April 9, 2018

Nothing is more misleading than the term “sharing economy”, a name usually associated with companies such as Uber (passenger transport), Airbnb (hosting) or TaskRabbit (all types of labor), to name only three. For what kind of sharing is it exactly? Profit sharing? Not really, as these companies support their explosive growth, among other things, through the trust of venture capitalists. They, probably, will be the first to be refunded when these companies will generate profits! Risk sharing? Wrong, because due to the legal grey area that currently characterizes these activities, minimum labor standards (wages, holidays, various protections, etc.) are often ignored … The only sharing that really exists is that of information,  as it relates to the availability of certain resources (carpool time, shelter area or expertise of any kind) for the benefit of a virtual marketplace. For the Ubers, Airbnbs and TaskRabbits of this world, with a handful of employees to pay and a solid IT architecture, ithis can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Easy as pie!

The alternative

What if we could couple these business models, as questionable as they are, to the cooperative model to ensure that the word “sharing” really takes on its full meaning? This is the political and economic program proposed by the supporters of platform cooperativism, a new perspective that seeks to replicate the uberisation of the economy, as we know it today.

Based on the reflexion of two American academics, Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, platform cooperativism essentially offers the owners of resources and skills the possibility to regain control of supply through virtual platforms created and administered by them. This movement, which has now been formalized through a website and a manifesto, is reviving the cooperative spirit and integrating it with information and communication technologies, to offer a socially acceptable alternative to the current platforms of the “sharing economy”.

“We are not millionaires. We are not a big tech company. We are a coop, which means the better one of our owners is, the better we all get,”says Loconomics, a coop of all kinds (homework and repairs, childcare, taxes, etc.) based in San Francisco.

This cooperative platform is indeed the property of its members. They pay a monthly contribution and earn a say in the management decisions of the cooperative, whether it is to improve the functionality of the platform, to invest in advertising or to pay members a dividend. The same goes for Denver-based Green Taxi Cooperative, which, with its 800 members from 37 countries, and all the owners of their vehicles, is de facto the largest taxi “company” in Colorado’s capital city. In exchange for a one-time lump sum of $2,000 and a monthly contribution of $75, the drivers of the Green Taxi Cooperative have, as with Loconomics, the opportunity to influence the cooperative’s destiny in a business area where competition is fierce and profits are notoriously scarce …

These two co-operatives are just two of dozens of other co-operative platforms that have emerged over the last five years, in areas as diverse as finance, food and online music, for example. The advantages for members and clients are numerous: lower acquisition costs of resources, more equitable distribution of surpluses, financial flows that remain within the communities in which these cooperatives are established, better protection against market hazards…

It took the vicissitudes of nascent industrial capitalism to burst into the open to allow an alternative model of production, the cooperative, to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century. Some 150 years later, as the harmful effects of the so-called “sharing economy” are more and more apparent, platform cooperativism offers another way of doing things, in the digital age! History is a spinning wheel!