January 11, 2019; Truthout
In the wake of the Great Recession, observes Laura Flanders (of The Laura Flanders Show), co-ops are now expanding, but can they actually begin to reverse the nation’s rising inequality? The nation’s growing wealth inequality has many causes, but some of the wealth-shifting mechanisms can be easily identified simply by examining what have become business standard operating procedures. Amazon, which was briefly valued at over a trillion dollars, is a case in point. First, and most directly, Amazon concentrates profits at the top with a single chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who’s now worth over $100 billion. A second route is by undermining existing local businesses and economies.
To address how to change these kind of numbers, Flanders interviews Nathan Schneider, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado. Schneider, in addition to his academic position, is a leader in the platform cooperative movement. Platform co-ops are member-owned businesses for whom the app or platform is owned in common. Platform co-ops are a potential tool for fostering more democratic control over tech assets. For example, a driver-owned ride-hailing service that competes with Uber is one kind of platform co-op. Another is Stocksky, a photographer-owned website that, notes MJ Kaplan in NPQ, brings together “1,000 contributing artists who earned $4.9 million in royalties based on revenues of $10.7 million in 2016.”
Beyond platform co-ops, interest has spiked in worker-owned enterprises broadly speaking, notes Flanders, with “cities from New York to Madison, Oakland and Jackson…investing in worker-owned businesses and business incubators.” Many of these efforts are highly inspiring. Here at NPQ, we have covered many of these developments, both in print and in webinars.
In interviewing Schneider, though, Flanders poses a big question: “Can collectively-owned co-ops take on the robber barons?” she asks. It is also a question that we have posed at NPQ. Schneider, who also recently authored the book Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that Is Shaping the Next Economy, makes a few observations.
First, Schneider suggests learning from history—and especially the history of cooperative development that came out of the Great Depression: “It’s hard to believe what happened in the 1930s after the Rural Electrification Act, [which] just enables electric utility cooperatives to access loans at the cost that banks are getting their money. Suddenly, within a decade or so, you had nearly all of rural America electrified. That is an astonishing accomplishment, demonstrating that models are financeable, scalable, and powerful if we allow ourselves to recognize that.” For example, one area where NPQ suggested building on precisely this model, was to leverage the existing rural electric co-op network to expand broadband access.
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Schneider also suggests taking a pragmatic approach to ownership. As Schneider puts it,
I think we need to become artists of ownership. Recognize that ownership is a fluid medium. It is something that is crafted through law and through contract and through practice. And I think there’s been a tendency, in my generation…to want to relinquish it and enter a sharing economy where everything is shared, but really it turns out to be a situation where everything is rented and those bosses are not giving up their ownership.
So my view is kind of like, until they give up ownership, nobody else should. We need to learn how to practice it more creatively and make sure that whatever economy we’re moving into, we’re coming into it from a place of more power and control over our lives. We’re in a moment where inequality is being driven by inequalities of ownership. We have to start there before we can talk about what comes next.
Flanders also asks Schneider: if the economy were to falter again as it did during the Great Recession, how should the civil sector respond? Schneider gives a few basic suggestions, including making sure credit unions are “powerful enough to be a meaningful alternative to banks,” as well as broader regulation of both business and the use of internet data.
Most of all, however, Schneider emphasizes the importance of imagination. “We were in a moment of such a lack of imagination ten years ago and in the years following,” he explains. For him, the impact of social movements like Occupy has been to reclaim and recognize that “we haven’t even asked ourselves what we really want.”
Schneider adds, however, that we cannot just wait for the economy to falter, but instead need to build the infrastructure now. “All of these things need to be,” Schneider explains, “not only part of our imagination, but part of our process of building power behind it.”—Steve Dubb