Critical reflection on the ‘sharing economy'(?)

Sharing is caring“, The Circle – David Eggers.

“the question of work time outside employment is posed with renewed vigour, having been totally ignored by the law reducing the working week to thirty-five hours, just as it ignored the exhaustion  of the consumerists industrial model, a model within which production and consumption constitute a functional opposition, but one that has now become obsolete”, For a New Critique of Political Economy – Bernard Stiegler.

I have had a bunch of tabs open in my browser with they intention of writing something about the ‘sharing economy’ and how one might begin to ask questions of the kinds of words we use to variously describe reconfigurations of labour/work in relation to peer-to-peer, precarious work, casualisation and (perhaps) the slow dissolution of labour movements but (as one can easily guess) I just don’t have the time to make something coherent about this… so here’s some notes, off the top of my head, with some pointers to things that may be worth reading…

In the Grauniad (as it struggles to contend with a Labour party that is significantly to the left of it) there was a piece by Alex Hern arguing that the term the ‘sharing economy’ should “die”. His argument is that what the ‘sharing economy’ supposedly denotes is no kind of sharing but rather the continuation of unequal labour relations between those with wealth and those in need of work – an example is TaskRabbit: a system to hire temporary labour, such as caterers, cleaners or someone to stand in the queue for the latest iPhone (probably without needing to ensure competitive remuneration, because people who are willing to stand in a queue for you are probably in a precarious position).

I have some sympathies with the argument  – it’s a reworking of the ‘precariat’ argument, best expressed by Guy Standing, in which the rejigging of the economy has created a new class of worker that is reliant upon ‘precarious’ (temporary, difficult and unpredictable) forms of work. However, reducing it to worrying over terminology seems to miss a broader point: regardless of what you call it, any attempt at novel economic activity will attract those who seek to be exploitative.

Before going on to think about how to address this state of affairs, it is worth noting that some have tried to think about how/why we are in such a situation. Izabella Kominska (on the FT website) offers a good overview of some of the ways in which economists have thought about post-Fordism ~ the kinds of automation that are (and are not) happening in manufacturing, the movements of labour (offshoring etc.) and why we don’t have the amount of leisure time and levels of productivity promised by greater automation.

Indeed, in order to extract more profit in an economy of apparently ever-increasing abundance many argue that it is only through business/industry clawing back a more exploitative relation with the labour force that they can continue to extract the levels of profit to which we have all become accustomed. We can look to the likes of the Italian post-Fordists, such as BerardiLazzaratoTerranova and Virno; to net critics such as Morozov; and to Bernard Stiegler for articulations of these latest forms of proletarianisation [you don’t have to agree, I’m just pointing out this is an argument that contextualises the ‘sharing economy’]. It is in this context of a decline in the amount of work – a decline of ‘careers’ and a growth of ‘jobs’, that Melissa Gregg articulates the need to rethink our words for labour and to critically think about what might underlie the push for a ‘sharing’ economy.

It is in this context that one might formulate a critique of the ‘sharing economy’ –– the talismans of this novel form of economic practice, the likes of Uber, TaskRabbit and Airbnb, all extract value out of people either rendering their traditional working capacities more ‘flexible’ (or precarious) or by those people seeking to monetise other parts of their lives, e.g. where they live, the stuff they own, or their ‘leisure time’.

The proponents of these kinds of work argue that this offers ‘flexibility’ – work when you want, how you want etc. but one might counter this with the argument that as flexible labour you have to be opportunistic and so you are precisely not working when you want but rather when there is a demand for your work.

Likewise, many of the kinds of ‘work’ that are offered through the ‘sharing economy’ platforms necessarily constitute unequal power relations. The two principal actors in the contract of ‘sharing’ work are not equal: the ‘sharing’ systems rely on creating competition, and thus a ‘scarcity’ of work such that the ‘customer’ has choice and the ‘worker’ doesn’t. The third actor, the platforms themselves, are also seeking to extract value out of the ‘sharing’ of labour by acting as the mediator, which means the system itself is always geared to the creation of a margin.

Seen as a precarious form of work, the ‘sharing economy’ has been labelled otherwise as the ‘gig economy’ and there’s been some interesting discussions about what such work means to us in terms of our mental and physical health. For example, these two pieces in the FT:

The silent anxiety of the sharing economy
New ‘gig’ economy spells end to lifetime careers

Both of which have lots of links to follow up.

The other aspect of an emerging critique of the ‘sharing economy’ is precisely the ‘platform‘ nature of the kinds of systems that are seeking both to further and to profit from these apparently new forms of work. As sebastian olma suggests in a piece for the Institute of Network Cultures:

These are digital platforms that roughly do two things: either making the old practice of re- and multi-using durable goods more efficient or expanding market exchange into economically uncharted territory of society.

Olma argues (as do other) that what these platforms do is render available to the market things that have not been previously…

They stand for a digitally enabled expansion of the market economy, which…is the opposite of sharing.

This is what Sascha Lobbo (amongst others – Gary Hall is good on this) has argued constitutes not a ‘sharing economy’ but a ‘platform capitalism’. Rather than marketplaces, platforms are a kind of generic connective infrastructure, what Olma calls an ‘ecosystem’, that connects customers and companies to anything, not just specific goods or services. He argues that

While it is absolutely true that internet marketplaces and digital platforms can reduce transaction costs, the claim that they cut out the middleman is pure fantasy.

the old ‘middlemen’ [sic.] are replaced by more powerful gatekeepers: “monopolies with an unprecedented control over the markets they themselves create”, through the quasi-autonomous systems (what get popularly referred to as ‘algorithms’) that facilitate such things as Uber’s “surge pricing“. In this way every transaction becomes an auction, which is tipped in the favour of the platform, and the worker is rendered always to some extent precarious.

Indeed, the reality of working in such systems is not only possibly very stressful, as argued in the FT piece linked a bit earlier, but also doesn’t even necessarily offer the positive outcomes that the proponents claim. As Sarah Kessler, a Fast Company journalist, noted in her extensive report of her attempt to become one of the ‘sharing economy’ workforce:

For one month, I became the “micro-entrepreneur” touted by companies like TaskRabbit, Postmates, and Airbnb. Instead of the labor revolution I had been promised, all I found was hard work, low pay, and a system that puts workers at a disadvantage.

This critique presents some interesting challenges to those who espouse alternative modes of working and performing economic activities, such as the P2PFoundation, and Stiegler’s push for an ‘economy of contribution‘ through Ars Industrialis. However, the ‘platform capitalism’ of Uber et al. is not the only way to run such a system.

Rather than resort to a gatekeeper model we might alternatively look to the (supposedly) radical transparency of the blockchain – in this way I’m left with some (probably quite muddled) questions:

  • What kind of economy/ economics is performed when the transactional infrastructure is decentralised?
    • Can you actually do without an intermediary (‘middleman’ [sic])?
    • Does a blockchain infrastructure facilitate enough of a commons to make a ‘no transaction cost’ economy possible?
  • Can we reduce ‘sharing’ to an issue of the negotiation of trust (not to be exploited), solvable by the blockchain?

There must be more/better questions but my brain is fried… I hope that this is at least useful for me to return to as a set of loose notes and perhaps even useful for others vaguely interested in such things. Likewise, as usual, if you’re better informed and want to pitch in – please do leave comments 🙂

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