citizen-learners

Crooked Broker Capitalists

Dave Pollard (2007) showed that in a ‘crooked broker society’, an Exploiter oppresses a Desperate Supplier. This unbalanced relationship is reinforced by a Procurer who in turn gouges an Addicted Buyer. It’s the underlying nature of unregulated capitalism that drives us toward such a society. For example, Peter Thiel, a platform capitalist, wrote that, “If you want to create and capture lasting value, look to build a monopoly.”

In platform capitalism, workers (labour) are the desperate suppliers, exploited by the platform (e.g. Über, Amazon, Google, AirBNB) once it has a monopoly as the medium of exchange. Various middle-men then become the procurers, gouging not just customers but also public services paid by citizens.

In 1881 Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote that, “When monopolies succeed, the people fail …”, in his piece denouncing the practices of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. In 1967, John Kenneth Galbraith warned of the dangers of blindly having faith in our corporate systems.

“The greater danger is in the subordination of belief to the needs of the modern industrial system … These are that technology is always good; that economic growth is always good; that firms must always expand; that consumption of goods is the principal source of happiness; that idleness is wicked; and that nothing should interfere with the priority we accord to technology, growth, and increased consumption.”

Platform capitalism is beginning to define the economy for the second Gilded Age we are entering. It requires four contributing factors, in my opinion, which when combined create a perfect opportunity for the ‘uberization’ of almost any industry.

  1. A platform — a mobile application delivered through an oligopoly like iTunes or Google Play.
  2. A critical mass of users — upwardly mobile knowledge workers, especially those in Silicon Valley or the tech sector.
  3. Desperate service providers — people with no ability to organize due to weak or non-existing trade unions in their field, who see opportunities for better cash flow.
  4. Lack of regulations and oversight — bureaucracies that either cannot keep up with technology advances, or political leadership that condones poor working conditions in the name of progress.

Today, work that can be billed by the hour is becoming a commodity. Any work that can be standardized is a commodity in the eyes of platform capitalists. Any work that can be represented as a flowchart, and eventually put into a software program, is a commodity. The future of labour is in complex and creative human work that cannot be commodified. So what can we do?

Political cartoon 1904

Citizen-learners

Social learning can help us counter the negative effects of platform capitalism. Collectively we are smarter than any corporation. Learning through communities of practice and knowledge networks enables us to make collective sense. Over the years I have met many people in their 40’s or 50’s who suddenly find themselves without work. Most of them do not have a professional network beyond their organization where they may have worked for a decade or more. Once outside the company, they are adrift.

Being an active citizen-learner by connecting with others outside our everyday lives can expose us to a diversity of skills, knowledge, and perspectives. In a creative economy we are only as good as our networks. An effective network encourages us to keep learning. A good community of practice changes our practice. The more often we change, the better we get at it. For example, my Personal Knowledge Mastery framework was developed from the necessity to develop skills to be competitive in the consulting market. The practice of PKM is one way to push ourselves to keep on learning. Active learning in social networks is no longer a luxury.

We don’t need heroic leaders to create better ways of working. Anyone can exercise leadership by helping make the network smarter, more resilient, and able to make better decisions. Citizen-learners can create better ways of working. There are already several examples of liberated companies. We just need many more.

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