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Can Platform Cooperatives Help Revive the Left?

Platform cooperatives can be real alternatives to the grotesque corporate entities that govern our digital lives — but they are also an opportunity to build new institutions that prove the Left’s merits to millions of people.

Credit: Getty Images

In this decade, left-wing publishing is awash with works on technology. With ease, you can find a wide array of discussions over technology, how socialists should approach the platforms which govern our digital lives, and the dizzying potential of tech workers to build utopias of the future and transform existence as we know it. Life outside of these pages, however, paints a more disenchanting picture — not least in Britain, where the government hands over data management contracts to Amazon and companies like CIA-linked Palantir win NHS work contracts worth millions.

A refreshing break from this genre is R. Trebor Scholz’s Own This: How Platform Cooperatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet. This new book, which draws upon the real-life experiences of the author and others, is not a story about utopia but of intervention. Unusually for a story of technology, the stories of organisations making a material difference for workers and the communities are the core focus, with Scholz urging tech-curious readers that ‘solely analysing the problem does not improve the circumstances’ of the taxi drivers, care workers or bicycle couriers at the losing end of new technology.

In this short book, Scholz weaves a colourful story of different cooperatives made up of those who have resisted corporate monoliths and used technology on their own terms. A few projects jump out as notable examples that should be far more widely known, such as the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an umbrella of Indian co-operatives founded in the 1970s. Initially established as a way for women to get credit, SEWA has since expanded to build local water pipes, provide facilities for childcare and education as well as offer trade union advice, showing the capabilities for well-organised co-operatives to step in where the state has failed.

SEWA’s inclusion in a book about ‘platform’ cooperatives — an organisation which predates the internet by decades — comes due to their recent expansion into digital-first services such as farming data and a marketplace for their small business owners and traders to sell on. As the term ‘platform cooperative’ refers to any democratically-owned and managed organisation which primarily uses a website or app, more ‘traditional’ cooperatives which make use of modern technology can illustrate that platform cooperatives aren’t just the preserve of tech workers.

Platform cooperatives don’t just cover people’s basic necessities, but also show promise for creative work. The economics of streaming platforms are the primary driver of the lack of money going to artists (Spotify pays approximately £0.003 per stream), and there have been attempts to organise in the face of platform exploitation, such as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW)’s Justice at Spotify campaign. Even with the advent of subscriber crowdfunding platforms like Patreon allowing a wide array of ‘creatives’ access to a decent living, this model has not translated well to musicians, whose output doesn’t fit neatly into the regular release schedules implied by subscriptions.

A more equitable music industry goes beyond better pay for artists. Having a profitable business model whilst still paying musicians fairly did not stop Bandcamp being sold off first to Epic Games and then again to Songtradr — whose first move was to fire half the staff and gut the editorial staff (with this ‘restructuring’ unsurprisingly hitting unionised staff disproportionately). One can imagine an approach to creative industries that involves a patchwork of platforms, cooperatives, and initiatives, each for different purposes. The music-centric platform cooperatives listed in the book are currently just an embryonic collection of small record stores, streaming apps, and artist collectives, but they are likely to grow alongside musicians’ resentment towards Spotify.

This sort of work would have a resonance for anyone living in Britain, where the constant crises of crumbling schools, failing sewage systems and price-gouging energy companies happen while Westminster politicians commit themselves to further degradation by upholding the mantra of austerity. With this consensus and a demoralised Left, it seems unimaginable we could build something here. But there are recent examples to emulate; when several hundred Welsh miners working at Tower Colliery in South Wales were laid off, they bought their workplace from British Coal, converting it into a profitable, worker-owned business until coal reserves ran dry in 2008.

Unlike traditional companies backed by venture capital, platform cooperatives often grow in the way described by SEWA, weaving together an ecosystem of cooperatives with complementary missions that reinforce each other. The subject is ‘growth’ is crucial in these circles, however, and Scholz goes with some depth into the arguments over whether platform cooperatives could or should be meeting the scale of bigger start-ups.

Whatever the real concerns about mimicking the growth of venture capital-backed startups, it seems impossible to ignore the cold truth that the sheer scale of resources owned by venture capitalists throw up guards against cooperatives ever beating the ‘bigger boys’ of Amazon, Deliveroo and other such companies.

When the real but modest gains of these platform cooperatives sit next to the achievements of twentieth-century socialism — from the building of millions of high-quality council housing across Europe to the eradication of illiteracy in Cuba — one can’t help but think of platform cooperatives as one strategy among many at best, and a consolation prize at worst. But we do live in a period where any transformative horizon has been successfully blocked by the powers who have proven themselves adept at waylaying any challenge to them.

After swallowing this bitter reality, the epilogue of Own This — ‘How to Start a Platform Cooperative’ — is a reassuringly simple argument about how it is possible to go out and build. This call to action emphasises how all these organisations, built from nothing, were made not by obsessive political activists or tech savants but by ordinary people working ordinary jobs.

After the 2019 general election, Marcus Barnett wrote in Tribune that for the British left to become a truly meaningful social force, it would mean a return of a tradition of institution building — the ‘socialist pubs, clubs, associations, musical groups, sports facilities’ and so on which attempted to ‘display the movement’s seriousness to disinterested or apathetic friends, workmates and neighbours’. For socialists deprived of real parliamentary influence for the foreseeable future, it would be productive to begin prefiguring the institutions and society we want to see — in terms of places to start, new workplaces with new technologies are not the worst idea.