Posts Tagged ‘ political strategy ’

6 notes towards a real sharing economy


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.


Electoral pie charts and left recomposition

In the days since the EU election results were announced, there have emerged three distinct groups in the British left’s efforts to make sense of the dramatic rightward shift that we have witnessed.

First is the group – probably the majority – which denounces the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who chose to vote UKIP. Struggling to come to terms with these ‘irrational bigots’, they claim “UKIP duped them into voting for them!” and “this is what happens when good people don’t vote!” They propose a classic liberal line: play the game fair, and justice will prevail. Their moralising is admirable, but their understanding of the problem falls woefully short of the mark.

The second group includes those who point out that UKIP, although receiving the largest number of seats, still only represent about 10% of the voting-age population. “It’s not that bad,” they aver, “we’re not all racists!” These outbursts of reassuring tones is indicative not of a political discourse of hope but of an effort to reassure themselves that the majority remain firmly on ‘our side’. Like the first group, they play by the rules of the game: if the non-voting majority were to vote, they would have political perspectives that could be shoe-horned into one of the options on the ballot box, and they would probably be liberal or left. If only.

Third are the anti-voters. They point to the same pie-chart, heavily laden with a large, non-voting majority and declare the moral high ground for refusing to participate in the alienated, undemocratic process of representation, rotten to the core with political spin, media lies and an uneducated, malleable electorate. “Who cares?” they chide, echoing the one-liner of Oscar Wilde, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!” Sitting smugly at a distance, they survey the wreckage of the electoral system, having extricated themselves from its muddy ‘business as usual’.

All three perspectives are decidedly lacking. In each case, they fall foul of the same old routine, with the same old relationships to the same old institutions. The ongoing woes of the left will not disappear, and the far-right will not slow its growing influence, if any of these perspectives takes hold. This is because they are fundamentally rooted in the same logic – the logic of (electoral) representation. This is the notion that elected leaders accurately reflect political preferences and opinions. Even the anti-voting group – characterised usually by the anarchists and extra-parliamentary left – links itself to the notion that representative politics is a reflection of reality by aligning itself as an alternative preference – a kind of anonymous, unofficial party. They make an electoral decision not to vote; to be represented not by a person or party but by a void. Yet they are represented nonetheless.

Representation is essentially an abstraction from everyday experience to a set of (vague, unspoken, or even clearly-defined) demands or policies. As such, we are always representing – ourselves, our peers, our class, our national culture and so on. While electoral democracy exists, we can’t escape political representation’s stark and depoliticising boundaries, but what we can do is find other ways of articulating collective interests that don’t adhere so strictly to the ballot box. This means that we need to look at the way political subjectivity (our sense of who we are, as people with political power or identity) is formed.

While I don’t want to go deep into this heavy, philosophical question, it is worth making a few observations in the aftermath of the EU elections specifically. First, UKIP did not ‘win’ anything as such, but they represent another stage in the underlying emotional and discursive ‘structures’ of British (and, to some level, European) politics. What I mean by that is the fact that UKIP are one outcome of the way we (the diverse collectivity of voting-age people in the UK) think, relate, and act.

We make sense of the world by constructing an image of what the world looks like, and making our opinions and analysis in relation to that structure. This structure is conditioned by a vast range of things, including, but not limited to: our upbringing, working arrangements, experiences of trauma, domestic situation, family and friend relationships, as well as the ‘usual suspects’ of the media, politicians, trade unions, political parties, NGOs and other institutional actors. We are not robots, however, and we do have an influence over how this structure looks to us – hence political difference – but the huge range of external factors mean that our influence is generally quite limited. So UKIP is an outcome, or an effect, of much bigger forces.

There is a somewhat lacking but standard-issue story that covers these forces, their origins and outcomes. It goes something like this. Probably the most obvious forces of change in recent years are located among the cumulative negative economic and cultural impacts of capitalist globalisation (from which, incidentally, Farage and many of his henchmen made their millions). While the left was (on one level, correctly) campaigning against the global inequalities and exploitation that corporate globalisation created through the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties, we forgot what was happening on our front doorstep. We were so preoccupied by the need to confront the IMF, G8 and World Bank over their structural adjustment policies that brought poverty and misery to literally billions of people in the Global South, that we did not engage enough with our own communities, homes and workplaces – themselves heaving under the pressure of neoliberalisation. Housing bubbles, wage deflation, outsourcing, subcontracting, debt – all of these things created an image of prosperity and ‘growth’ but it was built on sand.

The 2008 financial crisis should have been the rallying call for the radical left to regroup and focus, but by then we had become so distanced from our communities, so specialised and professionalised in our working lives (for unions, charities, universities etc) that we had all but lost touch. It’s not that the techniques that we had developed to shut down summits and build websites were of no use, or interest, to fighting and surviving in post-crisis times, but that we had lost many of the common bonds that upheld trust and solidarity within place-based communities and workplaces.

Moreover, economic change had led generally to a much more mobile, fragmented and specialised existence… for some. Those left behind by these macroeconomic shifts towards brain work (intellectual, cultural and service economies), short-term employment, and mobility, were those on the front line of neoliberalisation. On the one hand, neither they nor their children were equipped to thrive in this Brave New World, and on the other hand, the left were no longer equipped to forge solidarities with them. The political vacuum that the left had deserted was then available for appropriation by the right. First the BNP, then they imploded through internal splits, then UKIP mopped up the rest, and a sizeable chunk of the right wing of the Tories and Labour. Easy peasy.

BUT – wait. This story makes some problematic assumptions: first, it assumes that the left is exclusively resident in the mobile, cosmopolitan world of neoliberalism; second, that those outside of this milieu are passive and uncritical recipients of political propaganda; third, that the left as it currently stands is the ‘saviour’ of these allegedly helpless, shallow, racist-fodder communities; and fourth, that all UKIP voters and activists are the put-upon working class left behind by neoliberal ‘progress’. There is some element of validity in the story, but the assumptions on which it is based are both elitist and classist, and we can’t fall into the missionary paternalism of ‘helping the uneducated and brutish poor to see the error of their ways’.

But on the whole, economic change, increased mobility, and a recent history of poor strategy on the left, have indeed affected our ability to make impacts among groups most negatively affected by capitalism and the state. Just look at the August 2011 riots and the left’s absolute failure to make any useful interventions among a huge mass of raw, visceral discontent. The underlying structures that shape political debate and subjectivities – i.e. people’s understandings of how the world works and how it should work – are not so clear-cut as the boxes on a ballot sheet, and the latter – although a very rough guide to the general mood – happily serves to mask the complexity of political subjectivity.

So what can we, the radical left, do? In lieu of a more detailed discussion of strategies, here are a few thoughts:

Listen (selectively). The grievances of those who are likely to have voted UKIP now, and the BNP before, are real, material, and they come from experience. There will always be hardened, ‘professional’ racists who require physical and ideological confrontation, as well as a number of ruling and upper class types who deserve similarly swift treatment, but the majority are not these people, and their votes and opinions are partly a reflection of our inability/refusal to take them seriously.

Confront the ideology of the liberal mainstream. They are already on the back foot, and a shift in discourse and terms of debate is doable, as the far-right have shown.

Meet people and participate in community life. This is not just going to picket lines with other lefties to support other lefties, but also participating in local events, activities, campaigns and so on over a long period of time. There is no substitute for long-term, real-life encounter.

Build solidarities. This is the one thing we’re (supposed to be) good at. Getting someone to join a union is one thing, but real solidarity at work and in the community is another, and is often linked to the point above.

Debate positively. The caricature of ‘whining lefties’ has, sadly, a strong element of truth in it. We spend our lives critiquing and complaining and demanding but rarely actually building, suggesting, inspiring. What do we want to do? How could we do it together? The right has a vision that is clear and simple: 1) restore law and order, 2) close the borders, 3) support businesses. A positive and clear message from the left – especially the extra-parliamentary or revolutionary left – may be more tricky, but needs addressing. (A very rough first stab: 1) build grassroots self-management, 2) fight for equality and real democracy, 3) dismantle structures of authority and coercion)

Judge less. ‘Calling out culture’ has become a mainstay among some left circles. We adhere to such high standards in our speech, our theoretical understanding, and our physical actions that we are prone to burning out and giving up. But with those beyond these circles, the stakes are much higher. The vast majority of people (including lefties) sometimes use non-PC, racist or sexist language from time to time, usually without any bad intentions. If the left is going to get anywhere, there is no way we can hold up unsustainable and unrealistic standards, and we have to engage with people on level terms. Listening, real active listening, (see above) requires that we go beyond our comfort zone and try to see situations from outside our ‘right-on’ elite discourse of the left-wing intelligentsia.

Be confident and remember what’s at stake. It’s literally the future of the world – let’s not mess it up because of petty squabbles, cutting corners or going for glory. but we can do it. We might not have all the right answers right now but, as Durruti poetically put it, “we have a new world in our hearts. That world is growing this minute”.

That’s enough for now. This has been very hastily written – a ‘brain vomit’ moment after listening to the buzz and the clatter of the left implosion of the last few days. Don’t read it as a manifesto but as some offerings and reflections on the current state of the left in Britain today. It’s welcome to hear about the emergence of the likes of Plan C and LCI who are trying to grapple with these kinds of questions, but there’s still a lot to do…