How many times have you looked at the term “sharing economy” and deemed it an oxymoron?
Sharing is a virtue. Most of us, in most cultures, have grown up understanding that concept. You share your music with Peter because he’s your friend. You share ideas with Liz because you respect and love her. You share food with the homeless and underprivileged at weekly Food Not Bombs servings because you want to make a difference. You want to share your house with travelers Johannes and Ingrid from Germany, whom you have never met, because you hate the current economy and want it to collapse. But really, the extra $200 wouldn’t hurt. That’s one less shift a week. Maybe even two or three, depending on where you are.
The idea that the sharing economy is an alternative to traditional capitalism is a sham. It is venture capitalism sweetened by the principles of neoliberalism — which masquerades as a socialism of sorts, thinly veiled by attempts to brand ‘trust’ and ‘sharing’ as social goods.
In the sharing economy, social good become social goods.
The rise and success of the sharing economy in cities like London, Sydney, Singapore, and San Francisco come as no surprise. The current, primary economy is struggling, and a depressed labour market has resulted in people trying to find ways to supplement their income by monetising their possessions and labour in other, non-conventional ways. The existence of the smartphone and the Internet have also opened pathways to new apps and websites that enable more of these sharing opportunities. Right now, to be plugged in is to consume, and with the once-radical ideas of the left (freecycling, couchsurfing, and community gardens, for example) taking a foothold in mainstream consciousness, what better time than to buy in? Collectively, collaboration and cooperation become co-opted.
In Rob Horning’s address at Rhizome’s Internet Subjects #1 panel, he noted that the sharing economy “is a reflection of capitalism’s need to find new profit opportunities in aspects of social life once shielded from the market, in leisure time once withdrawn from waged labor, in spaces and affective resources once withheld from becoming a kind of capital.” The sharing economy engages our labour like never before: within it, we don’t need the boss to tell us to keep our phones switched on at all times, in case there is that urgent memo. We do it ourselves, in our bid to be the first (and best) Airtasker, or to get the Lyft job. A traveler intending to come visit my city might ask about my sublet on AirBnB.
Horning further states, “For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.”
When we were creating our personal brands on Facebook in 2004, the sharing economy was already slowly crystallising. The search for identity becomes tied in with the monetisation of our individual selves, as we struggle to define the terms between quality and quantity. When we track our best running times on FitBit, we are creating a quantified self that is every bit as valuable in the free market as the self that considers how many more extra hours we can squeeze in during a work day to take up those Uber jobs. By voluntarily deregulating ourselves, the sharing economy easily props up the principles of neoliberal capitalism while giving the illusion that what we’re doing is progressive. It enables a nostalgia that is driven by the post-millennial fetishisation of “how things used to be”.
In the sharing economy, the fantasy is that everyone emerges a winner, when all the while, competition is rampant.
The sharing economy sell is telling. When the phrase “collaborative consumption” is being used to denote a different way to conceptualise the economy, the immediate take-away is positive. It sounds like the classic “Buy 1 get 1 Free” until it is not. How does one re-imagine the workings of a sub-economy where its existence hinges on the presence of the principal economy? A case in point: how have subcultures thrived apart from the dominant paradigm since their inception?
At the same time, it is impossible to talk about the sharing economy without considering privilege and access. A popular belief is that the sharing economy would decrease income inequality, as ideas of ownership and class become less stratified as more people ‘share’. But when the lending of things and labour become transactional, the lines become blurred. A class of consumers convinced they are prosumers echoes what Alvin Toffler envisioned in Future Shock (1970), and then later on in an interview with Business 2.0 in 2000:
“we recruit customers to become our allies and in effect, co-producers.”
Similarly, who gets to decide if they have time to engage in extraneous ‘tasks’ facilitated by third parties if they are constantly at a menial job with limited access to the Internet? Who gets to create an identity based on being an Uber driver without having to supplement that income with (quite likely) another cab-driving gig with a taxi co-operative? Who is able to find the time to persistently hawk their skills on apps like Airtasker or TaskRabbit, building up a portfolio while (very likely) depressing an already-depressed market for temporary, casual and/or freelance work? And most importantly, who gets to lay out the conditions surrounding these kinds of precarious employment? The bubble exists in the vacuum until it is near-bursting.
Are there alternatives? Absolutely. The gift culture, which the sharing economy appropriates from, is one. Community-oriented bike-sharing and free library initiatives, as well as “Rough Trades”, comprising of the trading of labour and/or material goods without money exchanging hands, is another. Food Not Bombs and guerilla co-operatives that espouse collective ideals without the mediation of a third-party are all good ways to begin. Whether the workings of the dominant paradigm will bleed into the dynamic of these structures is another story. The sharing economy, however, does not belong in these categories, and is by far the least feasible option towards a more equitable society.
The cogs are spinning in their gears.
In the sharing economy, people are sharing not because they want to, but to get by.