The Transformation of “Sharing” and “On-Demand” Apps

With a plethora of on-demand services now being only an app, a swipe, and a click away, the dawn of a new smartphone fueled era seems to be arising. Some say the sharing economy represents a fundamental change in how society is organized and run. That, with a combination of information technology, automation, and high-density networking, the nature of work and jobs will radically transform for the better.

AirBnB and Uber are just the best known examples. But these are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the world of the “sharing” — or “on-demand” — economy. Alongside rooms (or whole apartments and houses), it is possible now to “share” everything under the sun, from cars and bikes to tools and textbooks.

Similarly, it is not just taxi rides that one can order at a moment’s notice; there are now apps for ordering cleaners (Handy), food supplies (Instacart), or restaurant meals to your door (Seamless) within minutes. Indeed, companies such as TaskRabbit match an army of “taskers” prepared to do any manual labour — be it assembling furniture, repairing computers, delivering parcels, or mowing the lawn — with those who require such services.

Whilst often lumped together, the “sharing” and “on-demand” economies have clear key differences. Both have risen to prominence within a similar time-frame, on the basis of a proliferation of smart phones, apps, and a young, tech-savvy, interconnected population. The former, however, is focussed on the so-called “sharing” of goods; the latter, on the provision of “on-demand” services.

The revolutionary potential offered by such technologies and models is clear. Rather than wastefully producing houses and cars that are only used for a fraction of their lifetime, we can efficiently share our resources in order to maximize their use. And with the possibility of requesting a whole range of services with nothing but a few taps on a screen, those with skills and time can be matched effectively with the needs of individual users.

But whilst the potential and possibilities offered by the “sharing” and “on-demand” economies are clear, a revolution they are not.

Sharing economy is fundamentally a fiat currency-based market economy, with money exchanged for goods and services — i.e. commodities. If this is truly “sharing”, then one might as well classify all sectors and industries within capitalism as being part of the sharing economy, as this so-called “sharing” — i.e. the exchange of money for commodities — is a fundamental trait of all markets.

So what is the “revolutionary” aspect of the “sharing” economy? In reality, there is no sharing taking place here at all. Sharing might imply some kind of altruistic reciprocity and/or communal ownership, or at least some quid pro quo exchanges of services or things. Indeed, such reciprocity of kindness was (and still is) present in the predecessors to companies with online communities such as AirBnB, or even CouchSurfer, for example, which allow travelers to find a bed for the night for free thanks to the kindness of others.

No, what we have is not sharing; there has been no abolition of private property or establishment of mass communal ownership. Rather, what we have is the mass conversion of owned products and consumed goods into rented services.

The great trick of the “sharing” economy has been to change the name of things without changing the thing itself. Renting and wage labor have simply been rebranded as “sharing”. Private ownership, and all the capitalistic laws that flow from this, have not been abolished or changed. The “sharing” economy is just typical commodity exchange given a new gloss and a fancy, trendy, modern spin for the Internet age.

The “sharing” economy, then, is characterized by the conversion of ownership into rents. In turn, the companies that run these peer-to-peer rentals — matching supply and demand — take a cut of the rent as their profit. In this respect, there is another important difference between the “sharing” economy and that of archetypal capitalism. Rather than the capitalists’ profits being a slice of the surplus value created in production, the companies at the center of the “sharing” economy derive their profits from taking a proportion of the rents, which in turn are a share of the surplus value generated in real production.

All new value in an economy is created through the application of labor. Surplus value, in turn, is simply the unpaid labor of the working class — the value created by the workers above and beyond their own wage costs, which the capitalist in effect gains for free.

This surplus value is then divided up into profits, interest, and rents. The owners of money (the banks and financiers) who charge interest and the owners of property (the landlords) who charge rents, therefore, are not creating new values, but are merely re-distributing value (and surplus value) that has already been created in the process of commodity production.

With the rise of the “sharing” economy, therefore, we see the rise of parasitic rent-seeking capitalism on a vast scale. The main “revolution” of the “sharing” economy has been to turn personal property into private property — that is, to turn the personal property of millions of ordinary people (homes, cars, etc.) into a source of profits for the capitalists. Put simply, it is the mass conversion of small-scale personal property into capital.

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