Archive for Dual Power

Could Uber be Collectivised?

A provocative piece in The Nation suggests turning the so-called “ride-sharing” company known as Uber into a worker-owned enterprise. In “Socialize Uber: it’s easier than you think, Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert argue that since Uber owns only the proprietary technology that coordinates the glorified taxi rides and processes payments, and drivers own their own cars, Uber is an excellent candidate for conversion to a worker cooperative.

Collectivisation of Uber is a tempting notion, but the authors’ conclusion that it’s the “obvious transition” for Uber is hard to fathom. First, they curiously fail to note that it would be virtually impossible (in a legal and technical sense) for the drivers to acquire Uber. The company is privately owned, with equity held between the founders, many employees, and a huge array of venture capitalists, individual investors, and other firms. These shareholders have complete legal prerogative to hold their equity until the company goes public or sells off (and beyond). The only way the workers could buy Uber is if they pooled their money and acquired the company, which would cost way more than its current $40 billion valuation. Indeed, due to the special circumstances of needing to acquire every last share and option from current holders, this would constitute, by a factor, the most expensive acquisition in the history of venture capitalism.

But let’s just play make-believe and look at Uber as if the workers could assume the reins overnight. I believe in worker cooperatives, not just as an organizational model for firms, but as a transformational force for our economy. That said, Uber is not merely a bunch of hard-working drivers coordinated by technocratic drones. If Uber establishes itself as a dominant, static force in the taxi economy, it might eventually become nine parts technocracy for every one part human ingenuity. But for now, it’s a new kind of craft in very uncertain conditions; autopilot is not an option.

The authors note, “It takes an entrepreneur to start up ride-sharing, but not to run it as a firm.” In truth, it takes a handful of entrepreneurs as well as venture capital to bring a startup of this kind to scale, and it takes a team with exceptional business sense to see it through the growth stage. Even as a staunch advocate of collectivism, I am willing to concede that successfully introducing a disruptive product into a market of this kind is beyond the reach of collectives or self-funded worker-run enterprises. At the very least, they would have to seek investment capital and empower managers with extraordinary vision to navigate this crucial phase. These are two very problematic necessities.

We all know what happens when workers empower managers to use their exceptional talent—those managers demand exceptional compensation. I’m not saying capable people don’t exist who would do this for humble wages, but they’d be exceedingly hard to find. Anyone with a proven track record has far more lucrative options. So whom would workers hire or promote to steer the company? This is where CEOs and other executives command what appear to be rentier compensation packages. It isn’t the actual scarcity of talent, but the scarcity of pedigree, that they’re leveraging. Even the ones with relatively poor records exercise the terrific advantage of having a resumé that shows they know anything at all about running a big company. While it’s surely far easier than they would have us believe, it’s not perfectly intuitive; not just anybody can pick it up overnight. Leadership isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it highlights a major problem and a significant gamble.

And then there’s the capital. Even if they don’t need $100B in up-front cash, Uber would need regular influxes of investment capital in order to grow while competing with other venture-backed companies in the ride-hailing app market (not to mention the main competition: taxis). We’re talking no less than tens of millions of dollars on a semi-regular basis. It’s difficult for worker cooperatives in conventional industries to get loans or other traditional forms of cash infusions; this is basically impossible for venture startups in unproven markets.

You might say, why not reinvest profits as capital for growth? Besides the fact that worker-owners would have to consistently forego dividends to grow the firm (a conventional co-op dilemma) the biggest reason is really that it puts tremendous pressure on creating big margins in the first place. Competitors will meanwhile enjoy the relative breathing room of not having to scrape every ounce of profit out of their model while growing strategically. Some of these companies pay no attention to profits at all as they spend investor money improving their position in the market.

This is why venture capital exists—to take seemingly insane risks seeking commensurate returns on the rare wins. For startups, they provide the ability to grow without cannibalizing revenues. I cannot imagine a VC firm wanting to invest in a labor-managed startup, and it wouldn’t be a cooperative if such a firm did decide to invest.

But why wouldn’t an investor want to back a democratically managed startup? We know a lot of these new Silicon Valley firms are relatively flat. Here we get to Konczal and Covert’s claim that at its core, Uber is just a technocracy:

And these workers [drivers] labor individually, doing the same tasks, so there’s no need for a management class to control their daily operations. The capital owners maintain the phone app, but app technology isn’t the major cost, and it’s getting cheaper and easier by the day.

Developing successful technology isn’t just writing code, and most of the supposedly “flat” tech startups are neither nonhierarchical nor equalized in pay scales. Even if the code and the coders came with the acquisition (which they would), consider that all these years a relative handful of people at Uber have been figuring out what to make all that code do. There’s institutional knowledge and specialized skills behind that, some of which might be maintained beyond collectivisation, though that’s doubtful (why would a CTO or senior engineer or product manager stick around—why even would a junior developer who can start anywhere at $75,000 plus equity?). Could the right workers collectively do this under the right circumstances? I believe so. But not coders who weren’t hired for these propensities, and definitely not overnight.

Okay, so forget Uber (seriously, Uber is awful). What if all the Uber drivers wanted to set up their own competing co-operative? Maybe even do something innovative and offer regular customers shares in the company! Unfortunately, the above problems would persist.

There’s that pesky problem of the technology and infrastructure. The overhead costs for such a venture are not trivial, but replicating the model is conceivable. Uber’s trade secrets would be pretty hard to obtain, protected as they are by nondisclosure agreements that could keep even sympathetic insiders from aiding the dissident worker-owned venture. Still, I think most of the model is in plain view. So they’d have to get the right developers working for the right reasons. It’s theoretically possible, but I’d rank it as highly difficult.

It remains harder still to figure out where the capital would come from, and how the organization would work such that drivers, technologists, and business development workers would be on the same page at equitable wages and equal stakes of ownership and control. The irony, of course, is that this company would be competing with Uber and all its infrastructure and those piles of venture capital. My conclusion is precisely the opposite of Konczal and Covert’s: Uber is among the worst candidates for the cooperative model on a large scale.

Now, all this being said, if someone were to create open-source software for the ride-hailing industry, I bet small collectives of highly motivated driver-owners could perhaps eek out nice livings in the right markets. I would love to see that, and in fact I’d lend my expertise to such a project. But this sadly isn’t the place we’re going to kick capitalism’s ass.


Left Catastrophism and Its Detractors

The Coming Economic Collapse That Never Was

The perfect subject for my return to this blog has presented itself in the form of an interview with Sasha Lilley, following up on the 2012 book Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which Lilley contributed to.

It has been a long time since I’ve nodded my head throughout an article while fundamentally disagreeing with a key part of its basic thesis. But that was my response to “Hoping for the Worst“, an interview with Lilley by Samuel Grove about just why so many people who want to make a better world seem to yearn for economic catastrophe and collapse, as if it will necessarily hasten the change they seek. With wisdom and clarity, Lilley thrashes what is indeed a commonplace view, which she calls Left catastrophism, used by many progressives and radicals as an excuse to wait for change to arrive, rather than making it themselves.

I found myself agreeing strongly with Lilley while also, uncomfortably, recognizing some of my own beliefs among those she is roundly criticizing. But Lilley’s representation of the archetypal collapse-anticipating radical doesn’t fit me or many others I know. I absolutely, unequivocally do not hope that global catastrophe arrives in order to usher in a new post-capitalist era.

In the first place, like Lilley, I don’t think such a meta-crisis would necessarily yield an egalitarian future. In fact, we suspect quite the opposite would emerge. In times of crisis, Lilley notes, humans do tend to turn toward regressive rather than progressive solutions:

Fear … tends to tilt right, not left. When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

Ever skeptical of utopic pretenses, I simply do not believe that from the chaos of mass social upheaval will naturally emerge a peaceful, orderly anarchy. Such a thing must be strategized and painstakingly organized through struggle, and then failed at many times before success is at hand.

Even short of reactionary responses to crises, great upheavals are more likely to necessitate centrally coordinated solutions. In the wake of a real collapse scenario — the likes of which pretty much nobody involved in this debate can remotely fathom — the more reasonable among lifelong anarchists may just earnestly support authoritarian solutions. You might think you’ll simply twinkle and consense your way to socialism if the government and its systems suddenly vanished, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Lilley describes the probable result of “disaster fatigue” and the patronizing nature of the notion that more bad outcomes from capitalism will raise consciousness. She notes:

[People] don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them.

Unfortunately, Lilley seems to hold out hope in the potential for revolutionary change without war or any other calamity, if only for the sake of having hope. She is cynical about cynicism:

Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others. … Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing sometimes and winning others can be shunted to the side.

Lilley even sympathizes with some catastrophists — those who are desperate for a better world but fear that jolt will be required:

Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable.

I think perhaps this is what discerns a reasonable belief that socioeconomic collapse is highly probable, from catastrophism — the hope that it will happen soon, ushering an era of great positive changes.

Lilley seems to hold as near certainty that capitalism will adapt to oncoming crises, rather than undo itself through internal contradictions or ever allow itself to be undone by outside forces such as climate change or resource depletion.

Denial is the first stage of... No it isn't!

But I see a bit of paradox in Lilley’s assertions:

  1. Capital will not permit itself to wither or collapse from external causes…
  2. …yet, workers could organize to defeat capital…
  3. …and if capitalism were to crumble due to outside factors, the same workers (who are powerful enough to overthrow it now) would then be unable to establish a superior alternative order.

I’m definitely convinced of Point 3, excepting the parenthetical flourish added to emphasize the contradiction, but the other two are not so obvious to me.

This is subjective stuff, to be sure, but my twenty years of closely observing the US Left in action have left me with essentially no confidence that it can or will evolve into a force that could organize a revolution against capitalism.

While I’m perhaps less impressed by the Left and its potential, I also see more weaknesses in late capitalism than Lilley seems to discern. I’m surrounded by optimists who believe capitalism will innovate its way out of climate change and find ways around the very real matter of finite resources. I am far less convinced that the End Game is not close at hand.

Despite my skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism, I believe in working toward practical solutions. I advocate dual power strategy — radical organizing that also happens to be relatively collapse-resistant. It’s an actual plan for dealing with economic catastrophe or smaller-scale chronic crises without necessitating, investing in, or hoping for such events.

I also agree with Lilley that there will be no radical social change without struggle. Collapse, catastrophe, or blue skies, any transformation will be made by people, through organization.

But I find hope for hope’s sake overrated. I spent years mimicking Noam Chomsky’s adaptation of Pascal’s Wager: we don’t know we can bring about real, lasting social change, but we know if we do not try, we are certain to fail.

Okay, well, what does the evidence suggest? After years of believing — insisting even — that a pro-active revolution leading to a dramatically altered world was possible and attainable, I have reached the sad realization that the people of this current world are not going to make that happen, possible or not. Despite my intense desire to conclude otherwise, I see no real evidence that authentic revolution is in the cards.

Lilley’s final statement in the interview is, to me, most revealing of the weakness of all sides of this argument, including my own:

Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Note the last clause, tagged on to convey truism, but to me it highlights an inadequacy. Don’t stress our collective weakness … because it’s inaccurate; we’re not weak. I rather think the only reason for radicals not to stress the demonstrably profound weakness of the presently mobilized populace is to pretend it is not in fact weak, perhaps fooling people into believing they can accomplish more. Hell, I wouldn’t scorn a rallying strategy that involved a “little white lie”, provided it actually worked.

Current Left strategies (and maybe the whole concept of a “Left”) are failing miserably, while capitalism is very likely entering a new phase of vulnerabilities and limitations.

I don’t think Lilley is suggesting we double down on the status quo Left approaches to change. And that’s good. But continuing to build on strategies that do not include contingencies for collapse is as ill-advised as living without health insurance or not backing up your computer files. (Collapse is not as certain as climate change, so I won’t compare ignoring it to purchasing beach front property.)

But I’m afraid collapse is far more likely than an authentic social revolution emerging while capitalism is, as Emperor Palpatine described his second Death Star, “quite operational”. Since capitalism doesn’t have an exhaust vent leading to a critical vulnerability we can torpedo, we may have to resort to sabotaging its defenses, building strong alternatives, and vigilantly preparing for better opportunities. Besides, the sweetest irony of all would be if, in the end, zombie capitalism lost out not to a lofty idea, but to a superior, competing system already in practice. (No, I’m not actually arguing that irony is a justification for delay. Sheesh!)

I think Sasha Lilley and I broadly agree on so much here, differing mainly in our hopes that the Left can pull off a revolution. We probably also both believe she’s a better writer than I am, so I urge you to read her previous short treatment on this subject, “Apocalypse Now?


Liberating Possibilities

occupy atlanta assembly

I was quite heartened to read Yotam Marom’s recent ZNet contribution, “Liberating the Impossible”. It’s a succinct and probably superior expression of a commentary I had been working on to share my wishes for the real potential of the so-called “occupy” movement that has swept the country and offered even the most pessimistic and cynical among decent people at least a glimmer of hope.

Any cursory glance at the occupy manifestations nationwide can see that they offer a promising model for subjective social change. That is, they are transforming the participants in very concrete ways, raising consciousness and empowering people with real skills for participating in social change. Of course, they’re not really making much objective change yet. The occupy actions are already influencing society’s understanding of itself, while perhaps inspiring some hope. But OWS and its offshoots haven’t really made reforms, let alone the kind of structural social changes that will be necessary to address the roots of the laundry list of legitimate complaints offered by the diverse array of occupy participants.

Yotam’s portrayal of what needs to happen for the occupation movement to become a real force for actual, objective change in society is astute. In his words, what is called for is a new “dual power” movement that is

able to prefigure the values of a participatory, egalitarian and solidaristic society in new and liberated institutions, while simultaneously toppling the old, oppressive structures that exploit and constrain. We must build the new and fight the old at the same time. We must do it all while telling the story of the world we are creating, to defeat the story told by the masters of the status quo.

I have been saying stuff like this for a long time (since 1996 really), but I never said it this well. In these few sentences, Yotam has captured the crux of what I call “grassroots dual power strategy”, with a terrific emphasis on the need for inspirational vision.

Right now, thousands of North Americans are living in ad-hoc communities that could be the seeds of a new society. But of course, the occupation sites themselves cannot form the literal foundation of a new society. That basis for change absolutely must be intertwoven with the fabric of the society we have today until it can create an alternative foundation and the worst auspices of anti-social (i.e. oppressive) institutions can be toppled and replaced whole cloth. If we want to pull the proverbial rug out from under institutions like capitalism and government, we need to have at least a convincing patchwork of an alternative carpet mostly in place.

Zuccoti Park and its hundreds of local spinoffs can hardly better serve as the headquarters of a mass movement for social change than could some remote commune or compound. This is because the movement needs more than the popular appeal achieved by the occupy encampments; it must make real connections to the everyday lives of people throughout society. It must not just be relevant to our hearts; it has to become relevant to many more people’s economic, cultural, political, and even personal lives by seeping into the spaces where the rest of the so-called 99 percent spend most of our time.

The headquarters of a successful social change movement for real social liberation will be found in the the workplace, the marketplace, the campus, the town hall, the neighborhood, the congregation, the festival, the home. Only when the movement pervades all of these places and more — offering alternative ways to relate and meet our real-world needs as well as practical ways to fight back or stand in solidarity with fellow resisters — will its true potential become evident to people who today don’t feel a direct connection to the occupy encampments.

I’ve been biting my tongue on these matters since the occupy protests started gaining real steam. Having spent about half my life studying, pondering, discussing, writing, and lecturing on matters of large-scale social change strategy, I hesitate to offer specific ideas for getting from this consciousness-raising stage (which I never knew how to achieve) to the institution-building phase. Those of us looking on from the outside, or coming out of past movements that never accomplished over years a consciousness-raising or imagination-stimulating achievements that the occupiers have already managed, should continue observing and not offering more than encouragement and support during this critical phase. Outsiders using the iconic “human microphone” to say “Go home and start organizing your communities” would rightly be no more welcome than sectarians urging the movement to join some obscure party.

But this fledgling movement has to (and I believe can) make that transition to a dual power. It may come as a natural, evolutionary outgrowth of the occupy phase. Or maybe it will be a leap from spectacular encampment to the far-less-sexy community and workplace organizing activities. Sooner or later, I hope movement participants will recognize a mid-term objective of forming a real dual power capable not only of challenging the dominant system but offering real-world alternatives.

But then again, I think Yotam already said this even better than I can after all these years. And his words are probably going to ring truer with his generation, hopefully more so than mine ever did in my own time. I love the way Yotam portrays the potential for a subsequent phase that would mark the manifestation of a dual-power movement:

We will make a real impact when we re-open the abandoned hospitals and put doctors in them; when we bring the occupation to the schools and the schools to the occupation; when we liberate foreclosed homes not just for a day, but to move families back into them. We will make a real impact when the government sessions where they continue to pass new austerity measures behind our backs are interrupted by our active resistance to them; when the arms trucks can’t get across the bridges because we’ve blocked them; when the banks have to close not their branch lobbies, but their headquarters, because those they have disenfranchised have risen up to barricade their doorways.

Do yourself the favor of reading the rest of his short incitement.


Thriving After Collapse: Three Approaches to Survival and Beyond

Dilbert talks survivalism.

I see three general approaches to preparing for the impending social/economic/ecological collapse. I’ll talk more about my own views of how I see that coming, and in fact more about the preparation strategies described here, but I thought a brief introduction would be handy down the road.

The most obvious model is the nuclear survivalist approach. I use the term nuclear as in the “nuclear family” unit, but the strategy has its roots in the original contemporary apocalyptic scenario*: atomic holocaust. This is where you stockpile supplies for you and yours and prepare to protect them by force.

The second and third ways are similar, and not mutually exclusive**. The second approach is community survivalism. This is where an entire community prepares for the eventual collapse. A community here might mean a neighborhood or a village or conceivably even a city, or it might be a local sub-group that self-identifies as a federation or network of households.

The third approach is dual power. This is where a community (defined as above) pro-actively organizes to avert the worst impacts of collapse. A dual power is named such as it operates while the current system is still fully functional. This approach, if taken up on a large enough scale, would constitute a social revolution. It would not avert the collapse of the current system per se, but it would potentially ameliorate some of its worse impacts, and might indeed more gracefully bring about the downfall of the dominant system. And if it failed in doing so, it could fall back to functioning as a community survivalist approach to endure collapse.

There are pros and cons to each of these systems, but as you can already tell, I strongly favor the dual power model, because I’m not a very individualistic, short-term, or even local thinker. I advocate the approach that is best for the most. But I also think in the long run, the dual power strategy is the only one that has the potential to do anything other than delay suffering even of the best-prepared survivors.

Nuclear Survivalism

The nuclear survivalist approach is a model that offers you the most control. There are fewer moving parts, so it’s the most reliable, independent option. Even if you expand the model slightly beyond the nuclear family or household, the scale can be relatively manageable. There’s none of the messiness associated with democracy, mutual aid, and larger-scale cooperation.

Unfortunately, the nuclear survivalist model has severe limitations, owing primarily to economies of scale and division of labor — that is, a distinct lack of each. A small group with limited skills can only accomplish just so much, so the nuclear survivalist must stockpile massively. Stockpiles, besides being strictly finite and thus having a literal shelf life, are attractive to hostiles and require vigilant defense.

The nuclear survivalist also has a limited domain. Even if you’re using the cabin-in-the-woods approach, going out to hunt, gather, cultivate, or scavenge is very dangerous. So once stockpiled supplies are depleted, the game shifts dramatically. At this point, the nuclear survivalist will be wishing for community.

Dilbert talks survivalism.

Community Survivalism

This model essentially just ups the scale from the household model to a larger group. Since a community can be defined as just an array of households scattered around a neighborhood or village, or it can be an entire town, it’s hard to paint an encompassing portrait. But all applications share some basic advantages and liabilities.

Greater division of labor and economies of scale make life easier once any stores are depleted, and indeed they open up various options for stockpiling and distributing essentials. The community approach offers basic insurance against acute tragedies such as fire (backup housing) or illness (assuming there’s at least one medical specialist in the group and/or supplies include medicines no single family would expect to store).

In most cases, the community scale also upgrades the domain in which it is safe to be outside acquiring inputs, as perimeter patrolling becomes realistic.

On the other hand, this model requires cooperation between units with varying interests, and presumably it involves democratic structures that are more unwieldy than those enjoyed (or eschewed) at the household level. In terms of economics, the community survivalist model introduces the problems associated with scale, such as competition over “surplus” resources between people who contribute variously. And in the end, all of this cooperation and organizing is still hyper-local and short-sighted, not particularly unlike nuclear survivalism.

Finally, as compared to the dual power strategy, community survivalism offers no recourse for practice. Community survivalists plan for crisis but do not engage in active relations as an operational community until that crisis hits.

This is incidentally the approach that resonates with many because Michael Ruppert advocates it in Collapse. Review this short clip and decide for yourself its relative appeal.

Dual Power Community

This strategy is largely identical to community survivalism, except it is put into practice before crisis hits. Or, perhaps more accurately, it recognizes a crisis in the present and begins addressing said crisis. The other difference is that the dual power model is intended to be transformative. Its mode is not survivalist but rather transitional and change oriented. Dual power organizers look to affect conditions rather than merely cope with them. They see change not just as something inevitable to respond to but forces that can be affected. The dual power approach plans to come out the other side of any crisis ahead in as many realms as is possible.

Otherwise, it shares the weaknesses of community survivalism, and these are not insignificant. There is far less of a guarantee that a community undertaking a dual power strategy would make it through the first winter in a post-collapse world than the nuclear survivalism approach. And it’s obviously much harder to talk about issues of organizing for crisis with one’s neighbors than with one’s family.

But as time goes on, these difficulties will likely fade, as the topic of surviving post-collapse will become increasingly popular and less taboo. Those with an idea of how to thrive, not merely cope, under chronically catastrophic conditions may sound more appealing than advocates of running for the hills.


I have a lot more to say on these matters, but for now I just wanted to get a general entry up so I could refer back to it as I post on various related issues. To be clear, I’m not one of these people who is heralding collapse as the way to spark the change I’ve always known we’ve needed. I have hopes that we will respond to collapse, at least when it is imminent if not sooner, in a way that gives us a foot forward by building community and planning for transformation. But I’d much rather see that happen now, and watch humanity enjoy a relatively bloodless transition to a model that works for everyone instead of just for elites, as market capitalism and central planning always have. And I most hope we avoid the command capitalism (fascism) I think a lot of people will want to turn to once it’s “too late”.

* It’s curious to note that there was very little time in human history prior to the advent of nuclear weapons during which any kind of event — war, weather, economic collapse — threatened to set an entire society back dramatically. Local subsistence and self-reliance were watchwords in an epoch marked by acute scarcity. Only in the industrial age, which started scarcely a century before the US acquired the atom bomb, have we become so dependent on institutions of scale that their disappearance threatens nearly every aspect of our way of life, and certainly our economic footing.

** To be fair, the nuclear survivalist strategy is not necessarily mutually exclusive to the community and dual power approaches. It’s more a matter of where effort and focus are concentrated. One could stockpile and plan for one’s family while also engaging in community organizing efforts. But generally, the mindset is very different, and I think individualism effectively discourages a more social approach.