How can co-ops make the most of the commons movement?

As commons based production becomes more and more prominent, co-operatives should explore how they can apply some of these principles to their business models. This was the message...

As commons based production becomes more and more prominent, co-operatives should explore how they can apply some of these principles to their business models. This was the message of Yochai Benkler’s presentation at the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference in Antalya, Turkey.

Described by some as the leading intellectual of the information age, Professor Benkler has been studying commons and co-operation for over 20 years. He started researching Wikipedia when it was just six months old and has since written about the co-operative dynamics and social and political implications of large-scale online co-operation. He is no stranger to the co-operative movement, having been a member and treasurer of the Kibbutz Shizafon, a co-operative community in Israel.

In his presentation at the conference he looked at how the ethic of peer-to-peer production could be connected to the reality of co-operatives. He explained how the rise of the free culture movement was based on the idea that there is a way to construct shared wealth without having exclusive copyright rights.

An attempt by the US Congress to impose strict copyright laws had resulted in Wikipedia shutting for a day, with millions of people from the free culture movement calling the Congress to complain.

If in 1976 Richard Dawkins argued in his book the Selfish Gene that human beings were born selfish, 30 years later mathematical biologist Martin Nowak contradicted the theory by saying that co-operation was central to human essence.

The two examples are relevant, thinks Prof Benkler, because they show how the approach of scientists, economists and even political theories has shifted. Self interest is no longer seen as the core of human nature, but as one component of it, he said. The rational actor model of analysis would assume that people do not co-operate, but the reality is that in fact people do tend to co-operate.

“You can’t free markets from the social context in which they exist,” he said.

The growth of commons based production was also influenced by the crisis in confidence in neo-liberal models that came with recession and by kids that grew up online and see co-operation as central to their existence.

Can co-operation in commons lead to co-operativism in the market space? He asked delegates. He described how a new family of businesses was emerging, with the likes of Uber, Upwork and TaskRabbit. “How to build co-operativism so that drivers own Uber?” he said.

Couchsurfing is now being challenged by AirBnB, which forecasts revenues of $10bn in 2020. “We need to take back the idea of sharing and co-operation to a distributing market where people are alien from each other,” said Yochai Benkler.

Another domain where co-operatives could be more active is open source software. According to Prof Benkler, the majority of income for software developers does not come from the actual software, but from support services and knowledge based on software.

Prof Yochai Benkler
Prof Yochai Benkler’s speech looked at how co-operatives can be inspired by new business models

Co-operatives can also learn from commons based production in terms of engagement. Governance should not be just about representative democracy, he said, but about actual engagement, which is very strong within the online practice. “There are loads of platforms online that try to get this, and not just listen every four years. Businesses are being much more participatory,” he said.

Co-operatives, on the other hand, have to compete with start-up culture. Social enterprises plays that cool role like a start up but socially oriented,” said Prof Benkler, adding that the co-op movement had to re-imagine its own structure to be “the place to be”. It is not about good branding but genuine practice, he argued.

“How can co-operatives sustain a commitment to open commons while making enough money to retain free flowing participation?” he asked.

An alternative to Uber, La Zooz is an attempt to implement real-time ridesharing, but without the company or a central server, using the technology similar to that of Bitcoins. Drivers earn zooz tokens as they drive by installing an app on their phone, which they can then use to get lifts.

Co-ops should think of such models, said Prof Benkler. “This is the time for you to start teaching what you know.”

“It would be wonderful if Wikipedia and the co-operative movement became a transformational force to take the capacity to embed production in social co-operation, building a world that is sustainably growing and responsive to human needs.”

Uber is filling a genuine need in an industry that in the USA includes exploiting immigrant workers. It also takes advantage of loopholes in regulation that lower the costs and externalise risks to workers, said Prof Benkler.

“If you are to be smart about what to focus on politically, you need to identify those things that make Uber competitive not because it’s doing something better but because it’s doing regulatory arbitrage. Those are the things that need to be pushed in legislation. We need to try to replicate within co-operative models the innovative aspects that come out of Uber – while levelling political power to tackle the aspects being exploited. A dual strategy”, he advised co-operators.

The interest from within the commons movement in the co-operative model is new, said Prof Benkler, suggesting co-operators should engage more with them. This could occur in different sectors, he added. For example there could be a home healthcare co-operative platform to connect home healthcare providers with families. “Change what people think and it changes what they do”.

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