Nathan Schneider on Platform Cooperativism
Nathan Schneider, by Gretchen Röehrs
Over the past few years, journalist Nathan Schneider has become a leading advocate for “platform cooperativism.” Together with the scholar and activist Trebor Scholz, Nathan co-organized the first conference on platform cooperativism at the New School in 2015 and co-edited the collective manifesto Ours to Hack and to Own (2017).
We spoke to Nathan about the internet’s democratic deficit, and how it facilitates Trumpism. We also discussed how cooperatively owned digital platforms can help us fight fascism—online and off—by fulfilling the internet’s utopian potential.
This interview took place in early 2017.
For readers who may not be familiar, what is “platform cooperativism” and where did it come from?
There's long been an ambition that the internet should be about democracy. This goes back to the beginning—to geeks swapping code, to open protocols that let users post whatever. But notice that when people in tech talk about "democratizing" some tool or service, they almost always mean just allowing more people to access that thing. Gone are the usual connotations of democracy: shared ownership and governance. This is because the internet's openness has rarely extended to its underlying economy, which has tended to be an investor-controlled extraction game based on surveillance and abuse of vulnerable workers.
Thank goodness there is a long, offline tradition of a real "sharing economy"—the cooperative economy, in which people own and govern the enterprises they depend on. This includes credit unions, mutual insurance companies, farmers' buying clubs, housing co-ops, worker-owned factories, and more. It's Associated Press and Organic Valley and REI.
What if our online platforms, which are increasingly the medium of our relationships and culture and work, were organized that way? Platform cooperativism is a movement of people doing just that. At a time when large-scale, political democracy is under dire threat, this is a way of working for a democratic future that starts with the tools we rely on to do the stuff we care about.
The term "platform cooperativism" was coined by my colleague Trebor Scholz in late 2014. At the time, as a reporter, I'd been writing stories of people who were already doing this. We teamed up, organized a conference, and edited a book called Ours to Hack and to Own. Meanwhile, for a wide variety of reasons, creative people all over the world have been turning away from digital feudalism and starting to build a better, cooperative internet.
To bring the conversation to Trump, how does “digital feudalism” facilitate Trumpism? Is there something about the ownership model of the internet that makes it especially fertile ground for fascism?
The internet so far has come with a growth model, and an accompanying ideology, that puts a halo on what Donald Trump has sought to be all his life. It is the Great Man theory of history—that only the lone, irreverent genius makes important things happen, and that exploiting lesser beings in the Great Man's service is defensible for the greater good of all.
Trump and Steve Jobs have different aesthetics—black turtleneck versus golden combover—but their bedrock assumptions about how the world works are essentially the same. It has been convenient for some tech CEOs to adopt apparently progressive politics, because that has been a way to obtain the immigration policies, educated workforce, and general goodwill they need to consolidate their power. But they're not programmed, so to speak, to care about democratic process. Fascism—in the classical sense of a strong-arm alliance between government and industry—aligns much more neatly with the culture of startup bros and venture capital and unicorns. We can already see the CEOs starting to line up behind Peter Thiel in their embrace of Trumplandia. It is a kind of homecoming. It probably feels quite liberating for some.
Other kinds of origin stories can be told about the internet, of course—that it was built with the fruits of public research funds and infrastructure, that it depends on open-source code shared freely among geeks for decades, that what made it awesome was its decentralized, open, ungovernable nature. These are the kinds of prehistories that platform cooperativism builds on. And they point to forms of ownership and governance that stand at odds with the Great Man theory. Functioning, effective democracy is illegible to the worldview Trump seeks to impose. And that's precisely what makes it so powerful.
I also see platform cooperativism, and cooperation in general, as a much-needed reminder that democracy doesn't begin and end with the president. We need it in the systems that we interact with every day. The more we exercise those democratic habits and muscles, the less we need of strongmen to sweep through and save the world.
In the past, fascists have attempted to co-opt cooperative movements. Mussolini gave up and repressed them instead. Peron made co-ops so Peronist that they were hardly co-ops anymore. And in Spain, cooperators led the fight against Franco; when they lost that war, the Basque people got their revenge by building Mondragon, the largest worker cooperative in the world, a living and working act of resistance to fascist rule. When there is no Big Man for the fascists to "make deals" with, their model of the world doesn't compute. We need digital Mondragons that can drown out Trump's tweets.
Can you speak a bit more specifically to how these "digital Mondragons" can fight Trumpism?
It starts with becoming less governable. The tech monopolies are very convenient for governments that want to control and manipulate, because the points of control are highly centralized. Building a backdoor to Google may be hard—whether through intrusion or social engineering of its leadership—but once you've done it, that's pretty much all you need to do. But if the ownership and governance of the network is more distributed, more shared among a wider community of users, that's a whole lot more backdoors you have to figure out how to open.
Cooperative ownership is a way of protecting ourselves. It's a way of ensuring that these platforms are less easy to hijack, and that the decentralized promise of the internet can be finally manifest not just in the protocols but in the economy that flows through them. Right now, the internet is pretty well organized to support fascism, and already does so to the degree that it has already arisen. Shared ownership is a way to halt this process, and to gird ourselves against its allure.
We need to become less governable in many areas of our lives. Technology is one area in which, I'm afraid, we're especially vulnerable.
You've talked about how a more cooperative and decentralized internet can help promote democracy and resist authoritarianism. But how does that extend to the economic sphere? Unified Republican control of Congress and the White House is likely to mean an even more hostile climate for labor organizing. Among other things, there's talk of a national "right-to-work" law. What role can platform cooperatives—a ridesharing platform owned by its drivers, for instance—play in resisting the Republicans' anti-labor agenda?
A century ago and more, before New Deal legislation enshrined a rather static (and intentionally racist) version of union organizing into law, co-ops were often a critical part of the labor-organizing business model. Unions supported co-op stores for their members, and helped set up cooperative workshops so that striking workers could keep producing when they were off the job.
Co-ops were a core part of the strategy for the nineteenth-century Knights of Labor, for instance, and they were the explicit objective of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early twentieth century. The Cold War arrangement, and the AFL-CIO business model, departed from these origins. After World War II, the deal was that unions would be tolerated as long as they acted as partners with capital and didn't threaten its fundamental control.
Now, in many respects, we're back where we were a century ago. Protective organizations for working people are falling apart or long gone. Some of the most important campaigns lately, such as the Fight for 15 and OUR Walmart, don't even try to rely on dues paid by the workers they claim to represent; instead, they're parasitic on other unions and philanthropy, which isn't necessarily good for their long-term accountability. And while these kinds of models—highly distributed, involving often just a few workers in each store—are terrible for the standard National Labor Relations Act union arrangement, they're very well suited for platform co-ops.
Already we're seeing unions start to turn to co-ops again as a lifeline and a new hope. That includes platform co-ops. Green Taxi, an 800-driver co-op in Colorado, is backed by the Communication Workers of America. A Service Employees International Union affiliate in California is behind Nurses Can, a new app for home-care nurses. And more. Some of these are being brokered with the help of Michael Peck, the US representative of the Basque co-op conglomerate Mondragon. When unions can't rely anymore on a fixed, cozy set of arrangements with government and capital, co-ops become—as they were from the beginning—an obvious option. And in an economy increasingly being organized online, platform co-ops are a vital beachhead.
You seem to be saying that there might be a small silver lining to Trump's agenda: by turning back the clock on labor law, he may be creating more space for earlier forms of worker organizing like cooperativism, especially with digital platforms.
I'm never going to be one to say that things have to get worse before they can get better. That kind of thinking only throws the most vulnerable under the bus of supposed progress. And in places like Germany and France and Italy, where labor unions are still quite strong, they're also embracing platform cooperativism. Our unions would probably be better poised to enter this new space if they were in a stronger position generally. But it’s true that platform cooperativism found some of its earliest supporters among leaders of the newer, more flexible labor organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Guestworkers Alliance, and the Freelancers Union.
I'm also wondering if the fact that these cooperatives are digital makes it easier for them to elude potential repression. Certainly, platform capitalists like Uber and Airbnb have built a business model out of short-circuiting government oversight and regulations. Are those loopholes also accessible to platform cooperatives, and could they be useful for surviving a newly hostile political environment under Trump?
There definitely is this deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon by which people seem to forget all the rules of the offline world when they see a shiny new internet gizmo. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage. I do think the online-ness of platform cooperativism is drawing new people into the cooperative movement who otherwise would remain ignorant of it.
Already, many platform co-ops have had to hack the law a bit in order to operate, since most cooperative statutes were designed for very different kinds of organizations. Bending the rules is always necessary to make a new thing work. The difference is, I think we're bending them in the opposite direction of Uber—toward solidarity, toward community-based financing.
But I also think one of the strongest things cooperation has going for it is its legacy, its tradition. This is a global movement with centuries of experience to learn from. I've been trying hard to learn those lessons as I try to support the emerging platform co-ops.
For instance, young people often say that there's no financing out there for co-ops. To an extent, that's true; in tech, almost all of the financing models are incompatible with community ownership. That said, look at the history of agricultural co-ops and electric utility co-ops in this country. As the co-ops grew, they built their own cooperative banks—banks that are themselves cooperatives, designed to lend to cooperatives. Those institutions finance hugely capital-intensive projects to this day, even if people in cities are usually blind to them. These can become resources for platform co-ops, too, if we approach them right.
We can find power in the tremendous accomplishments of past cooperators that are hidden in plain sight. Co-ops built this country, to a significant degree. Trump wants us to believe that only the likes of him can build things. Zuckerberg agrees. They want us, too, to have the attention span of a reality-TV show.
We can refuse.
This has been a free interview from Tech Against Trump, a book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists.