Internet

Can diverse social movements come together and find new synergies for building a new type of economy?  Last week there were some significant conversations along those lines at Goldsmiths College in London, at the Open Co-op conference. The two-day event brought together leading voices from the co-operative, open source, and collaborative economy movements as well as organized labor. The gathering featured a lot of experts on co-operative development, law, software platforms, economics and community activism.

The basic point of the conference was to:  

“imagine a transparent, democratic and decentralised economy which works for everyone. A society in which anyone can become a co-owner of the organisations on which they, their family & their community depend. A world where everyone can participate in all the decisions that affect them.

“This is not a utopian ideal, it is the natural outcome of a networked society made up of platform cooperatives; online organisations owned and managed by their members. By providing a viable alternative to the standard internet business model based on monopoly and extraction, platform cooperatives provide a template for a new type of organisation – forming the building blocks for a new economy.”

The idea of “platform co-operatives” – launched at a seminal New York City conference in November 2015 co-organized by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider – has quickly found a following internationally. People have begun to realize how Uber, Airbnb, Taskrabbit and countless other network platforms are distressingly predatory, using venture capital money and algorithms to override health, safety and labor standards and municipal governance itself.

The London event showed the breadth and depth of interest in this topic – and in the vision of creating a new type of global economy.  There were folks like Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo, a German online marketplace and web-based co-op owned by its users; Brianna Werttlaufer, cofounder and CEO of Stocksy United, an artist-owned, multistakeholder cooperative in Victoria, British Colombia; and co-operative finance and currency expert Pat Conaty.

There was a lot of talk about building new infrastructures that could mutualize the benefits from local businesses while connecting to a larger global network of co-ops sharing the same values.  Among the tools mentioned for achieving this goal: Mondragon-style co-ops, government procurement policies to favor local co-ops, shifting deposits to local credit unions, and crowdfunding citizen-led community development projects.

One of the big, unanswered questions in our political economy today is “what constitutes value?”  Conventional economics sees value as arising from market exchange and expressed as prices. A very simple, crude definition of value.

But how, then, to account for the many kinds of value that are intangible, social or ecological in nature, and without prices – activities such as child-rearing and eldercare, ecological stewardship, online peer production, and commoning?  There is an urgent need to begin to make these forms of value explicitly visible in our political economy and culture.

Two new reports plunge into this complicated but essential topic.  The first one – discussed below -- is called “Value in the Commons Economy:  Developments in Open and Contributory Value Accounting,” The 49-page report by Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Niaros focuses on socially created value on digital networks. It was co-published yesterday by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and P2P Foundation. 

Another important report on how to reconceptualize value – an account of a three-day Commons Strategies Group workshop on this topic – will be released in a few days and presented here.

The P2P Foundation report declares that “society is shifting from a system based on value created in a market system (through labor and capital) to one which recognizes broader value streams,” such as the social and creative value generated by online communities.  The rise of these new types of value – i.e., use-value generated by commoners working outside of typical market structures – is forcing us to go beyond the simple equation of price = value.

Michel Bauwens and sociologist Adam Arvidsson call this the “value crisis” of our time.  Commons-based peer production on open platforms is enabling people to create new forms of value, such as open source software, wikis, sharing via social networks, and creative collaborations.  Yet paradoxically, only a small minority of players is able to capture and monetize this value.  Businesses like Facebook, Google and Twitter use their proprietary platforms to strictly control the terms of sharing; collect and sell massive amounts of personal data; and pay nothing to commoners who produced the value in the first place.

This is highly extractive, and not (re)generative.  So what can be done?  How could open platforms be transformed to bolster the commons and serve as a regenerative social force? 

This is the third and final installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning: Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networks," published by Friends of the Earth UK. The full essay can be downloaded as a pdf file here.

III.  Re-imagining the Polity for a Networked Humanity

However promising the new forms of open source governance outlined above, they do not of themselves constitute a polity.  The new regimes of collaboration constitute mini- and meso-systems of self-organization.  They do not comprise a superstructure of law, policy, infrastructure and macro-support, which is also needed.  So what might such a superstructure look like, and how might it be created?  Can we envision some sort of transnational polity that could leapfrog over the poorly functioning state systems that prevail today?

A first observation on this question is that the very idea of a polity must evolve.  So long as we remain tethered to the premises of the Westphalian nation-state system, with its strict notions of absolute sovereignty over geographic territory and people and its mechanical worldview enforced by bureaucracies and law, the larger needs of the Earth as a living ecosystem will suffer.  So, too, will the basic creaturely needs of human beings, which are universal prepolitical ethical needs beyond national identity.

It may simply be premature to declare what a post-Westphalian polity ought to look like – but we certainly must orient ourselves in that direction.  For the reasons cited above, we should find ways to encourage the growth of a Commons Sector, in both digital and non-virtual contexts, and in ways that traverse existing territorial political boundaries.  Ecosystems are not confined by political borders, after all, and increasingly, neither are capital and commerce.  Culture, too, is increasingly transnational.  Any serious social or ecological reconstruction must be supported by making nation-state barriers more open to transnational collaboration if durable, effective solutions are to be developed. 

While states are usually quite jealous in protecting their authority, transnational commons should be seen as helping the beleaguered nation-state system by compensating for its deficiencies.  By empowering ordinary people to take responsibility and reap entitlements as commoners, nation-states could foster an explosion of open-source problem-solving and diminish dependencies on volatile, often-predatory global markets, while bolstering their credibility and legitimacy as systems of power.    

But how might we begin to build a commons-friendly polity?  After all, the most politically attractive approaches have no ambitions to change the system, while any grand proposals for transforming neoliberal capitalism are seen as political non-starters.  I suggest three “entry points” that can serve as long-term strategies for transformation: 

1) begin to reconceptualize cities as commons;

2) reframe the “right to common” (access to basic resources for survival and dignity) as a human right; and

3) build new collaborations among system-critical social movements so that a critical mass of resistance and creative alternatives can emerge. 

These three general strategies are not separate approaches, of course, but highly complementary and synergistic.

New Forms of Network-based Governance

The text below is a second installment from my essay, "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance through Emergent Networking," published by Friends of the Earth UK.  The third and final part of the essay will appear next.

Digital Commons as a New Species of Production and Governance

 To return to our original question:  How can we develop new ways to preserve and extend the democratic capacities of ordinary people and rein in unaccountable market/state power?  There is enormous practical potential in developing a Commons Sector as a quasi-independent source of production and governance.  Simply by withdrawing from the dominant market system and establishing stable, productive alternatives – in the style of Linux, local food systems and the blogosphere – the regnant system can be jolted.

While many digital commons may initially seem marginal, they can often “out-cooperate” conventional capital and markets with their innovative approaches, trustworthiness and moral authority.  The output of digital commons is mostly for use value, not exchange value.  It is considered inalienable and inappropriable, and must be shared and copied in common, not reflexively privatized and sold.  By enacting a very different, post-capitalist logic and ethos, many “digital republics” are decisively breaking with the logic of the dominant market system; they are not simply replicating it in new forms (as, for example, the “sharing economy” often is).

Let us conspicuously note that not all open source systems are transformative.  We see how existing capitalist enterprises have successfully embraced and partially coopted the transformative potential of open source software.  That said, there are new governance innovations that hold lessons for moving beyond strict market and state control.  For example, the foundations associated with various open source software development communities,[17] and the wide variety of “Government 2.0” models that are using networked participation to improve government decision-making and services (e.g., the Intellipedia wiki used by US intelligence agencies; Peer to Patent crowdsourcing of “prior art” for patent applications).

Any serious transformational change must therefore empower ordinary people and help build new sorts of collaborative structures. Ultimately, this means we must recognize the practical limits of external coercion and try to develop new systems that can enable greater democratic participation, personal agency, and open spaces for local self-determination and bottom-up innovation.[18] The examples described below are embryonic precursors of a different, better future.

Transnational Republics of Commoning

I am often asked what the commons has to contribute to solving our climate change problems.  Since most commons are rather small scale and local, there is a presumption that such commons cannot possibly deal with a problem as massive and literally global as climate change. I think this view is mistaken.

The nation-state as now constituted, in its close alliance with capital and markets, is largely incapable of transcending its core commitments to economic growth, consumerism, and the rights of capital and corporations -- arguably the core structural drivers of climate change. But these allegiances artificially limit our options, if not dismiss the kinds of interventions we must entertain. The market/state simply command and coerce its way to success in arresting with climate change; it will require the active, enthusiastic contributions of everyone, and it must command social respect and political legitimacy.

A new vision and popular energy from the outside must arise.  But how?  And how could it possibly expand to a meaningful size rapidly enough?  I think that the Internet and other digital networks offer a fertile vector in which to develop new answers. I explore the speculative possibilities in this essay written for Friends of the Earth UK, published as part of its "Big Think" essay series.  Because the piece -- "Transnational Republics of Commoning:  Reinventing Governance Through Emergent Networking" -- is nearly 14,000 words long, I am separating it into three parts.  You can download the full essay as a pdf file here.

 

Four days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the pilot on United Airlines Flight 564, going from Denver to Washington, D.C., came on the intercom:      

The doors are now closed and we have no help from the outside for any problems that might occur inside this plane.  As you could tell when you checked in, the government has made some changes to increase security in the airports.  They have not, however, made any rules about what happens after those doors close.  Until they do, we have made our own rules and I want to share them with you …

Here is our plan and our rules.  If someone or several people stand up and say they are hijacking this plane, I want you all to stand up together.  Then take whatever you have available to you and throw it at them … There are usually only a few of them, and we are two-hundred-plus strong.  We will not allow them to take over this plane.  I find it interesting that the U.S. Constitution begins with the words, “We the people.”  That’s who we are, the people, and we will not be defeated.

As recounted by journalist David Remnick, passengers “were asked to turn to their neighbors on either side and introduce themselves, and to tell one another something about themselves and their families.  ‘For today, we consider you family,’ they were told.  ‘We will treat you as such and ask that you do the same with us.’”[1]

Michel Bauwens recently spoke at the Harvard Berkman Center to give his big-picture analysis of the economic and social transition now underway.  The hour-long video of his talk provides a clear explanation for why peer production is flourishing and out-competing conventional business models and markets.  It’s all part of an epochal shift in how value is created, argues Bauwens.

Citing major transitions of the past – from nomadic communities to clans; from clans to class-based, pre-capitalist societies; from pre-capitalism to capitalism – Bauwens said, “We’re in a period of history in which a marginal system of value is moving to the center of value-creation.” 

For those who don't have an hour to watch the video, below, a review of Michel's key points: 

Unlike traditional leftist visions of revolution, which require a social movement to seize state power and then install another system, the emerging world of peer production is based on another vision:  build an alternative economy outside the circuits of capitalism, or at least insulated from its exploitation, and then develop its own functionalities and moral authority. 

The point is not so much to displace or smash capitalism, he said, as to make the commons the new, more compelling “attractor” for activities that create value.  Rather than try to use private labor to produce value, which is then captured by privately owned corporations and sold in markets based on artificially created scarcity, the peer production economy proposes a new model:  abundance based on an ethic of sufficiency.

Instead of allocating surplus value through the market or hierarchical systems, the peer production economy creates value through open, voluntary contributions and “massive mutual coordination,” said Bauwens.  The goal is to create commons through social systems and the sharing of resources.

Mutualized Solutions for the Precariat

Large companies have long sought to boost profits by converting their employees into “independent contractors,” allowing them to avoid paying benefits.  The rise of the “gig economy” – exemplified by digital platforms such as Uber and Airbnb – has only accelerated this trend.  Business leaders like to celebrate the free agent, free market economy as liberating -- the apex of American individualism and entrepreneurialism.  But the self-employed are more likely to experience a big loss of income, security and collegiality.  There is a reason that this cohort is called “the precariat.”

A new report by Co-operatives UK called “Not Alone:  Trade Union and Co-operative Solutions for Self-Employed Workers” offers a thoughtful, rigorous overview of this neglected sector of the economy.  Although it focuses on the UK, its findings easily apply internationally, particularly for co-operative and union-based solutions. 

The author of the report, Pat Conaty, notes that “self-employment is at a record level” in the UK – some 15% of the workforce – and rising.  While some self-employed workers choose this status, a huge number are forced into through layoffs and job restructuring, with all the downward mobility and loss of security implied by them. 

Few politicians or economists are honestly addressing the implications.  They assume that technological innovation will simply create a new wave of jobs to replace the ones being eliminated, same as it ever was.

The sad truth is that investors and companies benefit greatly from degrading full-time jobs into piecemeal, task-based projects tackled by a growing pool of precarious workers.  This situation is only going to become more desperate as artificial intelligence, automation, driverless vehicles and platform economics offshore and de-skill conventional jobs if they don't permanently destroy them.  

The City as Platform

In the age of ubiquitous Internet connections, smartphones and data, the future vitality of cities is increasingly based on their ability to use digital networks in intelligent, strategic ways. While we are accustomed to thinking of cities as geophysical places governed by mayors, conventional political structures and bureaucracies, this template of city governance is under great pressure to evolve. Urban dwellers now live their lives in all sorts of hyper-connected virtual spaces, pulsating with real-time information, intelligent devices, remote-access databases and participatory crowdsourcing. Expertise is distributed, not centralized. Governance is not just a matter of winning elections and assigning tasks to bureaucracies; it is about the skillful collection and curation of information as a way to create new affordances for commerce and social life.

That's the opening paragraph from my new report for the Aspen Institute, “The City as Platform: How Digital Networks Are Changing Urban Life and Governance.”  (pdf file download here). The report synthesizes discussion at an Aspen Institute Communications and Society conference last July. About thirty technologists, urban planners, policy experts, economic analysts, entrepreneurs, and social justice advocates shared insights into how networking technologies are transforming urban life, commerce and government.

I wrote the report as a rapporteur, not a commons advocate, but it’s abundantly clear that the sharing and collaboration facilitated by digital networks are spawning all sorts of new commons and hybrids (e.g., government/commons and government/corporate collaborations). The focus of the conference was mostly on US cities, but these things are happening worldwide, especially in cooperation-minded global cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Seoul.  In the US, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the vanguard, in part because of San Francisco’s proximity to Silicon Valley tech firms and in LA, because everyone there lives on their smartphones.

The backlash to the corporate “sharing economy” is gaining momentum, and one key player is the movement to develop “platform cooperativism.”  The New York Office of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung has released a report critiquing the “sharing economy” and describing the alternatives.  It’s called “Platform Cooperativism:  Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy” (pdf file).  and it’s written by Trebor Scholz, an associate professor at the New School. 

Scholz and journalist Nathan Schneider were co-organizers of a November 2015 conference that served as an historic flashpoint on this topic.  People are starting to realize the many anti-social effects of the “gig economy,” as typified by Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, but the development of workable alternatives is barely underway.

The first half of the report addresses the many deficiencies of the so-called sharing economy.  First of all, it’s not about sharing at all. It’s an “on-demand service economy” that relies on the same exploitative techniques of conventional capitalism, but with powerful tech enhancements. 

While the system delivers amazing convenience and efficiencies, it also preys upon those who cannot obtain good-paying stable jobs with benefits.  It re-introduces piecework on a massive scale, this time with sophisticated computer algorithms to ratchet down wages to below minimum wage.  Since everyone is nominally considered an independent contractor, corporate platforms can shrug and exonerate themselves by saying that everyone is “free to choose” their working circumstances, in Milton Friedman’s classic phrase. 

But as more jobs are sent abroad to countries that pay lower wages and have few worker protections, workers are in many cases victimized by a global race to the bottom.  Corporate platforms act as lucrative intermediaries that shed the costs of conventional businesses – the capital infrastructure, regular paychecks and employee benefits.

Every time Uber, the Web-based taxi intermediary, enters a new city, it provokes controversy about its race-to-the-bottom business practices and bullying of regulators and politicians.  The problem with Uber and other network-based intermediaries such as Lyft, Task Rabbit, Mechanical Turk and others, is that they are trying to introduce brave new market structures as a fait accompli. They have only secondary interest in acceptable pay rates, labor standards, consumer protections, civic and environmental impacts or democratic debate itself. 

Rather than cede these choices to self-selected venture capitalists and profit-focused entrepreneurs, some European cities and regional governments came up with a brilliant idea:  devise an upfront, before-the-fact policy framework for dealing with the disruptions of the “sharing economy.”

If we can agree in advance about what constitutes a socially respectful marketplace – and what constitutes a predatory free-riding on the commonweal – we’ll all be a lot better off.  Consumers, workers and a community will have certain basic protections. Investors and executives won’t be able to complain about “unlevel playing fields” or unfair regulation. And public debate won’t be a money-fueled free-for-all, but a more thoughtful, rational deliberation.

Now, if only the European Union will listen to the Committee of the Regions (CoR)!  The CoR is an official assembly of regional presidents, mayors and elected representatives from 28 EU countries. It routinely expresses its views on all sorts of major policy issues that may have local or regional impacts. In December, the CoR submitted a formal statement about the “sharing economy” to the EU in an opinion written by rapporteur Benedetta Brighenti, the deputy mayor of the municipality of Castelnuovo Rangone, in the province of Modena, Italy. 

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