The P2P Foundation has followed the work of Nathan Schneider for years, starting with his reporting on Occupy, followed by his visit to our FLOK project in Ecuador in 2014 (the first commons transition project undertaken at the invitation of nation-state institutions). Nathan was then instrumental in setting up, with Trebor Scholz, the platform cooperative movement and conferences. He is now teaching in Boulder, CO, but also keeping up his reporting on the cooperative movement, and a spiritually engaged progressive. His latest book, Everything for Everyone, has a chapter on the experience in Ecuador (excerpted below). Here is an interview about this very interesting book about the past, present and future of the cooperative movement and how it intersects with the revival of the commons.
Michel Bauwens: Dear Nathan, this is not your first book. Could you give our readers a short overview of your “life in books”, i.e. how each subsequent book is linked to the other, eventually leading to the insights and motivations that resulted in your new book on the future of the cooperative tradition ?
Nathan Schneider: It does seem like a rather baffling path. First, a book on arguments about God, then a close-up on Occupy Wall Street, and now co-ops. But it all makes sense in my head somehow. The overriding challenge for me has always been that of capturing how people bring their highest ambitions into the realities of the world. I’m drawn to people with both adventuresome imaginations and the audacity to put them into practice.
This book followed especially naturally from the Occupy one, Thank You, Anarchy. After the protests died down in 2012 and 2013, I started noticing that some of the activists I’d been following got involved in cooperative businesses. The first business I know of that started at Occupy Wall Street was a worker co-op print shop. Other people were helping create co-ops in areas of New York hit by Hurricane Sandy. There was this euphoria about the idea of co-ops among many of these people—a way of earning a livelihood while retaining the democratic values of the protests. I experienced a bit of that euphoria myself, which turned to a more serious fascination as I realized how long and deep this cooperative tradition has been.
MB: Can you tell us about the evolution of your engagement with Platform Cooperativism?
NS: Pretty early on in this work, I started seeing opportunities for cooperatives in tech. I’ve long been a tinkerer with free software and open source, so I’d been used to thinking of technology as a kind of commons. But this came to a head around 2014, when more and more people were wising up to the fact that Silicon Valley’s so-called “sharing economy”—which was then becoming mainstream—really didn’t have much to do with sharing. Especially under the guidance of the OuiShare network based in Paris, Neal Gorenflo of Shareable, and of course the P2P Foundation, I started noticing that a few entrepreneur-activists were trying to figure out a real sharing economy, with sharing built into the companies themselves. This was a hack open-source software was missing; those people had hacked intellectual property law but they’d left the extractive, investor-controlled corporation unscathed. Now it was time to rethink the logic of companies, and the old cooperative tradition seemed like a sensible place to start.
In late 2014 I teamed up with Trebor Scholz, who had been thinking along similar lines, and the following year we organized the first platform co-op conference at the New School in New York. The response was way beyond what we had expected, and we had the germ of a movement in our midst. The more I was getting approached by new startups trying to create platform co-ops, the more I found myself turning to history in order to be able to offer advice based on some kind of evidence. The more I did that, the more I discovered how much there is to learn and to draw from.
MB: How do you see the relations between cooperativism and the commons? Could they possibly merge?
NS: I regard cooperatives as a kind of commons, a mode of commoning that has made itself legible to the industrial-era state and market. Compared to the visions of many commons activists today, however, the co-op tradition is quite conservative. I like its conservatism; it makes for fewer wheels in need of simultaneous reinvention. As a storyteller, I find it can be hard to tell stories about the more cutting-edge commoners because the challenges they are taking on are so hard, and so new, that people who lack an ideological commitment aren’t going to stick around for long. Cooperatives are a way of introducing people to a radical vision of the commons that also includes familiar stuff like Visa, Associated Press, and the credit union down the street. But I wouldn’t claim cooperatives are sufficient. They’re a starting point, a gateway to more diverse and widespread commoning.
Another concern: Cooperatives are all about old-fashioned property and ownership. I’m sympathetic to the “property is theft” vein of anarchism, but I also think it’s a mistake for commoners to relinquish ownership before the lords do—as the sharing economy proposed. That’s feudalism. Open-source software developers relinquished ownership over the code for Linux, and now it powers history’s most effective corporate surveillance tool, the Android operating system. As Piketty demonstrates, capital ownership (more than wage income) is the driving force behind economic inequality. The cooperative tradition is a way of distributing ownership more equitably. That will put us in a better position to shift toward a world in which property is less important and we can meet more of our needs through the commons. Commoners need to claim their rights from a position of strength.
MB: One of your chapters reviews the experience of one of your interviewers and the FLOK Society project in Ecuador. What is your evaluation of that experience?
NS: The experience of FLOK, which was an effort to craft a country-sized commons transition, was very instructive for me. It was a chance to see commoning presented as a comprehensive social vision, not just as a series of isolated interventions. Cooperatives were a critical ingredient in all that, of course. And of course, too, the Ecuadorian government’s follow-through was very limited. But that process led to the Commons Transition resources, which have been invaluable for articulating in a comprehensive way what all this is about. For me it was a magnificent education. Everyone should have that experience once in a while—to participate in crafting a plan for the future of the world.
MB: Your engagement is strongly linked to your faith. How can one be a progressive Christian in this day and age? Do you link to particular elements in that tradition?
NS: The more I got to know the cooperative tradition, the more I found it to be bound together with religious traditions. I saw this especially in my own Catholic tradition, which produced such examples as the North American cooperative banks and the great Mondragon worker cooperatives, but similar examples can be found in so many other faiths as well. I wouldn’t say that cooperation is in any way reducible to religion or dependent on it, but as with so many other major forces in our world, religion plays a vital and mysterious role.
I was personally grateful to discover, through this work, some new patron saints. For instance, Clare of Assisi, co-founder of the Franciscan order, insisted in the Middle Ages that her nuns should have the right to self-govern, and that all voices should be heard. John A. Ryan, a prominent Catholic economist in the early 20th century United States, wrote beautifully about the moral education that comes through cooperative business. Albert J. McKnight, also a priest, brought a Pan-Africanist vision to the development of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. And those of us trapped in English are in dire need of more translations from the work of José María Arizmendiarrieta, the half-blind priest who founded the Mondragon co-ops. Each of these people turned to cooperative economics out of a deep-rooted faith that God has endowed each of us with the dignity to be capable and deserving of co-governing our communities.
MB: How do you see the coming ‘phase transition’ unfold? How optimistic are you that humanity can pull this through?
NS: I’m not big on predictions, despite the subtitle of the book. But what I do know is that, if we decide we want to practice democracy in richer ways than most of us do now, we’re capable of it. The past makes that clear enough. It’s perfectly possible that someday we’ll look back and laugh at the current condition of vast inequalities and autocratic corporations and the occasional ballot box. But at present it seems just as likely that we’ll give up on democracy entirely as that we’ll opt for ever more excellent forms of it.
The following excerpt is republished from Everything for Everyone, by Nathan Schneider:
The first time I saw it, I took the metaphor literally. “We will all meet in Quito for a ‘crater-like summit,’“ the website said. “We will ascend the sides of the volcano together in order to go down to the crater and work.” Alongside those words was a picture of Quilotoa, a caldera in the Ecuadorian Andes where a blue-green lake has accumulated in the hole left by a cataclysmic eruption seven hundred years ago, enclosed by the volcano’s two-mile-wide rim.
What the website beckoned visitors to was something less geologically spectacular than Quilotoa, but possibly earth-shaking in its own right. The government of Ecuador had sponsored a project to develop policies for a new kind of economy, one based on concepts more familiar in hackerspaces and startups than in legislatures. The project was called FLOK Society—free, libre, open knowledge. Its climactic event, which took place in May 2014, was called a summit, but the nod to Quilotoa’s crater was a way of saying this wasn’t the usual top-down policy meeting. Nor were the people behind it the usual policymakers.
Michel Bauwens, the fifty-six-year-old leader of the FLOK Society research team, held no PhD, nor experience in government, nor steady job, nor health insurance. A native of Belgium, he lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his wife and their two children, except when he left on long speaking tours. He dressed simply—a T‑shirt to the first day of the summit, then a striped tie the day of his big address. His graying hair was cropped close around his bald crown like a monk’s. He spoke softly; people around him tended to listen closely. The Spanish hacktivists and Ecuadorian bureaucrats who dreamed up FLOK chose for their policy adviser an unemployed commoner.
If Ecuador was to leapfrog ahead of the global hegemons, it would need a subversive strategy. “It’s precisely because the rest of the world is tending toward greater restrictions around knowledge that we have to figure out ways of producing that don’t fall within the confines of these predominant models,” Ecuador’s minister of education, science, technology, and innovation, Rene Ramirez, told me. He and other government officials were talking about dispensing with such strictures as copyright, patents, and corporate hierarchies. “We are essentially pioneers in this endeavor. We’re breaking new ground.”
At first this was a subversion mutually beneficial to guests and hosts alike. Several months before the summit, Bauwens said that FLOK was a “sideways hack” — of the country, maybe even of the global economy. “It’s taking advantage of a historic opportunity to do something innovative and transformative in Ecuador.” He saw a chance to set the conditions for a commonwealth.
FLOK bore the style and contradictions of Ecuador’s brand at the time. The president, Rafael Correa, sometimes spoke in favor of open-source software; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had been living in Ecuador’s London embassy since 2012. Even while exploiting rain-forest oil resources and silencing dissenters, Correa’s administration called for changing the country’s “productive matrix” from reliance on finite resources in the ground to the infinite possibilities of unfettered information. Yet most of the North Americans I met in Quito were out of a job because Correa had recently outlawed foreign organizations, likely for circulating inconvenient information about human rights.
As the summit approached, local politicians seemed to evade Bauwens and the team of researchers he’d brought there. Team members weren’t paid on time. Two dozen workshops about open knowledge took place across the country, with mixed response. By the time I met Bauwens in the gaudy apartment he was renting in Quito, a few days before the summit began, he looked exhausted from infighting with the Spaniards and wresting his staff‘s salaries from the government. “It’s going to be a much harder fight than I anticipated,” he said.
Bauwens had a knack for seeking out potent knowledge. He grew up in Belgium as the only child of two orphan parents. His curiosities drifted from Marxism as a teenager to, as an adult, various Californian spiritualities, which led him to Asian ones, then esoteric sects like Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. Meanwhile, Bauwens put his cravings to work in business. He worked as an analyst for British Petroleum and then, in the early 1990s, started a magazine that helped introduce Flemish readers to the promise of the internet. As an executive at Belgacom, Belgium’s largest telecommunications company, he guided its entry into the online world by acquiring startups. And then, in 2002, he’d had enough. He quit, then moved with his second wife to her family’s home in Chiang Mai.
“Capitalism is a paradoxical system, where even the ruling class has a crappy life,” he says. He started to believe his unhappiness had cataclysmic causes.
For two years in Thailand, Bauwens read history. He studied the fall of Rome and the rise of feudalism—a ”phase transition,” as he puts it. It was an age when the previous civilization was in crisis, and he concluded that what led the way forward was a shift in the primary modes of production. The Roman slave system collapsed, and then networks of monasteries spread innovations across Europe, helping to sow the seeds of the new order. What emerged was an interplay of craft guilds organizing free cities, warlords ruling from behind castle walls, and peasants living off common land. As the feudal system grew top-heavy, networks of merchants prepared the way for the commercial, industrial reordering that followed.
With the internet’s networks, he came to believe that industrial civilization faced a crisis of comparable import, as well as the germ of what could come next. He zeroed in on the notion of commons-based peer production— the modes by which online networks enable people to create and share horizontally, not as bosses and employees but as equals. It was a new rendition of the old medieval commons, but poised to become the dominant paradigm, not just a means of survival at the peripheries. He set out to find examples of where this world-transformation was already taking place. By seeking, he found.
The bulk of Bauwens’ oeuvre lives on the collaborative wiki that long served as the website of his Foundation for Peer‑to‑Peer Alternatives—the P2P Foundation, for short. Its more than thirty thousand pages, which he has compiled with more than two thousand online coauthors, include material on topics from crowdsourcing to distributed energy to virtual currencies. His life’s work takes the form of a commons.
Bauwens tends to talk about his vision in the communal “we,” speaking not just for himself but for a movement in formation. He borrows a lot of the terms he relies on from others, then slyly fits them into a grander scheme than the originators envisioned. Put another way: “I steal from everyone.” Nevertheless, one is hard-pressed to locate any enemies; rather than denouncing others, he tends to figure out a place for them somewhere in his system.
It was in and for Ecuador, together with his team, that Bauwens mapped out the next world-historical phase transition for the first time. He believes that cooperatives are the event horizon. They’re bubbles of peer‑to‑peer potential that can persist within capitalism, and they can help the coming transition proceed.
They can decentralize production through local makerspaces while continually improving a common stock of open-source designs. They can practice open-book accounting to harmonize their supply chains and reduce carbon emissions. Open intellectual-property licenses can help them share their resources for mutual benefit. As these networks grow, so will the commons they build, which will take over roles now played by government and private markets. Soon all the free-flowing information, combined with co‑op businesses, will turn the economy into a great big Wikipedia or Linux—by anyone, for anyone. The industrial firm, whether capitalist or cooperative, will dissolve into collaborations among peers. Bauwens calls this process “cooperative accumulation.”
Co‑ops are not an end in themselves. They’re not the destination. But they’re the passageway to a peer‑to‑peer commons. “We see it as the strategic sector,” he told me. New cooperative experiments were spreading from Mississippi to Syria, and here was a chance to show how they could grow to the scale of an entire country.
The Quito convention center is a two-story complex with stately white columns and hallways enclosed in walls of glass. Visible just a few blocks away is the National Congress building, the supposed destination of FLOK Society’s proposals. Volcanoes stand in the distance behind it, the city rising up as high on their slopes as it can manage. During the four days of the “Good Knowledge Summit,” as the event was called, bureaucrats in business casual worked alongside hackers in T‑shirts to develop and distill the discussions into policy.
The opening night included bold pronouncements. “This is not just an abstract dream,” said Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s minister of knowledge and human talent. “Many of the things we talk about these days will become a reality.” Rather than tax havens, added the subsecretary of science, technology, and innovation, Rina Pazos, “we need to establish havens of open and common knowledge.”
Bauwens spent most of his time in the sessions on policies for cooperatives. In Ecuador, as in many places, it is harder to start a co‑op than a private company. The Canadian co‑op expert John Restakis, a member of Bauwens’s research team, called on Ecuadorian officials to loosen the regulations and reporting requirements on co‑ops, and to enable more flexible, multi-stakeholder structures. The officials pushed back; the regulations were there for a reason, after waves of co‑op failures and abuses. Restakis and Bauwens pressed on. They wanted Ecuador’s government to serve as what they called a “partner state,” nurturing commons-oriented activities without seeking to direct or control them.
By the summit’s end, the working groups had amassed a set of proposals, some more developed than others: wiki textbooks and free software in schools, open government data, new licenses for indigenous knowledge, community seed banks, a decentralized university. Mario Andino, the newly elected governor of Sigchos, one of Ecuador’s poorer regions, wanted to develop open-source farm tools for difficult hillside terrain. Before the summit, Bauwens visited Sigchos and received a standing ovation for his presentation. “We could be a model community,” Andino said. But there were no promises.
Over the course of his life, Plato made several journeys from Athens to Syracuse, in Sicily, with the hope of making it a model of the kind of society he described in his Republic. The rulers there, however, fell far short of being the philosopher-kings he needed; he returned home to retire and compose a more cynical kind of political theory. If not quite so discouraged, Bauwens seemed adrift after the summit ended. The work of FLOK Society was now in the hands of the Ecuadorians, and by that time, there was little indication the government would take more from the whole effort than a publicity stunt. Bauwens was already starting to look toward the next iteration; thanks in part to the process in Ecuador, there were signs of interest from people in Spain, Greece, Brazil, Italy, and Seattle. The same month as the summit, Cooperation Jackson held its Jackson Rising conference.
“Recognition by a nation-state brings the whole idea of the commons to a new level,” Bauwens said. “We have to abandon the idea, though, that we can hack a country. A country and its people are not an executable program.”
Excerpted from Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy by Nathan Schneider. Copyright © 2018. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.