Review: A DisCO Manifesto

As stated by Ruth Catlow in the Foreword, DisCOs are an alternative to blockchain-based Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO):  Open Distributed Cooperatives. They’re funded by member investments rather than third party capital, and organized around an infrastructure of “interoperable, open-source legal contracts, with a near zero-cost of organisation creation.” DisCOs differ from the predominant model of Decentralized Autonomous Organization (characterized by “abstract and dangerously necrotic mechanisms for interacting with ledgers”) in their focus on humans as physical bodies interacting in local space. In the DisCO model, “economic flows are just one part of the living system in constant flux….”

The DisCO, in contrast to the DAO, substitutes distributed for decentralized organization, and cooperative for autonomous relationships, and includes “a set of organisational tools and practices for groups of people who want to work together in a cooperative, commons-oriented, and feminist economic form.” Its four main components are “the Commons and P2P, Open Cooperativism, Open Value Accounting, and Feminist Economics.”

DAOs were the first organizational model built to incorporate the blockchain and smart contracts, but they have significantly “underdelivered on their promise” since their introduction in 2013. Blockchain-based apps have had low adoption rates, and most blockchain verification systems consume enormous amounts of energy. And, far from blockchain infrastructure being the key to an alternative economy, the main actors poised to make large-scale investments in distributed tech are major global banks like HSBC and Big Tech actors like Facebook.

DisCO prefers the term “distributed” to “decentralized”:

to explicitly highlight the issue of power. As Spanish cyberpunk theorist David de Ugarte says, “Every network architecture hides a power structure”. Decentralized networks boast of the connectivity among nodes, but not about the power dynamics and influence of each node. For example, the Bitcoin network privileges those with early access to the protocol (ie. the technology, early access to its use) and with the economic privilege to invest in server farms running on dirty power to mint new coins. As a result, Bitcoin holds the dubious honour of having a Gini (inequality) coefficient higher than most fiat currencies. Decentralized technologies do not guarantee decentralized outcomes. Yes, in theory anyone can participate in the network, but only if you’re starting from a position of elevated privilege and power which is designed to increase: the guardians of the decentralised center can take the whole network down if they so choose. Let them eat (Bitcoin) cake!

This confirms my low opinion of Bitcoin, and my belief that it’s about the most unflattering demonstration of blockchain technology conceivable. Both blockchain and digital currencies offer a great deal of potential, but Bitcoin itself is a deflationary, capitalist medium that functions primarily as an investment asset to concentrate wealth, and is mostly favored by right-libertarian hard money ideologues.

DisCO’s distributed architecture is based on the principle of equipotency, facilitating equal access and participation by all nodes within a network (as opposed to the power law to which most networks succumb).

When we favour “distributed” over “decentralised”, we are referring to two things. First, we address distributed power structures among individuals within an organization, as well as among subgroups of an organization. Secondly, we refer to distributed power structures between the organization and other DisCOs.

The problem with DAOs is stated by Primavera de Filippi in regard specifically to Ethereum: “they are self-sufficient in that they charge users for the services they provide in order to pay others for the resources they need (such as bandwidth and processing power).”

And as the DisCO Manifesto comments,

They earn their own money, and contract and pay for services — they can create and wield their own economic power. Autonomous, self-sufficient, decentralized… While on the positive side, DAOs could drastically lower the cost of horizontal social collaboration, cut the bureaucratic fat and automate tedious processes, they could also be deployed by the existing power structures to lock down the current hegemony into an inescapable, cybernetic one.

This means, de Filippi elaborates, that DAOs “could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian society that is (almost exclusively) regulated by self-enforcing contracts, which establish the rules that everyone must abide by, without any constitutional constraints.”

In contrast, DisCO envisions an alternative in which “we can start creating organizations which are both distributed and cooperative in nature. Organizations where the legal and technological infrastructures are based on the wild assumption that humans are a cooperative species….”

DisCOs, and the networked interlinkages between them, are meant to facilitate the creation of an entire postcapitalist counter-economy within the interstices of the existing capitalist economy.

…if cooperatives are islands in a sea of capitalism, we need better catamarans, bridges, and data lines to connect them to each other and to other transformative economies. Our view of cooperation in this context includes collaborations that make good use of the salvageable affordances of [distributed ledgers] along with the culture of the Commons and Cooperative movements…. [W]e think that an accommodationist approach to the machine can let us harness its benefits while also providing a necessary critique and reference point against the blind instrumentalization of DAOs for speculative, technocratic, and capitalist purposes, with all the predictable socio-environmentally [sic] dangers.

DisCOs are our proposal to use the power of distributed ledger and peer to peer technologies to prioritize taking care of human beings. They constitute an affirmative, entirely feasible vision for new and radical forms of ownership, governance, entrepreneurship, and financialization to fight pervasive economic inequality. At the same time, they focus on building synergies among related but often siloed sectors that urgently need to build better strategic alliances to develop creative, inclusive solutions.

The above-mentioned “siloed sectors” are the four major components integrated into the DisCO model:

*The Commons and P2P: Commons are community led, self-organised systems for the long-term stewarding of resources, often flowering in the cracks between the market or State. Peer to Peer or P2P describes non-hierarchical, non-coercive social relations happening in human networks, often augmented through technological infrastructures. P2P provides an enabling infrastructure for acts of commoning. Examples include cooperatively managed forests, water distribution irrigation systems, social currencies, Free/Libre and Open Source Software, self-organized urban spaces, distributed manufacturing networks and so much more.

*Open Cooperativism: These are locally grounded, commons-oriented and transnationally networked cooperatives focused on social and environmental work. Open Coops can be viewed as the experimental edge of the work of Platform Cooperativism, exploring convergences between the Commons and P2P movements along with the world of cooperatives and the Social and Solidarity Economy. Examples include Enspiral, Fairmondo, L’Atelier Paysan, AnyShare and the Mutual Aid Network.

*Open Value Accounting: A form of accounting where contributions to a shared project are documented to allow retrospective analysis of the distributions of effort and labor, and enable better and more fair distributions of incomes. Open value accounting enables value sovereignty, or how a commons self-regulates its market relations so the core aspects of its common wealth and social relationships remain inalienable. Examples include Sensorica, Backfeed, CoMakery and MetaMaps. Open Value Accounting also highlights invisible work, which leads us to…

*Feminist Economics: This school of economic thought also asserts value sovereignty by challenging normative notions of economic abstraction — something very persistent in the blockchain space. Feminist Economics proposes a more holistic approach to the very idea of “the economy,” factoring in often-invisibilized and unpaid factors such as care work, human connection, interdependency and emotional labor into economic theory. Examples abound, yet are often hidden.  

Besides synthesizing these previously too-often segregated components, DisCOs also follow a set of basic organizing principles intended to determine the character of the larger system formed by their interlinkage. They are value-oriented, rather than value-agnostic, insofar as they’re guided by social and environmental priorities. They are governed by multiple stakeholder constituencies. They are geared towards sustaining and expanding the commons. Although their physical activities are local, in accordance with the Cosmolocalism, or “Design Global, Manufacture Local” principle, they share “resources and value flows” globally with like-minded nodes. They are “centered on care work,” both in their treatment of the DisCO itself as an entity that needs care and in their attention to member needs. They use a value tracking system that emphasizes pro-bono/commons-generating value and care work value, which sustain the collective from within, equally alongside “livelihood value” that brings in revenue from outside. And they pursue a federative logic that promotes their coalescence into a distributed system of governance.

Although DisCO uses the blockchain architecture, it does so in a way that treats blockchain as secondary to all the above-stated values and uses it to facilitate them. One use is the Community Algorithmic Trust (CAT) platform, which performs the value tracking functions within a node.

DisCOs is not intended as a monolithic, one-size-fits-all template. It is open to cooperation and engagement with organizations in the Social Solidarity Economy ecosystem that prefer other organizational models.

DisCO reminds me a bit of the phyle model, in that like the phyle (whose theory was derived from the praxis of an organizational prototype, the Las Indias phyle), the DisCO model was pioneered by the Guerrilla Translation/Media Collective. Guerrilla Translation was formed in 2013, and reorganized on the DisCO model in 2018. Like Las Indias, Guerrilla Translation/Media is gradually turning into an umbrella network as it spins off functionally differentiated nodes. One such node, Guerrilla Agitprop, governs Commons Transition. Meanwhile, some large organizations like Smart Coop with 35,000 members, are exploring the possibility of adopting the DisCO model.

You can also get a quick summary of the basic ideas of the DisCO model in a video on YouTube.

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