The 2008 financial crisis spread from Wall Street to the world almost overnight, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions, even though its causes had nothing to do with the production and distribution of any of the basic necessities of life. Instead, the crisis erupted because the financial system had become unhinged from its real function: supplying credit to productive enterprises. Finance capital increasingly made its money from complex “derivatives,” which are not claims on a company’s proﬁt (as shares are) but on debts packaged and sold as investments. Immense profits were made, which provided the incentive to create more derivatives, causing debts to be piled on debts, all sold with guaranteed returns. Many of these derivatives involved American mortgages. Since these were backed by a physical asset (the house), they were advertised to institutional investors as highly secure, but the models assumed that housing prices would continue to rise. As it turned out, the housing market was a bad-mortgage fuelled bubble. When it burst, the “mortgage backed securities” became worthless, and banks from Athens to Iceland collapsed. Instead of having to foot the bill for their recklessness and greed, major banks were bailed out with hundreds of billions of dollars of public money. Workers lost their jobs, housings, and savings; Wall Street bankers paid themselves bonuses for the greatest failure of the financial system since 1929.
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.
Human beings are integrally natural and social creatures, dependent upon natural life-support systems for their physical existence and socio-cultural life-development systems for the nurturing and realization of their emotional, cognitive, and practical-creative capacities. Societies whose developmental dynamics become alienated from their natural conditions of existence face inevitable doom. Oblivious to the ways in which their reproductive dynamics undermining the physical foundations of social life, they collapse the very basis upon which their institutions and value systems depend. Let us say that any society which unsustainably converts scarce natural resources into tokens of social power (as, for example, capitalism converts natural systems and elements into money) faces a material crisis of life-reproduction. The manifold environmental crises unleashed by capitalism, crises which persist even in the midst of on-going economic stagnation, are evidence that capitalism will ultimately face a problem of material life-reproduction. Yet, this material crisis is not the only crisis that capitalist civilization faces. Since human beings require not only life, but meaningful, purposive life, societies can also fall into what I will call spiritual crises of life-development.
Spiritual crises arise when the ruling value system and institutional structure of a society becomes alienated from citizens’ need to feel that they belong to a socio-cultural whole which values their contributions to its reproduction and development. More precisely, spiritual crises arise when the ruling value system and institutional structure of a society actively alienate citizens by treating them as mere tools of its material reproduction. When people are treated as mere tools of system-reproduction, their moral being as intrinsically life-valuable centres of experience, action, and interaction, cognizant of the social conditions of their freedom and well-being, and desirous of enhancing the social foundations of their individuality, are attacked. In these alienated circumstances social problems are presented to the populace as technical problems to be solved by political and economic experts working in the service of the established asymmetries of wealth and power. Spiritual crises thus arise when ruling classes attempt to solve a material crisis of social reproduction by treating subaltern groups not as participating members of a social whole, but as passive objects whose life-interests must be sacrificed to the health of the system understood as a reified whole indifferent to the life-requirements of the people who live under it.
The failure of the Durban Conference on Climate Change, (December, 2011) to agree to anything more substantial than that all nations would work together to develop binding targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 is a metonym for the life-crisis besetting globalised capitalism. Because global capitalism subordinates what John McMurtry calls “life-value” to the expansion and accumulation of money-value, it progressively undermines the conditions of planetary life-support, human life-requirement satisfaction, and meaningful human life-capacity development and enjoyment. Resources, relationships, practices, norms, institutions, and forms of life-activity have life-value when they: a) satisfy objective requirements of human life-maintenance, reproduction, and development, b) thereby enabling the expression and enjoyment of the human life-capacities of sentience, imaginative and cognitive thought, and creative activity in ways which are, c) life-coherent. McMurtry’s principle of life-coherence asserts that in order to be good, expressions of life-capacity must not only follow from the free choices of the agents who enjoy them, but must also, “consistently enable ecological and human life-together.” In other words, good forms of individual life-capacity expression must contribute to, rather than undermine, the natural field of life-support and the social field of life-development within which individual life-activity is grounded. The vaunted “liberties” of liberal-capitalist society are blind to the natural and social grounds upon which all good lives ultimately depend. Hence, capitalism is a system that necessarily generates crisis in all important dimensions of being alive. In the present essay I will explore the four most fundamental dimensions of capitalist life-crisis and the adequacy of egalitarian liberal, human rights-based cosmopolitan, and twenty-first century socialist responses to them.
“The good life for human beings must be a life that is realizable on earth—it must be a good that accords with our finite, embodied nature. Thus the good for human beings, Noonan concluded, is the free-realization of our defining life-capacities, within the limits that nature and a finite lifespan impose. His current research continues to develop the implications of this materialist ethics. His current book project is examining the existential dimensions of human finitude, defending the life value of human limitations against a naive and potentially destructive technotopianism.”