Discussion: Alternatives to Capitalist Structures (June 2019)

Jul 08, 2019

Kelsey Breseman, Data Together

Many of the issues with current data ownership models tie back to monetization: influence from advertisers, reduction in privacy, and concentrated corporate data ownership. These issues are often justified by the imperative to deliver value to shareholders.

If the levers of capitalism place it in opposition to just data practices, can we imagine an alternative? What systems are practiced or envisioned outside of capitalism? What is their power, and what do they center?

These broad reading selections to look at different visions of not only what a future could be, but also what a transition state might entail.

In this session, we range from Kathi Weeks' “The Problem with Work” and an interview of Silvia Federici, both discussing labor history and labor movements through a Marxist and feminist lens; to J.K. Gibson-Graham, Arturo Escobar, and Peter Frase’s essays exploring new framings of human relationship to the economy; to imaginaries such as Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway and pragmatic constructive writings on the cooperative principles.

Scroll to the bottom of the post for a full list of readings and links.

Upward view of the sky through a circular opening in an ornate ceiling

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Framing the role of economics in society

KELSEY: I spent a lot of today turning our last Data Together discussion, on Civics, into a blog post, and so that framing has been on my mind.

It feels like one of the reasons people don’t participate or engage more as citizens, as people who define or question systems, or otherwise participate, is that, especially in the United States, the way to be a good citizen is to do work, to drive the GDP. It’s an all-consuming drive that appears to be individualistic, that drives powers that we don’t understand.

Weeks, 8:

That individuals should work is fundamental to the basic social contract; indeed, working is part of what is supposed to transform subjects into the independent individuals of the liberal imaginary, and for that reason, is treated as a basic obligation of citizenship.

It’s not even really individualistic, right? You’re working towards a goal, it’s just not a goal that you necessarily understand or agree with.

Weeks speaks to this, too:

Weeks, 8:

Dreams of individual accomplishment and desires to contribute to the common good become firmly attached to waged work, where they can be hijacked to rather different ends: to produce neither individual riches nor social wealth, but privately appropriated surplus value.

And then at the end of the day, you’re too tired to do anything else.

I see this as a major tension between our current capitalist system and a world with more ideal civic engagement.

This is one of the reasons I’m excited to discuss work and capitalism with this group: how do we engage with the problem of “work”? Can we imagine a different structure to society?

DAWN: I felt like there were two genres or groups of writing in these reading selections. The first genre builds an imaginary of other structures: Walkaway, and Frase: “Four Futures”. The other genre is more transitional, trying to think about structures that exist right now that speak to a desire for alternatives.

I saw Frase’s “Four Futures” as a walk of plausibility. If we don’t figure out equitable distribution of resources, or address power and hierarchy, I see exterminism as our most likely future.

Frase explored four quadrants mapping the spectrum of egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, against abundance vs. scarcity:

Egalitarianism Hierarchy
Abundance Communism Rentism
Scarcity Socialism Exterminism

Egalitarianism and abundance would be communism; hierarchy and abundance is rentism; egalitarianism and scarcity would be socialism; and hierarchy and scarcity is exterminism, an intentional 1%/99%-type divide.

From exterminism, either of socialism and rentism is an attenuation down one axis or the other: toward egalitarianism, or toward abundance, respectively. Can we address inequality enough to get to socialism?

I’m curious what people thought about Frase’s outlined futures, or other futures you’ve found in scifi, that are dealing with some of these themes.

What were people’s thoughts on the four futures outlined in the Frase piece?

KELSEY: The section on “rentism” struck me as closest to what we think about in Data Together.

Frase’s definition of rentism is essentially the concept of intellectual property: a thing’s design is shareable, but in order to make sure the person who invented the thing is properly compensated, any time the design gets used, the designer gets paid.

Ownership and intellectual property

BRENDAN: The book that I have read that most closely speaks to this is Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?” which proposes a theory of how to do author attribution at scale.

Basically, he says, we need two-way links. When I make a thing, everything that uses my thing can link to it and from it. And we need to re-terraform the Internet to accommodate attribution at an atomic level.

He thinks that every time you have a thought, your one piece of DNA that you contributed would– if it leads to a genetic revolution, or some new drug– be wildly compensated, because you own that thing.

I’m really not a fan. Personally, in my relationship to making things– I don’t do it for the sense of ownership. I think that if we get down to it, the reason that we make things, and the reason that we exist is some attempt to connect to each other, on a more emotional plane, personally. I think that building economies around that is overly convoluted.

KELSEY: Right. This seems like it’s a good thing that rewards artists, creatives, and inventors. Except, everyone has to pay, all the time, and if there’s an unequal initial condition, there’s strong potential for continued class divide– the rich buy out licenses, for example. It’s classified as “abundance” because material goods are plentiful, but doesn’t feel like abundance to everyone living in the system.

ROB: I’ve never been convinced by the major modern techno-philosophical argument that everything ultimately reduces down to intellectual property.

KELSEY: “Intellectual property” as a concept strikes me as a major barrier to a state of abundance.

In Cory Doctorow’s novel Walkaway, most human needs can be easily fabricated using freely licensed open source designs. It’s part of the free society’s abundance. From the excerpt:

It doesn’t work at all in theory. In theory, we’re selfish assholes who want more than our neighbors, can’t be happy with a lot if someone else has a lot more. In theory, someone will walk into this place when no one’s around and take everything. In theory, it’s bullshit. This stuff only works in practice. In theory, it’s a mess.

In Doctorow’s novel Walkaway, “Walkawayers” are people who disengage from employment and capitalism and literally walk away from dystopian “civilization”. The novel explores several formations of community outside of the status quo, but focuses on a post-scarcity gift economy in which most menial tasks are automated and goods can in general be fabricated.

EBEN: Walkawayers are definitely walking out on society, but with a purpose.

ROB: I thought it was interesting in Walkaway that the ethic was, ultimately, walking away from the idea of possessing things. Going walkaway was only a physical act only insofar as, if somebody wants to possess something, it is much harder to carry it there.

DAWN: In the excerpt, Doctorow starts to develop some of the mechanics of how post-scarcity might operate. You have things that you carry with you for a while, but you’re okay with it if they disappear.

Later in the book, there’s a confrontation between a guy who wants to gamify everything, mapping contributions to power in the community, and one of the protagonists, who operates in a gift economy model, where nothing is measured. It raises the question, in a world without possessions, what are the forms of social cohesion?

Incremental versus transformative change

BRENDAN: When we’re talking about alternatives to capitalist structures, it’s such a big thing. Capitalism underpins everything. We’re talking about reshaping society.

I feel that it has a very paralytic effect: who am I to be thinking on this level, or who are we? That tends to scare me very quickly into small change.

But I think that the older you get, the more you realize that all actions, including no action, contain massive risk. So maybe there isn’t a distinction between really, really big shifts and really small shifts.

KELSEY: I love that, Brendan; it actually relates directly to a piece I pulled out of Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emergent Strategy”, in the part on Creating More Possibilities. She has this idea that you can’t always work through small change. Sometimes you have to change everything.

Recently, I was trying to explain my excitement for the Green New Deal in a living room conversation with my parents. They were asking, why are they taking on jobs, zero for emissions, everything at once? It’ll never pass.

But I wouldn’t be excited about it if it was anything less than everything. Is it going to solve everything? Is it going to do justice to the ideals? Probably not, but at least it changes everything.

DAWN: That reminds me of The (International) Noise Conspiracy, which has a song called “It’s a Small Demand”. The chorus is:

All we ever wanted was just everything All we ever needed was just everyone This is a small demand, it’s a small demand This is a small demand, it’s a small demand

I think the scale of what needs to change is part of what gives me pause about incrementalism.

Here in Canada, the original language around our equivalent of a Green New Deal was “Just Transition”. In the concept of “Just Transition”, an incremental model means we’re going to spend decades researching clean coal, and give provinces the option to do that, rather than stop having coal plants. That also is the model that allows the federal government to buy a pipeline, because it will be better run than before.

There are these ways in which incrementalism keeps you on a set track– or at least, that is how it has played out at a policy and government level.

Or, there are ways in which these things need to be addressed at their intersection with another full set of issues. It can be hard to do that if those issues have not been historically linked. So forcing a conversation about jobs and climate offers something that might not come out if they were pursued as distinct policy tracks.

BRENDAN: I could not agree more, and I could not be more terrified.

I really love that approach, and I totally agree; there are so many things that are such wicked problems.

The original New Deal addressed many categories of problems for which the only justifiable, or the best, course of action was to break a whole bunch of things and start over.

Nowadays, there’s a real question about how we can engage with that practically. It’s particularly difficult in the U.S., with its very entrenched political system, but we can also look at it from a technological perspective.

In my own work on Qri, I just had a conversation about this the other day– some other project was building essentially Git for data. Someone asked me, why build Qri? How are you different from this Git for data thing? The answer is that sometimes, you have to redo the whole thing. There are problems that are intrinsically connected, and you have to solve them all at once.

DAWN: I’ve reinforced this, so I should check myself: there is not a binary that you have to be either/or in terms of radical versus incremental change. There are people who use different framings, like Donella Meadows on leverage points and ways to intervene in a system.

Most people who want radical change still participate in incremental change anyway. I don’t think you can only be one or the other.

Things are so complex and interwoven that it’s hard for me even to imagine what the small steps in isolation would be that would have enough impact.

The role of money

KELSEY: One thing that I want to make sure we talk about is the idea of money as a thing that can be converted into anything else. I think that’s one of the foundational tenets of our system.

You can follow the logic of money to a certain extent: things that are valued, you should be rewarded for. And you should be rewarded in ways that don’t control you; the barter system isn’t just inconvenient, it’s very limiting. Money, as this thing that can be converted into any other kind of money or good, makes sense in a lot of ways

But this very convertibility also creates totally absurd dichotomies. For example, if I go to southeast Asia, I’m suddenly very much richer than I am at home in the United States. Or even if you were to stay in one place, say, San Francisco, for $150, you can buy a cheap smartphone, or three really nice dinners, or a medical check-up, or the experience of skydiving, or an airplane ticket to Seattle. Those are all things that really do not convert to one another, but can suddenly be compared in a really quantitative way.

DAWN: This relates to the Hayek efficiency of markets argument that I’m not sure I agree with.

The efficient-market hypothesis is the theory that prices reflect all of the available information in the market, justifying the rationality of comparing disparate purchasable goods.

KELSEY: When I hosted our first decentralized web meetup here in Seattle, some of the people who showed up were working on Filecoin. The idea of Filecoin is to incentivize decentralized file storage by rewarding you in coin. It’s a really interesting idea, and might be what the decentralized web needs in order to take off. But the decentralized web is this forming, potentially revolutionary thing, and I worry that starting with incentives may be a wrong thing.

ROB: Maybe more specifically, starting with extrinsic incentives.

BRENDAN: I find it so interesting how some of these conversations collide. If you go deep into the Filecoin repo, there’s an issue that suggests a feature that allows you to pay in Filecoin to speed up access to files. My brain immediately draws a parallel to a two-tier healthcare system.

In Canada, we’ve talked about this notion of paying for better access to healthcare. That debate is in no way settled, but there are dramatic implications.

I love the way, Kelsey, you were contrasting that with barter systems, which seem more limited, but also have a more broad definition of exchange. I find that to be the definition of the alternative to a capitalist structure. I’m all for it.

DAWN: I think that money is not always an incentive. There has actually been a ton of work pushing back on the idea of the work that money does when it moves in a market.

The classical liberal formulation, from von Mises and Hayek, and I think Weber is that money is good because prices are one of the most efficient ways to communicate information in a market model. I don’t know if I agree with that.

It was also a way to take down more forms of planning, a more socialist model. Classical liberalism came out of a different era, and we should not let that drive the conversation now.

The idea of incentivization is so tied to it.

When everything goes back to a currency, there is a point where you acknowledge the importance of flexibility. But also at a structural level, you have to think about what other levers there are.

I’m very unsure about the market mechanic model that a lot of technology projects are starting with. I don’t know if markets are the right way to address all of these problems.

BRENDAN: Dawn, I agree.

EBEN: What you were talking about, Brendan, with Filecoin, seems a lot like net neutrality, which is kind of scary. I know in the U.S. now, Comcast and other internet service providers can insert ads between you and your service provider. That could easily bleed into paying for access.

However, money is a good incentive for a lot of people at the moment. So I think it’s helpful to identify ways to make that work. In terms of software, there are a lot of companies that will do some stuff open source, and then pay the bills by providing support or higher-tiered access. That’s sort of like two-tiered healthcare, but it also is a way to support this kind of market while still providing stuff for free.

KELSEY: Do we have the language to critique that?

Alternatives to capitalism in a capitalist world

DAWN: JK Gibson-Graham tried to think about giving ourselves these languages.

One of the three strategies in their reading selection here is the strategy of redefining the economy. On this topic, their book “Take Back the Economy” was a little bit more practical. It’s a redefinition of what is understood about economy, or economic practices.

They profiled several examples of ways that people have tried to make the economy work in a different way, which I think helps unpack some of the assumptions that are understood as necessary. That is, necessary to support distinct people making their livelihoods far away from each other– a key challenge where people see a free market as a best solution.

Gibson-Graham tried building this example of something different. So maybe part of the tactic is to build that language together.

The article by GEO offers something as well. This piece is GEO writing along the seven co-operative principles, which were adopted in the mid-1800’s, the Rochdale principles. GEO is a worker co-operative, but their whole goal is to catalyze more worker co-ops. GEO is an acronym: Grassroots Economic Organizing.

The seven cooperative principles as listed in the GEO article are:

  1. Voluntary and open membership
  2. Democratic member control
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and independence
  5. Education, training and information
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives
  7. Concern for community

EBEN: A very large co-op in Cambridge (Boston) just failed this year after 25 years in business. It probably failed for a lot of reasons, but it seemed like, from their frantic emails trying to get people to shop there, that they got squeezed out by a Whole Foods that moved into the area. Rent was increasing, and they were competing with this national chain that a lot of people shopped at and that had a reputation.

It was interesting to read this article about these cooperative principles that this local institution had, and had held for a long time in this urban environment where a lot of people that are passionate about this kind of thing. It was unfortunate to see it not work on the ground, due to markets and the economics.

BRENDAN: I think that brings up a really interesting point, Eben. On many levels, the criticism of alternatives to capitalist structures is that it has to be better than capitalism. If it’s not better out of the gates, then it’s not respected as truly an alternative.

That conversation feels very faded. Whole Foods has a massive corporation just juicing money into its operation, that you quite literally have no capacity to argue with. If that co-op poured all their resources in, Amazon still has every incentive to put in whatever figure they’ve put in, plus some percentage.

When we talk about alternatives, it can often be a very frustrating framing, where it very much feels like the electric car versus the combustion engine; it’s a herculean lift to come up with something that performs at the efficiency of the current incumbent process. That can be really frustrating.

Funding and the chance at failing up

KELSEY: But sometimes something small and new can outperform a megalith. Brendan, why do you think that startups sometimes succeed where mega-companies fail in the same area?

BRENDAN: Do you want me to consume the rest of the call?

My favorite answer is by exploiting a strength and making it look like a weakness. For example, Microsoft had a lock hold on the operating system. The only thing that Red Hat could offer you that Microsoft couldn’t, was control. And so Red Hat published every line of source code, so that as a user, you could change the bug, you didn’t have to wait for someone at Microsoft to ship a fix.

That, combined with what I believe is a barter economy, allows you to compete at scale, which I think is really interesting. But I think you need that magic combination of some departure, a paradigm shift that also maps onto a familiar metaphor, which is really, really difficult.

I’m also frustrated by the fact that in our startup world, we throw thousands of these companies at these problems, and because, as Dawn alluded to, of the inherent complexities of these systems, success is so driven by timing, and luck.

DAWN: I don’t think the authors of these pieces would disagree with that way of thinking.

Thinking about what path alternatives exist right now to support certain types of experimentation, there is an ecosystem to allow this Silicon Valley bubble of entrepreneurship and failure, people who get to fail up into another company.

Within that ecosystem, there are people who fail big, many times, and keep getting more money every step along the way. Even capitalist structures fail to outcompete out of the gates.

Federici and JK Gibson-Graham, in some of their broader work, try to reopen the assumptions that have been naturalized, or normalized. They ask us to start there, instead of working with all of the operating assumptions that make certain pathways possible.

Michelle Murphy, in The Economization of Life, and other famous scholars (not just feminists) have pointed out that it’s a lot of work to keep capitalism going. I think about that a lot, because I am disheartened that it keeps going. Why, if it takes so much work, does it keep going? How do we think about coordinating otherwise?

ROB: I think it takes a lot to make almost any system keep going.

BRENDAN: In Canada, we have this thing called FACTOR, standing grants to make a music video. I want to contrast that with the Silicon Valley chance to “fail up”, where VC money is, essentially, handouts to go take a kick at making something successful.

The Canadian government gives up to $20k to new Canadian artists to produce content, because we have a cultural mandate in Canada to produce Canadian content. Out of that has shaken Drake, Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Broken Social Scene, Arts & Crafts recording label, and a Canadian music scene that I’m deeply proud of.

It is a very similar, government-mandated simulation of a place where it is okay to fail.

The vast majority of those music videos that get made, are flops. But every now and then, somebody turns out something wonderful.

I think in so many ways, that’s not a capitalist system; it’s culture production. We want a Canadian national identity, so they just fund it outright.

Maybe it’s just the opportunity to fail that’s the thing that we really need to hone in on.

Employment, power, and passionate work

KELSEY: It’s interesting to have both me and Kevin on this call, because we both work for EDGI for money, but Kevin also volunteers for EDGI. I don’t.

Based on only that knowledge, I would suppose that Kevin must care a lot more. But that’s a false dichotomy; just because you get paid for something doesn’t mean you must care less. Rather, money means you might do something you otherwise would not.

ROB: That makes me think a lot about our trials and tribulations within EDGI with attempting to pay for people to do work on Web Monitoring.

Web Monitoring is a working group within EDGI (the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative) that continuously monitors and analyzes federal webpages for changes relating to communication about the environment.

There is a nuance between paying people to do work and compensating somebody who did work. Early on, we used the money to pay people to do work, to make sure that somebody was doing the work, and that largely failed. That doesn’t make it a failure as an idea, but it requires a certain kind of treatment and has a certain kind of result.

Now there’s this discussion around maybe trying to pay me, and the only way I can frame that in a way that doesn’t feel bullshit for myself, is that I’m not being paid to do work for EDGI; I’m being compensated for the amount of time I’m putting in for EDGI anyway, which is a really different way to think about it.

I think it comes back around to that sense of– in what ways can the sending of money, or capital, be less trade-based? That set of thoughts and nuances have been spinning in my head for the last several weeks.

KELSEY: I think that’s really interesting. In the Weeks book, there was a Marx quote:

One consents to give the other his or her labor power for a limited period of time, and in return, the other agrees to pay the first a specific amount of money. But to see what happens after the employment contract is signed, the analysis must now move to a different location, the site where the special commodity will be ‘consumed’. The activity of labor and the social relations that shape, direct, and manage it will be revealed as the locus of capitalist valorization.

I think that that’s a really interesting– it goes from being a barter to a giving of power. So if you compensate someone to do work, you might be reducing their agency or freedom; but if you give money for time spent or a job done, their agency is instead increased by the trade. It’s a bit like how indentured servitude is not the same as having paid with money. If your work has been paid for, you now have to do it.

There’s also something in there that speaks this concept of doing work that you would not have done without incentive, the work that nobody wants to do.

That is directly at odds with (also from Weeks) this concept of: not just the Protestant work ethic, but also this very modern concept that your work should be your passion. You should love what you do, and also get paid very well for it– and that’s what success looks like.

DAWN: There are two pieces that have always felt connected, to me, around this material and EDGI’s work.

The first thing that comes to mind, in Federici and in JK Gibson-Graham’s work, is a re-opening of space for possibility.

Gibson-Graham and Miller, “Economy as Ecological Livelihood”:

We have inherited a vision of “the economy” as a distinct sphere of human activity, marked off from the social, the political, and the ecological as a domain of individualized, monetized, rational, maximizing calculation. This economic sphere rests upon and utilizes an earthly base of (often invisible) ecologies that are swept up into its domain to become “resources,” passive inputs for production and consumption measured primarily by their market value.

I think Federici frames her work as “historical imagination”. She focuses really carefully on that transition period to capitalism, to try to understand why maybe it wasn’t inevitable. JK Gibson-Graham do similar work with this concept of economy.

EDGI does this same thing: it takes the familiar and asks us to think “how did we get here?” in order to think about ways to go somewhere else.

Incentivization and “drudgery”

ROB: Have any of you read “The Real World of Technology” by Ursula Franklin? I regularly buy copies of it so that I have some to give away to people. It explores the idea of framing technologies as control-oriented versus work-oriented, or process-oriented versus holistic.

One of the questions it poses is, is there value in directing people to do things? She discusses how we frame technologies– money, or other mechanisms: How can the tool help people and make the drudgery less, versus, how can we use the tool to control people to make sure they do the drudgery?

KELSEY: This reminds me of the “robots taking over our jobs” discussion. Is that a bad thing, if people are taken care of by their society? Should we want people to want to do drudgery? Recognizing, of course, that “if people are taken care of by their society” is a major unrealized precondition.

DAWN: In Alberta right now, there has been acknowledgement from conservative thinkers that most of the jobs that have been lost in the most recent economic downturn in the oil patch are not coming back. Some of the exploration jobs will return, but in the mechanical processing space, they have really changed how that work happens.

There’s now a situation where, mostly men from the age of 19 to 29, who didn’t go to school and who have been working in the oil patch, are now out of a job– maybe for a couple years now.

It is a significant cut to the amount of people who are doing this work, and the jobs aren’t coming back.

It’s not so straightforward an issue as– maybe we don’t want people to do this dangerous, or drudgery, work, because work is bound up in so many ideas, our identity, our role in society.

Weber talks about this in the selection that you had from the Weeks book. I don’t see anyone talking enough about that in the conversation around automation.

Weeks, 8:

The normative expectation of waged work has more to do with the socially mediating role of work than its strictly productive function. Work is the primary means by which individuals are integrated not only into the economic system, but also into social, political, and familial modes of cooperation.

Monetization of care work

KELSEY: What are people’s gut reactions to the concept of “Wages for Housework”? Or, expanding from housework to emotional labor more broadly?

KEVIN: I would be supportive of it, I just have no idea how it would be implemented.

Hurr,Sipping Tea with Silvia Federici":

Together with Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, Federici founded the International Feminist Collective, which started the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972. Federici went on to start Wages for Housework groups in Brooklyn and around the US. In 1975, Federici published the texts “Wages against Housework” and “Why Sexuality is Work,” which articulated the group’s central ideas: capitalism depends on the unwaged reproductive labor of the housewife – to give birth to new workers, feed and clothe them, and provide emotional support and stability in times of need and crisis. If housewives were to refuse to do this work, capitalism would be on the brink of collapse.

DAWN: I think part of what it does is point out some absurdities in the system of production. The act of realizing that would require such a transformation of society that we wouldn’t be in a system where individualized wage labor exists in the same way.

I don’t know if I would want to live in a world where everyone had their own time tracking app and tracked everything that they did all day. I could see dystopic implementations of it.

KELSEY: I have a pretty strong negative gut reaction to the idea of getting paid for emotional labor or housework. Care work– personally, I think you should do it because you care.

But then, I feel that way about all labor. I think work should be done because it matters to the worker. And we’re not in that world, so– it doesn’t make sense in our current framing.

I’m very interested to see what it looks like to have different versions of a life that you might care about living, compensated in different ways by the system that underpins it. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to be financially compensated for things that are important to do. You’d need to be in a system that appreciates them, instead.

DAWN: The motivation behind the campaign, as I understand it– there are two extra pieces which make me think it’s really important.

One is that this work is already getting done. Federici talks about transnational circuits of care, where women from Global South countries come and do care work in people’s homes. In some ways that is remunerated as labor, but it’s not treated as formal labor in the same way, so it can be exploited.

Bringing all reproductive labor under the notion of “work” forces us to address this unrecognized labor.

That’s one part: that there are types of already-paid care labor in exploitative work relations. The other part is where care work doesn’t even get considered work, but is actually totally necessary for people to do work.

Reproductive labor, care labor, is a requirement before there is “productive” labor. “Wages for Housework” is a way to say, let’s not allow the system to externalize this– similar to environmental costs.

*Hurr, “Sipping Tea with Silvia Federici”:

…the Wages for Housework campaign wasn’t only striving for ‘wages for housework’ as a main goal. Inspired by the Italian operaismo movement, as well as by the anti-colonial struggle, they used the wage as a strategy to shed light on how many functions of society were done in the isolation and invisibility of the home, disregarded as ‘unproductive,’ and how many wageless workers have actually contributed to the accumulation of capitalist wealth.

BRENDAN: Kelsey, I feel like I hear you articulating that there are things that should exist outside of the bounds of the economy. Like, we should be pushing things farther away from this more rigid system. Does that feel fair? Because I think there’s a question of, what is the scope of capitalism? Can we just contain it a little bit and have things that exist outside of it?

EBEN: I often wonder if sometimes money is, besides a motivation, an identifier. It makes people realize the value of something.

Maybe it’s what Brendan says, where that’s outside of a capitalist economy. Maybe they’re valued some other way besides a monetary return. But in the short term at least, money is a good way to recognize: you’re doing something of value.

KELSEY: Brendan was talking about how startups succeed by hitting an underexploited niche– I was thinking about how, with AirBnB, we have a version of waged housework, but it comes in the form of late-stage capitalism– or the exploitable labor Dawn was talking about.

When people open their own houses as AirBnBs– which they did especially when it was starting, setting aside the current more complex AirBnB issues around housing purchased for AirBnB “hosting”– they don’t think about it as “a job”. They think of it as a money-making scheme with extreme freedom, or as extra cash.

I’ve done a lot of AirBnB hosting in my home, and, per hour, it doesn’t pay well. It feels like you got a lot of money at the end of the day, if you just count the hours when you’re actively changing sheets or talking to guests. Especially if you don’t think of it as your “real job”.

But it’s not just the changing of the sheets. It’s the communication, the care, the vetting of people, the constant intention of hospitality in all aspects of your home and yourself.

DAWN: Yeah, it’s a way that that type of labor gets paid, but it gets paid in this system that individualizes it and still hides the labor. It moves the site of production closer to you, while still figuring out how to hide that as reproductive labor. But other worlds are possible.

There was a brief moment around pre-WWI where Vienna was run by hardcore socialists. The period is called Red Vienna, and they built all these child creches, and they actually re-architected the city along a Wages for Housework line, because they wanted women to not have to do all this unpaid labor.

Every apartment building had a communal laundry and bath, and child creche areas, where people were paid to do that work.

They did that 100 years ago! I think that speaks to a collectivist example.

Universal Basic Income

KELSEY: I shocked myself by putting zero universal basic income (UBI) readings on this reading list.

Where do you think the UBI concept falls on the spectrum of transformative versus incremental change?

DAWN: I think of UBI as a tool, a mechanism. UBI comes up among people who think more from a transition space, versus transformation. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a specific future.

Does it seem to you like there’s some tension in the different motivations going into who promotes UBI? Kelsey, you mentioned a UBI book by a labor organizer, but I think the other model is the capitalists, the Peter Thiels of the world.

KELSEY: Right! There are people who see UBI as a way to not have any kind of other safety net– and that is generally touted as the main way to get the funding for it. But there is a huge spectrum of motivations: some proponents are almost communist, while others see UBI as a tool to maximize libertarianism.

I recently saw a rally for Andrew Yang, who’s running for president on a UBI platform. One of the things he said in his speech was that Trump got elected because he identified the problems correctly (if not the solutions), but if we could figure out a system where people whose jobs have been taken away no longer are in such pain because of that, or have room to make a transition, maybe that solves that problem and moves that voter base. It’s an interesting take– although he’s only looking at $1,000 a month, which is not a real income.

I also saw something really interesting when I was first looking into UBI. There’s a reporter, I forget his name, who is funded on Patreon to write about UBI. He is funded up to a specific level, the UBI monthly salary he’s promoting, and then once he reached that, he puts all of the overage into other people’s UBI Patreons.

What I loved about this is that he had a very specific numeric income goal, and it was a maximum. He had decided it was enough. That’s so counter to the capitalist structure.

In classic capitalism, you’re supposed to keep going, take whatever you can get. Seeing that Patreon was paradigmatically different: this guy says that’s enough for him.

If you look at adrienne maree brown’s writing, some of it is about acknowledging the idea that you might already be in abundance. Letting go creates this space of plenty; you can cease striving, because there is already enough.

BRENDAN: Because I’m in the startup scene, I hang around way more capitalists than most of you. I see UBI as a massive extension of capitalism.

I deeply agree with Dawn’s assessment that UBI is a mechanism. If you look at consumption-based capitalism, when you run out of people who can spend money, you run into real problems. So one of the best ways you can keep consumer capitalism going is to just give the people money, so they can spend on your stuff, and you can keep the growth curve going. So I’m in no way surprised that Peter Thiel ends up on the UBI spectrum. If we’re running out of people who can buy our stuff, let’s make the government pay for people to buy our stuff.

Kelsey, you said something really interesting which relates back to Dawn’s question, which asks whether the framing is large enough. This question of, “what is enough,” is a cultural definition of greatness. Whether we’re all competing for money, or better cars, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a status symbol. It’s there, and it’s ingrained in our culture. I think that’s an intrinsic problem, that UBI has very little to say about.

I’m not anti-UBI, because I honestly think that you could do it the right way, but I think it’s a lot easier to have a conversation about taxes. And that, for me, is why the Green New Deal is really interesting, because you could just tax a lot more, and all of a sudden it’s a lot easier to put a damper on the people who are outrunning the economy.

We can talk about alternatives to capitalist structures, but we can also talk about alternatives to the present capitalist structure, which is wildly off track. But I can feel myself slipping into that incrementalist framing again, so maybe I should broaden.

DAWN: I think rentism is happening, or going to happen, because we’re in a decades-deep miasma, with internal, intra-country legal structures and international regulatory regimes that are actually predicated on respecting multinational corporations' intellectual property over even the legal rights, self-determination, and sovereignty of people in those countries.

ROB: That’s why the Sierra Club was opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which made for strange bedfellows with Trump in late 2016.

DAWN: That’s started to play out over environmental issues, but increasingly other issues as well.

Enforcement of intellectual property rights was clunky for a while in the early 2000’s around the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but enforcement systems in the digitally mediated space are getting very good now. So I see a convergence of that enforcement technology with the issues of sovereignty.

I think that to change the direction of those trends would be a major dismantlement. That is radical.


  1. Kathi Weeks (2011): The Problem with Work p5-8, 42-47, 51-57 Available at: libcom.org
  2. Hanna Hurr (2016): Silvia Federici interviewed in Mask Magazine Available at: maskmagazine.com/the-control-issue/struggle/interview-silvia-federici
  3. Cory Doctorow (2017): Walkaway (a novel) [Excerpt]. Available at: tor.com/2017/04/03/excerpts-cory-doctorow-walkaway-chapter-2/
  4. Gibson-Graham, J.K. and E. Miller (2015): “Economy as Ecological Livelihood” Available at: communityeconomies.org/publications/chapters/economy-ecological-livelihood
  5. Frase, Peter (2011): “Four Futures” Available at: jacobinmag.com/2011/12/four-futures/
  6. Michael Johnson (2012): The Cooperative Principles, the Common Good, and Solidarity Available at: geo.coop/story/cooperative-principles-common-good-and-solidarity
  7. Arturo Escobar (2018): Designs for the Pluriverse intro p7-21
  8. Optional All of Doctorow’s novel Walkaway
  9. Optional Adrienne Maree Brown (2017): Emergent Strategy Resilience, Creating More Possibilities p77-98
  10. Optional Nora Marks Dauenhauer (1990): Haa Tuwunáagu Yis on potlatch (jsoo.éex’) p75-109

BONUS Readings!

There were a lot of books mentioned in this discussion outside of the reading list. Though they didn’t all end up discussed in this post, I saved them as a reading list:




Data Together is a community of people building a better future for data. We engage in a monthly Reading Group on themes relevant to information and ethics. Our conversations takes place in a group of about a dozen people whose backgrounds include building decentralized web protocols and tools, archiving environmental data, academic research of ethical frameworks, community creation for citizen science, and more, with a lot of overlap.

This reading group is something your own collective can do too! We encourage you to draw on our notes document template for this month’s topic, which includes specific themes and discussion questions (the readings are listed at the end of this post). We hope that you’ll link your own discussion notes back to our posts, with any top level points you’d like to share with everyone else pursuing the month’s theme.

This blog post is derived from the conversation, but is not a replica of it; we rearrange and paraphrase throughout. See the recorded call for the full discussion!