Indigenous Peoples, the True Pioneers of the Sharing Economy

In a short, fascinating piece at Guerrilla Translation!, Madrid-based journalist Bernardo Gutiérrez shows how the collaborative practices of pre-capitalist indigenous peoples are not so different from post-capitalist practices of crowdfunding, open source software and peer production. 

“The native peoples anticipated the much-touted sharing economy by a few centuries," writes Gutiérrez. "While the current global crisis pushes capitalism towards an irreversible mutation, our vision of a post-capitalist future is remarkably similar to the pre-capitalist origins of indigenous America.” 

He notes that the Spaniards had many words for the commons in 1492, and pre-Colombian Latin Americans had their own terms for collaborative practices:    

Tequio, a term of Zapotec culture describes community labor or material contributions to help finish a construction project for collective benefit. 

Minga, a Quechua term used in Ecuador and the north of Perú, describes collective work.  The word has a connotation of “the challenge of overcoming selfishness, narcissism, mistrust, prejudice and jealousy.” 

Mutirão, a term from the Tupi in Brazil, describes “collective mobilizations based on non-remunerated mutual help.”  The term was originally used to describe the “civil construction of community houses where everyone is a beneficiary” and the mutual help is offered through “a rotating, non-hierarchical system.” 

Maloka is a term used to describe an indigenous communal house in the indigenous Amazon region of Colombia and Brazil – in today’s terms, a co-working space and knowledge commons.

Needless to say, the correspondences between the indigenous meanings of these terms and their modern-day equivalents are crude. The words evoke entire cultures and complex relationships that simple translations cannot convey.  Still, to the modern mind, it’s a pleasant surprise to realize how consistently social and convivial we human beings are!  Notwithstanding libertarian myths about “self-made men” (sic) and our belief in the Thomas Hobbes vision of life as nasty, brutish and short, it seems quite clear that humans have deep commitments and abiding impulses to work together and share. 

And note:  precise calculations of who owes whom, and in what cash increments, are definitely not cool in these circumstances, whether pre- or post-capitalist.  A strict reckoning of entitlements amounts to a bucket of cold water thrown on a cozy set of warm, neighborly relationships. Calculations affront the very idea of collective need and the sociable give-and-take of time, labor and knowledge.

It’s great to be reminded that indigenous peoples were pioneers of sharing culture way before the tech world gave it a sheen of postmodern cool.  (And how embarrassing to admit that the modern “sharing economy” is in many instances not really a culture of sharing, but rather a capitalist market for micro-rentals.) It's nice to be reminded that, lurking behind all that talk of bottoms lines, we remain entirely open to Mutirão.