Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: What's Mine Is Your's

This is a book review of What's Mine is Your's by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers. After seeing Botsman speak at TEDxSydney, I requested a review copy from the publisher.

Waste, or non-useful expenditure, is central to understanding the value of things and the cultural circuits in which they travel.  In neoliberal discourse, waste operates as an accusation of lost economic value in some piece of policy – it stands as a zero degree of value or in excess of the useful.As Will Davies has noted, 
The left has liked to define itself as being more favourably-inclined to state-led policy solutions than market-led ones. The former are indeed a better guarantee of equality of outcome. But the left has also conned itself that the state operates with a sunnier view of human nature than the market. In fact, the logic that operates in public policy formation is ultimately the same as that which operates in the marketplace. Human beings are assumed to be rational utility-maximisers, and resources are allocated to achieve the maximum aggregate utility.

Wasteful expenditure, as the counterpart to utility, therefore, is central to life itself. And yet a science of use remains elusive. From choice of clothing to cars, beverages and smartphone operating systems, displays of use are infinitely subtle games that perform our membership in social categories.  These games cannot be reduced to units of use and measured as such, even if such units are derived from them.  John Frow has suggested that such systems of symbolic use, apparently supplementary to the norms of the rational calculation of utility that dominate political economy, may in fact render those norms unworkable.  In Frow's account, Thorstein Veblen recognized invidious displays of wasteful use – conspicuous consumption - as  the very stuff of class: an assertion of one’s free time from wage labour.  Veblen attempted to revive a functionalism from such displays.  He aimed to square the Progressive era aristocratic excesses he observed with codes of reputability using primordial distinctions of productive (female) and honorable (male) work.  Bordieu stresses the ways in which social distinction is 'gamed' - even a withdrawal from playing games (for example by labelling it 'hipster' or 'bogan') is a social group marker.  In this way, 'socially responsible businesses' are a contradiction in terms - operating between, rather than across, social divisions.

Putting these contradictions aside, for a moment, Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ book ‘What’s Mine Is Your’s’ seeks to fuse some of these divisions, promising a new mode of consumption that promotes harmony, rather than division.  There are two moral point of departure for the book.  Firstly, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (or 'recent changes to our economic landscape' as described on the back cover).  The GFC was, of course, at least partially caused by the systematic abstraction of working class status anxiety into equities.  Secondly, the Great Pacific Garbage patch.  The authors then go on to attack other evils of the current economic model: unsustainable resource usethe Diderot effect, Mad Men/Bernays style psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation.  The objective is "a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’" As Rob Horning notes in his incisve review essay, the authors aim to step into the breach here, outlining a new model of consumption that "... internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative; not isolating but unifying; not massified but local; not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering; not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word."  In short, not the rivalrous emulation that ‘the ponzi scheme of the last 200 years of industrial civilization has been built upon.’

This sheer breadth of activities and organizations that the authors label as forms of Collaborative Consumption are ringfenced by a number of concepts to ensure the term doesn't lapse into general analysis of the sociality of economic exchange: critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons and trust between strangers. I’ll deal with the first two of these before turning to the issue of trust, ‘the commons’ and expertise. 'Critical mass' is a quasi-natural process taken from Malcolm Gladwell to refer to the amount of choice available in a 'Collaborative Consumption' alternative to conventional shopping or other modes of consumption.  For example, there needs to be enough bike hiring nodes spread across a wide enough distance to make a bike sharing scheme attractive.  The authors argue that experiments with these schemes in the US seem to have been more successful than in European cities where networks have been too small, and/or the bikes systems lack technologies to prevent theft or absconding.  The concept of 'Idling Capacity' is used to implore readers to look around them for spare things that could be useful to others.  The average drill is used for just 20 minutes in its lifetime, yet there are 50 million of them in the United States.  ‘You need the hole, not the drill.’ ... which begs the question of whether you also need the Van Gogh print you'll be hanging from the hook that goes in the hole.

The authors explore three forms in which such an idle drill – or bike, car, or even silverware – could be mobilized.  Each of them operates in adversarial tension to a cultural form of consumption.  Firstly, they explore ‘Product Service Systems’ such as Zipcar or the Australian equivalent GoGet.  These are largely privately run and essentially compete with conventional care hire companies by having available cars nearby residents.  Users pay membership fees and for the time they use the cars.  The authors argue that by ‘moving our relationship with things from ownership to use, options to satisfy our needs, whether it be for travel, leisure, work food or children increase.’  The Enthusiast explored in the work of Glen Eventmechanics Fuller may have a different opinion of this particular model.

The second model is ‘Redistribution Markets’ in which the burden of wasted or idle stuff is liberated, usually through either non-commercial ‘noticeboard’ sites like Freecycle, Gumtree or commercial operations like eBay.  The authors also list a tonne of niche swap community sites (MakeupAlley, anyone?).   It’s not clear what is ‘collaborative’ about these sites – the authors don’t ever quite say.  My own experience with eBay is anything but collaborative - it is indeed my own self interest that leads to  decisions to sell old camera gear, for example.  This decision comes with very clearly delineated by rules about what is on offer, my advice and, likely, my relationship with the seller.  The cultural category these markets operate against is the Hoarder, well described by Jodi Dean in this fascinating and evocative post.  

The final, and most tenuous, category of ‘Collaborative Consumption’ outlined by the authors is ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’: organizations dedicated to sharing workspaces, goods, skills, parking spaces, travel (AirBnb, Couchsurfing).  Again, it is not clear how the most prominent of these organizations are ‘Collaborative’, rather than simply a counter-cyclical extension of capital into home economies as national economies suffer through the crisis wrought by Zombie policies.  AirBnB, for example, is a startup business that aims to compete with hotels by encouraging people to rent out spare rooms or even whole properties.  Indeed, AirBnB’s is the entrepreneurial success story that begins the book.  The startup now  has the character of a full scale corporate operation, with a new ‘collections’ branding that represent exactly the kind of marketing to social distinction that animated cultural critics like Veblen and Bordieu.

And this is precisely where sociological critiques of the concept of Collaborative raised by Rob Horning bite.  The struggle with ownership over things versus things owning us identified by critics from Nietzsche to Chuck Palinuik are recast as a fun opportunity to interact with others.  As Horning’s notes of the contradiction of ‘Collaborative Lifestyles’:  "The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order... Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball."  AirBnB, of course, could not operate without eBay style reputation metrics that will undoubtedly require analogous security and verification apparatuses.

It would be too easy to follow Horning’s lead and spend the rest of the review cynically criticizing the authors’ revival of ‘old time virtues’ (sic) through stories of efficiency gains made by benevolent capitalists.  Instead, I think it’s more valuable to (re)turn to the implications for public policy viz. trust and ‘commons’, and specifically its implications for climate policy.

Botsman, a highly articulated speaker, has visited Number 10 to outline implications for Collaborative Consumption to the Coalition government.  And it’s easy to see why there’d be a receptive audience for her ideas given the Neoliberals transformation of Whitehall deftly documented by Davies.  As Davies argues, Policy Utilitarianism has mostly been a clandestine operation – pursuing aggregate welfare increases with no regard to means.  For example, if there is evidence of decreased road tolls near churches, an entire secular machinery will offer religious tax credits to stimulate building more churches.

As Davies notes, these sorts of policies may be very successful in the aggregate, but unfortunately the view of ‘the aggregate’ is a view from nowhere, cannot be easily communicated and is susceptiable to the criticisms of Price Theory. For example, WRAP is a QUANGO established with the promise of ‘transforming waste to riches’ by pursuing productivity gains in government, households and corporations.  It’s not hard to see how individual focused organizations of Collaborative Consumption would perform ‘resource efficiency’ better than a government agency.  As Marx recognized well, prices function within capitalist systems to stimulate technological innovation; Chicago School economists like Coase saw prices everywhere, generalizing them to human behaviour beyond the marketplace.  The question for policy makers, therefore, became less what was worthwhile and more what could be demonstrated to provide maximum welfare gains in this abstract sense.

The appeal of CollCons is that it preserves Coase’s fascination with ‘transaction costs’ (indeed, in a characteristically broad and frustratingly facile generalization declares them ‘Collapsed’ in a 1.5 page section of Chapter 4) but provides the resources to generalize the problem of market failure into every nook and cranny of the house.  This would be receptive to Whitehall because the ‘collaborative’ label addresses policy-makers problems communicating the welfare enhancing character of alienating calculative systems whilst preserving their ability to act as centralized operators of welfare maximization.  This is where the generation of numbers of different kinds through acts of consumption appeals enormously to policy makers, for reasons I’ve explored elsewhere.  Fwiw, their use of the work of Mark Granovetter here deserves scrutiny but space forbids it.

Numbers represent the archetypal fact upon which bureaucratic authority is founded, and it’s in the generation of numbers that Botsman and Rogers’ faith in free enterprise may conflict with their concern about the global commons of the atmosphere and climate change.

Climate Policy since the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol have framed national emissions quotas, monitoring systems and transaction logs to keep track of emissions.  Most national governments have simply handed their emissions quotas to their largest polluting facilities and established their emission reduction commitments accordingly.  It’s clear that if we’re to have any chance whatsoever of closing the emissions/policy gap, relying on entrepreurial ‘Collaborative’ systems alone will not be enough.
For example, BCycle, currently operating in many US Cities, embodies the kind of successful, socially responsible 'Product Service System' that may come to play an important role in climate policy in the coming decades.  Indeed, the authors attack suggestions that the current crop of Generation X entrepreneurs are 'valueless' - rather they're 'changing the world' .  Botsman and Rogers stress that CollCons systems like bike and car sharing must consider the relative and marginal benefits of a particular service in relation to other transport options.  BCycle appears to have successfully incorporated design failures that have plagued EUropean bike sharing schemes - their nodes are close to sites of use, rather than restricted to just the centre of town like Copenhagen; they can be tracked and booked online and require a membership, rather than just the insertion of a coin.  Furthermore - and this is where it may get interesting - it tracks your mileage and also provides a figure of 'carbon offsets'

This is the collision between these new enterprises and existing forms of ('public') expert systems will be interesting to watch.  What Donald Mackenzie has termed the 'techno-politics' of climate change exists in the material calculative devices like the ones used to track BCycle bikes.  What baseline assumptions are made transport usage of the riders?  Is this a voluntary disclosure or checked against car ownership records?  How big a car do they own?  Who will get credit for these offsets?  (The collapse of the Chicago Climate Exchange suggests they're unlikely to find a market in the voluntary sector, so how will these figures be used by official authorities?)

These questions are where the 'game' like character of social life theorized by Veblen and Bordieu intersect with policy decisions relevant to 'caring for the commons'.  Expertise will be required to reassure concerned publics that their 'collaborative' efforts are not wasted.  The question is how this reassurance can take place and by whom - and these are political questions irreducible to acts of consumption, collaborative or otherwise.


  1. The book sounds like a load of rubbish. Most such attempts to provide a progressive-sounding "collective" approach to the capitalist economy rely on confusion about two things:

    (1) The already-existing collaborative nature of capitalism, which requires collective social processes and not (apparent) methodological individualism to operate. Therefore, authors like these can describe banal capitalist operations and shout, "Look how radical and different *this* is!"

    (2) The socially determined character of use values in a society ruled by (exchange-)values. So terms such as "use" and "waste" get muddled up with the constant process of comparison and exchange of equivalents that exists in markets (and largely also drives capitalist states). Also, such terms are deployed in a way that presumes an absolute meaning when they are actually at the whim of specific class interests and logics.

    My argument is that we need to eliminate capitalist markets and the competitive accumulation that lies behind them in order to construct not only collaborative circuits of production and consumption, but ones free of the constantly imposed logic of the law of value. The kind of market engineering this book seems to describe is little more than an attempt to force that malign value-logic into ever more microscopic aspects of our social lives. Bleh!

  2. Thanks Tad.

    Yes completely agree with (1). Chapter 13 of Capital convincingly presents the false dichotomy of planning versus capitalism

    (2) yes, Botsman is clearly speaking to entrepreneur's who've been burned by the credit economy - a sizeable audience to be sure!