Charting the Course to a Commons-Oriented Economy with Open Cooperativism

As a research fellow at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE) at The New School in New York City, I will produce a report based on the research findings of the 2-year research project Techno-Social Innovation in the Collaborative Economy, in which I have been the Principal Investigator. The project has received funding from the Hellenic Foundation of Research and Innovation for the years 2022-2024. The project examines Internet-enabled grassroots organizational models such as free and open-source software/hardware, the digital commons, platform cooperatives, open cooperatives, and Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) on Blockchain.

The report entitled “The Model of Open Cooperativism: Glimpses from the Field” documents the normative and empirical conditions of grassroots technologically-driven social innovation, potentially enabling the transition towards a commons-oriented post-capitalist economy. The report illustrates a conceptually-led and empirically grounded multi-case study (Tzoumakers, Open Food Network, CoopCycle, Circles UBI).

The report discusses the research findings from the case studies and aims at opening up future research avenues exploring sustainable commons-based business models in the cooperative economy.

Traditional and platform cooperatives face significant obstacles in challenging industrial and platform capitalism. To address this issue, Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens (2014) seek to infuse traditional and platform cooperatives with the principles of the commons. The commons consist of distributed or common property resources and infrastructures, self-managed by user communities in accordance with collectively established rules or norms. The digital commons, in particular, refers to a non-market sector of information, knowledge and cultural production, not treated as private property but as an ethic of sharing, self-management and cooperation within peers who have access to the Internet and free/open source software. The digital commons present an alternative to intellectual property by promoting open access, collaborative innovation, and knowledge sharing. In doing so, they alleviate barriers to information, encourage community ownership, and contribute to knowledge democratization, fostering more inclusive, sustainable digital ecosystems. Commons-based peer production spins around Internet-enabled grassroots organizational models such as platform and open cooperatives.

Kostakis and Bauwens introduce the model of open cooperativism that places commons-based peer production at the center of multi-stakeholder collaboration between: (1) civil society organizations producing material and immaterial commons; (2) ethical market entities adding exchange value on top of the commons use value; and (3) a partner state enabling commons-based peer production through funding, legislation, education, infrastructures, and so on. In contrast to traditional and platform cooperatives that adopt closed proprietary licenses, therefore, not producing commons, open cooperatives deploy open protocols, open logistics, open supply chains and open value accounting to enable commons-based open social innovation. Open cooperatives bring together the community of all members, users and contributors who produce the commons, either for payment or as volunteers, with ethical market entities and for-benefit associations that co-produce or support the commons.

Images above: 1) Tzoumakers, 2) Open Food Network, 3) CoopCycle, 4) Circles UBI

Ethical market entities are for-benefit companies, cooperatives and social enterprises that collaborate with civil society organizations to either co-produce commons or access commons in exchange for a fee (copyfair license). The main argument is that ethical market entities such as traditional and platform cooperatives that co-produce or gain access to common-pool resources benefit from knowledge diffusion and innovation spillovers as well as from low production and transaction costs, thus gaining a coopetitive advantage compared to closed proprietary socio-economic models such as industrial and platform capitalism.

Yet, immaterial and, especially, material commons incur production and transaction costs coupled with coordination and search costs that are subject to “market imperfections” most prominent in the case of public goods dilemmas. Whereas public goods are administered by state governments, common goods are self-managed by user communities (Ostrom 1990). Commons-based peer production is poised to address many of these “market imperfections” but still suffers from corporate cooptation and the lack of sustainable business models capable of safeguarding the commons and providing livelihoods for user communities producing commons. For platform and open cooperatives to scale wide and challenge platform capitalism, a broader alliance is sine qua non. Financial mechanisms, proper incentive schemes, copyfair licenses and mutually beneficial business models for multiple stakeholders are some of the antecedents going forward. Public policy is crucial to nurture cooperative culture, commons-based institutions and positive agglomeration externalities as well as prevent market failures that lurk at the capitalist crossroads of a post-capitalist transition.

A partner state moves away both from a distributionist welfare state and a neoliberal state by establishing mini-states of commons-based peer production ecosystems that implement direct democratic procedures and practices. Likewise, developmentalist or neo-Keynesian versions of the state focusing solely on taxation, public investment, public ownership, and capital controls should be “updated” according to the principles of the commons. Representative democracy would be extended through participatory mechanisms (participatory legislation, participatory budgeting, online and offline deliberation mechanisms, liquid voting, real-time democratic consultations and procedures, proxy voting mechanisms). The state should be de-bureaucratized through the decentralization of public services via public-commons partnerships. Traditional and bureaucratic hierarchies should be transformed or replaced by poly-governance models of participation and deliberation that include user communities and other stakeholders (Bauwens et al. 2019).

A partner state would align education with the co-creation of productive knowledge in support of the social economy and the simultaneous open commons of productive knowledge. A partner state would distribute all publicly funded research and innovation under a commons-based license along with laws to enable municipal Wi-Fi and mesh networks and “open data” regimes and resources that would allow local governments and multiple stakeholders to analyze Big Data from public sources to devise useful social policies and programs.

Thus, a partner state would make use of open-source technologies to gain on efficiency, agility and adaptability, save on public expenditures, reduce trade deficits, boost innovation and collaboration, equitably distribute value among multiple stakeholders, foster sustainability and circular economies, enhance democracy, reclaim technological sovereignty and autonomy and promote open-source business models to transform sectors of the economy towards a fairer and freer society.  

Finally, the report integrates empirical findings into a democratic political theory represented by the works of Karl Marx, Cornelius Castoriadis, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Alexandros Kioupkiolis, Trebor Scholz and Andrew Feenberg, among others, who call for the democratization of technology, economy and politics. Main goal is to sketch out a political and socio-economic alternative to capitalism articulated in the counter-hegemony of open cooperativism vis-à-vis the current hegemony of neoliberalism.

Current debates on democratization boil down to two overlapping arguments: a political and an economic one. The model of open cooperativism calls for a political theory that goes beyond the impasses of the left, the center and the right. The left rests on a conservative, old-fashioned statist approach that lacks a business model. Social democracy and right-wing politics, on the other, reinforce a capitalist business model that produces gaping inequalities, racism, fascism and climate change. By contrast, the model of open cooperativism expands from the sphere of production to society as a whole to embrace economic democracy that reconciles liberal and marxist values such as freedom and equality, tolerance and pluralism, individual and collective autonomy.

The model of open cooperativism puts forth the common good of the commons to overcome the classical marxist argument of the impotence of cooperatives to address the overarching capitalist surplus value exploitation and accumulation. Cooperatives cannot escape nor remedy the contradictions of capitalist competition without broader systemic socio-economic change put forward by a socialist state. While this remains true to a large extent, the cost-effectiveness of the commons along with their liberating potential from the strains of oppressive hierarchies may create the incentives necessary to induce the transvestment/expropriation of capital into the commons. Protected, well-designed and well-governed commons may force the restructuring of capitalism into post-capitalism with the aid of a partner state. Eventually, the economic democracy of the commons may satisfy the principle: from each according to her capacities, to each according to her needs.