The Future Is Worker-Owned
It’s time for businesses to work for people, not the other way around
Advocates of the commons seek to optimize the economy for human beings, rather than the other way around.
One economic concept that grew out of the commons was called distributism. The idea, born in the 1800s, holds that instead of trying to redistribute the spoils of capitalism after the fact through heavy taxation, we should simply pre-distribute the means of production to the workers. In other words, workers should collectively own the tools and factories they use to create value. Today, we might call such an arrangement a co-op — and, from the current examples, cooperative businesses are giving even established U.S. corporations a run for their money.
The same sorts of structures are being employed in digital businesses. In these “platform cooperatives,” participants own the platform they’re using, instead of working for a “platform monopoly” taxi app or giving away their life data to a social media app. A taxi app is not a complicated thing; it’s just a dating app combined with a mapping app combined with a credit card app. The app doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the revenue. Besides, if the drivers are going to be replaced by robots someday, anyway, at least they should own the company for which they’ve been doing the research and development. Similarly, a user-owned social media platform would allow participants to sell (or not sell) their own data, instead of having it extracted for free.
Another commons-derived idea, “subsidiarity,” holds that a business should never grow for growth’s sake. It should only grow as big as it needs to in order to accomplish its purpose. Then, instead of expanding to the next town or another industry, it should just let someone else replicate the model. Joe’s pizzeria should sell to Joe’s customers. If they need a pizzeria in the next town, Joe can share his recipe and let Samantha do it. This is not bad business — especially if Joe likes making pizza.
He gets to stay in the kitchen doing what he loves instead of becoming the administrator of a pizza chain. Samantha may develop a new technique that helps Joe; they can even federate and share resources. Besides, it’s fun to have someone else to talk with about the pizza business. They can begin to develop their collaborative abilities instead of their competitive ones.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Things in nature grow to a certain point and then stop. They become full-grown adults, forests, or coral reefs. This doesn’t mean they’re dead. If anything, it’s the stability of adulthood that lets them become participating members of larger, mutually supportive networks.
If Joe has to grow his business bigger just in order to keep up with his rising rent and expenses, it’s only because the underlying economy has been rigged to demand growth and promote scarcity. It is this artificially competitive landscape that convinces us we have no common interests.