Brendan Martin was deeply moved by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s 2004 documentary, The Take, about worker takeovers of abandoned Argentinean factories. Young and idealistic, Martin had left Wall Street with a little bit of money and a lot of ambition. He cornered Lewis in the movie theater lobby after the premiere with a plan to go to Argentina to start a loan fund.
Fast-forward twelve years: Martin’s group, The Working World, has invested millions of dollars in co-ops in Argentina, Nicaragua, and now the United States. The loan fund operates on a model that puts people before profits, and still has achieved a 98 percent repayment rate.
When I caught up with Martin earlier this year, he had just taken part in a panel about platform cooperativism, where academics, activists, and entrepreneurs discussed how worker-owned cooperatives could design their own app-based platforms (like Uber). Platform cooperativism, an idea that is still in its infancy, holds that workers should own and control the apps that sell their labor. (Ours to Hack and to Own, an upcoming book to which Martin is a contributor, will describe the concept and help advance the cause.)
Martin sees the most transformative templates for the future of work in the history of labor, uprisings, and worker-ownership.
Q: Can you talk about this idea, “Tech is a new place to have an old battle,” as you put it? I’m curious what “the battle” looks like at this moment in time.
Brendan Martin: We are told by proponents of the sharing economy, “This is sharing in a new way,” even when this sharing of your house, car, or labor is done through a central authority that is answerable only to investors. One of the things I struggle with about platform cooperativism is there’s a little bit of this now-fetishism, future-fetishism. Everyone wants to tell us that “everything is different now.” The last time we were told everything is different now was when they told us the Internet economy is different, the business cycle was over, and profits weren’t necessary. And then we had the Internet bubble burst followed by the Great Recession. I get concerned when people tell us to forget about history; that itself is part of a useful amnesia that people in power use against us.
Q: Can you give an example?
Martin: Imagine you worked in a factory where everyone makes shoes on their own, and one day you said, “Let’s share our labor and make shoes together, it’s more productive.” That could have been sold as the original sharing economy. But sharing labor in a factory none of you own is hardly some beautiful new solution, and the key question is not how you work together but who owns the process.
This was the question asked in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the answer for many laborers was cooperatives. Their perspective was that if the solo cottage-industry was not viable anymore, we don’t have to resist or destroy the machines, we need to own the machines.
The Knights of Labor, an American labor group in the 1880s, pushed a platform they called the cooperative commonwealth. Their philosophy was, if we’re going to work together in factories, then we should own these factories together. But the need to cooperatize the platforms we use is far older than the Industrial Revolution. You can go back to the Fertile Crescent in the Near East where agriculture began and see the same thing. Rather than foraging for food, people grew it through shared labor, and land was commonly owned. But at some point someone enclosed it and charged others to use it, and that’s when all the trouble began.
Q: How do we organize cooperatives in the digital age when so many workers are finding themselves as “independent contractors” or otherwise contingent on agreements with owners?
Martin: The nature of all production—certainly since the agricultural revolution, more since the Industrial Revolution, and even more so in the information revolution—is collective. It requires people to come together and say we will accept the value of money and allow it to be a unit of transfer. It requires people to come together and say we will work now for a wage tomorrow, we will store grain in a common granary—all these things require people to work together. And working together can be distilled into two forms: “cooperativism” and what I’ll call “mafiaism.”
Martin: As a child, I used to watch mafia movies, and I would always wonder why, if these people are willing to break the law and are all well armed, is there this guy on top who gets more than they do and whom they obey? How does that order hold together? This top guy gets the most, and then his closest advisors get the next most, and it goes down this pyramid of who gets how much. And I always wonder why don’t they just shoot him, which sometimes happens in those mafia movies, but essentially they maintain this pyramid.
For any individual, the question is: “Am I more benefitted by entering this system, which is uneven but I’ll be taken care of; or [can we create] a system that says we should do this together communally in a mutually beneficial way?”
The Uber system is like a mafia system. It’s the group that says, yeah, we’re paid an obscene amount of money and we’re worth billions, but you’ll do better than you were doing before and, better yet, you can make your own hours and work for yourself. And you might do OK while Uber gets tons of money from Wall Street and can actually sell its service below cost while it’s trying to grow. But that can change at any moment. That’s the nature of you, the worker, having no control. You’re stuck with the mafia.
Cooperatives, on the other hand, are not a magic pill, just the same way democracy in the United States doesn’t suddenly make everything work democratically. It’s an ongoing fight down to the details. The number of ways you can still try to manifest power is a continuing struggle. Within cooperatives, for example, there could be someone trying to make a power play.
Q: You could be talking about any organization.
Martin: Right. There’s that major struggle between human fear versus human possibility. The fear ends up driving people into the mafia situation. So how do we organize around it? We have to tell a story. The work of The Working World is to create proof of concepts. I think that if people believed that other possibilities were actually real, the world could be a radically different place.
Most people I know are dissatisfied with the way things are, but they’ve been told that other alternatives aren’t possible. The Working World’s goal is to show that they are possible, and then fight based on that. This is really what people want in the end. I believe human nature works toward this end. But human nature is dual; there is also this human nature of fear that says, “I want to be safe, I want the mafia option that exists,” so there is always this struggle.
Will Meyer is a writer and musician in western Massachusetts.