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Tom Slee’s critique of Peers.org as ‘astroturf’: on conflating the interests of sharers and sharing companies

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
10th September 2013


How about banding together to protest when a TaskRabbit customer posts a job to do four loads of laundry and it’s actually 10 or 15 loads covered in cat diarrhea? No: if you do that, you’re fired. The company (a partner of Peers.org, natch) also takes steps to prevent its TaskRabbits from meeting because “They don’t want us unionizing”. I’m sorry, what was that about citizens banding together against companies?

The Ouishare community is a pluralistic community which tries to bring together various forces involved in the ‘sharing economy’ and this includes both enterpreneurs, and critical grassroots people, as was also exemplified at the Ouishare conference in Paris.

But one defining moment for me was at a panel where four ‘sharing enterpreneurs’ talked about their experiences and were quite open about their main goal, ‘to convert their community into customers’. Some time later, at a Ouishare Netherlands drink in the Netherlands, it also became clear that ‘p2p’ was interpreted as being about business platforms that allow customers to share and exchange with each other. It is legimate in my eyes to be an enterpreneur, and it is also legimate to be a critic, but one should not conflate the private interest of companies and the public interest of citizens.

What is therefore less positive in my eyes is when differences are papered over and confused. This seems to be the case with peers.org, that presents itself as a grassroots organisation but is directly influenced by sharing ‘business platforms’ and with a clear aim of fighing against regulation. It is normal for businesses to lobby for this, but what is problematic is that it is masquerading as a grassroots organisation of individual sharers.

Tom Slee offers an analysis of Peers.org, based on the statements of the founders themselves, I’m only reproducing his own conclusions here:

“”A grassroots organization with 40 corporate “partners”, with unspecified but significant funding, formed with guidance from a set of high-profile “thought leaders”, without local chapters, and with nothing much for the grassroots to do, but with an Executive Director on day one.

Andrew Leonard from Salon has been following the story, and tells us that funding comes from “mission-aligned independent donors”. So that’s wealthy backers with a financial interest in the sharing economy. This is not grassroots, it’s astroturf.

If there is one thing that makes me angry, it is people appropriating the language of collective and progressive politics for financial gain. And that’s one thread of what’s going on here. As we shall see. It does seem that Executive Director Natalie Foster’s heart is in the right place, but that’s one of the tragedies of the sharing economy: well-intentioned people end up contributing to immiseration and injustice when they think they are doing the opposite.

What we’re not talking about here is venture capital. Going through Crunchbase tells me that the total funding for the 40 partners is over $600M. AirBnB has received $120M, including funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Jeff Bezos, Ashton Kucher. You know, people standing up against entrenched interests.

At the end of this post I’ve added a table of what I could find. It tells us that almost all the funding is going to the Bay Area or New York. The non-profits in this organization are being taken for a ride by the appealing anti-establishment language of Silicon Valley . They need to take a look at who their bedfellows are and what the real agenda is.

Venture Capital funds are not interested in people power, they are interested in an investment with a good return. The fact that Douglas Atkin doesn’t once mention the financial motivations of the forces behind the sharing economy is either dishonest or unbelievably self-deceiving.

The language changes, the mask slips. Participants become customers, sharing becomes buying. The phrase “across verticals” reminds us that Douglas Atkin is an advertising executive. Now the sharing economy is about loyalty programs and cross marketing? Not the kind of sharing I want to be part of. I don’t have a problem with commerce, but what I do object to is commerce wrapped up in, and appropriating, the language of solidarity.

The Peers organization came together, then, in San Francisco and New York – the well-heeled, well-funded districts of the sharing economy movement.

Billion-dollar venture capital funds are out to undercut people who run licensed bed and breakfasts, and he’d have me believe that it’s the B&B owners who are the “entrenched interests”. If this is your idea of a revolution (and it is, unbelievably enough: that comes later) then brother don’t you know, you can count me out.

The laws that he is talking about are licensing laws and other laws put in place to protect employees, customers, and neighbourhoods. These laws are not all perfect. But the sharing economy has nothing to replace them beyond magical thinking about “trust” (with little accountability).

How about banding together to protest when a TaskRabbit customer posts a job to do four loads of laundry and it’s actually 10 or 15 loads covered in cat diarrhea? No: if you do that, you’re fired. The company (a partner of Peers.org, natch) also takes steps to prevent its TaskRabbits from meeting because “They don’t want us unionizing”. I’m sorry, what was that about citizens banding together against companies?

The sharing economy is not an alternative to capitalism, it’s the ultimate end point of capitalism in which we are all reduced to temporary labourers and expected to smile about it because we are interested in the experience not the money. Jobs become “extra money” just like women’s jobs used to be “extra money”, and like those jobs they don’t come with things like insurance protection, job security, benefits – none of that old economy stuff. But hey, you’re not an employee, you’re a micro-entrepreneur. And you’re not doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the experience. We just assume you’re making a living some other way.

The sharing economy is the centralization of global casual labour. Investors invest because individual sharing economy companies have the potential for global reach, collecting a little from each of millions of transactions around the world, and funnelling it to California.

Trashing consumerism appeals to many environmentally-minded, social-justice oriented people. But if you displace taxi drivers and replace them with casual labour, you’re not improving the work/life balance of drivers, you’re making them poorer.”

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3 Responses to “Tom Slee’s critique of Peers.org as ‘astroturf’: on conflating the interests of sharers and sharing companies”

  1. Tom Slee Says:

    Thanks for reposting this, and for the Ouishare recollections. I do have a feeling that there is a Euro-North American split, in which community-minded Europeans don’t realize that their partners across the pond are libertarian-minded Americans using similar language. I was at a conference in Manchester called FutureEverything earlier this year, and some open government folks from the Netherlands and the UK were people I felt were looking to build community-focused facilities rather than raise venture capital. Do you think such a split exists? (Exceptions will, of course, be many).

  2. Michel Bauwens Says:

    The differences will be particulary stark if you live in California, but otherwise, I do believe that the differences between the civic-community and business-venture oriented visions also does exist in Europe. In Europe the latter may be less marked by venture capital but the business logic is there.

    Michel

  3. between the lines Says:

    As someone living in Europe, I think Tom is broadly correct about the Euro v USA split. Look at the discourses on lots of topics – all sorts, from vaccination, fluoridation and autonomous / off-grid lifestyles through to attitudes to Bilderbergers, state control and various conspiracy theories, and you will very often find that beliefs held by left-wing people in Europe are held by ultra-right “libertarians” in the US.

    What this results in, in this era of internet and global communications, is that Europeans and USAmericans frequently get our wires totally tangled because we think we are after the same goals, we are even using similar language, but underneath all that we are actually on diametrically opposed sides!

    A recipe for some disastrous interaction …

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