Own this!

Peter McClure, Squares, 2011.
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By LUCIANA BRUNO*

Commentary on the recently released book by Trebor Scholz

Although it was initially seen as a tool for democratizing information and connecting people, the internet seems to have become a repository of what is most harmful in contemporary capitalism: monopolies such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Alphabet, Netflix, Uber and Paypal have the largest market capitalizations in the United States. SAP, Takeaway, Spotify and Delivery Hero dominate the European market. The same scenario repeats itself in China, with Alibaba, Tencent and Mei. In the Asia-Pacific region, with Samsung. In Africa, with Prosus and Naspers. In Latin America, with Mercado Livre.

Controlling essential areas such as food, education and transport, these companies operate according to the logic of maximizing profits and brutal exploitation of employees, who, deprived of labor rights and social protection networks, earn just enough to subsist, caught in a toxic mix of underpayment, enhanced monitoring, private data breaches and poor working conditions. A model destined to destroy the social fabric.

At a business conference held in Madrid in 2017, researcher Trebor Scholz asked economics professor and columnist for New York Times Tyler Cowen regarding the viability of alternative models, such as cooperatives, a case reported in the book OwnThis! – How Platform Cooperative Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet, released by the publisher Verso. “Cooperatives constitute an insignificant part of global GDP. They are too marginal to be considered”, replied Tyler Cowen, a statement that Trebor Scholz attributes to a “limited vision” regarding the subject.

If a respected economist is unaware of the transformative potential of cooperatives, it is no surprise that most people do not pay due attention to the topic either. In this sense, the great merit of Own this! is to open the reader's mind to the incredible potential of this alternative economic model that prioritizes equity, justice and sustainability, based on collective ownership and self-management, in favor of a fairer and more democratic internet.

Among the many definitions that permeate the book, as cooperatives are plural, heterogeneous and diverse, the following stands out: “A platform cooperative refers to a project or business that primarily uses a website, mobile application or protocol to sell goods (e.g. data) or services, and depends on democratic decision-making and community ownership shared by workers and users.”

Platform cooperatives have a significant list of advantages when compared to the traditional Big Tech model of platform capitalism. In general, they are more productive, pay better, set salary floors, operate with more transparency, promote social and racial justice, sexual diversity, the green economy, prioritize the well-being of their members, invest in inclusion and innovation, offer better working conditions, respect copyrights and forge an important sense of community and solidarity among cooperative members. The model also contributes to greater engagement with the communities in which the cooperatives operate, ultimately promoting social transformations.

Trebor Scholz cites a number of successful examples of platform cooperatives, such as Smart, or Society Muttuelle Pour Artistes, which transforms independent contractors into cooperative members and, by bringing together artists, designers, painters, technicians, consultants and sculptors under the same operational umbrella, alleviates freelancers of painful administrative work, in addition to providing legal protection and fair payment. Its slogan sums up the business idea well: “You create, we manage.”

In Brazil, the Cataki digital platform brings together thousands of collectors with the aim of optimizing the collection of recyclable materials from companies, condominiums and city halls, contributing to the solid waste recycling process. Its governance and ownership model, however, still needs to be improved[I] so that it truly becomes a platform cooperative, with greater worker participation in decisions and ownership of the organization. The potentials, however, are immense. “All over the world there are sixty-four million superheroes like the collectors who are trying to save the planet, making an honest living with what people consider trash”, says São Paulo artist Mundano, creator of the project.

But how to maintain community values, competitiveness and, ultimately, expand in the context of predatory capitalism? Despite the numerous particularities of each market, the author cites the models “scaling up","scaling out"and "deep-scaling”, which point to advances upwards, outwards and inwards, depending on how the business works, whether locally, globally or intermediately. The detail of these models is a step forward by Trebor Scholz in relation to his previous book Platform cooperativism, published in 2017 in Brazil in co-edition by publishers Elefante and Autonomia Literária.

Making the cooperative model compatible with the capitalist economy is a challenging objective, but not impossible to achieve. In partnership with governments, city halls and unions, institutions such as ICA (International Cooperative Alliance) untie the regulatory knots in a market that already employs almost thirty million people and represents three to five percent of global GDP. Brazil, with its history of success in cooperativism and the solidarity economy, can contribute to the process of disseminating platform cooperatives, especially among precarious workers in platform capitalism.[ii]

However relevant they are from an economic point of view, however, cooperatives challenge the free market paradigm precisely because they are centered on the human aspect. This redefinition involves the obsolescence of the concept of GDP (in English GDP, Gross Domestic Product) and by replacing market value with the quality of life of workers and consumers, guaranteeing digital rights and democratic governance of collective resources in line with Agenda 2020 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In the penultimate chapter, the author presents an ingenious exercise in speculative fiction. Writing from 2035, he presents a reality in which dominant platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Mysapce and Aol have disappeared, giving way to a myriad of cooperatives aligned with democratic values ​​and committed to valuing human capital. As utopian as it may seem, it reveals a possible future that, despite regulatory challenges, could, perhaps on a smaller scale, become reality.

The achievement of digital rights in the XNUMXst century is equivalent, at this point, to the achievement of civil rights in the XNUMXth century, just as cooperatives give new meaning to what was once the role of unions. This slow, but necessary process involves consolidating the concept of digital citizenship and expanding and decentralizing forms of connectivity.

If all this sounds encouraging, the last chapter is particularly useful from a practical point of view as it presents a simple guide to launching a platform cooperative, using crowdfunding funds and participatory leadership methods. After reading OwnThis!, the feeling that remains with the reader is that, although platform cooperatives already operate in sectors as diverse as transport, accommodation, construction and social services, they will soon be everywhere – for the good of the community!

*Luciana Bruno is a journalist.

Reference


Trebor Scholz. Own this! – how platform cooperative help workers build a democratic internet. London, Verso, 2023, 240 pages. [https://amzn.to/3SCrb5R]

Notes


[I] Source: “Collecting Dignity: Recyclable Waste Pickers of Brazil”. Luciana Bruno (2019). ICDE Research Fellow, The New School, NYC.

[ii] Platform capitalism (from English, “platform capitalism“) is the term used to designate a set of corporate actors (platforms) that present themselves as mere technological-communicational intermediaries and that articulate a service and business relationship between individuals or institutions (SRNICEK, 2017).


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