Horizontal Self-Governance — The Only “Regulation” We Need

A common liberal or “progressive” criticism of so-called “sharing economy” entities like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb (usually appearing in venues like Salon or Alternet) is that they’re “unregulated.”   This implicitly assumes, of course, that regulations like the taxi medallion system exist for some idealistic purpose of serving the “public welfare” and not simply guaranteeing taxicab companies’ profits by criminalizing competition.

On the genuine Left, we find more valid criticisms of those companies on grounds that they’re not genuine “sharing” or “peer-to-peer” services at all (i.e., not directly controlled by the customers or service providers themselves). Companies like Uber, these Leftist critics say — and I’m very much one of them — are intermediate forms that attempt to put the new wine of a genuine p2p/sharing economy into old corporate bottles. They use proprietary, walled-garden systems to enclose genuine, horizontal p2p services within corporate walls and extract rents from both drivers and passengers, and reduce drivers to de facto employees.

The proper solution, these critics say, is for the new p2p economy to cast off the husks of corporate organization and become the real thing. We need “platform cooperativism”: Open-source sharing services owned and controlled on a cooperative basis by the customers, the service providers or both. That might mean drivers creating pirated or jailbroken versions of the Uber and Lyft apps, bypassing the corporate middlemen and building direct relationships with their passengers. It might mean creating genuine open-source ride-sharing apps from scratch on a local basis as an alternative to working for Uber and Lyft (for example La’Zooz, an open-source Israeli ride-sharing app owned by drivers and customers). Either way, it will empower passengers, give drivers autonomous control over their own work, allow drivers and passengers to interact directly with one another as equals, and destroy the rents skimmed off by the proprietary fake “ride-sharing” services. Rather than the corporate owner of the sharing app inserting itself between drivers and passengers and forcing them to deal with one another on the company’s terms, the system will be owned and governed by some combination of the drivers and passengers themselves, in their own interest.

Just as important, though, it will provide genuine regulation in a way that the old medallion system never could. The question of who will regulate is a common refrain among liberals and “progressives.” This is unfortunately a natural question, given the centuries-long process recounted by Pyotr Kropotkin. Kropotkin describes the modern nation-state’s suppression of self-organized, horizontal governance systems, creating in their place a popular belief that “regulation” must be carried out by an authority set who survey the social body from above. “Who will regulate?” really means “what authority up there, over and above all of us ordinary people, will scrutinize goings-on down here and prevent anyone from doing anything exploitative or fraudulent?” Thanks to centuries of propaganda by the state and the class interests it serves, we are conditioned to identify with the state as the official representative of “society,” and to view legibility from above by state authorities as the only conceivable way of enforcing equitable rules of conduct in our dealings with each other.

Before the rise of the nation-state, when social and economic life was organized through horizontal governance arrangements like the guilds and other institutions of the medieval free towns, the customs of the medieval open field villages, and the kinds user-governed natural resource commons studied by Elinor Ostrom, the obvious answer to “who will regulate?” or “who will prevent fraud?” was “We will!”

And as both states and corporations become increasingly hollowed out, a return to this model of regulation by self-governance is the natural course of affairs. The very question of “who will regulate” has meaning only if we assume that the entities being regulated are not ourselves; a perfectly reasonable assumption, in all fairness, in an economy dominated by absentee-owned capitalist entities other than the workers and consumers. But as the cheapening of small-scale manufacturing tools and the possibilities of network organization lead to an economy in which production and distribution are controlled by workers and consumers themselves (ourselves), it once again becomes obvious to think of regulation as something that WE do.

In place of the previous five or six hundred years of thinking of regulation in terms of “legibility from above” by a superior authority, or Panopticism (in which we’re all visible to the superior authority, but not necessarily to each other), we raise the new concept of Holopticism. As Michel Bauwens, Director of the P2P Foundation, describes it (“The Political Economy of Peer Production,” Ctheory.net, December 1, 2005):

The capacity to cooperate is verified in the process of cooperation itself … P2P projects are characterized by holoptism. Holoptism is the implied capacity and design of peer to [peer] processes that allows participants free access to all the information about the other participants; not in terms of privacy, but in terms of their existence and contributions (i.e. horizontal information) and access to the aims, metrics and documentation of the project as a whole (i.e. the vertical dimension). This can be contrasted to the panoptism which is characteristic of hierarchical projects: processes are designed to reserve ’total’ knowledge for an elite, while participants only have access on a ‘need to know’ basis. However, with P2P projects, communication is not top-down and based on strictly defined reporting rules, but feedback is systemic, integrated in the protocol of the cooperative system.

Rather than the whole being visible from a disinterested Leviathan who surveys everything from above, the whole is instead visible to the participants themselves by nature of their participation. In a prison — governed by panopticism — the warden can see all the prisoners, but the prisoners can’t see each other. The reason is so the prisoners can’t coordinate their actions independently of the warden. Holopticism is the exact opposite: the members of a group are horizontally legible to one another, and can coordinate their actions. The unspoken assumption is that a hierarchy exists for the purposes of the warden, and a holoptic association exists for the purposes of its members (and for purposes of present discussion, the “capitalist,” “employer” and “state” can all be used interchangeably with “warden”). The people at the top of a hierarchical pyramid can’t trust the people doing the job because their interests are diametrically opposed. It’s safe for us to trust one another, on the other hand, because our common interest in the task can be inferred from participation.

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