Multi-Stakeholder Cooperatives are the key structure for Platform Cooperatives

“Development of a more efficacious sharing economy will require constraining expansion of mediated micro-entrepreneurship and serialized rental in favor of modes consistent with communitarian provisioning. Fortunately, the last year has given rise to a few interesting propositions and many innovative social enterprises with the potential to steer us in a more democratic and accountable direction.”

Excerpted from Maurie J. Cohen:

“In moving toward platform cooperativism, the availability of open-source software like Sharetribe, which enables social entrepreneurs to easily create new sharing networks is likely to be an important new development.
While this idea is unquestionably laudable, there is opportunity to push it a little further. Why limit cooperation only to producers while implicitly treating consumers as little more than a mass of aggregate demand? Why elevate workers over their customers when the distinction is artificial and rarely static? A more creative and ambitious application of platform cooperativism would embrace consumers as co-equals and seek to formulate novel business models that span production and consumption. The uniting of these two domains would dissolve predispositions that treat buyers and sellers as rivals rather than allies, prioritize return on investment rather than solidarity, and emphasize value appropriation rather than community improvement.

In the non-digital world, so-called multi-stakeholder cooperatives that combine producers and consumers are starting to emerge, especially in conjunction with local food movements. A prominent example is Eroski, a subsidiary of the venerable Mondragon Corporation, which operates more than 1,000 supermarkets in Spain. The Weaver Street Market is a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative based in North Carolina that runs three stores specializing in organic produce and fair trade products, as well as a restaurant. Applying this hybrid approach to a revivified sharing economy would involve the payment of an annual subscription fee by consumer-owners who would then be entitled to a predetermined number of, say, taxi trips or overnight stays provided by their producer-owner colleagues. Since few people are exclusively producers or consumers, affiliation with a multi-stakeholder cooperative would facilitate seamless shifts between roles. On some days, a particular member would find herself working as a producer and on others she would be consuming goods or services provided by the mutual association.
A sharing economy that apportioned control to both producers and consumers instead of platform investors could also help to move us toward a more socially equitable and ecologically sustainable future. Let me first make an obvious point. Consumerist lifestyles in affluent countries are driven more by a quest for social distinction than by a desire to satisfy biophysical needs. (This does not discount the existence of perverse inequalities due to political circumstances.) An emergent body of research suggests that involvement in more solidaristic modes of production suppresses status competition by orienting people toward less individualistic aspirations. If correct, participation in a producer-consumer cooperative could be a useful way to reduce outsized consumption that is impelled largely by cultural imperatives.

Moreover, the antagonism between producers and consumers that is inherent in predominant systems of exchange frequently results in consumption in excess of genuine needs — often through the use of tempting volume discounts and the manufacture of goods that become prematurely obsolete. By stressing their continuously shifting — and oftentimes reciprocal — relationships, producer-consumer cooperatives could bring the intentions of production and consumption into closer alignment.

It also merits noting that to be successful, producer-consumer cooperatives would need to resist powerful impulses to expand their scale by pushing down the retail cost of the goods and services on offer. While lower prices are attractive from the standpoint of consumption, they undermine the livelihoods of producers. In the business-as-usual economy, workers at the lower rungs of the economic ladder are more vulnerable to continual pressure to cut prices. There is also the problem of perverse rebound effects as lower expenditures in one product category almost always increase demand for other items (unless one also proportionately works less, deposits the difference in a non-lending financial institution, or sets fire to the surplus cash). A cooperative ownership model where producers and consumers are equally empowered and, ideally, difficult to differentiate because they are regularly swapping responsibilities, should help to discourage these untoward outcomes.

As we consider options to overhaul the sharing economy so that it enhances rather than weakens social cohesion, it is important not to set producers against consumers as, after all, the distinction is predicated on pretense. Normal routines require continuous rotation of roles and we should not fall back on outmoded commitments that privilege the sphere of production as the only reliable driver of social change.”

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