It’s time to put the power of sharing back into the sharing economy

A vibrant debate is questioning the meaning of sharing in relation to the big questions of our time. 

Adam Parsons
23 June 2014

Credit: Friends of the Earth International/flickr creative commons. Some rights reserved.

In recent years, a new kind of economy based on the age-old practice of sharing has begun to flourish across North America and Europe. It’s also spreading in popularity throughout the Middle East and other regions. Human beings may have shared since time immemorial, but information technology and peer-to-peer networks have given rise to an innovative trend in modern societies - the sharing economy, which enables people to ‘share’ various goods and services with their peers in everything from cars and bikes to food, office space, spare rooms, even time and expertise.

Countless articles and reports have evaluated the social and economic benefits of accessing rather than owning resources, while many proponents of the sharing economy uphold the potential of sharing as a social change strategy and ‘a call to action for environmentalists’. Indeed a growing chorus of pioneers within this self-professed social movement hail it as an approaching transformation of society on a par with the industrial revolution, and ‘the defining economic story of the 21st century’.  

The business community may be enthusing about the immense market size and profitability of the big corporate players that espouse sharing as part of their brand identity, but not everyone is convinced that the sharing economy is living up to its visionary rhetoric and aspirations. Far from promoting communitarian values, providing an answer to overconsumption or increasing social equity, for example, a growing number of critics attest that sharing-oriented business models are taking us in the opposite direction - by undercutting unionised labour, benefitting from unfair competition, encouraging de-regulated and precarious employment, and even robbing cities of vital public money. Many people are also questioning whether these new business ventures have co-opted or subverted the original conception of community-based sharing, considering that they charge money for a service and are effectively renting skills or assets.

Is the sharing economy really a ‘dumb term that deserves to die’, or does this moment of hyperbole give us reason to pause and consider what sharing actually means in relation to the big questions of our time?  

A key critique of the sharing economy concerns whether sharing should or can be commercialised. The essential dynamic of for-profit enterprise is to marketise formerly non-economic spheres of life, which is no different in the Internet-enabled sharing economy than in the dominant corporate sector. Hence many progressives question whether the kind of ‘disruption’ these new tech start-ups represent really provides a solution to social and economic problems, as opposed to deepening a pernicious trend towards ‘the commercialisation of everything.’

For example, is renting one’s apartment (on Airbnb), swapping designer clothes (on ReFashioner), or loaning out your garden (on campinmygarden) a way of extracting value from unused assets and enhancing social relations, or is it a more efficient way for businesses to turn us into self-interested consumers and exploit us commercially? By monetising our skills, personal belongings and community activities, the line between the market and non-market worlds is increasingly blurred and intermeshed, in which case collaborative consumption and for-profit sharing may reinforce the values of consumer capitalism. At the very least, commercial sharing platforms cannot be fully inclusive if they cater only to more affluent consumers. 

This debate is not black and white, of course. Meaningful relationships can still be formed in the worlds of business and commerce. There are obvious social benefits to collaborative consumption and valuable economic gains to be made by leveraging our unwanted or underused goods, or so-called ‘non-product assets.’ But common experience demonstrates how the true sharing economy is usually not commercial, including the unpaid care, support and nurturing that bonds us together as human beings. This is what Edgar Cahn, the founding father of the TimeBanking movement, terms the core economy that enables people to contribute to the welfare and well-being of each other through acts of reciprocity.

From this perspective, the transformative social power of interpersonal sharing lies in scaling up its non-economic dimensions through more formal institutions, new technologies or informal networks that can be accessed by anyone. Such examples would include community gardens, clothing and book swaps, the Really Really Free Markets, and countless other social networks based on gift exchange or collective efforts to pool skills and support.

As writers such as Charles Eisenstein or ‘Moneyless Man’ Mark Boyle attest, living according to the spirit of sharing has benefits that go beyond the quantifiable: it means we can reclaim human relationships from the market, take a stand against a commodity world in which everything exists for the primary goal of profit, and reaffirm our collective identities as interdependent, creative and joyful human beings.

This is not to argue that entrepreneurship and commerce have no place in a sharing economy, since money-free activities are mainly suited to a local level, where physical interaction and proximity are possible. The growing success of many sophisticated commercial sharing platforms (most of which boast a strong social dimension) also suggests that millions of people are choosing to participate in collaborative sharing activities. New business start-ups oriented towards sharing seem set to make up an ever greater proportion of economic activity.

The question is what kind of business models these enterprises will adopt if they want to remain genuinely aligned with the ethics and practices of sharing. Already, criticisms abound that venture capital is pouring in to promising sharing economy start-ups, turning them into large corporations whose raison d'être is revenue growth, shareholder-value maximisation and the monopolization of markets - which make them incapable of bringing us closer to a more equitable or truly sharing society. Who can deny that those who run the sharing economy along these lines are not sharing the wealth it creates for them?

In this era of multiple and converging crises caused in large part by monolithic and mercilessly profit-seeking corporations, progressives are increasingly calling for new business ownership models that are aligned with the principle of sharing. This is most often discussed in terms of cooperatives, in which no single individual or group drives the company for their own profit, and financial redistribution is built into the business structure.

The ‘sharing lawyer’ Janelle Orsi in California is a prominent advocate of converting sharing economy companies into cooperatives, and argues that these two concepts should be regarded as synonymous. But there are many other business models that reflect an ‘emerging ownership revolution’ in the words of Marjorie Kelly, which adhere to principles that promote inherently fair and ecologically sustainable outcomes – such as community land trusts, community-supported agriculture, credit unions and locally-owned community banks, as well as not-for-profit enterprises in their different guises.

If this real sharing economy is to resist co-optation, it will need widespread backing from governments to scale it up through public policies and regulations. On the surface, there are signs that this process is already underway: 15 mayors from across the United States have officially declared their municipalities as Shareable Cities, and have committed to reviewing and addressing regulations that may hinder participation in the sharing economy. Seoul in South Korea has also adopted a project called Sharing City that aims to promote existing sharing enterprises and incubate sharing economy start-ups, while Ecuador and Amsterdam are also embracing a new tech-driven sharing culture.

But the concept of economic sharing per se is not beholden to private, consumer-oriented, peer-to-peer or Internet-mediated forms of collaboration. It must also be reflected in national government policies – especially if inequality and other long-term, systemic issues like climate change and unsustainable food systems are to be tackled. Government can be understood as the most fundamental expression of economic sharing in which we practice “collaborative consumption through societal organisation of public services”, to quote Jonathan Schifferes of The RSA. A truly sharing society in this sense is underpinned by systems of universal social protection, requiring strong intervention by governments and strictly regulated markets which exclude profit-maximising companies from key sectors like healthcare, education and utilities.

The concept of sharing also applies to democratic forms of governance, in terms of how power is distributed throughout society, which has potentially dramatic implications for participatory politics. In fact, there is a long list of economic and social policies that align with the principle of sharing on a national level, from land value taxation and other tax reforms that encourage a fairer distribution of wealth and income, to the laws and regulations that support the extension of common property rather than its enclosure and privatisation.

In the end, however, the true possibilities of economic sharing will only be seen when governments, acting cooperatively in the interests of all nations, commit to policies that can institutionalise sharing on a global basis. In a world of interlinked and interdependent economies, nothing less than a more equitable distribution of wealth and income between as well as within countries can ensure the sustainability, peace and security of present and future generations, as more and more people in the local sharing movement are recognising.

When collaborative ideals and social solidarity are finally translated into a global call to share the world’s resources, we may finally see the ultimate Sharing Spring.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of STIR magazine

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