Left of Eden: Inequality within the Sharing Economy

Waiting for an Uber? Why not swap some money with an art student in Berlin before you head on holiday to stay in your Airbnb-rented apartment and negotiate your new found city courtesy of yPlan? Sounds like the perfect holiday, right? Made all the more sweeter thanks to the help of people you’ve never met before who wanted to lend you a benevolent hand.

Welcome to the sharing economy: join in and become part of a new collective where you’ll spend your days swinging effortlessly between world peace and free love. In the background, kumbaya will play melodically on an acoustic guitar and the world will sparkle with the dew of hope and empathy which flows in abundance from neighbour to neighbour.

Indeed, with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the popularity of Syriza in Greece, it’s easy to get swept up in the notion that we’re experiencing a paradigm shift to the left of Eden.

Communalism and collective well being have eclipsed the old order; the end of capitalism is just on the horizon and us folk have a front row seat to instagram every moment.

A recent Guardian article by Paul Mason proposed as much: “Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.”

Mason declares this an era of post capitalism and whilst his optimism is infectious the reality is less inspired. For niches and hollows of the traditional market system are indeed beginning to move to a different tune though without, as Mason proposes, catapulting us out of the old economic sphere. Instead, technology is marching us into an era of purer capitalism. The state is losing its influence on economic life but the replacement bodies are far more sinister. It seems we are moving back into the belly of the beast all the while believing that we are headed into the light.

Admittedly the sharing economy, as it has been termed, invites a new sort of economic autonomy. Nothing highlighted this more than the Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the Greek bailout. Founded by a 29 year old man who worked in Oliver Sweeney in Covent Garden, the campaign raised €1,930,577 in 8 days, with donations from 108,654 people. This was nowhere near enough to save the country, of course, but acted as a rousing show of individuals who were attempting to right the ills of the world from the bottom up and make a difference on a ground level.

There is no denying that the mass collective has gained license to control its own assets and create revenue in ways that were unimaginable 20 years ago. Forget Thatcher’s Right to Buy, today a slew of apps and websites – from OneFineStay and Airbnb to Uber, TaskRabbit and MoneySwap – are optimising exposure of the individual to economic prosperity. The internet has helped to democratise wealth but it has not removed ideas of competition.

For the assumption that individuals have embraced these new platforms with fervour out of a love for their fellow man is nothing if not naive. These new apps hark back to a Hobbsian idea of a social contract in which society exists to prevent exposure to the nasty, brutish and short reality of what it would be otherwise. As austerity has inflicted hardship, strife and pain across the everyday man we are forced to find new and innovative ways to survive or else tear your neighbour to shreds in pursuit of food, shelter and sanity. If anything this new sharing economy is more cutthroat than ever before, with man operating at his most ruthless.

It is unlikely that Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb isn’t reaping the rewards of a new generation of poorer individuals in search of adventure or a suntan.

Parallel to this movement into pure capitalism you have transference of power away from both the state and the individual into paws of an unelected oligarchy of technocrats. Whilst we blithely wax lyrical about the perks of new technology, the sinister and unseen bodies of Google, Facebook and Amazon – to name but a few – are scurrilously collecting our data and conditioning our habits to ensnare us in their wily mits. Simultaneously these robotic hawks prey on innovativation, snapping up new ideas and melding them into their machines. Yet whilst banks remain a scapegoat upon which we can blame our economic woes, the technological elite play maverick revolutionaries, promising a way out.

In a pattern reminiscent of Russia post-1917, under the technocrats, we are worse. Today we may have more control of our physical assets but we are losing our intellectual freedom at an alarming rate. And, although we may have created these pillars of new society aged 14 when we signed up and logged on, the repercussions of what we were doing were unclear and unknown. In an age where information is more powerful than financial wealth, we have hoisted corporations to almost untarnishable heights and there is no clear mechanism to remove them. In the internet age everyone is equal, though some are more equal than others.

Where we go from here is unknown. Whether it is possible to reconcile the ease and enablement that this sharing economy offers with a desire to retain autonomy over your moral being is unclear. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps we don’t even care. For money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you a cheap ride home, a delivery from your favourite restaurant straight to your door and a beautiful week’s holiday rental in the centre of your favourite city.

And at the end of the day, isn’t that what sharing is all about?

First published on Imperica, 30th July

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