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The Political Economy of Sharing

The idea of sharing is increasingly popular today as an answer to many of our social, environmental and economic problems. By learning how to share more in our everyday lives – in everything from cars, clothes, couches, meals, household tools, even our time and skills – we are able to interact more with others, build community, consume and waste less, as well as save money. Or even make a lot more money, if you’re one of the entrepreneurs investing in the sharing economy’s purported $110 billion-plus market. A whole host of different professionals are now involved in the huge growth industry of sharing, such as the software engineers who create shared web platforms, the architects who are designing co-housing communities, or the lawyers who help community groups adopt legal structures and agreements for sharing.

It’s as if the age-old practice of sharing is being recollected, re-learned and re-invented in innovative new ways to deal with the multiple crises of the 21st Century. Far from being a primitive behaviour practised only in traditional societies, sharing presents a new field of study and a new way of life as well as being a simple, everyday practice among families and friends. There is much talk now of the exciting promise of the gift economy, barter systems, mutual aid societies, time banks and many other modes of exchange that are outside of the mainstream monetary system.

At the same time, a wealth of literature has recently emerged that emphasises how human beings are hardwired to cooperate and share, with far-reaching implications for how we organise our political and economic systems. Together, these findings challenge many of the core assumptions of classical economic theory, in particular the firmly-held notion that people are inherently selfish, competitive, acquisitive and individualistic by nature – assumptions that have long been used to justify an unfair economic system. Meanwhile, the resurgence of scholarly and public interest in ‘the commons’ is helping to design new systems for sharing and conserving the resources of both society and nature, including natural resources, cultural traditions and knowledge. As many people from all of these diverse fields are saying, the principle of sharing is a concept around which we can restructure our societies and use to help guide us in the urgent process of world rehabilitation.

Sharing to end poverty?

If this is the case, then why are not more people talking about sharing in relation to how governments provide welfare and public services to their citizens? And why is there so little mention of the word ‘sharing’ in relation to tackling poverty, inequality and climate change? Despite the intense interest in the issue of inequality in recent years, for example, there is almost no mention among academics, campaigners or policymakers about the obvious antidote to unfairness and exclusion in society – which is logically, as even a child might say, a fairer sharing of wealth and resources. Just as human and animal families naturally demonstrate sharing among themselves, so must a society demonstrate the same principle among its citizenry in order to thrive. And so must – dare we say it – the same principle govern wholesome relations between the family of nations on a worldwide basis.

Yet even in the influential and important book The Spirit Level, with its compendium of research on all the social ills that stem from increases in inequality, there is no mention of the word ‘sharing’ in its later chapters that point out the road towards a more egalitarian society. The same holds true for the countless number of reports and manifestos that are written with prescriptions for how to transform society and achieve a more equitable distribution of economic resources – the principle of sharing is rarely, if ever, explicitly mentioned.

One of the reasons that it is now fashionable to talk about sharing in any context except the political economy is perhaps understandable, because there is a great danger that you will be immediately branded a socialist or a communist. This is especially true in the United States, the country that proclaims free enterprise and small government louder than any other. Remember the media frenzy that erupted during the 2008 U.S. elections when Obama told Joe the plumber that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody”. President Obama has since made it a habit to reassure voters at any opportunity that he is not trying to “redistribute wealth from one group to another”.

So in the run-up to the 2012 U.S. elections, the word ‘sharing’ was clearly never going to be a campaign slogan to replace ‘hope’ or ‘change’ for any politician making a serious bid for the White House. This is a shame – not because more politicians should associate themselves with socialism or any other ‘ism’, but because the principle of sharing should not be associated with any political ideology at all. Indeed if only the world’s politicians would discard their ideologies and partisan loyalties and make sharing their watchword and party banner. The principle of sharing is not beholden to a failed economic experiment of a bygone era, but remains a natural law of economy that has yet to be applied on a worldwide basis within a framework of international cooperation and democratically-determined rules.

The political economy of sharing

There are many reasons why we should be talking more about sharing today in the field of politics and economics. For a start, examining government policies through the lens of sharing helps us to navigate the often complex debates of rival political parties, and not get lost in political spin or ideological thinking. In a time of global economic breakdown when old certainties are fast crumbling, and when no politician of either left or right has an answer to the world’s problems, it can be difficult for ordinary citizens to see through the distorted priorities and lack of common sense of their governments. But if we see sharing as the guiding principle of economic policy on both a national and international basis, it becomes a lot easier to understand the right path that governments should follow. Clearly, this would not be in the same direction that most of the world’s policymakers are currently taking us, which increasingly involves the dismantling of social protections and public services alongside the promotion of unregulated ‘wealth creation’ by the few.

Understanding how the principle of sharing relates to economic policy might be simpler than we imagine. In STWR’s recent report, we expanded the existing notion of the sharing economy to include modern systems of social welfare and public service provision, which we argue is perhaps the most advanced form of sharing on a nationwide level that exists in the modern world. Although few people talk about publicly-provided welfare systems as examples of sharing, the principle of sharing is fundamental to how members of society take collective responsibility for securing basic human needs and rights for all citizens. Discussing progressive taxation and redistribution in such terms may be political hot potatoes for any election candidate vying for office in the so-called advanced economies, but it should be common sensical to any reasonably-minded person who is concerned about growing levels of inequality, poverty and social exclusion.

Thinking in these simple and practical terms can also help us to grasp the basic problems of poorer countries, many of which do not have the resources they need to build efficient tax systems to finance essential services and national development. In other words, many low-income countries are still struggling to establish an effective sharing economy, and they need help from the international community to achieve this. This points to the urgent need to finance the ‘global sharing economy’ which, as explained in STWR’s report, is not just about increasing international aid. There are many policies that governments could implement in order to raise the finances needed to reverse austerity measures, prevent life-threatening deprivation and mitigate the human impacts of climate change as a foremost priority. All of the 10 policy recommendations we outline – from tax and debt justice to redirecting perverse government subsidies – are major priorities for campaign groups around the world, and would mark a huge step forward in terms of sharing the world’s financial resources. Even within the existing economic system that is now breaking apart, much could be done to secure the basic rights of the poor and vulnerable through widespread policies of redistribution, global forms of taxation and a more equitable sharing of government revenue.

Sharing in the bigger picture

In the longer term, however, sharing has much bigger implications for the world economy if we are to end poverty and create a sustainable and peaceful future. Within a vastly overpopulated and over-consuming planet, and given the uneven distribution of the world’s natural resources and economic power, there is a huge challenge for the international community to develop more inclusive systems of global governance guided by the principle of sharing. The United Nations has a pivotal role to play in this historic endeavour, despite being in need of significant reform and renewal, as it remains the only multilateral institution with the necessary experience and inclusiveness to coordinate such a restructuring of the world economy. We cannot talk about a global sharing economy in the truest sense until agriculture, trade and industry are adequately regulated on a global level; until cultural and natural resources are managed, protected and held in trust for the benefit of all people and future generations; and until consumption levels are rendered equitable and sustainable both within and between nations.

There is one other very good reason that we should all be talking about global sharing. Because unless we do, there is no question that governments and international institutions will pay little heed to public demands for a fairer distribution of wealth and resources. For many decades, policymaking at every level has been captured by dominant corporations and business lobby groups that have no interest whatsoever in sharing world resources, so blinded have they become by profit, ideology and economic power. Only with a huge groundswell of public opinion in favour of sharing and cooperation will these vested interests be forced to accede to the global common good. Such a sentiment may still sound naïve to some, but the extraordinary ‘people power’ uprisings since early 2011 have given us concrete evidence of where true power ultimately rests. If world public opinion coalesces around a collective demand for a fairer sharing of the world’s wealth and resources, there is no guessing the potential power of a truly global movement of ordinary people to effect wholesale, systemic change.

Of course, there are many reasons why we may not want to place the idea of global sharing at the forefront of our hearts and minds. Because if we do, we may no longer be able to abide the distorted priorities of our governments, especially when we realise just how absurdly the world’s resources are currently managed, and just how comparatively little of the world’s resources are needed to tackle extreme poverty and heal the environment. We may also begin to realise the part we play in maintaining this unjust status quo, if only through our continued silence, acquiescence and complacency. How can we talk about sharing and justice for ourselves, when thousands of people continue to die needlessly each day from hunger and social neglect? If global sharing means anything at all, it must surely mean an end to life-threatening deprivation as a number one global priority, even above our own community concerns. As we know, our governments will only make it their priority if we make it our own priority first on a massive and unprecedented scale. So even if it isn’t fashionable to talk about sharing in relation to poverty, inequality and the environment, maybe it’s about time that we made it so.

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources. He can be contacted at adam(at)stwr.org.

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Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources (STWR), www.sharing.org

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