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  • Posted November 20th, 2015

    Beware the ‘sharing’ economy – back door for a more rapacious form of capitalism

    Beware the ‘sharing’ economy – back door for a more rapacious form of capitalism

    Something that’s been troubling me for a while. The ‘sharing’ economy must be a good thing, right? I’ve been trying to see the good in it for a while. Sharing anything must mean that fewer resources are used, less waste produced, people get to know each other in their communities. All sounds great, doesn’t it?

    But there are two main problems. First, the monetisation of transactions. Take Airbnb – if you’re a member, and you have a friend come to stay in your house, do you charge them? The fact that they’re staying in your home means that you’re losing income, after all. The sharing economy kills the gift economy. The second also involves Airbnb – it’s corporate, playing by the usual corporate rules – part of the ’empire’. If it really is part of the sharing economy, why aren’t profits shared? If there’s a place for multinational corporations in your idea of a brave new economy, then maybe it’s not so brave or new.

    In fact, because the sharing economy makes it virtually impossible for workers to organise to ensure decent pay and conditions, it actually represents a more exploitative form of capitalism, not less.

    Uber calls its drivers ‘partners’, but what kind of partner has no say in the decision-making of the company, gets paid less than the average wage, has to organise his or her own vehicles, insurance and fuel and can be fired at any time.

    Bryan Van Slyke and David Morgan at Truthout put it this way:

    The “sharing economy” sure has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? As the saying goes, “sharing is caring.”

    Through Uber, the sharing economy’s poster-child, thousands of drivers have turned their personal cars into money-making vehicles. Homeowners internationally have earned extra cash by using another popular sharing service, AirBnB. These companies’ ads are filled with smiling people, caring about each other and just wanting to do good. The idea of the sharing economy also comes at the perfect time. Since the Great Recession, more and more people have been looking for economic alternatives, ones that build off of mutual aid, rather than greed and the “it’s everyone for themselves” philosophy. Likewise, the recession pushed significantly more segments of the American workforce into positions where they must string together part-time gigs and find alternative ways to bring in revenue. So a sharing economy, where people can use what they already have to help others, while making some bonus money for themselves, sounds like a perfect solution.

    It’s unfortunate then that these companies and the misnamed “sharing economy” are really just fronts for millionaires and billionaires to opportunistically ride off the backs of everyday people, while also exacerbating many economic inequalities.

    Full article here.

    And here’s Avi Asher Schapiro’s take in Jacobin:

    Kazi drives a Toyota Prius for Uber in Los Angeles. He hates it. He barely makes minimum wage, and his back hurts after long shifts. But every time a passenger asks what it’s like working for Uber, he lies: “It’s like owning my own business; I love it.”

    Kazi lies because his job depends on it. After passengers finish a ride, Uber asks them to rate their driver on a scale from one to five stars. Drivers with an average below 4.7 can be deactivated — tech-speak for fired.

    Gabriele Lopez, an LA Uber driver, also lies. “We just sit there and smile, and tell everyone that the job’s awesome, because that’s what they want to hear,” said Lopez, who’s been driving for UberX, the company’s low-end car service, since it launched last summer.

    In fact, if you ask Uber drivers off the clock what they think of the company, it often gets ugly fast. “Uber’s like an exploiting pimp,” said Arman, an Uber driver in LA who asked me to withhold his last name out of fear of retribution. “Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”

    Here’s the full text.

    Then there’s the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington had the great idea of getting people to write free content for her online newspaper – it all seemed part of a new type of economy that we all had a stake in. But then she sold the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, and then AOL was bought by Verizon for $4.4 billion, and on it goes, and the concept of sharing that with people who had provided free content disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

    It’s the same with Facebook, Twitter and other ‘social’ media businesses. The media is not social, it’s corporate. Users do all of the work and provide all of the content but get none of the advertising revenue. Why should all the financial gain go to already rich majority shareholders? But of course this question extrapolates to the entire economy.

    The thing is, we already have a real sharing economy – the co-operative economy – so we don’t need a new, fake one. Add a sprinkling of the free or gift economy and you have housing co-ops, worker co-ops, community energy, community-supported agriculture, LETS, timebanks, mutual societies, open source etc. These approaches don’t allow the corporate sector a foothold. Let’s abandon the ‘sharing’ economy and focus on the co-operative and free economy. That really is sharing, and it can’t be co-opted.



    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Peter Richardson November 20th, 2015

      It seems a bit of a shame to write-off all these new developments which enable people to connect with each other, just because they were set up by people who were trying to make money. The concept isn’t a bad one in itself, it just depends how it is done. For example, if a sole trader or small family business founded a web-based service which helped people hire out their lawnmowers to other people locally, and made a fair profit from doing so, would that be a Bad Thing? I don’t think so.

      Also, people have to take care of themselves. I don’t know much about Uber, but it’s obviously a mistake in any circumstances to base a self-employed full time job on just one fickle customer. You’re not really self-employed unless you have enough customers so that you can safely jettison any customer who behaves unfairly or offensively.

      Self-employment can be a much better alternative to employment, since no employer is going to look after your interests as well as you will look after your own interests yourself (e.g. you’re never going to make yourself redundant). However, there’s a lot of fake self-employment around, such as van-owning delivery drivers who only work for one company, which is just using the facade of self-employment to avoid paying fair wages and benefits. That sort of situation needs sorting out by legislation… which could also deal with companies like Uber if it is being exploitative of its ‘partners’.

    • 2Dave Darby November 20th, 2015

      Yes, there are plenty of cities, and I think whole countries, that have banned Uber. It’s not that they’re fickle, it’s that they’re exploitative, which, if you can get away with it, will serve you well within capitalism.

      Just to be clear though – I don’t have a problem with ‘sharing’ – which is what you might be talking about – but there’s a specific ‘thing’ called the ‘sharing economy’ which isn’t really about sharing – it’s dominated by companies like Airbnb, Zipcar and Uber, which are giant corporations that do the usual thing – you know, suck money out of local economies to pay (usually already wealthy) shareholders somewhere else. It creates billionaires and impoverishes communities. Uber has put probably hundreds of thousands of small cab companies out of business around the world, and makes it very difficult for self-employed cabbies to get work any other way. It’s capitalism red in tooth and claw – only redder.

      Take your example of the small business helping people hire their lawnmowers. First, I think there could be a community organisation that helps people share things without money changing hands – actually I’m sure there is. Plus there’s LETS and things like it. But small, ethical businesses, if successful, often want to become giant companies, or sell out to them – that’s just the way corporate capitalism works (remember Ben & Jerry’s?).

      We already have a co-operative economy and a gift economy, that corporations absolutely can’t get into. I think that’s where we should be pointing people. The ‘sharing economy’ is an attempt by the corporate sector to pretend that the co-operative or gift economies don’t already exist – because they have no way at all of extracting profit from them.

      However – I do agree when it comes to self-employment. Most alternatives to capitalism have been based on some form of collectivisation – and I just don’t think that most people want to be collectivised, and so in time, a certain amount of force has to be used and voila, you have a system just as bad as corporate capitalism, or in the case of Stalin, worse. Collectivism is fine as long as it’s voluntary and you can leave and be self-employed if you want to. I’d aim for a co-operative (i.e. anarchist – or at least some flavour of it) system rather than a collective (socialist) or a competitive (capitalist) system. I’m going to blog about this soon – because I think it was where the ujamaa system went wrong. Brilliant idea from a political / decision-making point of view, but the economy was too collective rather than co-operative.

    • 3Rakfa December 21st, 2015

      Just to share an interesting piece and associated comments:


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