More on the Sharing Economy

Thorough analysis by Tom Slee in Jacobin of the controversy surrounding municipal regulation of short-term rental-by-owner and ride-share companies, something I’ve discussed, albeit more briefly and considerably less diplomatically.

I think the key to understanding the issue is to think about the way that the highly capitalized tech companies are deploying a self-representation that brings them into line with a legacy of community cooperative enterprises:

the sharing economy invokes images of neighbourhoods, villages, and “human-scale” interactions. Instead of buying from a mega-store, we get to share with neighbours.

that obscures their motive: extracting profit by opening unregulated markets in housing and labor:

Lyft moved instead to offer something closer to an alternative taxi: they kept the language of sharing in the company slogan “Your friend with a car,” but Lyft is now clearly positioned as a source of income for its drivers, who increasingly look like employees who have to supply their own cars. Uber started off as tech-driven limo service, but has moved into the “sharing” space to cut prices.

Both Uber and Lyft have adopted controversial tactics like “surge pricing,” in which the price of a ride rises in busy times or during bad weather conditions in order to attract more drivers on the road, a move that places market incentives at the center of their business model. While Lyft originally called its fares “donations,” it has now abandoned the pretense.

And, while the companies’ rhetoric merges the legacy of urban cooperatives with the gloss of technological innovation, they’re certainly not above some good old-fashioned exploitation of people on the fringes of the labor market.

The Google-funded house cleaning service Homejoy is a partner of Peers, but its cleaners are, according to Forbes, people who need to show proof of employment to receive government assistance, recruited through municipal employment services. Meanwhile delivery giant DHL has launched itsMyWays delivery service, powered by “people who want to deliver parcels and earn some extra money.” TaskRabbit and others call their workers “micro-entrepreneurs,” but that is a poor description of precarious piecework. The preferred phrasing of “extra money” harks back to women’s jobs of 40 years ago. And like those jobs, they don’t come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits — none of that old economy stuff.

As Slee makes clear, the sharing economy is a particular sector of the new metropolitan economy that is driven by the consumption choices of affluent and networked professionals. The companies don’t facilitate the sharing of skills or resources among equal members of a community, they exploit employees made more desperate by the collapse of living wages and the arms race in the cost of food and housing driven by the consumption power of the wealthy. Cooperative enterprise certainly has a place in many imaginations of better urban living, and indeed there are many historical examples of it that we can draw on today. The sharing economy isn’t one of them.