1.5 What is Open Cooperativism?

Two movements have recently surfaced, proposing viable alternatives to the pernicious practices of the Silicon Valley flavored “Sharing” Economy: Platform and Open Cooperativism.

The for-profit Sharing Economy is attempting to co-opt the lexicon and imagery of the Commons to mask its identity as a profit-maximizing deregulatory cartel that threatens to undermine the social gains of the labour movement and create a large, willing underclass: the Precariat.

To counter this, these two movements explained offer strategic responses.

Platform Cooperativism seeks to democratize the ownership and governance of the digital platforms that increasingly mediate our daily lives. Open Cooperativism explores convergences between the logics of Commons-based Peer Production and the Commons with the world of cooperatives and the Social and Solidarity Economy. Open Coops do not intend to create better Ubers or more ethical AirBnbs, nor necessarily digitally based. Instead, they seek to more directly address broader systemic issues like transportation and housing.

These movements are compatible, but with different orientations. In the short term, Platform Coops address the urgent issue of digital precarization, while Open Coops look toward the future asking, what economy do we want?

Open Coops are characterized by four non-prescriptive, ethical guidelines or patterns:

    1. Statutorily oriented toward the common good: In Open Coops, production is guided not by profit but by social and environmental priorities. Individual organizations’ legal statutes embed these values in all productive and organizational processes.
    2. Multi-constituent in nature: Open Coops extend decision making and ownership beyond the company structure to enfranchise all contributors present in all value chain or affected by the coop’s actions. Beyond workers, this may include neighbouring communities, suppliers, clients, reproductive and affective labour, financial backers, etc.
    3. Actively creating Commons: Open Coops do not just take from the Commons (as market entreprises do) they reciprocate by stewarding existing commons or creating new ones in the process. These may be digital (code, design, documentation, legal protocols and best practices, etc) or physical (productive infrastructure, deliberation spaces, machinery, etc.).
    4. Transnationally oriented: Although physical production is kept local and needs-based (following the “Design Global, Manufacture Local” logic), Open Coops share knowledge and resources at the global level with like-minded enterprises to create political and cultural counterpower to today’s prevailing corporate economy.

These guidelines must be evaluated against the real material conditions of communities and cooperators to assess the extent of their viability.

Examples of Open Coops include Enspiral, a diverse network of social enterprises; Fairmondo, an ethical, multi-constituent, open-source, online marketplace; Sensorica, an Open Value Network pioneering new forms of value tracking to facilitate Commons-based Peer Production; and the Mutual Aid Network, a locality-based cooperative structure providing tools and resources for generative economies. All of these are currently operating or federating internationally.

To understand the long-term importance of Open Cooperativism, let’s examine two characteristics of the present: financialization and decommodification.

Financialization accelerates the process of enclosure (turning nature into commodities and relationships into paid services) towards financial abstractions, syphoning wealth away from the real economy. Decommodification shows that a) certain commodities (music, film, digitally distributed culture, universal encyclopedias, software operating systems) cannot be easily sold and b) people increasingly turn to each other to meet their needs as pro-sumers (producers and consumers) of solar energy, housing coops, mesh networks, mutual credit systems or community supported agriculture.

By decreasing employment, wages and taxation, financialization and decommodification endanger the Keynesian pact underpinning social democracy. However, while decommodification can be disastrous for the current economy, it may signal the shift from an economic system based on scarcity toward one based on abundance. This is where Open Coops come in: by placing commoning at the center of our livelihood creation, we aim to decrease the dependence on market, wages, and the state by offering community-led, resilient alternatives.

The principles of Commons-Based Peer Production, applied through Distributed Manufacturing and Open Cooperativism, offer a glimpse of an economy that could be and is worth working towards. While we cannot confidently predict what a wider, generative P2P economy would look like, we suggest that it will be characterized by:

  • Abundance: Closed business models are based on artificial scarcity. P2P economies recognise the natural abundance found in digitally shareable knowledge and shares it transnationally. Socially productive knowledge will be open to feed new cycles of knowledge production.
  • Openness: In contrast to price signalling or centralized planning, a P2P economy prioritises transparency, mutual coordination and open supply chains. The result? An adaptable and networked mode of production based on real conditions for actual needs, instead of capital demands with their inherent overproduction, waste and boom and bust cycles.
  • Carework: Instead of enforcing the division of labor through specialization, Open Coops can provide the tools for dynamic and flexible participation, to enfranchise all types of contributions in the economic value chain. This includes the affective and reproductive labour consistently rendered invisible by the current economy.
  • Reciprocity: Copyleft licensing allows multinationals to commercialise content of the commons, putting cooperatives and social and solidarity enterprises at a competitive disadvantage. CopyFair licensing bolsters the economic resilience of commoners by allowing them to capitalize content, while maintaining full sharing and demanding reciprocity (or cash payments) from for-profit entities.
  • Pooling: Our means of production, including knowledge and manufacturing capacity, can be mutualized and self-owned by all those that create value. Strategies such as Open Cooperativism and Distributed Manufacturing can bolster co-ownership and co-governance to help create a true Commons Collaborative Economy characterized by more efficient use of resources, such as shared data or manufacturing facilities.

In the following sections, we will explore how the logics of the Commons-based Peer Production, Distributed Manufacturing and Open Cooperativism can provide tools for a Commons transition that may be applied to economic, political and social relationships and goals. In particular, we will examine the role of P2P/commons developments in citizen-led politics.

Two movements have recently surfaced, proposing viable alternatives to the Silicon Valley-flavored “Sharing” Economy: Platform and Open Cooperativism. Platform Coops address the urgent issue of digital precarization, while Open Coops look toward the future, asking the following question: What economy do we want?