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<nettime> Cooperativism in the digital era, or how to form a global coun
nettime's avid reader on Tue, 21 Mar 2017 11:51:52 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Cooperativism in the digital era, or how to form a global counter-economy


https://www.opendemocracy.net/digitaliberties/michel-bauwens-vasilis-kostakis/cooperativism-in-digital-era-or-how-to-form-global-counter-economy

Cooperativism in the digital era, or how to form a global counter-economy

Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis 6 March 2017

Can we transform the renting economy of Uber and AirBnB into a genuine
sharing one? Platform cooperatives must become open and commons-oriented.

“What if this is not capitalism, but something worse?” McKenzie
Wark's question eloquently summarizes the growing criticism of
profit-maximizing business models within the so-called collaborative
sharing economy. That “something worse,” appears to take the
form of a new kind of feudalism, as in the case of Facebook. That
“something worse,” appears to take the form of a new kind of
feudalism, as in the case of Facebook. If feudalism was based on the
ownership of land by an elite, the resource now controlled by a small
minority is networked data. Or, as in the case of Uber, AirBnB and
TaskRabbit, it takes the form of a kind of on-demand labour system,
where individuals-freelancers contribute their infrastructure and
labour.

What is platform cooperativism?

The concept of “platform cooperative” has been proposed as
an alternative to such “sharing economy” firms. A platform
cooperative is an online platform (e.g. website, mobile app) that is
organized as a cooperative and owned by its employees, customers,
users, or other key stakeholders. For example, see a directory of
several platform co-ops around the world.

We fully support the broader movement of platform cooperativism.
However, we cannot be content with isolated cooperative alternatives
designed to counter old forms of capitalism. A global counter-economy
needs to be built. And this could happen through the creation of a
global digital commons of knowledge.

How could commons-based peer production converge with cooperativism?

Commons-based peer production has brought about a new logic of
collaboration between networks of people who freely organize around a
common goal using shared resources, and market-oriented entities that
add value on top of or alongside them.

Prominent cases of commons-based peer production, such as the free
and open-source software and Wikipedia, inaugurate a new model of
value creation, different from both markets and firms. The creative
energy of autonomous individuals, organized in distributed networks,
produces meaningful projects, largely without traditional hierarchical
organization or, quite often, financial compensation.

This represents both challenges and opportunities for traditional
models of cooperativism, which date back to the nineteenth century,
and which have often over time tended to adopt competitive
mentalities. In general, cooperatives are not creating, protecting,
or producing commons, and they usually function under the patent
and copyright system. Further, they may tend to self-enclose around
their local or national membership. As a result, the global arena
is left open to be dominated by large corporations. Arguably, these
characteristics need changing, and today, there is a way for them to
change.

What is open cooperativism?

The concept of open cooperativism has been conceived as an effort to
infuse cooperatives with the basic principles of commons-based peer
production. Pat Conaty and David Bollier have called for “a new
sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and
commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of
the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other.”

To a greater degree than traditional cooperatives, open cooperatives
would statutorily be oriented towards the common good by co-building
digital commons. This could be understood as extending, not replacing,
the seventh cooperative principle of concern for community. For
instance, open cooperatives would internalize negative externalities;
adopt multi-stakeholder governance models; contribute to the creation
of immaterial and material commons; and be socially and politically
organized around global concerns, even if they produce locally. Can we
go beyond the classical corporate paradigm?

We outline a list of six interrelated strategies for post-corporate
entrepreneurial coalitions. The aim is to go beyond the classical
corporate paradigm, and its extractive profit-maximizing practices,
toward the establishment of open cooperatives that cultivate a
commons-oriented economy.

First, it’s important to recognize that closed business models are
based on artificial scarcity. Though knowledge can be shared easily
and at very low marginal cost when it is in digital form, closed
firms use artificial scarcity to extract rents from the creation or
use of digitized knowledge. Through legal repression or technological
sabotage, naturally shareable goods are made artificially scarce so
that extra profits may be generated. This is particularly galling
in the context of life-saving medicines or planet-regenerating
technological knowledge. Open cooperatives, in comparison, would
recognize natural abundance and refuse to generate revenue by making
abundant resources artificially scarce. The aim is to go beyond the
classical corporate paradigm, and its extractive profit-maximizing
practices, toward the establishment of open cooperatives that
cultivate a commons-oriented economy.

Second, a typical commons-based peer production project involves
various distributed tasks, to which individuals can freely contribute.
For instance, in free and open-source software projects, participants
contribute code, create designs, maintain the websites, translate
text, co-develop the marketing strategy, and offer support to users.
Salaries based on a fixed job description may not be the most
appropriate way to reward those who contribute to such processes. Open
co-ops, therefore, may practice, for example, open value accounting or
contributory accounting. Any income the contributions generate then
flow to contributors according to the points they accrued. This model
could be an antidote to the tendency in many firms for just a few
well-placed contributors to capture the value that has been co-created
by a much larger community.

Third, open cooperatives could secure fair distribution and
benefit-sharing of commonly created value through “CopyFair”
licenses. Existing copyleft licenses – such as Creative Commons
and the GNU Public License – allow anyone to reuse the necessary
knowledge commons on the condition that changes and improvements
are added to that same commons. That framework, however, fails to
encourage reciprocity for commercial use of the commons, or to
foster a level playing field for commons-oriented enterprises. These
shortcomings can be met through CopyFair licenses that allow for
sharing while also expecting reciprocity. For example, the FairShares
Association uses a Creative Commons non-commercial license for the
general public, but allows members of its organization to use the
content commercially.

Fourth, open cooperatives would make use of open designs to produce
sustainable goods and services. For-profit enterprises often aim
to achieve planned obsolescence in products that would wear out
prematurely. In that way, they maintain tension between supply and
demand and maximize their profits; obsolescence is a feature, not
a bug. In contrast, open design communities, such as these of the
Farmhack, the Wikihouse, and the RepRap 3D printers, do not have the
same incentives, so the practice of planned obsolescence is arguably
alien to them.

Fifth, and relatedly, open cooperatives could reduce waste. The lack
of transparency and penchant for antagonism among closed enterprises
means they will have a hard time creating a circular economy ­–
one in which the output of one production process is used as an
input for another. But open cooperatives could create ecosystems of
collaboration through open supply chains. These chains may enhance the
transparency of the production processes and enable participants to
adapt their behavior based on the knowledge available in the network.
There is no need for overproduction once the realities of the network
become common knowledge. Open cooperatives could then move beyond an
exclusive reliance on imperfect market price signals and toward mutual
coordination of production, thanks to the combination of open supply
chains and open value accounting. Open cooperatives could create
ecosystems of collaboration through open supply chains.

Sixth, open cooperatives could mutualize not only digital
infrastructures but also physical ones. The misnamed “sharing
economy” of Airbnb and Uber, despite all the justified critique
it receives, illustrates the potential in matching idle resources.
Co-working, skill-sharing, and ride sharing are examples of the many
ways in which we can reuse and share resources. With co-ownership and
co-governance, a genuine sharing economy could achieve considerable
advances in more efficient resource use, especially with the aid of
shared data facilities and manufacturing tools.

How does the concept of platform cooperativism relate to the notion of
open cooperativism?

Cooperative ownership of platforms can begin to reorient the platform
economy around a commons-oriented model.

We have highlighted six practices that are already emerging in various
forms but need to be more universally integrated. We believe that
the major aim for fostering a more commons-centric economy is to
recapture surplus value which is now feeding speculative capital,
and re-invest it in the development of commons-oriented productive
communities. Otherwise, the potential of commons-based peer production
will remain underdeveloped and subservient to the dominant system.
Platform cooperatives must not merely replicate false scarcities and
unnecessary waste; they must become open and commons-oriented. This
model could be an antidote to the tendency in many firms for just
a few well-placed contributors to capture the value that has been
co-created by a much larger community.

Note: This text is based on the authors' chapter in Ours to Hack and
to Own (edited by T. Scholz & N. Schneider, OR Books, 2016)


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