Work, for many Americans, is no longer working. Once a reliable engine of prosperity and stability, the American economy in recent years has been characterized by runaway inequality, stagnating wages, and the rise of the precariat — workers who don’t have job security, wage guarantees, or benefits. Meanwhile American workers put in more hours per week than do workers in any other advanced industrial economy, and take less vacation time. The exact cause of these trends is the subject of much debate with some crediting increased automation or blaming the decreased influence labor unions. Others cite neoliberal austerity policies; some point to shifting global markets.
These questions are fascinating, but most people can’t afford to wait for a definitive answer. Instead, disparate groups all around the country are experimenting with alternative models by which to structure work and organize labor in hopes of finding new ways to make ends meet.
One such solution is platform co-ops, a 21st-century spin on the familiar model of a cooperative. One of the country’s foremost experts on platform cooperativism is Nathan Schneider, a writer, reporter, and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Schneider — whose first book “God in Proof” blends religious philosophical scholarship with reporting about the internet — became interested in platform cooperatives after his experiences writing his second book “Thank You Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse“, a study of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“The more I followed [Occupy protesters], the more it seemed to me that cooperatives and the future of the internet might be veering in each others’ direction,” he says. After co-organizing a major conference about platform co-ops at The New School in 2015, Schneider’s writing and research has focused on alternative models for ownership of online platforms. “Ours to Hack and to Own“, which Schneider edited with conference co-organizer Trebor Scholz, has been called “the most comprehensive summary of the burgeoning platform co-op movement to date.” His forthcoming book “Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that is Shaping the Next Economy” will be released in September 2018. (You can pre-order a copy here.)
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eamon O’Connor: What is a platform co-op?
Nathan Schneider: The idea is perhaps deceptively simple. All we’re talking about here is bringing the long, old tradition of cooperative enterprise into the economy of online platforms.
Cooperatives are businesses owned and governed not so much by investors and profit-seekers as by the people who work, shop, sell, or play at them. Examples of these range from REI and the Associated Press to the smaller co-ops that practically invented the local-and-organic food industry, plus the electric utility companies that provide electricity to three-quarters of the landmass of the United States.
By online platforms, we mean the kind of business that has become superpowered by the internet. They create value not so much by manufacturing and distributing stuff as by connecting people. Airbnb, Google, Facebook, Uber — their value comes from exploiting connection among users.
It turns out co-ops are really good at connecting people, too. So if you smoosh together platforms and co-ops, you’ve got platform cooperativism.
In the new struggles over the next social contract, we need dynamism again.”
E: How is platform cooperativism different from the sharing economy?
N: By about 2014 or so, I was going to “sharing economy” conferences and meetings and the like. Just when that idea was starting to take off, people were realizing the term was bankrupt. This wasn’t about sharing, it was about rental and extraction. It was about monopolization. Silicon Valley soon gave up on the term altogether, just like Google dropped its “don’t be evil” motto — just too hard to maintain the pretense.
But I started noticing that there were some startups out there that didn’t get the memo, and were trying to build actual sharing economies. Many of them had stumbled backward into creating co-ops. A real sharing economy was afoot — or rather, among cooperatives it had been happening all along.
E: What conditions — economic, social, technological — are platform cooperatives responding to?
NS: Historically co-ops have tended to form when there is a serious imbalance between supply and demand — underutilized supply (such as worker-owned businesses in the midst of high unemployment) or unmet demand (such as buying clubs for hard-to-find outdoors equipment). Today, where are these imbalances? That’s where we find platform co-ops.
For example Stocksy United is a photographer owned platform that formed because the supply of talented artists was being horribly undervalued in the platform economy. MIDATA.coop, a Swiss medical data co-op, formed because medical researchers felt a demand for ethical sources of data to study, and patients felt a demand for trustworthy data repositories.
E: How does decentralized or networked technology change what counts as “work”?
N: The world is in a tug-of-war about that right now. The social contract is up for grabs. Technology doesn’t actually change anything about work on its own, but it becomes an excuse for people in power to rewrite the rules for their benefit. Why do Amazon Mechanical Turk and Uber not have to pay attention to minimum wage laws? Because they’re on the internet, I guess, and policymakers are spooked by that. This presents serious dangers, but there are also opportunities. It’s a chance to rewrite our social contracts in a better way. And there has to be a better way than jobs.
In my reporting, on the whole, I’ve seen two kinds of new co-op projects. Some, like SMart, are trying to take networked, freelance work and give it more of the security and predictability of old-fashioned employment. Others, like the Catalan Integral Cooperative, are trying to escape the employment relationship altogether and achieve a fuller kind of freedom. Take your pick.
We’re starting to realize that the problem is not just the tech, it’s the ownership and the governance. Democratic tech needs to be powered by democratic business.”
E: Why aren’t there more unions among tech workers?
N: First, let’s be clear. Mostly what we mean by “tech workers” is “tech management.” This is highly paid engineers and marketers and the like who have access to slick stock options and free takeout if they stay at work past 7pm. Compared to the biggest companies of a generation ago, which employed hundreds of thousands or millions of workers, the biggest tech companies employ tens of thousands. Far more numerous are the drivers Uber claims not to employ, and the hosts Airbnb claims not to employ, and the users Google and Facebook claim not to employ. These are value-creators, too. These are the factory-floor workers who in the past would have been the ones to unionize. Today, they are isolated and separated, and they don’t even think of themselves as workers — and, let’s be honest, they’re not that exactly.
Part of the whole logic of the platform economy’s design has been to avoid potential unionization because unions demand (and typically succeed in obtaining) money that investors would prefer to keep for themselves. The platform economy is an end-run around the union business model, so we need different strategies. And before there were big, fancy, NLRB-backed unions in this country, there were workers organizing with a fearsome combination of wildcat strikes and cooperative enterprises. In the new struggles over the next social contract, we need that dynamism again.
E: Are there particular cultural, political, or legal barriers to coops becoming more widespread in the United States?
N: The main thing is ignorance. For instance, in tech, the smartest people tend to be quite ignorant of the power of this kind of model. And they come by that honestly. Around World War II, co-ops went from being actively promoted by the US government and academia to being suppressed in the Red Scare as some kind of communism. Even though they persisted and thrived as businesses, they didn’t advertise themselves as such. So the idea of forming a co-op, or having an “exit” to cooperative ownership, simply doesn’t occur to smart, promising entrepreneurs.
Hopefully that is starting to change. Just in the past few years that I’ve been doing this, the options for financing, for networking, for mutual support among co-ops has drastically improved. Blockchain projects like RChain are putting cooperation at the center of their model. Cities around the country are beginning to adopt policies to support co-ops, and legislation is starting to be introduced nationally as well. Bigger, older co-ops are starting to recognize that something is afoot, and internet users are starting to wake up to the fact that advertising-driven tech monopolies aren’t good for their souls or their kids.
We’re starting to realize that the problem is not just the tech, it’s the ownership and the governance. Democratic tech needs to be powered by democratic business.
E: In your piece “Owning Is the New Sharing,” you write, “High hopes for a liberating Internet have devolved into the dominance of a few mega-companies and the NSA’s watchful algorithms.” Does decentralizing one part of a system necessarily mean another part will become more centralized than ever?
N: The trouble is that a lot of the talk about decentralization comes from the perspective of technologists. They expect that decentralized technologies will result in decentralized outcomes of other kinds. Everyone has a right to think that their particular area of expertise will fix everything else, but everyone who thinks that is wrong.
The internet is a spectacular piece of decentralized technology, but that didn’t stop investors seeking monopoly-sized market power from building history’s most centralized businesses on top of it. Vint Cerf, an inventor of TCP/IP, now works for Google. Most open-source software projects nowadays are on GitHub. The bitcoin economy (not to mention the small number of mining pools that govern it) is more centralized and unequal than dollars. No, thank you.
Too often we combine decentralized technologies with the massive inequalities of capital markets, and the result, over and over, is power curves — a few winners and scraps for the rest. We need to design decentralized economies, too. And it turns out cooperatives have been doing that for a long time.
Cooperatives are much better suited to federated structures — co-ops of co-ops. Consider for example federated social media, software available for social media networks that allow users to choose who they trust to store their data. Several of us recently created Social.coop, which is a cooperative instance of the federated, open-source social network Mastodon. We believe that for these decentralized, federated networks to take off, they need to be paired with the right kinds of business models.
The Fed is bad, but the cult of Vitalik Buterin (however much I like him personally) is worse.”
E: Under which conditions is decentralization good? Under which is it ill-advised?
N: Decentralization is not an end in itself, but it can do a lot of good. For instance, compare Home Depot to Ace Hardware. To a lot of customers, they look similar. But Home Depot is a giant chain aspiring to monopoly, and Ace is a cooperative network of locally owned stores that achieve economies of scale by buying together — profits stay in those local communities. There’s a centralized structure designed to support decentralized ownership and benefit, and that structure is accountable to its member stores. We need to expect that any system will have some centralized and some decentralized features—whether it’s Ethereum or the hardware business.
Cooperatives have been uniquely good at designing models in which the important stuff is decentralized and that whatever needs to be centralized is accountable to the constituents. A lot of so-called decentralized technologies end up creating, in contrast, a situation where the core governance of the system is highly centralized and unaccountable, even if there’s a scant illusion of decentralization at the peripheries.
In blockchain-land, in particular, there has been a lot of talk about trustlessness, because that language helps describe certain features of the technology. But from a social perspective, these technologies typically just displace trust — they shift it. And I’m not sure I’d rather have a cabal of unaccountable mining pools instead of the Federal Reserve. The Fed is bad, but the cult of Vitalik Buterin (however much I like him personally) is worse. I would like to see a lot more projects aiming at decentralization be more deliberate about building accountable institutions that are worthy of the new forms of trust we need.
E: Your early work dealt very explicitly with questions of religion. Is there a religious component to platform co-ops and digital labor more broadly?
N: On the one hand, the modern co-op movement, since its quasi-mythical founding in 1844 in England, has been explicitly non-sectarian and often very secular. That said, I happen to be a Roman Catholic, and I’ve been quite surprised to discover the degree to which my tradition has helped nudge this phenomenon along.
The largest worker-owned co-op in the world, by far, is Mondragon in Spain’s Basque region, and it was founded by a half-blind priest. The credit union movement in the United States began with a far-flung priest and spread through parish communities before good-old American business adopted it.
Many religious traditions have helped shape this tradition—from ancient Buddhist monasteries to the modern Israel’s farming kibbutzim. I don’t think cooperatives need religiosity to work. But often they’ve been motivated by the contradictory belief that private property is a necessary and useful institution, even though in some way, all the things of the world are actually meant to be shared by everyone.