Brendan Martin was deeply moved by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis's 2004 documentary, The Take, about worker takeovers of abandoned Argentinean factories. Young and idealistic, Martin had left Wall Street with a little bit of money and a lot of ambition. He cornered Lewis in the movie theater lobby after the premiere with a plan to go to Argentina to start a loan fund.
Fast-forward twelve years: Martins group, The Working World, has invested millions of dollars in co-ops in Argentina, Nicaragua, and now the United States. The loan fund operates on a model that puts people before profits, and still has achieved a 98 percent repayment rate.
When I caught up with Martin earlier this year, he had just taken part in a panel about platform cooperativism, where academics, activists, and entrepreneurs discussed how worker-owned cooperatives could design their own app-based platforms (like Uber). Platform cooperativism, an idea that is still in its infancy, holds that workers should own and control the apps that sell their labor. (Ours to Hack and to Own, an upcoming book to which Martin is a contributor, will describe the concept and help advance the cause.)
Martin sees the most transformative templates for the future of work in the history of labor, uprisings, and worker-ownership.
Q: Can you talk about this idea, "Tech is a new place to have an old battle," as you put it? I'm curious what "the battle" looks like at this moment in time.
Brendan Martin: We are told by proponents of the sharing economy, "This is sharing in a new way," even when this sharing of your house, car, or labor is done through a central authority that is answerable only to investors. One of the things I struggle with about platform cooperativism is there's a little bit of this now-fetishism, future-fetishism. Everyone wants to tell us that "everything is different now." The last time we were told everything is different now was when they told us the Internet economy is different, the business cycle was over, and profits weren't necessary. And then we had the Internet bubble burst followed by the Great Recession. I get concerned when people tell us to forget about history; that itself is part of a useful amnesia that people in power use against us.
Q: Can you give an example?
Martin: Imagine you worked in a factory where everyone makes shoes on their own, and one day you said, "Let's share our labor and make shoes together, it's more productive." That could have been sold as the...