Transcending Gig Economy & Precariat: Towards Coops?

The virus pandemic shows the ultra-fragility of the Uber and Airbnb style gig-economy tech models.

With total reliance on gig workers and non-owned “means of production” (and, in fact, skimming profits off the cars and homes owned, or rented, by the gig workers), this type of ‘hollow capitalism’ is neither able to control and sanitize the production, under pandemic conditions, nor ensure the safety of workers or consumers.

The euphemism of “independent contractors”, which British researcher Guy Standing had already and correctly labeled as the ‘precariat’, has crumbled rapidly in the pandemic crisis.

Such digital-Finanzkapital-backed gig-economy platforms are turning out to be houses-of-cards, unable to withstand the gale forces of the pandemic crisis. During the pandemic crisis, the sops that firms like Uber are offering to their “independent contractors” – okay, let’s stay honest, to their precariat workforce – are inadequate at best and often insulting to these hard working folks.

The conventional capitalist Big-Biz-Big-Tech approach is also in trouble. Such firms, including big marquee tech names, are vacillating between painful-immiserating layoffs and draconian Big-Brother controls. Sometimes there are flashes of benevolent corporate paternalism; but these cannot be the basis for anything.

There is a need to launch alternative worker-controlled-cooperative-high-tech models.

Such models should incorporate the innovations of easy-safe Apps, vast network and ubiquity, But they should get rid of rank exploitation, precarity, and lack of safety nets.

Indeed, as you folks well know, a good coop model should gradually and definitively build strengths on all sides: producers, user-consumers, and linked third parties. These coop models may – indeed, they will – provide the innovative approaches to manage in such crises in the future.

Let us hope such coop innovation starts now, rather than post-pandemic.

Also, let us work on ridding ourselves of euphemisms like “gig economy”, “sharing economy”, and “independent contractors”… and advance truthful ideas of support, solidarity and cooperation.

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There’s a lot of international evidence that co-ops survive major economic disruptions much more effectively than investor-driven businesses, and bounce back more quickly. I look forward to seeing some data gathered on how COVID-19 has affected both datafarming tech corporations and platform cooperatives, and some rigorous comparisons.

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‘’’’ There is a need to launch alternative worker-controlled-cooperative-high-tech models. ‘’’’

Yes, but in coexisting with naked capitalism it is hard to compete and find the funding to grow to any scale. More worryingly, the precariat are not only impoverished, but seem to have lost some skills of collective organisation to ‘the platforms’.
Maybe we need to recapture a lost culture of cooperative leadership? Who will step up? Who will recognise that many work for years for no financial reward in these high-tech coops? We need national policy change. I think we need to be rather angrier in tone than Ed Mayo’s letter to Rishi Sunak about coops being forgotten in business support measures.

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I assume you’re aware of https://platform.coop ? People have been banging on about and working on this stuff for years now (but it’s hard).

A couple of the early blog posts that launched the movement, both published Dec 2014

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Hi Nick. I agree, certainly in respect of being angrier. My take on this is that as yet there are no clearly identified sources/mechanisms of funding in support of high risk early stage cooperative platform development. In the absence of that we’re stuck in a situation where new start cooperative entrepreneurs struggle. We do need to see a shift - whether that be at national policy level or perhaps at local municipal level (see Barcelona or Preston for examples) to recognise and address the gap.

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Let me add that I also pointed out this difficulty of capital requirements in my essay for a Japanese worker-coop think tank journal a few months ago. I feel a little vindicated. :blush:

One of my ideas is to make “worker cooperative business loans” as ubiquitous as home mortgage and get moral, social and political support behind it. This may create a huge lending opportunity for (local) banks and they may even lobby for it if they see the light.

The politicians may get behind, too, if they see votes for this :blush:

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Yes. Perhaps every time a local, regional or central government body is asked for financial support by a private company or individual, the ‘exit to community’ option should come first and be the only fully funded option. In that way cooperative entrepreneurs could more easily move into the space occupied by traditional firms. If that is not possible at the start (eg need to improve stakeholder readiness, re-configure supply chains, capability building) a transition plan should be required. Some legislation change would be needed to freeze assets / defer liabilities (subject to appeal) to stop the asset strippers / cash rich bottom feeders moving in to gobble up ‘bankrupt stock’ and make quick profits. Efficient asset / resource reallocation could be done instead through transparent reciprocal trade exchanges.

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Thanks for all the incisive, insightful comments… Many pointing to directions that I need to explore. The “platform cooperatives” idea is a strong one, but the challenge of how to move, at a relatively fast pace, in that direction.

Post-pandemic trends and forces indeed may pull and push in quite the opposite direction. A (false, disingenuous) re-celebration of the “flexible, independent” person working from home (or from her own vehicle)… this outcome is already looking like a good possibility. New ways to accumulate capital in the concentrated centers of Tech and Finance. Some are probably already salivating: millions, perhaps billions, more of toilers with no vacation, no sick leave, no pensions, no health insurance, no meals or snacks, no office space, no office equipment, no transport allowances, and so on and so on.

The need for platform cooperativism is urgent.

ALSO… a related but different point.

Another euphemism of the past 15 years is “co-creation”. As my former student and a very insightful researcher from Canada, Detlev Zwick and his colleagues have pointed out, most co-creation, in reality, entails “putting consumers to work”, without remuneration.

There are, however, co-creation processes proliferating, massively and pervasively.

The cooperatives therefore have to be more than “producer” cooperatives. They have to include the toiling, creating, oft-innovating consumers also.

My friend and long-time collaborator Fuat and I are trying to develop a new role-concept… “the construer”… It is a rough, early idea at this stage…

As researcher-academics, folks like Detlev, Fuat and I can ideate and disseminate, but actions depend on good folks like you, in the work-production-distribution trenches.

Coop Exchange can potentially play a key part in this. It’s different from most other platform coops in that the leadership comes from the world of well established, traditional coops. Getting them involved might necessary to get these ideas off-the-ground.

However, coops by nature are very conservative with their members money. We in the platform cooperative movement must not just think what the big coops can do to to help us, but also what we can do to help big coops. The relationship must be based on mutual cooperation, not just big coops donating out their members money to high-risk platform coop ventures, although that too is needed. This is just my individual opinion, not speaking as a representative of Coop Exchange here.

My hope would be that we would organise within big coops and mutuals, and use the imperfect existing democratic mechanisms to create mutually beneficial relationships between the conventional, old coops and innovative, young ones. Here is my article that touches upon this topic.

Good article! Thanks Leo. Just to add that perhaps there is an opportunity to boost member participation in governance across co-operative organisations of every size now that the covid-19 lockdown has driven an increase in digital literacy and inclusion. If we could speed up the governance cycle … measure, analyze, discuss/refine, vote, implement, measure …etc at every level, we might see faster change, collaboration and even some solidarity across co-ops. Simple, usable tools, with human support and coaching would help a lot. Maybe we could form some sort of ‘capability network’ in digital governance?

I’d suggest that the same could be said of the Trade Union and Labour Movement in general and that it is rather ironic that at a time when radical solutions are needed to address the multiple global crisis’s that key institutions of the broad left such as these appear to be more supportive of the established, old order, than anything else…

Coop Exchange is a great initiative. Snowdrift.coop is another project working on solving a similar problem, but with a focus on maintaining digital commons production (free code, free culture etc), rather than bootstrapping them. Once they’re both fully operational, I can imagine situations where the same platform coop could get help from Coop Exchange to get started, and from Snowdrift for ongoing maintenance (and to help them return those seed funds from CE back to them).

There are a number of projects that have been working on free code tools for this for about a decade, particularly Enspiral (Loomio, CoBudget etc), Democracy Earth (OpenCollective, etc), and Gov0 (vTaiwan etc).

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Agreed, also worth mentioning that Platform6 Co-operative provides Open Collective hosting. Am a member of 3 coops that use it to collect membership fees, it’s really cool - works like Patreon but instead of enriching Patreon shareholders, the commission fee goes to P6 which uses it to fund new cooperatives, chosen democratically by P6 members, with anyone in the world can join as a P6 member for 5£/month.