In all the talk about “preppers” looking for self-sufficiency, homemakers trying to get out of the corporate world’s clutches, and 3D printer-using “makers” creating a new civilization one layer of material on another, one aspect of how life works (and can be pretty good) that often goes missing is that it’s not as individual a choice as people nowadays often imagine.
For better and worse, it takes what is now becoming popular as a/the sharing or collaborative economy, but it isn’t just about sharing tools and cars, but about sharing time, labor and skills. Not, however, in its modern guise commodifying every little thing and skill a person has, but returning forward to working together in making a living.
To make the difference understandable, it is worth quoting a critique from Evgeny Morozov at some length:
The prophets of the “sharing economy” are not lying: translated into the currency of information, everything could become a potentially liquid asset. You can be making money by renting your cars, apartments, repair tools, books, dreams – thanks to cheap and small sensors and ubiquitous connectivity, virtually anything is game these days. And, as we are constantly reminded, by refusing to play by the rules of the sharing game, we are only hurting our own pockets.
A smartphone thus becomes a buzzing real-time calculator of what our life is worth – and of what it might be worth if we make the right trades at the right time. To think that this is anything but an extension of neoliberal logic to the most private corners of our existence – what the historian of economic thought Philip Mirowski calls “everyday neoliberalism” – is naïve. “Technology” is just a sweet euphemism here.
What current attempts at making a new sharing economy work often do, and overlook, is that the technological crutch that they find so helpful does not only have positive sides. It can help find out what others we don’t know would have to offer, and it can make it possible to trade away from capitalist markets – but only to some extent.
Using timebanks and the like to achieve a seemingly fair and proper balance of who has contributed how much merely replaces money and purchases with notes of time and usage. The technological infrastructure enabling it is still based on current capitalism and may not be able to free itself from it (though this remains to be seen and shouldn’t keep anyone from trying). More importantly, the guiding ideology, even if formulated as newly communal and anti-consumptive, is still rampantly individualistic and asocial. Like so many a recent tech-trend, it is fundamentally built on how we “expect more from technology and less from each other” (Sherry Turkle), to the point of wanting technological control over social relationships.
We won’t be working together because we are living in a community and therefore depend on each other, interact with each other in many a way, but because we need something right now and the app has told us where we can get it. If that’s a newly social economy, then prostitution is its guiding star.
There’s also a historical precedent – actually, the reality of life in many a place, historically and still to this day – that may provide a model for returning forward: village living.
After all, these are the original ‘civilized’ sharing/collaborative economies, with a surplus that makes it possible to develop towards the more anonymous city organization, to store foods for times of scarcity, and to enable some to focus on creating ‘culture’ rather than food – and, yes, with a lot of work. Life-work.
Point is, most of what is produced is produced because there is a need for it, because it serves a purpose to life, and not just because it was invented and “the economy” needs ever more. The necessities of living are grown and produced and built, and the sharing doesn’t just center around lawn mowers and repair tools, but even around the construction of homes and tools and clothing.
You don’t have “energy slaves” to help with farm work or a house construction that’s more than one family can handle, so people work together. You can’t just get any input from anywhere, and then count e.g. a farming system that needs 10 fossil fuel calories to create every 1 calorie of food energy as efficient, but you build greater output from what you have, e.g. enriching soil fertility and (cultural) ecosystem productivity, building a system that sustainably provides for you and your community.
Now, this is not to suggest that the neighbor’s or auntie’s crocheted underwear is the future of (locally and) collaboratively created clothing that sounds promising, but more local and integrated production of many a thing may be something to consider. When foods shipped in from around the world, and many of them not ones that require conditions other than also exist locally, are cheaper than local foods, diets are unhealthy because of overconsumption of simple sugars from industrially-processed “foods,” and supermarkets that everyone individually drives to and that employ just a handful of people at minimal wages are the only sources of food, it’s not the best system we could have (and the cheapness is founded in perverse subsidies and the burden of externalities not accounted for).
Maybe, then, there was and is something to locally-grown food that is also sold locally, that doesn’t always have to be bought but may also be traded for labor or other goods, that may be used for the production of further foods and goods (milk sheep may be kept for the milk, but also give wool), gives a diet that is reduced but can be made to be better, and can employ more people in more small shops. (Not to mention its recurrent necessity for mere survival, even in industrialized countries.)
Yes, it sounds like a step back from the ease and convenience of big everything providing easy office jobs, producing easy food surpluses where a single farmer feeds a hundred people – but with some creativity and innovativeness, it may be a step forward towards more local entrepreneurship and employment that also works when big corporations don’t want to employ people, there are unemployed in need of work and capable of working but not getting jobs unless they create them, and “the economy” that is at a remove from us, the people, doesn’t work for us unless we find ways of making it be ours again.
Of course, there are still problems because we nowadays don’t want to do such hard work that doesn’t even make rich, we want decent lives where “decent” means having all the various accoutrements of a modern, high-tech lifestyle… But, with the job situation not the easiest, such normal lives being nicely entertaining but also needing all that distraction from how stressful and burdensome they are, given the lack of self-direction, the debts, the doubts, it’s time we thought about new ways that integrate what has been working for making a simple living possible, but been poor, with what we have learned makes richer. It is more than just a peasant’s life, yes, but it is also something different from the wage- and debt-slavery that easily ends in destitution. Maybe it’s a hope against hope, but there is hope that we can create better, collaborating with each other and co-creating with our environments to make a life.