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The Fortress World of Capitalism vs. the Beautiful Possibilities of Cooperation

Our beloved world is entering an increasingly unstable period, full of dangers and also full of possibilities. In many countries, old political parties are crumbling faster and anyone thought imaginable. Old geopolitical alliances have come unglued as the US comes to exercise its role as world hegemon in new and unpredictable ways. The development of the internet, of mobile phones and of apps has led to incredible disruption of many aspects of many societies: from how we pay for and listen to music, to how we consume and propagate information and news, to how we shop for almost anything. All that is solid is melting into air.

At this crossroads it is possible that the global community will move in the direction that the dominant social forces seem to be pushing us towards. That possibility has been called “fortress world.” It is a world where we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy the atmosphere; where climate refugees desperate to leave Africa are forced by military means to stay in a continent with a decreasing ability to produce food; where finance capital fashions a “market” that continue to squeeze working class people to into extreme poverty; where xenophobia rises in the wealthier countries and keeps masses of people voting for politicians who serve the masters of an extractive and unequal economy. That fortress world is a real possibility and the election of Donald Trump is certainly a sign that this worse future may be on the way.

But it is also possible to build a future where fossil fuels are phased out very quickly, where the political forces that oppose the domination of finance capital come to win elections, and where we work hard to create an economy where no one needs to work very hard.

The technical solutions to the climate crisis are already well at hand. Renewable energy is now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and alternatives to dirty technologies have emerged in virtually every sector of production. The problem of poverty and wealth is also an easy one to solve on a technical level. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, and our technology has developed to the point where we can meet our needs with very little work.

To give one simple illustration of how within reach a better life for all is: take the total personal income in the United States. Divide it by the number of people, and multiply by four. It turns out that the average family of four could have $220,000 per year to live on if we had income equality.  Imagine raising minimum wages, taxing the wealthy, and providing a guaranteed minimum income as ways of distributing that income. Imagine reducing work hours so that, as productivity when up, work time could go down, and work could be shared among those who needed an income. One of the main arguments against this approach is that without the profit incentive our technology would not develop. Imagine worker owner cooperatives developing better ways of doing things and sharing the wealth that comes from those developments with the people who work on them.

A new wave of automation is about to hit the world’s economies so hard that millions of service jobs will be lost in the coming period. People are starting to talk about the need for a guaranteed minimum income to deal with that displacement. If that wave hits the US with the current political consensus in place, it will mean another giant step toward the fortress world, as some people profit enormously while others have no access of the means to survive.

Karl Marx believed that as it became easy to meet our needs through the high level of productivity of the machines we used, the time would be right to get rid of capitalism and move to an economy based on the principle of “from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their needs.” It seems clear that we have reached that point. And is it just as clear that those who profit from the current system will not willingly fall by the wayside and let the rest of us live in peace and reap the rewards of our prosperity, even though that prosperity was made possible by the collective wisdom and hard work of the human species.

Are we now on the edge of a world where people are able to meet their needs without the exploitation of labor that leads to the enrichment of a few? There is much talk in the present period of an emerging “sharing economy” where people share what they have with each other, and need to buy less, and hopefully therefore work less, and use fewer natural resources. That idea holds much promise, but it has been hijacked by the titans of the Silicon Valley, whose bold new ideas all fit within the tired old paradigm of profit maximization.

The people at the top of our new tech economy, who are often seen as brilliant and creative, who love the concept of disruption, often operate as if they had the puniest imaginations possible. We are used to thinking of people like Steve jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sergei Brin, Larry  Page, Travis Kalanick, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg as enormously creative. And yet theirs is the creativity of the puzzle master. Put them in front of a video game and they figure out how to win it. Give them an engineering problem and they use their technical brilliance to come up with new ideas.

And yet when it comes to the social side of their visions, there is only one game they play, and one path to winning, and that is the game called “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” It is as if they studied engineering in college but never took a social sciences or humanities class. If you study philosophy, you learn to question underlying assumptions, to see the implications of points of view, to question the walls of the paradigms in which we think. The titans of the Silicon Valley do indeed question and wonder and create and overturn, but none of them has done anything remotely interesting having to do with the capitalist context in which their work takes place.

The period most analogous to our own is the 1920s when inequality was so severe it almost led to a revolution in the US. At that time the economy was dominated by a few robber barons. People like Carnegie and Rockefeller became fabulously wealthy off the backs of working people, drove out competition through monopolistic practices, and tried to buy the public’s good favor by engaging in high profile philanthropy.

Google’s primary purpose has become to sell ads. The same is true of Facebook. Amazon is one of the worst employers of labor in the industrialized world. Uber has made its money by avoiding regulation and stripping workers of protections that took over a hundred years for the working class to build. Imagine if anyone of them had anything as their ultimate goal besides amassing wealth?

I remember a time in the 1990s when discussions were raging about the future of the internet. At that time I saw an ad that said “become a tollbooth on the information superhighway.” That was my first glimpse of the dystopian reality to come. Before that, the internet was a space of creativity and of very little money making. Critics of the growing commercialization of the internet reminded us that in its early days, radio had had an amazingly utopian element to it, where there were a multitude of small radio stations which were widely different, and quirky, and full of character. Then, over time the airwaves become dominated by a few large corporations which homogenized the content to squeeze maximum profit from it. The same thing happened with television, which in its early days was full of creativity and variety. In the 1990’s there was talk about how the emerging technologies could either lead to a better world for all, or could become just another vector for increasingly monopolized capital.

In the early days of the internet there was a strong community of techno utopians who were developing tools that they thought would serve human society. The developers of Linux created an operating system whose code was open so anyone could modify it and expand it, but no one could own it. That system still underlies much of the internet. Firefox was formed as a non-profit and its services are some of the best in use. The non-profit search engine Duck Duck Go doesn’t track you and so doesn’t accumulate information for advertisers to use to target you more efficiently, or for the government to track what you are interested in. Creative Commons has come up with licensing systems to allow people to share information and technology without anyone being able to privatize those things that creators have deemed shareable but not saleable.

There is a lot of talk these days about the sharing economy. In anti-capitalist circles there is increasing talk of the development of a solidarity economy, based on meeting human needs within ecological limits through detaching from consumer culture, developing worker owned cooperatives, supporting patient capital that invests for social benefits, and sharing what we have so we don’t all need to buy as much. Until recently, the idea of a sharing economy was an important part of any vision of a solidarity economy. It was a utopian vision of a world where people would find ways to share what they had without anyone profiting and with no one’s labor being exploited. The hope was that we would all rely less on money, on wage labor, or on capitalists.

For the titans of the Silicon Valley, and increasingly in mainstream culture, the sharing economy has meant almost the opposite. It means the monetization of ever more aspects of our lives. My home becomes a possible source of profit for Air B and B.  My need for a bit of labor, because I can’t lift heavy objects, and someone else’s ability to pick those things up who has a bit of time, becomes a source of profit for Task Rabbit. My car and time and your need for a ride become a source of profit for Uber. In all of these cases, we are “sharing,” our homes, our time, and our cars. But the nice relations between the owner of the room that is Air BandB’d and the traveler who gets to stay in a nice homey place, is mediated by a company whose only interest in the interaction is profit making. That company hires armies of lawyers to fight any community initiatives to protect society from the negative consequences of this “sharing” relationship.

Imagine a real sharing economy, where something like Uber is set up to facilitate the matching of drivers and riders where the drivers got the profits. Imagine something like Air B and B, where a platform was developed that took into account the needs of communities to not have housing taken out of the rental market and put into commercial use, but instead limited its use to people sharing their homes when they didn’t need them. What if platforms developed that respected labor and environmental laws, because its developers saw themselves as providing a service rather than as trying to win the game of the one who dies with the most toys wins?

In his pamphlet “Platform Cooperatives: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy,” Trebor Scholz shares the outlines of what it would take to develop technological platforms that served human needs without involving exploitation. He also shares inspiring examples of real experiments in platform coopertativism. Worker owner cooperatives can be formed with tech workers who develop and maintain the platforms as coop members, along with the others, such as the drivers and laborers.

The creativity that has been put into the game of being the one who dies with the most toys, needs instead to be put into finding ways to keep capitalist forms of exploitation from destroying the new world we want to build. The titans of Silicon Valley need to be seen as leaders of the dash toward fortress world rather than as purveyors of anything that is new in any important way.

The future that is livable belongs to the coder who can code our new platform cooperatives. It belongs to those willing to fight to take down the pirates of finance capital. It belongs to those who are willing to fight for systems of democracy that hold power to account and limits the abilities of politicians to gain power based on fanning the flames of fear in a world whose instability does engender fear.

It seems that the term sharing economy has been so corrupted by its association with exploitative for profit platforms that it probably needs to be abandoned. Those arguing for the emergence of non-capitalist alternatives have gravitated to the term solidarity economy to describe the non-capitalist economic initiatives that are emerging, and it seems that platform cooperativism is a good term for those technologically mediated forms of solidarity economy that serve human needs and help build a sustainable future.

Building a sustainable world in these very quickly changing times requires that we understand clearly what we are up against. It also requires that we work hard to develop alternative visions of that better would and are cognizant of the small steps needed to get there. Building platform cooperativism seems like an urgent part of that process.

Commondreams July 7, 2017

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