Under the guise of “innovation,” capitalism creeps into our personal relationships, networks and community.
He’s helped you a lot in the past and you don’t think twice about saying yes.
When the day comes, you pick him up in your car and drive together, alternating between chatting and singing along, badly, to the radio. You drop him off at the gate, give him a hug and wish him well on his trip. He offers to pay for gas, but you shake your head and say he can cook you dinner when he gets back instead. He smiles and takes his bag into the terminal. You wave and get back into your car.
You come to that dinner a few months later. The smell of food fills his apartment. As you wait for the dish to finish in the oven, he talks about his trip: all the places he went and the people he met. He said that a friend of someone he met there has been backpacking in this area and will be staying on his couch for a week or two. It was the least he could do, he said, after they treated him so well when he was there. A timer goes off and your friend goes to the oven to remove dinner. About an hour later, you’re both stuffed and, looking at what’s left, realize that he probably made way too much food. A conversation about food waste bubbles up and soon your friend gets an idea.
Your friend knocks on his neighbor’s door while you hold the tin of way-too-many leftovers. The neighbor opens up and your friend explains that he made more food than he could ever eat before it would spoil and so was wondering if she wanted some. She smiles and gets a tupperware that your friend fills up, she asks the two of you to come in for some wine, which you both eagerly accept. It’s tart and strong and refreshing. You stay for about 15 minutes and talk about cooking. After leaving, you and your friend repeat this with more of his neighbors until the leftovers are all gone, though you’re not exactly empty-handed: you have a small pie from one neighbor, a loaned book from another, two bottles of beer from a third, and a bunch of fresh basil from the forth, all given without any prompting or expectations, and accepted not as payment or exchange but as an expression of goodwill reflecting that which your friend sent to them.
What you witnessed that night is technically called “community”, but it’s something so fundamental to the human experience and so foundational to human well-being that even those without the word would recognize it for what it is: social relations for the sake of social relations, the benefits coming not as part of some market mechanism but from simple human connections, the very thing that allowed humans to survive without the teeth and claws that other creatures enjoyed. It’s something that has sustained us before the capitalist economic system was even conceived of.
Because of this, it doesn’t follow the logic of the market, the ruthlessness and greed that give meaning and horror, to the capitalist system. It follows, instead, the logic of solidarity and friendship – it cannot be turned into a stock, it cannot be sold in stores, and it cannot be hawked on an infomercial. Indeed, that is the point. And it is because of this that the capitalist system finds it so threatening and why it works so hard to dismantle it.
While capitalism has always produced alienation, the rise of the so-called “sharing” economy, facilitated through smartphone apps and fueled by mountains of venture capital, is the apotheosis of the system’s war against the non-economic sphere. You can share cars, apartments, even meals with the touch of a button. It promises to take power away from the large corporations and put it into the hands of the individual, turning a top-down command economy into a peer-to-peer networked one. In reality, however, it is nothing more than capitalism rebranding itself. Having studied complaints about it with all the seriousness of a market researcher, it has launched the same old product in a bright, shiny new package, the New Coke of economic systems. Don’t believe it. The end goal is the same as it always was: profit.
The rhetoric surrounding these “services” is nothing more than a cover for capitalism’s direct colonization of our social interactions, our personal relationships becoming nothing more than one more means of production for some far off executive congratulating himself for a job well done. No longer content with monopolizing our physical world, it has now turned to our social relations as well, seeking to reduce something fundamental to who we are into a line item on a balance sheet.
Under this system, getting a ride to the airport, staying at someone’s house when traveling, cooking meals and sharing leftovers, are actions undertaken not in the name of friendship and camaraderie but as an impersonal economic transaction. The “sharing” economy is nothing of the sort – it is a way for companies to get people to do their work without having to deal with things like wages or benefits. It’s a way to build a hotel empire without having to build any actual hotels; it’s how you make money off selling food without making, or even buying any yourself; it’s a fleet of taxis without having to deal with things like fuel costs, liability insurance and licensing (not to mention ornery unions). At best, it should be called a renting economy. The participants take on all the work and all the risk. All the companies do is provide the connections, something that can easily be done for free, and has been for centuries and yet, for some reason, the people who create these services are praised as innovators. It is a parasitic relationship that masquerades as symbiosis.
The tragedy of all this is that it has turned an idea with revolutionary potential into one more manifestation of the dominant economic paradigm, a top-down structure where anything outside the bottom line is, at best, a secondary concern best dealt with after the quarterly earnings report comes out, so as not to spook the investors. It’s like if someone invented the steam engine and the only thing people used it for was to get wrinkles out of shirts, for a hefty price. We shouldn’t really be surprised about this, though. This is what capitalism does: it expands and absorbs anything it touches. It has to grow, or it will die. It constantly needs new things to monetize, to commercialize, to turn into products that it can feed its captive global market, and so when it begins running out of other things to make money off of, why not turn to our social relations? At this rate, nowhere and nothing and no one will be free of its influence, to rise above the status of a commodity.
There is still a chance to preserve this one last bulwark against the hungry market, however, while the “sharing” economy is growing, it has yet to surpass the size of the real sharing economy, the old connections we share and the new ones we make every day. We must discard parasitism disguised as sharing and promote mutual aid and solidarity; networks of people that can sustain themselves and each other outside the ruthless logic of market relations. We must share food, not because we can make some money,but because we care about each other. We must share rooms, not because we have aspirations of becoming some mini-entrepreneur, but because we value our connections. We must open up to new relationships, not because they present more opportunities for monetization, but because we want to reverse the alienation and isolation that has been foisted on us by a cruel and uncaring economic system. We must not allow the last refuge from rapacious market relations to fall to capitalism, turning even our most intimate relationships into something with a calculable dollars-and-cents value that can be bought and sold like a used car.
This battle presents unique opportunities for resistance, because it is one that is largely decoupled from the physical world. They are fighting us on the ground of our personal relationships and it is here that we, not they, have the home field advantage. We can fight and we can win, as long as we have our friends.
— Chris Cunderscoreg is the founder of the blog We Are the 99 Percent.
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