Toward an Open Co-operativism: A New Social Economy Based on Open Platforms, Co-operative Models and the Commons

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Pat Conaty and David Bollier

Year: 2014

A Report on a Commons Strategies Group Workshop Berlin, Germany August 27-28, 2014

For people who participate in commons, peer production, or co-operatives, the emerging economy presents a frustrating paradox in the enormous mismatch between cooperative culture on the one hand and the organizational forms, on the other hand, that can sustain it and advance the general well-being of society.

New forms of peer production are creating common pools of knowledge, code and design and entirely new socio-economic-technical sectors of production and governance. This sprawling, eclectic realm based on free software, open knowledge, open design and open hardware relies upon social collaboration and sharing, and aspires to become a sector of self-sustaining and autonomous commons.

Unfortunately, because its economic forms are generally embedded in capitalist economies – dependent on closed intellectual property, venture capital funding, for-profit corporate structures, and so forth – the new “open models” are generally subordinated to hyper-competitive markets with capitalist dynamics. Notwithstanding brash claims for the liberating potential of the “sharing economy,” peer production on open platforms may simply replace the more classic forms of proprietary capitalism with a commons/corporate hybrid that commandeers various commons to serve the interests of capital.

Meanwhile, the co-operative movement in many parts of the world faces its own challenges in coming to terms with contemporary technologies and the political economy. A number of large co-operatives now resemble global corporations in their market behaviors, organizational cultures and management styles. If they are not fending off threats of privatization, their managers and policies function at a distance from co-op members, who often no longer participate actively or take part in a shared culture. As for smaller co-ops, many have been shunted to the margins of both the market and society by larger dominant forces. Thus without creative solutions they are unable to compete in large, concentrated markets or embrace networking technologies that might enhance their co-operative powers.

For these and other reasons, the co-operative movement, despite its illustrious history and impressive organizational and financial models, no longer inspires the popular social imagination or has the élan and dramatic impact that it did in, say, the 1890s, 1920s, or 1970s. The power of global capital and markets, digital technologies and consumerist culture has operated perversely in ways that have reined in the ambitions of some parts of the co-operative movement. In recent years, however, there has been a renewed sense of purpose and confidence across the international co-operative sector. The United Nations declared 2012 “International Year of Co-operatives,” and in the same year, a rejuvenated International Co-operative Alliance adopted an ambitious blueprint for a “co-operative decade” intended to establish the business and ecological leadership of the co-operative model, in which ownership rests with those most closely involved in the business. There is also a growing receptivity to the idea of open co-operativism, as seen in Robin Murray’s book, Co-operation in the Age of Google – a theme that echoes the cardinal first principle of the co-operative movement, “open and inclusive membership.”

These are welcome developments because a decline of co-operatives diminishes the general welfare of society. The general public increasingly has few alternatives to large, predatory corporations whose anti-social behaviors are often sanctioned by captive legislators and state bureaucracies. While the “social economy” is gaining ground in many parts of the world and some commercial sectors, its benefits are often killed in the cradle or kept within strict limits. The market/state duopoly, a partnership that divides responsibility for production and governance while pushing an agenda of relentless economic growth and neoliberal policies, continues largely unchecked.

All of this prompts the question: Is it possible to imagine a new sort of synthesis or synergy between the emerging peer production and commons movement on the one hand, and growing, innovative elements of the co-operative and solidarity economy movements on the other? Both share a deep commitment to social cooperation as a constructive social and economic force. Yet both draw upon very different histories, cultures, identities and aspirations in formulating their visions of the future. There is both great promise in the two movements growing more closely together, but also significant barriers to that occurring.

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Table of Contents:

I. At the Crossroads: The Commons and Co-operative Movements
II. Open Co-operativism: An Emerging Vision with Green Shoots and Common Practices
Bauwens on netarchical capitalism vs. global commons
Dealing with the problems of netarchical and distributed capitalism
Historical precursors to open co-operativism
III. New Synergies Between Co-operative Commonwealth Models and Digital Commoners?
Community land trust movement
Co-operative commonwealth strategies to address precarity
Reviving co-operative capital and mutual credit
IV. Making it Happen
Movement-building strategies
Three general priorities for open co-operativism
1. Build and expand new regimes of law, governance and management
2. Aggregate patient capital (aka “co-operative accumulation”)
3. Blending co-operatives and digital/open platforms