Platform Cooperativism and the Political Philosophy of Workplace Technologies

Platform cooperativism is embedded in a discussion in political philosophy on the role of workplace technologies and specifically algorithmic management in labor relations. Digital platforms and algorithmic management have enabled companies to outsource work via automated monitoring and decision-making systems. Companies like Uber and Deliveroo, for example, mobilize a multitude of often self-employed workers who log into the app to complete gigs at minuscule piece wages. Algorithmic systems determine task allocation, remuneration, and performance evaluations. In standard economics, these forms of technological innovation are often celebrated as tools for increasing economic efficiency. Platform companies present themselves as smooth mediators between self-reliant workers and their consumers, a neutral communication channel to put both sides of a market into close contact.

While digital technologies have indeed benefited some workers and consumers, political philosophy of technology stresses the dimension of power-relations in algorithmic management. Are platform companies just neutral mediators or does their power over the design and operations of platform technology grant them a politically more significant role? Those who control the design of workplace technologies often decide which technologies are developed in the first place, how they are implemented, and how they impact working conditions. Labor platforms prioritize the development and implementation of workplace innovations that increase workers’ productivity at minimum cost for the company itself. This often comes to the detriment of workers’ income, safety, and well-being. Technological innovations are hence not politically neutral devices that only increase economic efficiency; they are also political infrastructure of power.

Langdon Winner identifies technological design as a political arena where competing interests and values struggle over the formation of a ‘technical constitution’. The inner workings of technologies reflect the motivations and goals that went into building them. Technologies are hence not value- neutral tools but possess a politics of their own. Just like nation-states formalize their foundational values in legal constitutions, the foundational rules of work are embodied in the technological constitution of labor platforms. A platform, for example, that inhibits workers from communicating amongst each other reflects a strategy of atomizing individual workers to render them more amenable to algorithmic coordination. However, these underlying politics often remain hidden behind seemingly neutral digital interfaces. Someone who downloads and opens the Uber app, does not necessarily see the political work that has gone into shaping the app in its current format. If digital platforms grant companies unilateral power over which data are extracted, how tasks are allocated, at which prices, and how workers are monitored and evaluated, then they consolidate a distribution of powers that firmly privileges company over worker interests.

In the case of platform work, the technical constitution of labor platforms has often been labeled as ‘digital Taylorism’. Labor platforms in the gig economy enact what Harry Braverman called ‘a separation of conception and execution’. While workers are nominally granted the freedom to determine their own schedules, accept or reject tasks, and develop personal rapport with customers, these freedoms are considerably constrained through techniques of algorithmic coordination and evaluation. The power to conceive of how they perform their work is outsourced to algorithms that makes these decisions for them. Workers predominantly enact plans developed elsewhere according to externally imposed designs. Workers who reject too many job offers get lower reputation scores and subsequently fewer income opportunities. Ultimately, they are expected to execute algorithmic commands while the power of coordinating the labor process is located on the level of the technical constitution of the platform.

From the perspective of political philosophy, this organization of work leads to domination. In republican political theory, domination is identified as people’s subjection to the arbitrary and unaccountable will of another agent or impersonal decision-making system. In the case of platform work, workers are subjected to algorithmic decision-making designed to favor business interests and have few resources to contest or influence these decisions. They often depend on access to these platforms yet cannot meaningfully determine the modalities of their work. Algorithmic decision- making unilaterally stipulates which tasks are allocated to which workers, at what price, and with which deadlines. What makes domination worse in the case of platform work is that platform companies not only on unilaterally coordinate labor through algorithmic control, but also extract personal data from these operations. Companies like Uber and Deliveroo do not only profit from commissions on the transactions conducted on their platforms, but also from the amassment of valuable data about social practices as private assets.

Multiple political responses are possible to amend this unbalanced distribution of power in the platform economy. Many scholars and activists wish to strengthen workers’ bargaining power to negotiate better working conditions with platform companies. If the problem of algorithmic domination is the unilateral exercise of power, then granting better legal protections and union representation to workers could balance out this one-sided situation. However, this does not fully respond to the problem of domination previously outlined. If the problem of algorithmic domination concerns the technical constitution of labor platforms, then only giving workers and their representatives the power to react to unfair treatment does not resolve the unbalanced power dynamics in designing and implementing platform technology. Moreover, the privatization of social wealth from platform users via data extractivism has not been addressed. Thirdly, the strategy of granting workers extra labor rights within the pre-established business strategy of traditional labor platforms sometimes backfires. Labor platform companies are often financially fragile, meaning that the increased labor costs coming from better protected working conditions sometimes bankrupt these companies. Some labor platforms can only survive because they dominate and exploit their workforce.

Platform cooperativism offers a more promising response. It promotes the establishment of worker- owned labor platforms as alternatives to traditional platform capitalism. These cooperatives are owned and operated by workers themselves to ensure that the labor process is not organized against but for worker interests. If the digital Taylorism of algorithmic domination runs on the separation of conception from execution, then platform cooperatives offer an institutional format that brings both back together. They counter algorithmic domination by encouraging the collective self- determination of platform workers. Workers themselves decide on the modalities and standards by which their work is coordinated and evaluated. As the example of CoopCycle shows, this can even concern the technical constitution of platform design itself. Whenever a local food delivery coop wishes to join the CoopCycle federation, the app is specifically designed to accommodate for the expectations and wishes of the local coop. Platform cooperativism also combats data extractivism as workers themselves are now the owners and operators of platforms and their databases. They can subsequently put these data to more sociable use, as Trebor Scholz has recently showed in Own This! How Platform Cooperatives Help Democratize the Internet. Rather than using data power to only increase economic efficiency for the company, cooperatives can broaden the notion of value to include the interests and demands of other stakeholders. Yet the idea of platform cooperativism encounters its own, new obstacles, on which my current research focuses.

1) What regulatory framework does platform cooperativism require?

Platform cooperatives need to balance business interests with social values. This is particularly difficult in capitalist markets where survival depends on profit rather than non-economic social goods, which generates paradoxesin platform governance. How much economic value can be sacrificed to non-economic concerns like labor rights, ecological sustainability, or community interests, if competing platforms offer the same services at lower prices? Cooperative platforms, in other words, need support from what Scholz calls ‘anchor institutions’ to generate a regulatory framework that favors cooperative values over the race to the bottom of free market competition. Otherwise, cooperative workers risk becoming their own capitalists required to turn to self- exploitation to survive against exploitative traditional platform companies.

2) How should cooperatives respond to the emergence of internal conflicts?

Empowering workers to govern their own working conditions does not necessarily lead to harmonious or uniform decision-making. Workers often disagree on how to properly govern their own labor. This can take the form of horizontal conflicts between competing factions within a single cooperative disagreeing, which in the worst-case scenario breaks up the coop. But divisions within the workforce can also generate new hierarchies, when one group successfully concentrates decision- making power in its own hands at other members’ expense. As Robert Michels predicted with his iron law of oligarchy, nominally democratic institutions tend to produce new hierarchies of their own. The problem of domination cooperatives were meant to answer would then return unresolved. What are then the proper institutional channels to counterbalance the tendency for new elites to form and to appropriately organize democratic conflict?

3) Is the cooperative the best institutional form for governing all sectors of the digital economy or just labor platforms?

The case for the cooperative organization of platform work is convincing, but it is not yet clear whether cooperativism offers the most suitable institutional form for democratizing all digital platforms (e.g., social media) or the internet as such. Also the democratic ownership and control over large-scale AI-systems and their databases might require a different institutional repertoire, like nationalization, advisory citizen councils, or delegated expert governance. The place of platform cooperatives in this larger ecosystem of democratic institutions of internet governance is still a matter of future research.