6 notes towards a real sharing economy

SharingEcon1

Sharing has such an emotional power; an almost primal force that we all enact in everyday life, and in so many ways. The past week was Global Sharing Week, a week-long series of high-profile events (and frantic hashtagging on Twitter) to promote the sharing economy, led by the frightfully keen and whimsically-named The People Who Share. The sharing economy is an extremely broad, politically ambiguous concept that is generally defined as any organised practice in which resources that might otherwise be privately owned, bought and sold are made available and exchanged collaboratively. It has become a catch-all label for any vaguely networked, collaborative initiative, from co-ops to co-housing, from DIY to dinner clubs, from tourism to transport. Increasingly, businesses and entrepreneurs are seeing sharing (or what some call “collaborative consumption”) as a lucrative new marketplace, in which the human capacity to share, care and help one another can become a new focus for capital accumulation. And in the UK/European context – of policy-makers’ obsession with ‘resilience’ (e.g. here) in the context of permanent austerity – it has growing purchase among elites in the mitigation of societal risk stemming from state-led cuts and the ongoing volatility of capitalism in general. This is part of what some have rightly come to call “sharewashing“, in which the sharing ‘brand’ is used to enhance the power and/or wealth of dominant elites, obscure injustices, and fails to critically address the status quo.

The big question is: in the context of sharing becoming problematically incorporated into government and business, can the notion of a sharing economy be reclaimed and reworked genuinely for the common good? Can radicals use the sharing economy as a focus for social change, and if so, how?

Below are six key factors in making this happen.

1. Sharing as non-commodified and cumulative

If sharing is to be useful for radical and progressive politics we need to draw clear boundaries between what is sharing and what is profit-making. A genuinely shared resource cannot be a commodity, since its value must rest exclusively on its use. If you make a profit out of sharing something, part of its value takes the form of profit (i.e. exchange value) and is extracted and kept by whoever is making that profit.

Take AirBnB, for example. People with spare rooms are renting those rooms out to tourists. This means that the room is not just valuable as a space to sleep, read, relax etc., but it is also valuable as a source of income both to the host and (much more significantly) to AirBnB bosses. This does two things: first, the introduction of money affects the social relationship between the host and guest, potentially hindering the chance of direct and equal experiences of one another’s cultures as you might expect from a non-financial equivalent such as CouchSurfing. Second, although most people renting their rooms on AirBnB are not rich entrepreneurs, money still disincentivises the possibility of reciprocity or mutual aid – i.e. I am less likely to offer my spare room to someone for free (i.e. genuinely share it) if they charged me to stay in their spare room. I’m probably less likely to share it for free with others, too.

In contrast, non-financial hospitality platforms such as CouchSurfing – or, better still, user-run and non-profit initiatives such as BeWelcome – encourage non-commodified relationships because no money is exchanged. Guests are more likely to offer their own spare room, sofa or floor to others in the future since they recognise the value of receiving that hospitality from their own experience. It doesn’t always work this way, but it is much more likely to happen in a genuine sharing situation.

2. Sharing as open and accessible

Non-commodified forms of sharing therefore accumulate not money but social bonds that are likely to lead to a greater number and a wider diversity of sharing relationships. And since there is no money exchanged, you do not need to have money to blow to become part of a sharing initiative. But the parasitism of capital in the sharing economy also has a friend: specialism.

I don’t mean specialism in the traditional sense of knowing skills such as how to wire a plug or cook. I mean particular forms of social, cultural and economic capital that currently create boundaries around much of the sharing economy. It’s things like knowing your way around Twitter (to find events, stalls and projects), having access to the right circles (e.g. knowing artists, bakers, travellers), having sufficient level of education to seek it out and value it (e.g. the environmental knowledge to know why it is better to collect and cook out-of-date food than to throw it away). Many of these are quite specialist skills but they are often ‘soft’ and can easily go unnoticed.

What this really boils down to is that there is a set of social and academic skills and knowledges linked (especially but not only) to class that facilitate or inhibit people’s participation in the sharing economy as it is currently manifested. Currently, much of the sharing economy (both capitalist and non-capitalist) is unashamedly and unreflexively middle class, accessible to a minority of people who have the time, money and skills to enjoy it.

It doesn’t matter if it is cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy them – if it takes up valuable time that you can’t find unless you can pay for expensive childcare, then it is not accessible. Likewise, pastel-coloured Union Jack bunting, to take an admittedly caricatured example, does not appeal to us all; for many, it is a “KEEP OUT” sign, carefully defining the social, cultural and economic boundaries of a space (see also cupcake fascism). A real sharing economy must be not only sensitive to these issues (of class, yes, but also gender, ethnicity, disability, colonial legacies etc., which also structure how accessible an initiative is) but, crucially, it must also actively confront and address them in the way it is organised, managed and promoted. One example of how people are already doing precisely this is the supper clubs linked to housing struggles in London.

3. Sharing as strategic

A sharing economy that consciously addresses issues of material wellbeing, justice, and survival is one that can become part of an everyday politics for social change. While the introduction of money has been used as an incentive for participation in sharing businesses, making the direct cost of services cheaper than commercial equivalents and potentially encouraging more sustainable lifestyles (e.g. lift-sharing costs money for the driver and passenger, but less money than two separate cars), this remains located firmly within, and in support of, the existing status quo.

One positive dimension of the sharing economy that the business interests have not (yet) entirely done away with is precisely this focus on material needs and goods – cheap X, low-impact Y, convenient Z. Given the right conditions, and bearing in mind points 1 and 2, these can materially improve our lives and the environments we live in. However, we need to think more strategically if we are to leverage sharing as a) a universal good that all can participate in, and therefore b) a potential force for radical social change.

One possible focus for this more strategic thinking could arguably be what’s known as the foundational economy, which comprises the essential structures and institutions that make most ordinary people’s everyday lives possible, such as public transport, food production and processing, utilities, and public healthcare and education. Many initiatives already engage directly or indirectly with these foundational issues, but they tend not to be focused on reshaping them, let alone replacing them with something radically different. We would do well to think about how sharing can become a (or the?) central component of the foundational economy, and find ways to put it into practice. Initiatives like the Swedish fare-dodging ‘union’, Planka, are admirable and inspiring, but how much more powerful could these be if we developed ways to retrofit existing transport systems so that they can be used, maintained and expanded through collaborative sharing practices between workers and passengers? Not only could they be effective and responsive, but also they would serve to demonstrate the power of self-management in material terms to the wider public. Indeed, in the case of Planka, this is an issue they are already thinking about (in Swedish).

4. Sharing as not (outwardly) political

Perhaps the most powerful dimension of the sharing economy is that it is not an especially politicised phenomenon. This is a double-edged sword: it makes sharing vulnerable to capture by capital and state (as we can clearly see in policies of resilience and sustainability, and in how entrepreneurs have jumped onto the sharing bandwagon), but it also opens up alternative forms of relating and resource use beyond the hierarchies and exclusions of capital and state.

We see similar dynamics in the Global South, where the informal economy is widespread: while it is an economic form that is highly vulnerable and precarious, the possibilities for autonomous, collective organising can be expanded through the networked spaces of self-organisation that it engenders. It may not be a focus for entrepreneurs in the same way as the sharing economy is in the Global North, but the capacity for retail and food businesses to use the ‘market trader’ or ‘street food’ soundbite in their branding is nonetheless very powerful.

In a contemporary political landscape in which the majority of the population is not engaged or interested in traditional forms of politics and only a very small majority of eligible people even vote, the sharing economy may therefore represent ‘ways in’ to more politicised activities and rationalities by means of its grassroots, networked character and orientation towards self-organised problem-solving. Participation in sharing economies might take place through consumer choice (i.e. a decision based on desire or style preferences), need (i.e. a decision based on the necessity to access certain resources for cheap or for free) or social networks (i.e. participating due to friends, family or other contacts), but the outcome could well be positive if organised and managed in a way that provides a gateway to possibilities of political agency and participation.

However, rather than the proselytising or missionary style of past and current examples of this (e.g. the Salvation Army or political ‘front groups’), it is important to remain vigilant to the clear risks involved in setting up initiatives purely for the purposes of mobilisation or recruitment.

5. Sharing as a principle of struggle and conflict

Although we need to be vigilant about the dangers of cynically latching onto the sharing economy ‘wave’, it might also prove useful for thinking more carefully about how political movements can use sharing principles more effectively in their own internal organisation and resource use. In-fighting and splits are common in the Left, which leave a trail of personal bitterness and organisational fragmentation. Regardless of their underlying politics, networks and umbrella groups that are hospitable to a diversity of politics and tactics, such as the People’s Assembly and recent Radical Assemblies in London, represent possible models for a stronger culture of sharing that we can take inspiration from. Likewise, sharing resources (e.g. materials, information, tactics, ideas etc) could potentially lead to a stronger Left with greater capacity and more efficient resource use within our meagre means. Green and Black Cross needs some cheap printing done? The local IWW branch has access to a printer that they can use. The Anti-Raids Network needs some information on new deportation guidelines? No problem, an RS21 group at the other end of England has a contact at the UK Border Agency. And so on. Some of this is already taking place informally, but these kinds of sharing could be considerably expanded and solidified for mutual benefit.

6. Sharing as already around us

Finally, perhaps the most powerful thing that a radical approach to sharing needs to bear in mind is that sharing is not something that flashy entrepreneurs simply made up one day. As a key part of broader practices of mutual aid, it is one of the oldest and strongest tools for human survival and wellbeing in human history. It is everywhere, right under our noses. I borrowed a guide book to Moscow from my neighbour only a couple of days ago. Did she charge me? The thought never entered her head, and not because she particularly cares for me, nor even because she wants something else in return. In South Africa a few years ago, I helped pull someone’s dog out of a river; the same principle applies.

We share to survive all the things in life that are pitted against us: capitalism, patriarchy, state bureaucracy, racism, homophobia, and so on. We also share because it gives us joy and satisfaction and human contact. We share because the best way – indeed, the only way! – to have a genuinely fulfilling life is to do a million little forms of sharing, mutual aid, and solidarity, that are beyond the logic and reach of the dominant social order even though we live through that social order every day. If ever we need reassurance that the best order of things is a world collectively managed by and for ourselves, if ever we find ourselves feeling like a new world is never going to happen, we just need to look around us and think about all the many different ways we share and care for and with one another. We thrive when we share – and when we thrive, we thrive despite capital, not because of it.

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