Introduction

For my work, I have to listen to a lot of business and financial news. It's not been too good recently, with a lot of so-called "analysts" with a vested interest on either side of the mortgage and credit crisis that's currently engulfing the world giving you their opinion, which always coincides with their material interests. These people, at least, are thinking and acting like Marx said they would. Then today, I came across something genuinely interesting: the concept of 'fractional living'. Marx might have had something rather accurate to say about this, too.

"Fractional living" is supposedly a new culture, or a development in our culture, in which consumer goods go through many different owners throughout their lifetime as a usable good. So you only own the product for a "fraction" of its time in existence, then you pass it on. The mechanism by which you pass it on is nowadays eBay and similar sites, which are creating something closer to a "perfect market" in all types of goods.

The boring economics bit

When economists talk about markets, sometimes they talk about perfection. A perfect market is one in which there are absolutely no costs associated with buying or selling in that market beyond what it takes to produce or buy a particular product. And in a perfect market, everyone has perfect information - they know all the different options they have and are able to pick the best. It's a neoliberal wet dream. And, with the internet, we're moving further in that direction; although of course we'll never achieve "perfection" in this realm any more than we do anywhere else. But it means that all those items sat around the house which you don't want - which in the past would just have sat there, or maybe found their way to a car boot sale - can be put onto the market.

As an economy gets more developed and steadily more and more goods are pumped into it, gradually the motor of growth becomes a quick turnover of consumer goods. If we all just bought five shirts and wore them until they were no longer usable, the shirt industry would be in trouble. I've got more shirts than I need, and I never wear a lot of them; I bought new ones because I was bored of the old ones. What can I say, I've got style. But the point is that goods are produced and consumed at a much faster rate than is strictly necessary; everything is produced to be superceded and tossed aside at the drop of a hat. The rise of the auction sites and the easy interchange of products through them is a further development in this direction.

The cool bit where Noung puts the world to rights

Now, the ideal of 'fractional living' would be for products to constantly be whizzing this way and that between users when they wanted them; its end-point is in fact a society of renters, not buyers. This is an easily forseeable development for many products, as is the fact that people will apply the same logic they apply to buying a car to much less expensive things. You could buy a $100 shirt because you know you can easily make money back by selling it on eBay after a year, so in fact it only cost you $50 to have it for that year. The easier it gets to trade goods, the more people do it.

This is something like what people mean when they say consumerism, and when they criticize the same. Consumerism - the constant turnover of consumer goods on which our economy depends - means that our world isn't stable. Everything is constantly changing and in flux; many people no longer have property, or even any ties to property other than an agreement to rent; and "all that is solid melts into air" because everything is constantly destroyed and then replaced. It's inherent in the ideas that animate our society: the relentless conquest of nature to produce things for man to use, founded not on any end-point but the process of consumption itself. And the extension of credit to anyone and everybody so that this process of consumption can continue is one of the reasons that we're currently having a financial crisis.

"Fractional living" is interesting because the concept - touted as a good thing - is a step closer to the "perfect market" which might be perfect for the market, but isn't necessarily for us. Consumerism's steady advance has been responsible in part of the breakdown of stability and community in the world - and, I might argue, disengagement from the political process.

Men and women used to be rooted to the world through the things they owned, which gave them a stake in protecting them - now all we're attached to is a process that keeps constantly remaking our world, and so we're in a very crucial sense alienated from the world. It exists to be destroyed - and this goes for nature as well, who may yet have her revenge. That's why it's proletarians who are fully revolutionary and not peasants - peasants might have bad lives, but they have a place in the world defined by family, community, land. A man, alone, in a city, renting a house, working for a wage hand to mouth - he is not grounded in the world. "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" He can destroy and remake the world, because he has no stake in it. Our condition is more like his than the peasant's - a point which is fine while the consumption process continues, but will swiftly become not fine if it stops.

This idea of "fractional living" is another advancement in the direction of us owning things and caring about things for less and less time. It is another step towards constantly remaking the world in the way that we want it at any precise moment, and not allowing for what might be good to survive because it's the process itself that we need above all else -- but maybe we should be careful what we wish for. This process long ago obliterated what used to be called the culture of peoples and tied them together in a common way of life; now the use of the term "the fractional living culture" shows that to have no culture has become our culture. What is left? We individuals, constantly obliterating the world, just to put it back together again in a different way -- a mania for motion unknown in recorded history. Can it go on forever? And if it can't, what next?

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