The Sharing Economy: An Anti-Capitalist Model?


Sharing is a natural act in human behavior, while capitalism is based on the idea of ownership and property, which in turn foster consumerism. Over the last years, the sharing economy has arisen as a new economic paradigm, which, many authors say, may even replace capitalism.

This optimistic idea is then met with reality, where many websites working in the sharing field (like Uber and Airbnb) are extremely profitable for their investors, and of course these profits are not shared with the users, de facto replicating the traditional capitalist model.

Sharing has always been a component of the human identity, but over the last ten years it has received increased attention, both at academic and “practical” levels. This is partly due to its link with the economic crisis, and partly to the new forms and instruments that today allow the act of sharing to take place.

On the one hand, the sharing economy can be seen as a social innovation, i.e. a new solution that is more effective in responding to social needs than existing ones, and that also helps building new social relationships.

On the other hand, the way that sharing economy takes place is also relevant and draws growing attention (and capital) to it. Usually online platforms and apps allow users to communicate that they have extra resources available to share, and they put them in contact with those who are interested in getting access to those goods.

How does it work?

The idea (and the practice) of sharing is now a reality in many economic sectors, such as housing, transportation, food, tourism, service provision etc. We all know, and many of us probably used, websites such as Airbnb, Couchsurfing, Blablacar, Uber and the likes.

The typical model involves the offer side (i.e. people offering certain goods to be shared with others), a website acting as an intermediary, and the demand side (i.e. people looking to borrow certain goods or other people’s time or services). This means that the act of sharing, in the form that characterizes the sharing economy, needs the Internet and a dedicated website to take place: people have to register to the website (in some cases registration fees are required) to be able to connect with others. This type of sharing is certainly able to go beyond geographical and physical barriers, but we may question its ability to promote a more “immediate” type of relationship.

Access vs ownership

On the other hand, this phenomenon prioritizes the idea of access over the idea of ownership: if I have an extra amount of any resource, I can share it with strangers, who will be paying me (and the website) money to be able to access the good, without needing to buy one themselves. This is easiest to understand if we think about website where people can share tools and other objects: rather than buying a drill, which I will probably use only a handful of times, I can borrow it from someone else, paying them a small amount of money to do so (in turn, helping them to cover the price they paid for the item).

Of course, one positive consequence of sharing emerges: the chance of a switch in behaviors from consumerism to more responsible and sustainable consumption. At the same time, capitalism and its extreme consumption-based culture are deeply rooted into many Western societies (where the sharing economy trend is stronger) and we can question how easy it would be to start removing them.

So, the sharing economy has a clear positive outcome in saving resources (and therefore in greater sustainability), and many see it as an anti-capitalist model.

All that glitters is not gold

However, concerns arise. The first is that people normally receive a monetary compensation for making their resources (be it a house, a car seat, a meal, a tool) available to others: rather than just exchanging goods and services back and forth with others based on the contingent availability or scarcity, people are turning to the sharing economy as a side job to cash in additional money and improve their quality of life. Many are going further and turning their act of sharing into their main job (just see Airbnb hosts with multiple properties listed on the website, or Uber drivers who use it to escape unemployment). We cannot criticize people for trying to get by, but many doubts have emerged about the exploitation and unfairness displayed by sharing companies toward their users.

The second is that, as already mentioned, the sharing economy is strongly based on the existence of websites acting as intermediaries: many of them charge users with fees for using the service (just try making a reservation on Airbnb). On the one hand, the fee can be justified as the price you pay for using that service and accessing a worldwide community of suppliers of the good you need; it can also represent part of the website’s owners compensation for their business expenses. This point alone already raises a question: is this really the type of sharing we want to encourage?

However, we also know that the most prominent sharing economy companies are worth billions of dollars and are seen as great investment opportunities by the capitalist market. Which leads us to question whether the sharing economy is really anti-capitalist (or alternative to capitalism), when the companies involved in it are making high profits (not shared with the outside) and drawing so much capital to themselves (which should mean, in turn, that the capitalist market encourages these ventures): maybe, the current model of sharing is just a different manifestation of capitalism, and its true objective is profit-making for owners and investors.