"Sharing" Economy and Self-Exploitation

Collage by Erwan Soyer

(These are my opening remarks from Rhizome's Internet Subjects #1 panel yesterday at the New Museum.)

The sharing economy’s rise is a reflection of capitalism’s need to find new profit opportunities in aspects of social life once shielded from the market, in leisure time once withdrawn from waged labor, in spaces and affective resources once withheld from becoming a kind of capital. What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital and more of our time into casual labor, thereby extending capitalism’s reach and further entrenching the market as the most appropriate, efficient, and beneficial way to mediate interaction between individuals. For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.

Though the sharing economy appropriates a language of progressive change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for their apps and business models, their effect is to more thoroughly atomize individuals, demanding that they regard themselves as a kind of small enterprise while reducing their social usefulness to the spare capacity they can mobilize for the platforms to broker. Users are asked to scour their lives for marketable time and resources, performing labor that the sharing-economy companies organize and expropriate.

Just as factories allowed deskilled workers to “cooperate” and create value that accrued to the factory owner who brought them together, sharing-economy apps coordinate disparate users and extract value from their being brought together in networks. But unlike the workers who meet on the factory floor, the sharing-app users meet only as commercial adversaries, and build not solidarity but merely a mercantile “trust” that facilitates wary exchange.

Sharing economy apps discredit the very concept of gift-giving and impose reciprocal exploitation on users for the companies’ benefit. The apps’ networks masquerade as ersatz “communities,” but such networks actually constitute a medium designed to allow users to uncover advantages and asymmetries and let us seek out precisely the people we can exploit. Nonmonetized social bonds are made to seem like wasted opportunities. The only “real” bonds between people are the ones verified and rationalized by market exchanges, which are explicable in terms of economic incentives and self-interest. Actual sharing is inexplicable, unreal.

The rhetoric around sharing economy companies tends to celebrate their liberatory use of technology, which is held to irresistibly wring inefficiency from legacy social practices while freeing users from the dread burdens of inconvenience and transaction cost. But in fact the sharing economy epitomizes the deployment of technology to intensify inequality, in this case by creating monopolies that aggregate and co-opt the effort and resources of many users, who are pitted against one another within the platforms. The network becomes an anti-community in which empathy and conviviality are tactics and no succor may be extended without a price attached.

The sharing platforms tend to standardize and commoditize the services they broker (a ride is a ride is a ride), and champion amateurs in the name of disruption. This undercuts any advantage to being highly skilled or professional beyond some bare minimum of competence. The optimistic thing to say about this, perhaps, is that by making services generic, sharing apps may help reverse alienating economic specialization, pointing toward the communist ideal Marx described of everyone being able to hunt in the morning, and write criticism in the evening. But without some sort of guaranteed basic income in place, the casualization of labor to the point of worthlessness leaves workers more economically insecure, rendering them even more desperate to “share” — that is, to self-exploit.