The Sharing Economy: Neoliberalism on Steroids

My latest contribution to the ESADE Economic Report, on the topic of the sharing economy, once again focuses on the dilemma that always arises in relation to this concept: Is it positive or negative for society? Or, as Martin put it in the title of his well-known article: “The sharing economy: a pathway to sustainability or a nightmarish form of neoliberal capitalism?”. The sharing economy has been described as a post-crisis antidote to materialism and the excesses of consumption, but also as “neoliberalism on steroids”.

It’s a model that is perpetually associated with paradoxes. Besides genuinely collaborative, community-based, not-for-profit platforms that offer shared assets in exchange for no money, it also encompasses multinational enterprises that are truly motivated by profits. This paradox is derived from our present-day culture, which is dominated by economic imperatives but also clamours for more cooperative modes of action.

To understand this paradox, we propose using the framework proposed by Tsing. What we’re seeing is not a coherent set of synchronised economic practices, but rather a set of disjointed actions better described as “the continual emergence of new capitalist niches, cultures and forms of agency’ rather than any ‘capitalist monolith”.

According to McKinsey, the sharing economy is a business model that is here to stay. It’s an opportunity for companies that know how to work in this disjointed environment, as the Daimler Group has been trying to do with its Car2Go car-sharing service and its mobility platform Moovel. Or, as Tim O’Reilly wrote in The Economist, “The idea of renting from a person rather than a faceless company will survive, even if the early idealism of the sharing economy does not.” The sharing economy, therefore, is not an alternative with a discernible ideology but a reality validated by consumers who have ultimately decided that they are willing to share in order to consume less.

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