“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings”
John F. Kennedy
Speech at the American University, Washington, D. C., 10 June 1963
Political consciousness of systemic social problems produces opposite responses in groups differently situated in a social hierarchy. From the standpoint of exploited and oppressed groups, the recognition that they are determined by systemic socio-economic and political forces manifests itself as (more or less developed) demands for a different social system. From the standpoint of the ruling class and its ideological supporters, recognition of the same systemic problems (or, perhaps more accurately, recognition that systemic problems have become so widely obvious that they can no longer be plausibly denied) manifests itself as creative attempts to creatively name novel elements of the unchanged system in ways that make the change sound systematically transformative. Occasionally, these opposite strategies cross one another, as when the name of what system opponents take to be an alternative and the creative naming practiced by those trying to save the existing system are the same. I propose to examine the phenomenon known as the “sharing economy” with these considerations in mind. To avoid damaging political confusion, the referent(s) of the name must be carefully examined to see a) whether system opponents and system-supporters mean the same thing by the term, and b) whether the name really does refer to an alternative social system, and, if so, whether it is likely to solve the problems its supporters believe it will.
The answer to the first question is ambiguous. There is much overlap, but not identity, in what system opponents and system supporters refer to by the term “sharing economy.” The overlap centres on the technological platforms of social media and peer-to-peer networks which open up new possibilities for identifying common interests and linking people with goods or skills to exchange. The difference concerns the extent to which these possibilities can be realised within capitalism or constitute the rudiments of an alternative to it. Thus, system opponents and system supporters do and do not mean the same thing by the sharing economy, but both are convinced that the technologies involved are crucial to its nature. The second question is not as difficult to answer, but, as we will see, there is still some ambiguity. Even in the best sense of the term, I will argue, the sharing economy cannot solve the systemic problems typical of capitalism. While “to share” is a verb widely assumed to name a universally valuable moral disposition, a more careful analysis reveals that sharing is not always completely good. Even if it were always good, I will further argue, it is not the best moral foundation for the institutional structure of a democratic life-economy alternative to capitalism. While sharing and the technologies that allow it to occur beyond the spatial and temporal confines of local communities can be an important element within a democratic life-economy, there is no technological fix to the problems of global capitalism, and solution to the problem of exploitation, oppression and alienation demand an end to the structure of material dependence of life on commodity markets that sharing on its own cannot guarantee.
I will develop this argument in three steps. In the first, I will attempt to bring some clarity to the idea of “sharing economy,” highlight what system opponents and supporters see in it, and uncover the hidden moral ambiguity at the heart of sharing as a social practice. In the second, I will focus on the way in which ‘sharing economy” is understood by capitalist system supporters, exposing the ideological function of “sharing” in this use and the capitalist truth behind the ideology. In the third I will return to the problem of sharing as the moral foundation of an alternative economy, and argue that alone it cannot satisfy the key conditions an alternative would have to satisfy to prove itself morally and economically superior to capitalism. Instead, the moral foundation of a democratic life-economy is universal need-satisfaction and its institutional infrastructure is not peer-to-peer networks but democratically governed public institutions that ensure universal provision of natural and social life-requirements to each and all.