Symposium on the share economy: on the capitalism of sharing

Love or economy – everywhere it’s about swapping and sharing. 300 participants discuss our future in cognitive capitalism in Weimar.

The lucrative sharing of living space via AirBnb has already become more difficult Photo: dpa

Twice a year, the inhabitants of the Pacific Trobriand Islands take a journey of several days to swap bangles made of snail shells and necklaces made of shells with other islanders. This so-called Kula exchange is famous because it takes place without any economic benefit.

The shells of the Pacific have nothing in common with the cabs of the Uber company that drive through our metropolises. And yet somehow both were at stake in Weimar, where 300 scientists, activists, artists and journalists were invited by the Goethe-Institut to spend three days at 75 events dealing with "sharing and exchange.

It may be doubted that any knowledge about the exchange boom in the capitalist countries can be drawn from the anthropological research of the Kula exchange. It is certainly not possible to extract any idea of the origin of what man could be from the exchange in the Pacific. For even if, as Karl Marx once put it, "the existence of an exaggerated number of useful things ends in the creation of an exaggerated number of useless people," on the other hand the hippiesque idea of a "back to nature" always turns out to be only a back to supposed nature.

In other words, to analyze the Uber cab requires a knowledge of the system of division of labor and commodity production in the society in which it drives around. So let’s talk about capitalism.

The new industrial revolution

To speak of capitalism is to speak of accumulation, crisis, and innovation. That the capitalism of the global North no longer corresponds to that of the industrial revolution is clear. It is changing, using its crises to modernize itself and using the battles being waged against it for innovation.

Depending on which school of thought one uses, one speaks of knowledge capitalism or digital capitalism or, better, cognitive capitalism, to emphasize the new strategic importance of knowledge for capital accumulation.

The successful U.S. economist Jeremy Rifkin speaks of the beginning of a third industrial revolution. Presented in Weimar as a prophet of the demise of capitalism, his appearance testified to the high status of performance in the U.S. – whether preacher or scientist, in the U.S. people have an impressive command of free and urgent speech.

Rifkin quotes his wife so often that one inevitably begins to wonder about the status of the family as an institution when he outlines how a new economic form is emerging alongside the capitalist market, namely the age of the Internet of Things, of intelligent objects, which will bring capitalism to its end.

Rifkin explains how swapping and sharing have long since gained in importance and a sharing economy is steadily growing because the technological prerequisites are there with digitalization.

Less ownership, more freedom

Sharing is also the cultural aspect of a comprehensive change in consciousness that, according to Rifkin, will take place in less than two generations: It is no longer about ownership, but about access, for example in car sharing, which reduces the ecological footprint. And if everyone produced and shared freely with each other – electricity, for example – this would simultaneously increase productivity and reduce the marginal costs of many goods and services to zero.

Rifkin speaks of nothing less than a new concept of freedom when he presupposes that the emerging vertical social order will no longer be based on the autonomous individual, but on the prosumer (producer-consumer) who sees himself as a link in a chain. The words transparency, freedom and community are heard when, towards the end of the lecture, he asks whether the declaration of human rights should be replaced by a declaration of the relationship between people.

Where does one start with that? The broad lines Rifkin draws are interesting. But what about gaining freedom in practice?

Privatize the wealth

The paradox that the new forms of capitalist production and accumulation already carry within them the potential to overcome capitalism has also been described by leftist theorists such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. They have also explained how neoliberal policies always tend to privatize common wealth. Rifkin is of course also aware of this opposing movement, but what he presented in Weimar was more like a thoroughly positive utopia.

Historian Luise Tremel pointed out that at the moment only very few programmers earn much from the fact that a few make something available cheaply that others consume for little, keyword Airbnb. So is what is so grandiosely announced as a new mode of production merely a new model of consumption? Is the sharing economy ultimately just about buying and selling, and does it have nothing to do with sharing?

The question must be which sharing economy is being talked about. From profit maximization to the common good economy, everything currently often runs under the same label. This was pointed out by the economist Rachel Botsman from Sydney, who is considered the "guru of the sharing economy.

The fact that the chauffeur service Uber is sometimes sold as a hip new sharing model most clearly expresses the ignorance about the mechanisms of the sharing economy. It is not without reason that Goldman Sachs and Google Ventures are investing in the company, and Saudi Arabia also recently invested $3.5 billion. The connection between the financial economy and the sharing economy could at least give pause for thought.

Between self-organization and crisis phenomenon

But, as Rachel Botsman noted, history cannot be turned back: In 2014, large protests against Uber in London achieved only the effect of 850 percent new registrations compared to the average.

The situation seems to be confused, and so in Weimar, too, people were often busy enough trying to figure out who was speaking from which perspective and why. When a VW developer on the podium says that the Wolfsburg company is also developing into a mobility service provider, this may sound simply contemporary to some ears. Behind this, however, are trucks equipped with sensors that already drive along the highways for the sole purpose of collecting data that is then introduced into algorithms. Even the VW engineer must critically note that the goal is more likely to be "grandfathering."

Two lines can be identified in the discussion. While, for example, the Thuringian Minister of Culture Benjamin-Immanuel Hoff focused in his opening speech on alternatives that are growing in the shadow of the financial crisis, referring to forms of social self-organization such as those found in cooperatives, the Berlin literary scholar Joseph Vogl spoke quite the opposite of sharing and exchange as a crisis phenomenon and had Airbnb, Uber, etc. in mind.

They are something like a new labor market for the neoliberally precarious, for whom the "capitalization of residual property" and the "capitalization of residual working time" have proven necessary. It is not the freely exchanging visionary of the future that we encounter in the sharing economy, but, as Vogl rightly describes, the "flexible person" who has to carry his remaining life to market.

The battle for the future

The criticism of capitalism that has become socially acceptable since the publication of Jurgen Habermas’ "Theory of Communicative Action" (1981) in the talk of the "colonization of the lifeworld" and that also resounded from some podium in Weimar at least once a day has long since reached a new level. Production and life are increasingly becoming one, subjectivities themselves are becoming a resource, and algorithms enable a completely new kind of surveillance. In Rachel Botsman’s words, it is about nothing less than maximizing human capacities.

What to do. More government control and regulation is what some call for, new ethics and a new social contract is what others call for, more collaborative production is what others call for.

Sharing is not yet a value in itself, as Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz reminded us. Philosophers are often the least helpful here because they only focus on the normative. Even today, it is no longer possible to know for sure whether you are communicating online with a human or a machine, as the publicist Evgeny Morozov warned. Sharing is "good sharing" when it reduces resources, opens up meeting spaces and creates access, as Luise Tremel put it, and she called for the discussion to be linked to the demand for a basic income.

The demand for basic income has long since ceased to be just one from the left. The old welfare state is no longer compatible with the new world of work. As always, the battle for the future has long since begun.

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