Platform Cooperativism: Conditions of Possibility | MIT Center for Civic Media

Platform Cooperativism: Conditions of Possibility

Today, I’m here at the New School in New York City with Nathan Matias for the Platform Cooperativism conference, which is bringing together a remarkable range of speakers on the theme of creating online platforms that are owned and operated by their users and workers. These two days feature speakers from a wide range of academic disciplines alongside people sharing their experiences of running co-ops and advocating for fair work in platform economies.

This session brought together panelists from different disciplinary backgrounds to discuss the conditions for possibility that cooperative developments face today both on- and off-line.
Each speaker begins with 20minutes of individual presentation before the floor opened up to questions and discussion.

Panel: Saskia Sassen; Christoph Spher; Mayo Fuster Morell; Dmytri Kleiner
Facilitated by: McKenzie Wark


Sassen begins by mentioning that growing up in Latin America means that she has a different translation into the subject. She is here today to discuss a project that deals with the question of digital enablement for low wage workers in the workplace and in their neighbourhoods - where the neighbourhoods are an extension of low-wage work, and problems translate between work and home, and vice versa. The project focuses on enabling the neighbourhoods to become a social back-up system for low-wage workers.

Sassen begins by identifying key user traits of the low-wage workers. She characterises them as accessing the internet typically through Android and through their phones. She also highlights that Android apps are largely aimed at a ‘professional’ market, and are currently of little use to the low-wage workers.

From here the question arises as to what kind of digital apps would actually enable low-wage workers and mobilise neighbourhoods. Sassen avoids use of the word community in order to avoid romanticisation of the various diversities and differences these low-wage worker neighbourhoods experience. She is interested in how to mobilise the diversity of subjects around shared concerns, and the intervention then becomes how this can lead to significant mobilisations.

Digitisation becomes a key variable in Sassen’s work. She argues that is can have variable meanings, both derivative, transformative, and constitutive. She also defines the ‘digital active domain’ as a space where the constituted ecology of meaning is larger than the technical infrastructure on its own. Rather users mediate culture and meaning through online and networked spaces and platforms: the same platform can be used differently by different users which highlights the imbrications between IT and social contexts.

Socio-Digital Formations are defined by Sassen as electronic structures that reflect both technical capabilities and endogenized social logics. Sassen’s Open Society Foundation project asks ‘[h]ow digitization can enhance the work-life of low-wage workers by addressing specific needs of workers in the work-space and their neighbourhoods’. The digital under-utilisation of mobile and networked technologies amplifies the construction of radical differentiation between work and life space for the low-wage worker.

Sassen then explores several apps which show how the neighbourhoods of low-wage workers can be enabled and mobilised.

Emergency Nanny
Reconciles working parents needs to be in contact with their children within closed work systems by utilising adults who are stable or static in the neighbourhood to act as a ‘emergency nanny’. These subjects could be the local hairdresser or butcher, and so on. Not only does the app prevent the tension of working parents between being available for their children and following work rules, it also mobilises subjects in the neighbourhood to emerge beyond their roles into a support system. It thus becomes the first step of a trajectory towards the mobilisation of neighbourhood.

For teachers and after school carers - allows easy connectivity to parents in case of student lateness or absenteeism, again reconciling the work/parent labour divide of low-wage working parents. This app too becomes a part of the trajectory towards mobilising the neighbourhood into a support system by allowing subjects involvement in the support of low-wage workers.

Neat Streak
Let’s home cleaners communicate with clients in quick, non-obtrusive way to determine tasks - combines cash and loan requests as well as translating Spanish to English and vice versa.

Online intervention which replaces typical therapy with crowd-sourced response to anxiety and depression. Targets low-wage working men who are uncomfortable or unable to go to shrinks. It becomes one step in the trajectory towards trust between subjects, enabling them to talk in their own words and mobilising a support neighbourhood network.

For Sassen these apps and others show how platforms can be used to strengthen the collective space of the disadvantaged and mobilise groups. They emphasize the relocalisation of parts of the economy instead of delegating outwards to corporations, building neighbourhood social back-ups.  

As a final point Sassen argues for the valorisation of the various actors by ‘open-sourcing the neighbourhood’. By valuing the knowledge that each individual actor has, we encourage them to engage and feel a part of their space. She uses Boston’s Street Bump app as an example where digital interventions can enable feelings of contribution and meaning through interaction.



Spher begins by saying that “You cannot get by just be being better. You have to change the rules”. He argues that the economy we’re in requires a new framework.

Using a clip from Spongebob to illustrate his point, Spher argues that Mr.Krabs question “why aren’t you working harder” reflects the inherent mode of capitalism. Increased surplus from fixed wage of worker means progress, or in other terms Spongebob working harder would increase productivity. Mr.Krabs also gives Spongebob a spatula, or a tool -the means of production. This, Spher says, highlights the question of who owns the dominant means of production. Where it used to be industry and factories, today the means of production is algorithms.

Showing another clip from Spongebob, Spher argues that in an ideal world better means of production means more efficency, and this in turn creates progress. The wage is independent from the value the worker produces, and they earn a living and fair (earn part of surplus) wage. The profit earned is spent on public return and investment and as such, in this model, profit through progress translates profit to consumer.

But another Spongebob clip highlights what Spher identifies as the Capitalist point of view: that you don’t need progress to increase profits. Instead you can increase it through various strategies including: primitive accumulation; externalisation of costs; market distortion; social power; and the overexploitation of labor.

Here Spher turns to Stephen Marglin’s  What do bosses do? Marglin asks what we mean when we say ‘a mode of production if technologically superior’. It is defined as making things with less input, with technological superiority as ideal. Marglin argues that  the Capitalists ‘made themselves essential as mediators’ entrenched in the mode of production.

Spher uses George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood to argue that competition doesn’t equal increased productivity. In the novel full competition in the fascist society translates to low performance among the athletes. Spher argues that innovation needs free space. Moreover, there are very few places in economy where competition happens; and if it does it is competition by size rather than price. This economy then requires a structural change in order to reinstate innovation.

A final Spongebob clip shows the workers of the Krusty Krab rebelling against the owner Mr.Krabs and his ‘smelly greed’. Spher uses this passage to outline several key functions of resistance: ‘workers united’ shows union organising ; ‘people’s hammer’ shows political organising; and the ‘dismantl[ing] of the oppressive establishment’ represents a transformative movement.

Spher argues that we need to set-up movements within frameworks of new labour rights, which include: 20% time for all; the right to know each other (contact); balanced job packages; command as rule based management; and the decriminalisation of labour. We also need new entrepreneurial rights emphasising space for small companies, including: network neutrality; supply, service and cloud neutrality; right of attention; right of constitution; and sovereignty.

Spher calls for a new mode of regulation for a new regime of accumulation which involves the nationalisation of investment; nationalisation of knowledge; finance-driven being replaced by innovation driven accumulation; and command-based being superseded by cooperation-based culture.

He ends by saying that a society based on cooperativism needs to free up productivity for everyone - otherwise we are just new business.



Morell’s presentation focused the P2P Value Project findings on governance and value in common based peer production, looking at the effects of cooperatives as infrastructure providers.

She begins by signposting us to the P2Pvalue project which focused on a sample of 300 cases of common based peer production (CBPP) which can be found at:

Morell defines common based peer production through three constitutive elements, including: collaborative production; peer to peer relationships (situated on limited hierarchical command and limited mercantile exchange); and common resources (including general interest and open access, reproducibility and derivativeness).

Common based peer production (versus corporate based) first appeared on the Internet, with classic cases including Wikipedia and FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Sourced Software). Yet, the P2Pvalue findings’ show a double expansion of CBPP into new areas. This has lead to the identification of 33 areas of activity including citizen media; gaming communities; P2P currency; sensor networks and open design. Expansion has occurred through hybridization with markets including crowdsourcing and peer markets. However, in order for these to be successful we need to delimitate CBPP and consider strategies for its scalability.

CBPP ecosystem: Attempting to identify relationships between CBPP discovered clusters as in industrial production. .com less centralised (profit based)

Morell argues that traditional theories of value do not apply to CBPP so we need alternative strategies to assess value in this type of production by asking ‘what is valuable’ and ‘how do we measure value’. The project identified new dimensions of value within CBPP’s including: community building; mission accomplishment; social use value; reputation; monetary value; derivative value. Using indicators linked to different measures of value, they found that half of the cases assign themselves between 7 and 10 in mission accomplishment signifying ‘happy’ and satisfied groups. However, Morell identifies that 39% of cases have budgets of less than 1000euros. To be provocative she asks whether, in this case, the groups have an anti-money character and whether they are constituting production without money.

Looking at the infrastructural architecture of the groups surveyed, Morell finds that decentralised governance is still very, very rare. The most common form (46%) is that of centralised but reproducible infrastructure, which is the form of Wikipedia. However, 57% of the groups have a cooperative architecture; whilst 28% are for profit; 7.2% public; and 6.8% informal or non-legal. Morell argues this shows that the cooperative like infrastructure provision values peer self-governance.

This cooperative infrastructure also favours reputation on the web (Alexa Ranking, Google page, etc) but not on social networks. The groups tend to favor smaller communities but are, in turn, more collaborative. Morell argues there are significant political implications of this turn to highly interactive social processes and collaboration over the reinforcement of competition.

When looking at how to negotiate strategies for scaling up CBPP’s, Morell offers several points, arguing that we need to expand our agenda ‘beyond Uber’. As well as the tecnnological (block chain) and legal (CC) inventions, we must consider sustainability beyond money and create ambitious approaches to reinvent intermediaries around new conceptions of value. In line with the ideological shift represented by the 15million and Occupy Wall Street movements, we need to gain majorities between middle and popular classes and gain governmental power to enable public administration transformation. Morell conceptualises a new hegemonic economic model which connects several intersecting paths of economic innovation, including CBPP and ‘traditional’ social and solidarity economy as well as the reproduction economy into the new energies of the circular economy.



Kleiner introduces himself as a software developer and artist that focuses on the political economy of online spaces. He aims to create artworks that confront social conditions in networked places, for example, the ‘app that delivers privilige’:

He wants to talk to us today about ‘venture communism’, ‘technological disobedience’, ‘counter politics’, and ‘counterantidisintermediation’ as strategies against capitalism.

Kleiner beings by explaining the 1990s excitement around ‘disintermediation’ and the idea of ‘peer to peer utopia’. However, he notes, there was also a movement of antidisintermediation to confront and resist these strategies. As a result, today we are in a phase of what Kleiner (with tongue half in cheek) coins ‘counterantidisintermediation’, where we need strategies to negate the legacy of the antidisintermediation movement.

Kleiner outlines the ‘End to End’ principle from computer science, which argues that all functionality should be in the end nodes and not in intermediary nodes. Translating that for all of us non-programmers, Kleiner explains that Facebook is an example where all interaction on the interface is carried out in Facebook servers, or the intermediary nodes. End to end would mean communicating through software installed on both computers, cutting out middle man and in turn creating less censorship and greater individual control, resulting in greater privacy, resistance to surveillance and scalability.

Kleiner returns to the 1990s internet and characterises it as ‘quite cooperative’, before positing the question of ‘so… what happened?’ He argues the most interesting feature of the early internet is that it was based on an etiquette of users using it correctly and cooperative ideas rather than top-down restrictions. But profit requires centralisation and so centralised venture capitalist platforms emerge. He uses the example of Compuserve as a centralised (and failed) alternative to the internet. He argues that in  a backlash to this, the ‘capitalists’ invested in the internet boom and achieved ownership of the internet infrastructure.

As such, platform cooperatives should not be merely imitations of capitalist platform; but they need to be counterantidisintermediatary. Kleiner posits that cargo cult platforms do not assess the fundamental problem of capitalism. Moreover, our apps are built on hardware supply chains built on war, colonialism and inequality.

He shows us a proposal of venture communism as ‘networks of federated cooperatives, engaged in commons-based production, employing technological disobedience to build counterantidisintermediationist platforms that apply the economic power they create towards counter politics’.

He continues by arguing that cargo cult platforms are impossible as they cannot scale with user expansion. Servers and admins for this kind of scale must get paid, and this in turn results in investment from funders and their drive for profitable return through advertisement. In counter to this, we need to create end to end platforms that hold counterantidisintermediationist principles.Innovation must be focused toward the end of the product lifecycle. ‘Hack! mod! recycle!’, Kleiner says we need to use technology better, longer, and different to overcome supply issues.

Venture Communism proposes that companies are:
-Cooperative: Owned equally by all members
-Federated: Members of many coops share ownership
-Commons based: Productive assets are held in common
-Open: All workers are entitled to become members

It is in then the revolutionary counterpart to venture capital - defined by its refusal to coordinate production. It is upheld by the rules that: labour earns membership; mutualisation is based on rent’ all members are equal and all workers can become members.

Kleiner ends by arguing that venture communism is an organisational form for the worker struggle - it is vitally a part of struggle and not the end product. To be successful it must resist integration into capitalism and/or failure through technological disobedience and counterantidisintermediation principles.