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The Case Against Sharing: On access, scarcity, and trust

“The sharing economy doesn’t build trust — it trades on cultural homogeneity and established social networks both online and in real life. Where it builds new connections, it often replicates old patterns of privileged access for some, and denial for others.”

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Expanding the Commons: Tool Libraries

“Whether to deplete, maintain, or grow the commons is a major focus of ethical decision making….it creates and reproduces the ‘common substance’ of the community while at the same time making a space for raising and answering the perennial question of who belongs and is therefore entitled to rights of decision” (Gibson-Graham 97). 

As referenced above, “the commons” is a term used to describe spaces and resources that are shared by all. One of the ways that we can re-imagine our economy is to re-claim private spaces as the commons. Since their arrival in the US in the mid 1970’s, tool libraries have become common in metropolitan areas, Portland being home to 4 tool libraries open to the public (and one “kitchen tools” library). Not only do these spaces re-claim private and unused spaces as the commons, but they are also based on a politics of possibility, rather than a capitalocentric mindset. 

Residents living in participating communities can rent anything from a hammer to an electric lawn mower for free, providing access to tools that might otherwise cost extremely large amounts of money. At most libraries you simply need proof of residence and identification to rent out tools for a week or two at a time. The Lents neighborhood of outer-southeast Portland is the largest neighborhood in town (both spatially and in terms of their population), yet they don’t have a hardware store. When I spoke to an organizer of the library about why they decided to start it she said: “We’re like, screw it, the market isn’t filling our needs so we’re just gonna take care of it ourselves.” So the community has responded the failure of the market by creating their own re-imagined tool shop. One that builds community, expands the commons, and provides access to all.

Community members who have started these tool libraries are intentionally recreating a market and turning it into a space of sharing rather than profit-making. Tool libraries are volunteer run, usually in an otherwise unused space like the basement of a building, a toolshed attached to a church, or even an unused warehouse owned by the city. 

For more info on the tool libraries check out their websites here:

Northeast Portland Tool Library

Green Lents Tool Library

North Portland Tool Library

Southeast Portland Tool Library

PS- If you’ve got any ideas for projects, spaces, etc that are examples of a postcapitalist politics, let me know in the comments so I can check them out! 

Starting Small: Suspended Coffee

For my first example, I’ll be talking about Ole Latte, a coffee cart in downtown Portland on SW 11th and Alder. Again, I’m working with the idea that if we point out the small moments, projects, spaces, etc. where there is a break in our “capitalocentric mindset,” that we may start recognize and create a politics of possibility. 

Ole Latte is participating in a movement called “suspended coffee,” that has been spreading through Europe in the past few years. When a patron buys a cup of coffee they can also buy a suspension: a drink or pastry that’s collected by someone else who comes along later. Those who normally couldn’t afford a cup of coffee or someone who has forgotten their wallet, for example. Suspensions are written on a chalk board, easily seen by passersby who don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed about asking for something free as it’s being advertised. Its accessibility doesn’t belittle or demean those who take advantage of it. Ole Latte also gives a 10% discount to all of its customers who participate in the coffee suspension program, thus they encourage the use of the practice. 

This type of practice represents a “zone of cohabitation and contestation among multiple economic forms” (Gibson-Graham). This coffee cart is obviously taking part in capitalism- it’s trying to make money. But it also embraces other economic principles that don’t lie within the capitalist framework— sharing, giving, and receiving without payment. These types of ideals benefit the community in that they reinforce the idea that everyone deserves to have access to a cup of coffee (something that is considered a luxury for some). It’s also a community-oriented program in an area of town that might not even identify as a community, since it is a financial district where people come to work but don’t necessarily live. 

The type of sharing being represented by coffee suspensions is also very different from the typical act of giving money to a charity or organization. There’s no middle man. You aren’t paying the salaries of people working at an organization. Anyone can participate in either end of the program without “qualifying” for the services or being classified or labeled. 

Such a small initiative might not seem to make much of a difference, but it has the potential to create community, provide easy access to a luxury item, and create a small shift in the way we think about doing business. 

What is “Postcapitalism”?

So I realize there are quite a few different uses and meanings of this term, but I’ll be focusing on one that was developed by Gisbon-Graham in their book A Postcapitalist Politics

For the purposes of this blog, postcapitalism will refer to a space, place, moment, project, etc. that does not lie “within” the capitalist mindset. It doesn’t rely on free-market money making principles but instead reminds us that we have other values– we’re a community oriented, environmentally minded, sharing, creative, and caring society.

It’s time to change the current discourse from one that is “capitalocentric,” one where “other forms of economy (not to mention noneconomic aspects of social life) are often understood primarily with reference to capitalism: as being fundamentally the same as (or modeled upon) capitalism, or as being deficient or substandard imitations; as being opposite to capitalism; as being the complement of capitalism; as existing in capitalism’s space or orbit” (Gibson-Graham, 6)

Gibson-Graham argue that the more we acknowledge these postcapitalist moments, the more we’ll be reminded of the fact that we don’t live in a ‘capitalocentric’ world- there’s more out there. These moments may not be completely non-capitalist. They might exist within a market, rely on a market, or even be a market. But the “practice of seeing and speaking differently encourages us to make visible the hidden and alternative economic activities that everywhere abound, and to connect them through a language of economic difference. If we can begin to see non-capitalist activities as prevalent and viable, we may be encouraged here and now to actively build on them to transform our local economies” (Gibson Graham, xxiv).

Want examples? Stay tuned, that’s what this blog is all about.