The Actual Sharing Economy

Washing machine by Roy Lichtenstein

My mother-in-law’s washing machine is broken, so she’s been sending the servants over with washing. Our washing machine is constantly running now, and clothes are always drying. Depreciation aside, this seems more efficient. The household I live in is effectively five households. We share food, cars, appliances, servants, everything. But I didn’t always want to live like this.

I grew up in America, where not leaving your family at 18 is considered a failure. ‘Failure to launch’. Why we should ‘launch’ our children is now beyond me, but I used to accept this. The point was to have your own household, your own car(s), your own appliance, your own childcare, your own everything. You can see the emphasis on ownership. This, of course, sells a lot of products, but is it efficient? I don’t think so. So much is wasted and duplicated.

If you have one family under one roof you need A) one roof B) three meals C) X appliances D) some transportation E) etc. If you have multiple families under one roof, you don’t need multiples of these things. It’s a marginal difference. So why break this efficiency up? So someone else can make a margin. The multiple family household is atomized and frankly demonized, at least partly because it lets you sell multiple things. It’s the tyranny of ownership over belonging.

That’s the real sharing economy. The mother giving her breast for no compensation. The grandmother holding the baby. The uncle holding the umbrella as you take the child home from the hospital. All the relatives and relations who send clothes and cooked food and things you might need. Family. Humanity. These provide not just the means of life. They provide meaning.

One of the lies of capitalism is that it controls everything. It doesn’t even govern most of your day. Every person sharing a french fry is a closet communist, they’re just unaware. Almost everyone that works is working to give those resources away at the end of the day. To share. The lie is that we’re automatons driven by self-interest, and it’s just not true. We love our children, we love each other, we love our schools, our communities, we want to give and take and share.

As much as we’ve internalized the idea that we’re rats in cages racing against each other, rats don’t actually live like this. Psychological studies rest on a base of rat torture and we’ve drawn some pretty tortured conclusions from this. We conclude that, yeah, rats’ll push a lever for cocaine until they die, and so will we. But rats within a family, within a community, they don’t do this. They don’t need cocaine, they have caring. What we miss in the torture of individual mammals is the fucking name of the species. We are defined by mammaries, our very physical connection to each other. We are deeply social animals. We are naturally socialist.

As much as capitalism tries to insist that it’s the only way to organize a society, society constantly refuses being organized this way. We do things that make no ‘economic’ sense, like having weddings, like having children, like helping people out, like taking people in, like having fun, like just living. We work for a living, but then living is this wild, social, uncapitalist thing.

Another lie of capitalism is that it’s efficient. But this is obviously not true, because capitalism generates profit, which is literally more than you should be paying for a thing. Nor is capitalism an efficient use of resources because, I mean, look at the planet. We’re just a few generations away from completely wasting the thing. The clue to what capitalism really does is again in the name. Capital is about increasing return on capital, which is not the same as human needs.

Capital gets a higher return from selling five washing machines, when every household doesn’t necessarily need a washing machine. Capitals get a higher return from charging you $2 a load in an apartment complex when it shouldn’t be anywhere near that. But capitalist culture tells you you’ve failed if you live with your parents, and you’re not ambitious if you don’t go to the big city, and so we end up living lonely lives and paying too much for washing. Is this efficient? Is this the only way? No and no. But it is profitable.

The Bible asks what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul, and I think about this constantly. I think about how much money it takes to feel secure in capitalist culture — to have the space you need, the transportation, the healthcare, the childcare, the resources. You need to be a millionaire to not feel poor. And then most of those resources are wasted. Big houses go unused unless they’re ‘entertaining’. Most of the time, cars go undriven. People are so stressed and isolated that they have more health problems. They spend nearly as much on childcare as they’re earning, making a bunch of numbers go up somewhere, but which otherwise makes no sense.

None of this makes sense. It’s efficient at making capital increase, but it’s a wildly inefficient way of increasing human happiness. As Tom Petty sang, “All the boys upstairs wanna see, How much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free.” The trouble is that we forget everything we teach our children (sharing is caring!) and structure our entire adult lives around rank competition, selfishness, and greed. The behavior we tolerate at the top of our societies is something we’d shut down immediately in preschool, but we miss the obvious lesson completely.

We think this is just how it’s gotta be. But it ain’t. Look at your own life and realize how much of it — the good parts — are lived in the real sharing economy. Have a washing machine break down, need a cup of sugar, the threads of a different way of living are all around us. We are communities. We are families. We are mammals. Maybe we go to market sometimes, but we don’t need to live in the fucking market. We can live with our family, with our friends, and we can give and take what we need without currency. These are the old ways and they still work. We don’t have to work so damn hard for everything.

As I tell my children all the time, if you share, you’ll always have enough. If you don’t, you’ll always be wanting. They don’t listen, but I know it’ll stick in their heads and when they’re old enough they’ll remember. Then they won’t be alone. They’ll have each other. And that’s more safety than millions of dollars will ever be. That’s the sharing economy, and we all live in it naturally. We just need to start believing in it as much as this fictional economy that’s killing us and everything else. Capitalism is a brutal cycle we’re stuck in, but there are alternatives. Break the washing machine and you’ll see.