In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic hitting Europe – uniting and socially isolating us all – we caught up (virtually) with Stacco Troncoso, a project lead for the Commons Transition. We talk about the DisCO Manifesto, a novel approach towards forming Distributed Open Cooperatives that provides guidelines for collectives of self-organised people on how to incorporate and become empowered through more distributed forms of governance. We also talk about the role of decommodification, returning to the commons and radical workplace democracy in practice.
Hi Stacco, what are your key research interests and issues you’ve been exploring?
I was part of the P2P Foundation for many years, as an organizer in advocacy and strategy roles. My background politically was more aligned with anarcho-communism, but that shifted during the 2011 protest movements — 15M in Spain, and Occupy worldwide. Since then, the bulk of my work has been focused on advocating for commons-oriented solutions. I have also followed the evolution of the blockchain ecosystem very closely. Bringing all these influences together, the place where I found a coherent narrative with the ecologic side of my concerns along with the possibilities of technology — without getting starry-eyed about them — was the commons. Apart from that, since 2013 I have been part of a cooperative called Guerrilla Translation — the pilot project for Distributed Cooperative Organizations (DisCOs). The advocacy work of the P2P Foundation and the practical work of the Guerrilla Translation form a symbiotic relation — we put in practice many of the initiatives and ideas that were proposed by the foundation.
Can you tell us a bit more about the origins of DisCO Manifesto, how did it come together?
The DisCO Manifesto is a result of many conversations among members of the Guerrilla Media Collective and other close friends and mentors. We wanted to reimagine the future of Guerrilla Media, applying our interest in DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), while also being critical of them. One of the tendencies we see in what we call whitepaper culture is to imagine really good systems which distribute value before considering the place of humans. If you think about it, a key system where value distribution takes place is the workplace, and here is where we already have 175 years of cooperative tradition to draw from. We wanted to apply our experiences to the design of another kind of DAO that starts from real world experience. It eventually evolved into the concept of distributed cooperative organization (DisCO). We like the name, as we think that — beyond the wordplay — it symbolises the playfulness, fun, conviviality and approachability that are missing from the blockchain world, CryptoKitties aside. The Manifesto is a conversation, as we didn’t want to start with a whitepaper or technological architecture. Even though we already came up with a detailed and technical governance model, we wanted to tell a good story, based on our experience and our needs, things that excite us. We aspired to create it in an inclusive, journalistic manner and wanted for people to read it — all people, other than the usual suspects in the decentralized space. We also imagined it as a meeting place between various groups — commons, P2P, cooperatives, and social solidarity economy tradition, the feminist economics tradition and the open value decentralized world. Even though these groups have a lot in common, they don’t necessarily talk to each other. We hope to create a conversational space. We want to think carefully about having those conversations and making them accessible to people, also to encourage those who don’t have the loudest voices to participate.
What went wrong with the first iteration of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs)? What are the key lessons learned?
DAOs that have been deployed so far are very primitive, used more as a vehicle for financial speculative assets rather than real tools for decentralized collaboration. It’s very easy to make a caricature of the DAO space — incredible amounts of money flowing into a movement that speaks of the new ways of reimagining value. The value system that is based on accumulation is predominant. Even though there have been extensive discussions differentiating “blockchain” from “what you can do on the blockchain”, a lot of the politics that underlie blockchain are symptomatic of accumulatory micro-capitalism or libertarianism, which have been prevalent in the design of many DAOs. The DAO was a cautionary tale of what can happen — and I remember that before the DAO attack, there was a feeling of gold rush, or fear of missing out — similar to the developments of the mid-90s dotcom bubble. When there’s a gold rush things are not done carefully, and also politically they tend to replicate the existing power structures.
We don’t believe that you can build decentralization from the top down, by white males with programming backgrounds designing this great decentralized architecture where they just want to fit humans in. There’s an impatience or not letting other people be part of this process, and a lot of it has been speculative. It’s sci-fi, but maybe not in the exciting sense, somehow removed from reality space. In the DAO space there’s a lot of unchecked privilege, while many other types of people are missing — they’re being mentioned but not included in the design process. There are solutions being designed for people without those people being present.
What are the main differences between DAO and DisCO design?
DisCOs are based on human interactions. There’s a tendency in the DAO space to try and do away with human imperfections. The thinking seems to be that if we just get the math right, all the other stuff will get sorted out on its own. I resonate with the statement that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff”, meaning that we can’t bypass the difficult conversations, they need to take place. While there’s excitement about auto-executable organizations with programmable parameters, what DAO technology can do for us is value tracking: tracking things such as livelihood work, pro bono work to create and maintain commons, and also carework, which is usually invisible and hard to quantify. I mean: how do you put love on the blockchain? Can we? Would we even want to? You can see different DAOs trying to tokenize all social interactions. DAOs can let us network and transact value among different DisCO nodes. You can still talk about decentralization, but if you don’t check the power of certain nodes, those nodes can become prevalent and imitate the preexisting power dynamics.The technology we want to develop is an enabler for better conversations, never a substitute. In our value tracking system we don’t foresee that it will be a setup where “this is how many tokens you have accrued and this is the value equation so this person gets paid this much, and that’s it”. Frankly, if you’re working with a group of only 10 to 15 people, why not have a discussion first?.
Value tracking is especially important because notions of value are so subjective. When we get into an agreement with a group of people where we say together that this is the type of value sovereignty that we want to practice, and it doesn’t work out after a certain period of time — we are not locked into that system, we can change it. While when you have a big DAO with, say, 400 stakeholder participants it’s very difficult to make exceptions. Those people who can afford to live an immutable lifestyle and are not subject to the back and forth of the material conditions and daily lives may be able to participate in those systems. We also see DisCO as a way to educate people, for example about feminist economics. If you’re not talking about the decentralization of power, or explicitly addressing the trifecta of centralization — colonialism, capitalism and the patriarchy — then your decentralization is very select within a bounded paradigm. DisCOs can provide a space where people can learn about the cooperative tradition, and people from the feminist economics field can take advantage of DAOs.
What are the key lessons can we learn from old models of cooperatives and commons for the decentralised Web movement?
When it comes to cooperatives, it’s simple — they work. In times of an economic downturn, cooperatives always perform much better than regular businesses. They are also much better for the environment in general. Even the happiness index of people working within them is higher than in traditional companies.
When it comes to the lessons learned from the commons, let’s explain first where they begin. We can say that commons are a mode of social organization — before agriculture, before feudalism and of course before capitalism. Even though they are often invisible, the commons are always present. Especially with the collapsing systems now it’s more important than ever to have an understanding of the commons. A commons is a social process, and for there to be a commons we need 3 elements — we need a resource, we need a community that gathers around this resource, and we need a set of rules to govern this commons. A lot of work that has been done since the 90s in the commons has influenced free software and open source and that in turn has influenced the phenomena in the blockchain ecosystem — but perhaps there’s not that much familiarity with those influences. You can also think of it as of social conscience — to get away from replicating normative power dynamics — privileged people who have early access. Why would we need privilege to obtain the initial access?
DisCOs need to produce commons, which leads to decommodification. Let’s give an example. People need houses and people get paid to build houses. In a DisCO setup people could build open source houses. This can turn into a process from commodification to decommodification, from products to commons. This is where distributed ledgers are interesting because we can measure all sorts of values to make sure that no one gets exploited, no one is freeriding.
What about tracking and quantifying carework?
Carework is tricky. Tokenizing something like affection is a very difficult thing. We need to have a lot of small scale conversations where people really feel comfortable about sharing their values and the things they care about, and they want to be rewarded for that — and getting rewarded doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid in crypto tokens.
Let’s come back to the path towards decommodification, how does it take place?
Anything that gets distributed digitally leans towards decommodification. Wikipedia is a great example of decommodifying knowledge. Economic historian Karl Polyani wrote a number of books on this topic, the main among them is the Great Transition where he coined the term “false commodities” — land, money and labour. Land would be a commons, labour is your productive energy and money is a social agreement, with other agreements put on top of it to keep it scarce. All of those should be decommodified. I’d also add another false commodity, which is knowledge. We want to decouple knowledge and wealth from material realities, but this knowledge economy thrives on legal artefacts such as copyrights and patents to create artificial scarcity. If you’re using an app, why do you need to pay extra for these features? Usually because there’s a number of investors who need a return on investment. In the sense we’re privy to this whole debt structure. What if we really shared things? What if we decommodified? Decommodification brings about a number of challenges. Simply put, when stuff becomes “free” to make and consume, the taxable base which finances social services crumbles. How do we tackle this? These are political challenges that have to be included in the conversation.
In order to decommodify we need different types of economics and politics. Distributed ledgers can be an answer but the design of whatever DAOs we build on top of them really need to be distributed, socially and power-wise. There are other considerations beyond server connectivity and information being replicated and consented to. There’s a much bigger social layer that needs to be taken into account.
What are your recommendations then?
If you don’t include the people that you’re designing the solutions for in your design process, if you don’t talk to them, treat them with respect, you’re doing them an intellectual disservice. Let’s take a good look at what distributed means and let’s try to walk the talk. Let’s take responsibility. Let’s not become crypto billionaire philanthropists designing for those who can benefit from whatever wealth we’ve accumulated later down the line, while exacerbating existing power systems.
Let’s learn from the Wikipedia example — which, despite its shortcomings, not only democratized access to knowledge but also democratized the production of knowledge. You don’t need to be a professor to write about a subject as long as you’re passionate and knowledgeable about it.
How do you envision “radical workplace democracy”, in practice?
The notion of radical workplace democracy is very prevalent in the work on cooperatives. I’d recommend checking the work of Marjorie Kelly, and Richard Wolff on the topic. We have supposedly democratic political systems, but in the workplace all these democratic ideals are thrown out of the window. Here you are subject to your boss and your boss is subject to the investors. So in your workplace, unless you are a cooperative, you don’t get to decide what to produce, how much to produce and how to go about it. A common example being used is that a cooperative-owned enterprise would never choose to, say, pollute a local river or outsource work overseas. That’s the basic workplace democracy being talked about in co-ops. In DisCOs we talk about radical workplace democracy because we add the feminist and the carework dimensions, beyond what’s in the contract or beyond legal agreements. Co-ops can be totally socially regressive — there’s many conservative co-ops, with chauvinistic dynamics, that may not be as democractic. Just because you have really good legal statutes that talk about equality, does not mean that equality is being practiced. Descriptive equality is not the same as equality of outcomes. Having spaces for deliberations, for conversations, for carework — is essential. Having spaces for those who may not have the loudest voice, or those who may not be the most influential or eloquent — making sure that those people are being heard is important.
We’ve all been through this at Guerilla Media, Enspiral or Loomio. It’s a new kind of cooperativism that addresses one of the shortcomings of co-ops: sure, you can have workplace democracy, but the activities of the co-op might not be socially or environmentally beneficial. The other part of radical workplace democracy is acknowledging and accounting for carework, including providing emotional support or so called “emotional labour”. We try to incorporate all those aspects so that people who are benefiting from carework at least are not blind to that, at least it’s recognized. We plan to do workshops with communities and projects to help them figure out their governance models, help them have difficult conversations about values. If you don’t have those difficult conversations, tensions inevitably arise, and the person with the most tokens gets to decide — that’s not radical, or any kind of, workplace democracy.
How can we define “carework” in the digital distributed work context? Can it and should it be quantified? What about commoditisation of care in formal and informal networks, is this something we should worry about?
Sure — value tracking can feel invasive. That’s why we insist on small groups. This needs to be based on consent. It’s also uncomfortable, and especially uncomfortable for those who are privileged already do not want some of their privileges questioned. My hope is that this all makes for happier workplaces. The way we do it at Guerilla Media is by what we call community rhythms.We have daily check-ins, biweekly and monthly assessments following adaptable templates. When someone has emotional or family problems we make sure that this person is really supported.
Just having a conversation about care is a radical step. What you can do is to define among your group as to what constitutes carework. We decided to make everything that you would call admin — carework. Because we don’t want an admin layer. This idea comes from Parecon, participatory economics — which is an anarchist economist proposal. Part of their proposal calls for balanced job complexes, meaning that, say, one day you’re programming but another day you’re cleaning the toilets. And everyone gets to clean the toilets, so to speak. It’s about fairness.
We also have a mutual support system in which we support each other via regular check-ins. Once a month or so we have a call. When the person assigned to me takes care of me, they call me and listen to how I feel, and I do the same for the one I support. It’s just about being there for another person. We also think that organizations need to have certain boundaries — or otherwise they would be communes.
Some people say that having relationships like this will take so much time — sure, it will take time but these can be some of the best times of the day. We managed to create a safe online space, which is an increasing rarity. Everyone’s happy and if someone is not happy — everyone knows straight away and does something about it.
It seems like these processes are incredibly important for digital organizations too, where these social aspects need to be introduced as well.
These processes need to be co-designed. The cultural and structural aspects of projects are vitally important. We provide relevant resources for people but we don’t want people to copy and paste our solutions, but instead to challenge them and create better solutions for their individual circumstances. The more use cases we have, the more solutions we have that can work for other people in other contexts, thus creating a commons of DisCO pattern solutions. If you want to become a DisCO, you can but you don’t need to follow our governance model, the only thing you really need to do is to follow the 7 DiSCO principles, which are simple but also surprisingly demanding, they give you a set of constraints that can be really creative challenges. I’ll run them down:
First of all, you need to be oriented towards socio-economic outcomes in your statutes. Secondly, the projects should be multistakeholder, there should be different types of constituents. Thirdly, projects need to actively create the commons — don’t just take from the commons but make sure that you’re creating shared resources. The fourth principle is that they need to be transnational in nature — this is something where the DAO space has excelled now, and this is where legislation needs to follow. The fifth one — they need to be incorporating carework. The sixth one is that they reimagine the flows of value — including pro bono work, livelihood work, carework. You may want to measure carework, but not tokenize it. The final one is that they are designed for federation, sitting on top of a distributed architecture. We just need to remember that behind those nodes, behind those servers, behind those computers are human beings, and they need to be cared for. The best way to care for people — intellectually, spiritually — however you want to qualify that — is to be able to have a cognitive bandwidth to get to know those people, and to listen to them. According to the Dunbar number, 150 is the number of people with whom you can have meaningful social interactions with — but that doesn’t tell you what the intensity of the bandwidth of those interactions are. Make sure that the home DisCO is 15–20 people and then just federate and create different “nodes”, which can do regular check-ins. The value models need to be informed by proximity, -for a group of 15 people you don’t need a blockchain. We’re talking about a spectrum from trustless to trustworthy — blockchains excell at trustless interactions, but do we want all interactions to be trustless? Or do we want to empower trust in small groups?
Can DisCOs create profit?
They can create livelihoods for member-owners. When we critique profit, we mean to critique absentee shareholder profit. For a for-profit corporation, as Milton Friedman would say, their only responsibility is not to the society but to the shareholders. You can argue that tokenholders in DAOs are the equivalent of shareholders — have they really created the value that informs the profit? The question is what do you do with this profit, is it being centralized or is it being recirculated? Guerilla Media Collective is legally constituted as a non-profit, socially oriented coop. This means that we have to reinvest all profit — in education, development and creating commons, doing pro bono work and sharing it with others. The value model pays for this. Internally we pay ourselves the same rates while profits enable the pro bono activities.
Let’s talk about the role of trust in the digital distributed organization and how to account for it.
Beyond onchain and offchain, everything happens “onlife”. What we’re doing with DAOs in the strictest sense is subjecting trust to agreed-on algorithms. But the fidelity of this algorithm is very brute — you’re encouraging trust in monetary transactions, whether this is fiat money, crypto or digital assets. Why? Because you don’t want to get taken advantage of and want to transact with strangers without third party intermediaries — so you create a third party which is technology. But technology is not neutral.
What does it mean that DisCOs are associationist rather than individualistic?
The DisCO Manifesto is the result of many conversations. It was written by my partner Ann Marie Utratel and I, and many people contributed and helped edit it. This includes our closest collaborators in the DisCO sphere: Ruth Catlow (Furtherfield, Decal), Ela Kagel (SUPERMARKT), Irene López de Vallejo (AIOTI, BDVA, BlueSpecs) and Phoebe Tickell (DGov Foundation, Enspiral), as well as people like David Bollier (Commons Strategies Group) Jaya Klara Brekke (Durham University, DECODE), Pat Conaty (Synergia Institute, New Economics Foundation, Co-operatives UK), Primavera De Filippi (Berkman Klein Centre, CNRS, COALA, DaoStack), Eleftherios Diakomichalis (OsCoin, Radicle), Lynn Foster (Mikorizal, Value Flows), Sam Hart (Avant.org), Bob Haugen (Mikorizal, Value Flows), Julio Linares (Circles UBI), Elena Martínez Vicente and Silvia Molina Díaz (P2P Models), Nathan Schneider (Internet of Ownership) and Lisha Sterling (Geeks Without Bounds).
When we say “associationist”, we are referring to the notion of associative democracy. This describes the community effort of people who want to associate together and who want to actively share ideas, feelings and things, unlike in a DAO where you don’t have to get to know people, you just anonymously transact.
Do you believe that businesses globally, as we know them, can become socially responsible? How to bring about a necessary shift on a global level?
My feeling is that the change needs to come from the bottom up. As long as there’s a for-profit orientation and the need to keep the shareholders happy, inequality will keep driving up, a lot of green-washing or decentra-washing will happen and nothing will change. What I advocate for is a lot of more power for grassroots activism, and DisCOs are a way for people to do this. What’s an eye opening figure is that co-operatives globally have an annual turnover of USD 3 trillion, which is the same as the market cap as Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google combined. Co-ops worldwide have this significant power economically and if we could have new kinds of value accounting, and if we could use blockchain and DLT for social causes, and if we can make sure that we’re using this technology for advancing of planetary priorities — rather than priorities of IBM, Goldman Sachs etc. who are investing massive figures into blockchains, and if we learned how to federate, then we would create this more distributed future. We need to create more commons and we need to have people less and less dependent on the big institutional and corporate players. And of course the latter will resist it as much as they can, but it’s a losing fight because shit is collapsing. We’re waiting for some kind of Mad Max type of collapse where everyone gets a gun but collapse is already happening and will continue. When you think of big corporations as technologies, they will not introduce radical workplace democracy. Legislation is written by those with the most power, so a corporation will have much more beneficial legislation that a co-op. How about we push for a change in legislation so that we can run this cooperative experiment? This is the vision for our commons transition and we think that DisCOs are an approachable way to get into this.
To answer your question: can businesses become socially responsible? To me the definition of business is transactional by nature. Again, the infamous quote by Friedman reads: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. I think a better question is whether “work” can become socially responsible. In that case yes, but it won’t happen through systems which are structurally oriented toward absentee profiteering and normalized exploitation.
What are the realistic solutions to the pitfalls of the gig economy?
Platform co-ops! Breaking down the big players and turning them into co-ops. They are an easy solution but they also face challenges: investors don’t want to invest into co-ops, it’s very difficult for them. To give an example, FairMondo, the online marketplace, or FairBnB, the platform coop alternative to Airbnb who are launching now, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Stocksy is a platform coop for photography or stock art. SMart is mutual / coop for freelance workers who get social security, financial advice… There’s lots of them. You can check them out on the Platform Coop directory. Are they successful? Yes, because they exist but they do face massive challenges which are easily dodged by their platform capitalist counterparts. Platform co-ops are more ethical and future minded, yet don’t have the impact of the big, venture-capital backed online platforms. Ironically the economy is not friendly to co-ops but co-ops, despite co-ops being demonstrably better for the “real” economy.
What would you advise to investors these days, in the crypto space and beyond?
This is what I’d advise venture capitalists: if we have perhaps 10 to 15 years left of the current order, instead of doing things that rely on mass computing power to keep furthering inequality, you may want to invest in systems that are future-proof, that address the collapse of our ecological order and the collapse of our social relationships. Invest in the future — and the future is the survival of the species and the biosphere. Read feminist economics and feminist literature, and be okay with being uncomfortable. Being challenged and becoming a more rounded person can be a beautiful and rewarding process.
Read about the commons — check out commonstransition.org — sign up for our commons newsletter. Read the book Free, Fair, and Alive by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, a wonderful introduction to the commons or Peer to Peer: a Commons Manifesto. For people from technological backgrounds, my advice is to get into the “soft stuff”, and be aware of your power and privilege — don’t see that recognition as an affront to your identity but maybe as something you can use to help enrich others.
Thank you for your interesting insights. What’s the best place to get in touch for those who are interested in collaborating or exploring DisCOs?
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If anyone wants to contact me: stacco (at) stacco (dot) works. You can also sign up to our newsletter for updates.