What the “sharing economy” shows us about the social bond under neoliberalism

[Editor’s note: It turns out that I’m almost completely wrong about this — check out the comments!]

Hitchhiking used to be commonplace. Now we think of it as dangerous, but studies have shown that one was no more likely to be a victim of a crime while hitchhiking than in any other situation. And it makes sense — when you do a favor for someone, are you usually looking for a way to exploit or harm them? Do you open the door for someone hoping they’ll let their guard down and you can pick their pocket? For at least a brief window in American history, that baseline expectation of human decency was enough to make hitchhiking an attractive option.

Nowadays, most of us wouldn’t imagine getting into a stranger’s car. The very fact that they were willing to pick us up would make their motive suspect — unless, of course, we know that their motive was to make money. Give us a smartphone app and a financial intermediary (as with Uber), and we’ll happily jump into some random person’s car.

Something similar is going on with Airbnb. Obviously their system allows people to make arrangements that would have been difficult if not impossible to make without an intermediary of some kind before the internet as well. Yet we have a kind of “natural experiment” insofar as Craigslist allows people to post and respond to ads for free and make further arrangements without anyone taking a cut. Lo and behold, it turns out that Craigslist seems “shady” and disreputable compared to Airbnb. (This result is of course overdetermined insofar as Craiglist’s total lack of filters has made it a hotbed for scammers and criminal activities — and yet.)

This is the strange thing about the “sharing economy.” In theory, we could always “share” things with each other at any time, but we generally don’t — unless some kind of combined financial/technological intermediary legitimates the transaction by giving us a fancy website and taking a cut (as the Craigslist example shows, the technological intermediary alone is insufficient). We don’t trust each other directly, don’t trust basic human decency. Instead, we trust money’s power to make people behave in the ways we expect. We only let down our guard when we know there’s a third party who’s skimming a little money off the top in exchange for making us feel like there’s someone to sue if things go wrong.

30 thoughts on “What the “sharing economy” shows us about the social bond under neoliberalism

  1. An interesting take in that it offers a more critical assessment on the topic than this recent piece at Wired “How Airbnb and Lyft Finally Got Americans to Trust Each Other”. http://www.wired.com/2014/04/trust-in-the-share-economy/

    I can understand how money, as a “financial/technological intermediary” informs the specificity of the “sharing economy” under neoliberalism. A bit farther, you point out “fancy websites” as well, suggesting that you may also see this “sharing economy” as being defined by technology in a much larger way (than money). But surely, unlike the heydays of hitchhiking, one can’t really invoke an ancient time when sharing would have been done without the assistance of any kind of technology or intermediary whatsoever. Proto-languages already bond the hordes of pre-humans, offering a psycho-acoustic milieu for the anthropogenic process (as Sloterdijk speculates in Im selben Boot, still untranslated). Rather the problem, as you observe, arise when this “milieu” becomes significantly informed by money, when people themselves turn into biological commodity-money (the value of users for companies such as Facebook and Instagram, which are also about sharing).

  2. Money is the intermediary that allows those in the exchange to recognize each other as equal persons. The exchange itself is the goal, with the product or service being a mere pretense. Gifts on the other hand are always asymmetrical. When someone gives you a ride, they may think you owe them something. I have heard many stories especially from women of being put in this situation. Money as intermediary is preferable to gifts, because a gift subordinates the donee to the donor.

  3. You are missing a few key material conditions here, namely the existence of various guarantees provided by services such as Uber and Airbnb. Yes, I wish we shared more, but it’s not that simple with Airbnb, at least. There’s an argument that they facilitate positive, utopian-leaning interactions, in providing you some level of security should the person you are assuming to be a reputable and upright temporary boarder end up being a thief or vandal. So much of these apps are sharing… in the sense that they allow large groups of people to “share” the cost of insurance (in various forms).

  4. “Remember the good old days when you could just call up a random person in a city you wanted to visit and they would let you sleep on their couch as long as you extended them the equivalent favor some time?”

  5. Emily’s point is well-taken. There can be something liberating about the clarity money brings into a transaction. As someone who distrusts gift economies, I should have been more sensitive to that.

    Hill, I concede in the post that Airbnb and similar services are offering something that was impossible previously.

  6. It’s just not clear to me the extent to which your analysis is based on a previously existing objective reality. I hate neoliberalism as much as the next guy, but as far as enabling technologies go, Airbnb is a pretty good one and has unambiguously enhanced my solidarity with my fellow man through using it. I’ve met interesting private citizens, paid less to stay in their homes, and generally enjoyed vastly preferable accommodations to a corporate hotel.

    Uber is a different story, as it is also, if not primarily, a labor “sharing” service, not just a capital sharing service, and I think this is a crucial distinction. A slightly more communist Zipcar would be the appropriate analogue to Airbnb.

    Airbnb is in many ways a sharing-enabling technology, whereas services like Uber are mainly end-runs around established (if stagnant and sometimes inefficient) labor sectors.

  7. Pretty good info here on the history of hitchhiking’s demise:

    It’s not clear that neoliberalism’s corrosive effects on the social bond are to blame there, either, but rather a targeted misinformation effort by law enforcement.

  8. I nowhere blamed neoliberalism for the decline in hitchhiking, nor do I particularly want to hitchhike. I prefer cold, impersonal institutions like public transit and hotels. Airbnb has no real equivalent when it comes to medium-term vacation rentals, and in fact The Girlfriend and I have secured a summer rental using Airbnb — I think it becomes problematic to the extent that it tries to displace hotels, though. At that point, it’s more like Uber than like a cool utopian way to meet people.

  9. What if the dream that we could trust in each other’s basic human decency without any alienating intermediary is the fantasy that sustains neoliberalism. It allows us to disavow the fact that our actual existence and intimate experience of ourselves as autonomous individuals who possess basic human decency is not possible without the mediation of money, and is therefore predicated on poverty and domination.

  10. Maybe so! The dream of non-alienated labor certainly helps fuel neoliberal schemes to get cheap or free labor from people who are “working for love.” It may also be the case that I instinctively distrust every tech start-up and this post is an incoherent, post-hoc rationalization for that gut reaction!

  11. Now that I think about it more, I wonder if it was precisely the more strictly hierarchical nature of American soceity in the 1950s and 60s that made a “gift economy” like hitchhiking more plausible to people.

  12. I dunno, haven’t we heard of random travellers randomly getting put up by people in the places they travel through, as an AirBnB of the Past? Patrick Leigh Fermor or this guy?

  13. The role of the utopian, gift economy in temporary accomodation is played by couch surfing, no? It worked rather well for myself and many others.

  14. Just a casual reminder that pretty much ALL of the rest of the world functions very differently from North America in this matter. I am amazed to read

    “the fact that our actual existence and intimate experience of ourselves as autonomous individuals who possess basic human decency is not possible without the mediation of money”

    as well as

    “the more strictly hierarchical nature of American soceity in the 1950s and 60s that made a “gift economy” like hitchhiking more plausible”

    I get that deploying the notion of ‘cultural difference’ is probably so easy and vague and simple and dull for a great many of the types that frequent this blog, but this topic is such a classic, renowned example of it that you might as well render the ‘tuition fee’ as a cold hard inescapable reality and the notion of free university education a fantasy that disguises a transhistorical, universal impossibility to have whatever the Nordic countries with social democracy claim they have. But they do have it, and unrequited help is a thing.

  15. I don’t understand it either. I apologise. Sometimes I see some implications that I think are reactionary, but a few hours later I disagree with myself. I’m not very good at anything. I’m working on it.

  16. Adam, I think your point about the legibility of social hierarchy is the key to the gift economy of hitchhiking. And it’s pretty clear that some white people in the 1950s would simply never pick up a black person hitchhiking, but according to firsthand accounts, many of those white people who did took advantage of their black passengers precisely because they had power over them. In the book Black Like Me, for example, John Howard Griffin passes as a black man and tries to hitchhike with white drivers; he’s surprised so many are willing to pick him up, but many of these drivers turn out to be bizarrely interested in the details of his sex life and press him for information, one even demanding to see his genitals. There’s a lot of things going on in that scene, including repression and the racist fear that the other is stealing one’s enjoyment, etc, but I’m interested in the dynamics of power that are covered over by a seemingly innocent offer of a ride. I think you’re right that AirBnB isn’t the utopia it’s cracked up to be — nor is it really “sharing” — but neither is what we had “back then.” I think it would be helpful to imagine what real sharing could be — my contribution is that it probably requires a lack of hierarchy, some clear rules about the shared goods that can be enforced, and a concept of the boundaries of the community (so that it’s clear who can be held accountable for their potential abuse of the goods). It’s mixing strangers with this equation that rightly makes people worried, especially non-white-dudes who are more sensitive to power dynamics.

  17. Also, I think the biblical concept of Jubilee is pretty interesting, as it’s the world’s first (and never enacted) true sharing economy. Everyone thinks it’s about debt forgiveness, but that’s only the smallest part of it. It’s an equal redistribution of the land (the means of production) every generation, on top of measly debt forgiveness.

  18. “Not to mention generations of suspicious but welcoming daughter-having farmers.”

    Actually a better example, but one that didn’t precede AirBnB by very long, is Couchsurfing when it was still a community-run thing. Tom Slee’s written a lot about this, IIRC.

  19. “Just a casual reminder that pretty much ALL of the rest of the world functions very differently from North America in this matter. I am amazed to read ”

    I’m not sure to what extent this isn’t reflected tangentially in the original post. It seems to me that the death of hitchhiking is connected closely everywhere with urbanisation. Perhaps it’s easier to slot in an experience with a stranger into a life that is otherwise characterised by closer community – especially when that stranger resembles yourself (apropos Brennan’s point above).

    In more traditional societies in which ‘sharing’ is more common, there is quite often a conversation people have which attempts to find some mutual connection between them. There’s a cognitive dissonance surrounding this for ethnic communities in Western settings, where this conversation is conducted in the shadow of the belief that to pry is to be rude.

  20. Hitchhiking extends from the long traditions of hospitality. I know friends who have wonderful stories of trips made hitchhiking. The last hitchhiker I pickup was an old guy going south to his brothers for the winter. He had been in the chorus of the St. Louis opera in his younger days, had memories of being on stage with Lily Pons. He sang Gilbert & Sullivan for me all the way from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.

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