The True Sharing Economy: Inaugurating an Age of the Heart

Part 1 of a 3 Part Series: What does it mean to ‘share’?

Any act that tries to contribute towards ending the prevalent suffering caused by absolute poverty is, in itself, the purest expression of a sharing economy via the heart, via our maturity and via common sense, especially if that act is focused on trying to persuade our political representatives to commit to sharing the resources of the world.

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What is the sharing economy, and what is its meaning and significance for the world we live in today? If you try and investigate this question through the internet, there are many debates and misleading definitions that you will soon come across. The sharing economy is commonly understood as a rising phenomenon of the new millennium that leverages information technology through peer-to-peer platforms, empowering individuals to share goods and services through bartering, leasing or the swapping of private assets. There is also a revival of non-monetised initiatives under this broad umbrella which enable communities to share more in their daily lives, whether it’s through informal groups that come together with a common aim and purpose, or cooperative endeavours that provide shared access to skills, time, knowledge and productive spaces. Despite some controversies that have dogged the most popular initiatives in recent years, many of their leading advocates continue to have an idealistic vision of how the sharing economy can help to catalyse a social transition towards a more egalitarian, participatory and environmentally sustainable world.

But are these technology-driven innovations and primarily market-mediated forms of exchange really the sum total of what it means to ‘share’ in modern societies? And is it true that the sharing economy is still in its infancy today, as is so often stated by those who comment on this fast expanding trend? The fact is that sharing has always been with us as a distinctly human characteristic, and even applies to the sub-human kingdoms of nature as well as the higher spiritual realms that are much hypothesised in esoteric philosophy. We have always shared within our homes and families without the need for smartphones and high technology, which would include the sharing of food, heating and the other basic necessities of life, as well as the living space, conviviality and mutual support that is fundamental to our health and prosperity. We share the common lands with our neighbours and communities; we share the roads, the public transport, the air and nature that surrounds us. Humanity would never have survived since the arrival of the earliest hominin unless we practised sharing on an interpersonal and communal basis, which is an evolutionary trait that behavioural scientists and anthropologists have long recognised as intrinsic to our essential nature.

It is also a trait that is necessarily expressed, however incipiently or insufficiently, on both national and global levels through the intervention of governments in one form or another. The Roman Empire is renowned for institutionalising many forms of economic sharing, for example, while the contemporary welfare state has its roots in the German empire governed by Bismarck during the 1880s. The National Health Service created by the United Kingdom in the 1940s is perhaps a foremost example in modern history of a domestic sharing economy that exists to protect all citizens from the insecurities of life, as replicated across Western Europe and other industrialised nations in its various semblances. Of the many different levels and modes of sharing within nations, the ideal of universality in social service provision and social protection through redistributive policies is, arguably, the most practical expression of economic sharing that humanity has yet realised. Of course, not everyone would agree with this simple observation, considering that the founding principles of such publicly-funded systems—concerning equality of opportunity, the equitable distribution of wealth, and the collective responsibility for securing everyone’s basic human rights—are now being jeopardised by the increasing market orientation of our societies. Indeed for reasons that we shall broadly elucidate, the worldwide implementation of these principles through intergovernmental cooperation is far from a reality in the early 21st century, despite the rapid process of international integration over recent decades in terms of cross-border trade, migration, foreign investment and other dimensions of globalisation.

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the sharing economy has always been with us in one form or another; thus it is grave mistake to believe that the social practice of sharing is still in its infancy today. It should be obvious that sharing has forever played its part in our everyday lives, regardless of how long we have managed to avoid its crucial manifestation as a principle that underpins our global economic system. Only now it appears that we’ve suddenly become aware of the importance of sharing and cooperation as the keystone of economic life, even if that understanding has been largely limited to the emerging forms of collaboration and co-production in commercial spheres. To be sure, these activities based on mutualised access to products and services, are certainly in their infancy, although they are really the revival of ancient practices of social interrelationship that are now being facilitated by modern business methods and advanced computer technologies. The underlying mode of interaction is comparable to much earlier human civilisations, except that everything is now happening so much faster than before, and through such innovative and sophisticated techniques, that it gives rise to the illusion of being completely original. There is also a curious relationship between the advancing technologies of recent decades and the seemingly rapid passing of time, which has further given rise to the sense that society is evolving very quickly, and that we are even approaching a new era in which sharing could become the defining modus operandi in global economic and social affairs. That impression may well be proven true, but have we properly understood what sharing means for the world as a whole, however earnestly we may be responding to this visionary thoughtform that is everywhere pervading human consciousness?

Before we add the word ‘economy’ to the word ‘sharing’, we should first of all ponder the human value of sharing, per se, in the context of this unfortunate planet in which the forces of commercialisation are creating such havoc and devastation. If we are seriously interested in investigating what sharing means in relation to world problems, we must begin with an awareness that rampant commercialisation is the greatest danger facing humanity today, based as it is on the opposite propensities to sharing in both its theoretical and literal meaning.1 This may sound like another very basic observation, but how can you have a viable sharing economy in a world that is so unequal as a result of centuries of colonialism, imperialism and laissez-faire economic liberalism, leading to such discrepancies in living standards within and between different countries? Yet few of the sharing economy advocates appear to begin from this fundamental standpoint, which is to perceive the urgent necessity of sharing the world’s resources as an antidote to the enduring crime of widespread penury amidst plenty.

Perhaps you believe that the prevalence of poverty is steadily improving, and as such it is an issue that can be left to our governments to resolve. After all, most leading politicians and business executives continue to propagate such a message during high-profile conferences, like the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Even some aid and development organisations have fallen into the trap of believing the myth that rising prosperity for the few will eventually benefit the majority, notwithstanding the visible evidence of widening inequalities of wealth and income on an unprecedented scale—including the ongoing destabilisation of Europe due to an unstoppable influx of poor refugees and migrants. Heads of state may have vowed to end all forms of poverty by 2030, as recently enshrined in the United Nation’s Post-2015 Development Agenda, but it’s not difficult to perceive the fallacy of such promises while governments remain subject to the ‘commercialisation paradigm’, as we have discussed elsewhere.2 That is to say, a prevailing political context in which the excessive influence of major corporations over government policymaking decisions makes it almost impossible to conceive of states committing to the international arrangements necessary to respect, protect and fulfill every individual’s established socio-economic rights. The moment there is another global financial crisis, as widely anticipated, do we really believe that the dire hardships of the poorest citizens will be immediately prioritised by our existing government administrations? And do we believe that the noble elites who gather in Davos will make any less profits in their business dealings, even if the extreme poverty rate drastically surges?

One might presume that these are the kind of political and moral questions to begin asking oneself, if we are truly concerned about seeing the principle of sharing implemented as a global process that can meet the common needs of all people in all countries. But, unfortunately, the sharing economy as presently understood is not remotely born of the awareness that humanity must share its resources more equitably in response to multiple converging crises, and on the basis of a civilisation emergency. It seems the sharing economy today is predominantly related to commercial activity, to a vaguely collectivistic notion of accessing commoditised amenities, but not to the awareness that we must share the bounteous produce of this Earth if humanity is to survive. It is certainly not related to the idea of helping the world’s hungry and destitute, the two billion people or more who suffer from undernourishment and other severe poverty-related deprivations.

Even those who espouse the sharing economy’s environmental benefits are not rightly concerned with the meaning of sharing in relation to the critical world situation, as evidenced by such arguments that car sharing will mean there are less cars on the road, or that tool sharing libraries will mean less new products are purchased by individuals in affluent communities. Such a case may be empirically validated, but if that is the extent of our thinking on sharing, then we are still trapped within the conditioning or ‘ism’ of consumerism, and limiting our awareness to the idea of ‘consuming less’, which has nothing to do with the sharing economy as properly envisioned and universally expressed. We should be very careful to perceive how commercialisation hides in those new technologies, and how it makes us blind to the forces that condition us to buy and endlessly consume expensive merchandise, while we remain indifferent to the greater environmental and social problems of the world around us.

Possibly 90 percent of the supposed sharing economy is associated with commercial profit-making and self-interest to some degree, regardless of any positive social effects that may result from the usage of these new technological platforms. Are we really convinced that this is where the true meaning of sharing is to be found, in accordance with its deepest philosophical and spiritual implications? We have briefly cited the greatest danger to the world today which is an economy based on unbridled market forces and ruthless competition, as well as the second great danger which is our governments who fail to represent the common interests of all citizens, so in hoc are they to a pro-market ideology and the lobbying stranglehold of multinational corporations. We have also inferred that to perceive the greater vision of a sharing economy that is based on right human relationship, you must start by thinking of the poor and hungry in less developed countries, millions of whom are needlessly dying as each year passes. That is an unavoidable truth, although you will be hard pressed to find the word ‘hunger’ mentioned in any article or social event about the avant-garde sharing movement. Most of these activities are motivated by a concern for our own pleasure and personal well-being, which may appear to be important and socially beneficial. But in light of all the suffering and misery that is erupting throughout the world, is it not time to share resources with those less fortunate than ourselves before we attach such grandiose titles to our self-seeking pursuits?

What we have really created is a new method for comfortable living, although that method is so constrained by money-making incentives that it is better described as a gentler form of commercialisation. The human mind loves to create new methods and ‘isms’, like the priest who believes in a particular conception of God, and then goes to study in a seminary that God which his own thinking has created. Without being aware of our mental conditioning and social conformity, the sharing economy advocate is sadly the same in promoting a more convenient and enjoyable way of life within an unsustainable, grossly unjust and increasingly unequal society that has no meaningful connection to the inner spiritual reality of our interdependent lives. Thus instead of directing our sharing economy idea towards an emancipatory conception of justice and human rights, we continue to lower ourselves to the same level of consciousness as the corporate marketer who convinces us to ‘buy one and get one for free’. There may be nothing wrong with promoting the ideas of collaborative consumption or shared ownership for budding entrepreneurs, but let’s not pretend that we have reinvented the principle of sharing on behalf of the greatest good of the greatest number. In psychological terms it should be understood, at best, as a less stressed mode of living for the more privileged.

To look at the nature of sharing in its profoundest philosophical and spiritual aspects, it may be discerned that the above-mentioned forms of interpersonal sharing are associated with the personality or lower self, which is a meagre reflection of the higher level of soul awareness that is conscious of the inherent unity and interconnectedness of humanity as a whole. We are all capable of realising this higher awareness that lies dormant and ever-present within us, however much it is suppressed in these materialistic times, by solely focusing our energies on what makes us feel comfortable and emotionally undisturbed within the little boxes of our social lives. This means that if you try and talk to someone whose energies are preoccupied with the lower personal forms of sharing and collaboration, they will not be interested in listening to your case for sharing resources between the governments of all nations to irrevocably end poverty, conflict and environmental destruction. Despite that deeper awareness of what sharing means lying quiescently within them, they will refuse to look at it and automatically reject its transformative implications, because they feel more comfortable with the easy idea of sharing personal belongings within a local community. Yet the implementation of the principle of sharing in world affairs is unlikely to be a comfortable experience at first, for there is so much work to be done, and so many oppositional forces that must be confronted in business and political spheres. Without doubt, those accumulated forces will eventually disturb us in our self-absorbed lives and endeavours, and it will not be long until we are pushed to awaken to the necessity of social transformation as the world’s many crises prolong and climax in coming years.

The true sharing economy represents the end of the old ways defined by the pursuit of profit and competitive self-interest, while a new age of global sharing and cooperation can only begin through the channel of ending hunger in a world that has such an abundance of financial capital and available resources. For now, the true sharing economy begins with the poor, belongs to the poor, and remains beholden to the poor from any moral or real-world perspective. It will never begin from a petty notion of enhancing the convenience of our everyday lives, and so long as the idea of sharing is reduced to such a complacent and self-referential understanding, it will inevitably collapse and become redundant in the longer term. In the meantime, however, there may be lots of opportunities for making money under the commercialised banner of sharing, if that is our primary concern. How convenient indeed! There is nothing to stop us from capitalising on the new sharing technologies and so-called disruptive business models, but we should at least try to be aware of and honest about our underlying motives and psychological attitudes. Are we really thinking about others and the state of the world as we carry on with our consumer-driven sharing behaviours, or is it all about ourselves once again? Please look very closely at the sharing economy initiatives that have so far arisen throughout the Western world, and ask yourself if they have anything to do with the inner faculties of spiritual awareness that exemplify love, right relationship and the highest intelligence of man.

Most of the sharing advocates of today are pursuing the easiest and least stressful mode of human relations in affluent society, compared to the millions of marginalised people who are fighting for justice in poorer countries by giving of their blood, their freedom, their families and often of their lives. That is the hard-core way of sharing, the real and toilsome path that is witnessed through the struggles of dispossessed indigenous peoples in India, the Palestinians in Gaza, the landless labourers in South America, the shack-dwellers and smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, the exploited garment workers in special economic zones across Asia, and so many others—all of whom are implicitly demanding from their governments a sharing economy that can fulfill their most basic human rights. Many popular uprisings are also indirectly calling for a sharing economy to be instituted through more inclusive and redistributive government policies, which would include the Arab Spring wave of demonstrations that aimed at deposing corrupt political regimes, as well as the anti-austerity demonstrations and Occupy movements that have mobilised in the name of increased social and economic equality.

We can perceive for ourselves how all these diverse protest activities are the manifestation of a growing call for sharing, even if that call is unconsciously expressed through a raw response to the injustice that stems from the imposition of an unfair economic system. To stand up for justice in a world that is characterised by growing inequalities and economic precariousness for the majority is inevitably a stressful undertaking; hence it is understandable that the word ‘sharing’ is not on the lips of those activists who oppose the major corporations with their exploitative and profit-seeking activities, along with the governments who uphold the interests of those powerful bastions of privilege and wealth. Observe also the frontline servers of humanity within groups like the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, who together demonstrate the truest expression of the terms ‘sharing’ and ‘economy’ by working ceaselessly on behalf of neglected citizens in war-torn and impoverished regions, irrespective of caste, creed or race.

There are many architects of the inchoate and unsung sharing economy, in this respect, who inadvertently define the true meaning of sharing in their advocacy work and plans for world reconstruction. The list is long and familiar, comprising as it does the myriad progressive scholars, civil society organisations and political campaigning networks who seek a more just and ecologically sustainable form of development, central to which is the policy and institutional changes needed to bring about a fairer distribution of world resources. These fervent thinkers and coalitions of activists may not overtly recognise the interrelation of their fight for justice with a call for implementing the principle of sharing worldwide, but the connection is palpable and real for anyone who perceives the problem of our dysfunctional societies on the basis of a compassionate awareness of the whole.

So how closely do we believe that the commercialised sharing initiatives of today are aligned with these great social struggles and citizens’ movements that point the way towards a true sharing economy, one that is realised through a transformation in government priorities on behalf of the subjugated poor? None of the sharing economy practitioners in community-level movements appear to be interested in dedicating their efforts towards urging our political leaders to share the nation’s surplus wealth and resources, if only to prevent the deaths of circa 18 million people who die prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, often from malnutrition and childhood diseases that are barely witnessed in more affluent countries. If that is our heartfelt and motivating concern, and not the comfort or convenience of our privileged lives within our local communities, then perhaps we can rightfully identify ourselves as a founding sharer and an ambassador to humanity. But if our idea of sharing remains limited to the confines of our own neighbourhood or social peer group, then we clearly have no idea what sharing can achieve as the royal road towards environmental sustainability, peace and justice.

There are innumerable communities around the world that have attempted to share among themselves and achieve a more harmonious and sustainable way of life; however, it is time to ask ourselves what such communities can achieve when the world’s ecological crises are rapidly reaching the point of no return. Manifold spiritual communities and eco-villages have long emerged and then disbanded in the fullness of time, although the intensifying trends of commercialisation over recent decades may eventually end all possibilities of achieving a self-sustaining community idyll, so long as these trends are left unchecked in a world that is becoming irremediably divided and environmentally degraded. This is not to decry the various grassroots initiatives that aim to reduce individual carbon footprints within modern societies by conserving the Earth’s natural resources, many of which provide invaluable models for how to shift towards sustainable modes of food production, housing, transport, energy generation and so on. The ethics of sharing and sufficiency on a small and local scale may soon become the watchwords of our time, as long recognised by sustainability practitioners in various fields, although even these pioneers of community resilience often fail to mention the words ‘poverty’ or ‘hunger’ in their literature and ideas.

Does this mean they are empowered with an awareness of the whole, and immersed in the human reality of the critical world situation? To believe we can find peace by retreating to a remote community is still a fantasy, no matter how frugal or self-sustaining our lifestyles, especially when considering that the civilisational crisis we face is spiritual in its origins and the outcome of millennia of destructive human behaviours, leading to the repetition of gross injustices and divisions that we have all played a part in throughout our many past incarnations. The very idea of leading a peaceful, secluded and sustainable way of life amidst all the suffering and turmoil of these troubled times is actually to divide oneself from our inner spiritual unity, unless we also contribute our energies towards creating a more equal world in which everyone has their basic needs permanently secured. That spiritual understanding, that inner realisation, and that motivating ideal is the only real peace we can experience within ourselves at this perilous juncture in history, as realised through the knowledge that we are not alone in the struggle for a world that ‘shares’ in any meaningful sense of that term.               

What, then, of the modern evangelists for sharing whose intentions remain knowingly or unwittingly overshadowed by commercialisation, those who have already undignified the principle of sharing with their mental blindness and concern for moneymaking? To be interested in the sharing economy without any concern for the dire suffering of others means that your ideas are merely created by habitual thoughts, without connecting to the inner awareness of the heart. Hence you will only succeed in reducing a profoundly human and spiritual conception into another ‘ism’ that has no relationship whatsoever with the real nature of justice, balance or the oneness of humanity. Out of your desire to create and enjoy a new method for comfortable living, you will inadvertently abduct the principle of sharing for your own self-interested pursuits, until shareism becomes the norm. Is that not already the case, and should not the proponents of sharing in its many commercialised forms thus be ashamed of themselves? With the obvious knowledge that extreme poverty is still rampant on this Earth, how is it possible that the idea of sharing is not directed towards saving our brothers and sisters who are incessantly dying from preventable diseases or starvation, if not as a result of war or climate change? What makes man so blind, so poor within and indifferent to the One Life that surrounds him? Why does he limit his awareness to his community, to his new innovations and his fragmented way of life by continuously being attached to his indifference—an indifference that dismisses the wisdom and the many silent cries of his heart? What makes man so small, so trapped and confused within the mechanism of his vain ideations, when he is so free, so great within the very presence of his own soul—a soul with a divine purpose that says LOVE ALL and SACRIFICE FOR ALL THAT LIVES…?

To pursue the idea and praxis of sharing within the paradigm of commercialisation is futile in the end, for the two concepts are antithetical in both their inner and outer expression. As we have previously observed, one is divisive in its complexity, while the other is unifying in its simplicity.3 One is manipulative, amoral and harmful towards both man and the lower kingdoms of nature, while the other is predicated on fairness, harmlessness, awareness, respect and the will-to-good—even love and the profoundest understanding of compassion which our present-day culture has again degraded into its lowermost and often sentimental meaning. Surely the thoughtform of a sharing economy will evolve into a more moral and inclusive idea over time, but as long as it is not grounded in the political meaning of justice for the world’s poor, then it is certain that the transformative vision of sharing resources among governments will remain in its infancy for many, many years to come.

There are an increasing number of intellectuals who are now beginning to engage with the authentic meaning of sharing as a new economic and political paradigm, but even these inspired analyses and proposals generally omit the fact that millions of innocent lives could be saved each year from avoidable poverty-related causes, if only the plentiful resources of this world were rightfully shared. While it is an encouraging sign that many able thinkers are examining the concepts of sharing, solidarity and the commons through an academic lens, let us also ask ourselves what our scholarly definitions will achieve for the very poorest citizens who are desperately asking their governments to share a measly portion of the nation’s wealth, just so they and their family can eat a square meal each day. That modest plea from an impoverished person is actually the embodiment of the sharing economy in all its purity and essence, so how does the well-fed theoretician of economic sharing somehow ignore this simple truth? The call for sharing in its manifold forms is invariably an expression of common sense, although it is possible to respond to common sense in an overly cerebral manner that can exclude the less educated citizens and eventually confuse us, misguide us and entangle us in endless hypothetical debates about the right path forwards. For this reason, any investigation into the meaning of a sharing economy must begin with an a priori understanding that chronic undernourishment must be effaced from this Earth as a leading societal and political priority, from which position our many plans and proposals for implementing the principle of sharing into world affairs cannot go too far astray.

Consider an analogy with the physicians who work for Médecins Sans Frontières and would like to see an end to the insanity of war, but first they must deal with the reality that thousands of people in conflict zones are being neglected by their governments, and are thus in need of life-saving medical attention that is sorely lacking in this sorrowful world. In a parallel sense, the intellectual idea of sharing within modern societies is important to debate and hypothesise, but first we must redirect our attention to the millions of people in poorer countries who continue to suffer from severe deprivations without any form of government welfare or public support. Try to contemplate the inner relationship you may have between your own daily concerns in a relatively privileged and comfortable household, and the reality of life for a person who is at this moment dying from a preventable disease or malnutrition. Your heartfelt awareness about the lives of those who are less fortunate than yourself, and your private intention to do something to help end this spiritual blasphemy in our midst—that awareness is, in itself, an awareness of the need for a sharing economy to be instituted across the world. Any act that tries to contribute towards ending the prevalent suffering caused by absolute poverty is, in itself, the purest expression of a sharing economy via the heart, via our maturity and via common sense, especially if that act is focused on trying to persuade our political representatives to commit to sharing the resources of the world.

Have you ever held someone in your arms who is dying from malnutrition in a poor region such as sub-Saharan Africa, knowing that back home your family and friends are able to access adequate food, healthcare, shelter and sanitation as a basic human right? From that profound and tragic experience, it is assured that your understanding of the sharing economy will assume a different resonance and meaning within your heart and mind, and it is unlikely to be directed solely towards oneself and one’s more advantaged social peer group. Consider also the person who loses a dearly beloved family member from an incurable disease or tragedy, who then transforms their life purpose by dedicating their time and energies to preventing others from befalling a similar fate, such as by creating a charitable organisation or campaigning for social change. Clearly as the result of a sad event in that person’s life, their inner awareness and empathy has been markedly expanded and redirected, while their erstwhile complacency on that issue has completely vanished. Such is the hope for the sharing economy idea, and on a scale that is inconceivable, if the millions of people who enjoy an adequate standard of living can together expand their empathic awareness to include the needless deprivations experienced by the poorer two-thirds majority of the world population.

We are not trying to contemplate the deeper philosophical meaning of compassion in these sparse analogies, but simply trying to observe, in straightforward human terms, the need for greater awareness in our societies through the common sense that arises from an engaged heart. It not only concerns the need to end the appalling reality of hunger and life-threatening poverty; it is also about love in the most general and pragmatic sense, as expressed in a civilised and moral attitude to life that cares about the needless suffering of others. The author has discussed before the meaning of love from a basically spiritual and psychological perspective, which is a motivating energy that can bring about the total reorientation of a person’s life pursuits once an awareness of the heart determines one’s inner attitudes and behaviours.4 We can observe the psychological and spiritual transformation of an individual via the awakening of the heart in almost every department of human activity, and the misguided advocates of a commercialised or personalised form of economic sharing are certainly no exception to this rule. All we can hope is that the self-proclaimed sharers of today will become aware of how they are degrading the higher meanings of this misapplied principle, and thence change their ways by joining with the millions of others who are valiantly fighting for a just world that permits no-one to suffer or die from a lack of access to life’s essentials.

Next:  Part 2

  1. For more on this theme, see: Mohammed Mesbahi, Commercialisation: the antithesis of sharing, Share The World’s Resources, 2014. []
  2. cf. Mohammed Mesbahi, Heralding Article 25: A People’s Strategy for World Transformation, Matador books, 2016, see Part 1: The failure of governments. []
  3. cf. Mohammed Mesbahi, Commercialisation: the antithesis of sharing, op cit; A dialogue on protest, sharing and justice, 2011. []
  4. For example, see: Adam Parsons, The intersection of politics and spirituality in addressing the climate crisis: An interview with Mohammed Mesbahi, Share The World’s Resources, June 2016, see Part II: The inner and outer CO2. []
Mohammed Mesbahi is the Founder of Share The World's Resources (STWR). Read other articles by Mohammed, or visit Mohammed's website.