Gig Economy Project – Lola Brittain: Own This! How Platform Co-operatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet – review

Can platform co-operatives offer an alternative to platform capitalism?

Lola Brittain currently works on the Fairwork Project at the Oxford Internet Institute, where she researches working conditions both on digital labour platforms, and within the global production networks of AI. She has previously worked for a platform cooperative in London and holds an MSc in Politics and Communications from the LSE.

Cross-posted from the LSE Blog

In the past few years, the new forms of work ushered in by the hyper-extractive business model of “platform capitalism”, have come under increased scrutiny. This has generated interest in paths of contestation and potential alternatives. One such alternative is platform co-operativism. Fusing the co-operative ownership structure, most commonly associated with the Rochdale pioneers of 1840s England, with the technology of digital platforms, platform co-ops promise to deliver a fairer and more sustainable form of digital work.

The fusion was first proposed in concrete terms by Trebor Scholz in 2014. Since then, Scholz has done much to conceptualise and popularise the practice as the head of the Platform Cooperative Consortium; a digital space dedicated to supporting the establishment, growth, and conversion of platform co-ops.

Own This! How Platform Co-operatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet is his latest contribution. The book offers a panoramic overview of platform co-operativism and a vision for what its future might entail, drawing on case studies from Cape Town to Manhattan. It claims that platform co-ops are not a “figment of utopian imagination” but a reality that are already transforming the digital economy and that, with the right help, support and ecosystem, they can achieve a significant impact at a global scale.

The book begins with an analysis of the issues faced by platform workers that will now be familiar to many: meagre wages, extreme risk, excessive surveillance, and management via algorithm. For Scholz, this is a consequence of the lack of workplace democracy that is attributable to the concentration of ownership within the hands of a few. This is not a new issue, of course, but it has been taken to the extreme by major technology corporations in the past two decades.

The solution to abject exploitation, according to Scholz, is for workers to collectively leverage platform technologies to forge democratically owned and governed businesses. Through analyses of many thriving real-world examples, such as Up&Go (an umbrella domestic work co-operative) and the Drivers Co-operative (a ride-hailing co-operative), he demonstrates that worker-ownership offers more equitable value distribution, higher pay, increased algorithmic transparency and security, a greater sense of dignity and improved wellbeing.

The potential of platform co-operativism to deliver improved outcomes for workers is contrasted to alternative attempts to elicit change, specifically by “compelling” major technology corporations to do better. He argues that several of the largest players have actively sought to prevent pro-worker legislation and that they are unwilling to democratise the workplace or improve conditions.

This is of course true in some cases. But there are examples where platform companies have been forced and/or persuaded to alter their practices, through direct worker action, community pressure and action-research. Scholz discusses prospects for worker action in chapter five. Here, he argues that even “successful strikes” do not necessarily generate workplace power and control and that, in turn, unions should embrace co-operativism as an alternative mode of platform worker organisation.

This is a pertinent suggestion, especially considering the recent ruling by the UK Supreme Court that Deliveroo workers cannot be recognised as employees or represented by trade unions in collective bargaining. But, of course, starting a co-operative is not possible for all, and Scholz acknowledges that platform co-operatives should not be expected to out-compete the major platform companies. To that extent, change – as he has noted elsewhere – will require a combination of strategies.

The book is not solely focused on platform worker co-operatives, though. Conceptualising platform co-operativism as the Swiss army knife of organisational models, Scholz touches on an array of different forms, from producer co-ops to multi-stakeholder co-ops and data co-ops. This is all to say, that platform co-operatives are far from a “homogenous force”; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and produce a variety of benefits, not simply for workers but for communities and consumers too.

Chapter three, in which Scholz tackles the perceived challenges of size (or, indeed scalability), is particularly interesting. Here, he confronts both a critique of platform co-operativism and an ongoing debate within the movement. The critique is that platform co-operatives are unlikely to scale. The debate is whether they should even attempt to; is scale simply growth in new clothes? He claims not, arguing that co-operative scaling is about securing “the best possible overall outcome/return”. This can be achieved by scaling “up” via the expansion of the size of the operation; but also “out” through the replication of a model in different geographic location; and “deep” by nurturing the existing organisation to create added value for stakeholders. This nuanced three-dimensional framework is an appreciated intervention in debate that often tends to focus, narrowly, on size alone.

More generally, it speaks to his broader strategy for the growth of the platform co-operative movement, which can be summarised, simply, as pragmatism. He is clear, at several points within the book, that his intention is to expand the movement and attract as many “allies” as possible. This means creating ample space for different approaches and experiments. It also means rejecting ideological fixity. In chapter seven – a letter set in the year 2035, written in the tradition of social speculative fiction – he rejects James Muldoon’s association of platform co-operativism with socialism, arguing that the movement must remain a “big tent” under which many political philosophies can exist.

Thus, while he is pragmatic in his approach, his vision is incredibly ambitious in scope. He imagines a near-future, twelve years from now, in which an international network of co-operatives, containing socialists, anarchists, disgruntled VC (Venture Capitalist) bros and everything in-between, is thriving. In Scholz’s vision, this network is being actively promoted and supported by 80 governments around the world, as a pivotal pillar of the response to climate change and poverty elimination. In this respect, not only does Own This! advocate for a collective appropriation of platforms themselves; it also seeks to wrestle ownership of the imaginaries surrounding the development of the platform economy out of the hands of major corporations.

Is the network that Scholz envisions possible? There are certainly many green shoots. But, as an “unfinished story of co-operative principles in the digital economy,” the book shows that there are many questions that the movement is yet to confront. This includes the ways in which regulation could be designed to support platforms co-operatives, and how democratic governance can be managed and maintained if platform co-operatives do scale.

Overall, though, the book is a critical documentation of an evolving and genuinely impactful movement. Weaving multiple real-world examples through analyses of key topics – not simply scale and union relations, but also value and prospects for data democratisation – it succeeds in vividly bringing the concept to life, whilst identifying paths for future research. As such, it will no doubt serve as a call to action for those interested in constructing an alternative digital future.

Own This! How Platform Co-operatives Help Workers Build a Democratic Internet. Trebor Scholz. Verso. 2023.

The Gig Economy Project is a BRAVE NEW EUROPE media network for gig workers in Europe. Click here to find out more and click here to get the weekly newsletter.

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