Sharing economy and subsumption

In wrangling with real and formal subsumption again in the previous post, I thought it might be useful to apply the terms to a concrete example (drawing from this post of mine form a few years ago), the emergence of the “sharing economy.” Does calling this “real subsumption” or not clarify anything?

1. The sharing economy works by mobilizing individuals’ spare or excess or “surplus” capacity, be it time, space, or commodities.

2. What prevents that surplus capacity from going back into the market is the lack of a network that can intermingle buyers and sellers, a marketplace that can operate in the background and not itself consume the excess capacity of participants. (If it takes a bunch of time and energy to get to market, the value of what you have to bring gets cannibalized.)

3. Sharing companies build out the platforms that establish the existence of marketplaces in the very background of everyday life, making them unobtrusive yet omnipresent (right there on your phone, you can always buy or sell labor power). 

4. Sharing-economy platforms thereby afford individuals greater opportunity to behave as enterprises while simultaneously turning their potentially communal existence into a field of competition. It makes the potential for collaboration and cooperation (sharing work and goods with neighbors etc.) into instances of mediated exchange between atomized individuals. The platforms become the middlemen for “social individuals” (see this Jason Read post) reduced again to isolated individuals.

5. Sharing-company platforms extend something like the wage form to social interactions that once escaped it, so it could be classified as subsumption. But real or formal? The platforms allow individuals to behave as capitalists at the same time that they are prompted to make more of their lives available for exploitation by middlemen/bigger-fish capitalists who are in position to aggregate and accumulate capital on a massive scale in the process (see the venture-capital valuations of Uber, Airbnb, etc.).

6. Sharing platforms commodify goods and services that were once very particular and contingent on nonmarketized, noncommodified social connections. That sounds like real subsumption, with “labor” taking a form dictated by capital’s needs. The hallmark of that is the form of the commodity — a good that circulates in order to valorize capital (not to provide social welfare or utility).

7. But the platforms also engage individuals in their particularity, getting them to be entrepreneurial and capitalistic (for the platform’s ultimate benefit). Sharing platforms commodify entrepreneurship; they subsume entrepreneurship and make it something that directly serves the interest of established larger-scale capitalists, while preventing the person-as-enterprise from become a large-scale capitalist in own right. The personal brand remains subsumed by the platforms that enable it, though the subjective experience of it may be more akin to the self-motivated “craft work” associated with “formal subsumption.”

8. Sharing-economy companies, if nothing else, make explicit the ways in which the benefits of cooperation can be stolen by capital. They subsume the surplus generated by the possibilities of collaboration and redistribute it upward while reinforcing the underlying ideological construct of a society of atomized individuals — the structure of society most suited to the conditions of “real subsumption,” of deskilled labor optimized for efficient management. 

9. Pursuing a social life in the midst of the sharing economy, or worse, by means of the sharing economy (making friends through Airbnb, or Facebook for that matter) deepens one’s isolation within capitalist society. It reformats the way you see your social connections in terms of opportunities to make a buck: That reformatting is what I take to be the essence of “real subsumption.” At that point you unavoidably view the social through the lens of the sharing-economy platforms and what they make of social connection and spare capacity. You inescapably assess your life in terms of the new chances to exploit yourself. Your consciousness (or subjectivity) is thereby subsumed. 

10. At some point the individual will cease to pursue the social within such a system and seek a way to escape or destroy it.



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