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Constitutional conventions: best practice

Regular regulators

I wrote the other day that we -- the collective, global, democratic "we" -- desparately need to take responsibility for financial regulation. I mainly had in mind our own shareholder, pension-holder, saver activism. But our friends at have a very sensible, complementary approach that tries to put pressure on our governments to take the issue of regulation seriously. Their new campaign around the issue is here: looks to me like a good one to sign up to.

Lehman: technocrats' end-game

Tony Curzon Price (London, oD): Tim Duy has a great analysis of what the week-end teaches us about where we are with Lehman, Merrill, AIG etc. I think he is right that this is a signal from the US authorities that the socialisation of losses is over; that any taking-over of dud assets by the public will now go through Congress, and not through a technocratic nod-and-wink. The danger, as it has been for a year, is contagion to the real economy---when do firms providing real value find that either a) demand has fallen such that they have to cut back operations or b) that their own credit lines for working capital and investment programs are closed, and so have to cut back?

That danger still exists. Certainly, as banks find it harder and harder to satisfy regulators that they have enough capital to guarantee the loans they have made, they will cut back their lending. So far, the Fed has become banker-of-last-resort by allowing bonds and now even shares to be put up as guarantees for cash loans.

In any case, the week-end moves by the Fed mean that the music of time is picking up again. After 1 year of waiting, time-haltingly hoping, that the crisis would resolve itself, the regulator has called time-up. There may yet need to be large-scale public cash injections into the corporate sector to avoid deep depression. But this week-end shows the regulator has, at last, given up on hopes of self-repair. So adopt the pose of the surfer caught between breaking waves: take a deep breath and hope the turbulence of the breaking behemoth does not keep our economies trapped under for too long.

Lehman: technocrats' end-game

Tim Duy has a great analysis of what the week-end teaches us about where we are with Lehman, Merrill, AIG etc. I think he is right that this is a signal from the US authorities that the socialisation of losses is over; that any taking-over of dud assets by the public will now go through Congress, and not through a technocratic nod-and-wink. The danger, as it has been for a year, is contagion to the real economy---when do firms providing real value find that either a) demand has fallen such that they have to cut back operations or b) that their own credit lines for working capital and investment programs are closed, and so have to cut back?

That danger still exists. Certainly, as banks find it harder and harder to satisfy regulators that they have enough capital to guarantee the loans they have made, they will cut back their lending. So far, the Fed has become banker-of-last-resort by allowing bonds and now even shares to be put up as guarantees for cash loans.

In any case, the week-end moves by the Fed mean that the music of time is picking up again. After 1 year of waiting, time-haltingly hoping, that the crisis would resolve itself, the regulator has called time-up. There may yet need to be large-scale public cash injections into the corporate sector to avoid deep depression. But this week-end shows the regulator has, at last, given up on hopes of self-repair. So adopt the pose of the surfer caught between breaking waves: take a deep breath and hope the turbulence of the breaking behemoth does not keep our economies trapped under for too long.

When we re-emerge, expect to see JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs still standing, but not much else in the financial firmament. Expect a divided world of finance---hyper-regulated standard products on one side, and a pool of crazy, gambling sharks on the other. Think twice about risk-reward before surfing in the sharky waters again.


Murat Belge on the fundamentalist mind

I had not read Murat Belge's remarkable October 4th 2001 essay on Fundamentalism and reactions to it. Murat is a Turkish public intellectual and long-time friend of openDemocracy - he regularly comes in to visit us when he is passing through London. In this essay, Murat disects the spectacle of 9/11 not only from the point of view of Islam's colonial, inferiorist grievances, not only from the resultant ability to form a cold, universalising ideology that legitimates violence, but also importantly from our reaction to it. Hawks obviously play into the hands of fundamentalists by "increasing the distance" to the other; but so do liberal democrats whose tolerant multiculturalism too easily slips into moral relativism. The essay, written less than a month after the World Trade Centre attack, is a masterful account of the bind that violence puts us into.

Georgia-Russia: calling for a Machiavellian u-turn

Rein Müllerson, a professor of International Law, strips the Russian-Goergian war of obfuscating legalities. This is not a conflict about ``aggression, occupation, genocide, racial discrimination, territorial integrity, peace enforcement, humanitarian mission, sanctity of treaties'' or any such term of art used with "such self-righteous indignation, with such self-confidence by all sides". This is a war about the interests of global powers. The next steps to be taken by the US and Russia will be important in defining a future either of a great (nasty) conflictual game between US, Russia and China or of a concord of nations recognising mutual dependence in the face of global threats. The latter, better path requires all sides now to tone down rhetric, to u-turn without saying so.

Georgian endoscopy

A part of Fred Halliday's call to understand local agency before jumping the geo-political gun is to know the domestic politics (see his recent article here). War often has deep domestic political repercussions - some anticipated and many not - and Robert Parsons shines a light right into the here and now of Georgian politics. The first surprise -- to Russia, at least -- is that the Geogian institutions have held up and continued to function. There is no immediate call for regime change despite Russia's best attempts to re-open old divisions. The war has, for now, united Georgia. But the end of the war is likely to produce a demand for accounts from within and provides an opportunity for an organsied and compelling Georgian opposition to emerge. This fascinating piece of insider observation points to who we should expect to do what to who else and under what circumstances.

Smaller peoples pay a higher price

Fred Halliday takes a broad historical sweep at the nationalist delusions of grandeur of small states. Nationalism, more than any other force, has led local leaders to mis-read their strength, their opponents, the supportiveness of their allies and the future. Be it Ireland in 1916, North Vietnam in 1950, Egypt in 1973, Cyprus in 1974, Iraq in 1980 then 1990, local powers, suffering a fetish of "territorial integrity" have refused "to look at reasonable, humane compromises," have misread "international political realities" and have resorted "to destructive and often useless violence." Georgia today is an unhappy addition to that list.

Over and above a denunciation of nationalism, Fred Halliday's piece goes two steps further. First, you need to understand these local elites to understand global conflicts; the short-cut of talking in terms of "clients", "proxies", "agents", "pawns" won't work, because local nationalist delusions are a necessary pre-condition of geo-political clientelism. Second, Fred asks whether these nationalist delusions are not just as prevalent and damaging amongst the large powers as amongst the small. Yes but ... he answers --- the delusions are further from the reality in the case of small nations, and distance from reality in this domain, creates violence and inhumanity. "Smaller peoples pay a higher price. "

Olympic lessons: no medals without opposition

"The leaders fail to understand that the fakery casts genuine achievements into doubt, and their clumsy cover-ups bring only greater dishonour," says Li Datong of the control-obsession that Chinese leadership has demonstrated during the Olympics. But when will they regain the maturity to understand that it is a strength, not a weakness, to allow genuine criticism and opposition?

As we see also in Paul Rogers' comments about Russia, and Anthony Barnett's follow-up comments on Iran: a show of strength is a proof of vulnerability. Li Datong reminds us that this wisdom was part of the pre-Tiananmen awareness of the leadership: "The late politicians Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang once openly said "we must get used to governing while the public oppose and demonstrate", and "we must learn to govern despite small or medium-scale disorder." Unfortunately this vision and psychological readiness was brought to an end by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and has not yet returned. "

China's coming out moment - vulnerability, power, democracy

Behind every ritual show of control, look for the unconfidence that it masks. Kerry Brown notices it in the the Olympic pageant. The perfectionism, the mime, point not so much to manipulative control of appearances as to a desire to come out and shine on the stage of nations. Kerry Brown sees a very positive dynamic here. A year of challenges and crises has shown "that the Chinese people, complex and segmented and dispersed as they are, have and want a voice," and the leadership must now see that the next task after a splendid Olympics is to build "a transparent, modern democracy." Look to the October 2008 meeting of the leadership for signs that the leadership has understood the next step on the steep, post-Olympian road.

Krastev: Russia's nineteenth century clothes

For the past week at openDemocracy we have focused our war coverage on history, on the particular, on reminding our readers that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not abstractions, but places with history, populated by people with claims and memories. Now, in moving to the bigger canvas, we do not jump into NATO, the USA and geo-politics. Instead, we stay firmly focused on the actors and the reality. In this brlliant piece, Ivan Krastev helps us to understand what Russia is doing, and why it is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Russia must, for its and our good, rediscover soft power.

Georgia: study the history

George Hewitt doesn't like the way:

"the torrent of media commentary on the Georgia-Russia war has been characterised by near-obsessive geopolitical calculation, which [...] tends by default to view Georgia's "lost" territories (if they are viewed at all) as nothing more than inconsiderate and irritating pawns on a global chessboard."

Georgia has its own "near abroad", that happen to be within its UN-defined borders; Russia has Georgia in its "near abroad" ... Remember Mandelbrot's ginerbread man: whatever the scale you examined it at, you'd get those repeating patterns. Fractals of nationalism. And what about the non-Ossetian minorities in South Ossetia? Where will they go, as one of our commenters asked.

Surely there is a pattern here that we can see should be avoided: to treat the other, be it ethny, nation, or however you care to define the outsider, as a means to your political end? Shouldn't alarm bells from the Balkans be ringing in NATO's ears?

George Hewitt provides the historical background and the detail that we need to read to understand---to really sympathetically understand--- that when we take the short-cut of geopolitics, we allow ourselves to think of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as mere pawns in a new cold war, then we have already ruled out the possibility of a humane solution.

Steal this donation, donate this theft

There's always a business model question hovering around iSummit, and 08 is no exception. Jamie King talked about what he'd learnt from Steal this film -with some great pidgeon pictures - but also talked about VODO, a platform for users to  donate for cultural production on peer-to-peer networks. Each work has a paypal account linked to it, and the community can identify files as being tokens of a "work''. Donations get aggregated. Now, the nice twist I liked here was Jamie's idea of giving works the option to specify that some percentage of donations will be spread back into the community of previous donors - by donating you are buying a share. This will appeal in some places and in some communities. You will need to fix the shape of pyramid, etc - and you could let donors specify _who_ their share was going to go to --- good, for example, in communities where the scheme seemed too Wall Street -like for comfort. 

More generally, it struck me that getting good ways of chanelling funds for specific types of production is something that all publishers on the commons are trying to do. So here is another opportunity for iCommons to think about shared infrastructure.How about iCommons created buttons -- and systems behind -- that I could embed on a piece of content and which said: 

``I'd like to support this piece of content''

``I'd like to give general support to this organisation"

``I pledge $x to this project as long as total pledges amount to $y"

In all these cases, I think that standardisation across Commons  sites would be useful - the donor would come to learn what a button meant; could have an account at the shared piece of infrastructure , etc.

OK, and iCommons could have a pyramid-shaped button for VODO :)


T-Shirt remixes is at the iSummit08 offering t-shirt remixes.

They print it on the spot, within a few hours. You get a template - this one had the iSummit08 logo on it, you tell it what Flickr stream you want (I asked for openDemocracy's) and you make your t-shirt.

Here is the one I did yesterday

Let me have your orders, Yen1,000 per shirt.Tony


Overmundo, GV and openDemocracy

I spent yesterday in the Local Commons Global Context track of the iSummit event which was focusing on publishing on the commons. oD was there as one of 2 other publications for whom the ethos of the global commons is important. GlobalVoicesOnline, which we know and love, and Overmundo - less familiar because it of its Brazilian language and culture focus.

GVOnline is a digest of blogs that is orchestrated by a remarkable volunteer network. One of its most impressive achievements has been the development of translation communities around GV, Lingua, which is now, in part at least, available in 15 languages. I spent a lot of time talking to translators---how they organise the volunteer networks; why they are motivated to do it ("many of our volunteers are away from their home countries and cultures; translating is a homage to home" was one answer). 

Overmundo has developed a community of citizen commentators, of editorial democracy that seems very remarkable -- energetic, popular and self-asserting. A sort Slashdot of Brazilian culture. 

 Rebecca Kahn,  convenor and connector of dots on the Local Commons Global Context track, wanted to know what all three publications could share --- apart from basic ethos. At first, it seemed hard to think of this --- all three publications are living experiments whose way of working is an integral part of the qualities the publications exhibit. So mixing and matching seems hard. (oD sometimes carries GV material, so some mixing and matching is very straightforward). But beyond using content, which we can do anyway under the CC licenses, what more could be done to combine our strengths? As Chris Salzberg, the Japan Lingua editor, said: `` even within GV we have trouble keeping with everything. The bottleneck is time and attention!"

 Well, on reflection, I think there are a number of things we should be doing to combine our strengths:


  1. sort out the search engine stuff that I keep going on about (here and here)- we are all affected by it, so let's have a joint approach to it 
  2. move towards a common open-ID login infrastructure - give people who want to login a common identity across the global commons publishers and provide a sense of a ``family of publications" that you are a part of
  3. participate in cross-advertising. The overlap of our potential readerships is likely to be quite large - so let's make sure that we regularly point readers to the other publications. For oD, one of our most effective means of promotion is the 50k strong email distribution, where, on a monthly basis, we could include a link to the family of commons publishers. Even better, of course, if someone took on the task at iCommons of writing a summary blog post of what is going on in the publishing commons, and linking to that...
  4. some degree of editorial forward planning. so, for example, we might have a quarterly skype call for publications in the ``commons family" simply to talk about what each of us has coming up, to make sure we're not missing any tricks in possible collaborations, joint fundraising or marketing activities ...




What should iCommons be doing?


What is the global commons and what does it need?

Tony Curzon Price

July 27th 2008


Heather Ford, executive director of iCommons, has opened an important discussion for everyone involved in creating new media for the public realm. iCommons grew out of the Creative Commons licenses, and was always intended to be the ``movement" that would underpin the licenses, encapsulating and giving expression to the ethos of openness, free culture, of sharing and of the transformative potential of technology that the Creative Commons licenses were but a tool of.

iCommons' institutional progress has been remarkable--it has captured the spirit of hope in technology and has been able to raise funding for five years. A real achievement--I know how hard this is--congratulations Heather and Ronaldo.

Congratulations also for putting out there the existential questions: what is iCommons for? and being true to the open ethos of the organisation in asking the question in such a public way.


iCommons should be the confederation that serves the projects that constitute the global commons

My view is that iCommons should be a confederation of projects; the projects are all trying to be micro-movements, to develop a sense of identity, purpose, community ...iCommons needs to be the umbrella, to provide the federative infrastructure; to lobby for its confederal members; to give project leaders and managers a resource that they can use. As a confederation, iCommons ought to live above the movements that it encourages. It ought to be a movement of movements.

Let me explain my thinking. The best place to start is Zittrain (2008)'s schema of the organisations that work on the Internet. I gave an account of this schema in this article(Curzon Price, 2008).





iCommons' Federative domain


My guess is that all of the projects that feel themselves to be part of the iCommons live in Zittrain's communitarian corner. More than that, I believe that most of the content providers in the communitarian corner ought to be federated by iCommons. In the domain of code, or of protocols, or of hardware, the communitarian corner has other ``movement" organisations looking after projects' interests. Not in the realm of content.

The communitarian corner is made up of many micro-institutions. This is the world of hierarchy--there are clear rules, goals, framing systems. We are not in the polyarchy of the market or of anarcho-hacking. The micro-institutions are typically under-funded, relying on good will, idealism and a small number of dedicated key individuals. These are groups whom iCommons should consider as its clients. They need support, and they are the natural vectors of the ethos of the global commons.


What does this mean in practice?

What would the federation deliver, and to whom? A federation makes sense to supply common, collective goods. Those goods that are of shared usefulness between members. A federation is a sort of club. Here are a few examples of what iCommons could be supplying (maybe it is already and I do not know ...):


  1. represent iCommon interests to important corporate/industry actors. For example, does Google's search take the CC origination issues seriously? I believe not, as I have written about before, in the context of Google sending out News alerts for our material only once it has been reproduced by others, and as originated by others.
  2. provide a directory of projects aimed at funders--a bit like what TechCrunch does for SV start-ups, or VentureWire does for venture-financed deals.
  3. provide central s/w infrastructure, for example an open-id server and authentication service ...this is a piece of functionality which most of us need and which can be shared; iCommons could provide -- either in-house or out-sourced-- a central facility. Not having these sorts of facilities is the sort of practical problem that will push us into the ``corporate / federalist'' corner of Zittrain's schema -- if there is no Commons solution to identity infrastructure, I might as well use Google's or Yahoo's...
  4. develop iCommons as a brand. Most of us use CC licenses because of a shared ethos more than because of the details of the legalities of the licenses. iCommons should come to be seen to represent that ethos, and content-associated with the mark should satisfy certain user expectations beyond the legal detail.


How should iCommons work as an organisation?

Projects that consider themselves to be under the iCommons should register with iCommons. iCommons should think of these projects as its customers--it ought to exist to serve them, as the centre in a confederation ought to be at the service of members. iCommons ought to poll projects regularly--not only to keep status up-to-date, but also to prioritise what it should be doing.


Heather's Revisioning Message

In 2005, iCommons was established as an outgrowth of Creative Commons with an objective to ?advance the wider dissemination of non- commercial sharing of scientific, creative and other intellectual works by the general public?. Creative Commons was the sole member, guarantor and sponsor of the charity, providing organisational and financial support.

Today, iCommons has a small, agile core team with its own policies, procedures and culture; we?ve expanded our membership (Creative Commons is now one of five members of iCommons rather than the sole member), raised core funding for the next five years and initiated a series of new collaborative projects, and as of 31 March, 2008, have become an independent organisation separate from Creative Commons.

Following our independence, and because we realise that we could be doing so much more, we thought it important to examine ourselves and develop a vision to guide us through an open revisioning process.

This vision is of a world where there is widespread participation in global innovation, digital culture and knowledge-building initiatives, based on equitable access to technology, education, science and culture ? a world where people are using the organizing power of technologies and the spirit of the commons to work together to solve crucial global challenges.

iCommons could play an important role in catalyzing connections between people from the global South and North, with diverse backgrounds in order to develop a mutual understanding of the role of the digital commons in enabling innovation, participation and cultural expression in diverse regions of the world.

Achieving this will be no easy task. The ``global'' commons is far from global right now, and we're all trying to solve very different problems with very little insight on how we can develop solutions that are inclusive of people throughout the globe.

This is where we need your help to decide what an independent iCommons can be doing to support the global commons in the future. There are obviously limits to what we will be able to do, but we believe that this community can have a major impact on developing truly global solutions to challenges that are defining our generation.

? How can we build an identity for ourselves that is distinct from our former parent (Creative Commons) whilst retaining a partnership that is mutually beneficial?

? What should iCommons do to best achieve our vision?

? What kinds of governance changes need to occur in order to operationalise this new vision?

? How can we achieve all of this while adhering to our core values and principles?

? How can we extend our impact beyond the iSummit and our other projects?

? How can we build this movement into something that is truly global?

Today starts an open discussion that will continue through the iSummit and shortly beyond. I will be giving a keynote address (webcast live from the iSummit website) to introduce the revisioning process and there will be physical spaces at the iSummit for participants to answer these questions. We encourage people who are unable to attend to answer these questions in the comments facility below.

The board will then review your suggestions directly after the iSummit and they will publish the minutes from their discussion.

We appreciate your input and look forward to a new future that truly brings together the community to grow the global commons.

Please respond on the article icommons




Curzon Price, T.: 2008, From zittrain to aristotle in 600 words, openDemocracy . istotle_in_600_words.


Zittrain, J.: 2008, The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it),Princeton University Press.



tony curzon price2008-07-28

Speculation again

Are oil prices rising because of semantics?A calm has returned to the economics blogosphere .... if not to the oil markets. Krugman saves his position by arguing that "speculation" only occurs when stocks go up, and refusing to consider the possibility of oil-in-the-ground being a stock. SWhen Krugman wondered about the political biases in calling "Speculation" he was not admitting, at some level, his own bias. Krugman wants to believe that oil prices are "about right" now. I wonder where he stands on carbon taxes and post-Kyoto? Does he believe that peak oil will do the job of cleaning up the environment without intervention?Martin Feldstein in the WSJ is very convincing to my mind. He takes up the difference between storable and non-storable commodity prices that I emphasised here.

Slippery Truths about Oil Prices

Slippery oil prices


Slippery oil prices

Tony Curzon Price

Tribal voices at the FT

Tony Curzon Price (London, oD): I have discovered with great pleasure Julian Jaynes' rather controversial "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown fo the Bi-cameral Mind". A theory of consciousness it may not be, but its account of the disappearance of primitive religion is gripping. Jaynes suggests that ancient Gods literally talked to their devotees---their devotees heard the voice and obeyed it. Primitive societies had a well-ordered constellation of voices to order life, much like the ant-heap has a good constellation of chemicals.

The political uses of Swiss-ishness

Tony Curzon Price (London, oD): A friend of mine tells this story of a first encounter with a French scientist, met under the building-sized replica of the DNA molecule in Crick and Watson's laboratory: English Scientist: "Beautiful, isn't it ?... " pointing at the bobbles and wire. French Scientist: "Not like Fermat's theorem". English Scientist: "Of course, I speak from Anglo-Saxon empiricism". French Scientist: "I know. You should never have burned Joan of Arc".

These are the coded short-cuts which, with enough depth to the relationship, speak loudly. Helvetiophiles will know this kind of short-cut well: Helvetiophile: "Democracy can be distributed, look at Switzerland". Party Animal: "Don't you miss the strong leadership, the direction, the re-alligments and historic moments?" Helvetiophile: "I meant for everyday democracy, for an informed citizenry, for people responsible for their collective decisions". Party Animal: "Ah yes. Cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, gnomes and sanatoria ..."

Time Magazine is running the latest episode in this rapid reduction. (Hat tip to the enthusiasts at Direct Democracy). The populist anti-immigrant Volkspartei (SVP) has organised a referendum aiming at returning the power to bestow citizenship to the lowest level of government, the Communes. This is where the power lay until 2003, when a Supreme Court ruled that the repeated refusal of citizenship by some German-speaking rural Communes was against the federal constitution. Naturalisation became a centralised administrative procedure.

So is the SVP referendum to add to the litany of abuse: "... sanatoria and anti-immigrant referenda"? I am not sure. The Volkspartei holds plenty of nasty opinions, and it wants this referendum to reduce the rate of naturalisations. But I think it is right, and for legitimate reasons that are far from the considerations of the Volkspartei, to keep the decision at the most local level possible.

Naturalisation is not asylum; it is a request to join a group for the long haul, to participate in a future. It is quite right for asylum and sanctuary to be universal rights, protected by international law. But not naturalisation. Naturalisation engages everyone, and responsibility for it should be active and positive on all sides. A bureacratic Britishness test does not politically engage either the host or the potential subject. 

Before 2003, it was always known that the French-speaking cantons, and especially Geneva, were an easy touch for naturalisation. There is no reason to think that these open political cultures would become closed if the power to naturalise were returned to them. Many London local authorities would similarly be open if naturalisation decisions were so-devolved here. Switzerland taken as a whole naturalised more people per head of population in the decade before 2003 than any other European country.

Of course, giving localities the right to naturalise imposes an "externality" on the other localities within the state. This is the same for citizenship of the EU---whoever Sweden naturalises also has residence permission in Poland. There is the danger that "rogue liberals" will become extra-soft on naturalisation knowing full-well that some of the cost will be borne by the xenophobic autarchies of the union. Decentralised naturalisation seems to have an automatic bias in favor of openness---anyone naturalisable by the most liberal is naturalisable by the group.

The Volkspartei, it hardly needs to be said, is not championing states rights for this reason. There is a danger that "rogue openness" will stretch the federation to breaking point, but if it does not get that far, then it offers a wonderful compromise: all the benefits of a liberal naturalisation policy while the xenophobes can continue to feel that the foreigners in their midst are not there with their blessing.

Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will point to us and say: "How could you have done it? how could you have excluded so many, so systematically, from your protected gardens?" We should have an answer that does not involve the excuse that these decisions were taken by an impenetrable central bureaucracy that we trusted to do the right thing. Localising naturalisation would be a good place to start.

Economics: roots and food

Xenophon wrote the first economics book as a treatise on how an Athenian nobleman should best manage his estate. It is often useful, when thingking about big questions of resource allocation in the World economy, to return to the Socratic simplicity of that context. If the world were your estate, what would you be doing?