Revolutionary Platform Cooperatives

by Thomas Klikauer and Meg Young

platform coop

Increasingly, societies have to put up with a new form of capitalism: platform capitalism. As a counter-model to platform capitalism, some suggest platform cooperativism. This is having the idea of cooperatives applied to platforms. Unlike the mega-corporations of platform capitalism, such as Amazon, Deliveroo, etc. platform cooperatives are democratically-owned and representatively-governed semi-business organizations that could – at least potentially – replace corporate platforms, such as Uber, Facebook, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, etc. that thrive on the exploitation of labor to make stratospheric profits for shareholders.

Some see platform cooperatives as antidotes to the corrosive effects of platform capitalism by revitalizing the global cooperative movement based on common sharing, while simultaneously not rejecting capitalism’s so-called free market. They see it as blowing fresh air into Robert Owen’s cooperative model. It is framed as a real alternative to platform capitalism.

Others see it as a radical anti-capitalist vision of an economy rejecting profit and neoliberalism’s false promise of endless growth. Perhaps a third group see platform cooperatives as a real possibility to tame platform capitalism by converting it into a democratic, fairer, sustainable, and above all, a more ethical version of capitalism. To achieve that, platform cooperativism seeks to take control over platform capitalism by utilizing the collaborative potentials of digital technologies.

Most obviously, platform cooperativism rejects the totalitarian surveillance model of algorithmic management, as well as the exploitation that defined platform corporations. It does this by autonomous associations by and for people united voluntarily to meet common economic, social, and, cultural needs. Platform cooperativism works through jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises. It seems to re-kindle a people-led movement for social change.

Throughout history, platform cooperativism has always generated great hopes for social change, starting with the aforementioned industrialist, Robert Owen in the 1820s. Today, advocates of platform cooperativism are convinced that a People’s Internet is possible! To do just that, platform cooperativism advocates ten principles:

collective ownership by the people generating revenue; decent pay and income security; transparency and data portability; a good working atmosphere; workers being involved in the design process of the platform; a protective legal framework; portable worker protections and benefits; protection of workers against arbitrary behavior; rejection of excessive workplace surveillance; and finally, the right to log off.

Set against all this are a few counter arguments. Perhaps one of the first was made by none other than Karl Marx, arguing that platform cooperatives will inevitably become their own capitalist’s. Platform cooperatives are structurally unable to escape their own inherent contradiction.

While seeking to confront platform capitalism and corporate exploitation, platform cooperatives simultaneously and inevitably strengthen corporate entrepreneurialism, commercialization, and ultimately platform capitalism. The idea of a Fairmondo instead of Amazon; a Resonate instead of Spotify; and a People’s Ride instead of Uber, etc. is a mere hallucination.

Undeterred, many platform cooperatives aren’t created simply for economic success. Instead, platform cooperatives seek environmental and social change through ethical alternatives to platform capitalism. Beyond that, platform cooperatives create solidarity, common ownership, and democracy. In that way, they may challenge capitalism’s key ideologies of neoliberalism, rampant individualism, and its eternal competitive logic.

Set against that is the fact that platform cooperatives operate just like other business enterprises. Worse, capitalism assures that platform cooperatives can never evade competitive market pressures. As a consequence of all this – including Marx’s writings – the Polish-German working class theoretician Rosa Luxemburg also rejected cooperatives as a revolutionary agency for radical politics. Luxemburg argued that coops – and by inference: platform cooperativism too – would fail.

Platform cooperatives inevitably will fail in competitive markets and consequently, will dissolve. Alternatively, platform cooperatives will succumb to the logic of capitalism’s competitive markets. By doing so, they will inescapably lose their originally set social, environmental, and political vision that made them into cooperatives in the first place. Either way, platform cooperatives cannot win. From the beginning onwards, platform cooperatives are doomed to fail.

Simply finding the online location of People’s Ride is already a challenge. Worse, out of 106 platform cooperatives listed on the Internet of Ownership directory: seventeen were no longer operating; only seven exist as a concept; and twenty were currently under development.

Yet, the idea of platform entrepreneurialism is equally problematic. The ideology of entrepreneurship remains profoundly tricky. Entrepreneurship and also platform entrepreneurialism are merely ideological conduits to move most, if not all, of life’s human activity into capitalism’s mode of competition. It is the colonization of the lifeworld. Worse, it validates the environmentally super-destructive model of the megamachine’s eternal economic growth.

In the end, revolutionary platform cooperativism remains a contradiction. Platform cooperatives can never be elements of a revolution as they are structurally bound to the ways and means of capitalism. While aiming high – democracy, environmentalism, sustainability, decent working conditions, etc. – the imperative of the capitalist market will force them into becoming like any other corporation operating in platform capitalism. One might like to position platform cooperativism into Erik Olin Wright’s four ways to overcome capitalism:

  1. Dismantling capitalism: The idea here is to achieve office and then to enact economic reforms that undercut the structural power of the capitalist class. As their power is reduced, the conditions are established for a final push into socialism.
  2. Taming capitalism: Whereas dismantling capitalism is geared towards transcending the system and replacing it with socialism. This strategy of taming capitalism has a more modest goal. It favors reforms that merely seek to mitigate capitalism’s harms done to people, workers, consumers, the environment, etc. This would be something like the New Deal in the United States or, more ambitiously, Nordic social democracy.
  3. Resisting capitalism: This strategy differs from the first two in that while both of the former seek to attain state power, this one abjures it altogether. It seeks to blunt capitalism’s sharp edges by mobilizing power outside the state.
  4. Escaping capitalism: What distinguishes this strategy is that while all the others seek to confront the system in some ways, this one revolves around opting out. It relies on finding niches within the system to create more humane sub-communities, or more individualistic endeavors like changing your daily choices, growing your own food, or choosing different occupations, i.e. lifestyle politics.

As a consequence, platform cooperativism is not a way to dismantle capitalism. If cooperatives would be able to achieve this and, perhaps more importantly, given the fact that they have been around since 1820, and that they have not achieved this in roughly 200 years, there is virtually no hope for cooperatives to dismantle capitalism.

Instead of dismantling capitalism, cooperatives and even platform cooperativism is more likely to tame capitalism (option 2), and to some extent resist capitalism (option 3). Platform cooperativism indeed seeks to mitigate capitalism’s harms done to people, workers, consumers, and the environment.

Yet, platform cooperativism also fulfills Erik Olin Wright’s third strategy. It seeks to dampen and soften capitalism’s pathologies. Yet, platform cooperativism also mobilizes the power of people and communities. Thirdly, it sets up institutions and organizations “outside of the state”. Finally, platform cooperativism also falls outside of option 4 as platform cooperativism does not simply set up more humane sub-communities.

Platform cooperatives aren’t individualistic endeavors and are not about changing daily choices, growing your own food, and choosing a different occupation. Moreover, platform cooperatives are not lifestyle politics.

In short, platform cooperativism is about taming capitalism spiced up with a little bit of resistance to capitalism. Sadly but inevitably, Marx and Luxemburg were right – again. Platform cooperativism is not a way to overcome or challenge capitalism. All it can do is mediate the pathologies of traditional capitalism and today’s platform capitalism.

Thomas Klikauer teaches at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University, Australia. He has over 770 publications including a book on Hegel’s Moral Corporation and on Media Capitalism.

Meg Young is a Sydney Financial Accountant and HR Manager who enjoys the outdoors, good literature, foreign music and in her spare time – works on her MBA at WSU, Australia.

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