Happy 17

Amidst misogyny, racism & political hostility, networks of economic alternatives in 2017. Happy new year!

Last week, we kicked around ideas for concrete projects that the Platform Cooperativism Consortium should realize this coming year. In the second part of this article, we’ll devote ourselves to just that: pragmatic objectives for the next twelve months. But for our project to have legs to stand on, we — the people involved in this movement— also need to think through the bigger picture and situate platform cooperativism historically. With that in mind, we went back and listened again to the contributions at the “Building the Cooperative Internet” event last year at The New School.

Yochai Benkler’s talk, in particular, stood out. In his Saturday-morning lecture, he presented platform cooperativism as an attempt to “build a coherent intellectual framework to offer an alternative to the failed ideology of the past forty years.” He is clear: “platform cooperatives will neither kill nor be killed by investor firms,” but there is sufficient room in the current market situation so that platform co-ops can strive. Benkler, a professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, situates platform cooperativism as a “core location for the development of new ideas in the pursuit of an open social economy.” For those less steeped in social economy studies, the term “social economy” refers to economic activities amongst the community. It is located between the economies of the private and public sectors.

Yochai Benkler begins with an account of two ideological periods in politico-economic history — that of managerial capitalism, beginning around World War II and ending during the inflation crisis of the early 1970s, and that of oligarchical capitalism, the period in which neoliberal thought and the Washington Consensus were central. The actuality of a Washington Consensus represents the claim that there is an optimal organizational form such as the investor-owned firm, which upstarts are then called upon to adopt to succeed “in the teeth of the market.” Benkler foregrounded that, ideologically, the actuality of the Washington Consensus depended on ideas such as the reduction of the economy to the self-motivated individual, the reality of predictable, calculable risk, and the importance of planned, controlled, and ultimately stable ventures. For Benkler, however, the victory of the Trump and Brexit campaigns is indicative of a general collapse of the neoliberal model and thus an opening which will be filled by a new economic understanding. He relates these political wins in part to the inequality caused by the extreme and unmatched extraction of wealth by the top 10% in the U.S. and the UK.

Benkler is skeptical about two particular visions of what might replace neoliberalism. First, there are the likes of Peter Thiel who argue for a new age of techno-libertarianism wherein technological development can run its course unimpeded by the state, with deregulation allowing markets to reward talent and accelerate us into a fully-automated Star Trek economy. Benkler did not name Thiel, but Peter Thiel does illustrate this point in his book Zero to One. Here, he argues that only through deregulation, monopolistic genius can be free to innovate us into a post-scarcity future. Second, there are proponents for what Benkler calls “nudge progressivism,” a return to the managerial capitalism of the mid-20th century, only updated and made more efficient by big data analysis.

For Benkler, these two imaginary successors fail to take into consideration the social embeddedness of systems, which is becoming central to all sorts of academic disciplines including sociology, economics, and management science. This “social embeddedness” indicates that we can no longer reduce the motivations of economic actors to rational self-interest, but must also acknowledge the existence of varying, socially-constructed drives and desires. There is a need to look beyond homo economicus to homo socialis, as Benkler puts it.

What Benkler proposes as an alternative future is a network pragmatism which seizes the space for experimentation. Rather than believing ourselves unfailing, he claims we must embrace our fallibilism, understanding that our success will come not from the perfect execution of a pre-planned attempt, but rather a rapid iteration which utilizes the knowledge generated by our applied inquiries to drive us forward and upward.

He stresses that local communities do know best about their needs if only given the chance for reflection through practical experience: trial and error and trial again. It is, he says, precisely this experience which is denied to these communities when they engage with investor capital, which immediately subjects any attempt to the logic of the “tyranny of the margin,” the need to compete in the market, to maximize profits. To produce flexible organizations which can continually adapt and innovate as circumstances change and our knowledge grows, Benkler suggests that we look to methodologies that have already proved successful. These could include institutional analysis and development framework developed by political economist Elinor Ostrom, as well as tech-sector models like commons-based peer production, free and open source software development, and even lean startup models. One challenge will be to determine how platform co-ops can exist as what Scholz calls “soft enclosures” that insulate populations from economically and politically hostile surroundings while also contributing to the commons. Platform co-ops like Fairmondo and Loconomics Cooperative are already sharing their code base and by-laws.

For Benkler, network pragmatism is fundamentally about the embrace of the diversity of organizational forms. This pursuit of an “organizational bricolage” resonates with our understanding that platform cooperatives are but one practical near-term alternative. They are part of this bricolage of the solidarity economy, the pro-commons movement, and various other successful organizational forms including B-corps, non-profits engaged in economic production, philanthropic LLCs, and, central to our community, platform co-ops.

In sum, we should first of all be a sounding board for the needs of the platform co-op community. We are no lone star heroes but instead, strive for solidarity and collaboration with other projects and organizational forms. We aim for economic experimentation, building playful, intellectual and practical incubators.

Before we get to our goals for 2017, we are pleased to report that the PCC managed to hire Samuel Tannert who is helping us to cope with day-to-day communications and our ongoing research. We started a draft of a Wikipedia in-depth article about platform cooperativism, for example. It should be live in a week or two. With Samuel, we are also working on streamlining the onboarding process for all who’d like to join and contribute to the PCC. See profiles of some of our researchers on the Consortium website at http://platformcoop.newschool.edu/index.php/about/. If you are one of them but have not added your profile yet, please contact Samuel.

Out of the working document that we generated together in 2016, we extracted a set of activities for the PCC, but it should be obvious that we need to focus on a small number of projects. With that in mind, for 2017, the Platform Cooperativism Consortium is focusing on the following projects.

1) A mooc about the cooperative platform economy. We are immediately moving to fundraise and create a free, massively open online course on the subject of the cooperative platform economy. This course will be for motivated individuals and groups worldwide who would like to start a platform co-op or reflect more on its the implications of an open social economy. It will also serve as a resource for those in the academy, providing teachable segments which instructors can use in their classes. If the task at hand is, as Benkler argues, the seizure of this unique historical moment to reframe the way politico-economic processes are understood, the availability of this courseware will be a vital tool in the dissemination of this new understanding which we are building together.

2) Templates. We plan to work on legal templates to help the community to launch platform co-ops, at least in the U.S.

3) Design. A design team already started a design overhaul of the platform.coop website. It will be rolled out in February. Send us your input or requests for features, please.

4) Fundraising. We are about to launch a donation channel and are looking for first donations to support I) the operation of the PCC, II) the massively open online course about the cooperative platform economy, and III) our work on legal templates that make it easier to start up platform co-ops.

5) The Platform Cooperativism Consortium will continue to interview different platform co-ops about their ethical commitments, lessons learned, ownership models, and systems of self-governance and publish articles, which make the community aware of projects within the ecosystem. The goal of these stories is to bring people within the ecosystem closer together. Our network will be as potent as the relationships of the people within it. You can keep abreast of this effort by following the stories we post here, on https://platform.coop/stories. A list of articles appears at the end of this article. We are open to review your platform co-op story. Submit it to us!

6) We will also our project of mapping the growing landscape of platform cooperatives and related democratically-run projects by promoting the excellent work by the team at Internet of Ownership who have produced a comprehensive directory of platform cooperatives, many articles, and are keeping a running calendar of events related to platform cooperativism.

7) In the fall of 2017, we will convene the next event at the New School. Write us your wish list for the event.

8) We are planning on launching a European sister organization of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium.

9) Platform cooperativism events are coming up in many cities including London, Brussels, Melbourne, and Berlin.

What are your priorities?