Why we should not let the ‘sharing’ economy make the act of giving irrelevant

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“A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” Albert Einstein

Through giving, one recognises the interrelated nature of human beings. Rather than the selfish arrangement where an individual maximises his own profit by charging a price for delivering a service, giving is this outward looking gesture that seems to say “hey, I’m here to help. Your wellbeing concerns me. And anyway the health of my own sphere depends on yours – we are connected”.

Regrettably, this act of gesture is being subtly shelved by the so-called sharing economy as peer-to-peer service providers such as Airbnb and Uber are making any kind of help available, but to anyone who is willing to pay the price. By this effect of embedding a transactional aspect to some gestures that were until now untouched by market forces, it is steadily commodifying every aspect of our life. Whereas before individuals would probably offer their accommodation for free to friends and family when they were away, loading it on Airbnb will now grant them an extra buck for it. Even the impulse to help a friend with writing his or her CV is being challenged by platforms such as People per Hour that will allow anyone to monetise similar advice by marketing it to strangers.

If we see things from a purely economic and functional perspective, it is difficult to understand what the problem is. Indeed, the argument that individuals are granted more autonomy to produce some value and to contribute to economic growth by sharing their goods and skills in a more decentralised and unregulated fashion is indeed valid. But if we dig a bit deeper and analyse things from an ethical lens, questions soon emerge: where to set the limit to commodification? Which aspect of our lives should remain virgin to the laws of the market?

Two people with a particularly inquiring mindset pushed that question far enough. They came up with a hoax that mocked the uberisation of the economy, an app that offered people to ‘simplify their life’ by paying for other individuals that were geographically in their perimeter to collect their own dogs’ poo. Called Pooper, the hoax succeeded in revealing a rather miserable aspect of the peer-to-peer system based on market transactions, as hundreds of individuals registered to collect poo and to get paid for that. Selling comfort for dignity is a tricky business – if there is a market for it, it does not mean that it is morally acceptable.

But even if we put aside the moralistic argument exposed above, it is urgent to look at these developments from a philosophical perspective, as it is our whole definition of what makes us humans that is at stake. Ontologically, humans are interconnected. As much as the current economic doxa wants to make us believe in the individualistic consensus that pictures humans as rational beings maximising their narrow self-interest, homo economicus is far from providing an accurate description of who we really are.

From as ancient as the work of Aristotle picturing humans as social animals, to Marx and Hegel critiquing the individual as the prominent level of analysis in political economy, to a more recent strand of thought that includes feminist philosopher Judith Butler claiming that we are all co-dependent on each other for survival, our intersubjective nature has been constantly reasserted. Some economists even made a recent call to reject the interpretation of the notion of ‘self-interest’ in its current selfish and narrow-minded form, and to embrace a definition that recognises the need for reciprocity, cooperation and mutualisation as the basis for societies to flourish.

Individuals are always part of larger collectives, always embedded in their webs of relation, their thoughts and actions shaped by these collectives. And the act of giving is one of the defining features of this nature. As French sociologist Marcel Mauss famously demonstrated in the early twentieth century, giving is often characterised by reciprocity in traditional societies. The person giving to another shows a mark of trust, as he assumes that the receiving individual will be there to give back in the future if needs be. This mark of trust is a necessary compost for relationships as it forms a basis for recognition that has much more affective substance than a market transaction which replaces trust by money. But even if we go beyond this anthropological interpretation by Mauss, it is easy to see that what often lies behind the act of giving is a mark of generosity, of willingness to step back from oneself and to open to others – quite a humbling gesture when observed from the outside. Who remembers the person who sold you a service recently? However, you surely haven’t forgotten the face of a stranger who recently gave you a hand.

Interestingly, a trend is slowly countering the uberization of the economy and its ability to turn our desires to connect into monetary transactions, as ‘practices of commoning’ are slowly but surely flourishing both in urban and rural settings. These initiatives are taking many shapes. In Paris, a few local food markets set up as cooperatives and relying on the help of consumers endorsing the role of volunteers have opened in recent years, while networks of skills exchange are booming everywhere. Communities of neighbours connected through social media platforms and committing time to others by offering to grow food on shared garden patches or to babysit for free are also emerging across Europe in large and smaller cities. The trend is such that some advocates of the movement have recently created a European Commons Assembly to encourage institutions of the European Union to prioritise the notion of common good in their policies.

The message is clear. Generosity and cooperation are not gone into oblivion. Our desire to put back some energy into nurturing our common spaces and to belong to communities that put the act of giving at the core of their ethos is strong, whether the ‘sharing’ economy likes it or not.

If you enjoyed reading this article, I incline you to subscribe to the mailing list and share on social media. While writing is a solitary endeavour, I rely on you to find an audience – so thank you.

Photo credits to Alexey Kuzmin. No changes were made.

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