Sharing Economy as Nightmarish Form of Neoliberal Capitalism

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* Article: The sharing economy: A pathway to sustainability or a nightmarish form of neoliberal capitalism? Chris J. Martina. Ecological Economics, Volume 121, January 2016, Pages 149–159

URL = http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800915004711 (doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.11.0270

Abstract

"The sharing economy seemingly encompasses online peer-to-peer economic activities as diverse as rental (Airbnb), for-profit service provision (Uber), and gifting (Freecycle). The Silicon Valley success stories of Airbnb and Uber have catalysed a vibrant sharing economy discourse, participated in by the media, incumbent industries, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. Within this discourse the sharing economy is framed in contradictory ways; ranging from a potential pathway to sustainability, to a nightmarish form of neoliberalism. However, these framings share a common vision of the sharing economy (a niche of innovation) decentralising and disrupting established socio-technical and economic structures (regimes). Here I present an analysis of the online sharing economy discourse; identifying that the sharing economy is framed as: (1) an economic opportunity; (2) a more sustainable form of consumption; (3) a pathway to a decentralised, equitable and sustainable economy; (4) creating unregulated marketplaces; (5) reinforcing the neoliberal paradigm; and, (6) an incoherent field of innovation. Although a critique of hyper-consumption was central to emergence of the sharing economy niche (2), it has been successfully reframed by regime actors as purely an economic opportunity (1). If the sharing economy follows this pathway of corporate co-option it appears unlikely to drive a transition to sustainability."


Excerpt

Framing 5: The Sharing Economy Reinforces the Neoliberal Economic Paradigm; A Sharing Society is Needed

"This framing provides a critical perspective on the sharing economy (as embodied in the Economic Opportunity and Sustainable Consumption framings), and its role in reinforcing the neoliberal economic paradigm [diagnostic sub-framing focussed on the niche]. In particular, limitations and negative impacts are highlighted including: corporate co-option of the sharing economy (e.g. Airbnb and Couchsurfing); the casualisation of labour within the sharing economy (e.g. Uber and Taskrabbit); a lack of concern with issues of environment sustainability; the assumption embedded within the sharing economy's peer-to-peer model that individual actions alone lead to social change; and, the exclusivity of the sharing economy (i.e. only those who already own assets can share them). Hence, this framing advocates that a ‘real’ sharing economy or a sharing society is needed [prognostic sub-framing focused on the landscape]. One of two visions is then offered: either, a sharing economy as described in the decentralised economy framing; or, a sharing society built upon resource sharing at the local and national scales (i.e. public services) and at the international scale (i.e. transferring resources from developed to developing countries). Again, the values of social justice, environmental justice and equality are called upon to justify the critique and establish the need to create a real sharing economy [motivational sub-framing].

This framing tended to be employed in a complete form by niche actors, writing for Share the Worlds Resources and Sharable, to highlight the need to transform both the sharing economy niche and the prevailing neoliberal economic paradigm (a feature of the landscape). There was no evidence of this framing being employed by regime actors. Furthermore, the variations of this framing offer two rather different visions of what a sharing economy or society would entail; either emphasising the need for decentralisation and citizen empowerment (as per the decentralised economy framing), or emphasising the need for government action and political change. Hence, suggesting the shaping of the two variations by libertarian and social democratic ideologies respectively. Furthermore, there are other connections between this framing and the decentralised economy framing, in particular around: the need to promote offline forms of sharing and collaboration; and, the motivational role of the values of social and environmental justice."


Conclusions

"The Silicon Valley success stories of Airbnb and Uber have catalysed a vibrant sharing economy discourse, participated in by the media, ICT industries, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists. Within this discourse the sharing economy is framed in contrasting and contradictory ways; albeit with a common expectation that the sharing economy niche will disrupt multiple regimes by radically decentralising economic activity. Drawing on sustainability transitions and framing theory, I have presented an empirical analysis of a sample of this discourse. The analysis identified actors seeking to empower the niche employ three framings — the sharing economy is: (1) an economic opportunity; (2) a more sustainable form of consumption; and, (3) a pathway to a decentralised, equitable and sustainable economy. Whilst, actors resisting the development of the niche employ three different framings — the sharing economy is: (4) creating unregulated marketplaces; (5) reinforcing the neoliberal paradigm; and, (6) an incoherent field of innovation. Furthermore, regime actors tended to frame the sharing economy in predominately commercial terms (1 and 4). Whilst, niche actors tended to employ broader framings (2, 3 and 5), seeking to open up a pathway for the sharing economy aligned with a transition to sustainability. However, in the five years since the emergence of a sharing economy concept rooted in a critique of hyper-consumption (Botsman and Rogers, 2010), it has been successfully reframed by regime actors as purely an economic opportunity. Hence, I have suggested that if the sharing economy continues along this current pathway of corporate co-option it is highly unlikely to drive a transition to sustainability.

In light of the results above, I suggest that the sustainability transitions research community can view the sharing economy from two distinct perspectives. First, the sharing economy can be viewed as a niche of socio-digital experiments, with the paradoxical potential to: promote more sustainable consumption and production practices; and, to reinforce the current unsustainable economic paradigm. Hence, there is a considerable need for research exploring how the sharing economy niche could be steered toward a pathway aligned with a transition to sustainability. Secondly, the sharing economy can also be viewed as a niche aligned with on-going processes integrating digital technologies into socio-technical structures across the regime. Here, perhaps the most prominent opportunity lies in research developing understanding of the role of digital technologies in the dynamics of transitions. For example, research might investigate how digital technologies have enabled Airbnb and Uber to rapidly establish a presence in hundreds of cities across the globe, to an extent outpacing regime resistance. Finally, looking beyond the field of sustainability transitions, there is considerable need to develop the nascent sharing economy literature. In particular, the priority should be empirical research which critically analyses the nature and impacts of the sharing and collaborative economies in their many and varied forms."