Test Runs for the Next Social Contract

Review of Nathan Schneider, Everything for Everyone (Nation Books, 2018)

Are Millet’s gleaners a foreshadowing of today’s precariat workforce?

If I were in charge of the world — or at least in charge of Nation Books — I would probably keep the slightly mysterious title of Nathan Schneider’s remarkable new book, Everything for Everyone. (It’s a reference to the immemorial Catholic teaching on the universal destination of goods, as he explains in the text.)

On the other hand, I might choose to replace the cover image (a graphic of a network of assorted icons) with a reproduction of a famous painting — Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) — simply because of the way the author spends several striking paragraphs on this familiar scene of rural life as an image of our social condition today:

“Each [of the three peasant women in the foreground] is gathering the stray wheat left by the landowner’s appointed army of harvesters, who are working under the eyes of a foreman on a horse in the background…It’s not evident whether they’ll find enough of the leftover grain to make a decent loaf of bread.”

Before we were farmers, the author comments, we were gatherers. “Gathering became gleaning when agriculture gave rise to landowning, leaving out the non-owners. Gleaning was the original welfare…

“It remains the motive force in the underground economies that support billions of people on this planet, those who survive on cash and knock-offs rather than stock markets and brand names. The platform business models taking over the internet are making more of us gleaners again.”

Schneider recounts an episode from the life of a freelance worker in the much-vaunted gig economy, a growing sector comprised of the permanently part-time precariat (the unstable condition of those who glean), exiled from the rights and benefits of traditional employment, and doing piecework on platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The freelancer who helps support her family through a mix of soul-killing jobs, ranging from moderating offensive images to taking academic surveys, told the author, “You go to the grocery store and see a candy bar and you think, Is that worth two surveys?

Schneider comments: “These are the sounds of a social contract shifting. New rules are taking hold, even if it is happening in ways and places that many of us don’t see.” He also quotes the recent McKinsey study indicating that fully one-half of all jobs today are vulnerable to existing technologies — not just to some distant AI development.

What If Culture Includes Economics?

One great irony revealed in this excellent new survey of the tectonic shift underway beneath us is that it’s not only the changes in traditional work which often go unnoticed. The hopeful roots of new ways of organizing our existing economy are also overlooked, even if they are still visible, assuming we have the eyes to see.

Example: the 40,000 cooperatively-run enterprises in this country, from credit unions and rural electrification programs to ag, consumer and buying co-ops. We have, Schneider points out, the makings of a co-operative commonwealth. He goes on to supply a somewhat startling quote from Socialist candidate Norman Thomas in 1934 about the latter type of system being “the only effective answer to totalitarian fascism.” He also recalls W.E.B. DuBois’ celebration of African-American co-ops in the early 20th century, a forgotten history now being recovered, happily.

Co-ops, in this excellent historical and cultural overview, represent something much more than a particular form of enterprise. They are businesses which are truly accountable to those they claim to serve — not just the shareholders but the stakeholders, the wider community and the planet. Co-ops can be seen as test runs for social contracts, accountable for participation, not just wealth.

How many people today realize that some 75% of U.S. territory is still powered by the electrical grid FDR established under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, still operating, still a co-op, and an aggressive adopter of solar farms?

The seven original principles of the International Cooperative Association — voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education/training/info, cooperation among coops, concern for community — are still widely observed today. Together, they can and do create a zone of freedom where economics, human nature and neighborliness once again converge.

Nonetheless, Schneider’s international travels lead him to a sober conclusion: his meetings with participants in this somewhat hidden economy reveal that co-ops, like so many other community-facing institutions, are forgetting their democratic origins.

In the conventional economy, he skillfully describes Silicon Valley’s venture capital financing ecosystem with its focus on finding “unicorns” — startup companies which can swallow whole industries through disruptions leaving sometimes thousands of the disrupted in their wake.

Because the author gets what so many observers (especially self-styled conservatives) do not — i.e., that culture includes economics (or the reverse, if you prefer) — he offers well-written reportage about several fascinating social projects which seem to point toward a new economy emerging.

These reports include a description of the author’s time “in hiding” with Enric Duan, the Spanish activist who financed several years’ of activism through bogus bank loans before helping organize the Catalan Integral Cooperative in Barcelona. He also spends time with Kali Akuno of the Jackson-Kush Plan (“a kind of Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast”) and with Michel Bauwens, luminary founder of the P2P Foundation, whose FLOK Society project in Ecuador 2014 represented the first nation-level engagement with ideas of the sharing economy and the need to protect the global commons.

Also covered are topics such as the Rojava regime in Turkey, the Cooperative University of Kenya, and the technologies of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Blockchain (all here finally made comprehensible — I think — in plain English).

Systems versus Models

Finally, it’s notable that Schneider’s new book received a slightly impatient review from the Democracy Collaborative’s co-founder Gar Alperovitz in which the latter both praises and criticizes it. Alperovitz seems to be annoyed mostly that Schneider did not write a different book, one which moved beyond simply espousing “models” (such as co-op enterprises represent) toward full-blown “systems” (perhaps something like those published on the Next System website, to which Alperovitz contributes).

In defense of Schneider, I think he succeeds wonderfully in capturing cooperativism as much more than a model, indeed as an entire cultural ethos, one closely related to the well-being of any society. Moreover, I’ll venture to suggest that writers of Schneider’s generation, while aware that monetary policy and questions of public ownership may be very important, tend to think in less institutional terms.

That is, nation-scale solutions simply hold less promise for them than possible regeneration at the civic/regional level, precisely as the activists of Rojava, Barcelona en Comu, Jackson Rising and the P2P Foundation are arguing.

If you’re looking for signs of hope amidst the neoliberal wreckage, this brilliant account of post-capitalist cooperative economics is the place to start.