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How to form a post-capitalist economy?

Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens*

“What if this is not capitalism, but something worse?” McKenzie Wark’s question eloquently summarizes the criticism of profit-maximizing businesses in the digital economy. That “something worse,” appears to take the form of a new kind of feudalism, as in the case of Facebook. If feudalism was based on the ownership of land by an elite, the resource now controlled by the elite is the platform and the data. Or, as in the case of delivery or taxi platforms, individuals-freelancers contribute their equipment and labour, and the privately-owned platform manages demand and supply; put simply, data.

The concept of “platform cooperative” has been proposed as an alternative to such businesses. A platform cooperative is an online platform (e.g., website, mobile app) organized as a cooperative and owned by its employees, customers, users, or other key stakeholders. For example, a delivery platform owned by the couriers.

We fully support the broader movement of platform cooperativism. However, we cannot be content with isolated cooperative alternatives to counter globalized capitalism. A global post-capitalist economy needs to be built. How could this be done? We outline a tentative list of four interrelated strategies for post-capitalist entrepreneurial coalitions.

First, closed business models are based on artificial scarcity. Though knowledge can be shared easily when it is in digital form, closed businesses use artificial scarcity to extract rents from the creation or use of knowledge. Through legal repression or technological sabotage, knowledge is made artificially scarce so that extra profits may be generated. This is particularly galling in the context of life-saving medicines or planet-regenerating technological knowledge. The cooperatives, in comparison, should not make knowledge artificially scarce. To do so, state-support, which businesses such as Google and Apple have been receiving, is important.

Second, the cooperatives could make use of open designs to produce sustainable goods and localize manufacturing.  Profit-maximization businesses often aim to achieve obsolescence in products that would wear out prematurely. In that way, they maintain tension between supply and demand and maximize their profits; obsolescence is a feature, not a bug. In contrast, open design communities, such as these of L’Atelier Paysan, which produces agricultural machines, and RepRap, which produces 3D printers, do not have the same incentives. So, the practice of planned obsolescence is alien to them.

Third, the cooperatives could reduce waste. The lack of transparency and penchant for antagonism among closed businesses means they will have a hard time creating a circular economy ­– one in which the output of one production process is used as an input for another. But the cooperatives could create ecosystems of collaboration through open supply chains. These chains may enhance the transparency of the production processes and enable participants to adapt their behavior based on the knowledge available in the network. Cooperatives could move toward mutual coordination of production through open supply chains.

Fourth, the cooperatives could mutualize not only digital infrastructures but also physical ones. The misnamed “sharing economy” of Airbnb and Uber, despite all the critique it receives, illustrates the potential in matching idle resources. Co-working, skill-sharing, and ride sharing are examples of the many ways in which we can reuse and share resources. With co-ownership and co-governance, a genuine sharing economy could achieve considerable advances in more efficient resource use, especially with the aid of shared data facilities and manufacturing tools (e.g., community makerspaces).

We have highlighted four practices that are already emerging in various forms but need to be more universally integrated. It is high time cooperatives fully realized the sixth cooperative principle: to empower the cooperation among cooperatives. Thus a global post-capitalist economy could be created in which cooperatives will have both a global and local focus. This can only happen through building a cooperative knowledge commons.

*Vasilis Kostakis is a Professor at TalTech and a Faculty Associate at Harvard University. Michel Bauwens is the Founder of the Peer-to-Peer Foundation. The essay is based on authors’ 2019 book.

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