Yochai Benkler on Advancing Towards an Open Social Economy

The P2P Foundation is serializing video highlights from last year’s Platform Cooperativism conference. Click here to see all conference videos.

(34 MINS) Yochai Benkler – Democratic capitalism is in crisis. Brexit and the Trump nomination marked victories for xenophobic economic nationalism that would have been unimaginable in these two bastions of free trade, globalization, and liberal pluralism a decade ago. They reflect one trajectory of rebellion against the era of oligarchic capitalism that began in 1973 and crashed on the shoals of the Great Recession. The urgent task of the moment is to define a clear alternative. Platform cooperativism is at the cutting edge of defining that next ideological framework, the set of ideas, institutions, norms, practices, and beliefs that will allow us to understand the present stage of market society and to re-embed markets in social relations in ways that will produce a more egalitarian, open, and politically stable market society. Work on the commons and cooperation, on collaborative and learning organizations, FOSS, peer production, and a broader set of disciplines and practices that have developed over the past twenty years provide the foundations of a more decentralized, self-governed, socially-embedded model of market society. It emphasizes the diversity of motivations, institutions, and organizational forms, it recognizes that power in markets is as endemic as it is in the state, and seeks to construct systems that are resilient to these forms of power and allow their participants to engage in self-governance and continuous experimentation, learning, and adaptation in communities of practice. This emerging view of market society is in direct competition with more technologically-deterministic, still-neoliberal conceptions of how market society will develop in the coming decades as well as the resurgent xenophobic nationalism that challenges the very foundations of open society. .”


Trebor Scholz: “Yochai Benkler’s talk, in particular, stood out. In his Saturday-morning lecture, he presented platform cooperativism as an attempt to “build a coherent intellectual framework to offer an alternative to the failed ideology of the past forty years.” He is clear: “platform cooperatives will neither kill nor be killed by investor firms,” but there is sufficient room in the current market situation so that platform co-ops can strive. Benkler, a professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, situates platform cooperativism as a “core location for the development of new ideas in the pursuit of an open social economy.” For those less steeped in social economy studies, the term “social economy” refers to economic activities amongst the community. It is located between the economies of the private and public sectors.

Yochai Benkler begins with an account of two ideological periods in politico-economic history — that of managerial capitalism, beginning around World War II and ending during the inflation crisis of the early 1970s, and that of oligarchical capitalism, the period in which neoliberal thought and the Washington Consensus were central. The actuality of a Washington Consensus represents the claim that there is an optimal organizational form such as the investor-owned firm, which upstarts are then called upon to adopt to succeed “in the teeth of the market.” Benkler foregrounded that, ideologically, the actuality of the Washington Consensus depended on ideas such as the reduction of the economy to the self-motivated individual, the reality of predictable, calculable risk, and the importance of planned, controlled, and ultimately stable ventures. For Benkler, however, the victory of the Trump and Brexit campaigns is indicative of a general collapse of the neoliberal model and thus an opening which will be filled by a new economic understanding. He relates these political wins in part to the inequality caused by the extreme and unmatched extraction of wealth by the top 10% in the U.S. and the UK.

Benkler is skeptical about two particular visions of what might replace neoliberalism. First, there are the likes of Peter Thiel who argue for a new age of techno-libertarianism wherein technological development can run its course unimpeded by the state, with deregulation allowing markets to reward talent and accelerate us into a fully-automated Star Trek economy. Benkler did not name Thiel, but Peter Thiel does illustrate this point in his book Zero to One. Here, he argues that only through deregulation, monopolistic genius can be free to innovate us into a post-scarcity future. Second, there are proponents for what Benkler calls “nudge progressivism,” a return to the managerial capitalism of the mid-20th century, only updated and made more efficient by big data analysis.

For Benkler, these two imaginary successors fail to take into consideration the social embeddedness of systems, which is becoming central to all sorts of academic disciplines including sociology, economics, and management science. This “social embeddedness” indicates that we can no longer reduce the motivations of economic actors to rational self-interest, but must also acknowledge the existence of varying, socially-constructed drives and desires. There is a need to look beyond homo economicus to homo socialis, as Benkler puts it.

What Benkler proposes as an alternative future is a network pragmatism which seizes the space for experimentation. Rather than believing ourselves unfailing, he claims we must embrace our fallibilism, understanding that our success will come not from the perfect execution of a pre-planned attempt, but rather a rapid iteration which utilizes the knowledge generated by our applied inquiries to drive us forward and upward.

He stresses that local communities do know best about their needs if only given the chance for reflection through practical experience: trial and error and trial again. It is, he says, precisely this experience which is denied to these communities when they engage with investor capital, which immediately subjects any attempt to the logic of the “tyranny of the margin,” the need to compete in the market, to maximize profits. To produce flexible organizations which can continually adapt and innovate as circumstances change and our knowledge grows, Benkler suggests that we look to methodologies that have already proved successful. These could include institutional analysis and development framework developed by political economist Elinor Ostrom, as well as tech-sector models like commons-based peer production, free and open source software development, and even lean startup models. One challenge will be to determine how platform co-ops can exist as what Scholz calls “soft enclosures” that insulate populations from economically and politically hostile surroundings while also contributing to the commons. Platform co-ops like Fairmondo and Loconomics Cooperative are already sharing their code base and by-laws.

For Benkler, network pragmatism is fundamentally about the embrace of the diversity of organizational forms. This pursuit of an “organizational bricolage” resonates with our understanding that platform cooperatives are but one practical near-term alternative. They are part of this bricolage of the solidarity economy, the pro-commons movement, and various other successful organizational forms including B-corps, non-profits engaged in economic production, philanthropic LLCs, and, central to our community, platform co-ops.” (http://platform.coop/stories/happy-new-year)

Photo by Creativity103

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