Brazil: Platform Cooperativism
This research focuses on the emergence of the platform cooperativism (cooperativismo de plataforma) movement in Brazil. I argue that the emergence of platform cooperativism in Brazil is shaped by two distinct social environments featuring specific characteristics. There is a process of platformization within the highly institutionalized sector of cooperatives in Brazil, which is highly organized, has deep connections with political power, and is well structured in terms of resources and components. In this paper, I refer to this sector as “institutionalized platform cooperativism” (ICP), and it includes large projects such as InovaCoop, which is structured by the national cooperative system in Brazil, the powerful Organização das Cooperativas do Brasil (OCB). In the sector of institutionalized coops, enterprises operate as large bureaucracies, generating millions of jobs and boosting economic development all across the country. Platform cooperativism is perceived as an opportunity for innovation and a means of opening new markets intensive in data, logistics, and technology. In this sense, a set of spin-offs built inside the labs of large cooperatives are evolving into platforms that pursue the traditional values of cooperativism and attempt to operate in a market already structured by cooperatives in sectors such as transportation, digital finance, and health. Indeed, the discourse on platform cooperativism adopted by the OCB reveals a strong emphasis on innovation, innovative methods, and “cooperative innovation.” Instead of mounting frontal opposition to the scenario of uberization and disintegration of class relations caused by the domination of the “just-in-time collaborator,” platforms are seen as opportunities for traditional cooperativism to reinvent itself and rebuild itself in markets on multiple sides. This, in turn, should avoid the dominance of big techs in areas where cooperativism is consolidated in Brazil, such as credit, agriculture, and health.
On the other hand, there is an ongoing process of platformization of digital services economies in the margins of society and economic power, outside the scope of the highly institutionalized sector of cooperativism, with a solid commitment to inclusion and social justice. There is an emergence of new projects such as Cataki (a platform that connects workers who collect recyclable materials with individuals that produce waste), Señoritas Courier (a collective of women and LGBT individuals offering delivery services), AppJusto (an alternative for delivery in which technology serves people with more autonomy), TransEntrega (a delivery platform operated by transexuals), Contrate Quem Luta (a platform created by the Homeless Workers’ Movement), and ContratArte (a platform of artists and content creators based in the state of Rio Grande do Sul). Interestingly, all these platforms seem to share specific characteristics. They are organized by autonomous collectives and groups, have no institutional affiliation with traditional cooperativism, and operate based on a robust ideological program and values that oppose the precariousness of what has been called the “uberization of work” in Brazil. As mentioned before, I refer to this sector as “noninstitutionalized platform cooperativism” (NPC). Although not institutionalized within traditional cooperativism, this sector is supported by philanthropic organizations, research organizations, and think tanks such as Unisinos, Instituto ProComum, and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
In this study, I investigate the relationships between these two distinct sectors of platform cooperativism in Brazil from an initial mapping of their interactions and distinctions regarding values and obstacles. By reviewing the Brazilian literature on cooperativism, which distinguishes between the “elite cooperativism” and the “solidarity cooperativism,” I present a distinct conceptual separation related to the forms of institutional bonding of emerging cooperatives. What this study supports is the idea that independent, non-institutionalized, and ideologically organized projects are relevant but do not represent the platform cooperativism movement entirely in Brazil. Furthermore, I present evidence of an internal transformation in traditional cooperativism – often called “elitist,” “conservative,” and “pragmatic” – which has come to adopt the discourse on platform cooperativism internally.
My second argument is that, despite being distinct and oriented towards relatively different social objectives, these two sectors have gradually connected, which nonetheless does not mean that they will necessarily support each other. They are still far apart, a fact motivated by a series of factors that have been scarcely explored in the literature. My goal is to identify hypotheses for this gap and explore opportunities for an expanded dialogue between these sectors (namely, the institutionalized and the non-institutionalized).
In this sense, this study has a dual purpose. The first objective is descriptive and presents the complexity of cooperativism in Brazil, which takes different forms. To this end, I explain the origins of the link between cooperativism and the government and the emergence of the institutionalized system, which operates from a deeply legalized system initially outlined during the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship and redesigned during the Military Dictatorship of the 1970s. Considering its authoritarian origin makes it easy to understand why the cooperative system is so organized in legal terms since it features a national union, representative units in the State, training schools, and a tax collection method that feeds resources back into the system. This institutional trajectory has helped shape a highly hierarchical, legally constituted system, which holds the monopoly of representation of the interests of cooperatives at the national level and a considerable capacity to invest in new projects. In this system, platform cooperativism has taken on a discourse of innovation and potential for migration from an economy centered on commodities to an information economy, with new possibilities of intermediation to generate value.
The second objective of this study is cartographic and constitutes a form of intervention research aimed at identifying new problematic elements. Based on the presentation of “interaction patterns” – (i) organization of events with multiple organizations, (ii) creation of strategic plans and projects made public, (iii) holding of thematic meetings on platform cooperativism, (iv) financing of events, publications, and meetings on the subject –, I present evidence of the growing dialogue between the two sectors, which is presented through the support of institutions such as Unisinos and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
According to a multimethod social research strategy, some techniques were used to conduct the study. First, a mapping of the existing literature on platform cooperativism in Brazil was carried out. Starting from a network established in the last five years, more specifically since the study I conducted on the sharing economy at InternetLab and the translation of the book Cooperativismo de Plataforma to Portuguese. I also had regular conversations with members of the Brazilian cooperativism movement involved with platform cooperativism, primarily through WhatsApp. Twitter posts and videos uploaded onto YouTube between 2018 and 2021 were also analyzed. A WhatsApp group was created with members from both sectors (non-institutionalized and institutionalized), and focus groups were organized with participants from both sectors.
This report presents the results of such an investigation, which was performed in 2021 and featured two stages. In the first one, I reconstructed the history of cooperativism in Brazil and detailed how the highly institutionalized system emerged, structured by the Organization of Cooperatives in Brazil and the national cooperative system. In that part, I discuss the contradictions of the institutionalized Brazilian cooperativism, which is often accused of being pragmatic, elitist, and disconnected from the values of solidary and grassroots cooperativism. I argue that there has been a historical division between pragmatic cooperativism, allied to the institutionalization process in the 1970s, and a form of cooperativism guided by rural and labor movements, which forged a discourse on solidarity economy and social justice between the 1980s and 1990s. This reconstruction is crucial to avoid a modality of analysis that considers Brazilian cooperativism monolithic (solid and single-faceted); after all, it is fragmented, multifaceted, and conflictive like any complex social organization.
In the second part, I discuss how the “platformization” of the Brazilian economy has led to a dual platform cooperativism system and how traditional cooperativism has migrated from a discourse based on distrust to a bet on platform cooperativism. On the other hand, I show how civil organizations, non-governmental associations, research centers, and collectives have disputed yet another narrative about platform cooperativism. In conclusion, I discuss the contradictory effects of the institutionalization of platform cooperativism in Brazil, which implies a series of pacts with an already existing system. These contradictory effects are characterized by the possibility of more significant financial aid and support from human resources while implying a formal connection to the system and the acceptance of an ossified legal format. So far, this type of pact has generated a shift from cooperatives to non-institutionalized platforms, which have sought non-traditional organizational and legal solutions.
Our team consists of researchers around the world investigating the state of platform cooperatives.