In today’s society, when most of us need something we think about how we can buy that thing. Not so long ago, we would plan a trip to the store to make that purchase. These days it is often easier—that is less time consuming and less expensive—to simply order that thing online.
Sharing vs. Buying
Many of us hardly think twice about a purchase. For instance, I own a ladder, which I store in my closet. I use that ladder maybe twice a year, when I need to change a lightbulb or clean the curtains, for example. But for 363 days of the year, the ladder sits idly in my closet.
At the time of writing this, I live in a building with dozens of other apartments. Presumably at least a few other people have ladders, which they also only use a few times a year. Wouldn’t it make more sense if we all just shared one or two ladders for the whole building? By sharing ladders, we could cut down on the material use that would accompany each apartment purchasing its own ladder. Many institutions already exist that promote sharing within communities, such as tool libraries and Buy Nothing online groups.
What is commodification?
Imagine an apartment building where we were not allowed to share ladders. One way I could change that light bulb would be to purchase a ladder. Or I could hire someone with a ladder to come by and change the bulb. The process of changing that lightbulb thus goes from being a neighborly, sharing exercise to being a commodity exchange. I need money to complete the process of changing a lightbulb. Commodification is the turning of a good, service, process, or other entity into an object that must be purchased with money.
Privatization is a concept related to commodification, and typically refers to transferring a good or service from government control to being provided by the private sector. Privatization typically occurs when decision-makers—whether politicians, civil servants, or voters themselves—decide that a typical good or service can be better provided by the private sector.
Privatization can be controversial because it can involve the commodification of a good or service that many deem essential–water provision is a classic example. When that commodification happens, users must earn money to access that water and they are subject to potentially large price changes. The Cochabamba, Bolivia water crisis was caused by a private firm significantly raising rates on water being sold in the city—with the corresponding legislation opening the possibility that households would have to pay for rainwater they collected themselves!
Of course, there are public goods and services–namely those that are less essential for life–where it makes sense for the user to pay for use. Paying for time-limited street parking is one example. Such payments can help to reduce congestion.
However, when the private sector takes over a public good or service they are thinking about how to maximize revenues from that good or service over time. Financial institutions have been known to take over the operation of parking meters. These institutions pay an up-front sum to a city to run the meters (thus alleviating a city’s budget shortfalls), with a contract guarantee that these institutions can run the meter for a set number of years under particular conditions.
What is the problem?
The conditions are the problem. When a private entity takes over a public asset–whether an essential good like water or a service like parking meters–they impose conditions that prevent competition from reducing use of that asset. In Cochabamba, that competition to privatized water was the rain itself. In the parking-meter example, the financial institution prevented the city from allowing street improvements that would reduce the number of cars using the meters: no bus lanes, no bike lanes, no expanded sidewalks to facilitate outdoor dining, etc.
In other words, the city could not let others share that space. If you relied on a bus, it would take you longer to access these areas. If you relied on a bicycle, you might face additional dangers without a bike lane.
What does this mean for basic services?
Basic services essential to human needs and leading a dignified life should not be subjected to commodification or privatization. Why should anyone have to suffer because they lack the money to pay for food, water, shelter, healthcare, and other needs?
Markets are only one method of producing and distributing goods and services. Numerous non-market exchange institutions have existed throughout human history. Human needs can be satisfied collectively and under democratically decided rules. Food can be grown locally and sustainably; food sharing is a universal human trait.
Makerspaces exist that allow communities to come together to create software, hardware, art, and many other things. Makerspaces are not profit-driven, and they allow the free exchange of ideas and information amongst makers and the community. If communities can provide basic services and convivial tools with significantly less reliance on markets, then what are the limits to what we can create together? Communities could have more control over what technologies they want to create, adapt, and adopt locally.
What other basic needs can we provide collectively and share universally? Must our ability to meet our basic human needs be dependent on markets?