At the end of the first episode of Remember the Show this week, I touched on my issues with Airbnb, Uber and what’s known as the “sharing/gig economy” in general. Speaking off the cuff, I said my problem with Airbnb is two-fold: one, that the well-to-do are buying up properties for the sole purpose of Airing them out to customers, piling onto the already serious housing crises in cities like Los Angeles where, as the Los Angeles Times reported in February, “The number of those living in the streets and shelters of the city of L.A. and most of the county surged 75% — to roughly 55,000 from about 32,000 — in the last six years”; and two, those who do actually live in the homes they’re Airing out don’t really want to, but are forced to due to personal finances and the stagnation of wages over the past 30 years.
Yet that isn’t even the half of it. As Adam Booth wrote for In Defence of Marxism a few years ago:
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 labour – which have existed since the dawn of capitalism – 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. …
With the rise of the ‘sharing’ economy, therefore, we are seeing 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.
Whilst AirBnB and other such companies may help improve in allocating specific resources more efficiently, they are not re-investing their profits into solving the problem of scarcity where it exists. In other words, they are doing nothing to develop the productive forces.
The case of AirBnB is a perfect example. This major player of the ‘sharing’ economy is ultimately benefitting from the fact that there is a lack of housing and affordable accommodation in society. But rather than re-investing its profits into solving the shortage of housing, as would occur within a socialist plan of production, AirBnB simply spends its profits on advertising and marketing in order to expand its share of the market. This is the basis for its entire business model.
As I mentioned in the podcast, I prefer using Airbnb to booking a room at some hotel chain; I also have an abiding love for my iPhone, Mac and iPad. But as with my Apple products, when I use Airbnb I feel a deep sense of guilt, because I know the effects that companies like Apple and Airbnb — the poster children of capitalism in the new millennium — are having on the world economically, socially, and politically, both worldwide and at the local levels. I am as complicit in the barbarity of capitalism as the GOP is in the savagery of Trump’s presidency.
And another thing about capitalism:
Companies leading the way in the ‘sharing’ economy (or, indeed, the capitalist economy in general) do not operate to address social needs, but only to make profits. The allocation of resources between different sectors and across the economy as a whole, meanwhile, is still left to the anarchy of the market, which is in fact highly inefficient – hence the fact that such absurd contradictions exist across the capitalist system: mass unemployment alongside overwork; homelessness alongside empty homes; austerity alongside excess capacity and piles of idle money in the hands of big business. Far from being an efficient system, therefore, there is a great waste of resources under capitalism, due to its own internal contradictions.
I’ve read Marx — I’m still reading him — so I know all of this. And still, when we take our trip to L.A. at the end of the month, we’ll be booking an Airbnb. As I said in the podcast, it’s about the experience. Why stay in a boring, regular-shmegular hotel room when I can stay in someone’s home (or supposed home) and get a better feel for the place I’m visiting? Plus, whether I’m using Airbnb or booking a room at the Hilton, I’m still boosting capitalism. Capitalism’s everywhere and in everything these days, and so it’s harder than ever to be a good socialist.
Yet, there’s still a way out, as there has always been:
As a first step, the demand should be for the big profiteering companies of the ‘sharing’ / on-demand economy to be nationalised and turned into public services. …
A publically run AirBnB, alongside the nationalisation of the major hotel firms and a mass programme of council housing … could be used to provide a home for everyone and cheap holiday accommodation for all. Combined with a programme of nationalising the banks and financial houses, investment could be poured into public transport, housing, and many other sectors. Scarcity of society’s needs and the scourge of precarious employment could be eliminated at a stroke.
Share this post if that’s a future you can get down with.
Featured image: tommypjr/Flickr