November 6, 2019

If I Can’t Dance… A Foreword to the DisCO Manifesto

By Ruth Catlow. Extracted from the DisCO Manifesto.

The DisCO manifesto induces a song in the heart and a skip in the step to those who, like me, yearn to see varied collectives of self-organised people empowered through more distributed forms of governance. The DisCO’s cousins, the Decentralised Autonomous Organisations, promise to allow people to exchange economic value, to pool resources and form joint-ventures, without control from the centre, in ways that were impossible before blockchains; to agree on how risks and rewards should be distributed and to enjoy the benefits (or otherwise) of the shared activity in the future. However the core concepts of DAOs and crypto-economic mechanism design — incentives, penalties and secrecy — are not a natural starting point for most people forming new ventures together. Neither, funnily enough, is money. 

According to Elinor Ostrom institutions are what shape economics and, in turn, political and social change. The Nobel Prize-winning economist believed that rules and patterns of human interactions, and their co-production of value, were the source of economic flows. She also asserted the need for economics to use qualitative data to understand behaviour not just maths. By reframing the question from, “How can DAOs or blockchains help us?” to “Why do we need Open Distributed Cooperatives and how do we get them?” DisCOs throw open the door and invite whole new tribes to join together with the crypto-economists on the dancefloor of planetary-scale cooperation, to co-create new moves and movements for working people, and to form common pools of care and value. 

So what are DisCOs and why do we need them? Let’s take this one track at a time.

DisCOs are an approach to forming Distributed Open Cooperatives. 

  1. Why co-operatives? Because we need to inject democracy into our economic systems (and politics and society in turn). Funded by direct member investment, rather than investment from third-party shareholders, co-operative members “decide on the values of the enterprise, which don’t necessarily need to be about the maximization of profits.” Cooperatives succeed when values are aligned around communal benefit to pooling resources and a shared desire to “avoid anti-competitive or extractive behavior. Co-operatives offer a way for people to be rewarded for their labour while committing to shared social values. 
  1. Why Open-Value Cooperativism? Because we need to expand our economics and accounting to include care for living systems. Open-value cooperatives apply the logic of feminist economists like Marilyn Waring, to account for the care work vital to human prosperity and survival. They also acknowledge the value of intersectional approaches, currently ignored through the misleading narratives of our harmful economic systems. The huge cost to social and environmental justice of these systems are only now starting to be more widely acknowledged. 
  1. Why DAOs? Why distributed? To maximize radical and emancipatory cooperation across national borders (on- and off-chain) while operating within the laws locally (at least until we can change them). The promise of all DAOs is the development of interoperable, open source legal contracts, with a near zero-cost of organisation creation. This is about both cost efficiencies, and an invitation to imagine, design and build the organisations we need from the ground up, free (at first) from judicial constraints. These autonomous ‘ownerless’ organisations, or institutions, will each enable a pattern of interactions between its members. What is special about DisCOs though is their emphasis on lived experience, care and relations, and the uses and limits of “trustless” and “intelligent” machines. “We need to find ways to embrace not only technical solutions, but also people who have experience in community organizing and methods that foster trust, negotiate hierarchies, and embrace difference. Because there is no magic app for platform cooperativism. And there never will be.” (O’Dwyer, 2018)

DisCOs’ attention on local conditions and the corporeal bodies of those involved in the new joint ventures is a crucial injection for the otherwise abstract and dangerously necrotic mechanisms for interacting with ledgers that pervade the current DAOsphere. It encourages whole-body systems checks, in which economic flows are just one part of the living system in constant flux, in need of constant renewal. It discourages us from the quest for the perfect, finished mechanism design, and we turn our attention and intentions back to our lives together, and the next collaboration challenge.

The famous anarcha-feminist Emma Goldman said “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” … and we all know that the best dance floors are alive with a riot of new moves that just arrived from some foreign land, that we want to adopt and coordinate with.