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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Living, Breathing Platforms

by Nathan Schneider

June 23, 2016

One of the questions that often comes up when we talk about “platform cooperativism” is, “What do we mean by platform?” For some, this is obvious: It’s a thing, a place on the internet where people connect with each other. It includes a website, probably some mobile apps, and ideally a good API. It’s not a protocol, which is a set of rules that enable platforms to talk with each other; it’s not just a set of static content, because it’s all about networking. I started out my talk in Wellington, New Zealand, last week suggesting that we’re moving toward a “platform society,” one in which platforms, not jobs or the state, constitute many people’s primary interface with the economy.

But there are other perspectives, too. A co-op lawyer in Colorado, for instance, has helped develop several online platform cooperatives, but he also considers a farmland co-op he works with a platform co-op as well?—?a platform made up of that incredibly offline substance of dirt.

I visited Enspiral expecting to find a group of people bound together by managing shared things?—?for instance, working space and money and businesses. And I saw some of that. It’s there. But what really struck me was the way in which Enspiral’s power lies less with the stuff it manages than the connections it enables. Members and Contributors spoke about their friendships, the mutual encouragement, and the way the community responds to requests for help. In this way, Enspiral seems to me, precisely, a platform?—?one that has evolved very well to meet the needs of an often alienated, isolated platform society.

And, in this, Enspiral hints to me how a platform can be much more than a thing. Especially when a platform is a cooperative, like Enspiral, it evolves according to the needs and imaginations of its members. It’s a living being. Some of it is on the internet—notably the bespoke tools it has set loose in the world like Loomio and CoBudget—but so much of it isn’t. I’m still sorting through the lessons of visiting Wellington, but maybe that’s a start: When we build platforms in which their members are truly in charge, they’re no longer just things. They come alive.

Since being in Wellington, I keep comparing what I saw of Enspiral with my experience with the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which I reported on for Vice. Both are organizations that pave the way toward a much more humane future of work (and life), and both serve as models that others should imitate. But there are also some revealing differences.

One is in regard to the nature of the economic commons. The CIC holds an annual budget of about half a million euros, and budgetary decisions for that are made through periodic general assembly meetings. These funds are used to furnish the common goods and services (housing, holistic health care, office space, accounting, software) for the network. The CIC also has its own crowdfunding platform and an interest-free investment bank, but the bulk of the resources go through this common fund.

Enspiral’s approach is different. The bulk of economic activity remains under the umbrella of individuals and affiliated businesses (“ventures”); for instance, whereas the CIC itself maintains an office building in downtown Barcelona, Enspiral’s main space in Wellington is actually owned by a particular venture, which in turn rents out space to other ventures and community members. Enspiral’s main economic commons is essentially a crowdfunding system, run through CoBudget. CoBudget isn’t designed for the kind of collective, consensus-based budgeting of the CIC; instead, users have their own individual allocations of funds, based on what they or their ventures contribute, which they in turn can allocate to projects they like. The relatively modest shared expenses, meanwhile, are agreed on through consensus-y decisions on Loomio, one-person-one-vote; so are a ton of other decisions that affect the culture and governance of the community. But on CoBudget, those who make higher economic contributions have more decision-making power.

The upshot: CIC emphasizes collective budgeting and infrastructure, whereas Enspiral fosters a more entrepreneurial approach focused on maintaining the agency of individuals and ventures. Both groups seek to empower both the individual and the community, but they have wound up with diverging emphases. Each approach has its benefits, but they’re quite distinct strategies of commoning.

Another difference is culture. One thing that is remarkable about the CIC is the way in which it bridges the rural-urban divide, as well as encompassing a mix of subcultures: punks, hippies, urbanites, spiritualists, etc. They don’t always like each other, but they still trade with each other using the shared mutual-credit system. Enspiral seems to have a somewhat narrower field, mainly composed of urban professionals. This fosters much tighter bonds among participants, and it has resulted in a really compelling, intimate shared culture, with far less infighting than I saw with the CIC. But when I heard Enspiralites geeking out about “process”—a thing I love to do as well—I kept thinking of my mentor George Lakey’s writings on cross-class organizing; Lakey argues that middle-class people are raised (in order to broker between the owning class and the working class) with a particular attention to systems and processes, but that this passion can get in the way of building genuine ties with communities that aren’t so inclined.

All this is to say: Not only are we seeing the rise of particular living beings among the platform cooperatives emerging among us, but we’re seeing distinct niches, and diverse outcomes, and a variety of choices along the way. There is no one right answer for what we do with our self-determination, thank goodness. Beautiful creatures like Enspiral and the CIC help us understand our choices better.

Also published, with discussion, at Enspiral Tales on Medium.