David Bollier: The Former CIA Spy Who Discovered the Commons

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David Bollier

The Former CIA Spy Who Discovered the Commons

Thu, 06/19/2014 – 20:34

The Guardian today ran a profile of Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy who discovered the commons more than two decades ago and never looked back. Steele, a former U.S. Marine and CIA case officer who spent 18 years in US intelligence, is now, improbably, a vigorous advocate of “open source everything” – the title of his latest book. He brings the zeal of a convert to the mission of promoting the commons and open-source alternatives of every stripe.

As The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed writes, Steele discovered the virtues of open source software in the early 1990s and quickly began proselytizing the “Open Source Intelligence” paradigm to US military and intelligence sources and to US allies in dozens of countries. Steele saw (and sees) open source knowledge as the key to discovering the truth, assuring social legitimacy and moving ahead intelligently:

“Sharing, not secrecy, is the means by which we realise such a lofty destiny as well as create infinite wealth. The wealth of networks, the wealth of knowledge, revolutionary wealth — all can create a nonzero win-win Earth that works for one hundred percent of humanity. This is the ‘utopia’ that Buckminster Fuller foresaw, now within our reach.”

Suffice it to say, the CIA and its intelligence peers were not persuaded by such views, notwithstanding its embrace in 2005 of its collaborative intelligence version of Wikipedia, Intellipedia.  Open source everything is another matter, apparently, because of the democratic accountability it would require.

I don’t know Steele, but I’ve seen his videos and dipped into his writings, and he seems to bring a deep intelligence and big-picture perspective to analyzing our global and civilizational problems.  His self-stated goal is to hasten “the transition from top-down secret command and control to a world of bottom-up, consensual, collective decision-making as a means to solve the major crises facing our world today.”  That’s a description from his book, The Open-Source Everything Manifesto: Transparency, Truth and Trust.

Robert Steele at LibTech NYC

Steele is a prolific reviewer of books for Amazon, which may explain why he pestered me several times, as a stranger out of the blue, to re-post on Amazon my positive blog post about historian Peter Linebaugh’s book on the commons and enclosures, Stop, Thief!  I did. That’s the kind of energy and zeal that Steele brings to his mission of promoting commons-based solutions in all their variety.

In the words of The Guardian’s Ahmed, Steele provides “an interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach [that] dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.”

Ahmed called Steele’s book “a pragmatic roadmap to a new civilisational paradigm that simultaneously offers a trenchant, unrelenting critique of the prevailing global order. His interdisciplinary ‘whole systems’ approach dramatically connects up the increasing corruption, inefficiency and unaccountability of the intelligence system and its political and financial masters with escalating inequalities and environmental crises.”

Steele continues:

“We are at the end of a five-thousand-year-plus historical process during which human society grew in scale while it abandoned the early indigenous wisdom councils and communal decision-making.  Power was centralised in the hands of increasingly specialised ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who not only failed to achieve all they promised but used secrecy and the control of information to deceive the public into allowing them to retain power over community resources that they ultimately looted.”

Today’s capitalism, he tells Ahmed, is inherently predatory and destructive:

“Over the course of the last centuries, the commons was fenced, and everything from agriculture to water was commoditised without regard to the true cost in non-renewable resources. Human beings, who had spent centuries evolving away from slavery, were re-commoditised by the Industrial Era.

“For Steele, the open source revolution is inevitable, simply because the demise of the system presided over by the 1% cannot be stopped – and because the alternatives to reclaiming the commons are too dismal to contemplate. We have no choice but to step up.

“My motto, a play on the CIA motto that is disgraced every day, is ‘the truth at any cost lowers all other costs’”, he tells me [Ahmed]. “Others wiser than I have pointed out that nature bats last. We are at the end of an era in which lies can be used to steal from the public and the commons. We are at the beginning of an era in which truth in public service can restore us all to a state of grace.”

A remarkable story of a singular advocate.  Here is a YouTube video of a recent presentation by Steele.