Monday, September 17, 2018

Of Platforms and Contradictions #2

This is my second post on the “Overexploited and Underpaid” talks, part of the series “Six Contradictions and the End of the Present” at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. In this I reflect on the seminar held with the main guests, professors Trebor Scholz and Tiziana Terranova.
It's great that the museum hosts events like this. Institutions here do continuous adult education about new ideas, new media, and the new ways of thinking, being, and working which these momentous changes entail. The processes of information capitalism are working so far in advance of most people's understanding it is imperative for state institutions to step up to educate the public. Continuous education will be needed for people to cope with the impending changes in every aspect of life.
The framing of this appearance was announced on the museum's website:
“Though the Internet was initially considered a public space based on the free interaction among equals, it is now conceived as a huge factory without walls where any aspect of the day-to-day life can be valorised, produced and commoditised. Is there any alternative to this scenario?”
A study document was prepared by the GEC, which is quite extensive, concluding with the group's "Requirements for a transformative cooperativism". I did not see this. I just kind of came along, and had no hesitation about barging into the conversation.
The seminar with the two guests began with a presentation on the short-term housing platform Airbnb by Javier Gil, a sociologist and activist with a Madrid tenants union (@Gil_JavierGil; I think this is the PAH, but not sure).

The Straight Dope on Airbnb

Two things are happening with Airbnb in Madrid, Gil said: property owners are taking housing out of the market because of the rent gap, and renters are doing it with their own flats, to help deal with a 38% increase of housing prices in last four years.
Of these in Madrid, only 6% are people doing it out of their own home; the other 94% are owners taking units out of the housing market. For them, said Terranova, management agencies in Naples contact owners and offer to manage their Airbnb. A big hotel chain in Madrid is doing that now, said Gil.
Around the corner from the museum in the diverse Lavapiés barrio, there is a strike now against a 300% rent increase. The tenants union is a collective solution to a collective problem, a message to owners that increasing rents so high will meet resistance. The “nos quedamos” (we stay) campaign refuses rent increases.
Gil spoke of “urban nomads,” those who rent on weekends and sleep elsewhere. This is a stressful life for the individual, Scholz said. In your fieldwork how did you find the “urban nomads”? One by one, right? You could have found them more easily if you had access to the Airbnb data. The platform capitalists create market instabilities, and they don't allow for solutions to emerge using their data.
This market couldn't operate without a frame of government which allows this. Meanwhile, the human and social costs mount, and are not adequately addressed.

The Urban Money Mindset

Airbnb accelerates the housing market, Gil said, Precarious people can participate, but only in moments of crisis. For some it allows them not to work in traditional economy. They prefer that kind of life to a bad job. It's the new subjectivity. People start looking for more money opportunities in how you organize your life, your house. “Hey, I can rent my sofa too.” The market is expanding itself into aspcts of life which have not been mercantilized.
The model of the market is continually enforced, said Terranova. How do we contest the political hegemony that enforces this modality over others? Maybe that is the form of the class struggle today, against the market.
In their publicity, Scholz said, Airbnb talks about this old lady who can now stay in her apartment thanks to them. The guy doing global outreach for Airbnb did his PhD on religious cults. He is aware of how to manipulate subjectivity around the company's product. Scholz said he was recently in a solidarity economy meeting and Airbnb was on the panel, presenting all these lies, a charming young lady. It's like the pharmaceutical industry selling drugs.
It is hard to communcate this to North American colleagues, he said. Because only health, education and services are growing sectors, these should be the basis of the economy, not the cost. The economy needs to be re-centered.
This is exactly the argument of feminist economist Kate Raworth with her conception of what she calls the “donut economy.”

Addressing economic organization is a post-national way of thinking. Yet even as market capitalism and global finance have lost legitimacy, this precarity and financialization of everything embeds the neoliberal mentality very deeply.

An Excursus on Art

Terranova, referencing Stewart Hall, said that we need to “make stories” – the popular cannot be only the field of capital. We need novels, volumes of similar stories, TV shows in the reward and punishment format.
I disagreed on this. It's the argument of Stephen Duncombe for an “ethical spectacle” in his 2007 book Dream. I'm a diehard avant gardist, I suppose, and prefer to step outside the Spectacle for cultural strategies. Example, “Dada Ruso,” the magnificent exhibition presently in the MNCARS museum.
At this point, a guy with TV experience spoke up, a producer of web series. Long form story telling in that medium, he said, is a corporation thing. It's very difficult to do something different. Bernardo Gutiérrez, who introduced the seminar, told of a friend who made a proposal for a TV show about student journalists around the time of the 15M movement. It sounded like a great pitch to me. It was rejected – “Who would be interested in that?”, they said.
A garbage picker from Sao Paolo told Scholz, “I read your book, and it's inspiring, but I really need money.” The question is, what do we have that people can engage with now, next week? It can be completely flawed, only temporary, but immediate in its effects. There is a story of Emma Goldman. She is giving a fiery speech, and afterwards an old worker says, That's great, but what about me? I'm old. I won't see the revolution. What about worker rights? She took the point.

Economy Is Political – Why No Co-op Lobby?

During the break I said that my biggest question concerned the apparent disconnect between political activism and cooperative initiatives. The Cooperation Jackson group in Mississippi has elected a mayor. They intend as well to build “a solidarity economy, anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises” (quote from a succinct UK documentary on the group [ca. 30 min.]). The group is regularly invited to Barcelona en Comú's municipalist meetings (the “Fearless Cities” series), but has never come to Madrid.
Why don't the cooperatives demand political support and funding from their governments? A key part of the Cooperative Jackson plan is precisely to swing city contracts to workers cooperatives.
A convener of the GEC told me Madrid had tried that, through a program called Mares Madrid. But the right wing attacked it as “jobs for friends”, and the timorous city council cut the funding way back.
When we reconvened, Scholz said he was seeing among academics a fatigue with analysis. They are reporting, analyzing, and then throwing their hands up, as if to say, What can we do about it?
“Free Jeremy Hammond,” I cracked. (He is the notorious hacker of the Stratfor defense intelligence website who is doing 10 years in US federal prison; @FreeJeremyNet)
For me, Scholz said, it's not about bringing the giants down. Corporations and coops exist side by side – one can't destroy the other.
Side by side they may be, but one is beating and squashing the other, like Laurel and Hardy.
“An investor-based startup gets tax advantages. If you do the same thing as a co-op you don't. This has to change.”
Scholz talks to policymakers, and has had success in Brussels, some in Germany and France. Jeremy Corbyn in the UK has made platform co-ops part of his program for the Labor party. Scholz's group has tried to get the US DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) to do the same. This is a long road, up a steep hill.
The infamous ALEC, which writes boilerplate regressive anti-union legislation for state governments around the USA, is joined at the hip with chambers of commerce. These bodies don't have co-ops on their agendas.
Scholz lamented that the biggest co-ops, like Spain's Mondragon and USA's TrueValue hardware chain don't flex their muscles politically. “Peoples banks in Germany are huge, but they are just like any other bank.... In Spain and Brazil the co-ops are rich... How do we motivate them to invest in their future?” These giant co-ops have lost sense of their mission and social responsibility. “They don't project their values outward. I think that's because of McCarthyism,” Scholz said.
That's a historical question. Co-ops emerged strongly in the US during the Depression of the 1930s, but they were not included in Roosevelt's New Deal. Instead corporations and extractive industries were favored. The big co-ops have gone a long way to disassociate themselves with left politics.
But how can the chicken run away from the egg?
Today in the US, co-ops are part of Cooperation Jackson's plan. These organizers come out of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. Malcolm was on top of J. Edgar Hoover's enemies list. The Communist Caucus of the DSA in Oakland advocates cooperatives. They are a group despised by the Democrats.

Can a Union be a Co-op?

This blog began as an investigation into the squatting movement. And I keep a weather eye on that movement and its possibilities as they have changed over the years. Municipalism is part of that change, and I have blogged a lot about that. But now, to many in the left movements in Spain, municipalism has turned into something of a false promise – as a Chavista in Madrid anguished during the formal talk of Scholz and Terranova, “The left has come into power here but refuses to take power.” Another part of that change is the emergence of what Beatriz Garcia has called social unionism in the world of the social centers, sindicalismo social.
The platform cooperativism program is quite hopeful. But the question remains, how can people move into positions of participation? It seems obvious that left electoral platforms should boost co-ops. Their constituents stand to benefit most. Unions as well, clobbered by foreign competition, regressive legislation (in the USA), and the looming clouds of AI and robots, should be out front of co-op formation. But they aren't doing it.
Which leaves... what, hackers, academics and anarchists?

How About a Squat?

Italian social centers come out of a strong autonomist marxist tradition. They have always been “workerist.” So it was an unsurprising surprise that Terranova concluded her remarks at the seminar by recalling that many conversations in occupied social centers in Naples had contributed to her understandings of these issues. Now, she said, there is a fear that these centers, only recently given a path of legalization, may be shut down by a change of city administration.
(This was a key topic at MAC 4 which I blogged – but not that session. It is yet to come... [cue flush of shame].)
Luca Recano, who traveled from Naples with Terranova, explained that Macao in Milan, the cultural center that emerged out of an important squatting action there in 2012 – (I blogged it at the time; Emanuele Braga wrote of it in Scapegoat) – has turned the money they have raised from cultural activity into a blockchain crypto-currency called Common Coin, which also includes labor. (This is from the Bank of the Commons, now in beta.)
Political action is paid in the Macao system, because it is considered important work in the general interest.
Even so, Luca said, “strong contradictions which limit the reproduction of this experience.... There's a lack of trust among some in the use of the technology... a fear of scaling up this practice.” Many of these economic relations remain on the level of gift economy.

Macao in Milan. "Nowhere", i.e. "utopia".

“I don't think that when people get paid that it's all about being paid,” said Scholz. Speaking of a project he had done in India with dalit women, “becoming owner of a business changed their lives.”
In a sense, OSCs are already quite internet platform-dependent. And they are intrinsically cooperatives. mount websites and use existing platforms like Twitter and Facebook to distribute their activities. They have a virtual presence that often lasts long past their actual physical existence.What they have not done – and it's a big stretch – is make substantive changes in people's daily economies.
I am doubtful that the OSCs can become incubators of cooperativism, either platform or brick-and-mortar, on anything like the scale of even a small restaurant chain. OSCs are too minoritarian, and their constituency is split, like classic anarchists, between sindicalists and insurrectionaries. But, as seminar introducer Bernardo Gutiérrez shows in his book Pasado mañana. Viaje a la España del cambio, sprouts of cooperativism are appearing all over Spain, not just in OSCs.
Municipalists have been concentrating on pulling what levers of the state they can, re-municipalizing privatized city services, building new social housing, and taming repressive police forces. It is up to entrepreneurs of the social to promote, institute and maintain the economies – many of them, and all diverse – that we so desperately need to survive the Anthropocene.


NEXT: Back to Old Business – MAC 4 Concluding Session; Spanish Social Centers Ponder Legalization Strategies; The Madrid Seminar of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor


study document prepared by the GEC for this meeting

Rent-gap theory

The concept of ethical spectacle offers a way of thinking about the tactical and strategic use of signs, symbols, myths, and fantasies to advance progressive, democratic goals.

Russian Dada 1914–1924

UK documentary on the group Film length: 32:06 In Jackson, Mississippi, Cooperation Jackson are building a solidarity economy...

Mares de Madrid - Barrios. Economía. Futuro
Mares de Madrid es un proyecto de transformación urbana que, a través de la economía social y solidaria, busca fomentar iniciativas productivas innovadoras.

Naples OSCs given a path of legalization...
Marta Cillero, "What Makes an Empty Building in Naples a 'Common Good'?", Political Critique, April 25, 2017

Co-ops were not included in Roosevelt's New Deal....
Jonathan Rowe, "What History Books Left Out About Depression Era Co-ops", Yes! magazine, Sep 14, 2018

Beatriz García, “Centros sociales y sindicalismo: la potencia colectiva,” June 2, 2015, Diagonal Periodico

I blogged it in 2012....

Bank of the Commons

M^C^O – Macao – their manifesto about Common Coin

using the Bank of the Commons (now in beta)

“Messages of Rupture”: An Interview with Emanuele Braga on the MACAO Occupation in Milan By by Cultural Workers Organize, translated by Roberta Buiani

M^C^O - Macao


Saturday, September 15, 2018

On the Tech Beat – Of Platforms and Contradictions

Graphic from IGD podcast of Nov. '17 "Error451: #04 Net Neutrality"

So summer is done and it's back to school before you know it. There's still a bunch to say about what happened in Madrid in July – and I promise to get back to it. But first, to the current course work.
I attended a talk last week at the Reina Sofia museum entitled “Overexploited and Underpaid,” part of a series called “Six Contradictions and the End of the Present” produced by the Grupo de Estudios Críticos.
The speakers were professors Trebor Scholz and Tiziana Terranova.
The framing of this appearance was announced on the museum's website:
“Though the Internet was initially considered a public space based on the free interaction among equals, it is now conceived as a huge factory without walls where any aspect of the day-to-day life can be valorised, produced and commoditised. Is there any alternative to this scenario?”
A study document was prepared by the GEC, which is quite extensive, concluding with the group's "Requirements for a transformative cooperativism". I did not see this. I just kind of came along to the seminar after the talk I blog below, and had no hesitation about barging into the conversation.
I had met Trebor 15 years ago at a conference in Buffalo, New York, called “Free Cooperation.” I was working then on artists' groups and collectives (I finally published Art Gangs in 2012), so all this stuff and these people interested me. Key conveners of that long-ago conference were Trebor Scholz, Brian Holmes, Geert Lovink, and Howard Rheingold, a Whole Earth catalog veteran and professional tech optimist.
“Free cooperation” named a conditon of labor promoted by Christoph Spehr. A book came out of that conference published by Autonomedia which emphasized the creative side of online action: “New media artists create social online tools and urge others to participate,” the promotion reads. “Knowledge collectives gather information in large, open repositories. Free culture – with all its file-sharing applications – is blossoming.”
At that point internet penetration was about 13% of everybody. Last year it passed 50% of everyone in the world. What has powered that is not free cooperation, nor indeed any kind of blossoming. It has been the raw power of capital. And, despite Google's pledge to “not be evil,” capital is not benign.
In 2016 I saw a barnstormer tour appearance by the authors of People Get Ready concerning the "jobless future" of AI (artificial intelligence) and super supple robots which turbo-capitalism can soon deliver. The implications for liberal democracy are bleak. The Atlantic magazine has been dinning this line for some time, most recently in a text by an Israeli author, who ought to know.
Or not. There's clear advantages everywhere for everybody in the platforms which capitalist internet firms have provided. This modern sword of Damocles hanging over our virtual banquet table is one of the “Six Contradictions” the seminar series at MNCARS set out to explore.
Scholz and Terranova both spoke in a formal lecture talk at the museum. I was immediately presented with a classic meat-world problem when a sniffling sneezing young woman sat down next to me, blocking me from the aisle. Foolish me, to take an inside seat. I really didn't want to get sick.
Terranova had the dystopian side of the argument, as she pointed out that the internet was developed with state funding. In the middle '90s it was opened to business and the market, and the slide towards monopoly concentration began. Investment poured in for all kinds of schemes. It stuttered with the “bubble” of '00, when many of the more hippie-minded projects popped, then came in again for real with the aim of disrupting all former businesses as usual. Ergo, shopping malls dying all over the USA today.
She began with an enormous obscure graphic – "Anatomy of an AI System [artificial intelligence] -- The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources." More than a map, this enormous graphic is accompanied online by an extensive illustrated essay. Terranova pointed out that the terms with which we think of capital and labor today must undergo deep change in the face of the rise of AI.

A 17th c. graphic from the "anatomy of AI" article; this illustration of "citafonia" from the Baroque era makes as much or more sense than the micro-rendering of the AI diagram itself....

All of this development is going to remain invisible to us, the users, “confined to the front end,” i.e., the user interface. These ways of interacting with “computational platform capital,” like Alexa and Siri [Alexa is Amazon's virtual assistant, like Siri from Apple's iPhone], raise the specter of a foreclosed dystopian future, like the TV series “Black Mirror.” (Which, BTW, I will not watch as I consider it the epistemological equivalent of the “strong guys with guns” genre of TV programs.)
Alexa starts laughing in the middle of the night, scaring its owners. Is a resistance embedded in the program?
All of this is profoundly disruptive to life as we have known and lived it, driven by the idea that information-based economic models can replace market systems. What maintains this hegemony in the sphere of public life is neoliberalism, an ideology, a Foucauldian “abstract machine” that subjectively holds the explicit structures together.
Trebor Scholz had the optimistic role, but he began it with a sober reminder. “People gave their lives” for the rights of workers over the past 200 years, and now capitalist “sharing” platforms are wiping those away. Discrimination among platform workers and vendors is resurgent as well.
As the evangelist of platform cooperativism, he drove straight to a few of the 45 cases from his book with Nathan Schneider, “Ours to Hack and to Own.” Among them is Up & Go Cleaners in NYC, one of a number of in-home services groups comprised of women of color and migrant laborers. There is here an alignment, a commonality with union organizing, as in the case of Las Kellys, and Territorio Domestico, workers' rights groups active in Spain among hotel cleaners and care workers.
Another is a Swiss co-op, which helps “citizens to securely store, manage and control access to their personal” health data. Very useful when talking to different doctors, and also to access clinical trials.
There is also FairBnB, a short-term rental platform which started in Italy and also works in Spain on a principle of “community-powered tourism,” returning a portion of profit to local projects.
These examples directly address current hot button issues – low-wage labor, exploitation and exclusion of migrants from labor markets, data privacy, and impact of Airbnb tourism on housing availability.
The idea is not new, Scholz said. Older co-ops, some quite powerful – e.g., Mondragon, True Value hardware – are “hiding in plain sight” as they have adapted to the corporate landscape, and do not look down at the seedlings around them.
The platform cooperative idea has a good deal of powerhouse academic support behind it. Multiple sessions of training are being held, and publications produced.
A questioner wondered if this was not cultural imperialism? The precondition of co-design, that the workers themselves be intimately involved in developing the platform, works against that.
Politically, said Terranova, the main task is to show that platform capitalism is doing a lot of collateral damage. Scholz said that in the USA they are looking to municipalities to support these initiatives. As per André Gorz it's a “reformist reform.”
People are struggling to survive, said Terranova. That's a strategy of power. They don't have time to organize. And (unsurprisingly) most of these platform capitalists are US companies.

NEXT: The seminar report



Six Contradictions and the End of the Present

Grupo de Estudios Críticos

one brief bio of Trebor Scholz

Tiziana Terranova

study document prepared by the GEC for this meeting

an idea promoted by Christoph Spehr

the book, “Free Cooperation”

internet penetration last year

Summary highlights from People Get Ready, by Robert W McChesney and John Nichols

a text by an Israeli author – "Why Technology Favors Tyranny," by Yuval Noah Harari; extract from his book

shopping malls dying all over the USA
"Big, bold … and broken: is the US shopping mall in a fatal decline?", by Dominic Rushe. 23 Jul 2017

"Anatomy of an AI System -- The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources."
More than a map, this

evangelist of platform cooperativism – Trebor Scholz has published a number of books.
This pamphlet by Trebor Scholz is online, “Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Corporate Sharing Economy,” January 2016

Nathan Schneider – “Everything for everyone”: Michel Bauwens interviews Nathan Schneider, Sept. 10, 2018

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