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



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  2. An interview en Espanol with Trebor Scholz has just appeared in El Salto...