Platform Socialism

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* Book: Platform Socialism. By James Muldoon. Pluto Press, 2023



The Blockchain Socialist:

"James does the difficult task of summarizing extensive amounts of literature around digital platforms as well as the rightful critiques of those who may be the most well-known from a socialist perspective. Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism should not be where people stop and make conclusions or propose solutions for digital platforms as the problems with “web2” Big Tech companies is not an aberration of capitalism but just a continuation of it.

In the first chapter, James helps (re)define and clarify what a platform actually is beyond it’s colloquial uses. The first is that platform owners make money from having over doing (rentierism), the second is the concentration of profit and dispersion of risk, and the third being rapid scaling for market domination. He also provides historical contextualization for what can be seen as the economization of our social lives through the lens of various trends since the 1970s.

Drawing on the experiences and works of Italian Autonomist Marxists like Antonio Negri and Dalla Costa, he shows how they foresaw the extension of the “social factory” into new media infrastructure. The industrialization of social relations, including ones largely dependent on women, has revealed new “platforms” for political struggle. He also mentions the work of the author of Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek, to describe how even though we don’t see ourselves as having meaningful interactions on these platforms, they still become part of the larger network of data capture and data monetization perfect for value extraction and surveillance.

- All the world’s a platform, and all the men and women are merely users. By setting the stage and charging for tickets, tech entrepreneurs manage a show in which we are both unpaid actors and swindled audience members in our own production. Let’s take back the theatre, rewrite the script and put on the performance of our lives.” (Platform Socialism, p. 25)

He next takes a deep-dive into more specific critiques of Big Tech using Facebook (aka Meta) and Airbnb as examples. He dispels the myth that platforms like these are simply neutral arbiters of interactions but actually kinds of world-builders in the way we may play the game Civilization. While both companies have different business models, it’s clear that both have had serious consequences to the world outside of their platforms in regards to disinformation, housing bubbles, etc. through a similar process as the enclosure of the commons. I found James’ recent piece in Jacobin on the likely real reasons for Facebook to rebrand to Meta (users produce more data to monetize and allows for diversification of revenue streams) very illuminating as well.

While many of the “tech-left” critics will make similar criticisms as James, what I found refreshing was his explicit non-dependence on regulation and state-based solutions. While there is no doubt that there is likely some need for support from the state to achieve Platform Socialism, it is not the end goal to simply nationalize digital platforms for obvious reasons that it is difficult to trust a state with so much power over the digital platforms we rely on to communicate, just like it is with multi-national profit maximizing corporations. Instead he calls for “new models of social ownership” that are open to participatory mechanisms of governance for “ordinary citizens to influence their decisions-making.” If you’re involved in the crypto space, the word DAO may have just popped up in your head, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Inspired by the libertarian socialist G.D.H. Cole, James mentions Guild Socialism as an interesting approach for thinking about alternatives to the digital economy. Opposed to the strong centralized state approach to socialism, Cole’s theory prioritizes the creation of bottom-up democracies through local councils and worker guilds to create truly self-governing communities that embrace pluralism. He mentions the fediverse as a strikingly similar manifestation of Guild Socialist organizational structures. James mentions that for Cole and other libertarian socialists, reaching post-capitalism were seen as coordination issues. While these thinkers have plenty to bring to the table, there is an acknowledgement of the naivety of this thinking which does not recognize the structural political and economic issues of capitalism.

Against popular opinion in the crypto world, it is actually not all about coordination. It's also about power dynamics and coordinating to disrupt and change them. It doesn't matter how good our tools are for coordination without a working class politics.

The last third of the book details more specific examples of what Platform Socialism could look like. Thinking about and building platforms should happen more at the local level while also taking advantage of the borderless nature of the internet. He suggests that depending on the service provided, a platform should be handled at a certain level (e.g., municipal, state, federal, etc.).

He mentions projects like Mastodon, Decidim, and DECODE, an EU Horizon 2020 program funded project that uses blockchain to give individuals more control over how their personal data is shared (or not) which is currently being piloted in Barcelona, Amsterdam, and London. These emerging “real utopias” can give insight into how we can encode egalitarian logic into the design of new systems we would build for Platform Socialism. He also proposes novel solutions like The Global Digital Services Organization to champion broadband access as a universal right, a Global Digital Wealth Fund for funding decentralized technology to build democratic platforms, and the creation of a public search engine because “access to humanity’s collective knowledge should no be controlled by a profit-driven company.”

It was interesting that many of the criticisms put forth by James are similar to those coming from particular advocates of “web3” including some venture capitalists. However, the very important difference is his use of a Marxist framework and understanding of history for identifying the root causes of these issues. There is a structural issue to capitalism that cannot be solved simply by building better coordinating tools or through the tokenization of everything. At the same time this is not an outright rejection of platforms but a belief in significant reformation. The important question to answer will be how the proposals of advocates of Platform Socialism will differ from those well-funded by a16z co-opting the current narrative of web3.

What gives me a glimmer of hope are the consistent criticisms from several key figures and technologists against the encroachment of venture capital even if they do use the term web3 to mean something different than the status quo. In order to distinguish being different from the venture capital backed future of web3."