Sharing Myth (A Critique of the Sharing Economy)

Marc Ferrez (Public domain)

In his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes explores how wine functions not only as France’s national emblem, but also as a myth that helps grasp the ambiguity within French capitalist society. Wine, he argues, is a defining part of France’s experience because it structures the “environment”, serving as the core piece in almost all ceremonies of French life. On the other hand, Barthes also notes that the production of this magical fluid was deeply intertwined with French imperialism, as a seemingly innocent myth that moves away exploitation from the public eye.

Unsurprisingly, French wine and many other local symbols have been globalized and have effectively transcended national barriers. They now evoke some of these patriotic sentiments to a cosmopolitan elite that aspires to share their mythology; a Brazilian citizen, for instance, may enjoy a sip of a fine Bordeaux from the latest wine subscription service or post on Instagram photos of a summer trip to the Côte D’Azur in hopes of feeling a little bit more European.

This new phenomenon, we believe, is a byproduct of the profound economic changes that took place over the last 70 years, with the rise of technocapitalism. In the wake of an uniformization of consumption preferences, global elites have grown to perceive that, in most cases, one does not need to own a good to experience the benefits that come with using or being associated with an object. And not only so, this change of focus – from ownership to experience – projects an apparent conciliation between capitalism and rising environmental concerns.

In this sense, information and knowledge have replaced tangible materials (coal, oil, steel, etc.) at the center stage of capitalism. Intangibles are now deemed the main production factors and the latest object of desire of modern entrepreneurs. In fact, technological services, such as apps and management software, have been put at the core of our society.

An example of that is the so-called “sharing economy”, which is now as global as an idea can be. It has dominated several markets and services, while capturing the minds of academics and the middle class as a new way of life that brings the world together. Although it may be hard to define “sharing economy”, it is in any case easy to list several multinational businesses that benefit from direct or indirect association with it, such as Uber, UberEats, Airbnb, Rappi, etc.

Without much evidence, these platforms argue several economic and environmental benefits. For example, Uber claims its “ride” services reduce the number of cars in the streets, promoting better resource allocation. The same goes for bicycle-delivery apps, such as Rappi, which claim a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But these platforms fail to explain that these services might be actually creating additional demand, further increasing emissions and resource waste. Additionally, especially when it comes to creating widespread social benefits, these businesses have not only failed to bridge social gaps but also highlighted preexisting inequalities. Paradoxically, consumers’ perception has been so far largely positive.

This alleged new economy has had deep effects on popular imagery, changing the way we perceive reality. Marxist critique shows not only that the infrastructure (meaning economic conditions) determines the superstructure (ideology in general, i.e. art, religion, media, etc.), but that the latter also plays an important role in justifying and perpetuating the former. The superstructure creates myths aimed at distorting our understanding of reality and shaping it according to bourgeois and capitalist cultures.

Take the riders of the delivery services. They are often portrayed — not as the workers they are — but as entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who are entirely free to make their own work-schedule, and who are not subject to the orders of a boss. The same goes for Uber drivers, who ‘are free’ to choose when to drive, where to drive, and for how long. But are they different from other workers?

Regardless of the discourse created, material conditions are — and will continue to be — present. Most of those so-called ‘entrepreneurs’ have turned these app-driven working opportunities not because of a drive for innovation and independence, but due to economic factors that include crises and the rise of unemployment. In most scenarios, there is no other option. There is no option but to accept working regardless of the conditions they are offered. These offers include ‘life changing opportunities’ such as making about 20 cents (1 Brazilian Real) for every kilometer they ride on their bicycles on the way to a delivery.

After the first social distancing measures, Brazilian delivery apps witnessed an unprecedented rise in demand for their services, about 77% when compared to pre-pandemic numbers. On the other hand, a large portion of the so-called ‘entrepreneurs’ is unable to earn more than a minimum wage (roughly US$200 in Brazil), even though most of them are on their bicycles and motorcycles for most of the day.

Because of these asymmetries and consequent social injustice, workers have begun to organize themselves and to demand better working conditions. Looking past the naïve myth of a disruptive “sharing economy”, bike workers from delivery services managed to have their voices heard in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico. This past July 1st, amidst the chaotic government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil was the latest addition to the list with the Breque dos Apps strike.

One of the leaders of the Brazilian movement, Galo de Luta in a recent interview to Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, pointed out that many delivery workers had so far believed the entrepreneurship lie. Galo hopes that other workers can now open their eyes to the working conditions to which they are subject. The Brazilian Breque dos Apps strike shows the importance of workers in effectively overcoming these myths and the perils of ignoring the centrality of the working class in public debate. After all, without workers, wine is just grape, and these apps are no more than programming language.

Daniel Pereira Campos is a lawyer and PhD candidate at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Gustavo Torrecilha is a lawyer and master’s degree candidate at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Bernardo de Souza Dantas Fico is a lawyer. Mr. Fico holds a master’s degree from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, IL, USA.

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