I started writing this essay without any notes, any references, or any stats to back up what I took to be purely a feeling. This feeling also happened to be trending towards a conviction—which makes it vulnerable to criticisms of outright subjectivism. I get that. I trudged along nevertheless, because I have lately realized that this entire period in which we are presently entrenched is a period of false promises, false slogans, misnomers, incongruities, duplicity and false GODS AND DEMONS. The issue is: how long are we going to be in denial about certain fundamental belief systems that have been put in place and are being continuously doctored and prettied up to look good, like real-estate ads that have photo-shopped perspectives using wide-angle and long-shot perspectives! The fault lines are getting camouflaged.
To be precise, what spawned this thinking was when the bigwigs in government – premiers and the barons who run the world economy – suddenly started talking about a “sharing” society. When George Soros, the billionaire investor, talks about a sharing society, I wonder. When Philippe Couillard, the Premier of Québec, starts talking about a sharing economy, I shudder. When their minions, including ministers, NGOs and hippity-dippity community gardeners, also resort to a new version of peace and love and growing kale in their backyards and start talking about “sharing,” I am on a “hmmm… (eye-rolling)” groove. There is a certain incongruity in all this that I have barely begun to de-fathom. Words are being co-opted and cultures are being appropriated.
For me, a sharing society always meant a cooperative society: a communitarian existence, where social and economic equality would at least be attempted as the broad strategic outlook of a nation state, where minimum social services would be available from the state, not only to enable a sound exchange of value and services but also, more importantly, to create a soft cushion for those who have dropped out of the official census or lost their bearings due to loss of education, minority status (in any manner), lack of access to health care, hygiene, housing, sanitation and childcare facilities. I have lately realized that the word sharing has now acquired a meaning of its own in a web-based free-for-all social barter system: a one-to-one transactional system that espouses personal contacts through web-mediated platforms. On the surface it sounds very hipster, very anti-establishment and even ecological. But is it?
Some of you may remember the expression B2B. With the advent of the web-based economy – ordering, billing, making payments, re-ordering, reverse auctioneering – one-to-one transactions between businesses and customers became the in thing and the buzz state of mind. Entire platforms, portals and management software were glorified, and expressions evolved that exemplified the need to be paperless, seamless and therefore “ecological.” I believed in it and thought it was absolutely logical to not cut down more trees, to create value in source-to-source transactions, to not have brokers in between, and to come closer to authentic value-addedness. Yes, B2B was like a mantra.
Well! Now we have something else that is being put forth: P2P (Peer to Peer)! And the explanations and justifications are quite believable – on the surface, that is. In a “sharing economy,” it is said that people create, collaborate, produce and distribute peer-to-peer, person-to-person (P2P). Micro-entrepreneurship is promoted. Everyone with a skill exchanges value with another person in a one-to-one exchange: barter. What a wonderful possibility! And all this is enabled by a digital platform, a kind of kijijied “sharing” where there is no need for shops or service centres; where people can enter into binding contracts with one another and trade peer-to-peer on the web. Within business, people – co-owners, employees and customers – “are highly valued, with their opinions and ideas respected and integrated into all levels of the supply chain, organization and development.” Wow! Really?
There is a veneer of ecological cooperativeness that comes snarling at you with this new-found “sharing” buzz. It encourages every individual to try out entrepreneurship, and sometimes even co-entrepreneurship! Production of value as such is no longer industrial, because industrial has become a bad word. Remember “Small is beautiful?” It has been re-vogued! As China learned during the Great Leap Backward (good intentioned attempt at backyard industrialization), you can’t build steel-melting shops in your vegetable garden out back. Nor can you build railroad ties in your farm, and you would not pour concrete posts for airport overhangs in your country home backyard either. And you need steel and concrete to build schools, hospitals and public transit systems, never mind highways and bridges.
The right to work, the right to negotiate a better life
In essence, employment, work, the right to work and to be organized at work are being quietly marginalized, and it is happening primarily because in the context we are in, we are no longer producing tangible goods from a tangible economic space with a sense of cooperative sensibility. “De-regulation” was used as a mantra during the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney years. It meant handing over controls to private industry of all resources, and expelling government from the consequences of unfettered “growth” that would allow “development.”
The jury is not still out since the Free Trade sham began. We knew then and we know even better now that Free Trade was the name given to maximizing profitability at any cost, even if it meant massive job losses. It was proposed that “the new economy” would bring in tremendous wealth, and that wealth would trickle down, and new types of jobs would be generated. There would be more leisure time and more wealth. The middle classes would prosper. The workers would relax and push buttons when required. Intelligence would be embedded so well that the new economy would result in new types of jobs.
Instead, we are in our home offices, producing “apps” that tell you the nearest communauto so you can scoot off and pick up a car and drop it off in a non-designated space – which is actually a great innovation with all the associated technology. But guess what? Public transit development is also being simultaneously undermined. Even if the communautos are electric, public transit is still being shafted, is it not? And that also means that the industry around it is being sabotaged, and therefore accessible technology jobs are also being diverted elsewhere: jobs in fabrication, welding, testing, inspection, traditional manufacturing, etc. Instead you have apps, video games, and leisure, recreational and luxury equipment as the mainstay. So we have Uber and Ola! Innovation, yes; but simultaneously a scornful attitude towards standardization, collective bargaining rights and collectivity in general. What a rediscovery of Ayn Rand!
Curiously, the word “collective” is frequently being bandied around when discussing open, shared, service-oriented production methods. The best production is open and accessible to those who wish to produce. A site on the Net about sharing economies suggests that “Internet technologies and networks enable the development of products and services in a collective manner, transcending geographical boundaries. Local production with positive (or minimal) environmental impacts is celebrated. 3D printing offers a more local production of goods, shortening supply chains and increasing efficiency and access. Social responsibility is strong and public services (including social support) are co-produced – developed and provided – by a wide range of actors acting across social levels; families and friends, local communities, charities, social enterprises, business and government.”
Even the term “creative commons” is now suspect. The entire concept of “sharing” has been co-opted and converted into a non-collective, one-to-one relationship where app-savvy individuals converge and hobnob to the utter disenfranchisement of the less fortunate.
Let’s take it a bit further. Let’s talk about Airbnb and Uber and Ola and all such other new wave propositions. They all seem to have that aroma of shared techno-bliss associated with them. Is that really so? What happened to inn-owners who had to meet minimum standards of customer satisfaction, hygiene and other requirements? Where are the documented tax contributions of fly-by-night “room sharers?” Who checks if a wave of travellers has not brought in bed bugs and passed them on to the next set of travellers? Where are the checks and balances?
Why is there such a mess with Uber? It is primarily because these are dodgy entrepreneurs who have novel ideas but simultaneously want to undermine and dislodge hard-earned collective bargaining rights, protection, insurance and long-term compensation? This supposedly tech-savvy entrepreneurship arrogantly likes to leave behind established standards and challenge them guerrilla-style without guaranteeing improvements.
Personally, I thrive on technology. I try and use every gadget that is available and every app that is not silly but useful. But I do feel that at some point, BS should be called what it is – a dodgy attempt to evade the fundamental fault line: the fact that we do not operate on a level playing field in this society. From education and upbringing to start-up savviness and kickstarter financing, there is a fundamental divide between those who have and those who don’t.
This is BS that should be “unshared.”