⚡ Post-Capitalist Entrepreneurship

What worker coops and open source tell us about the future of capitalism

I started Reboot because I believe that technology is a product of the ideologies and the institutions it is brought up within. We can't analyze technology in a vacuum, nor can we solve its flaws with technical fixes alone.

Tuesday's talk with Yancey—notes here—reinforced this hypothesis. Sure, he's a startup founder, and he believes companies like Kickstarter can be a powerful force for good. At the same time, Yancey advocates for policymakers to institutionalize new value systems. He calls to create non-financial incentives and norms, similar to B-Corps and ESG standards, that we can optimize our behavior toward.

This is also why I'm excited to publish today's guest essay from my friend Jihad Esmail. He's a senior at Northwestern studying Economics, but is originally from Youngstown, Ohio, where he's been attending his Zoom classes from his basement-turned-office. Jihad co-founded AMA, a growth agency for digital creators, and publishes a weekly newsletter called PALACED, which touches on the ideas covered in this essay every week.


💡 post-capitalist entrepreneurship: iterative imagination

By Jihad Esmail

Over the last decade, the number of Americans holding a “positive view” of capitalism has consistently declined. Worldwide, even before the pandemic, 56% of respondents agreed with the statement that “capitalism does more harm than good.” As 2020 comes to a close, we can confidently say that this year did little to change people’s minds.

Staying home for the past several months left me with plenty of free time. Outside of Zoom School, I was able to dedicate most of my work time to my startup. In a way, it was like I was in a different world. I was growing a business from a desk in my basement while millions of Americans were losing jobs and closing businesses of their own.

I was left to grapple with these two ideas: like many, I believe that entrepreneurship can be an incredible tool for progress across virtually every metric. Yet I couldn’t ignore the fact that capitalism grows on the backs of entrepreneurs, with all of its flaws included.

That led me to ask the question: what could post-capitalist entrepreneurship look like? As I began to explore and have conversations with others, I was confronted with another, more pressing question: what actually is post-capitalism?

The term "post-capitalism" is vague, almost intentionally so. I was afraid to get any more specific than I had to, in no small part because I didn't know what I was advocating for. It was easy to read theory all day. It was easy to critique capitalism and all of its flaws and say "there must be another way!"

Imagining post-capitalist futures requires just that: imagination. In searching for a new way to reimagine entrepreneurship to be a tool for achieving these futures, I realized that it was the perfect tool for imagining them as well.

what is entrepreneurship?

Before going any further, let's define entrepreneurship.

While the dictionary definition refers specifically to taking business risks for profit, various redefinitions are commonly used. Political scientists have been using the team "political entrepreneur" for years to describe particularly innovative government officials. Non-profit founders are known as "entrepreneurial," despite explicitly rejecting the profit motive.

As such, economists Albert Link and Robert Hebert define entrepreneurship as "taking responsibility for and making decisions that affect the location, the form, and the use of goods, resources, or institutions."

This definition is much more abstract than simply taking on financial risk to start a business. It speaks to the ability of an entrepreneur to insert themself into the collective decision-making process on what our economic, social, and political infrastructure should look like, and how resources should be allocated as a result.

That level of impact is easy to see through a company like Facebook, which has fundamentally changed the way that we communicate and consume information. But even something as simple as a coffee shop has that sort of infrastructure-defining ability: the entrepreneur has made an active decision to define where coffee would be served, what the price would be, how people could gather in the space, and more.

The defining trait of the entrepreneur is the intentional decision to shape their small slice of the world's infrastructure and resources to their vision.

iterative imagination

Beginning to think about entrepreneurship on that level was eye-opening for me. It uncovered a world of possibility for me to work with those in my community to embed our values — whatever they may be — into the infrastructure around us.

However, the nagging question still remained: what would post-capitalist entrepreneurship look like?

Consider the process of writing. When struggling to flesh out an idea, the most effective solution is often to just start writing. As the words flow onto paper, new ideas pop up. Building has that same trait. It's difficult to imagine a future whose foundations we've yet to see laid out.

The process of taking responsibility for the construction and reformation of infrastructure and then iterating upon it is how we imagine the futures we want to see. That is post-capitalist entrepreneurship.

My favorite example of this is the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland. In the 1970s, cities across Northeast Ohio, including my hometown of Youngstown, were ravaged by unemployment as steel mills and manufacturers shut down and laid off thousands of workers.

While various economic development programs have been implemented with differing levels of success, the city of Cleveland identified worker cooperatives as a sustainable, effective method of building community wealth. While they come in many different forms, worker cooperatives are centered around the idea that all members are workers, owners, and decision-makers within the firm. After decades of decentralized experimentation with this model, the city government, along with several other key partners, developed "The Cleveland Model."

The model outlined the development of Evergreen Cooperatives, a collective group of worker-owned cooperatives working in collaboration with key "anchor institutions," including the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, and the City of Cleveland.

The Cleveland Model is an excellent example of entrepreneurship being used as an iterative, imaginative tool, developed after decades of trial-and-error from the community and still evolving today. As the project continues, exploring new ways to integrate community wealth development with environmental causes has become a point of focus.

These ideas aren’t new to the tech industry. Open source software — a model encouraging collective development and common ownership — has roots that go back decades. There’s even a small but rapidly growing community of tech worker coops gaining steam.

One of my favorite examples is Position Development, a software development coop focused on serving “independent media and socially minded organizations” like Jacobin Magazine, Haymarket Books, and more. The entrepreneurs take responsibility for the development of infrastructure by supporting media companies who are advocating for changes in line with their own.

Given the wide range of viable business models available to tech companies, I’m excited to see further experimentation.

entrepreneurship as imagination

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” More than a tool for building, entrepreneurship is a tool for figuring out what comes next.

The transition to a post-capitalist future is likely to be driven by the serendipity of thousands of communities working across the world, applying new technology and ideas to old problems.

As Paulo Freire stated in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, "Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."

Building the future we want, whatever that may be, will not be a linear process. Imagination cannot precede development. The two must happen hand-in-hand.

We must empower ourselves and our communities to see entrepreneurship as a tool — the tool — for embedding our values into the world and iterating on those visions. In doing so, our collective imagination will only become more powerful.

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so this essay was inspired by your thesis research. can you tell me about how that’s going?

The thesis process has been super chaotic and much more difficult than I originally anticipated. My brain favors thinking about ideas in the abstract, so taking things as big and as messy as "post-capitalism" or "entrepreneurship" and making them concrete have been challenging, but extremely rewarding. I've also gotten into a nice daily writing habit which forces me to regularly articulate something. Besides that, it's a great excuse to read all these books I've had on my reading list!

which entrepreneurs inspire you right now?

Basic answer, but I'm consistently amazed by how the Collison brothers are able to execute on an extremely ambitious yet cohesive vision with Stripe. I've also been on this indie publication kick, so I've been digging into the operations behind magazines like Offscreen and Logic. Really fascinating case studies for this idea of embedding your values into what you build, both in the function of the business and the content of the publication.

can you tell me about a book you loved this year?

My favorite read of the year was Working in Public by Nadia Eghbal. I went in expecting a crash course on the open source software community, and left with a lot more language around alternative business models, economic systems, and philosophy. Incredible stuff, and super accessible given the depth of information.

Find more of Jihad on Twitter or his newsletter PALACED.


🌀 microdoses

💝 a closing note

In the spirit of Yancey’s talk and Jihad’s essay, I asked my team, “What is your favorite fictional institution you wish was real?”

  • Jasmine: When my friends and I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was always in the minority who thought the memory-erasure technology in the film wasn't the worst idea invented. Imagine what it could do for trauma survivors!

  • Ben: Like everybody else reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book Ministry for the Future, I’m completely obsessed with what basically feels like policy-fiction more than science fiction. I wish the “Ministry for the Future” in his book existed in real life, some entity with the goal of speaking for the voiceless future generations / animals and pushing explicitly for global climate action.

  • Deb: There was a Monty Python skit about a Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things, and I'd like that to be real because I think we need to topple the cup-stacking / nerd industrial complex.

  • Em: I imagine a hyper-local family based institution with no motives, no demands or requirements. You show up, find people to connect with, and try to see where you can assist others on their journey. You can stay as long as you want or move to the next region and start over.