The Sharing Economy

TALK ABOUT BEING CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: a recent survey of university vice-chancellors in the United Kingdom identifies a number of areas of innovation with the potential to reshape higher education. Among them are “uses of student data analytics for personalized services” (the number one innovation priority for 90 percent of vice-chancellors); “uses of technology to transform learning experiences” (massive open online courses [MOOCs]; mobile virtual learning environments [VLEs]; “anytime-anywhere learning” (leading to the demise of lectures and timetables); and “student-driven flexible study modes” (“multiple entry points” into programs, bringing about an end to the traditional academic year).[1] Responding to this survey, an editorial in the academic press laments that “the UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy.”[2] Yet one wonders whether any of those proclaiming the merits of such disruptive innovation have ever stopped to consider what a higher education institution emulating the expansionist ambitions of U.S. companies like Amazon and Google would actually mean for those currently employed in universities.

We can see the impact such aggressive, global, for-profit technology companies have on the organization of labor by looking at information and data analytics businesses associated with the sharing economy. Emerging from the mid-2000s onward, the sharing economy is a socioeconomic ecosystem that supplies individuals with information that makes access to things like ridesharing and sofa surfing possible on a more efficient, expanded basis. Indeed, because of the emphasis that is placed on the cooperative sharing and renting of preowned and unused goods, the activities and services of the sharing economy are frequently held as being very different from, or as even as offering an alternative to, those that are provided through private, state, or public channels. As such, the sharing economy is portrayed as a means of bringing community values back into the ways in which people consume. It is also said to help address environmental issues resulting from the depletion of the planet’s resources, for example, by reducing the carbon footprint of transport. Yet the sharing economy is just part of a much larger socioeconomic ecosystem, one that is dominated by the use of computing and satellite technology to coordinate workforces and create global transnational supply chains and that enables just-in-time manufacturing through the production of low-wage labor and the exploitation of outsourced workers. Given this, it is almost as if the sharing economy has been devised to take the edge off some of the harsher aspects of life in advanced, postindustrial capitalist society, including those that have been generated in the name of austerity: unemployment, precarity, increasing income inequality, large discrepancies in property ownership, high levels of debt, and low levels of class mobility.

Certain aspects of the sharing economy, however, are also helping to enact a significant societal shift. It is a shift in which state-regulated service intermediaries, such as taxi companies and hotels, are replaced by information and data management intermediaries, such as the start-ups Uber (an app that enables passengers to use their cell phones to hail a ride with a taxi, rideshare, or private car) and Airbnb (a community marketplace for renting out private lodging and other kinds of accommodation that, like Uber, was founded in San Francisco).[3] Of course, it is important to acknowledge that the sharing economy is made up of a variety of different economic arrangements, many of which are not directly involved in the replacement of state-regulated service intermediaries. These arrangements embrace for-profit, nonprofit, and collaborative structures too: those associated with fair trade collectives, freecycling networks, peer-to-peer file sharing, and the Occupy movements, for example. Even the information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy—which include BlaBlaCar, Liquid, and Zaarly, among many others too numerous to mention—are not all the same. Each has its own specific features, characteristics, and spheres of operation within the larger ecosystem of the sharing economy. Nevertheless, rather than sharing activities, goods, and services in a fair and resilient fashion that enables a more direct exchange between the parties involved by cutting out the unnecessary middlemen, what most of these for-profit start-ups are doing is corporatizing and selling cheap and easy-to-access assets that are underutilized. In the case of Uber and Airbnb, still the two best-known examples, these assets take the form of seats in vehicles and rooms in properties that are otherwise occupied on an infrequent and temporary basis. In other words, they are idle resources it has up until now been difficult for capital to commodify and whose value from an entrepreneurial point of view has therefore been wasted.

For some, this move away from state-regulated service intermediaries such as taxi companies and hotels toward for-profit businesses is part of market capitalism’s increasing co-option and rebranding of the “true” community values of the sharing economy. Even if this form of economy is presented as a revival of community spirit, it actually has very little to do with sharing access to goods, activities, and services and everything to do with selling this access. (Many people insist on referring to it not as the sharing economy but as the renting economy for just this reason.) The sharing economy thus does hardly anything to challenge inequality and injustice. At best, it is capable of providing an additional or alternative source of income in what many are experiencing as economically straightened times. (It is significant that Uber and Airbnb were both founded around the time of the financial crisis, in 2009 and 2008, respectively.) For others, these technology start-ups are simply innovating too quickly for the politicians and lawmakers to keep pace—a situation regarded as likely to have highly disruptive social consequences if it continues unconstrained.[4]

But this societal shift from state-regulated service intermediaries to information and data analytics intermediaries also provides us with a means of understanding some of the ways in which neoliberalism has been able to advance with its program of privatization, deregulation, and reduction to a minimum of the role played by the state and public sector even after the crash of 2008. The important point to note in this respect is that, by avoiding preemptive state regulation, these profit-driven sharing economy businesses are operating according to a postwelfare model of capitalism. Here there are few legislative protections for workers and hardly any possibilities for establishing trade unions or other forms of collective agency, action, or means of generating the kind of solidarity that might be able to challenge this state of affairs. This set of circumstances often leaves those who provide services by means of the platforms of information and data management intermediaries laboring for less than the minimum wage and without a host of workers’ rights (a bundle of rights being what employment is, after all). The list of lost benefits is a long one. As Mike Bulajewski notes, it includes “the right to have employers pay social security, disability, and unemployment insurance taxes, the right to family and medical leave, workers’ compensation protection, sick pay, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin, or wrongful termination for becoming pregnant, or reporting sexual harassment or other types of employer wrongdoing.”[5] All of this goes a long way to explain why in the March 2015 budget, the British government declared that it is planning to make the United Kingdom a global center for the sharing economy.[6] (Uber was declared legal in the United Kingdom in October 2015.)