Cooperative Economics

I think about economics a lot lately thanks to the Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York. This is my second blog post about the cooperative topics discussed that ultimately address for me the all-important topic of wealth distribution. Prosperity can spread by borrowing the best qualities of today’s businesses and then structuring them democratically. Some innovative cooperative platforms already exist; capitalism can be modified as we can potentially teach corporations new and valuable forms of transaction; and government can help, too.

We can borrow and rebuild from existing business models. But we can change who owns the capital. Many successful businesses exist such as Uber that we can “clone,” but then distribute ownership and “place co-ops, consumers, unions, producers, and cities at the center of this economy,” according to Trebor Scholz a conference organizer. Oligarchs that would normally extract profits can be removed from the equation in the cooperative platforms and businesses that we build.

Co-operatives businesses are part of the solution. Some highlighted at the conference were: Robin Hood, an investment co-op, Fairmondo, an online retailer, and Loconomics, a cooperatively run online marketplace. Felix Weth, founder of Fairmondo says: “Three years ago we created a co-op out of this, which wasn’t my original plan, but I learned that this is the best model to create a business that humankind has created so far.”

Trebor Scholz’ cloning approach changes ownership of capital. But society of the future can’t consist of only new kinds of organizations. Traditional corporations are going to remain. It’s Capitalism itself that needs to evolve for the well-being of the planet and its people. But a Marxian all-or-nothing revolution does not appear to be what is taking place.

Evolution is better than revolution, Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, stated in her presentation. There could be a chance to teach the value of sharing; and teaching corporations. This is an important approach that author Douglas Rushkoff mentioned. We can teach a corporation that more peer-to-peer exchanges can benefit its business. Rushkoff suggested developing “hybrid experiments” such as a bank lending half of a requested loan and requiring the borrower to raise the other half through crowd-sourcing. The result is a return on investment for local crowd-investors and the bank. In addition to interest on the loan, the bank gains trust and customers as a facilitator of local transactions and community building. This kind of involvement of the group in the sales cycle benefits a wide-range of stakeholders. I’ve often thought that corporations should take better care of their customers, in a holistic sense, for long-term benefits.

And government can have a role to play in preserving the marketplace. Concerning many areas of what presenter and author Astra Taylor calls “cultural ecology,” protections can be put in place with a public media policy. She points out in her book The People’s Platform that government investment is needed for the common good. “Public media policy will need to address infrastructure and information, conduit and content, thus spanning a broad array of issues including Net neutrality, antitrust, user privacy, copyright reform, software production, the development of new platforms for engagement and discovery, and subsidy and promotion of cultural products.”

Small decisions are leading to evolution. Lawyer and presenter Janelle Orsi addressed the supposed reluctance to change to better tools that may not seem user friendly. But she says there is tolerance for inconvenience: “people go through a lot of inconvenience to change the economic structures of their society,” she said. Learning to use free software, for example as Richard Stallman suggests, is one such move toward personal liberty, value, quality, and a more sharing platform that may appear inconvenient at first.

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