Creating New Economies through the Urban Commons
Our economy has left deep scars in cities. As globalization has advanced, cities have become sites of acute oppression. The global free market has made soul searing, society-rending levels of inequality, racism, pollution, and social isolation the daily lived experience of billions of city dwellers. Governments often exacerbate this oppression by seeking out global investors who, like parasites, extract resources from cities without giving anything in return. Both the free market and the state are failing city residents.
This weighty oppression in cities has led many residents to seek community by emphasizing differences. As German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas theorized, systems of advanced capitalism tear apart social relations. People respond to these systems by forming groups based upon differences, not commonalities with others. They marginally differentiate themselves based on gender, age, skin color, neighborhood, or religious affiliation. This form of community building expresses a longing for solidarity while precluding the possibility of broad-based solidarity.
These conditions now extend to the majority of the world’s population. For the first time in world history, the majority of people live in cities. In 1950, only thirty percent of the world’s population lived in cities. That number has steadily and rapidly risen across the last half decade. Today, more than fifty percent of people live in cities.
As populations migrate to cities, cities become more oppressive, and responses to oppression tend to preclude solidarity, it is heartening to find people in cities across the world also building a new economy based on sharing. This is a personal solution based on collective power. It counters an old impersonal economy that individualizes social relations and alienates people. Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons, a new book by a nonprofit called Shareable, brings to light efforts by groups in cities across the world to instantiate this new economy. This article is largely an adaptation of Sharing Cities. It argues that it is imperative for resilient new city economies to be based upon a political economy distinct from that of capitalism and neoliberalism. This is a commons-based political economy, where the commons is a way communities work together to manage and obtain resources as opposed to receiving resources via the free market or from the state. The commons is a viable post-capitalist way forward.
Envisioning a New Economy and Grounding that Vision
The visions of new city economies based on sharing that have grown from the arid terrain in cities are visions based upon the expansiveness of love, not the shrinking of difference and hate. They extend solidarity beyond identity groups. Where some mainstream narratives portray technology as the hero that will save cities, these visions put residents first. They foresee residents taking care of each other, their city, and their partner cities too. They focus on residents working together for the common good—the foundational skill that makes all other things possible in society—instead of the profit margins of investors who often are not residents. They put at the forefront a multitude of loving, human-scale communities managed by capable residents.
New sharing economies in cities could generate enormous change for the better. Such economies would not evenly distribute benefits across the globe, since urban areas are largely concentrated in developed countries. Still, cities are places where change is possible and can yield large benefits. In an age of ideological and gridlocked national politics, cities are places where change through pragmatic, solution-oriented leadership is possible. Since cities are more energy efficient per capita than non-urban areas, mass adoption of collaborative energy production and consumption models could dramatically improve efficiency. City residents live close together and have opportunities to help one another on a daily basis. If managed correctly through economies based on sharing, cities could become great places to live for everyone while addressing challenges like climate change, wealth inequality, and social division. They could help sustain life on earth using means that are just and liberating.
Implementing sharing economies in cities could, alternatively, yield disastrous results. Even the best laid plans for sharing in cities can crumple under the weight of advanced capitalism and emerge as ruthlessly capitalist. Familiar examples like Uber, AirBnb, and Taskrabbit began as communitarian-minded startups based on sharing. However, once venture capital flowed into them, they became aggressive capitalistic enterprises using “sharing” as moral cover to shield them from the criticism that they consolidated wealth and undermined labor protections.
While new visions of utopian sharing cities can go wrong, they can be guided toward success. The key is to envision real utopias which, as American Sociologist Olin Wright defines them, differ from more naive utopian visions in that they not only embody people’s deepest aspirations for the world but also take unintended consequences and self-destructive dynamics into account. And as failed sharing utopias like Uber and AirBnB show us, the pervasiveness of capitalism presents dynamics it is best not to ignore.
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Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 3:39-44