While working on our recent article, From Platform to Open Cooperativism, I recalled this memorable closing speech given by Yochai Benkler at the the 2016 OuiShare Fest in Paris. In these closing remarks, Benkler exhorts those present to work together on integrating the commons into the business models and practices. “For cooperatives…there’s a real temptation to build co-ops first and foremost to make sure that people can make money, and say “the commons can wait”, because, how do we make money in the commons. I think that’s a mistake, because the idea of the commons has been central to our ability to define an alternative to the rising prominence of the rational actor model in the neoliberal framework.”
For those who find it more convenient to read, I’ve created a transcript of this video.
Yochai Benkler: Well, I stand in the uncomfortable position of being between you and a dance party…you’re very patient. I don’t have any modes other than serious, so, this is what’s it’s going to have to be.
First of all, I have to tell you it’s exhilarating to be here. It’s exhilarating to see a new generation throwing itself at this set of challenges, of how we build the world together, that I’ve been playing with for the last quarter-century.
It’s also exhilarating, perhaps, I have to say, more than anything else, is to see how many women there are here, which didn’t used to be the case.
And this is…and it’s tremendous to come and learn and listen, and I really appreciate it.
I came here without preparing on purpose, so that I could soak, over the last couple of days, what I hear. But I actually want to try to turn it back into a question; a set of tensions and questions in this enormously diverse coalition of people, so that you can then use it to reflect on your own practices.
And I…It looks to me like essentially what you have here is a combination of people who are brought together by a recognition of a transformative moment in digital network communications; but also in response to two moments of crises (if you can talk about things that have been occurring for decades as crises). And the first and obvious one is climate change and the environment; and the second is the continuous increase in inequality, both within the most advanced economies and globally – and the ways in which that inequality is beginning to place tremendous pressure on our democracy, and our capacity for peace.
Nowhere is this clearer today than someone like me, from the US, or like you, from Europe, as you see these major democracies teetering on a xenophobic moment in the teeth of large-scale loss of security of the middle class and working class, and the turn, in some cases towards an effort to find equality but in other cases towards an effort to blame another”, and to externalize xenophobically on an other.
And so, the task we have today, as well as rebuilding an economy, is also finding a way to have an economy that is – that not only provides enough stewardship for the environment, but is also sufficiently participatory in general, that we can re-stabilize a decent living and a decent projection for how to live a life for the majority of the population, so that we can re-stabilize our sense of democracy.
There are, I would say, three dimensions of tension that organize the different groups that I’ve seen here, alongside these two dimensions of concern, or crisis.
The first is the concern with the power of hierarchy; the power within an organization to be controlling. This is the concern with the bossless organization, this is the concern with participatory governance. Some aspect of the “cooperativist” work certainly central to the commons, is the concern with positional power.
A second is the concern with the power of property, which we see very powerfully in the context of cooperativism and the effort to essentially accept property as it is, but, try to redistribute it. But the problem is, of course, that property is always an organization force for oligarchy; the re-creation of power around who owns it. And so there you’re beginning to see a real tension between the commitment to commons, and the commitment to redistribute property, which is, I think, creating some real tensions. We saw it, a little bit yesterday towards the end, in the session on cooperatives when Marguerite asked, “What about the commons” and the question was, “Well, I don’t know, um…they’ll have to wait.”
And the third, which underscores or underwrites everything is the tyranny of of the margin. The need to constantly compete in the market and find yourself in a context where you have to compete, you have to survive, you have to return returns-on-investment; and this ends up postponing the ethical commitment, because you can’t live with it. And that’s different from the power within the organization, it’s different than the power through property because it affects everyone, both the property owners and not. And again, nowhere was this clearer than yesterday in the panel on investment models and VCs (edit: venture capitalists), and the clash between the entrepreneurs who were driven by an ethical commitment to build something that will change the world, and the need to raise money in the VCs who have investors to return to. It’s a real tension that you’re going to have to solve. It was also clear in a more micro-level in the story about cooperatives, and trying to move a VC-funded to a cooperative model, and the tension between the early actors and the late actors.
So this tyranny of the margin is a real constraint that we have to find a way how to break out of. And the critical thing that I want to leave (if nothing else) you – and I’m not leaving yet, don’t worry, you can’t start dancing – is: the commitment to the commons, intellectually and practically, institutionally, is central to your ability to negotiate these tensions, and I’ll try to explain why.
So, roll back 25 years. What happened to us in the networked information environment, is for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the most important input into the core economic activities of the most advanced economies came to be widely distributed into the population. It began with computation, and storage, and communication, then moved to sensing; yesterday, when we talked about fabrication, it’s beginning to move towards fabrication – so you had a decentralization of material capital that was central to production in some of the most advanced economic areas in the most advanced and richest economies. Alongside network communications that dropped transaction costs to a very low level.
The first generation of practices that took advantage of this dramatic change is social production, both peer production and individual social production. We saw it with free and open source software, we saw it with Wikipedia, we saw it with the free culture movement, we saw it with citizen journalism, core aspects of what used to be an industrial information and cultural economy turned into a social production economy that began to seriously compete with the core aspects and destabilize power.
After that first round, you began to see traditional political mobilization also being transferred, and that was around the late 2000s-early 2010s, the emergence of leaderless organizations and, obviously, Occupy, Indignados, and the response around the world, perhaps probably most importantly motivated by the Arab Spring, of the emergence of the leaderless organization as an alternative to the longer-term political association.
Only after that, did we see the same economic characteristics being hacked by market-oriented organizations to build platforms that we see – that, let’s call them, that generally came under the sharing economy. But it’s the same exact transaction cost model, it’s the same exact capital distribution that built it. But the problem is that these organizations, at least some of them, weren’t committed to reversing some of these core dimensions of power. So, if you think at the simplest level of one of the earliest ones that’s barely on the border, Zipcar. Beautiful model, but committed only to this aspect of sharing assets in order to limit stress on the environment. Ends up relatively easily, being translated into becoming a division of Avis, because it’s not committed around the question of commons on the property, only the general conception of the commons on the environment. Not committed to avoiding the structure of hierarchy in the actual management of the organization, not committed to building a commons-based model that resists the tyranny of the margin.
And, obviously, I know that you, over your own trajectory, have moved from seeing Uber as a central aspect of the story, to Uber being something that is not, perhaps, what you want to imagine yourselves being. And again, this is critically defined by the way in which you orient yourself towards these three dimensions of power – because when you look at critiques of Uber, what are they? They are critiques about the re-emergence of hierarchy and the immediate use of algorithms to control the drivers. They are about the power of property to extract all of the rents from the drivers and maximize the return to the investors, and they are about the tyranny of the margin that forces potential competitors to the side. So, it’s not that there’s nothing. And Blabla car is not the same as Uber, and it’s not just about getting people to drive for money. But, it sucks the air out of much of the air.
And so, I’m using these examples to suggest to you that controlling what you do, or designing what you do, in response to these three dimensions of power, and preserving your models in this way is to be resilient to the reemergence of power becoming central.
So what does that mean as a practical matter? For cooperatives – this, I really pulled out of that last round of the panel yesterday – there’s a real temptation to build co-ops first and foremost to make sure that people can make money, and say “the commons can wait”, because, how do we make money in the commons. I think that’s a mistake, because the idea of the commons has been central to our ability to define an alternative to the rising prominence of the rational actor model in the neoliberal framework. If we spent forty years, maybe even fifty, learning at the academic level, at the policy level, at the practical habits of mind level, that we should all treat each other as self-interested and self-maximizing individuals; that that’s how we build organizations that are efficient, that that’s how we allow people to pursue their own happiness without being too constraining. The commons has become a central cluster of ideas that says, “No, that’s false. We can come together without relying on exclusive property; we can come together without relying on corporate hierarchy or on state hierarchy, by building models of collaborative governance, and by embedding our production in social relations instead of building outside of them, instead of building only in companies and states and markets hierarchies of both sides, we can actually do something together. Without that core intellectual framework, without that core set of ethical commitments, you lose your North Star.
So for the cooperatives, sometimes it’s hard. It sometimes means that only some aspects can be in the commons, and not others: your basic platform, your protocol for how you do things. What components can be in the commons as a core aspect of the design, have to be in the commons and there has to be a continued commitment. Nothing in free software has ever said that people can’t make money from free software. They shifted to service models, they shifted to models based on selling machines. Whatever it was, it was around a core commitment pertained to the commons.
Blockchain; decentralized cryptocurrencies – if you focus only on one dimension of reproduction of centralization, the crypto structure and the decentralized technology, but ignore the ways in which a layer of organizational concentration can happen because you’ve built the assumption that everybody’s a self-interest maximizer, attacker, you open yourself up to re-concentration at the higher level. Whether it’s miners in the case of Bitcoin, or whether it’s Uber in the case of ride-sharing and double-sided market, it doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to build a decentralized technology if you don’t make it resilient to re-concentration at the institutional, organizational or cultural level. You have to integrate for all of them.
Well, I’m done then! Just this last word. There are, if not tribes, certainly families among you. You come to this festival with a certain set of commitments that make you excited, and a certain degree of openness that opens you to the person across the hall. Benjamin Franklin, the grandfather of the American Revolution, is said to have said, “If we do not hang together, then surely we must each hang separately”. So, you need to hang together. But hanging together and keeping together means not just accepting the other for who they are, but actually accepting that tension as creative. Saying, you’re focused on this, but I also really need for you to also do that. You’re focused on getting money to people, but I really need you to find a way in which it’s consistent with an environmental commitment. You’re really focused on undermining hierarchy, but I really need you to be committed to there not being a property-based model around which an oligarchy can emerge, even though you’ve changed the organization rules. Or, I really need you to not be pushing us into an investment model that will stick me into the margin so that it doesn’t matter how much I commit to my cooperative, it doesn’t matter how much I commit to my ethics; I’ll be either driven out of the market or I’ll be driven to change my model.
If you need to go a little slower, go a little slower. But build it so that it is ethically coherent from the start, is attentive to all these dimensions of failure, and resilient to all of these modes of failure, so that at the end of the day, you can actually build something else. Because in the universe of what we see today as these threats and these crises, these are quite fundamental to how we organize our economic life together, quite fundamental to our ability to maintain a democratic society, the kind of commons-based, cooperative, sharing economy that accepts that people are sometimes self-interested, but often cooperative. Sometimes really focused on keeping body and soul together, but often very focused on creating a real soul, and a real connection. It’s the most important alternative to these two models that have dominated us for two hundred years, the market seeking for the self, and the state seeking its control. And so, if you want to build it together, you have to build it together. And if you want to build it together, you have to be attentive to all these tensions and all of those modes of failure, and work on solving them together, rather than just saying, “I’ll optimize on one, I’ll optimize on another…”, it’s a multi-system problem and you’re going to have to have a multi-system solution.