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Union of Intelligible Associations

18th May 2007

Reclaiming the Heritage of Misappropriated Collective Endeavour

the case of the Union of Intelligible Associations

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Extract from Three-stage Emergence of a Union of Imaginable Associations: Reclaiming the heritage of misappropriated collective endeavour
Conflicting claims to territory and property: real or virtual
"Existence" of collective entities
Value context
Deprecated arguments
Exploitation of contractual relationships
Reclaiming a heritage


This exploration focuses on the various understandings of the "existence" of collective "national" and "international" bodies, the ownership of their (intellectual) "property" in an increasingly open information society, and the claims that may "legitimately" be made on both by those who actively sustain or develop such property over decades. Such considerations are especially relevant in the transition over a century through the colonial era to one in which post-colonialist, participative values are promoted and upheld.

The emergence of a Union of Intelligible Associations, or subsequently a Union of Imaginable Associations, may therefore be understood as a progressive reclaiming of a heritage of misappropriated collective endeavour.

Conflicting claims to territory and property: real or virtual

The 20th century has been witness to the bloodiest conflicts of human history. These might be said to have focused on various understandings of territory, its control, and especially the control of the associated resources. Such conflict is expected to continue for the same reason -- exacerbated, as in the past, by efforts to impose preferred value systems, with whatever justification.

Increasingly those claiming rights to territory, property and resources are multinational entities which "exist" only through particular understandings of legal frameworks -- at a time when such international frameworks are subject to major challenge and other virtual entities are emerging within cyberspace.

"Existence" of collective entities

The "existence" of collective "national" and "international" bodies may be challenged as legal fictions, notably fictions of a particular legislative system -- typically that of the victor in some conflict or that supporting those who have appropriated or expropriated the property of others as a consequence of successful dominance of some form. The challenges are most evident in the past and continuing treatment of indigenous populations, even when "treaties" have been duly signed with their representatives.

The challenges have been extended to divergent understandings of the the ownership of (intellectual) "property" in an increasingly open information society, and the claims that may "legitimately" be made on that property by those who actively sustain or develop such "property" over decades in some way.

Such considerations are especially relevant in any celebration of the transition over a century, through the colonial era, to one in which post-colonialist, participative values are promoted and upheld.

In the case of the "Union of International Associations", although founded on 1st June 1907 as the Central Office of International Associations by a group of 20 internationalassociations, its status as an "international association" acquired a form of legitimacy under the curent name, at the 1st World Congress of International Organizations (Brussels, 1910). However this was prior to any legislative provision for international nongovernmental organizations -- for which the UIA successfully campaigned in Belgium (but without only partial success elsewhere). Clearly its legitimacy as a federation was effectively challenged by the disruption of World War I and its aftermath -- partially indicated by the transfer of its documentary activity to the League of Nations and the suspension of Belgian government support in 1934.

The very limited activity in the period prior to World War II cannot be said to reinforce its legitimacy which the disruption of that war severely undermined. A brief, and unsuccessful, attempt by the Nazi regime was made to use such residual legitimacy as a front for Nazi ambitions. It was only following the war that it could be reconstituted as an institute -- recovering the documentation essential to its activities from the Mundaneum and from a Swiss publisher. Its mandate only derives by inference from its proven capacity to gather information from other international bodies in a consistent manner. This function is formally recognitized by ECOSOC, and recognized de facto by the academic and business communities that depend on its statistics. It derives its legitimacy and reputation from the capacity of its Secretariat to gather, order and disseminate information in a professional manner -- not from the activities or influence of the individuals who form its statutory membership and governing bodies.

Indeed there is continuing unchallenged confusion between the content and tone of formal communications for “public relations” purposes and those for “management” purposes – effectively disempowering those with any democratic responsibilities in the statutory processes of an institution. This is consistent with the wider tendency to “image management” of which, ironically, the “centenary” of the UIA is an example of an act of imagination. For an institution of problematic legitimacy in the inter-war period, at least in the eyes of historians, the claim of continuity over a century is as problematic as any effort to see the United Nations as having been founded in 1919 – as the League of Nations.

Although a highly honourable achievement for a pattern of actiovity to have survived in various notional forms through two world wars and financial crises that have condemned many international bodies, care should be taken when celebrating the "centenary" of the UIA given the quality and degree of continuity over that period. However there is clearly a legitimate case for celebrating the birth of the inspiration for that activity on 1st June 1907.

As with many international bodies, the Union of International Associations sustains a reputation justifying its name to some degree, through valued work and benefitting from mistaken assumptions as to its nature. Without seeking to correct such assumptions, this is achieved by avoiding issues associated with more searching questions regarding its legitimacy and accountability -- especially over the many decades during which the issues of the legal status of "international" nongovernmental organizations have remained unresolved.

It is however appropriate to ask with respect to many collective entities to what extent their existence is sustained by imaginative collective processes -- "lets pretend" -- which merit reflection in the light of the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. Such reflections are given legitimacy by current research on social constructionism (cf Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, 1966).

Value context

This value context, especially to the extent that a body, like the Union of International Associations (UIA), has tacitly subscribed to it through its relationship with the United Nations, raises a number of problematic issues:

  • the status of employees employed at below market rates (and without benefits on which a labour union would insist, in the light of international labour conventions, especially within an intergovernmental body), encouraging them instead to subscribe to more altruistic values in compensation for any economic disadvantage. This is the exploitative situation typical of many civil society bodies on which governmental systems are increasingly dependent
  • the general degree of dissociation (specifically lack of comprehension, engagement or concrete contribution) of members of governing statutory bodies, elected by a non-fee-paying membership, which nevertheless claim to direct and control the activity, without taking any responsibility in practice for its viability or the appropriateness of their decisions
  • the nature of the identification with the initiative by long-term employees (continually engaged in its processes) in contrast with that sought by those (infrequently present, if at all) seeking election to positions of authority
  • the effective long-term "investment" by workers in the initiative (if only in terms of opportunity cost) in comparison with the distinctly minor "investment" by those claiming to represent collective ownership over the product of that work
  • on the meaning workers give to their work and the sense of identity they derive from that activity

Deprecated arguments

This pattern -- with respect to notions of investment, ownership, property, and identity in the case of any form of intellectual property -- can be fruitfully compared to characteristics of:

  • territorial claims, possibly in the name of empire or an arrogated right to impose certain values on spheres of influence:
    • cultural appropriation of territory or property through a process of naming that fails to take account of the identity already ascribed to that territory by those most closely associated with it:
      • This process is one which many cultures have sought to reverse by a process of geographical renaming of the features of their territory (including cities and their streets) following independence from colonial powers. Valuable distinctions from the renaming process may be made between:
        • an exonym as a name for a place that is not used within that place by the local inhabitants, or a name for a people or language that is not used by the people or language to which it refers. This typically arises when a dominant language or culture names the territory with some "foreign" language with which the inhabitants have no identification.
        • an endonym (or autonym) as the name used by the people or locals themselves, possibly withoput being in any ways recognized by others [more].
      • In some traditions renaming is based on what has been termed land nám ("land claiming or taking"), described by Joseph Campbell (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: metaphor as myth and religion, 1986) as a psychocultural method of acquisition of such territory -- "not by prosaic physical action, but poetically, by intelligence" and by art. Its contemporary potential is one of the operational implications discussed in Emergence of a Union of Imaginable Associations (2007).
    • claims arising from conclusion of deliberately or inadvertently exploitative contractual arrangements to the disadvantage of those active in the domain, possibly followed by failure to respect those agreements, or to resist claims relating to those agreements -- as has been typical of treaties concluded with many indigenous peoples, and of promises and commitments made to them
    • claims based on particular understandings of "property" and "ownership" that bear little relationship to the understandings and culture of those active in those domains. Numerous instances of such incomprehension are a continuing source of resentment
    • marked resistance to efforts to ensure wider access to such territory or property. This is notably evident in restrictive patenting in response to indigenous knowledge, as well as use of patents to block development of low cost products (however potentially vital they may be). With respect to intellectual property, this is notably evident in the impact of copyright restrictions on dissemination of knowledge -- as increasingly demonstrated in contrast to open source information access over the web.
    • an extraordinary process of extending notions of territory and property to include virtual domains (web "domains", territory in virtual worlds like Second Life) or the acquisition of extraterrestrial real estate

  • analogous processes are applied to appropriation of intellectual property as is evident in:
    • historical revisionism such as the highly controversial capacity to question or deny accepted sets of facts; territorial revisionism, for example, is a euphemism for revanchism or irredentism, the desire to recover the territory of a nation lost in war.
    • victors in territorial or cultural wars have been skillful in appropriating and reframing local deities, sacred buildings and places, and associated ceremonies into their own frameworks -- then represented as more appropriate. This was a factor in the successful spread of the Roman Empire and has, for example, proven significant in the spread of Roman Catholicism to indigenous peoples in Latin America
    • creative reframing of cultural history to the advantage of those that derive advantage from doing so
    • appropriation of the historical merit of inventing and developing particular products or processes (especially prior to the system of patents)
    • recognition of the possibility of patenting mathematical formulae, potentially including Einstein's theory of relativity (Patenting Mathematical Algorithms and Computer Programs, 1989; Teresa Riordan, Patents; An appeals court says a mathematical formula can be patented, if it is a moneymaker. 3 August 1998), as well as geometric representations of fundamental symmetry relationships, including those embodying fundamental philosophical insights -- creating situations in which knowledge of universal significance is held possessively by some, aptly to be caricatured by the Gollum (Sméagol) of Lord of the Rings. In principle any such possibility is rejected by patent systems that are meant to protect technical inventions, namely solutions for technical problems (especially those capable of generating resources). Although a theory or idea does not give a solution for a technical problem, and are therefore not considered patentable (so called "non-patentable matter"), they could be interpreted as being a basis for such a solution [more].
    • efforts to patent traditional wisdom, notably that associated with yoga (Suketu Mehta, Can you patent wisdom? International Herald Tribune, 7 May 2007)
    • awarding of prizes honouring values in a process through which the value status of the award giving body is thereby enhanced as capable of distinguishing value -- without needing itself to exhibit the qualities in question, thus transferred to it through this process

  • colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of resources, notably through:
    • extraction of resources to the disadvantage of those most closely associated with the domain from which the resources are extracted, notably exacerbating and reinforcing various forms of inequality
    • work slavery and bonded labour, notably as is typical of sweat shops -- and associated with behaviours historically analogous to those of "landed gentry", "absentee landlords", and the like

It is perhaps appropriate to question the degree to which those paying lip service to the promotion of values elsewhere (beyond any mandate for which they can be held accountable) significantly fail to ensure their promotion within contexts for which they have a responsibility.

Within this conext it is valuable to note the arguments in a presidential addresss to the International Association for the Study of the Commons, Daniel W Bromley (Common Property as Metaphor: systems of knowledge, resources and the decline of individualism. The Common Property Digest, 27, September 1993) who distinguishes two categories of problem:

  • The problem of doing nothing, which he associates with the "myth of management", namely the practice of governments declaring in their constitutions that all natural resources are the "property" of the nation state, then proceedings to igfnore the management and control of those natural resources. He asserts: "Let me remind you that you do not own what you caqnnot control".
  • The problem of doing the wrong things: On the same point, he notes: "Post-independence governments in many agrarian countries have indeed declared state ownership of most natural resources. However, because of their failure to implement cojherent managem ent and control over those resources, governments have inadvertently fostered the very worst individualistic struggles for survival against a paternalistic and often corrupt state. Many governments have declared ownership on the misguided belief that this wil solve the problems of management. The work of many of you stands as a vivid reminder of the folly of this strategy."

Exploitation of contractual relationships

Typical of this pattern, in the case of the Union of International Associations, is the exploitative manipulation of explicit (and implicit) contractual relationships, avoiding or asserting legal (and moral) obligations where convenient, as in the case of:

  • commercial partners:
    • delay in payment of debts, possibly placing such partners at financial risk
    • seeking or engaging in major contracts when it may not be possible to fulfil them given other financial obligations (effectively trading insolvently)
  • debts to employees:
    • variously persuaded to accept short or long-term withholding of remuneration, notably in compensation for overtime
    • repudiation of formal agreements with employees regarding debts to them
  • repudiation of loans, notably long-term soft-loans, formally concluded with well-wishers (and potentially undermining the contractual credibility of the organization)
  • solicitation of information from international nonprofit organizations, subsequently sold to other parties at a profit, whilst depriving those supplying the information of access to it
  • misrepresentation of views of associated individuals, such as to appear falsely to constitute an endorsement
  • repudiation of agreements with third parties relating to copyright (as in the collaboration with Mankind 2000)

Assertion of incompatible claims: As a consequence, it might be asked to what extent those associated with a body like UIA1 in various capacities (statutorily elected administrators, employees, project initiators and managers, lenders) can assert seemingly incompatible claims as stakeholders with regard to: intellectual property, trade marks, information, strategic intiiatives, and branding -- as articulated in Table 4

Claims to ownership from different levels of an organization
. Statutory legal entity
Work force
Strategic leadership
Basis for claim Self-perpetuating elite membership without significant obligations or responsibilities (reflecting contested assumptions about inherited qualities)
Claims typical of "employers"
Currently contracted long-term employees required for documentary continuity
Claims typical of "workers"
Innovators, "discoverers", "attractors", fund-raisers (variously contracted, past and present)
Claims to ownership of tangible assets Financial and material assets
Occupancy of offices, desks, workstations, etc ("territory") None
Claims to ownership of intangible assets Trademarks and titles None .
Software . .
Information (including mailing lists) . .
Copyright (intellectual property) Fidelity of documentary activity ("copyright") Relevance??
Working contacts of membership (proven to be of little value, notably with respect to UN and EU systems) Working contacts of staff (limited to ongoing documentation work) Working contacts of innovators
Reputation . .
Rights, responsibilities & obligations Statutory (accountability to membership), notability reporting on finances, performance, etc

. .
Legal (to employees), notably salaries, social security, health, etc Contractual obligations; social security payments and benefits Contractual obligations; social security payments and benefits
Contractual (to third parties), notably fulfilment of commitments made Contractual .
Financial debts None, except to the extent reduction of such debts is accepted as a responsibility of the work force .
Capacity for renewal Unchallenged self-perpetuation through cooptation and self-selection (membership for life) Constrained by financial and personnel resources to exploitation of information assets (long-term contracts inhibit staff restructuring) .
Asset of last resort (dependency) Reputation Working capacity and demand for information Innovative capacity and responsiveness to new challenges
Values and ethical standards Statutorily defined in generic terms
Operationally imposed by national legislation (accountability, social security, etc)
Unconstrained by any ethical charter
Documentation standards
Team loyalty
Partially defined by legally required working regulations
Relevance to challenges of international community
Token letterhead affiliation (requiring minimal interaction, if any)
Exploitation of name
Continuing pattern of work
Exploitation of information assets
Trading on name
Strategic innovation
Heritage Reputation and historical record of activity Pattern of collective activity Intentionality
Capacity for renewal
Centre of gravity Legal shell ("soul-less", "spirit-less") Non-viable programme ("body-less"; "spirit-less") Imaginative initiatives ("body-less"; "soul-less")
Identity Identified with name: UIA Identified with existing production activity ("know-how") Identified with strategic intentionality ("know-why")
Naming initiatives Misrepresented for trading purposes as a "union of international associations" Rebranding of current "UIA" operations to "re-animate" it for marketing purposes (without consulting membership) Rebranding of past "UIA" initiatives to reflect commitments made -- effectively "de-spirited"

In considering the distinctions made in the above table, and the learnings of relevance to other international initiatives, it is important to recognize:

  • the contrast with the operation of conventional intergovernmental organizations (often upheld as models) which are typically well-funded by membership (despite complaints to the contrary), especially with respect to the salaries and benefits of personnel (widely framed as on a "gravy train" characterized by an unimaginable range of "perks")
  • the degree to which well-profiled initiatives fail to fulfil their statutory and progrtamme missions, despite the resources they attract, which under other circumstances might be the basis for a class action suit on behalf of those whose condition they claim to alleviate (international associations in the case of the UIA)
  • the degree to which duly constituted international initiatives may be understood to have forfeited any right, as collective endeavours, to claims they make with regard to the legitimacy of their activity -- given their misappropriation of the investment of those they persuade to support them
  • the extent to which the pattern of historical claims and disputes over physical territory is replicated in relation to intellectual property and innovation -- notably through elitist forms of exploitative colonial mindsets
  • the extent to which the issues are articulated by virtual entities whose only calim to existence is as legal abstractions within increasingly challenged international legal frameworks

Reclaiming a heritage

Given the investment of those variously associated with the initiative over the years, it is therefore appropriate that they should variously reclaim their heritage in celebration of the centenary of the "UIA":

  • feeling free to frame the "UIA" as they see fit
    • "employers" perspective: as a conventional legal entity, governed by democratic principles and respectful of the values of the various United Nations declarations, irrespective of any apparent challenges to its viability
    • "workers" perspective: as a working environment, offering job security, requiring urgent worker self-management given the effective abdication of responsibility of elected administrators (and the successful marginalization of senior management with the complicity of Bureau members acting as consultants)
    • "innovators" perspective: as a vehicle for strategic innovation in the past whose capacities in this respect are now nullified or exceded by innovations in other contexts
  • feeling free to frame and control the intellectual property (IP) of the "UIA" as they see fit
    • "employers" perspective: anything to be understood as intellectual property is rightfully owned by the UIA as a legal entity, irrespective of the extent to which the information content may already be in the public domain (potentially a condition entitling the UIA to redistribute it) or offered by other services (including the websites of the organizations in question)
    • "workers" perspective: any information from which income can be generated, notably by rebranding the UIA to enhance its sale of mailing lists to third parties desiring to target international organizations with unsolicited communications (spam) -- despite any interpretation that this may infringe UIA statutory obligations to facilitate the activities of the bodies it profiles
    • "innovators" perspective: the strategic initiative of the UIA, through the period when it maintained a comparative strategic advantage (and its information was uniquely valuable), may be freely rebranded as a "Union of Intelligible Associations" for historical purposes -- especially given the long-term soft loans which sustained that strategy, appropriately reframed as an investment (despite their formal repudiation)
Given the increasing degree of virtualization of knowledge society, it is clear that those engaged in collective endeavours may validly claim appropriation of heritage developed through those endeavours. This constitutes an arrogation of rights previously specifically claimed and exclusively held by the statutory administrators. As a "virtual revolution" this does not preclude alternative claims, whether or not they are recognized to be of any significance. Increasingly both traditional legal entities, and alternatives to them, may be understood in terms of the image management required credibly to sustain their appearance -- as with the classic tale of the emperor's new clothes

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