After the 2017 General Election it seemed that the Labour Party’s combination of a mass membership, a transformative policy platform, and an effective online strategy might be enough to counterbalance the right-wing bias of the print media and the establishment orientation of the BBC. But this turned out to be an illusion. In 2019 Corbyn’s Labour Party was compelled to fight an election on terrain it did not choose, and nothing it did could spring it from the three-word confines of ‘Get Brexit Done.’
Since then a great deal of energy on the left has gone into apportioning blame. But Labour’s defeat last December was part of a larger pattern. The destruction of Bernie Sanders’ US presidential campaign in the studios of MSNBC followed only a few months later. The simple truth is that, while the transatlantic left has been able to develop policies to address the crisis that began to coalesce in 2008 around economic stagnation and environmental collapse, we lack the means to convert them into a broadly accepted plan of action. Many of these policies are popular. But we cannot persuade sufficient numbers that they are popular. The problem is overwhelmingly one of communicative weakness. Meanwhile, the right broadly defined has almost unlimited power to reach mainstream liberal and conservative voters with their messaging – and to tell them that no one else supports policies like universal healthcare or de-privatisation.
The UK labour movement should be moving to address this communicative weakness. Their reluctance to do so is as baffling as it is infuriating. At the moment the co-op movement advertises in the Spectator and senior trade union officials are happy to insist that ‘it isn’t their job’ to fund left media. I suppose the idea is that all those pamphlets and newspapers, all those libraries, book clubs and public talks in which the early labour movement invested so much were a waste of time and money, and the 1945 election result was only a happy coincidence.
There’s not much we can do to wake up the sleeping institutions of organised labour, and it is pointless to fret about something beyond our control. But smaller groups of trade unionists and co-operators can start putting together a left media infrastructure capable of challenging the right’s dominance of the communicative space. If they are to succeed, this infrastructure must securely embed audiences in the governance of the institutions that they fund, and on which they rely. It is this principle, and this principle alone, that holds out the prospect of media regime that can out-compete and steadily marginalise the existing mainstream.
It isn’t enough to create content for the left understood as a niche demographic. Publishers organised on capitalist lines already do this, and they have enjoyed windfall profits in the years since 2008, as graduates denied access to the middle class look for explanations. The aim must be to create left media that reaches, and re-constitutes, mass audiences. This re-constitution is to be achieved through the provision of content, certainly. But just as important will be the creation of a constellation of institutions that amount to more than the sum of their parts; internal cooperation at the point of production echoed and amplified by cooperation at the point of distribution. Cooperation itself must become an obtrusive feature of media production, even as our media fosters cooperation in the broader economy.
If this is to happen we need a platform on which audiences and producers of content can come together on clearly defined cooperative lines. We can already see something like this, in outline at least. The publication Mutual Interest is an media cooperative that uses a payment processing system called Open Collective, managed by a ‘fiscal host’, the Platform 6 Co-op. Mutual Interest ends up paying 2% in transaction fees to Open Collective and Platform 6. This is less than a third of the amount Patreon charges (7%). And any surplus goes to supporting new co-ops.
Mutual Interest specialises in articles about the cooperative and mutual sector. The revenues received from members pay writers a fixed fee and members also allocate extra funds every month to their favourite articles. In this way members are encouraged to take an active interest in what’s published. Mutual Interest runs its governance on Loomio, another co-operatively developed resource. The result builds in a relationship between the writers of Mutual Interest and their supporter-subscribers, and the surplus feeds back into the cooperative sector. All the content goes ‘free to air’.
At the moment podcasters, video producers and writers who want to operate in the same way as Mutual Interest have to host their own content. This means that they have to be quite well established and quite technically sophisticated. Capitalist platforms like Patreon and Substack offer very small media operations a simple way to start collecting revenues, with very few questions asked. Matt Christman has described how he set up Chapo Trap House’s Patreon account in an afternoon, with no real clue how many people would sign up. From Chapo’s point of view, establishing the subscriber model was essentially risk free. But if Patreon charges Chapo 7% in fees it now make about £10,000 a month from that one business.
A cooperative platform would want to offer the same simplicity as Patreon. But it would also formalise a relationship between producers and supporter-subscribers that protects the interests of both. At the moment that a cooperative media operation is launched it would choose from a range of governance options that bring its subscribers into a meaningful partnership with its workers, and that make content available to larger audiences in ways that promote the cooperative sector. To repeat, it is these steps that offers cooperative media its structural advantage over capitalist rivals. Capitalists only invest in institutional forms that guarantee that their interests predominate. Why shouldn’t everyone else?
This platform would host audio-visual and text content, handle payments and provide paywalls as required. It would enable publishers to keep transparent records of their expenditure. It would provide an easy route into ebook, audiobook and print for publishers. And it would allow institutional aggregators to distribute funds to cooperative outlets in a way that reflects the wishes of their members. If, for example, Momentum creates a media fund to support left media, a platform like this would provide them with a simple, and cost effective, way to do so.
When trade unions and other left organisations finally starting putting resources into the media sector, a co-operative platform would make it easier for their members to organise the process ‘from the ground up’, and harder for senior managers to squander money on silly ideas that catch their eye. And when a radical reforming government is finally elected in the UK, or at the federal or state level in the US, this platform will provide a template for a system of public media provision that replaces outmoded notions of public service or market competition with robustly democratic governance. At the moment we struggle to imagine what democratic media looks like, and the media institutions that currently reach large audiences work hard to keep it that way.
Corbyn’s Labour Party and the Sanders campaign both showed that the energy and the imagination the left needs are not well represented in those institutions that currently control its cashflows. In the realm of political education, for example, the World Transformed in the UK has vastly out-performed the established organisations of the Labour movement on a tiny fraction of their budget. The more money that can be prised away from bureaucrats and put into the hands of members, the more scope for experimentation and innovation there will be – and if the money predominantly flows into cooperative organisations, the media sector can become an engine for cooperative formation and consolidation in other sectors. Strategies that focus on securing paid or earned coverage in mainstream outlets can be replaced by an approach to communications that itself tells a story – imagine if the Sanders campaign had used all the money it spent on television ads in 2020 providing start-up funding to a network of cooperative media outlets. Instead of painstakingly building electoral campaigns from scratch such a network would have been a permanent source of organisational and communicative power, controlled by its members.
At the moment Patreon, Substack, PayPal and a handful of other intermediaries hoover up enormous amounts of money from doing only some of what a fully realised media platform would do. A ‘turn-key’ cooperative alternative would allow start-ups – local news providers, investigative teams, policy shops, individual writers etc. – to establish themselves and begin piecing together a support base. Individuals and small teams of producers could come together on clearly defined terms – secure in the knowledge that their contributions will be valued, and that whatever they create won’t eventually be sold off. Such a platform would also allow social movements that want to extend their communicative reach to build their own editorial apparatus, in which the core audience are established as governors from the outset. Content from multiple sources could then be brought together and formatted to target particular demographics, to exploit particular opportunities, to develop particular political and social possibilities. The success of any particular approach will feed resources and attention to the co-operative media sector as a whole.
A non-capitalist platform would commit its users to baseline editorial standards. These would fall far short of ideological purity: it’s clear that the left is much more effective when one faction doesn’t pretend that it has all the answers. A cooperative platform would want to host plenty of content that was ‘apolitical’, anyway. Its radicalism would derive at least as much from its cooperative form as from its content. And besides, a platform that refuses to host fascist and fascist-adjacent content would immediately send a message about how much it differs from the UK’s capitalist and state media. Governance at the level of the platform would mirror the governance of individual outlets: members would be organised and resourced to ensure that pernicious content and bad faith producers is removed speedily.
This platform would protect the rights of workers on it and it would establish limits on wage inequality, so that no one is paid more than a set multiple of the UK median income. This would be another source of structural advantage: instead of creating a handful of extremely rich ‘winners’, a cooperative media platform would create a stronger cooperative sector as a whole – surpluses would flow into new employment and investment in a widening circle of enterprises. Media workers who are good at what they do would be encouraged to find cooperative means to improve their quality of life outside the workplace. At the moment we have nothing immediately at hand but the capitalist fantasy of escape to an offshore paradise – a cooperative platform could tip its workers towards making the places they find themselves into a paradise firmly onshore.
A left media system that reproduces the dynamics of success-through-competition of the capitalist media is doomed to remain a niche offering. To succeed it must describe and promote another kind of life altogether. It should be understood as providing much more than political coverage in the conventional sense. Its organisation as a cooperative endeavour is part of the message it is conveying. And, as cooperation becomes a source of economic advantage, rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ extra, the content can reach out into cultural and social terrains that are currently dominated by the implicit needs of the advertising industry. Indeed, the structure itself can become the equivalent of the capitalist advertising and public relations sectors. Everyone seeking a non-manipulative relationship with their audience would have access to a platform that rewards them for that.
The platform would impose or encourage certain kinds of cooperation between publications. For example, paywalled content could be made available to others in the network on defined terms. In this way, small operations could take advantage of a common pool of journalism, analysis, graphic design etc to help build an audience. Over time, as they become larger, they can feed material back to others. Indeed, by capping salaries, the platform will push successful operations to grow by channelling funds to new operations that complement their own. Cooperation of this kind might encourage a new articulation of journalism altogether, as insights and investigative findings from plural perspectives and locations feed into a different, better account of the social world. The national and transnational layers no longer come into being as products of detached, imperial speech. They are pieced together from, by, and for their constituent elements – which is to say, from, by and for us.
But we can’t stamp our feet and create a platform that serves and promotes cooperative values against those of the capitalist class and their allies in the state. It takes time and money to develop what we need. Fortunately, some of us have been able to save significant amounts during the pandemic. There are few options for savers. It would be reasonably simple to use something like Open Collective to raise the necessary funds in the form of loans that would pay interest, or be repaid, if and when the platform begins to generate a surplus. Small investors will then have a reason to promote the platform once it is launched – if it doesn’t start generating revenues, they don’t get their money back, never mind any interest. In this way we can develop a kind of solidarity investment to build cooperative infrastructures – starting with the media, but, again, extending outwards into other fields.
A project of this kind cannot, must not, have a capitalist structure. It must be cooperative in its bones. If we are to create a new media regime we have to create a new model of what it means to live well. Instead of the billionaire founder bestriding the world like a colossus, we will promote and create the cooperator who works, and spends money, to protect their interests – whether they work in media production, or rely on media production to make sense of their lives and the choices they face. Instead of a tiny number of endlessly celebrated winners, each of us wins by building collective capacity that we share. And this collective capacity feeds back into a more fully achieved individual flourishing, instead of the monstrous bloating of the self that now passes for success.
If we are serious about social transformation, then we have a responsibility to show people who are sceptical that what we want is practical, and that our chosen methods can be effective. A strong cooperative media sector that supports the creation of a cooperative commonwealth will be a powerful communicative asset in future political contests. But it will also serve as a worked example of the world we say we want, in which contributions to the common good are rewarded and attempts to shore up arbitrary power are challenged effectively.
Cooperative media outlets, articulated along these lines, will allow each of us to take an equal piece of the communicative power currently hoarded by the ruling class. They will make it possible for us to develop and share better, more robust, descriptions of the ourselves, each other and the world. They will allow us to dismantle the thought worlds created by the corporate media. They will be better for our mental and physical health. Above all, they will be be more interesting than the media that we must now drive to the margins of our shared life.