Amsterdam's Radical Anarchist White Bikes & Community Hobbyists (Cafe Society Dinner Discussion #12)
Social Anarchists are the Homebrew Computer Club of Community Innovation
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team.
Before today’s post about anarchist socialist community hobbyists, the second sneak peak of the space we’re designing below :)
Now, onto this week’s article . . .
Last week I interviewed the Founder and Chairman of Lime, Brad Bao, for the podcast I run with my first company Mozio, How I Got Here (Library Spotify Apple).
We got into the history of bike sharing, and I mentioned how in college 12 years ago when I studied abroad in Paris they were launching what I thought was the first bikeshare program, Velib bikes, and he corrected me and mentioned a stunning fact - the first bikeshare program was actually back in 1965, in Amsterdam.
Take an old bicycle. Paint it white. Leave it anywhere in the city. Tell people to use it. This was the first urban bike-sharing concept in history. Launched in Amsterdam in the 1960s, it was called the Witte Fietsenplan (the “white bicycle plan”). And it was not a great success.
In fact, the plan was just another wild initiative by which Provo, an infamous group of Dutch anarchist activists, wanted to provoke the establishment and change society.
The first bikeshare program ever was started by anarchist activists.
Spoiler - it didn’t work. People stole the bikes. But Amsterdam was at the forefront of various bike sharing and even car sharing schemes for the next several decades thanks to the leadership of Luud Schimmelpennink, who was a young Provo activist who eventually joined the Amsterdam city council.
Ironically, despite pioneering bike sharing, Amsterdam doesn’t have a bikesharing program in the city today, sometimes attributed to the fact that everyone owns their own bike already, but it got me thinking about how many other businesses had a predecessor that was actually a “crazy radical communist/socialist/anarchist” experiment or at the very least, a radical progressive government or religious social program years before someone figured out how to make it structurally sustainable in our capitalist society.
Kibbutzim in Israel and the college co-op’s communal hippie leanings (Berkeley had one with Naked Pizza Fridays across the street from me) are the predecessor to co-living spaces and group living communities that have become increasingly popular.
The bay area commuters group SF Casual Carpool had designated pickup spots on both sides of the Bay Bridge way before Lyft or Uber became a thing.
Airbnb had the non-profit Couchsurfing before it and before that, a host of other much less better organized non-profit home exchange websites before that.
Some looser analogies but still along these lines - GoFundMe’s similarities to church communities rallying to support their worse-off members, Etsy has its origins in flea markets, Kickstarter in the community PTA bake sale . . .
Idealist Hippies to Luxury Products to Middle Class Access
One thing seems clear, and kind of obvious in retrospect - socialist/anarchists/progressives are often the most innovative thinkers regarding the potential for disrupting existing governance models and modes of human behavior. They are inherently predisposed to “radical” thinking on community. Why CAN’T we just jump in people’s cars, all share bikes, crash in each other’s spare rooms or split household chores?
But it’s rare that those radical thinkers are the same ones who can find a way of adapting that radical thinking to actually be practical in the real world, as they just take it on faith that no one will steal the bikes or that everyone will open their homes out of the kindness of their heart and in the spirit of cultural exchange.
The second stage often seems to be the arrival of a luxury product. The precursor to Airbnb was renting a villa on VRBO & HomeAway.
The original VRBO.com website was created by David Clouse in 1995 in Aurora, Colorado in order to rent his Breckenridge Ski Resort condo.
Uber started with private rides in Blackcars. It seems we’re currently in the Luxury stage of co-living - most co-living spaces with recreation rooms and gyms are basically luxury buildings with a price point clearly marketed to the HENRY (high earning not rich yet).
And of course the final stage is the delivery of a middle class alternative. Spare rooms instead of villas. Shared carpools in Prius’ instead of black cars.
Homebrew Computer Club & Community Hobbyists
But there is another way to think about it - the people innovating in the first stages of each of these markets are not so dissimilar to the stereotype of tinkering nerdy hobbyists that was popularized by the Homebrew Computer Club, the breeding ground for Apple.
Computers went through a similar tinkering for the joy of it to luxury products to mass consumerization phase, and when you think about it, these “anarchist socialist hippies” are basically community hobbyists - but instead of tinkering with transistors and resistors they like tinkering with social norms and human nature.
And this begs the question - what other community models could we look to that community hobbyists/anarchist socialists used to or are currently dabbling in, or are maybe already into the “luxury” phase and waiting to be scaled in a way that gives access to the middle class?
The most egregious to me is daycare. Childcare started out driven by idealists as well:
U.S. child care began as a charity enterprise in the late 19th century when settlement houses – which provided services and education in poor communities – opened nurseries to keep the children of factory workers in urban industrial centers safe while their mothers toiled.
And any Tribeca parent paying the equivalent of Harvard tuition for their kid’s daycare will tell you that it has certainly been made into a luxury capitalist endeavor since then.
But new communal models are starting to be explored. Komae enables families to build babysitting cooperatives.
On-demand childcare startup Poppy took a stab at it but shut down a couple years ago.
My guess is that we will most likely go back to relative normal post-pandemic but I’m looking forward to paying attention to more communal approaches to daycare as they get a bit more mature as sometimes all it takes is a recession to drive enough volume to lower cost offers to jump start a real marketplace — just see Airbnb.
Unions & Guilds
Our unions are being decimated, partly because of Right-to-work laws passed in Republican controlled states, but also simply because the model is outdated with the rise of the 1099 contractor economy. Labor organizing and labor rights from Cesar Chavez to banning child labor have historically been a center of progressive activism.
While it’s bullshit to believe Uber’s propaganda that every one of their drivers is an “entrepreneur,” for the purposes of social structure, unions and benefits, there are enough similarities to take it seriously - 400 years ago most commerce was actually run by “independent contractor entrepreneurs” - you were a blacksmith, a carpenter, etc.
We’re moving back in that direction, unbundling the worker from big corporations. Back then we didn’t have unions, we had guilds. You see the occasional guild in this day and age - the Screen Actor’s Guild, for example, but the model is rare. There is a strong possibility that a transforming workforce will require new types of labor counterweights to employers that look drastically different.
There are some attempts by these Union’s to modernize and reflect this reality - the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers recently created the Independent Drivers Guild, so they seem to see the writing on the wall — adapt or die. I’m curious if there are any independent attempts at providing services to independent contractors that traditional labor unions once did like healthcare & security.
Which brings me to . . .
Education Funding & Education Implementation
Education is undergoing a dual transformation - a change in how it’s funded, and a change in how you receive it.
You are seeing a lot of income sharing agreements from companies like the ironically named (or aptly named?!) Guild Education, Lambda school and more. There are not many more things more progressive than straight up giving away money in the form of college scholarships, and this trend is attempting to find a profitable economic structure to unlock much more capital than would be accessible if it was just pure charity. But Guild & Lambda aren’t the actual innovators in this — Starbucks is.
A decade or more ago, Starbucks figured out that if it paid for college degrees for its entry level workers, it would move their retention from something like nine months to four years. Guild figured that if it worked for Starbucks, other companies would want to do the same. They create an education as a benefit program for other companies to pay for college for their employees. They sign up a network of colleges to allow students to take degree granting courses in their off hours, and then provide a dashboard back to the company showing how people are doing. And it works. Companies using Guild achieve significantly higher retention for their employees taking advantage of the benefit.
The implementation of education has gone through a similar transition from its luxury phase (Harvard @ $40k+ a year) to its middle class implementation (Udemy, Udacity).
Just ask Professor Galloway, every startup bro’s favorite guru lately:
This reckoning is overdue and a reflection of how drunk universities have become on exclusivity and the Rolex-ification of campuses, forgetting we’re public servants not luxury brands.
This wouldn’t be the Maxwell Social newsletter if I didn’t find some way of tying it back to an example more directly related to what we’re up to.
The forefront of people rethinking community and our relationships to each other would also definitely fall into the more hippy socialist category as well - Burning Man.
The socialist “don’t pay for anything” nature of the week is clearly idealistic and unsustainable so meets a lot of the qualifications I laid out above. These are, at their core, community hobbyists more than anything else. They like pushing the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable (from nudity and drug use to just funky costumes) and are exploring alternative governance structures.
And of course the first translations of the Burning Man ethos into real life have done so by catering to the luxury demographic. Summit Series Eden Ski Mountain community and Summit At Sea cruise ship, Soho House, The Wing, Neuehouse and more are all clearly expensive luxury products, whatever scholarships and idealism they may have aside.
I think we’d like to think of Maxwell as finding the model that works to popularize community thinking into that next phase, more accessible to more people.
If you’re looking for something to disrupt - look at the hippies and idealists - they are probably doing a somewhat unsustainable version of something that needs to be adopted more broadly for our society.
Have a great rest of the week!
David (@dlitwak) & The Maxwell Team