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Max Haiven: How much should be common?

Who owns big data? What's wrong with state-provided health care? In advance of the Berliner Gazette's Un|Commons conference at the Volksbühne Oct 22-24, we spoke to Max Haiven about these issues and more.

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Photo by Andi Weiland / berlinergazette.de cc by sa

Canadian author, academic and activist Max Haiven speaks at Un|Commons, a conference by the Berliner Gazette at the Volksbühne Oct 22-24. He’s just one of the many international cutting-edge thinkers who’ll be leading workshops, talks and discussions on our increasingly privatised and nontransparent world.

Un|Commons: The Fight for Common Wealth is a conference bringing artists, activists and theorists together to consider communal resources through talks, workshops and performances at Volksbühne. Among the many discussions on offer, Max Haiven moderates a talk on the possibilities of the commons. Approaching “commons” as both an academic and activist, from his recent book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power to his Radical Imagination Project, the Nova Scotia professor places unique emphasis on the imagination as the deconstruction and reconstruction of institutions. You can hear him in person on Saturday October 24 at 3pm for the talk “What Could Our Commons Be?”

The concept of “the commons” sounds like an abstraction…

I see the commons as quite concrete, as a space or a set of resources or an organisation that is based on the principles of grassroots, horizontal democracy and egalitarianism. We’re seeing these pop up all over the place as housing cooperatives and community gardens and whole neighbourhoods demand their autonomy from the neoliberal capitalist marketplace and from top-down hierarchical state control. In Greece, for example, we even see attempts to do this in healthcare, where people are developing community clinics.

What makes “common goods” more valuable than “public goods”?

“Public” implies that we the people (via our government) should take certain things, such as healthcare, out of reach of the market. That’s not always bad… but it does often lead to a form of alienation. These public institutions can then be easily sold on to the market because they run on this sort of authoritarian top-down model. Rather than trusting the state to take care of them, people in crisis zones are imagining new ways of creating the commons to provide those services. This isn’t to say we should completely give up on the state to provide services in the name of the public, but it is to say that if we should struggle to re-democratise these services and bring them back under grassroots community control even if they’re going to be funded and overseen by governments.

What are the biggest threats to the commons?

We’re living in an age of “zombie neoliberalism”. Neoliberalism is this ideology that we should privatise and monetise every aspect of society. Before the 2008 financial crisis, you’d hear media pundits talk about this in the most optimistic terms. Since then, the ideology is even stronger but no one has the optimism anymore. It’s just market rule from now until death as though there’s no alternative. I think that’s the greatest threat to the commons for two reasons: The first is that we’re seeing the acceleration of “enclosure”, in which the market and capitalism devour the public and the commons for profit. The second is that it just completely murders the imagination. If we don’t believe that anything else is possible, we end up retreating into highly individualist, highly fatalist, and highly cynical emotional and intellectual landscape. This leads to a form of systemic depressions, anxiety, and alienation…

Why stress the value of “radical” imagination? Is that meant to be provocative?

We do endorse people taking great courageous leaps of the imagination in order to test the present. If you can’t imagine something radically different, you can’t honestly assess the present. We only come into an understanding of our present moment through an understanding of how things could be otherwise. That said, when we use the word radical we derive it from the Latin term radicibus for root. So a radical imagination is one that tries to dig deeply into the origins of a social or political situation to understand what’s at the root of it. And that’s not a thing where you have a final destination in your thinking. It’s a constant process of excavating and revealing and questioning.

There’s a lot of discussion over whether the “big data” gathered by corporations like Facebook should belong to the commons.

It should, but it doesn’t. Big data is the product of our collective data. Consider the data harvested and monetised by Facebook. It has several thousand employees, but the thing that gives it value is the micro-labour of all of us. This is a form of enclosure, and theft of our common labour. The problem isn’t just that Mark Zuckerberg is making a huge amount of money… what’s worse is that this data is now completely out of our hands and is actually being used to harm us by being sold on to advertisers and marketers in order to pigeonhole us as consumers. Worse still, it’s being handed on to massive security apparatuses like the NSA in order to spy on us and create a situation where political change becomes increasingly difficult because the state is incredibly empowered to spy and to circumvent and predict our actions. But there should be two big considerations before we open big data to the commons: How do we reclaim that data, and how do we generate the power to interpret and manage it? It’s one thing for us to own these huge databases. It’s another thing to build the supercomputers and the incredibly complex algorithms it would take to actually use that data in ways that can serve citizens.

How could we, as “the commons”, apply big data differently than Facebook and the NSA?

There are incredible things we could do with it, such as track disease vectors or discover new forms of solidarity between people.

But might there also be some danger in opening up all our data to the public?

Let’s consider Google’s supposed ability to map and predict flu epidemics by analysing search and calendar inputs. This can be useful now… but at the same time we can imagine scenarios where this could be used viciously. Back during the Ebola epidemic, a number of Western countries closed migration for a huge swathe of African countries that had never experienced Ebola based purely on xenophobia and racism. We can imagine this happening on a much grander scale where whole nations are shut off from the rest of the word because a small village somewhere in them has some sort of medical problem. Or where drug companies adjust their prices in order to gouge countries in need. Or where the flames of xenophobia are fanned by fears that a certain population is a disease vector. These are problems that will not go away if we open big data up to the commons. Unless we’re addressing the other forms of power, authority and violence that are perpetuated in our global scene, then when we “common” big data, we risk unleashing those and making them fuel for the fire.  

UN|COMMONS, Oct 22-24 | Volksbühne, Linienstr. 227, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, for complete programme check berlinergazette.de