The Sharing Economy: Communism or Hyper Capitalism?

04/04/2014 10:18 | Updated 03 June 2014

Most people agree that the sharing economy will fundamentally change our lives and some of our industries. But the debate over the boom in sharing and swapping, which is being spurred on by innovative technologies, is full of misunderstandings. While some see communism on the horizon, some warn of hyper capitalism. The concerns of both sides are unfounded. Time for some enlightenment.

Car-sharing has become serious competition to the classic car ownership model. Renting out empty apartments when away on vacation is another booming platform of the sharing economy. What Jeremy Rifkin called the age of access more than 10 years ago has become reality in many areas of life.

But the success of the sharing economy has touched off a struggle over its meaning. Some want to interpret it as a sign of a brighter future, while others perceive it as the start of a revolution. People who share goods require less of them on the whole, thus they solve ecological problems and create a new type of solidarity - communal living - and therefore a better and more co-operative life, perhaps even a better type of communism. The sharing economy, perceived in this way, is society's salvation from the evils of consumerism and competitiveness.

Others, such as Evgeny Morozov, for example, have another view of the sharing economy. By contrast he sees it as a type of "neoliberalism on steroids" that is taking in recycling and recovery methods that are still untapped by capitalism. People are encouraged to apply under-used capital and to turn a drive in their car, their empty home and their free time into money.

Harald Staun complains in the Frankfurter Allgemeine that modern information technology unlocks areas of life that until now were uninteresting for commercialization. He even entitled his wonderfully written article "The Terror of Sharing" (Der Terror des Teilens). The way he borrows from the consumer terror debate of the '70s is at the very least astonishing.

Airbnb, an internet-based system used by people looking for a place to stay in a city they plan to visit, ran into trouble with authorities; it was still unclear how people who rented out their private living space should be taxed and whether they were subject to hotel tax law in New York, for example. The necessary regulatory framework isn't yet completely defined, but Airbnb's millions of users show there is enormous demand for such a service.

And when we ask the users of carpooling the reason why they use the App, the most frequent answer is "to save money." The calculation is relatively easy: taking two people along means more money for gas.

Is taking other people along on a private drive therefore some kind of evil commerce? Or does it simply follow economic rationality? Why should one disregard the economical logic when it comes to the expense of driving a car? Out of some kind of fear of being infected by communism? What if we transferred this logic to other areas such as routine grocery shopping at the supermarket, for example?

In the sharing economy it's not about becoming a better person. The platforms are used because they save money, because a user can meet other people and because it's simply chic. It is in any case sensible. Car-sharing contributes directly to an efficient use of our roads and highways infrastructure. In light of the heavy traffic on many of our streets and the fact that there are only 1.5 people on average per car, this is urgently necessary.

In addition, the sharing economy conveys experiences that go beyond the pure economic rationality. A person gets to meet strangers and they both talk with one another. It is increasingly rare that people start a conversation and get to know each other's lifestyles and opinions without a goal or a purpose. These exchanges bring a little piece of humanity into an increasingly anonymous and lonely world full of people on the go.

Until now we have been approaching our cars and our apartments without thinking economically. If we want to change that, it is neither communism nor turbo capitalism. It is not to reach a higher moral goal either and certainly not an evil act. It is simply reasonable and in addition also human and beautiful.