The sharing economy: an alternative to capitalist exploitation?

[Credit: School of Hieronymus Bosch, Tondalus' Visioen.]
[Credit: School of Hieronymus Bosch, Tondalus’ Visioen.]
by Jeff Noonan

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.

I:  Sharing as Moral Disposition and Economic Practice

While system opponents see in the sharing economy a strategy of de-commodified exchange and system supporters see in it a means of extending commodified exchange, both are agreed that the sharing economy relies upon the technological foundation of peer-to-peer networks established through digital communication software and devices.  As Tom Slee says in the opening of his important critique, “the sharing economy is a wave of new businesses that use the Internet to match customers with service providers for real-world exchanges.”[1] The range of  services and goods offered is vast and varied, but can be grouped into four sets.  Judith Schorr, a (critical) supporter of the transformational potential of the sharing economy, identifies these sets as “recirculation of goods, increased utilization of durable assets, exchange of services, and sharing of productive assets.”[2]  While capitalist system-opponents like Schorr see peer-to-peer networks as transformational because they allow for the precise expression of needs to others who might be able to satisfy those needs through the use of existing goods or voluntary labour, system-supporters see these same networks as means of creating new markets.  Nevertheless, the system-supporters regard the disposition at work within the networks as sharing, because the aim of the person marketing the service or product is to find unmet needs and satisfy them.

Rachel Botsman, an enthusiast of the marketized sharing economy puts the point clearly:  “At its core, its about empowerment … about empowering people to make meaningful connections, connections that are enabling us to rediscover a humaneness that we’ve lost somewhere … by engaging in marketplaces like Airbnb … that are built on personal relationships versus empty transactions.”[3] Note that she ignores the cash transaction that consummates the relationship in favour of the initial moment of what she sees as human social contact.  Her support for the practice is rooted in her belief that the technologies bring people together as humans first, and only secondarily as buyer and seller.  Thus, she thinks this relationship is “human” and not empty (i.e., commercial) because it is not a generic exchange (like in a store, where one finds a product, hands the cash over, and leaves) but more precisely calibrated to individual tastes and interests of the purchaser and rooted in a real exchange of personal information prior to its consummation as sale.   Nevertheless, the indisputable fact that the exchange is consummated by the transfer of money from service-requirer to service-provider raises suspicions about the “human” bone fides of the marketized sharing economy.  In order to test whether these suspicions are justified, we must inquire more carefully into the meaning of the verb “to share,” examine the moral disposition from which it arises, and explore any hidden ambiguities the disposition and the practice might contain.  We can then return to the economic dimension of the problem to see more clearly to what extent (if any) the marketized sharing economy is based upon “sharing” in any morally meaningful sense.

When we share something with someone we give to them something they lack without expectation of any reciprocation on their part. Sharing may stem from a request for help, or it may be gratuitous; it may concern an object of pressing need or an object of desire; we may give something we have in abundance or something we have barely enough of for ourselves, but in all cases that which makes an act an instance of sharing is its non-reciprocal nature.  Simply put, we give without expectation of receiving anything back in return. If we ask for money for the good in question we are not sharing, we are selling; if we ask for an equivalent good in exchange for the object we are not sharing, we are bartering; if we ask for a favour in return for the object we are not sharing but laying the basis for a quid pro quo.

Sharing is generally regarded as a sound moral disposition that a proper education should cultivate.  To share requires us to pay attention to other people`s needs at least as much as our own.  A capacity to share is a sign that people have grown beyond a narrow selfishness and a society of sharers seems to be a society of people who care about each other’s well being.  Capitalism stands in sharp contrast to our ordinary moral dispositions in so far as it demonizes sharing as a lost opportunity to exploit other people`s needs.  Marx condemned capitalism in his early philosophical works precisely because it turned need into an opportunity to exploit others. “Under private property,” he wrote, “… every person speculates on creating new need in another , so as to drive him to a fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence.”[4]  Before him, Adam Smith decried as morally objectionable (although socially useful) the “natural selfishness and rapacity” of the rich, in their struggle to “satisfy their own vain and insatiable desires”[5]  For such a person to share would be unthinkable, while to sell that which others would share is their life-goal.  Sharing is approved as a virtue, then, because it is other-regarding and proof that people are able to rise above the egocentric concerns that drive market relationships and devote themselves to the good of others without a secret selfish agenda underlying their action.  Sharing is proof that when we pay attention to others in need we can recognise and respond to the harm that their state of deprivation causes them as harms that we want to heal, and not as opportunities to increase our private wealth.  Sharing thus stems from a recognised obligation of human beings to help one another when they are in need.

I do not contest the virtuous character of the other-regarding focus of a sharing disposition or the bonds of obligation that our needs establish between us.  However, a complete estimation of the moral value of any disposition must include an examination of the content of the act as well as intention that motivates it.  That is, we must always apply a life-value test to any disposition and a life-value test always involves concrete examination of the effects of a given intention or disposition on the life with which it connects.  In the case of sharing, therefore, we can say that attention to the needs of others is life-valuable, because it is an expression of care for their well-bring, but we cannot say that in every particular interest sharing, as non-reciprocal giving, is good in abstraction from the question of what it is that is shared (what is the content of the act of sharing).  When we add an examination of content to our examination of intentions and dispositions, it becomes clear that sharing does not always establish an unambiguously good relationship between people.

Let us take two examples to illustrate my point.  In the first example I am sitting on a park bench eating a sandwich when a homeless person approaches me and tells that he is starving.  Out of a caring disposition, I share my sandwich with him.  In the second case, two junkies are sitting on a park bench with enough heroin for both but only one needle.  They decide to share the needle.  In the first case, the hungry person is fed (albeit only temporarily), while in the second the junkies put themselves at higher risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis-C by sharing the needle.  In both cases the caring, other-regrading disposition is active, but in the second case, rather than benefitting the other who lacks a needle of his own, the first junky puts his friend at risk (even if unwittingly).  The point is clear:  sharing is an unambiguous good only in the case that a) it stems from a caring disposition, and b) the content of the sharing act, that which is shared, is life-valuable.  An object is life-valuable when it meets a real need.  A real need is any object or relationship or practice which, if we are deprived of it, we suffer objective harm in the form of the impairment of life-capacities to move, to think, to feel, to mutualistically relate to others, and to build and create things that others need and from which they can benefit.[6]

[Credit: Wolverton.]
[Credit: Wolverton.]
Now let us turn to the question of a sharing economy in general and its goodness conditions.  A sharing economy in general would be a system of economic relationship based upon non-reciprocal giving (as opposed to barter or sale), and it would be good, from the example above, just in case that which is shared across and throughout the economy were needed goods, services, and information.  The fact that there is a caring disposition at work in the economic relationships that connect people in a sharing economy is not enough:  they must also share only such goods as are needed for the health, well-being, development, and enjoyment of our sentient, cognitive, imaginative, practical, and relational capacities of the members of that economic system.

There are examples from the history of economies that by and large operated on the basis of sharing.  The city in which I live is a two hundred year old European settlement on the traditional lands of the Three Fires Confederacy of First Nations Peoples (the Ojibway, Odawa, and Potawatomi).  At public gatherings it is becoming more common to acknowledge the pre-colonial history of the city, often by asking an elder from one of the First Nation’s communities to speak.  At a play I attended recently the elder explained the traditional ownership of the land, and then added that she wanted to remind everyone of the traditional hospitality that the people of the Three Fires Confederacy had shown the people of all nations.  The principle of this hospitality was “one dish, one spoon.”[7]  The life-value essence of the principle is clear.  Everyone must eat in order to live; whatever differences might characterise people as a result of particular cultural histories are erased by deep physical needs.  The purpose of resources is to satisfy needs (and not to be hoarded or used to establish power over others).  Hence, where people gather and are needy, and there are resources to satisfy those needs, then the obligation of the person or group who controls the resources is to share them with all who need them, regardless of their cultural membership.

The principle that underlay the Dish and Spoon Treat is a principle of what I will call a universal life-valuable sharing economy.  The principle mandates that natural resources are life-resources, good for the sake of enabling the lives of those who require them.  They are to be distributed on the basis of the need for them and not on any other basis unrelated to need:  ability to pay, willingness to be subordinated to the political authority of the group that controls the resources, or cultural identity. The universality of the principle was an achievement born of conflict and reflection upon the way in which exclusionary control over resources (at least in part) provoked the conflict.  The agreement to share ended the struggle over the area’s natural resources and helped to achieve peace.  Yet, nothing in the logic of sharing, giving without expectation of return, requires that it be universal in this way.  If the Three Fires Confederacy decided to share only with other indigenous groups and not with European colonisers, theirs would still have been a sharing economy, just one open only to people of First Nations.  By the same principle, if a family group is willing to share with members but not with others, that exclusivity does not mean there is no sharing economy within the family, but only that it is restricted to members.

[Credit: Victo Ngai.]
[Credit: Victo Ngai.]
These exclusions cause no harm if those in need can get the resources they need elsewhere:  Europeans could have ended their colonial project and others could turn to their own family.  When societies are multi-cultural and riven by lines of class and racial and gender conflict, however the possible partiality of sharing can become pernicious.  White male stock traders my share information amongst themselves that helps them get rich; rich white homeowners may share information that helps them effectively keep black people out of their neighbourhood, to take only two examples whose reality is well-known.  There is no contradiction here to the value of other-relatedness that makes sharing a virtue, only its restriction to an in-group and use for pernicious ends.  Since sharing is a voluntary act, it is up to the person who decides to share with whom they will share. If they are racists they will share with white people but not with black people.  That restriction makes them racists, not selfish.  So a sharing economy could, in principle, also be a racist economy, if the principle is not universal but says:  share with your kind.  If every human society contained only one’s own kind, this exclusivity might not be a problem.  But those are fictitious; all human societies contain differently identified people with shared human needs.  In those cases, an ethic of partial sharing will leave some out-groups (the racially or ethnically or sex-oppressed) without that which they need, if the preponderance of resources is in the hands of a dominant class.  The point is that “sharing” alone is not necessarily the foundation of an economy that ensures universal life-requirement satisfaction.  Hence, even in the cases where the sharing disposition is real, it does not follow that sharing alone will ensure the solution to the systemic problems of inequality and need-deprivation that capitalism causes.

The conclusion that a sharing economy constitutes an advance on capitalism must be evaluated in light of three questions:  1) are the contents shared life-goods, through the appropriation and use of which fundamental life-needs are satisfied and essential human life-capacities enabled; 2) is the principle of distribution through sharing universally applied, i.e., do people share with whomever needs the resource, or are there identity or class-based limitations on who shares with whom; and 3) are universally required life-resources collectively controlled and shared out by a democratic decision-making process that focuses on who needs what most urgently, or is sharing a function of arbitrary decisions of a ruling group that controls the majority of life-resources and who is free to decide with whom to share and for what purposes (to get good press, to get tax-breaks through charitable donations, and so on)? Hence the superiority of a sharing economy to capitalism can be compromised in three general ways:  either that which is shared is not a life-good, or the sharing is not universal, or the sharing is only of a small subset of total life-resources which in no way compromises, but may in fact help to protect, the private ownership and control over the preponderance of universally required life-resources which is the material foundation of ruling class power.

In this section I have defined sharing as a disposition to give without expectation of return.  This disposition presupposes the capacity to overcome egocentric selfishness and direct one’s attention in a caring way to other people. The laudatory rhetoric that abounds in discussions of the sharing economy is largely rooted in the belief that sharing is a virtuous disposition because it recognises and seeks to satisfy the needs of others.  This section also briefly discussed a real example of a universal sharing economy, that is, an economy in which life-goods were distributed to all who needed them because they need them and not because of any particular characteristic they shared with the community in control of the resource.  However, a careful examination of the virtue revealed that its life-value as the foundation of a complex economy was subject to a number of qualifications.   A sharing economy could be a democratic life-economy, but only if that which is shared are life-goods, they are shared with all who need them, and the sharing is a function of a community-wide democratic decision and not a class-specific charity decision.  At present, peer-to-peer sharing does not necessarily violate any of these principles, but nor does it satisfy any just because it is carried out over a social media network and is mediated by shared interest.  Hence, theorists like Schorr who see in peer-to-peer networks the outlines of a new global sharing economy that solves the structural problems of capitalism might not be wrong, but they do need to build into their arguments the sorts of qualifications that I have been exploring here.

The matter is quite otherwise with the commercial sharing economy that receives equal amounts of praise as a beneficent alternative to the old-style cash transaction.  Where money is concerned there is no sharing, but exchange.  The application of the term “sharing economy” to networked commercial transactions is thus a misnomer.  I will now turn to examine this dimension of the problem.

[Credit: William Bell Scott.]
[Credit: William Bell Scott.]
II: “Creative Destruction” Not Sharing

Sharing is not, strictly speaking, exchange because there is no return for that which is shared.  The businesses that rely upon peer-to-peer networks to build markets for their products and services are engaged in commercial exchange of products and services for money, and, therefore, not sharing.  The Uber’s and AirBnB’s of the world do not constitute an alternative to the capitalist economy, but only a new business that exploits regulatory gaps to increase its profitability.  They are an example of what Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” essential to the survival of capitalism, not a humane evolution of economics beyond it.

Creative destruction is essential to the survival of capitalism because as capital accumulates, that is, as it becomes fixed in factories, built environments, and typical business patterns there are less and less opportunities for profitable investment.  If accumulation were permanent, then capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own patterns of development, as Marx argued.  Schumpeter was interested in the problem of why this self-undermining did not occur.  His answer was that as the rate of profit becomes threatened by a given round of accumulation, entrepreneurs emerge who discover cracks in the given business patterns and institutions and exploit them with new practices, techniques, and technologies.  If these insurgent practices prove profitable, they will destroy accumulated capital and create new spaces for investment.  Eventually, the entire business landscape is transformed, novelties settle into new structures of capital fixation, setting the stage not for collapse because of the falling rate of profit, as Marx believed, but a new round of creative destruction.   The history of capitalism is a story of “industrial mutations that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.  It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live with.”[8]  There is no reason, in principle, why this process cannot go on forever, according to Schumpeter, presupposing as it does only the inventiveness of human beings and their ability to apply the products of our creativity in ways that exploit hidden opportunities to transform ossified patterns of economic life.

There is little point disputing about the future of capitalism.  It will survive or be transformed into a different system not according to some fixed law (of the falling rate of profit or creative destruction and self-renewal) but according to the outcomes of the social struggles its contradictions constantly engender.  What is certain is that up to this point in time the process of creative destruction is real and has allowed capitalism to renew itself, but always at the (at least short term costs) of the interests of workers whose lives and livelihoods are also damaged or destroyed by technological and organizational innovation.  When we examine the capitalist use of peer-to-peer networks from the standpoint of workers in existing industries affected by the new business models, it becomes clear that they have nothing to do with rediscovering the “humanness” we have lost “somewhere along the way,” but driving down the costs of doing business in the industries they are taking over.

[Credit: Flickr/Ouishare.]
[Credit: Flickr/Ouishare.]
No one should romanticise older forms of capitalist labour.  Taxi driving or hotel work is low-paid, low-benefit work even where it is unionized.  Still, what victories workers in these industries have managed to win are seriously threatened by the Uber’s and AirBnB’s of the new business landscape.  Their genius, if we want to call it that, is to present themselves as software platforms for peer-to-peer communication, and not taxi companies or lodging services; as sellers of this technological platform to independent contractors, and not employers of labour.  On this basis they have managed to escape from regulatory regimes designed for older business models and thus—at least for a time, until new rounds of labour struggle catch up– exploit these regulatory gaps to enhance their profitability.  Hence, it is not the technology as such that explains (for example) Uber’s success, and certainly not that it has tapped into an ancient sociality and desire to share long-suppressed by capitalism, but that its owners have discovered a language to explain their business that puts it outside of regulations its business model renders obsolete.

Enthusiasts do not see the matter in this way but instead tend to fetishize the technology at the expense of understanding the actual human reality of how needs link us into basic forms of social relationship. Instead of understanding needs as organic-social requirements of human beings that must be satisfied through manifold forms of physical, symbolic, and caring labour, they are understood as functions of social media networks.  Consider for example Steven Johnson’s explanation of need-satisfaction:  “When a need arises is society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.”[9] As Slee explains, “to satisfy a need ” does not  refer to social labour that will meet the need but rather “to build an Internet software platform, a web site and/or mobile application on which consumers and service providers can create a presence and exchange goods and services.”[10]  The actual labour through which the good or service is produced, and thus available as a need-satisfier, is presupposed.  The work that it takes to satisfy the need appears to derive from the technologically mediated exchange relationship (with the technology as the active agent and the human beings the passive beneficiaries of technology) while the material reality is masked. This mystification repeats the problem that Marx diagnosed as the “fetishism of commodities.”[11] Focussing on exchange relations, classical political economists presented commodities—products of human labour-as endowed with a magic power to increase their own value.  In reality, Marx demonstrated, their value is the result of human labour in the production process.  In both cases, the productive and creative force-labour-is presented as the predicate of an active subject (the commodity, technology) which, in material reality is the creation (the predicate) of labour.  At the same time as the productive and creative power of labour is falsely subordinated to a fetishized understanding of one of its products, the exploitative and alienating conditions in which people work is hidden behind an ideological understanding of voluntary and self-directed exchange.

When we look at the matter of peer-to-peer exchange in capitalism from the standpoint of labour, the older forms of exploitation and alienation re-appear.  Let us continue with the case of Uber.  Having distinguished itself from the old taxi industry, it exempts itself from its costs.  As Slee explains:  “Uber enthusiasts attribute the company’s success to its technology and the efficiency with which it matches drivers and riders, but this misses much of the story.  Uber’s success also owes a lot to avoiding the cost of insurance, sales tax, mechanical vehicle inspections, and providing a universally-accessible service … Uber’s success comes from being parasitic on the cities in which it operates.”[12]  There is no sharing here, but only cleverness in working around the old regulatory regime.

[Credit: Wayne S. Grazio.]
[Credit: Wayne S. Grazio.]
Creative destruction allows capitalism to renew itself, but it also undermines existing forms of making a living, throwing workers in old industries out of work and putting downward pressure on wages.  This process is abundantly clear in the case of the on-going mutation of capitalism we are studying.  Again, the rhetoric highlights self-empowerment and self-employment: labour is purportedly freed from the shackles of exploitative industries and dominating hierarchies to sell itself to whomever has a need to buy it.  The reality is simply a new form of exploitation and domination.  As Kevin Roose discovered, at the root of most workers’ participation in the new business model was desperation:  they turned to selling their labour over peer-to-peer networks because they had lost a full-time job.  So,

A huge precondition for the sharing economy has been a depressed labor market, in which lots of people are trying to fill holes in their income by monetizing their stuff and their labor in creative ways. In many cases, people join the sharing economy because they’ve recently lost a full-time job and are piecing together income from several part-time gigs to replace it. In a few cases, it’s because the pricing structure of the sharing economy made their old jobs less profitable. (Like full-time taxi drivers who have switched to Lyft or Uber.) In almost every case, what compels people to open up their homes and cars to complete strangers is money, not trust.[13]

Work in the capitalist peer-to-peer economy is rooted in the same alienation from the means of life-support and development as was (is) work in the older industrial economy studied by Marx.

[Credit: expanded-eye.]
[Credit: expanded-eye.]
A Dickensian economic reality is thus “sharewashed” into a fantasy of free social interaction.  Sharewashing is an ideological practice analogous to greenwashing.  In both cases, capitalist destruction of nature and the exploitation of labour are represented as environmentally friendly and empowering.  In fact,

What is behind this urge to call working–and not just any kind of work, but difficult, low-paying, and often dangerous work–‘sharing?’ Simply put, TaskRabbit, Sidecar, Lyft and similar companies are at the forefront of the precarization of the US workforce … Remember how many workers used to have unions, pensions, health insurance? And now they don’t? The erosion of worker power doesn’t stop there. Precarious workers lack job security, lack protections like worker’s comp[ensation], unemployment benefits, health insurance, and even minimum wage laws.[14]

Progressive economist Dean Baker concurs.  His study of new peer-to-peer businesses concludes that “the new sharing is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law.”[15] The creativity of the business model lies less in finding a new and transformative use for peer-to-peer software than in exploiting gaps in models of regulation designed for older industries.  Hence, the truth of what the business and technology press calls the sharing economy is a mutation within capitalism which presupposes and extends its exploitative and alienating effects on workers: creative destruction, not sharing.

To sum up the critique of the capitalist appropriation of the term “sharing economy” I want to stress three points.  First, since sharing is non-reciprocal exchange (giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return) monetized exchange (paying for a product) is not sharing, by definition.  So, if the transactions in the capitalist sharing economy are mediated by money, there is no sharing, and the use of peer-to-peer networks to enable monetized exchange is a mutation within capitalism and not an alternative to it.  Second, although it is at its core capitalist, peer-to-peer monetized exchange is a new way of buying and selling which has upset older regulatory regimes and business practices.  It is another example of the ‘creative destruction’ which allows capitalism to grow beyond stagnant forms of accumulated capital.  Finally, this capitalist reality is hidden from view behind a fetishistic understanding of technology as the active power of satisfying needs.  As was the case with commodities in general, labour as the truly active and creative power (and the exploitative and alienating structures and forces within which it is confined) is overlooked, allowing supporters to present alienation and exploitation at the level of production as voluntary and free relationships at the level of exchange.  The question remains:  even if it were possible to free peer-to-peer sharing from its monetized capitalist form, is the sharing disposition a sufficient foundation for the democratic life-economy the world needs as a solution to the endemic problems of capitalism?

III:  The Limits of Sharing and the Need for Universal Public Provision of Essential Life-Requirements

My argument is directed against the ideological appropriation of the value of sharing by supporters of capitalism, and not against the life-value of the moral disposition to share life-requirements.  By analogous reasoning, my argument is directed against the subordination of the power of the technology to ramify peer-to-peer networking across the globe to capitalist exchange relations and not against that technological power as such.  Thought of in abstraction from its capitalist confines, social media and peer-to-peer connections are rooted in human sociality and express novel forms of interaction and relationship.  They also have great potential—as Yochai Benkler in particular has argued, to free the dissemination of (at least the symbolic) products of human intelligence from commercial market forces.  Since computers and the networks that link them so drastically reduce the cost of producing and distributing symbolic content, they have the potential to free creative labour from subordination to dominating commercial enterprises and markets; to allow it to be shared freely, in the real sense of sharing.  The “liberation” of creativity from “the constraints of physical capital” Benkler argues,

leaves creative human beings much freer to engage in a wide range of information and cultural production practices than those they could afford to participate in when, in addition to creativity, experience, cultural awareness, and time, one needed a few million dollars to engage in information production.  From our friendships to our communities we live life and exchange ideas, insights, and expressions in many more diverse relations than those mediated by the market.  In the physical economy, these relationships were largely relegated to spaces outside of our economic production system.  The promise of the networked information economy is to bring this rich diversity of social life smack into the middle of our economy and productive lives.[16]

Benkler does indeed capture the promise of sharing information through social media networks, and thus glimpses one side of what non-alienated labour in a democratic life-economy would look like.  But he leaves the biggest problem undiagnosed, and thus unsolved.

[Credit: Stephanie McMillan.]
[Credit: Stephanie McMillan.]
While one can disseminate information almost cost-free across computer networks, our capacity to produce information and to create depends upon our being alive and the means of life-maitenance remain physical.  Not only do they remain physical, they are, under capitalism, the private and exclusive property of the ruling class, to which others must pay money if they are to access that which they need to live.  Benkler does not challenge this depth structure of material dependence, nor the commodification of universal life-resources, and so long as that is not challenged, then the liberating potential of information and symbolic sharing across peer networks will remain constrained, because the power to engage in symbolic labour is constrained by the need to work in the physical economy in order to survive.

Hence the question that must be asked is:  can (and should) life necessities be shared.  Is sharing the solution to the problem of the structural dependence of life on individuals being able to pay for commodities, as in capitalism?  It is obvious that food and water cannot be shared across computer networks, so is the solution to re-create something like the sharing economy of the Three Fires Confederacy in the more complex conditions of twenty-first century national and international economies?

I argued in Part One that the moral value of sharing is subject to two qualifications.  First, the goodness of sharing depends not only upon the subjective disposition to give that which another requires without expectation of return, but also upon the life-value of the object shared.  Sharing was good in those cases where the subjective disposition was exercised in acts of sharing goods and services which people required in order to live and develop their life-capacities, but not completely good in those cases where the object that was shared was harmful.  Second, sharing is better to the extent to which the disposition to share is treated as a universal obligation rooted in the recognition that all human beings need fundamental life-requirements and worse to the extent that the sharing disposition is restricted on the basis of particular identities (of family, or ethnicity, or race, etc).  The disposition to share is always good, but the reality of sharing is not always universally good in all respects, if that which is shared is harmful or the sharing of life-goods is restricted to members of an in-group.

As the example of the principle of resource distribution in the Three Fires Confederacy proved, it is possible to organize an economy on the principle of unrestricted sharing of life-requirements.  Despite this demonstrated possibility, I want to argue in this final section that sharing is not the best moral foundation for a democratic life-economy.  The idea of a “democratic life-economy” develops out of my reflections on an unexamined problem in Marx’s principle of distribution in a communist society: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”[17]  The potential problem is that nowhere does Marx argue fully that needs must be restricted to natural and social life-requirements and abilities to forms of self-realization that contribute to the good of others by helping to satisfy their life-requirements.  I attempted to solve this problem by re-thinking Marx’s principle of distribution from the perspective of McMurtry’s life-value onto-axiology.  Hence “democratic life-economy” combines the fundamental principle of life-value onto-axiology: that things, practices, relationships, and institutions are good to the extent that they satisfy our life-requirements and enable the expression and enjoyment of our life-capacities in life-serving ways, with Marx’s (and the subsequent socialist tradition) stress on the need for working class self-emancipation and collective control over universally required life-resources and productive enterprises.[18]  A good economy is one in which all affected by economic decisions deliberate in their workplaces and in wider social planning bodies to determine how the fundamental purposes of life-support and development can best be served over the open-ended future of human life.[19]  In its abiding commitment to ensuring access to the means of life-support and development a democratic life-economy learns from indigenous forms of universal sharing economy, but its institutions are not based upon the moral disposition to share, but on the principle of guaranteed universal need-satisfaction.  The difference requires explanation.

When sharing is good it satisfies a fundamental need.  But what are the conditions in which the need for sharing arises?  Clearly, if sharing is a way of responding to an unmet need, then the need for sharing arises in cases of deprivation.  Typically, we share when we encounter, per accidens, someone who is lacking something that they require.  Within any given indigenous community, the distribution of resources is based upon membership in the community and fulfillment of social function, not on recognition of unmet individual needs.  If the society is healthy and prosperous, there would not normally be any people with unmet needs, because their belonging to the community ensured access to the resources that their lives required.  The ‘dish and spoon principle’ arose out of a situation of conflict.  Sharing was a means to resolve the conflict and to ensure that no one, regardless of who they were, would be deprived while they were in the territory of the First Nation’s parties to the treaty.  If no one were ever deprived, there would be no need to share, as everyone would get that which they needed from the ordinary operations of the economy.  It is true that these economies were not based on the private and exclusive control over universally required life-resources, and in that sense we could say that they believed that the resources of the earth and water were shared (i.e., no one person or group’s private property).  But this sense of “shared” is distinct from the sharing disposition discussed in Section I.

Let us now examine how matters stand in the contemporary world.  In capitalism, where need-deprivation is common, the sharing disposition is cultivated as an individualized means of responding to market failures to ensure need-satisfaction.  The need-deprived person stands in a relationship of dependence with the more “fortunate” person with greater material means, and is typically grateful when the wealthier person shares something of what he or she has.  The sharing disposition is still good in so far as it responds to an unmet need, but, as a principle of distribution, it presupposes systemic deprivation.  If everyone had that which they required (as in a well-functioning indigenous community) there would be no need to share.  Thus, the problem with sharing as the moral basis of a democratic life-economy is that the need to share presupposes deprivation, whereas a democratic life-economy could only exist if universally required life-resources were collectively controlled; i.e., if the material foundations of social dependence were overcome.

[Credit:Joe Magee.]
[Credit: Joe Magee.]
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.”[20]  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.

It is true that some of these goods can be share–an art historian can lecture for free at a community centre, or a scientist can make her results available for free on the internet.  But ensuring universal access on the basis of need must be a matter of public policy and not subjective disposition, for two reasons.

[Credit: Lesivo.]
[Credit: Lesivo.]
First, the scale of modern societies and the typical size of their populations, and the range of the goods life requires, means that ensuring access to these goods will require public institutions with a mandate to deliver the same quality service or good to all citizens.  Let us take the example of education.  A fully funded public education system from kindergarten to graduate school would ensure that every citizen had access to as much education as they had the aptitude and interest to acquire.  Its complete decommodification would eliminate class as a determinant of level and quality of education.  On the other hand, allowing top schools to charge what the market will bear, and consigning everyone else to random searches of the Internet for what information or free on-line courses they can find, introduces a fundamental inequality into society.  The citizens shut out of university might be able to find information on-line, but they will lack access to libraries, lab space, and face-to-face communication with professors through which much if not all of the desire to do the work that learning requires derives.  Sharing in this case, although real, would not satisfy the fundamental need for education.

Hence, much more than sharing is required for the construction of a democratic life-economy.  I will close with what I take to be five fundamental conditions its full construction would require.  However, readers must note that the evaluative criteria for social development should never be all or nothing, but always better or worse, more or less.  That the conditions for the existence of a democratic life-economy cannot be built tomorrow does not mean that elements of them cannot be built tomorrow, and if they were, life would be better to that extent than it is today.  With that in mind, the five conditions are:

1) Collective control over the universal means of life-maintenance and development (land, water, mineral and energy deposits, etc.,);  2)  de-commodification, through the strategy of universal public provision, of life-requirements in which individual taste plays no role (clean water and sanitation, health care, education, for example), and remuneration for labour at wage levels sufficient to enable the purchase of other life-goods where individual taste makes a difference (clothing, housing, for example), constrained only by the need to take into account the material-environmental limits on resource consumption; 3) non-alienated work which is democratically governed and which enables the compelx of human capacities that make life meaningful, purposive, and enjoyable and whose products contribute in manifold ways to the satisfaction of others needs, constrained again by considerations of sustainability;  4) the gradual reduction and elimination of the desire for and production of consumer products that serve no life-function and which waste scarce energy and resources as part of a collective project of simplification of demand for the sake of maximization of experience and life-value activity; 5) the progressive cultivation of subjective commitment to principles 1-4 through philosophical and political reflection and argument, not authoritarian coercion or command.

As virtuous as sharing might be when it is universally expressed, it cannot on its own satisfy any of these five conditions.  The real project for the future is not a sharing economy, therefore, but a democratic life-economy, whose construction will require not only virtuous dispositions, but also political movements capable of overcoming the structures of material dependence that allow capitalism to dominate and alienate people.

[Credit: americanzen.]
[Credit: americanzen.]
End notes:

[1] Tom Slee, What’s Yours is Mine, (Toronto:  Between the Lines), 2016, p.9.

[2] Juliet Schor, “Debating the Sharing Economy,” Great Transition Initiative (October 2014), (accessed, June 18th, 2016).

[3] Quoted in Slee, What’s Yours is Mine, p.20.

[4] Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3, 1843-1844,” New York:  International Publishers), 1975, p. 306.

[5] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Indianapolis:  Liberty Classics, 1976, p. 304.

[6] John McMurtry, Unequal Freedoms, (Toronto:  Garamond), 1998, p. 164.

[7] The principle recalls the name of a late eighteenth century treaty between the Three Fires Confederacy and the Haudenosaunee (a.k.a. Iroquois).  The treaty ended a period of prolonged warfare over the fur trade during the 1790’s.  The treaty agreement at that time was to establish peace and friendship and share the resources in this part of Southern Ontario.  Thanks to Russel Nahdee, director of the Turtle Island Centre for Aboriginal Education at the University of Windsor for explaining the history of the principle to me.

[8] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.  New York:  Harper and Row. 1942, 83.

[9] Slee, What’s Mine is Yours, p. 23.

[10] Ibid.

[Credit: Pix of Ayn Rand,]
[Credit: picture of Ayn Rand,]
[11] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, (Moscow:  Progress Publishers), 1986, p. 76.

[12] Slee, What’s Mine is Yours, p. 59.

[13] Kevin Roose, “The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Trust, It’s About Desperation,” (accessed, August 9th, 2016).

[14] Anthony Kalamar, “Sharewashing is the New Greenwashing,” (accessed August 9th, 2016).

[15] Quoted in Schorr “Debating the Sharing Economy,” Great Transition Initiative (October 2014), (accessed, June 18th, 2016).

[16] Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, (New Haven CT:  Yale University Press), 2006, pp. 52-3.

[17] I discuss the relevant principles more fully in Jeff Noonan, “Self-constraint, Human Freedom, and the Conditions of Socialist Democracy,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 25(4), 2014, pp 85-101.  For a fuller discussion of the sets of needs that I take to be basic for a fully human, good life, see Jeff Noonan, Democratic Society and Human Needs (Montreal:  McGill-Queen’s University Press) 2006, and Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press), 2012.

[18] John McMurtry, Philosophy and World Problems Volume 1: What Is Good? What Is Bad?  The Value Of All Values Through Time, Place And Theories, (Oxford: EOLSS Publishers), 2011, p. 213.

[19] A plausible model for a democratically planned economy has been developed by Pat Devine.  See Pat Devine, Democracy and Economic Planning, (Cambridge:  Polity Press), 1988.

[20] John McMurtry, “Breaking Out of the Invisible Prison,” The Bullet, No. 1085,  Feb 25th, 2015. (accessed, March 2nd, 2015).

[Thank you Jeff  for this essay.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor. He is also President, Windsor University Faculty Association in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website:

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, Thanks for your support.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.