Kevin Poperl and Ida Susser: Inventing a technological commons: Confronting the engine of Macron

This blog post represents an effort at engaged anthropology in which the anthropologist Ida Susser is working with the scholar/activist Kevin Poperl in the analysis of a new form of social intervention.

In the face of the seemingly all-powerful neoliberal machine of Emmanuel Macron, French activists who have come together since 2016 in Nuit Debout, unions, a new alternative party (La France Insoumise), and massive demonstrations are regrouping with exciting and productive interventions. Here we discuss what we see as one new political strategy in the wars of position in contemporary capitalism. We suggest that Coopcycle, an online app invented for cooperative organizations of delivery workers, may be initiating an innovative left strategy of class struggle by activating a new form of mobilization that confronts changing work organization and technology in line with the changing subjectivities and class alliances of the current era.

In 2016, Nuit Debout, the long-term occupation of La Place de la Republique in Paris and plazas throughout France, was initiated as a movement to prevent the deregulation of labor by the French government (Susser 2017). Nuit Debout joined a mobilization against a proposed labor law that reduced worker protection. However, Nuit Debout, combined with strikes and demonstrations organized by unions and political activists, did not succeed in blocking the threatened labor law. Indeed, in June 2017, Emmanuel Macron, an initiator of the law, was elected president of France, precisely to further deregulate the labor market. As a consequence, the question became how to address the issues of workers’ rights in a different way that might still be transformative. Coopcycle was one strategy that emerged from this dilemma. Coopcycle was developed as an alternative approach to online delivery services, promoting the cooperative organization of workers and the protection of worker rights and benefits.

Many abstract debates about horizontalism and verticalism took place at Nuit Debout. Coopcycle provided a concrete project in which to explore cooperative relationships and to negotiate horizontal and vertical power—not possible among the constantly changing participants of Nuit Debout.

Coopcycle is now constituted as an informal group of people, who met through Nuit Debout, working to invent and implement a cooperative, as opposed to capitalist, online strategy to provide services. Coopcycle crystallized around the development of an app. Similar to the classical technology used by capitalist start-ups, such as Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and other delivery apps, the technology put the restaurant, the delivery person, and the final customer in online contact. However, the difference was that Coopcycle inventors aimed to counteract the undermining of power and working conditions of the deliverers fundamental to capitalist start-ups. The concept was, first, to develop an app that contained within it the requirement that workers join as cooperatives.

The next question was how to survive within and even compete against capitalist platforms. Coopcycle had to invent a new form of contract for online applications that protected them from corporate buyouts. After much deliberation, the group realized that the app for Coopcycle had to be licensed and patented as a cooperative app in such a way as to avoid the possibility that it could be bought up by capitalist corporations. In contrast to many capitalist start-ups that specifically aim to be bought by international corporate investors for massive sums, Coopcycle had to invent a license that legally prevented such incorporation.

A license for the commons
As is the nature of most such online applications, by French law, every deliverer had a self-employment contract as if they were individual entrepreneurs and not wage workers entitled to unions and other benefits. Deliverers who were fired did not get paid when the company dissolved. In fact, the deliverers were often owed thousands of euros, as the restaurants signed their contracts with Take Eat Easy, not the deliverers. Designated legally as self-employed, the deliverers had no legal rights in relation to their employer. This self-employment contract meant that the fired deliverers could not even access unemployment benefits, never mind retirement benefits or the national health program.

Coopcycle could represent a political tool that addresses a sector that crystallizes central questions of the epoch: labor conditions and the problem of self-employment as a status, as well as providing a new tool of information technology to promote a commons, or new forms of cooperation. Such an app could become a bridge between the past stable jobs in which workers have fought for union mobilization and the contemporary information society where workers have become casual laborers or consultants in a flexible economy. Although claiming a worldwide network, jobs organized through information technology are, paradoxically, now based on spokes of disconnected individuals with little power.

Nuit Debout is not attached to any party or union but, instead, serves as a convergence tool or umbrella context in which many organizations could collaborate. Similarly, Coopcycle plans to be a platform that works with different left organizations but is not tied to any particular party or union. In line with this approach, Coopcycle made links with the militant union Sud and CGT, as well as with the French Communist Party and the Mélenchon party, La France Insoumise. The aim was to work with different left organizations but not to be specifically identified with any particular one: objectively partners but subjectively autonomous.

The idea is to construct an international organization, which would share economic value and help to guarantee the competitiveness of local entities in the face of multinational business (by providing informational development of the application or political lobbying, for example). This approach could be seen as an effort to create the institutions of “the common economy.” The expectation was that the “mutualization of costs” would remunerate what was being provided initially by activists as “free labor.” Coopcycle proposes to give the application to the cooperatives and to help them to use it to free themselves from capitalist platforms. They will then invite them to join the international coordination.

The challenge for Coopcycle was to create a mirror image of a capitalist franchise, which, in contrast to capitalist enterprises, offered cooperative and democratic organization of production and value sharing. This was difficult because traditional cooperative culture tends to be local and autonomous. Capitalist platforms are global and built on authoritarian hierarchies. To survive, cooperatives needed to have global coordination. Many cooperatives working together would be able to confront international capital. They could also raise money to keep going in relation to capital. But, they had to figure out how such a conglomeration of cooperatives might be able to function within the antitrust regulations of the EU.

Meanwhile, Coopcycle had to limit the possibility of local cooperatives or local workers succumbing to competition among themselves or selling the app for profit. They needed to work out at what level they could organize the competition between local cooperatives but allow them to be free to make their own decisions: how to organize democratically within vertical constraints.

Public versus private versus common
All the issues discussed above crystallized in the battle for a new license. The classic view would consider the problem an issue of public versus private ownership. However, the state in France will not protect a cooperative platform from capitalist competition because of the governance agreements of the EU, nor could they nationalize the sector, for the same reasons. In order to allow workers to reappropriate their informational means of production, Coopcycle had to invent the protection of a new kind of cooperative rights: the property of the commons, neither public nor private but commons.

Coopcycle recognize that any capitalist competitor could incorporate the platform as free labor in order to compete with them and annihilate the cooperative network they are building. So Coopcycle had to rethink worker relations in order to affirm worker rights as commons. For now, they use a peer-to-peer license that distinguishes lucrative from nonlucrative usage of the platform and are working on a more adapted one to IT productions and cooperatives with Lionel Maurel. The question remains how to move from the traditional approach of cooperativism in order to invent the possibility of a new hegemonic mode of production in a transformative and transitional way.

Coopcycle see the transformative aspect of the new platform as a necessity for survival, under the massive deregulation engine of Macron, and as a contribution. In this way, a pragmatic approach may lead to political and structural claims/positioning for change. Finally, Coopcycle aims to forbid participation by Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and all capitalist disruptive platforms that endanger health care and other hard-won employee benefits by the substitution of an individual self-employment contract for unionized wage work. They see themselves as building the basis for a municipalist public service that delivers goods and information to local institutions including them in the support of commons production costs (subsidies). In other words, they want to restart the original move that emerged in the generalization of health care and other public services.

Capitalist platforms are what we could call “social” or “technological” monopolies. They propose technological services whose “social” natures imply decreasing marginal production costs and increasing returns. In the end, as the technological lynchpin that connects the two markets of labor and production, one economic actor aspires to achieve a dominant position. It may, in fact, totally subsume and organize labor and producers (like restaurants) dictating both labor conditions and prices.

This result is not efficient, even in capitalist terms; prices will be higher and quantities and innovation will be lowered by this situation. As Marx highlighted centuries ago, we meet here a fundamental and classical contradiction in the capitalist mode of production between relations of production and the development of productive forces. This contradiction arises similarly, with intellectual property rights that limit the diffusion and development of knowledge and then productive efficiency.

In the current context, financiers are investing in these new unprofitable apps because they foresee the attractive possibility of controlling the final monopoly as well as being afraid to lose out in the competition. This is why Deliveroo or Uber Eats continue to succeed in raising funds even as they continue to lose money. The Coopcycle strategy is to undermine this final monopoly goal. Coopcycle activists have been accustomed to provide free labor and are used to unemployment. They claim that even if they don’t succeed in building an economically viable project based on the pooling of resources, their ability to provide the new platform, already produced, freely to any cooperative that wants to use it is a serious threat to capitalist platforms, since it could destroy the final monopoly fantasy, sow doubt among investors, and encourage alternative efforts. In this sense, Coopcycle may fail, but the idea of this kind of success already changes the conditions for a common economy.

Coopcycle has a powerful vision. It aims to operate an application that transforms and decommercializes the information technology sector: a new kind of common service that will also begin to form the basis of new kinds of political organizing and challenge the individual neoliberal subjectivities currently so hegemonic.

Kevin Poperl is an economist whose research focuses on neoclassical and Marxist political economies. As an activist, he has been involved in several grassroots movements and took an active part in Nuit Debout in 2016. He is a founding member of the Coopcycle organization.

Ida Susser is Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College and the City University of New York, has studied social movements in the United States and southern Africa, and is now studying progressive social movements, cities and ideas of the commons in France and Spain. Among other publications, she edited a Focaal special issue on the commons and coedited Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World (2003) and Rethinking America: The Imperial Homeland in the 21st Century (2009).

Cite as: Poperl, Kevin, and Ida Susser. 2018. “Inventing a technological commons: Confronting the engine of Macron.” FocaalBlog, 19 April.