DAOs: Anarcho-Syndicalism In a Digital World

On November 20th, 1936, José Buenaventura Durruti died from bullet wounds received while leading a counterattack in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. He was considered a working class and military hero, having been a prominent leader of the FAI (Federación Anarquista Ibérica), the more radical wing of the CNT (Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores), which was a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in tacit alliance against the Nationalists, who were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Organized by him, the Durruti Column was the largest anarchist military unit during the war and represented the struggle against fascism for an egalitarian society. Although over half a million people filled the streets of Barcelona for his funeral, showing the strength of support for the Anarchists, his death was a difficult one for the anti-fascist side of the civil war.

"Fascism is not discussed, it is destroyed."
"Fascism is not discussed, it is destroyed."

Just months before, a military coup began in protest to the newly formed Spanish republican state creating a power vacuum across Spain. This led to the “summer of anarchy” during which major unions called for general strikes in response to the coup, leading to most of the Spanish economy coming under the control of workers through unions. It’s believed that around 75% of factories came under worker control through worker committees in Catalonia and agriculture became collectivized organized by the rank-and-file members of the CNT-FAI. It was a time of unprecedented democratization via organized decentralization of ownership to autonomously organized workers and citizens through the unions.

Unfortunately differences in the tacit alliance of anti-fascists proved too much, helping the Nationalists win the war by 1939, and led to the start of a 35 year long fascist dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. While short lived, the influence of anarchists and communists can still be seen today in Spain, as these were the political tendencies that fought the greatest against fascism even during the dictatorship. Still in Catalonia, cooperatives make up a significant part of the economy, and the largest cooperative in the world, the Mondragon Corporation, is based in the Basque Country in Spain.

“I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragón one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life– snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.– had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master.” — George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, ch. VII (written before his more famous books 1984 and Animal Farm)

The anarcho-syndicalist legacy could perhaps also extend into one of the more interesting albeit nascent innovations seen in the crypto space occupied by Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). While there are varying degrees as to how this is practiced, DAOs live and die by their contributor's input, mirroring similar patterns as what was seen in Anarchist Catalonia and other worker-controlled regions of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations

So what exactly are DAOs? Dudes Arguing Online? Doing A lot Online? (Not too far off honestly). One of the two great religious/philosophical systems of China traced to the mythical Laozi? If you ask around, similar to various other complex and emergent concepts, you’ll likely get as many definitions as the amount of people you ask. Let’s review a couple of the definitions scouring the internet.

According to An Introduction to DAOs by pet3rpan, “DAOs are internet-native organizations that are run and managed by communities through transparent decision-making processes.” According to FurtherField, an artist-led online community, arts organisation and online magazine based in London that has been exploring blockchain since at least 2013, a DAO is “An organisation which runs on a blockchain, constituted by a series of smart contracts; pieces of code which perform the function of a legal agreement without the interference of a corruptible or fallible human.” In Kei Kreutler’s now famous piece, A Pre-History of DAOs, she goes through the many evolutions of what a DAO was imagined to be and the many different emergent forms it has taken after its first experiments. She notes the overlap some DAOs have with the cooperative Rochdale Principles including autonomy, open membership, democratic member control, etc.

What’s interesting about these definitions, and what will be explored more deeply later, is how closely they brush up against anti-capitalist tendencies like anarcho-syndicalism and its political goals of community-ownership, transparent governance, and direct democratic organization. However, while DAOs provide an interesting novel tool for coordinating over digital space, they don’t have a clear political movement behind them to define its trajectory well. There are seeds of politics that are interested in decentralization in one form or another, but this lack of clear political messaging is a large reason why it’s been so easy for Silicon Valley vulture, uh, I mean venture capitalists to co-opt the term. This means that for many people, the first time they are exposed to the term is from a venture capitalist lens (or what is simply an obvious cash-grab) which makes it difficult for more left-minded people to take it seriously.

However, based on my observations over the years, there is a significant amount of people working in the DAO space with sympathies towards anti- and post-capitalist political tendencies, even if they don’t feel like they have a mastery of all the seemingly difficult to grasp concepts and jargon or don't necessarily embrace words like anarchist, socialist, or communist. So why are so many people becoming seduced by the promise of DAOs? My theory is that the concept of DAOs represents a potential to decentralize one of the most centralized aspects of most people’s lives, their workplace.

While venture capital has undoubtedly taken a very keen interest in DAOs (particularly in the form of owning a significant amount of governance tokens in the newest and largest DeFi protocols), there is little reason to believe that this is a desirable thing to have among the community due to its centralizing tendencies. While there are certainly many who will gladly take venture capital money as a way to bootstrap and legitimize their DAO, in the DAO community, there is a large emphasis on community ownership, and opinions are divided on the role of external capital. This makes it unsurprising that so many are also interested in the platform cooperative movement, proposing an alternative to the stereotypical venture capital backed tech platform. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” A platform cooperative takes this idea and applies it to the digital space.

While DAOs are difficult to define concretely, the definition of a cooperative seems to be a good fit for what many people would like DAOs to be if they are truly meant to be an alternative to the boring dystopian capitalist hellscape we live in today. Yet there are still some common misunderstandings among those in web3 that DAOs are cooperatives. Ultimately, DAOs are not inherently cooperatives. Instead, this claim largely refers to the technical foundation of DAOs, that they can easily become cooperatives, rather than that they have by default the organizational structure which a cooperative usually refers to. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that all these technologists who are quitting their big tech jobs would have this misunderstanding when the left is missing in this space. At a time when half of the tech workforce has expressed interest in joining a union, and when in 2021, a new record for new tech worker unions formed, the left should also be occupying this space to help sculpt the standards to be expected as worker-owners on the “Layer 0”, or the cultural expectations in autonomous organization.

Most forms of work in the economy can be seen as what is known in socialist circles as wage slavery. There’s a reason people would be interested in DAOs: it provides a light of hope for those wanting a more fulfilling and less alienating form of work instead of feeling like a cog in the machine. Not because people don’t want to work at all, but that deep down, knowingly or not, people want to create organizations that are owned, run, and governed democratically that can potentially make collectively more responsible decisions for society rather than profit-maximizing corporations. This also means de-prioritizing the profit motive (a sign of true autonomy) and perhaps taking a more ecological framework and approach for building an alternative society built on DAOs. With DAOs, democratic resource allocation and pre-figuring new social relations around the means of production will become the new activism.

This takes us back to our original story about anarcho-syndicalism.

Synthesizing DAOs with anarcho-syndicalism

Heavily influenced by Rudolf Rocker, anarcho-syndicalism is a left-wing tendency that prioritizes direct action to reach political goals in the form of creating worker-based organizations and advancing the demands and rights of workers through unionism (strikes, civil disobedience, sit-ins, etc.). This is opposed to indirect means like electing representatives into government to liberate workers for them. Noam Chomsky is a well-known anarcho-syndicalist and wrote the introduction to a modern edition of Anarcho-syndicalism: Theory and Practice by Rocker. He has described anarcho-syndicalism as a “federated, decentralised system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions... and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organisation for an advanced technological society in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine.”

The formation of a federation of worker councils spawned out of the unions is seen as the optimal form of organization to transcend capitalism without the state since the main purpose of the state under capitalism is the enforcement of private property and status-quo. It was a popular political tendency throughout western Europe during the beginning of the 20th century when the labor movement was at its peak. Anti-union efforts in the last century however have significantly hurt the anarcho-syndicalist movement (let alone the entire labor movement). The more common forms of labor in the information age have also made it more difficult to foster the solidarity needed to form a union as compared to more industrial forms of labor.

The Spanish anarcho-syndicalists opposed the Soviet model of taking power as well as the Soviet Union's recommendation to focus on making sure that the Republican government had been restored after the war before pursuing mass democratization. The reasoning given was partially that coordinating a more politically decentralized movement was too difficult and a big risk when opposed to the highly centralized and disciplined armies supporting the fascists. Of course many anarchists will say that this was actually just an attempt at quashing the growing anarchist movement, but let’s assume the best of intentions. For those involved in DAOs and other forms of decentralized organizing, it would not be crazy to say that generally, it is more difficult to coordinate many nodes than it is just one node in a network. Centralization can be seen as a type of shortcut to coordination although it has costs associated with it.

Anarcho-syndicalists believe that direct action through worker organizations like unions with the goal to take over their workplaces and abolish wage slavery will help form a new and better society through collective self-management without bosses. While the exact form of an anarcho-syndicalist entity is not made specific to allow for adaptation to its material conditions, unions provide the basis for which direct action by a critical mass of people can be exerted as a collective weapon for systemic change through workplace takeover. They view political and economic activity as the same and therefore forming a union is just the first step in beginning to prefigure a society with a more decentralized and egalitarian set of social relations around the means of production. The most important aspect is that the democratic processes are followed and the collective autonomy maintained.

Anarcho-syndicalist organizational structures allow for free association among individuals mediated through direct democracy as opposed to the state, private ownership of the means of production, or other forms of hierarchy. Direct democracy in these organizations involve delegation and federation to create real collective autonomy. Delegation follows the principles of rotation (no one should dominate specific positions of power), limited mandate (responsibilities are defined and limited by the group), and immediate recall (delegates are accountable to the group who can remove them at any time). Federation follows the principles of local sovereignty for local assemblies, free association into federations, bottom-up initiative, and local ratification of federal processes. Already today we see DAOs that are practicing delegation like ENS DAO and federation will likely become more sophisticated as DAO2DAO primitives (PrimeDAO) become more developed and as perhaps the use of pods (Orca Protocol) develops.

My favorite Monty Python scene on anarcho-syndicalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7qT-C-0ajI
My favorite Monty Python scene on anarcho-syndicalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7qT-C-0ajI

On current social media platforms, solidarity is difficult to cultivate when the owners of the platform are incentivized under capitalism to profit as much as possible with the increasing amount of data they can collect on us. We are the commodities, and the more we socialize on their platforms, the more money Big Tech makes. Additionally, this means that our social relations on these platforms are largely alienating and dehumanizing, similar to our relations as workers and consumers when pursuing homo economicus logic. With the amount of influence and control these corporate tech behemoths have over society, the amount of damage they have already done, while states lack the capacity to respond and instead grants multiple billion dollar military contracts to these companies, shows a dire need for autonomously organized change.

So what does anarcho-syndicalism look like in the age of Big Tech? It may likely look like DAOs. If we think of the abstracted ideal form of DAOs as autonomous networks of people democratically coordinating their economic resources towards socially desired goals, there are many similarities with the ideals of anarcho-syndicalism as mentioned so far. While the anarcho-syndicalists expropriated the illegitimate private property of capitalists in Catalonia that oppressed workers and managed their new means of production in a more democratic manner, DAOs have the potential to create similar outcomes in a digital space against Big Tech if consciously sought after. Making open source projects that build DAO tooling to confront Big Tech sustainable either via Gitcoin public goods funding or some other mechanism (perhaps pressuring public entities as well) would be just the first step to reclaim the digital commons from further centralization.

Another interesting development in the DAO space is the idea of a DAO of DAOs. While the proliferation of the idea seems to be unfortunately coming from a venture capitalist (similar ideas have been expressed by others since at least 2018 I’ve been told though), it is nonetheless thought-provoking. Federated, heterarchical structures built on permissionless digital infrastructure to collectively own platforms enforced without the need of a state is a powerful idea. The anarchist front in the Spanish Civil War was a federation of unions that banded together to fight fascist and capitalist forces which also inspired the creation of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), also known as the “one big union” or what could alternatively be seen as a network of organizations that doesn’t even require you to be in a union to join.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that much of the history and logic of currently existing blockchain systems have some right-wing libertarian assumptions. Much of the marketing around cryptocurrencies appeal to an economic conservative sensibility (sound money, fear of government debt, etc.). Funnily enough, the original term coined was Decentralized Autonomous Corporations (DACs), likely because the idea of smart contracts to automate more labor instead of paying workers sounded alluring. However to take the marketing and reasoning from right libertarians at face value is a mistake, especially if you believe that their political understanding is limited. Their utopian dream was flawed because there are now obvious issues with trying to automate processes that humans are simply better at handling off-chain and many DAOs have learned this lesson. While it’s easy to criticize the ideological underpinnings of DAOs, it’s likely more fruitful to understand them in practice instead.

Under a capitalist system in which billionaires, the very wealthy, and corporations act essentially as the central planners of the economy using their position of owning most of the means of production to direct the use of innovative technologies, it is unsurprising that the first implementations of new technologies prioritizes their desires and not the workers. However, emulating corporations on a decentralized tech stack is an easily identifiable shortcoming for many in the crypto space, no matter where they put their politics. Even Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, has placed traditional corporations as having all three types of centralization (architectural, political, and logical) in his post on the meaning of decentralization and was one of the first to propose DAOs over DACs.

There is no doubt that the current form of DAOs contains a plethora of issues, ironies, and contradictions. The issues of token governance are a well-known one. It’s something that anyone with a basic understanding of capitalism and its own contradictions can see. When votes can be bought, it only privileges those who already have the most money and capital, which looks a lot like our current system. The US Dollar could be seen as just the governance token for modern capitalism I’ve joked a few times. While there certainly are reactionary elements in the larger crypto space, the emergent DAO niche provides an interesting breeding ground for a new labor movement point of pressure against the capitalist class if done right.

In the same way that the, however short-lived, Revolutionary Catalonia was also a revolution in worker’s self-management, so too can be DAOs, but only if we intentionally choose to create that path. By giving democratic ownership of the means of production directly to the workers, you give what was capital under capitalism to the workers. Since the incentive of the working class is to live sustainably and not forever increase the extraction of profits like the capitalist class, the means of production cease to be capital (private property with the explicit intent to make profit off of) when done at scale and in the long run. Using DAOs for democratic collective ownership is an interesting idea for many in the DAO space, but it needs to be made more clear that this is a political act and not simply based on some vague apolitical do-gooderism. A truly radical DAO movement will not seek to be a better corporation than Amazon or Facebook, it should be a sustainable alternative that is better for workers.

I want to make clear that I don’t think that anarcho-syndicalism is THE political tendency for DAOs, that would be a far too simplistic conclusion to make. I think a lot of different anti-capitalist political ideas and tendencies would have a lot to bring to the table. A couple of the ones that I’ve been interested in lately are councils and assemblies, autonomism, guild socialism, and platform socialism (I can highly recommend James Muldoon’s new book on this concept) to name a few.

While at the moment DAOs are like empty vessels in which many people seem to be projecting their own desires and utopian ideals, this will not last forever. Eventually the money will start to dry up, and those in power will try to subsume them into the capitalist system. These early years are critical to showing what alternative futures DAOs can bring to break through our capitalist realism thanks to the technological affordances they provide for shifting our socio-political relations towards a system away from worker exploitation.

Many on the left are rightfully skeptical of “web3”, but some are beginning to realize that joining a union and joining a DAO are not mutually exclusive and in fact it could be beneficial to join both. Maybe with that we can continue the legacy of Buenaventura Durruti and begin building the CNT-FAI-DAO or reach out to organizations like the IWW and start building the tools that would help their goals of rebuilding the labor movement with autonomy in mind.

Very big thank you to Stefen Delevaux, Kei Kreutler, and @againstutopia for giving me feedback on the first drafts of this essay.

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