Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy
304 pages, Nation Books, 2018
Nathan Schneider’s Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition That Is Shaping the Next Economy is a whirlwind tour of the cooperative movement flourishing in our digitally connected global society. A professor of media studies as well as a journalist, Schneider, and his collaborator, the scholar-activist Trebor Scholz, are responsible for some of the more inventive digital efforts unfolding under the name of “platform cooperativism,” which they define as an effort to develop “shared governance and shared ownership of the Internet’s levers of power.”
Schneider’s expertise, passion, and sense for new possibilities shine through the stories that unite his book. These narratives are drawn from his own extensive travels; from the caves of Matera, Italy, where he talks about rediscovering the rules of monastic life as a template for networked cooperation with young activists who are experimenting there with self-imposed exile in the 21st century digital monasteries, to the streets of Jackson, Mississippi, where he discusses how to remake the economy of the Deep South based on cooperative enterprise with veteran organizers for Black liberation. Schneider writes with a journalistic objectivity that conveys a sense of deep personal commitment by honoring the work of generations that laid the foundations for the contemporary cooperative movement.
Such commitment is necessary, especially in perilous times. One of the many historical gems in Everything is an eye-popping quote from 1930s socialist Norman Thomas: “The only effective answer to the totalitarian state of fascism is the cooperative commonwealth.” It’s perhaps no surprise that the latter—the vision of a new society based in cooperative enterprise—has become relevant once again when the former is distressingly reemergent. In moments of crisis, alternative visions and ideas can serve as novel solutions. In the 1930s, the United States managed to chart a narrow third course—a “new deal” that struck a fragile balance of corporate and union power—between industrial capitalism and the welfare state. But even as the New Deal focused on regulation and redistribution, the socialist dream of the cooperative commonwealth, transforming not just outcomes but the underlying ownership of the economy, was realized in local and federal government programs, especially in rural areas, where government loans to nascent cooperatives, for example, brought electricity to large swaths of the country.
Much like the age of electrification—as Schneider is right to insist—our digital age poses unresolved questions about access and power: Who can connect, and to whom, and under what terms? And just as with the advent of electric power, this digital revolution continues to inspire dreams of a transformed future. Fueled by speculative capital, these dreams have unfolded as promises of ease and convenience, a thousand-and-one services remaking the world as a cacophony of “disruption.”
With digital power reconcentrating and networks recentralizing under corporate control, Schneider and Scholz imagined the platform cooperative as a way to address the “nagging questions of ownership and governance” left out of the vague promises of digital disruption. The platform cooperative enabled them to advocate for a commitment to realizing concrete forms of democratic ownership: An Uber owned by its drivers. A Twitter owned by its users. An Amazon owned by everyone.
Schneider, as a participant and an observer, is well-positioned to both tell the story of this movement and its milieu and document the attempts to salvage the dream of networked cooperation and digital democracy from Silicon Valley’s nightmarish trajectory. His account highlights the spiritual impulse behind these efforts to create digital alternatives in order to find new ways of working and living with each other in cooperative economic models based in a desire for community. Equally important, Schneider
explains the tensions that emerge as the spiritual visions for a new culture come into conflict with the realities of actual business development and real-world collective decision making that are contentious, slow, and messy. Like Schneider, for whom “economy is a form of culture,” I believe that questions of culture and the institutional forms that produce and sustain it are essential for any serious political vision.
However, it is because of these shared concerns that I ultimately feel Schneider’s important book fundamentally misses the mark: He gestures toward the absolutely critical questions about the relationship between economic and cultural life, but too often refuses to answer them. Instead, he skates around the contradictions that his work reveals and quickly moves on to the next anecdote. For example, cooperatives do not by themselves construct either a renewed culture or an alternative political or economic system. Faced with a multiplicity of cooperative economic institutions that happily coexist with each other and our existing economic system, and that lack a shared commitment to socioeconomic transformation, Schneider himself comments that “portions of the commonwealth have trouble noticing each other.” But is this lack of recognition simply an accident of history? Or are there good reasons to think that Ocean Spray, the Associated Press, and the international credit card interchange system—while technically cooperatives—may simply not be playing on the same side as the idealistic young platform cooperators trying to remake the world that Schneider spotlights?
In Everything, Schneider occasionally recognizes the problem—that cooperative ownership, absent of a politics and culture committed to a transformative vision, doesn’t by itself deliver the desired change. For instance, the Italian cooperative movement has experienced rapid scaling that has resulted in businesses looking increasingly like their capitalist competitors, and which, Schneider observes, leave a younger generation unsatisfied and in search for more radical alternatives. Or, consider the electrical cooperatives of the Deep South, which arguably have stymied economic and racial justice, even though they offer the potential for justice—this is a potential which the incredible organizers of One Voice and their Electric Cooperative Leadership Institute have seized upon by mobilizing poor black residents in Mississippi to take back their cooperatives from their sedimented white leadership. Here, what matters is the movement to build local power, rather than the cooperative form itself.
In elevating cooperatives, Schneider leads the reader to mistake the model for the system. This mistake has political consequences, because our focus needs to be on changing the system, not just replicating models. By elevating cooperatives into one of the “candidate regimes” for building a new social model, Everything blurs the line between economic instrument and systemic vision. Schneider’s account invites us to imagine a movement fragmented in its history and full of moments of hidden potential and rediscovery, despite co-ops’ inefficiency alone to exact systemic change: “co-ops are not an end in themselves. They’re not a destination. But they’re the passageway to a peer-to-peer commons.” But clarifying how this “passageway” could operate is the question of political economy that can’t be answered by hand-waving. Is the “cooperative commonwealth” a subterranean network of affinity rooted in the shared use of an institutional form? Or is it a democratic-socialist program in which cooperatives are one part of the means to the endgame of justice?
Consider Schneider’s account of Barcelona, centered around the captivating figure of Enrique Duran, the anarchist bank robber made famous by his brazen acts of expropriation-through-debt in the lead up to the financial crisis and his later metamorphosis into tech entrepreneur, as the founder of the blockchain-powered, grassroots-centered Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC). Yet the cooperative lens that Schneider focuses on Catalonia’s grassroots movement for a new economy occludes Ada Colau, the activist-turned-mayor of Barcelona, and the remarkable place-based, anti-eviction organizing effort that took back the city government during the financial crisis. Under Colau’s leadership, Barcelona has pursued a “fearless city” agenda, launching a publicly owned energy company and moving toward deprivatization in other sectors, including water, housing, and banking. Barcelona is in the process of establishing a democratized economy, with a politics that’s more than just a collective act of refusal and exodus. An account of the complete context that makes both Duran’s bottom-up network organizing and the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú’s top-down—but with the people in charge—leadership possible, and the respective challenges each are facing, would have provided a more holistic account of the politics and culture of Barcelona. Instead, Schneider’s tourist perspective produces a narrative that is laser-focused on cooperatives but invites little room for anything that doesn’t fit this framework. The result is an eclectic, decontextualized collection of anecdotes of experimentation at the margins.
While evocative and inspiring, Everything tells us little we need to know if we truly want to change the system. Cooperatives are undoubtedly important as models for a democratic economy, but changing the system is a different proposition from that of proposing more cooperatives, and the “next big idea” thrust of Schneider’s book risks overselling the power of the latter. Take worker cooperatives, for instance: While intuitively appealing, the truth is that no country has ever been able to create a worker-cooperative sector that includes more than a very tiny percentage of the workforce. We are likely to find ourselves in a blind alley if we center our vision of the future on worker cooperatives alone. In response, I’ve called for a “pluralist commonwealth” in order to make explicit the elements at different scales that were already present in the populist call for a cooperative commonwealth—notably the transformation of monetary policy and the public ownership of large industries (“public” as in national or sub-national forms like the regional scale Tennessee Valley Authority). A pluralist approach to a systemic economic vision gives us the ability to treat, with rigor, the question of institutional design at different levels, rather than assuming that one economic model holds the solution to all our problems. Answering the hard questions, about not just power, scale, and strategy, but also about how systems—and not just projects—relate to the underlying mobilizing and organizing force of culture and politics, is essential to the political project of advancing a serious shared vision of a transformed economy.
Despite Schneider’s showcasing of diverse cooperative projects, his account ultimately fails to reckon with the strategies for change appropriate for the world we have (rather than for the world we want). Is the platform cooperative and its promise of a business model for the 21st century the seed of an answer to our systemic issues? Or is it a small marginal phenomenon tolerated in the cracks of the current system but incapable of changing its underlying logic? The most frustrating moments of Everything are these—the ones where Schneider meets the hardest questions and falls back on rhetorical equivocation to avoid answering them.