Cooperative’s objective is to generate a self-managed, post-capitalist society based on peer-to-peer principles. While there are certainly lessons to be drawn from the older cooperative models, such as Mondragon, the CIC example shows that they are also ways in which modern cooperatives are trying to solve different problems, and have different visions for what they’re trying to achieve.

Is it possible to register a transnational digital cooperative today?

It is, but sometimes we need to bend the rules in order to achieve the things that are commonplace in our online economy. That’s one of the opportunities that the blockchain space represents — offering us a new toolset that we can use to explore and develop what it means to be a cooperative member in the new context.

Through your research in cooperatives, have you come across what is the best jurisdiction to establish your legal entity if you want to create an international worker cooperative?

I don’t think there is a perfect jurisdiction. But for example right now in Colorado, where I live, our state happens to have really flexible cooperative laws which allows for forming multi-stakeholder cooperatives. So Colorado is becoming, as our lawyers say, the Delaware of cooperatives. There’s also an EU-wide Statute for a European Cooperative Society, which aims to help cooperatives who have activities in more than one EU country. You can always work with statutes, and they’re not that hard to change, especially locally. The real challenge is creating an economic market around these businesses that knows how to invest in them and how to help them grow.

From the consumer or user perspective, what would this new cooperative-based economy change?

My hope is that this kind of model could shift some of the accountability problems we currently face, across the spectrum. A new feedback loop of accountability would be introduced and, for instance, tech companies would lose interest in exploiting their users because the users would now be the legitimate business owners. We would have to build a model that is oriented very differently from the outset. Moreover, we would have to create frameworks where, as a society, we have a say in the institutions that we depend on, and where we own our problems — rather than just saying “oh, those evil corporations, they’re causing all these problems.”

We also need to be aware — and this has been recognized in the blockchain space — that just because an organization is decentralized, it doesn’t mean the problems go away. It just means you have a different framework for addressing those problems. And to me, that is the hope.

Do you see blockchain as a really disruptive technology which can make a real difference? What is the hope it brings, and what are the main challenges, in your opinion?

I first learned about the Ethereum whitepaper early in 2014, when I was touring with my book on Occupy Wall Street. I experienced this protest movement as being full of people craving a pure, more accountable, responsive kind of democracy. Ethereum really caught my attention because it represents something where we can actually start trying those new kinds of democracies that people were craving in the protest camps all around the world. It provides a space where we can iterate on governance fast, and where we can develop new, responsive forms of democracy which are both efficient and accountable.

Since then, it feels less like a moment where we are craving for democracy — it feels like the whole idea of democracy is in a massive crisis. And if we don’t sort out some real accountable institutions fast — democracy is going away. So I’ve been excited about the really creative mechanism designs fluctuating in the decentralization space. I want to bring them back to those old co-ops. At the same time, I think there is too much faith in that one mechanism will solve all of our problems. There’s maturity coming into play now where people are recognizing it might be a little more complicated than that. But the truth is, the blockchain space enables tremendous creativity going into what the future of accountability could look like. There’s also a potential to learn a lot of lessons from what came before and apply them in new ways.

The kind of voting systems we have now in democratic governments, for instance, are just so poor at accounting for and balancing preferences. And there is a potential for tremendous innovation in the DAO space. But there are also forgotten lessons to be learned from offline governance. Sortition, for instance, is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. It is a system intended to ensure that all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public roles. It was very prominent in the Athenian democracy, for example — but is much less prominent now. And actually it’s a system that has a lot of really nice features, it’s a way of balancing expertise and populism — but it is going to be very hard to implement that in our governments now. In the blockchain space, however, we could try out 15 different kinds of sortition systems and see how they work.

As we play with all these different kinds of fun mechanisms, we can’t forget that there’s a lot more to governance than voting. And the point of good governance is that it fades into the background. When it’s working well, democracy consumes less of our attention, not more.

In your recent article on decentralization you mentioned tools that are meant to decentralize issues and introduce novel possibilities run the risk of enabling astonishingly unaccountable concentrations of power. Can you give some examples of that?

First of all, I’m not sure that just more decentralization per se is going to solve any problems. When we look at past systems, it appeared necessary to establish forms of centralization that protect the kinds of decentralization we like. One example is protecting competitive labor markets by having labor laws that are centralized and centrally enforced, or protecting decentralized business markets by having centralized antitrust law, which ensures that when a company takes too much market power, it faces consequences. I don’t think we should be afraid of those things. To me, the more useful question rather than whether the new systems are decentralized is — are the systems we are creating more accountable and liberating? The system can be as unconstrained as possible, but in cases when constraints are necessary — those constraints should be accountable. If enough of us think they are really stupid, we can change them. I think the technologies developed in the Web 3.0 space can be useful — if we reframe them around actually advancing a democratic promise and advancing accountability.

What will it take to overtake incumbents such as Google, Facebook, Amazon? Is it even possible to overtake or replace them with more accountable, decentralized solutions?

If we are going to tolerate the role that they currently play, we should get serious about building accountability into them — because exit is not an option. Perhaps certain aspects of these systems are indeed natural monopolies — but if so, they should be either regulated like crazy, or they should be democratically structured, like a school board.

One project I’m interested in now is how can we start inserting some user ownership into these companies? Interestingly, Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have all been begging the Securities and Exchange Commission to let them share ownership with their users. They do want to align their interests with their users. Let’s take advantage of that desire, let’s give users some equity and change the rules around that. But they also have to give users a voice. That seems like a reasonable compromise.

If you were brought into the Ethereum Foundation because someone asks, how can we be made more accountable — what would be your suggestion?

I think first the question is — what powers they actually have? There’s a lot of lack of clarity about that. My understanding is that there’s the official foundation and then there’s a shadow — a tyranny of structurelessness that is also very much at work. So first, I would say that we need to have clarity about what the power structure is — where the buck stops. And then ask — who are stakeholders, who are the citizens?

And then wonder what is appropriate for those citizens to be involved in, and what isn’t? And then ask how do they get involved. For instance, in a technical context for a startup, you don’t want a thousand random people looking over the shoulders of developers, you want to honour expertise.

Can you speak more about your thoughts on leadership in institutions or cooperatives?

It’s important to recognize that you don’t want everybody always involved in everything. Instead, you want to identify the places where accountability really matters, design for those, and then leave the people who are vested with responsibility — the space to use that responsibility. I spend more time with cooperative entrepreneurs lately reminding them that they are leaders, rather than talking about horizontal organizing or decentralization. They assume that because it’s a cooperative they need to defer on everything to the amorphous membership. But cooperatives have always needed leaders. The question is, how is that leadership accountable? Once that’s clear, let’s free those leaders to express their full selves and put their talents to work — that’s what we want. We don’t want to constrain people, we want to empower them.

As we build new kinds of organizations, we also need to dispense with the illusion that we’re departing entirely from the past: just because we’re dealing with crypto ledgers doesn’t mean we don’t need to have institutions anymore or that humans don’t have to trust each other anymore. I think that evidence is very strong from our experience that whenever we try to escape those things, we’re going to end up with stuff that’s worse.

Thank you!

This interview was conducted by Ola Kohut and Yalda Mousavinia in Berlin on 22. August 2019.