Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dar Williams on the Rise of Large Towns and Small Cities


Dar Williams in concert with Jackson Browne (photo: Joshua Loft/Reuters

The singer-songwriter Dar Williams’ music is a revelation—The New Yorker has described her as "one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” - and so, it turns out, is her writing about cities. In her fantastic new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, Williams provides an insightful flâneuse’s take on what makes for a thriving community (full disclosure: I liked the book so much I blurbed it). 

She draws on her travels to cities and towns across America to set out the ingredients of a successful community - a perfect alchemy that allows some towns to thrive. This book describes that recipe for urban success, which Williams likens to magic, and tells the colorful stories of many people and places along the way. I talked to Williams about her new book and her distinct ideas about community.

I’ve been a lot of places, but I don’t think I’ve been to a thousand towns. How long did it take you to visit a thousand towns?

I've been touring for about 25 years. Every year there will be at least fifteen new concert venues and cities on my itinerary. I just got back from my first time in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, for instance. Gorgeous.

I and other urbanists write a lot about cities, but you write about smaller towns. While many creatives have long been drawn to urban centers like Greenwich Village, many others have long been more rural; think about how great artists and musicians like Bob Dylan and the Band were drawn to Woodstock. Do you think we will start to see a greater migration to more rural creative places as cities become more expensive?

I do foresee migration to large towns, like South Orange, New Jersey, and mid-sized cities, like Charlottesville, Virginia - but with a caveat. People want to live in pedestrian-friendly places. I have the best of all worlds: I live in a pedestrian town with a ten-minute walk to the train station. I go to New York City about once a week. Towns that can easily connect to cities and allow their citizens to walk to the grocery store are very popular now. They have shared workspaces, concerts, and restaurants that stay open late. Yes, I see them on the rise.

You mention the great economic sociologist’s Mark Granovetter’s theory of “the strength of weak ties.” Why, in your words, do these weak ties - as opposed to tight circles of family and friends - matter to great places?

The most exciting application of weak ties to me is when you have an idea for something like a community garden, and you know the twenty people who can make it happen. The rototiller guy is different from the girl scout leader whose troop plants the first seeds, as opposed to the moderately wealthy guy who donates five shovels or the graphic designer who makes the sign. The fact that they're all so different is the best thing about them. The more projects we do in the commons, the more likely that we'll know someone who knows someone who can help the next project succeed. We want a beautiful, wide loose network to help see our visions through.

You write that you like to befriend places and want to introduce to them to each other. What does this mean, exactly? And what can towns learn from making friends with one another?

I do see places as very similar to people with personalities and certain way of presenting themselves. They're funny, or they're artsy, or maybe they're a little snobby. I'll go to Lake Tahoe and think about Saranac Lake in New York; how do they keep their wonderful wild beauty when they've become so popular? There is so much that these towns, steeped in their deep regional identities and yet facing so many modern changes, can "discuss" or at least mutually appreciate. I think they'd "like" each other.

Like many great urbanists, you identify a phenomenon you call “positive proximity” as being key to great places. But you go beyond that and say there are three forms of proximity that are key: space, projects and translation. Tell us more about that.

If we want to get along in our towns and grow some collective identity, there are some helpful - I'd say essential - catalysts that I've come to recognize.

There are spaces that help us introduce ourselves to one another casually. Beacon, New York, came into its own out of all of its cafés, bars, and a variety of repurposed spaces.

There are projects, specifically ones that build on the historic and cultural identity of a town, that help us connect and reconnect with all the different personalities and abilities around us, like in Cincinnati, the Tall Stacks festival has music stages and majestic old river boats that pass up and down the Ohio River as a backdrop.

Translation is more elusive. It's how freely we move in our towns and create access points for others to participate in them. Good public maps and clear street signs help towns translate themselves to outsiders, but the willingness to "translate" our own selves can also be the ethos in the air. Pittsburgh, for instance, always has the warmest, most fun audiences. There seem to be a multitude of ways for people to get involved with the life of the city; lots of public events, a great public radio station and well-trafficked public parks. In turn, they have always had a hometown pride and worldly welcome that they have extended to me.

You have a whole chapter on spaces for mixing and matching where you talk about bars and other kinds of spaces. How do these spaces help make great communities?

I got a really strong sense of how bars and other social spaces help people interact with one another on a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. People were in outdoor wine bars after midnight, just talking and talking. Charlottesville has what I would call "high" positive proximity. People share their ideas, there's cross-pollination. There's always a new idea in the hopper. It comes out socially, as well as from places like the University of Virginia. Many things simply come out of fascinating conversations. Lots of best practices for agriculture, a strong local economy, sustainability, and arts education are growing out of cities with a variety of social gathering places.

You say many places suffer from a “piñata problem”: They have lots and lots of talent and resources, but they are disconnected and stashed away, and can’t come together in ways that enable the community to thrive. Tell us more about that.

We've been told that wealth gives us the convenience of isolation. And it's true. You don't have to share your pool, your parking spaces, or even your company with others when you are isolated, but it is ... isolating. In some places, this isolation is systematized and frankly bloated into wealthy enclaves where ideologies become weirder and weirder (and more self-justifying) while nearby, entire neighborhoods are filled with curious, talented, beautiful children who could benefit from engagement and patronage in their community. Instead they have to look at the piñata of wealth that is held, tenaciously, away from them. No one benefits from this schism.

You talk about community identity, community pride, and being passionate about both one’s own pursuits as well as those of others. How do these factors help a community to thrive?

We have a sub-cultural narrative that says that people can't be trusted, only blamed. The problem is, if you believe that, you'll never get anything done. They'll just never have The Firebird Festival in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where countless volunteers build an eighteen-foot high Phoenix and burn it as a giant community celebration. The festival is the most successful night in town for local businesses and artisans. Putting ourselves into the community and letting our communities have an identity often means that we benefit from that identity. Low trust = joyless grocery shopping. High trust = memories for life of swirling fire dancers and stripping down to your t-shirt in the glow of a bonfire on an early December night. These are two very different experiences of prosperity.

You devote a whole chapter to waterfronts. How and why do they matter to great communities?

I started noticing waterfronts as organizing principles for cities. You start with your waterfront, just clear it off, plant some grass, and the next thing you know, there are so many ways for a city to be a city. You can do every kind of cultural event on the water itself, but safe, upcoming neighborhoods can be arrayed around a well-lit, harmonious, public-private owned, perfect wayfinding element like a waterfront.

How and why does food make a town great?

Food incorporates everything that helps a town feel unique. You can build a culture around food with food festivals and markets, you can explore your town's history in its old orchards, and you can define your terrain with how you grow each crop. There just seems to be an inherent coolness, and I'd say greatness, and economic advantage, in a town that values and loves to celebrates its prawns, peaches, chili peppers, and chardonnays.

Is there any place in particular that is special to your own music making? On the flip side, has your career helped you in your efforts to understand what makes for great, thriving communities?

Every town and city can have the magic of a music scene, and it is magic. I had Boston. A music scene has open mics, song circles, tip jar gigs, bad bar gigs, good bar gigs, cafe gigs, monthly music series in the suburbs, local promoters who let you open for national acts, and media that support the gathering musical forces. There's even a first audience made up of musicians and their friends. Within this scene is a cultural positive proximity that incubates talents and poetic sensibilities and supports its rising stars who in turn support [the town].

I am a big supporter of growing the culture of your city, not just for supporting its eventual stars, but for everyone. You can start small with an open mic or a music series in a church or a late-night radio show.

Professional, part-time, and non-professional musicians all benefit from music in the air, children benefit from seeing adults who keep art in their lives, communities benefit from the art and from the songs that witness them, and positive proximity grows. An art scene not only allows connections to happen. Those connections come from very resonant, honest, and often unusual, revelatory encounters. It's the gold of positive proximity. My book has everything to do with what I experienced in Boston.

About the Author

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Commons: Beyond the State and the Market

by Stacco Troncoso, P2P Foundation:

As an alternative that has been tried and tested in practice by communities past and present, the paradigm of the commons goes beyond the state and the market and implies the radical self-instituting of society, allowing citizens to directly manage their shared resources. 

Yavor Tarinski, writing for New Compass, shares a great overview of the Commons. He draws, among others, from the work of Ostrom, Helfrich, Arendt, Castoriadis, Bollier and the P2P Foundation’s Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis.
Yavor Tarinksi: In their book The Economic Order & Religion, Frank H. Knight and Thomas H. Merriam argue that “social life in a large group with thoroughgoing ownership in common is impossible”.[1] William F. Lloyd and later Garret Hardin, in the same spirit, promoted the neo-malthusian[2] term “Tragedy of the commons”[3] arguing that individuals acting independently and rationally according to their self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by depleting some common-pool resource. Since then, the thesis that people are incapable of managing collectively, without control and supervision by institutions and authorities separated from the society, have succesfuly infiltrated the social imaginary.
Even for big sections of the Left resource management in common is being viewed as utopian and therefore they prefer to leave it for the distant future, lingering instead today between variations of private and statist forms of property.[4] Thus, the dilemma between private-state management of common-pool resources is being maintained, leading to marginalization of other alternatives.
However, a growing number of voices are trying to break with this dipole. For the autonomists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, this is a false dilemma. According to them,
“the seemingly exclusive alternative between the private and the public corresponds to an equally pernicious political alternative between capitalism and socialism. It is often assumed that the only cure for the ills of capitalist society is public regulation and Keynesian and/or socialist economic management; and, conversely, socialist maladies are presumed to be treatable only by private property and capitalist control. Socialism and capitalism, however, even though they have at times been mingled together and at others occasioned bitter conflicts, are both regimes of property that excluded the common. The political project of instituting the common … cuts diagonally across these false alternatives.”[5]
The falsity of the state-private dilemma can also be seen in the symbiotic-like relationship between the two supposedly “alternatives”. Author and activist David Bollier points to the historic partnership between the two.[6]According to him, the markets have benefited from the state’s provision of infrastructure and oversight of investment and market activity, as well as providing free and discounted access to public forests, minerals, airwaves, research and other public resources.On the other hand, the state depends upon markets as a vital source of tax revenue and jobs for people – and as a way to avoid dealing with inequalities of wealth and social opportunity, two politically explosive challenges.
At first sight it seems like we are left without a real choice, since the two “alternatives” are pretty much leading to the same degree of enclosure in which the beneficiaries are tiny elites. During the last years, however, the paradigm of “the commons” has emerged from the grassroots as a powerful and practical solution to the contemporary crisis and a step beyond the dominant dilemma. It is an alternative that has been tried and tested in practice by communities, past and present.

The Logic of the Commons

The logic of the commons goes beyond the ontology of the nation-state and the “free” market. In a sense it presupposes that we live in a common world that can be shared by all of society without some bureaucratic or market mechanisms to enclose it. Thus, with no enclosure exercised by external managers (competing with society and between each other), the resources stop being scarce since there is no more interest in their quick depletion. Ivan Illich notes that “when people spoke about commons, (…) they designated an aspect of the environment that was limited, that was necessary for the community’s survival, that was necessary for different groups in different ways, but which, in a strictly economic sense, was not perceived as scarce.”[7]The logic of the commons is ever-evolving and rejects the bureaucratization of rights and essences, though it includes forms of communal self-control and individual self-limitation. Because of this it manages to synthesize the social with the individual.
The commons can be found all around the world in different forms: from indigenous communities resisting the cutting of rainforests and Indian farmers fighting GMO crops, to open source software and movements for digital rights over the internet. The main characteristics that they all share, are the direct-democratic procedures of their management, the open design and manufacturing, accessibility, and constant evolvement.
The commons have their roots deep in the antiquity, but through their constant renewal they are exploding nowadays, including indigenous communal agricultural practices, new ‘solidarity economic’ forms, as well as high-tech FabLabs, alternative currencies, and many more. The absence of a strict ideological frame enhances this constant evolvement.
The logic of the commons is deeply rooted in the experience of Ancient Athens. The Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis describes it as a period, during which a free public space appeared, “a political domain which ‘belongs to all’ (τακοινα – the commons in Greek).[8]The ‘public’ ceased to be a ‘private’ affair – i.e. an affair of the king, the priests, the bureaucracy, the politicians, and/or the experts. Instead, decisions on common affairs had to be made by the community.
According to the anthropologist Harry Walker, the logic of the commons could also be found in the communities of Peruvian-Amazonia, for whom the most desirable goods were not viewed as rival goods. This in contrast to modern economics, which assume that if goods are enjoyed by one person they can’t be enjoyed by another. The Peruvian-Amazonian culture was focused on sharing, on the enjoyment of what can be shared rather than privately consumed.
The Swiss villages are a classic example of sustainable commoning. Light on this has been shed by Elinor Ostrom and her field research in one of them. In the village in question local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing. Ostrom discovered that in this case an eventual tragedy of the commons (hypothetical overgrazing) is prevented by villagers reaching a common agreement that one is allowed to graze as much cattle as they can take care for during the winter, a practice that dates back to 1517. Other examples of effective communal management of commons, Ostrom discovered in the US, Guatemala, Kenya, Turkey, Nepal, and elsewhere.
Elinor Ostrom visited Nepal in 1988 to research the many farmer-governed irrigation systems there.[9] The management of these systems was done through annual assemblies between local farmers and informally on a regular basis. Thus, agreements for using the system, its monitoring and sanctions for transgression were all done at the grassroots level. Ostrom noticed that farmer-governedirrigation systems were more likely to produce not in favor of markets, but for the needs of local communities: they grow more rice and distribute water more equitably. She concluded that although the systems in question vary in performance, few of them perform as poorly as the ones provided and managed by the state.
One of the brightest contemporary examples for reclaiming the commons is the Zapatista movement in Mexico. The zapatistas revolted in 1994 against the NAFTA agreement that was seeking the complete enclosure of common-pool resources and goods, vital for the livelihood of indigenous communities. Through the Zapatista uprising the locals have reclaimed back their land and resources, and have successfully managed them through a participatory system based on direct democracy for more than 20 years.
The digital commons, on the other hand, include wikis, such as Wikipedia, open licensing organizations, such as the Creative Commons, and many others. The social movement researcher Mayo Fuster Morell defines them as “information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources.”
In other words, the logic of the commons is the strive towards inclusiveness and collective access to resources, knowledge and other sources of collective wealth, which necessarily requires the creation of human beings that are socially active and devoted stewards of these commons. This means a radical break with the current dominant imaginary of economism, which views all human beings simply as rational materialists, always striving at maximizing their utilitarian self-interest. Instead it implies the radical self-instituting of society which allows citizens to directly manage their own commons.

The Commons as Model for the Future

A main characteristic shared between the different cases of commons is the grassroots interactivity. The broad accessibility of resources and their ownership being held in common by society, presupposes that their management is done by society itself. Thus a state involvement is incompatible with such a broad popular self-management, since statist forms are implying the establishment of bureaucratic managerial layers separated from society. That is, the commons go beyond (and often even detrimential to) the various projects for nationalization.
The same goes for the constant neoliberal efforts of enclosing what’s still not privatized, against which during the last couple of years social movements across the globe rose up. The alternative proposals of the movements included in one form or another a broad project of direct democracy. It inevitably includes every sphere of social life, and that goes for the commons as well.
A holistic alternative to the contemporary system, an alternative that incorporates the project of direct democracy and the commons, can be drawn from the writings of great libertarian theorists like Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin. The proposals developed by the two thinkers offer indispensible glimpses of how society can directly manage itself without and against external managerial mechanisms.
As we saw in the cases presented above, the commons require coordination between the commoners so that eventual “tragedies of the commons” could be avoided. But many, including Knight and Merriam, argue that this could possibly only work in small scale cases. This have led many leftists to support different forms of state bureaucracy instead, to manage the commons in the name of society, as the lesser, but possible, evil.
In his writings Castoriadis repeatedly repudiated this hypothesis, claiming instead that large scale collective decision-making is possible with a suitable set of tools and procedures. Rejecting the idea of the one “correct” model, his ideas were heavily influenced by the experience of Ancient Athens. Drawing upon the Athenian polis, he claimed that direct citizen participation was possible in communities up to 40.000 people.[10] At this level, communities can decide on matters that directly affect them in face-to-face meetings (general assemblies). At higher levels, that affect other communities as well, revocable, short term, delegates are being elected by the local assemblies, to join regional councils. Through such horizontal flow of collective power common agreements and legal frameworks could be drawn to regulate and control the usage of commons.
Similar is the proposal made by Murray Bookchin. Also influenced by the ancient Athenian experience, he proposes the establishment of municipal face-to-face assemblies, connected together in democratic confederations, making the state apparatus obsolete. According to Bookchin, in such case “the control of the economy is not in the hands of the state, but under the custudy of “confederal councils”, and thus, neither collectivized nor privatized, it is common.”[11]
Such a “nestedness” does not necessarily translate into hierarchy, as suggested by Elinor Ostrom and David Harvey.[12] At least if certain requirements are being met. This is the case in many of the practical examples of direct democracy around the world, in which the role of the delegates is of vital importance, though often neglected. Their subordination to the assemblies (as main source of power) has to be asserted through various mechanisms, such as: short term mandates, rotation, and choosing by lot. All of these mechanisms have been tested in different times and contexts and have proven to be effective antidote to oligarchization of the political system.
Through such networking and self-instituting, the establishment and direct control of commons can be done by the many communities that depend on them. Another element that could supplement the proposals described above, is the so called “solidarity economy”. Different collective entities in various forms are rapidly spreading across Europe and other crisis-striken areas (like South America), that are allowing communities to directly manage their economic activities in their favour.
A merging of the commons and the solidarity economy will allow society to collectively draw the set of rules by which to regulate the usage of commons, while solidarity economic entities, such as cooperatives and collectives, will deal with commons’s direct management. These entities are being managed direct democratically by the people working in them, who will be rewarded in a dignified manner for their services by the attended communities. On the other hand, the public deliberative institutions should have mechanisms for supervision and control over the solidarity economic entities, responsible for the management of commons, in order to prevent them from enclosing them.
An example of such a merging has occured in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, where the water management is organized in the form of consumer cooperatives. It has been functioning for more than 20 years, and continues to enjoy the reputation as one of the best-managed utilities in Latin America. The water system is being governed by a General Delegate Assembly, elected by the users. The assembly appoints senior management, over whom the users have veto rights, thus perpetuating stability. This model has drastically reduced corruption, making the water system working for the consumers.
The emergence of such a merger between the commons and the co-operative production of value, as Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis suggests, integrate externalities, practice economic democracy, produce commons for the common good, and socialize its knowledge. The circulation of the commons would be combined with the process of co-operative accumulation, on behalf of the commons and its contributors. In such a model the logic of free contribution and universal use for everyone would co-exist with a direct-democratic networking and co-operative mode of physical production, based on reciprocity.


The need for recreating the commons is an urgent one. With global instability still on the horizon and deepening, the question of how we will share our common world is the thin line separating, on the one side, the dichotomous world of market barbarity and bureaucratic heteronomy, and on the other, a possible world, based on collective and individual autonomy. As Hannah Arendt suggests:
“The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak. What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely un­related to each other by anything tangible.”[13]
The paradigm of the commons, as part of the wider project of direct democracy, could play the role of the trick that manages to vanish the table, separating us, but simultaneously creating strong human relationships, based on solidarity and participation. And for this to happen, social movements and communities have to reclaim, through the establishment of networks and the strengthening of already existing ones, the public space and the commons,thus constituting coherent counterpower and creating real possibilities of instituting in practice new forms of social organization beyond state and markets.


  1. Deirdre N. McCloskey.The Bourgeois Virtues, The University of Chicago Press, 2006. p. 465
  2. Malthusianism originates from Thomas Malthus, a nineteenth-century clergyman, for whom the poor would always tend to use up their resources and remain in misery because of their fertility. (Derek Wall.Economics After Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2015. p.125)
  3. The concept was based upon an essay written in 1833 by Lloyd, the Victorian economist, on the effects of unregulated grazing oncommon land and made widely-known by an article written by Hardin in 1968.
  4. As Theodoros Karyotis demonstrates in his articleChronicles of a Defeat Foretold, published in ROAR magazine, Issue #0 (2015), pp 32-63
  5. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth, The Bleknap Press of Harvard University press, 2011. p. ix
  6. David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.The Wealth of the Commons, The Commons Strategy Group, 2012. In Introduction: The Commons as a Transformative Vision
  7. Ivan Illich. Silence is a Commons, first published in CoEvolution Quarterly, 1983
  8. Cornelius Castoriadis (1983): “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy”in The Castoriadis Reader (1997), Ed. David A. Curtis. p. 280
  9. Elinor Ostrom in Nobel Prize lectureBeyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems (2009)
  10. Cornelius Castoriadis in “Democracy and Relativism”, 2013. p. 41
  11. Cengiz Gunes and Welat Zeydanlioglu.The Kurdish Question in Turkey, Routledge. 2014, p. 191
  12. For example Elinor Ostrom.Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic System s2009 and David Harvey (2012) in Rebel Cities. p.69
  13. Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition, The University of Chicago, second edition, 1998, p.53.
Photo by r2hox