Web3's growing leftist subculture
Austin Robey on how labor organizing in tech has reached the blockchain.
While the Web3 space may be perceived as a financialized playground for scammers and capitalist gigachads, there is a small but growing subculture of leftist labor activism emerging.
Last week, PactDAO, a NYC-based mutual aid collective, hosted an event in Brooklyn titled Decentralized Organizing and the Labor Movement. Speakers included Danny Spitzberg from Exit To Community Collective, Larry Williams Jr. from LaborDAO, and Madam Cult Leader from Wonderverse. The event was at Hex House, formerly known as Soft Surplus, an industrial collective arts space in East Williamsburg—far from the polish of typical tech panel venues like Betaworks or NeueHouse.
Among the panel was a shared frustration with Web3’s apolitical financialization as well as the dismissal of anything crypto-related from the left.
Panelist Danny Spitzberg is a part of Exit To Community Collective, an organization that helps promote cooperative conversions as an alternative form of “exits” for startups. In addition, Danny was an early proponent of the platform cooperativism movement, which aims to create tech platforms structured as worker and user-owned co-ops. Other projects that Danny has been involved in include Buy Twitter, a campaign to turn Twitter into a user-owned cooperative, as well as the AB5 campaign in California.
Larry Williams Jr., a labor organizer by background, founded LaborDAO, a “decentralized community to support workers who want to organize, strike and collectively bargain.”
These backgrounds might not match the profiles that most people would associate with an interest in crypto technology.
What do labor activists, socialists, and mutual aid organizers see in Web3? Simply, a design space and set of tools to explore using towards political ends. Practically speaking, this includes an interest in transparent voting, funding of public goods, and broad-based ownership and governance of online infrastructure.
At events like last week’s PactDAO panel, there is a noticeably differentiated and nuanced conversation happening. Between the polarized cheerleading from crypto maximalists and the straw-manning from leftist tech skeptics, there is a cautious yet optimistic embrace of crypto as a frontier for constructive experiments, with plenty of design space to explore.
Among the shared views of the panel is a sense that Web3 tools are a largely neutral set of computing primitives, which may currently be imbued with unsavory politics simply because of who is seen using them. This new toolkit, panelists argued, could be used toward creating greater equity and democracy in tech.
This growing movement of leftist interest in Web3 is taking place on the backdrop of increased labor consciousness in traditional tech. According to Collective Actions in Tech, which tracks documented cases of unionization efforts, protests, walkouts, or other forms of collective action, the number of these events has increased dramatically in recent years.
Just this year, tech workers at companies including Amazon, Google, The New York Times, and Apple are conducting their own unionization campaign efforts. These follow the early successful unionization efforts of Kickstarter and Glitch in 2019, among the first unions ever in the tech industry.
Venture capitalists in Web3, whose job it is to recognize emerging trends and patterns before they are obvious, are increasingly evangelizing collective ownership of online infrastructure or appropriating and repurposing Marxist ideas. This may be as good of an indicator as any for what’s to come: a growing sentiment and support for leftist products, policies, and organization in tech. The result of this shift is an opportunity for the left to bend Web3 culture to be closer towards the ideological left, or as techno-optimist Buckminster Fuller said, be “the architects of the future, not its victims.”
What is the result when experienced organizers and activists, sometimes with decades of experience, begin to enter the arena and meaningfully experiment and build within Web3? While these efforts and conversations are still nascent and developing, conversations like these among the leftist crypto-curious may be a sign of a growing ideological and cultural shift to watch. — Austin Robey