Reflections on Platform Cooperativism
By Jonas Algers
Originally published here on the blog of the Political Economy Research Center at Goldsmiths University of London.
In the wake of the Trump election victory, I found myself in New York City at a conference on Platform Cooperativism. It was opened by the organiser with this statement: “After the election I thought that I should cancel the conference and instead hold another on what to do now. But then I realised that platform cooperativism is part of it; to come up with cooperative solutions to the crises we face.”
Platform cooperativism explores how cooperatives and commons can function as anti-enclosures of the digital sphere. In the age of companies such as Uber, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, platform cooperativism has become part of a movement to make the Internet more participatory, common and non-corporate. The idea of platform cooperativism is that the people who make the success of the Internet platforms possible should own them themselves. The profits of an exchange taking place in Barcelona should stay in Barcelona and not be extracted to companies in Silicon Valley.
Key issues to emerge from the conference was how platforms have consequences for labour, and the relationship between cooperatives and commons. Where commons want open and free access commercial coops are about facilitating enclosure to facilitate for-profit enterprise.
Platforms create new tensions for paid labour. Uber, Deliveroo and other similar platforms do not have employees but “self-employed contractors” performing the labour upon which the platforms depend. Typically, this is used to avoid regulation and taxation related to employing staff, profits are contingent on keeping employee costs to almost nothing. In turn, this leads to increased forms of worker exploitation; batch work that is more intense, longer and for lower pay. Therefore, platforms outcompete other businesses in the respective sectors.
Jack Qiu presented his research on how the frequency of increasingly militant strikes has trebled following the appearance of ride-sharing platforms in China. Now China sees a platform-related strike every other day. In this era of what he calls “algorithm-based class struggle” workers have had to come up with new ways of organising picket-lines, often through ratings of individual workers. As platform workers are sensitive to ratings of their performance, striking workers would give low ratings to those who didn’t strike.
Other platforms make labour boundless by making it possible for a person in Malaysia to instantly perform work for a company based in Silicon Valley with no higher transaction costs than had the person been sitting at a laptop in San Francisco. No higher transaction costs for the company that is, because the employee has to align work hours with working hours in California causing widespread sleep deprivation among digital workers in the global South.
Platforms offer a supply-side revolution for business that can harm wage earners because tasks can now be outsourced even more easily to lower-income countries. This boundless labour is more difficult to organise for collective bargaining as it is geographically dispersed and varies in its dependency on the digital work (for some it is the main source of income and a full-time job and for others it is a temporary second job). Platforms offer workers more exploitation to lower wages or outsourcing. Thus platforms become a tool for capital to harm the bargaining position of labour.
Coops and Commons
There is a substantial difference between platform cooperatives and digital commons. Where a common is a resource not owned by anyone and which no one can be denied access to, a cooperative is owned and governed by the members of the cooperative. Wikipedia is a digital common to which everyone has access and is funded through voluntary contributions. If Twitter was to be turned into a cooperative it would exclude people who are not ready to pay the fee for membership.
Another element of the conflict is regarding the licence of the code a coop develops, should it be open and free to others to use or should it be restricted so that the coop in particular can be in control of its own product? It is restated again and again at the conference that coops need to collaborate more in order to be collectively successful but with openness comes the risk of corporations using the same product to cut their own costs.
Cooperativism in Barcelona
Another key dynamic of platform cooperativism is the relationship between cities and platforms. Barcelona is hailed as a model city for platform cooperativism due to attempts made by its radical mayor Ada Colau and her team. Francesca Bria is the Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer of the City of Barcelona and she stressed the importance of an alliance between the platform cooperative movement, labour organisations and cities if platform cooperativism is going to grow.
Barcelona is also an example of how platform cooperativism is more than platform cooperatives. Cooperativism is about finding cooperative solutions to not only businesses and economic exploitation but also democratic participation. This is why the City of Barcelona has developed https://decidim.barcelona which is a platform where citizens can directly participate in decision making.
Listening to some speakers, it seemed platform cooperativism could solve any societal issue regarding redistribution, recognition or representation if only it could overcome its own inherent problems like funding, scaling and governance. But even though it was admitted that these endogenous problems are difficult to solve, little attention was paid to exogenous problems like competing with VC funded platforms. Uber is constantly making losses, but it gets vast amounts of cash through finance. How can a cooperative compete with a company that is supported to such an extent by finance? Yes, some cooperatives have been successful locally (like Green Taxi Coop in Denver) but if Platform Cooperativism is going to fulfil its ambitions then local successes have to become global successes.
It came across to me that many attending the conference held the position that the labour movement should become good entrepreneurs in order to overcome the challenge of platforms. Apart from the initial discussion on “algorithm-based class struggle”, “fairness” and entrepreneurship were proposed as central values but not the importance of unionism and politics outside of cooperatives. I think such an analysis will be unhelpful and I hope that there will be more showcases of platforms used to unionise and organise people outside of cooperatives and businesses (Like the app Zetkin used for organising activism) at future Platform Cooperativism conferences.
It would do the platform cooperative movement well to develop an analysis of who has the time and capital to develop a platform or engage in a coop and whose problems the platforms address. Otherwise it risks falling into a trap of charity, where some people are helping others, or that it does not address the problems of people most dependent on the platforms. It must understand its own limits; that without change beyond platforms or cooperatives (for example a reduction in working hours, ownership of real capital and reduced environmental impact by economic activity overall) the success of platform cooperativism will be limited.