With the rise of the “sharing economy,” many have asked the same question, though perhaps not with the same excitement. But this was Share, a conference meant to “catalyze the sharing economy,” organized by sharing economy lobbying group Peers and capitalism-for-good boosters SOCAP, sponsored by Airbnb, Lyft, eBay, and attended by about 500 investors, entrepreneurs, and advocates.
For the past few years, the “sharing economy” has characterized itself as a revolution: Renting a room on Airbnb or catching an Uber is an act of civil disobedience in the service of a righteous return to human society’s true nature of trust and village-building that will save the planet and our souls. A higher form of enlightened capitalism.
But this economy is still young and discovering itself. So far it looks, at worst, like neoliberal solutionism — and at best, a little confused.
This cognitive dissonance might be cute were it not backed by millions of dollars in capital investment and a steamroller approach to laws and regulations that protect workers and consumers.
It‘s no accident that this wild moment would coalesce in the West. While other cities fight back, California has attempted to codify new “sharing” business models with new regulations. While San Francisco has recently cracked down on some particularly high-volume Airbnb renter-hosts, Chiu and other “sharing” advocates are trying to pass legislation to make the practice legal. In its defense, Airbnb says San Francisco residents need their service so they can afford to pay their rent — ignoring that San Francisco housing costs have been pushed so high in part because of the influx of exceptionally well-paid tech employees who work at places like Airbnb, currently valued at $10 billion.
Across the U.S., high costs of living are driving more of the employed toward “side hustles,” i.e. unprotected freelance work, the kind fostered by the sharing economy. Where workers don’t have the start-up investments necessary to participate — the cars, homes, kitchens to rent — then they can just rent those too. Lyft’s new luxury service is aimed at encouraging non-car owners to drive for the company, giving them a lease option on impractical “custom” “premium” Ford Explorers.
The sharing economy’s success is inextricably tied to the economic recession, making new American poverty palatable. It’s disaster capitalism. “Sharing” companies are not embarrassed by this — it appears to be a point of pride.
But sharing businesses aren’t just creating new income streams from nothing. In “disrupting” even troubled markets — the taxi industry has had this coming for a long time — the glory of the peer economy comes at the expense of other workers’ livelihoods.
When labor researcher and attorney Veena Dubal presented her findings at Share, she says, “I thought they were going to throw tomatoes at me.”
Share represented the full gamut of a true sharing economy, from the controversial Lyfts and Airbnbs to the individuals who run home businesses knitting scarves and baking pies without traditional employment safety nets or the corporate muscle of Big Sharing. While the former wields the power to get its way, defining “the sharing economy” at the expense of workers and consumers, sole proprietors and nonprofit collectives are often the ones facing real legal problems that they can’t afford to solve. The benefits big disruptive “sharing economy” players might be making for themselves are not exactly trickling down.
For all its troubling externalities, the sharing economy is largely heralded as a “return to the village,” an ahistoric utopia where we were friends with all of our trusted neighbors, lived in harmony with nature, and wanted not to consume, but to share. (Nevermind that this is not new at all — sharing and homesteading are things poor people have been doing forever out of necessity.)
But our society is not returning to a past utopia of collective social confidence and equality because this utopia never existed. The sharing economy doesn’t build trust — it trades on cultural homogeneity and established social networks both online and in real life. Where it builds new connections, it often replicates old patterns of privileged access for some, and denial for others.
Sharing economy boosters repeatedly call the whole thing “empowering.” For them, it certainly is. And in some iterations, it can be for all of us. In its full scope, including barter and gift transactions and nonprofit collectives and cooperatives, the sharing economy is decidedly not all bad. Enabling peer to peer commercial interactions can save us time and money; it can lessen our impact on the planet. And it can also replicate old social and economic patterns and further degrade worker and consumer protections.
The sharing economy has painfully noble goals. But a society and an economics that truly values civic engagement, the commons, and trust between people is one that invests in the protection of those people so they can really prosper, even when something goes wrong.
In many ways, Share was an object lesson in self-delusion. In the week since, I’ve received four emails from Peers and SOCAP organizers declaring the event an unqualified success. A smaller version of it is set to descend on New York.