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Owning Is the New Sharing

What if we owned the Internet? Would we get paid for our likes and comments? What privacy policies would we write for ourselves?

Last month, the Silicon Valley-based network Shareable dispatched me to write a report on the growing movement to experiment with new forms of economic democracy online. The folks at Shareable recognized that, more and more, the so-called “sharing economy” is being recognized as extractive and invasive. In search of alternatives, I looked at cooperatives, networks of freelancers, cryptocurrencies, and more. A popular mantra among sharing-economy boosters has been “sharing is the new owning.” What I found is the opposite: Read my report at Shareable.net.

As soon as the article appeared last week, I started hearing from entrepreneurs and activists around the world who were excited about it. Trebor Scholz, who recently hosted an extraordinary conference on digital labor at the New School, told me that he had been polishing an article on the same topic. It’s up now at Medium, and is a helpful companion to mine: “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy.”

So old that it looks like new?

I said that this stuff is new, but I was kind of lying. Lately I’ve been trying to keep my eye out for things that are old and new at the same time—or, as Catholic Worker founder Peter Maurin put it, “so old that it looks like new.” That’s why I also wrote about cooperative ownership in my latest column for America magazine, with a focus on the long legacy of Catholic cooperativism, from monastic communities to Mondragon, the largest network of cooperatives in the world.

In the column, I said that this tradition is mostly dormant in the United States and should be awakened—but readers wrote back to tell me that, happily, I was wrong. Though they’re not terribly visible, faith-driven cooperatives are making a comeback. Pope Francis once recalled something he heard his father say about cooperativism: “It goes forward slowly, but it is sure.”

This deeper kind of sharing is present in many traditions—especially those suffering gross injustice. As we wrestle to come to terms with the disparities of economic and police power that plague our communities, now is a good time to be reading Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s recent book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. But business will only get us so far; now is also a good time to be in the streets.