In a world consumed by a faltering capitalism, with rising inequalities and devastating social consequences, few would argue that the system isn’t broken, or perhaps, that it never worked in the first place. For decades we have believed that innovation and change come from entrepreneurs because they have the potential to create an inspired and innovative society. The figure of the entrepreneur became a founding pillar of our socio-economic model; but could they be the ones breaking that model? Will entrepreneurs be once more the wild spirits and drivers of change and progress that we so desperately need?
Boyd Cohen, a researcher and strategist with a PhD in Business is not someone you’d usually hear arguing about a post-capitalist economy. Yet he is bringing to the table exciting new ideas on how the big paradigm shift we have been waiting for is drawing closer than we might think. Advocating for a post-capitalist society, we interviewed him to explore the opportunities and limits of entrepreneurs in this brave new world.
Post-capitalism and entrepreneurship might seem contradictory terms. How do you reconcile those concepts?
Boyd Cohen: I see post-capitalism entrepreneurship as a technology-enabled evolution of the 99% movement. These are people who are aware there is something fundamentally wrong with capitalism but are going beyond protesting, taking over city parks and raising awareness through media.
These people combined with technologists have started to join forces to rethink our economy in a way that can create shared prosperity.
They’re entrepreneurs because they’re taking risks to find new business models and organisations that better distribute wealth amongst the value creators, trying to eliminate exploitation and inequality.
Sometimes using combining old organization forms like coops -which are basically cooperatives that have been around for centuries- but adding a technology layer which allows for more scalability to become platform cooperatives.
Becoming the next Zuckerberg or Musk is starting to look like an old-fashioned ideal, so what does the entrepreneur of the post-capitalist society look like?
B.C: Post-capitalist entrepreneurs are certainly motivated by things that are not material wealth. They’re driven to create value in a way they feel is more just and can contribute to more shared prosperity. They frequently want to do it in a collaborative fashion so, they’re challenging our understanding of things like intellectual property because they’re moving towards a creative commons mentality.
Sometimes they are activists, but instead of just protesting, they’re actively trying to create a better world rather than just complain about what’s not going right.
Because they’re not focused on finding the traditional venture capital funds, they’re open to all kinds of other exciting opportunities.
One of the precepts of a post-capitalist economy includes finding alternative models for organising to create value in different ways. This has given rise to commons-based peer production, the rise of alternative currencies and new models of business governance which are really exciting but still marginal. Do you think it is just a matter of time before more people embrace this paradigm shift or do we need more radical actions?
B.C: I think we need both. What I’m observing is a growing trend of individuals that are frustrated with the havoc capitalism is bringing, and are convinced that there has to be a better way. The younger generation -typically more technology enabled- is starting to visualise what that better way could look like.
Technology – and I’m not a technological determinist- is enabling movements that have been on the fringes for decades to achieve things they could have never achieved before. We’re not totally there yet, but all the pieces are there. For example, we have crypto-currency slowly becoming mainstream which is not backed by any government nor supported by any banking institutions, the two main actors the 99% movement was against.
There are a lot of amazing initiatives happening locally that just need enough support to go global. For example, one the goals of my company is to take down Uber. How do we want to do it? Inspired by the Austin case where taxi drivers formed a cooperative to fight Uber and won, we want to empower that to happen at a global scale. It would be unrealistic to expect all local taxi drivers to organise, create alternative platforms and then compete directly with Uber. What we need is one decentralised Uber-killer platform, made by cooperatives around the world, registered as taxi drivers, not private drivers. Because when you have people that co-own their platform and contribute value to vs exploited contracted drivers -who in many countries are not even legally allowed to operate- you see the potential to scale.
If we can create our own currencies, our own open source technologies, we can create our own economies.
There will be a parallel capitalist economy running for who knows how long, but the alternative economy can take an increasing percentage of the marketplace. It is more intuitive for people to embrace these cooperative type models when they recognise themselves as value creators and not just consumers.
A post-capitalist economy means a world without eBay, Airbnb and Uber, no middlemen, just peer to peer interaction through open source platforms. What would be the limits of such organisational model in terms of governance?
B.C: I think the post-capitalist entrepreneurial society will show its faces in many ways; from alternative currencies, time-banking, technology-enabled cooperatives to the maker community trying to find new ways of sustaining their model. I don’t think we can expect a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s going to be based on local experimentation, trial and error and eventually scaling what works best but in a way that allows for localized adaptation and ownership.
If we stay in the example of interconnected platform coops we can imagine a decentralised local governance deciding revenue sharing, strategy, etc. Going back to the Uber-killer coop platform, if it were present in over 20 cities with over 15 000 drivers, not all drivers will be making global decisions, they would only be involved in the governance decisions that affect their community.
Finding the balance for people driven to contribute to a commons-based society with a viable business model is still an unanswered question. Do you think universal income might be a solution?
B.C: I think basic income in some shape and form is an absolute necessity in the near future. With the rise of technologies like automation, AI, robotics, big data, you’d almost have to be blind not to see the writing on the wall. However, I don’t think we’re going to see a universal, unconditional basic income, which is what most people argue for, rising globally overnight for many reasons; financial, political, cultural. I do think we’re going to see a lot of diversity in basic income programs. Barcelona is testing a guaranteed minimum income, that only focuses on low-income people to make sure they have enough to survive.
I like the idea of basic income conditioned on ensuring the individual adds some value to society.
It could be taking care of a sick relative, teaching your skills to others, etc. Of course, this is just the start of a broader strategy. What we’ll probably see is a combination of basic income, alternative currencies and this post-capitalist entrepreneurial behaviour combining at the city level, interconnected digitally with other communities.
Today for most people if you don’t play by the capitalist rules in the world we live in you get a harder time. The transitioning phase we’re starting to experiment with more people having less full-time jobs, the rise of alternative currencies and so forth, include a hard adjustment period that might disincentive people wanting to do this shift. How can we make sure that this new paradigm-shift doesn’t stay in a few entrepreneurs and actually makes it to the 99%?
B.C: The post-capitalist model offers a more optimistic outlook, so I’d like to think it is just a matter of time before more people embrace it. However, the changes will not happen fast enough to prevent things getting worse, so we’ll have a very difficult and ugly transition period, that hopefully will push people to act even faster. Unfortunately, I think it is human nature to be reactionary and not preventive.
We need some visionaries that take the time and energy to create some scalable tools while facilitating this very local experience.I think this is what is going to make it boom, is going to happen on its own, but we can help it happen faster. Emerging technologies -like blockchain- that foster trust between peers that don’t know each other is what allows things on the fringe to go mainstream.
There are many great examples of this new type of initiatives happening at the city level, with the maker’s movement in Barcelona and affordable housing in Vancouver, but for all of these to happen you need government support. What would you say would be the role of the State in the post-capitalist society?
B.C: Post-capitalism is not either government or private sector, but instead it is about civil society.
It’s about citizens taking ownership over their future and creating an alternative economy that is driven by the collective rather than individual ownership of assets.
So yes, the government has a role to play, but not as important as some people might think. Remember the rise of cryptocurrency emerged as a response to concerns about governments, banks and companies being too cosy with each other.
I think local governments are more relevant because they can more easily enable and support these types of initiatives rather than taking a super active role because this has to be a grassroots movement. Barcelona is once again a really good example trying to figure out how to support local projects already happening, like the maker community; from better regulations to financial resources to help projects kickstart, etc.
There is an increasing rise of nationalist politicians with a completely ‘old fashioned’ approach to economics, entrepreneurship and well, a very different set of values, do you think it might be an opportunity or a threat to the post-capitalist economy and society to keep expanding?
B.C: Probably more of a threat. I believe that most of these movements are actually driven by fear and the fear is primarily connected to the failures of capitalism. It’s the income inequality and the fear of no new jobs that drive people to blame others. The extreme-right nationalist movements have taken advantage of people’s susceptibility and fears pushing a much simpler narrative that usually blames immigrants. These are ignorant movements because they don’t actually understand what are the underlying factors driving our socio-economic disaster and what will fix it. And what will fix it is not closing borders and kicking out immigrants, who, by the way, based on research tend to be among the most entrepreneurial members of society. Sooner or later they will be a backlash because people will realise that those policies are not producing the results they promised.
Sadly capitalism has more to go: it can squeeze more efficiency, it can automate every single thing, we can have drones and autonomous vehicles everywhere, but capitalism focuses on humanity’s wants, not our needs. I think it is a post-capitalist entrepreneurial world which will be best positioned to actually solve our needs in a manner that allows for shared prosperity.
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