Interview de Matthieu Liétaert

The Silence magazine had tried to do this: an issue of their magazine without using the internet and without any reference to a site or email(1). The editorial staff wanted to ask the question of the non-sustainability of the web which uses an enormous energy, whether it is in the manufacture of the machines, the data storage or the exchanges on the web. However, this question carries with it an ambivalence that is inherent to it: the Internet allows knowledge to be shared outside of commercial circuits and therefore makes the struggle possible. Meeting with Matthieu Liétaert, author of the book Homo Coopérans 2.0 — Changeons de cap vers l’économie collaborative (Éditions Couleur Livres), co-founder of L’échappée, a grouped habitat in Brussels, and of the Bees-Coop cooperative. 

Matthieu Liétaert: First of all, in what sense did this book interest you? In what sense do you want to talk about it? 

Kairos: Well, that’s because you asked me about it [rires]. No, well, that’s because we often ask the question of alternatives in Kairos, and of course, this is one of them! 

Following the film The Brussels Business that I made about the lobbies(2), I wondered what it would really change after being consumed like many films. Above all, I could hear the ticking of the clock, as many I could see the wall getting closer. In the meantime, I started to create a small cohabitation(3) with 30 adults and 15 children in the heart of Brussels. It was a first step to find a local aspect, which I was already looking for in reaction to this European question, currently dominated by the growth and the economy treated in the film. 

I felt that I couldn’t do much, whereas if I was active in my street, in my habitat, I could do a lot of projects. And as we moved forward on this cohabitation, I realized that, despite the crises we are facing, and no doubt directly related, there was an explosion of alternatives that had been made possible by the Internet tool. The proliferation we see around us would have been inconceivable 15 years ago. 

But this reflection is linked to your experience in building a cohousing project? 

It is clear that this experience reminds us that together we are stronger. And in addition, we have more fun. No doubt about it. It reminds us that at street level, there are no politicians and we are all presidents in a sense. We are not in this democracy of representation where we must always elect someone, we are all elected. All responsible. It is a very interesting political space and paradoxically very little exploited. I don’t think there’s really any direct democracy today, but that’s where it could be put into practice relatively easily. 

It is time to reclaim our neighborhoods, to recreate spaces for decisions and exchanges to solve practical problems of people: should we really pay for private day care centers at 700 euros per month or can we organize ourselves between neighbors? Do we need to go shopping, isolated, as « individuals », or can’t we get together and negotiate with local producers? Do we need an individual car 24 hours a day or can’t we use them as a group? Do we need our own drill, or can’t we just swap them? The themes are infinite at the level of a simple street and a union offering practical results would be of interest to the greatest number of people in an atomized and pressured world. 

It’s very interesting, Alex (editor of Kairos) was just talking to me about this. There’s an organization that’s setting that up, a cooperative for tools, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it(4) ?

Yes. In any case, every week, every month we will see new very practical examples of this type. If you have someone who says  » Hey, we all have kids, why don’t we do something together? Make a neighborhood nursery for example ?! « . We go beyond mere theory. Let’s get together and test the idea in practice! And thanks to the internet, it goes very very fast! A community is created, a critical mass takes shape, it launches a crowdfunding, sometimes it fails, but sometimes it starts… And that, for me, is interesting, because we have « start-ups » coming in, but not in the business sense. On the contrary, they are coop-ups that for many bring something societal beyond economic viability, a cooperative spirit. 

But then… It’s all about the internet, though? Is the internet the key to the system? 

I will just nuance and answer in two steps to explain that the internet is certainly useful, but it is only a tool. First and foremost, what really needs to be emphasized is cooperation between human beings. That’s why I introduce the book like this, because it’s been around for 2 million years. Our species could never have survived without cooperation; I base this on the work of Kropotkin(5) which attacked, a century ago, Darwin’s theory of « survival of the fittest », to show that it is not the fittest who survive but those who help each other. And it is only in the 20th century, there, all of a sudden, after industrialization, the need to sell goods on the market, that the notions of individual, of wage-earning appear and that our society ends up losing completely this notion of mutual aid. We must reclaim mutual aid in a hyper-individualized, atomized world. 

The second element of my thinking is that the internet can indeed help us. I believe in it more and more every day. In the twentieth century we have seen that the all-State solution led to enormous drifts, just like the all-market solution that dominates today. For the last 10 years, we have been seeing a new alternative taking shape in front of us where a form of cooperation is being recreated thanks to the Internet. Everything is increasingly optimal, in real time and in peer-to-peer mode, i.e. without intermediaries. 

Can you give a concrete example? 

Let’s take the Sels, the local exchange systems. Maybe 10 years ago, I attended a few meetings and the thing was so ineffective, I was quickly discouraged by the endless meetings when the critical mass was not seen. Today, thanks to the internet, you can find out what resources your neighbor has in real time, you can press a button and find out what citizen resources are available in your neighborhood. With just one click, you can participate in a whole range of active online groups! In this sense, the internet offers us tools to reinvigorate many social movements to make them more effective. That’s why I called the book Homo Cooperans 2.0: we haven’t invented anything, but the internet brings a new breath. This tool gives us a real potential to regain control, in the face of the stranglehold of the Market and the State. In many sectors, we really have an alternative that for the first time becomes concrete, and gives practical, useful results, among citizens. 

If we want to set up this cooperative principle and if we want it to work, isn’t one of the starting points to question the way the Internet is consumed? 

Let’s start by taking the case of water. If you have a moderate use of this resource, the price per m3 is the lowest. But if your consumption becomes extravagant, the price per m3 starts to soar. We can understand the logic of this. 

However, if we now take the case of the Internet, we notice the opposite! The more Gigabit you use, the less it will cost you. If you don’t use much, you will pay proportionally much more… The issue of energy and environmental impact behind the internet is not being addressed at all today. It would be useful to rethink the use of the  » personal computer « , the PC, in cooperative terms, just like cars, bicycles, drills. 

Except that you have a lot of companies like airbnb, uber … that work on the principle that you have it with you all the time! We are in the age of mobile internet, of instant and permanent connection, right? 

I think it’s clear that the way we use the internet today is problematic, like most of the things we consume in our society! The thing is, maybe there are priorities to be made in these times of resistance. Let’s take GASAPs and AMAPs. They are launching an application to compete with capitalist start-ups like « La ruche qui dit oui », which have just arrived on the market, with enormous capital, and are gaining ground at an impressive rate thanks to a well-designed application. AMAPs and GASAPs have not been idle and have developed their own application. This means that an old association which has been working for 15 years in all the districts of Belgium and France to put in touch consumers and local farmers, thinks that Internet can allow them to optimize their logistics and to better meet the needs of the people. 

It’s a bit like Kairos, actually. We are currently developing the site, we are taking some time because we don’t have many resources. But if we don’t have a website, if we don’t have a newsletter, we are overtaken by the others and finally we don’t hear about us. The schmilblick is in a sense to remain coherent, keeping our values while remaining open to the changes around us. According to you, the Internet remains a special tool that allows local groups to strengthen themselves without the big groups being able to get their hands on it? 

For the moment, it is clear that it is a huge field of experimentation where everyone is tinkering. The big ones as well as the small ones. The technological revolution is too big for the State, the Companies or the Social Movements to really understand what is happening. It is also clear that on the internet, you have the worst and the best… It is even more clear that the Internet is in its adolescent phase and that we have not seen anything yet. Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia are not more than 10 to 15 years old. And yet, some have already created transnational monopolies. Never before seen! What to do then? There is a growing international movement to create digital cooperatives to replace Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, Blablacar and others. This is what « Platform cooperativism » or the platform cooperative movement, launched by Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider in New York City in November 2015, is advocating and bringing together more and more local governments that are fed up with Silicon Valley’s destructive mentality. And so yes, the internet is only a tool, yes there are problems when we think about personal data and so on, but it’s still incredible to see the way it allows social movements to reappropriate their food, their media, their communication, their organization, their time and knowledge. These next few years will be the breeding ground for incredible creations, linked to the existence of the internet. 

I ask all these questions because I found it interesting to see how you defend a technology that is very much contested in certain alternative, resistant circles and which at the same time uses it enormously. 

Remember at MPOC (political movement of growth objectors) 7 years ago? We talked for hours about the necessity or not of having a forum on the internet. There was a debate,  » how are we going to dialogue with each other if we can do everything online? » We got caught up in the debate for several weeks: « yes », « no », « maybe you’re right »… Today, this kind of discussion does not take place anymore, because a forum on the Internet did not kill the debate between us in vivo. Radio did not kill the story around the fire. The Internet is a complement, not a predator. 

After, see how you use it, I agree that you have to spend time! The Internet is a drain on resources, so it can’t be used willy-nilly and limits will have to be set. The question of whether the Internet or Social Networks are useful or not should no longer be asked. 80% of people use the internet in Europe, and almost as many use social networks. What can we do about it? However, the real question to ask is how to use these tools to advance the schmilblick. 

I think we need to question certain issues such as the environmental impact of an email. From the moment you have a computer and you use the internet, does it make sense to still ask questions about the consumption of an email? 

I think it obviously makes sense to keep a critical eye on everything we do. However, you also have to assess how much energy you want to put in or lose in pushing the envelope. When we were together at MPOC, I think that the cork went a little too far, once, and not of a pipe then my lad!… Having a computer or not is not the question. What computer do I need, that’s another one: a computer only for me or in collective? A big brand, or recycled, open source? To send emails, to look at the internet, to do word processing, a simple computer made in a repair café is just fine! 

The debate, it is done there in my opinion. How will we use the internet? How are we going to reappropriate it so that it is useful to us, and not the other way around? These are two completely different uses! 

I think the debate to be asked, especially with reluctant people, is: if we were to quantify the positive and negative aspects, aren’t there many more negatives on the internet? 

The question is « is there more bad stuff on the internet than in everything I see around me?  » The answer is no. In the European society around us, everything we use… even the water I’m drinking, I imagine that this water, I don’t even know where it was produced, maybe it’s Italian water that came with a truck, used liters of oil, exploited the workers at the factory that bottles it, etc. And it’s the same for the clothes I have. I don’t even know where they came from, who produced them. The Internet is part of a system that collapses, exploits, and is rarely 100% perfect. However, let’s face it, the Internet is a revolutionary tool! Internet is not just a consumer product, it is also a production weapon, a non-violent communicational Kalashnikov! No activist who wanted to change the world in which he lived has ever had such a powerful weapon in his hands! So what do we do with this weapon? Do we make the revolution with or without? For me, it must be used! Today, there is no doubt, we use it like a child who discovers his toy: we grope, we experiment, we make mistakes, we get burned! Things will change. But the weapon is there and if we don’t want to use it, we can be sure that others will use it for purposes that are not ours… 

We can see this with the collaborative economy. A company like AirBnB has quickly taken over the internet to connect citizens and take a commission on each transaction. How to ensure a redistribution towards users and not between a few Silicon Valley investors? 

To fight against this, we need to develop platform cooperatives, meaning that instead of having an Airbnb, we will have a « coopbnb ». Instead of having a « Blablacar », we will have a « BlablaCoop ». If some people use our collaboration to just create a website and collect about 10 to 20% per transaction, why don’t we do our cooperative? The major challenge will be to create links between these cooperatives and to create our own source of funding to support new cooperatives. We have to keep our feet on the ground, AirBnB will probably still be around in 10 years. On the other hand, we can create our alternative, in a parallel system, and make it grow little by little. This is realistic and is already being achieved. 

Look at Bees Coop, in Brussels, the new and growing supermarket has just launched its call for cooperators and has already found 500 people. Unbelievable! In a while, such a project will be able to finance other projects instead of continuing to put our money in Delhaize, Carrefour & cie. The same goes for « NewB », the cooperative bank in the making, with 50,000 members. It is by supporting these actors that we can really build an alternative in key sectors: food, mobility, finance, housing, time, knowledge, etc. 

Interview by Pierre Lecrenier 

Transcribed by Véronique Gallez, reworked by Alexandre Penasse and Matthieu Liétaert 

Notes et références
  1.,cntnt 01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=93&cntnt01returnid=109
  2. Mathieu Liétart a réalisé le documentaire The Brussels Business (Arte, RTBF) qui nous emmène dans les arcanes du lobbying européen.
  3. Le Cohabitat, reconstruisons des villages en ville, Matthieu Liétart, Éditions Couleur livres, Bruxelles, 2012.
  4. Depuis, Tournevie, service d’emprunt d’outils, a fait l’objet d’une interview dans la rubrique alternative. Voir le Kairos de février 2016.
  5. Pierre (Piotr) Alekseïevitch Kropotkine, né le 9 décembre 1842 à Moscou est un géographe, explorateur, zoologiste, anthropologue, géologue et théoricien du communisme libertaire (voir Wikipédia). Il a notamment écrit L’entraide, un facteur de l’évolution, réédité aux Éditions Aden en 2009.

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