European Journal of Social Theory 21 (2):227-244 (2018)

The digital economy has provided opportunities for new forms of economic practice. At their purest, these forms deliver economic benefits as gifts and depend on cooperation without authority. Drawing loosely on Habermas, we may call this a lifeworld economy – an economy that is coordinated by communicative interaction – as opposed to the systems economy of market and state, coordinated by money and power. This formulation, however, faces both theoretical and practical challenges. On the theoretical side, the notion of a lifeworld economy does not sit easily with Habermas’s own formulation of the distinction between lifeworld and systems. On the practical side, the digital lifeworld economy has been steadily colonized by capitalist businesses, which have frequently found ways to incorporate forms of gift and cooperation into profit-oriented business models. This article proposes to reformulate Habermas’s distinction as a reference to different kinds of causal mechanisms, detaching it from his functionalist framework and enabling a more flexible application to empirical cases. It then applies it to a series of iconic cases from the digital economy: Amazon, Wikipedia, and open source software, to demonstrate its continuing relevance to very current issues.
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DOI 10.1177/1368431017709703
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