Rethinking Sustainable Design: Question 1 – Capitalism

Is moving to a sharing based economy just reinventing capitalism?

Capitalism is not so much a thing, as a way of understanding the world. It is a way of describing the system that we use to organize how our society resources itself. These days, it is true that we have institutions – like government agencies, The Federal Reserve and corporations – who act as if capitalism is a thing, something to be defended and extended, and so to some extent it has become a kind of thing; it has the inertia force of something almost tangibly real. It also becomes something that we come believe exists, and so we behave in everyday ways as if it exists, reinforcing its apparent existence.

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that capitalism is in the end an interpretation of the world. As a result, it tends to be reductive. It misses lots of things that go on, and mischaracterizes lots of other things. That’s why I believe that The Problem is not so much Capitalism, as when we think that all there is, is capitalism.

For instance, think about the extent to which capitalism depends on uncapitalist practices. I don’t mean government subsidies for the oil industry, as opposed to truly free markets. I mean the extent to which living in a capitalist society – going to work and being productive servicing other peoples needs so that you can get enough money to buy services for your own needs – is completely dependent on unpaid labor, i.e., domestic work, done primarily by women: homemakers. The raising of children, the maintenance of the places that feed, clean and sleep us, is mostly done in sharing or gift economies. Without all that unpaid labor, capitalist society just would not function. From this point of view, you see to how little an extent capitalism is an efficient way of resourcing society; or rather, you see how mistaken it is to think that we live in a wholly capitalist society.

To make the point another way, nearly every business is in fact a kind of sharing. Starbucks own some real estate, some furniture, some coffee machines and a supply of beans. What they then do is share those owned resources with other people. They share them with people who earn a livelihood (kind of) by working those resources. And they share them with other people who get value out of consuming them. The latter also share the consuming of those resources with other consumers, with many butts sitting in the same seat over the period of a day. Capitalism means that Starbucks profits out of making consumers pay more than the producers of all those need fulfillments get paid, but the fact that the system continues, that people choose to make use of Starbucks for coffee and employment, means that those people must get something out of Starbucks that they think is worth more than they are paying for it (or could get paid by working elsewhere). It is true that system can force people to have to work at Starbucks without wanting to, and perhaps can persuade people to drink coffee at Starbucks against their best (economic) interest, but in general it seems as if things persist not because of force but because there is some value being created by all this resources being shared in this way. This is why it interesting to begin to reread a capitalist business as in essence a system of managed sharing.

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