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"Build democracy and it spreads like a virus": Interview with Nathan Schneider

5th December 2016

Nathan Schneider. Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell, CC BY-SA 4.0 license Nathan Schneider is a researcher and academic, and co-editor of Ours to Hack and to Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, a New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. He is an Emissary of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium and organiser of the Platform Cooperatives Conference. 

Platform cooperativism is an emerging movement for democratic governance and collective ownership on the Internet and a fairer future of work. 

In the run up to the Open 2017 - Platform Co-ops conference in London, Oliver Sylvester-Bradley from The Open Co-op explores some of Nathan’s ideas.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the individuals and not those of DSI4EU or any of its project partners. This blog originally appeared on Open Democracy and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

 

OSB: You seem to be a fan of democracy, as am I, however, I'm not sure I have ever experienced it. What do you think real democracy is?

NS: I guess I feel I have experienced democracy. Never perfect, never complete (as Derrida put it, always "democracy to come"), but real and beautiful.

I experienced it as a teenage student, when the teachers empowered us to help govern our school, and then in college living in a housing cooperative.

And I've seen it in social movements, in organizations I've been part of, and even fleetingly in the voting booth.

I agree that one cannot call the reigning political systems any kind of complete democracy, but they do have some democratic features, and they invite us to the challenge of thickening that democracy radically.

Especially in a moment like the present one in the US, when the government is not going to be an ally, it is so, so important to build democracy wherever we can. This is something social movements have been doing for a while now. Movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter have found themselves in societies they view as undemocratic, and they responded by practicing direct democracy in the streets, and calling for cooperatives in the economy. I think this is a valuable lesson. When democracy fails at one level of society, start building it in other levels, in other spheres. It spreads like a virus.

OSB: Since members of co-ops and platform co-ops get to vote on everything and anything by which they are affected, a society populated by a multitude of co-ops would provide an alternative system of governance.

A co-op of co-ops could perform organisational duties at any scale whilst ensuring democratic governance by pushing decisions down to the lowest possible levels. What do you think about the possibility of a completely new system of democracy, like the above, superseding the existing system?

NS: This vision of a cooperative commonwealth has been suggested by many, including James Warbasse, then president of the U.S. Cooperative League, in his book Cooperative Democracy from the 1930s. My own anarchist leanings appreciate any structure that reduces the capacity of some people to coerce others through unnecessary hierarchy or representation. It will take tremendous experimentation and practice to accomplish non-coercive, participatory structures like this—especially in an age when many people are actually inclined toward authoritarianism.

That said, I believe deeply in taking any steps we can to thicken our democracy—to practice it more fully in more parts of our lives. Wherever we can. Especially in times when authoritarian temptations are strong, it becomes all the more important to demonstrate that another way is possible.

lead Cooperative de Distillation by Yann GarCooperative de Distillation by Yann Gar, CC BY-SA 2.0

OSB: At Open we are keen to see NGOs, co-ops, non-profits and even Local Authorities start to fully utilise open source software and, in return, to fund the development of a suite of open source apps which facilitate collective ownership and collaboration. What do you think about the idea of creating an 'open source development fund' into which users of open source software contribute, to help further open source development?

NS: There are already lots of pots of money out there for open-source development—foundations like Mozilla, Linux, and Apache. To make open-source more accessible, usable, and equitable, pots of money aren't enough. We need better incentives built into how that money is distributed. And I think platform co-ops could enable a very positive shift in the open-source movement, supporting the development of more user-facing, user-serving tools, which in turn could make our tech economy less dependent on business models based in surveillance and extraction.

OSB: Absolutely. I wonder whether there could be some model by which the users of open source tools can easily and voluntarily make financial contributions back to the community to fund further development? Although Mozilla and Linux and Apache do fund some superb work one wonders if a new fund, backed by user contributions, to which project developers can make proposals for funding, which are then peer reviewed, so that funding is allocated to the most sought after and well planned projects, would speed up the development and use of generative, collaborative tools?

NS: Certainly that's one strategy—one that requires users to trust the choices of the reviewers. Another is to advance platforms like Snowdrift, Gratipay, and CoBudget, which enable users to make their own allocations based on use. They, and the platform co-op movement in general, are developing a new and much-needed economic layer atop the open-source movement that is poised to make it much more inclusive and user-centered.

OSB: To me it seems odd that conventional co-ops have not embraced open source. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

NS: It's complex. For one thing, tech co-ops, by and large, seem to already be strong advocates of open source. But larger, legacy co-ops may not be, probably because they're simply following the lead of other players in their industries. For an executive anxious to digitize a business, meeting with a fellow executive offering proprietary tools probably seems less scary than trying to take on free stuff created by distributed networks of producers. I hope that, as the cooperative tech sector evolves, that will change.

I think co-ops, in the digital age, have a lot to learn from successful open-source communities in terms of how to organize and govern widespread, distributed production. However, part of what excites me about the platform co-op movement is the way in which it offers a kind of corrective to open-source so far. For one thing, people are developing licenses like the Peer Production License that create commons that only fellow co-ops can commercialize; if Linux were licensed that way, for instance, Google couldn't use it to create the Android surveillance system.

OSB: The Peer Production License is a very interesting development which we at Open hope to see utilised more, to encourage the proliferation of open source development whilst avoiding its exploitation by commercial businesses. I know coders who have been put off releasing their code as open source after seeing their previous contributions subsumed by businesses which have been grown and sold for enormous profits, so the PPL seems like a great concept. What do you think are the biggest obstacles to it becoming widely adopted?

NS: Part of what helps good ideas spread in the online economy is a successful use case. Among the projects I'm aware of that have employed the PPL, I'm not sure any have actually been commercially (or otherwise) successful because of the PPL. If this license is going to take wings, it'll be because it meets a need, and creates possibilities, where other licenses fall short. And, until the tech co-op scene is much more robust, the PPL's main benefit will be a liability; precisely what enables lots of open-source projects to work is that their contributors include corporations that intend to derive commercial benefit from the tools they're contributing to.

Platform co-ops are also developing more sustainable, user-facing business models for open-source projects, such as the Snowdrift crowdfunding platform, which I mentioned earlier.

OSB: Snowdrift looks great, their strategies to incorporate iterative functionality and social psychology seem particularly clever. I presume they would also accept PPL projects and are not focussed solely on FLO? 

NS: I can't answer definitively. But I know that some in the platform co-op community see the PPL as a counter-productive enclosure of what should be a more accessible commons. They believe platform co-ops should develop business models around open information available to anyone and any company, not around artificially limiting information flows around the co-op sector. There's truth in that. At the same time, as long as there have been commoners, they have had to protect their commons from the greedy hands of the lords.

OSB: Protecting the commons from the 'greedy hands of the lords' seems essential to me, especially since we are now in a kind of race to deliver a sustainable, generative economy before the extractive economy exhausts our finite planet. Michel Bauwens suggested to me that: 

"...we need to build productive communities around our commons and to create generative entrepreneurial coalitions, so that we are commoners adding to the commons, but also cooperators making a living. It took capital 400 years to consolidate itself with all the instititutions it needed. The problem of course, is: we don't have that time, but perhaps, because of the acceleration of learning through mutual networks, we can achieve it in 40."

I'm not sure we have even 40 years to establish a generative economy... If you were in charge, what changes would you make to help speed up the transition to a collaborative, generative, sustainable, economy?

NS: Thank goodness I'm not in charge. Michel and I are in discussion about the extent to which power must be organized and wielded to challenge the existing power relations. Perhaps a bit more than him, I think it's important that cooperative economies find alliances with more combative movements for social justice—environmental justice, racial justice, worker justice. Labor unions in the US got their start a century ago in part by conjoining cooperative enterprise with collective bargaining; they're starting to rediscover that combination in this moment of crisis. And those fighting for a "just transition" from climate genocide are turning to cooperative alternatives as well.

There's also a growing swell in the progressive policy community to reinvigorate antitrust law for the online economy. Policymakers should start turning to shared ownership models as an alternative to merely obstructing or breaking up the emerging platform monopolies. We've already seen this, for instance, in Jeremy Corbyn's recent call for platform cooperatives in his Digital Democracy Manifesto.

Policymakers who recognize the power of cooperative enterprise for bringing sustainable wealth to their communities have done several things to support it. They ensure that there are good, flexible cooperative incorporation laws. They provide development funds and financing. They provide incentives for companies to operate cooperatively and contract with co-ops that are commensurate with co-ops' commitment to the common good. In this, Bauwens' model of the "partner state"—a state that facilitates but does not direct the development of a cooperative economy—is an excellent starting point.

OSB: I'd like to open up a new subject about the increased value that platform co-ops can deliver, by avoiding the 'leaky bucket' syndrome in which value is extracted by external investors, management teams or other third parties… Do you know of any real-world examples which prove this to be the case? 

NS: Many of us are still struggling to wrap our heads around where the competitive advantages of cooperative in the online economy lie. As in economies in general, this is usually a kind of question answered better in practice than in theory.

Theoretically, there are works like Henry Hansmann's The Ownership of Enterprise, which argues that cooperative models can be most cost-saving in cases when shared ownership can reduce the cost of contracting. In practice, we see that play out with a company like Stocksy United. Stocksy has been successful in the highly competitive stock-photo industry because, through shared ownership, it has been able to obtain absolutely top-notch photographers and pay them the maximum possible returns. Because the photographer-owners and employee-owners have secured their own financing, there is no need to sell parts of the company as the price of contracting with investors.

It's a lean, streamlined, ethical business model. Those are the feedback loops we need to look for. It's not enough to say cooperation is better because it's more ethical, even though it is; we need to find the opportunities where cooperation has these kinds of competitive advantages.

OSB: I thoroughly enjoyed your chapter "The meaning of Words" in your new book Ours to Hack and Own, I completely agree words are extremely important and that sloppy usage of words  often bends and warps definitions in dreadful ways.

To me, the terms "sustainable development", "sharing economy" and "social enterprise" have all been bastardised by inappropriate usage, which has not only caused mass confusion but, worse than that, has also enabled the extractive economy to knowingly profit from this misinformation by subverting definitions to suit their own ends.

This corruption of once pure ideas and concepts undermines efforts at reform on a wholesale basis.

What particularly excites me about co-ops and the platform co-op movement is that a co-op is a very clearly defined entity and has been since 1844. It would seem extremely odd if anybody managed to corrupt such a long standing definition. Yet unfortunately we have already seen that start to happen, as people get excited by the 'platform co-op movement' and alternative definitions of what constitutes a platform co-op appear. My colleague Josef Davis-Coates wrote an important piece in June this year, to try and highlight this issue.

In the introduction to "Ours to hack and own…" you and Trebor write:

"A company that shares some ownership and governance is better than one that shares none, and we celebrate that. We encourage a variety of strategies and experiments."

I agree with the celebratory sentiment, and that a variety of strategies and experiments will be required, but I maintain that mixing and grouping co-ops and non-co-ops is potentially disastrous. It simply paves the way for quasi-co-ops (with little or no genuine co-operative principles - think Juno) to piggy-back on the celebrated platform co-op meme which, to me at least, feels like the start of a slippery slope towards the bastardisation of the definition of platform-co-ops and other co-ops. Where do you stand on this?

NS: Platform cooperativism is a broader invitation to shared ownership, shared governance, and solidarity in online economies. But when we identify an organization as a platform co-op, I think it's best to use something like the definition I've used for The Internet of Ownership directory: International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) principles, with ownership and governance shared over the platform. So not even a worker co-op that happens to have a website, or even one like Loomio that produces a platform is classed as a platform co-op. Adhering to the ICA principles is a matter of solidarity with the international movement; ensuring that ownership is shared online ensures that we're focused in what we're talking about.

OSB: Can we be sure that all the "co-op platforms" listed on your excellent website http://internetofownership.net/directory/ are actually co-ops?

NS: I have limited time for complete verification. I do attempt to ensure that everything listed as a co-op platform at least claims to follow the ICA principles. With more institutional support, we could do more due diligence. But to be honest, right now I would rather focus our attention building cooperative enterprises, not arguing over what counts under which definition.

OSB: What else do you think we can do to ensure the term "platform co-op" and "co-op" itself does not get distorted and compromised?

NS: This is a challenge that the whole cooperative movement faces. And I don't like being a cop. But this comes back to that principle of education—continually insisting, at a variety of levels, that co-op members know that they are members, and what that means, and that they can exercise their rights. To me, the distinction between "co-op platforms" and "sharing platforms" on the Internet of Ownership is useful here; the platforms that sort of blur the lines of cooperative definitions are welcome, and they can be part of this movement, but we're not going to call them co-ops. Fortunately we're not in this alone. For more than a century, the ICA has been working to keep the meaning of cooperation clear and robust, and we're collaborating with them to help ensure that this extends to platform co-ops.

OSB: In my latest article for Open Democracy I suggested that:

"For co-ops and platform co-ops to become ubiquitous, and the default model for startups worldwide, we need to strip out the bureaucracy and legal barriers and make founding co-ops as easy as catching a cab.

"...we need to combine the idea behind One Click Co-ops, with a range of versatile, off-the-peg, and easily understandable organisational options…founding and running a co-op needs to be as easy as:

  1. Logging on to a web service or app and defining who your stakeholder groups and founding members will be

  2. Defining if you will want to make profits, raise share capital or perform other financial transactions

  3. Picking a model from suggested 'cookie-cutter' legal forms, depending on your location and objectives

  4. Naming your organisation

  5. Picking your required web apps from the Open App Ecosystem

  6. Customising and setting up your apps (website, fundraising / payment, project / task / people management / decision making / rewards systems etc) to enable your new organisation"

What do you think about the idea that we could speed up the creation, and hence impact, of co-operatively owned organisations through the creation of an online process like the above?

NS: I agree completely. I've argued for just this kind of model in my call for "pools" - one-click co-ops that don't necessarily use the language of cooperatives, which can be kind of jargony, up front. What makes ideas and practices spread in the online economy is when they are super usable, super clear, and super intuitive. So I would love to see it be even simpler than what you describe—especially by abstracting over formal legal incorporation by, say, allowing people to form little co-ops within a parent legal co-op or foundation.

Our online platforms are some of our great educators nowadays. They teach us more than we know. Let's get them teaching us democracy.

We need to create tools for people who want to do stuff, and for whom cooperative models are an intuitive and effective choice, not just people who want to create co-ops. In the process, we'll be inculcating cooperative self-organizing among all whole take part. It reminds me of how once a classroom full of kids who were using Loomio online started playing "Roomio" in person. Our online platforms are some of our great educators nowadays. They teach us more than we know. Let's get them teaching us democracy.

OSB: If platform co-ops and the generative economy take hold, it strikes me we could be living in a very different world in the future. Can you describe what you think this world might look like?

NS: I think the best thing we can do in the present is to set in motion what seem to be healthy, constructive processes so that we can flourish today and be well-poised to adapt to a future that we can't predict. I don't like the processes that are being set in motion in the online economy—ones where surveillance, deception, and extraction are the norm. A cooperative online economy would be one in which we're used to, and expect, forms of exchange and collaboration that assume privacy, transparency, and shared benefit. That sounds very abstract, but the outcome is kind of what internet boosters have promised all along: Lives in which we have more connections, more choices, and more freedom to practice the creativity we're all so capable of?

OSB: What do you think are the main stepping stones that need to happen for that vision to become a reality?

NS: We need to saturate the market and render the old models obsolete—through entrepreneurship, politics, resistance, and persistence. It has been remarkable, to me, to watch this platform co-op ecosystem form. One day, people start identifying challenges, and the next day others come forward with strategies for addressing them. We're developing legal structures, financial instruments, collaboration software, and a shared culture. But in order to persist, and in order to prevail, we need to hold the basic faith that nobody can govern us better than ourselves.

Open 2017 is a two day conference on Platform Cooperatives being organised in conjunction with Goldsmiths University on 16 - 17 February 2017. Get your ticket here

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