Just in Translation: NN Cooperative and the Ethics of the Commons in the Market Society

by Stefano Serafini

I met Petros at the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, last year, in the colored context of techies, social activists, economists, and more-or-less fancy designers you may expect to see during such occasions. He was offering information about his initiative of travelling along the whole Greece, in search for local anarchist communities and their fruits. We chatted briefly, and it was soon clear the guy knew what he was talking about. He kindly provided me with basic information about Scottish empiricism, and a few notions about the art (and philosophy) of hacking. Good thing, someone who – although not a professional academic, nor a member of the social class of “intellectuals” – still really works on books. But he gave me the impression of being even more extraterrestrial than that. Maybe because of his look, subtly essential and sober. I would have used the superficial expression “surprisingly normal”, and thus out of fashion – e.g. different from all the other people there at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, at that moment. He was nice, but evidently he didn’t care nor of being elegant, nor inelegant – he didn’t really give a damn of the very act of appearing as a medium of communication, whether through look or anti-look. I had found a Polish breathing fish in a pool of communicators, social performers, and design experts. Chuckling a bit he hinted at the lobby, busy of cool people, and said: “I took a tour around. 70% of this people who talks about commons’ owning a Mac”. I got the point, I believe, after he explained me his social – and hence political – condition. And I really liked the simple and straight way he put it.

Petros had been a businessman in the past, until his IT company financially collapsed and cast him and his family in dire straits. The crack happened such of a sudden, that he found himself down to half a million dollar within weeks. Petros’ and his wife’s plans to retire with a capital, in order to enjoy life and to change society for the better seemed stuck. “We did not even have the money to shut down our company. This means we couldn’t obtain the status of unemployed people, in order to access the social health services for the poor. Well, we looked at each other, and realized that at the end we still got two out of three: enjoying life, and making social change. The only difference was that we were now supposed to do it with a negative half a million, instead than with three millions in our pocket.”
Petros and Natasha embraced a money-free life, launching themselves in the world of barter of knowledge and gift economy. They travelled a lot, taught and learned, met thousands of different people, and faced “the most beautiful years of life ever”. When I observed how courageous a man he was, he answered me back: “I had no other solution but depression and suicide. When a wall is behind you, and a knife at your neck, you can only go ahead”.
The reader will pardon this introduction, that was necessary to understand the concrete social experience that grounds the work of Petros, and that makes him different.
He lives now in a semi-squatting, evolving community in Lublin, Eastern Poland. People settled half-legally in a city center building, and their most urgent financial target is resisting the cold winter. One of the economic initiatives stemmed from this group of persons is the Translation Cooperative NN .

Petros, can yourself first explain who you are, and what is the existential background to NN?

I like to call myself a “full time social contributor”. After almost 20 years of work in various areas of Polish newborn liberal economy (I had a chance to work as a stock broker, IT consultant, ecommerce entrepreneur) I – sort of – failed in the rat race, becoming jobless, homeless and broke. That gave me an opportunity to use my knowledge on the other side of the looking glass – in the world of social self-organization, common good, and P2P structures. With my partner, Natasha, and our two faithful Akitas, we started the initiative called FreeLab (https://freelab.org.pl), which struggles to gather, refine and spread all sorts of practical knowledge for the social self-organization. For the two initial years we were operating within the economy of gift, hoping for the trickle-down effect to support our activity. In fact, it was enough to operate on the daily basis, but not enough to plan and execute any long-term activity. As the circle of FreeLab supporters has grown, setting up a cooperative became an obvious way to build reliable financial foundation.
There are several goals the NN cooperative will fulfill. The most important is to build an integrated social environment for people who want to work and socialize within the non-market, communalist paradigm.
Working there, we shall not only obtain funds for our daily living needs, but also train ourselves in self-organization outside of hierarchical, market-driven world. We also plan to “contribute to the upstream”, as all financial surplus will be spent on various social and political causes, including some ‘pro bono’ translations.
So, basically, NN cooperative is supposed to provide financial base for its members, and funding for social and political activity along the lines of anarcho-positivism, the commons, and P2P paradigms.

What do you exactly mean when you state that “financial accumulation is not our primary concern”, as per your website? Do you want money, or not?

As a cooperative we are going to earn money – and a lot. What is important, the amount of money distributed among the members will be strictly limited to the level of their fair living needs. Everything above that will be spent – based upon the collective decision – either on the infrastructure of the cooperative itself, or on political and social projects meeting our shared values and principles. So, we do not seek the way to increase our personal or collective assets – as soon as it is practical, money will be spent for the common good.
On the other hand, this also means that our work is not for sell at the market of compromise. We are not interested in working, e.g., for Coca Cola, Starbucks, Disney, etc. We don’t accept to translate documents supporting any form of coercion, institutional violence, discrimination or exploitation. This means: no corporations, no government, no market-oriented business orders.

Can you say something about the principles of Abramowski and your anarcho-positivism ideas, insofar as they influence your project?

Edward Abramowski, among other works, laid foundations of Polish cooperative movement in the beginning of 20th Century. He is not known widely even in Poland, as his approach was strictly anarchist. His vision of cooperatives (mainly consumer ones) included the idea of bottom-up organization through associations of cooperatives, making the state obsolete. He also put great stress on the ethical side of self-organization, pointing out that the cooperative is equally an economical and a self-formation endeavor. Please note that one of our plans is to translate and publish the essential cooperativist writings of Abramowski, and to bring his work to the international public. The time – we believe – is perfect for that.
Anarcho-positivism relates to Polish ‘positivist’ tradition of constructive social activity, contrasted with destructive fight against oppressors. We try to provide people with some positive knowledge about how to organize the social sphere in a more anarchist, yet practical and efficient way. The background of this thinking is presented here: https://freelab.org.pl/2013/07/the-anarcho-positivist-perspective/.

How do you think the same principles may help organizing or designing a more human city?

The bottom line is self-governance, common good, bottom-up power delegation, and down-to-earth approach. We believe this framework is suitable for every social situation, well rooted in Western intellectual tradition, and quite practical. If employed, it makes the situation clear: whatever people want – people get. Nothing less, nothing more. In my opinion, this is the best way of setting up a city or any other human structure.

How important is the place for your activity? I mean: the place that you share for working, experiencing, discussing, living; the fact that it is located in the center of a city like Lublin, in the heart of a still divided Europe; in a continent who is suffering a severe social regression, and an economic crisis after the dematerialization and the delocalization of the means of production…

Ideas are not only bulletproof, you know. They are also universal. We believe that our contribution is the contribution to the world, not just a city, country or a continent. Thanks to the Internet, we can throw our answers to the wind, to let it blow them over the whole planet, freely available to anyone who may benefit of them.
In Lublin, people suffer, thrive, hope and despair just the same as they do in Brescia, Larissa, Penzance or Perpignan. We are not divided. There are people who want to see us divided – and it is the best reason to keep reminding ourselves that we are all, in fact, a family. In case of doubt, just look into your own mitochondrial DNA.


FreeLab website: https://freelab.org.pl

FreeLab on Twitter: @FreeLabPL