The “sharing economy” has many fans but Eric Schneiderman, New York State’s attorney-general, is not one of them. He has demanded that Airbnb, a company that allows anyone to rent their property to strangers, hand over records of its 15,000 hosts in New York City to verify that they pay taxes levied on hotels. But the company, a pioneer of the sharing economy, is fighting the order.
Why fear the sharing economy? Why not let people share apartments, cars, drills and washing machines and make some money on the side? Won’t this promote efficiency, create markets and help with problems such as congestion? It might. But as we celebrate the disruption of old industries, we also must inquire into the structural effects of the sharing economy on equality and basic working conditions.
To some, this might seem an odd concern. Has not the sharing economy already helped the middle classes in despair, the unemployed and the uninsured, those on the brink of bankruptcy? Start-ups such as Airbnb flaunt their credentials as latter-day Franklin Roosevelts, highlighting users whose livelihoods were transformed by the service.
But notice how Silicon Valley moguls disrupt with one hand – only to comfort with another. Lost your job as Amazon forced your local bookstore to close? Do not worry: you can rent out your apartment via Airbnb. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, wins either way: he is an investor in Airbnb.
The advocates of the sharing economy invite us to imagine it as a feel-good utopia that, while fully compliant with market logic, is driven by the altruistic spirit of Wikipedia and open-source software. Such parallels are tricky, as many contributors to open-source projects have full-time jobs at for-profit software companies that subsidise their extracurricular activities.
And how altruistic is all this sharing? Is it true that we no longer value profits over human relationships, that we do not pay taxi drivers for getting us from point A to point B but rather “make a donation” to fellow citizens concerned with reducing carbon emissions, that we rent out rooms in our apartments not to make ends meet but to meet new people? “It’s like the UN at every kitchen table,” Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, said of the social benefits of his company. “I think we’re in the midst of a revolution,” he hastened to add. Workers of the world, turn on your smartphones!
But for all their rhetoric, many of these start-ups pursue rather un-revolutionary agendas. They are not interested in reorienting the global economy towards a better quality of life – as proposed by Robert and Edward Skidelsky – or human flourishing – as proposed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.
When SF Weekly, a San Francisco newspaper, asked an executive at Uber, an upmarket taxi app, about a protest by Uber drivers concerned by recent firings, he responded that a “driver contracting with Uber is not a bona fide employee” so that “firing, in this case, amounts to deactivating a driver’s account because he’s received low ratings from passengers.” At TaskRabbit, a company that connects those who need their errands run with those who need the money to run them, the “task rabbits” cannot easily communicate with each other. Who knows what trouble they could cause on discovering the subversive Wikipedia page about trade unions?
Or take Airbnb’s resident cosmopolitan, Mr Chesky. Asked how the sharing economy would treat people who “don’t want to be brands”, he did not mince words. “Some people will choose to be anonymous their whole life. That’s OK. But if you don’t opt into this online identity, you’ll have less access to services. The rest of us build a history. We build a brand online.” The power model behind the sharing economy is more Michel Foucault than Joseph Stalin: no one forces you to be part of it – but you may have little choice anyway.
A new UN, indeed: the erosion of full-time employment, the disappearance of healthcare and insurance benefits, the assault on unions and the transformation of workers into always-on self-employed entrepreneurs who must think like brands. The sharing economy amplifies the worst excesses of the dominant economic model: it is neoliberalism on steroids.
Last August, companies including TaskRabbit and Airbnb launched Peers.org – a “grassroots organisation that supports the sharing economy movement”. Ordinary citizens are invited to sign a pledge stating that they “believe the sharing economy should be the biggest economic movement of the 21st century – by building an economy that benefits everyone”.
How exactly one builds an “economy that benefits everyone” was not explained. But Peers.org promised they would not be hiring any lobbyists. And they do not have to: as long as the sharing economy is seen as a logical extension of app-enabled humanitarianism, lobbyists won’t be needed at all – the utopian rhetoric alone will suffice.
The writer is author of ‘To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly
of Technological Solutionism’