The sharing economy: an alternative to capitalist exploitation? by Jeff Noonan
“The principle and institutions of a democratic life-economy are not posits of a utopian theory. Concrete examples of them exist even in capitalism. Wherever there are adequately funded and democratically governed (as opposed to bureaucratically managed) public institutions, there is an example of the principles and institutions of a democratic life-economy. Let me return to my example of the junkies from Section I. Imagine that these people have access to a community health care clinic adequately funded through taxes and governed by former drug addicts who have experiential understanding of the complex problems addicts face. It would be a stretch of the term ‘sharing’ to describe the way in which the clinic is funded. There is no individuated subjective decision to share a certain amount of resources with a specific group of people; there is a collective decision to tax at levels that allow the funding of a set of public institutions designed to satisfy fundamental needs, and this clinic is a member of the wider set of public health care institutions. Rather than accidental recognition of unmet needs, public institutions develop out of prior understanding of the set of needs that must be satisfied if people are to live and live well, and a social commitment to fund institutions which ensure universal public provision of the goods and services all citizens require. Provision is taken out of the hands of subjective decisions and guaranteed at the level of basic institutions. All partiality is ruled out at the level of institutional design. There might be people who would not want to share their resources to help addicts overcome their addiction. Their subjective opinions cannot derail the clinic, because it is embedded in a set of tax policies that fund the institutions whose legitimacy is guaranteed by a more universal social commitment a comprehensive health care system.
There is another difference between sharing and the value basis of a democratic life-economy. Sharing is non-reciprocal giving. When I share a good with you, I do not have any expectations of receiving anything back in return. In a democratic life-economy, by contrast, the goal of meeting needs is two-fold. On the one hand, needs are met without precondition because without their satisfaction life is impossible. On the other hand, in so far as need-satisfaction not only enables life, but the development of sentient, cognitive, creative, and relational capacities, i.e., the basic powers and abilities of human beings out of which our particular talents and projects develop, and it is through these projects that we contribute back to the “life-capital” we have used in our own development, there is an expectation (indeed, a necessity) that people give back to the stores of life-capital from which they have drawn. Life-capital is “life wealth that can produce more life wealth without loss.” Fresh water supplies, arable land and its crops, but also health care systems and schools, cultural institutions that provide space for the preservation or production of art or the history or communities, language more generally, and scientific understanding that allows us to better comprehend the dynamics of the world and to intervene in them in less destructive ways are all elements of life-capital. If no one gave back to these stores of life-capital, or if the naturally occurring stores are consumed at rates in excess of which nature can restore them, then the material and cognitive resource base upon which life depends, as well as the creations which make it meaningful, would disappear. So cultivating both the desire and ability to give back is also a goal of a democratic life-economy, whereas, in the case of sharing, nothing is expected in return.”