Sacrificial victims

New York Times columnist and globalization evangelist Thomas L. Friedman, he of the flat world, now welcomes us to the sharing economy. The word choice of his July 21 piece is ironic. Once you scratch the surface, “sharing” is not really what you find.

Friedman reports that designer Brian Chesky arrived jobless in San Francisco, needing a creative way to make rent and do it quickly. Realizing a big conference was in town, he and housemate Joe Gebbia turned their living space into an $80/night bed-and-breakfast. The beds were air mattresses. That’s all they had. As part of the package, they offered themselves as local guides.

It morphed into a lucrative international business they called Airbnb, “in homage to its roots.” It is “a global network through which anyone anywhere [can] rent a spare room in their home to earn cash.” Airbnb provides insurance, logistics and security measures and receives a cut. On July 12, Chesky told Friedman that 140,000 people were using Airbnb-arranged accommodations that very night.

Friedman gushes that Airbnb “created a framework of trust that has made tens of thousands of people comfortable renting rooms in their homes to strangers.” Chesky suggests that Airbnb is really about a “whole generation of people” who “want things that are unique and personal.” And Friedman adds that Airbnb must surely be better for the environment than a phalanx of new Holiday Inns.

So why not embrace the new “sharing economy” Airbnb represents? Here, no one has an excuse for failing to be a successful marketer of self. Here, everyone can be one part hotelier and one part subcontractor, at per diem rates.

Friedman includes some stick with his carrot. He says this is actually the new world order, what you have to do, unless you are a superstar. He’s fine with it:

In a world where, as I’ve argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids’ rooms, their cars or their power tools.

I have my own views about a “sharing economy.” Those views have more to do with intentional community, downshifting, and re-learning how to be a neighbor than with scrambling for new ways to monetize your kids’ bedrooms. I don’t see enlightened, innovative people “sharing” anything here. They are simply “selling,” with nothing new except possibly the degree of desperation.

Friedman is (in)famous for his economic vision: protean and borderless; information-based, personal brand-based, and cutthroat; embodied by suave, sophisticated outliers; clueless about the reality of the struggling majorities. His economy has failed. It never really existed. Ask the residents of the crumbling South Side of Chicago, through which I ride daily on the commuter train.

Yet Friedman defends his ghost at all costs. What works for somebody must somehow work for everybody, even in extremis. (“Wait! You have a drill! You can brand that drill! You can rent it! The hardware world is flat!”) Like many of us, he just can’t believe our version of prosperity is fatally flawed. We will let everything else die first.

“We watch impassively as the wealthy and the elite, the huge corporations, rob us, ruin the environment, defraud consumers and taxpayers and create an exclusive American oligarchy that fuses wealth and political power,” Chris Hedges writes in Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America. “We watch passively because we believe we can enter the club. It is greed that inspires us. It is greed that keeps us silent. Our greed is devouring us.”

Jesuit theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino, with whom I studied this summer, argues that God is principally present among the “crucified people,” the “real reality” that constitutes most of humanity. God is the ultimate one who accompanies them, the one who shares their victimization on the cross, the one who never requires more victims, but who is a God of life. Meanwhile, the decisive real-world test of an anti-god, or idol, is not simply that it “absolutizes the non-absolute.” Idols are distinguished by needing something to devour. “Idols,” Sobrino says, “demand sacrificial victims in order to survive.”

These idols include economic systems, immune from criticism, that spin endless delusional narratives to hide their cruelties and save themselves. The sacrificial victims include those who grasp that these systems have disposed of them, who frantically rent out their last remaining scraps, who hope they can mysteriously edge ahead of everybody else who made the same decision.

And the extent to which we accept this sacrifice, the extent to which we deny what Sobrino calls the “real reality,” is finally the extent to which we spit in the face of God.

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About Justin Sengstock
Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books "Hungering and Thirsting for Justice" and "An Irrepressible Hope," both published by ACTA in 2012. His writing has appeared online at Young Adult Catholics, Catholic Majority, Chicago Catholic News, and the original blog of the Chicago Underground Library (now Read/Write Library). Justin earned a B.A. in theology from Loyola University Chicago.

2 Responses to Sacrificial victims

  1. Wow — my first thought was the same as yours: charging money so someone can sleep on your air mattress isn’t exactly the same as “sharing.” (As a consumer, I also find myself wondering why I wouldn’t rather spend that $80 at a motel, where I’ll get a real mattress and privacy — but that’s the introvert in me talking). There’s another movement of “couchsurfing” which seems to involve *true* sharing, wherein families agree to host travelers in town for free, or for the “gift” of meeting new folks and offering them assistance. This seems to me a movement with a much more “Christian” spirit to it, although it is rooted in frugality rather than spirituality. But then, I’ve often found the two to be strangely intertwined in my own life.

    • Yeah…once you graft “economy” in its modern English sense (in the original Greek, it means “household management”) onto “sharing,” you’ve instantly cancelled out the “sharing.” There’s some logocide, or word-killing, at work here. Deliberate, principled sharers (couchsurfers or otherwise) simply cannot see themselves in Friedman’s article.

      I think what I found so particularly galling was the extent to which some folks will gladly go (e.g. changing the meanings of words, and goading us to the very limits of selling ourselves out) in order to uphold an economic structure that simply does not keep its promises, period. If the next big thing really is the nightly rate of my futon here in my bedroom where I’m typing this, then our culture of “branding” and “value added” is obviously approaching a big fat reductio ad absurdum endgame. But then, if the economic structure you are defending is effectively a god–an ultimate reality you dare not challenge–then I suppose you have no choice but to put nonsense out there and hope it gains traction. Which is why I seized on the idolatry angle and ran with it.

      Also: introverts represent! [Fist bump.]

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