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.
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.
This has been a free excerpt from Tech Against Trump, a new book by Logic chronicling the rising tide of anti-Trump resistance by tech workers and technologists.