Pulling back the tattered ethical rags of the sharing economy

Mike Bulajewski has written a lengthy reflection on ethical consumerism singling out the “sharing economy.” His premise:

We’re led to believe that as consumers and suppliers for these services, we’re supporting ethical values of kindness, community-building and trust between strangers; living more sustainably by sharing unused property; building community wealth; reducing the power of centralized corporations by transacting directly with each other; and developing a new economic model which will solve global poverty.

We are wrong. Read the essay to find out why.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com

6 thoughts on “Pulling back the tattered ethical rags of the sharing economy”

  1. To explain myself and why I wouldn’t put it that way: part of the reason I wrote that essay was that I feel that there’s too much focus on the question of whether the marketing claims are true or not. In general, the ability of corporations to overtly pull the wool over eyes tends to be overstated. For the sake of argument, let’s assume all the marketing claims are true. The danger is a more subtle one: what are the consequences of taking problems that were once addressed in the political sphere and turning them over to private corporations? I claim that it undermines our ability to restrain private economic power via political processes.

    If there is something deceptive, it’s in the claim of ethical consumerism that government, corporations and non-profits can all be part of the solution to ecological and social problems. If you believe the principal problem today is unchecked private economic power, then you shouldn’t agree to this framing because it tends to support a view that, insofar as they are part of the solution, corporations shouldn’t be subject to limitations on their power.

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  2. Thanks for the clarification Mike.

    what are the consequences of taking problems that were once addressed in the political sphere and turning them over to private corporations?

    That is certainly a core question for our modern day. Currently in Canada there has been a debate around the federal government’s abandoning of the long form census. Data collection is now left to private corporations who obviously cannot get the same level of coverage, and cities and other civic organizations have to go begging. Think of the recent Uber partnerships. This also presents the other problem that Evgeny Morozov has been talking about recently, which is now these private corps own the data.

    you shouldn’t agree to this framing because it tends to support a view that, insofar as they are part of the solution, corporations shouldn’t be subject to limitations on their power.

    That is not to say that if you accept that corps should have certain limitations (ie. regulations), that they cannot be part of the solution. To restate: you are not saying that corps are to be excluded from contributing to the social good, you are saying that unfettered corporate power is a danger.

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  3. There are definitely issues with privatization of administrative functions of government that you mention. Public provision can ensure fairer access to a good than if it was provided by the market, and so forth. I think of ethical consumerism as privatization of the legislature, which is what is implied by the phrase “vote with your wallet”. An ethical consumer company can claim that it is superior to government not only in economic terms of being more efficient in provisioning services, but also in political terms, that it is a more direct representation of the public’s political goals, desires and values. That seems rather dangerous to me.

    That is not to say that if you accept that corps should have certain limitations (ie. regulations), that they cannot be part of the solution. To restate: you are not saying that corps are to be excluded from contributing to the social good, you are saying that unfettered corporate power is a danger.

    For me, corporations can’t be part of the solution because they are the problem. To view corporations as part of the solution is to view the problem differently, in a way that reinforces their power and disarms their challengers.

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    1. I think of ethical consumerism as privatization of the legislature… An ethical consumer company can claim that it is superior to government

      Ah! This is a point that I did not quite get from reading your piece (due to my faulty understanding, not your writing). It is clear to me now, and I recall you made the point about the convergence of the ethical consumerists with the more corporatist privatizationists (ie. Thatcherites, Reaganites and libertarians). This kind of goes back to my original bombastic title: ride-sharers, piecemeal labour services and apartment hosts use a veneer of ethics in their marketing, but when examined critically, it is revealed to be mere rags. It is neoliberalism all the way down!

      For me, corporations can’t be part of the solution because they are the problem.

      I would like turn to a different case, that of the co-op. My local car-sharing co-op uses much of the same language, and considers itself part of the “sharing economy.” Yet, it is not a traditional corporation. Problem, or solution?

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  4. ride-sharers, piecemeal labour services and apartment hosts use a veneer of ethics in their marketing, but when examined critically, it is revealed to be mere rags

    Is it a veneer though? That seems to imply that the people behind these startups are insincere. Either way, I think we should focus on the consequences of the sharing economy, not the intentions behind them.

    My local car-sharing co-op uses much of the same language, and considers itself part of the “sharing economy.” Yet, it is not a traditional corporation. Problem, or solution?

    Broadly speaking coops are part of the solution, but it is extremely problematic that venture funded, for profit startups have adopted their language. It’s also quite revealing. The solidarity economy has differentiated itself by sensationalizing the evils of capitalism. This might be very effective at generating outrage, but when you exaggerate the problems of capitalism, it creates an opportunity for companies to rebrand themselves. Without making any meaningful changes to their operation or structure, they appear as progressive ethical alternatives.

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