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The Sharing Economy : Disruption’s Tragic Flaw

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For one thing, he stressed that capitalism must be understood as an “evolutionary” process. It is not always the same thing. He also stressed that only certain changes in capitalism rise to evolutionary significance.  These rare events are what he called “mutations.” Mutations are not random, temporary, or mere reactions to events. They are enduring, sustainable, qualitative shifts in the logic, understanding, and practice of the capitalist enterprise. What triggers a mutation? Schumpeter insists that this evolution is disciplined above all by new consumers’ needs combined with the new institutional forms that must be invented to reliably meet those needs. He wrote:  “The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates.”As an example Schumpeter cites “the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to a firm like U.S. Steel…”

These ideas underscore another key point: mutations include new ways of institutionalizing social relationships as they align with the direction of the new consumer needs. To build on Schumpeter’s example, U.S. Steel  was a revolutionary new form known as mass production aimed at meeting the new needs of mass consumers. Its technologies were only one aspect of its success.  It depended upon new ways of organizing work  and new social forms that institutionalized fair labor practices through unions and collective bargaining as well as  internal labor markets, career ladders, employment security, training and development, and so on. This social inventiveness  and institutionalization is  critical.  This is consistent with Schumpeter stress on two processes:  He wrote that capitalism “creates and destroys.”

Finally, contrary to the rhetoric of speeding up business innovation, Schumpeter argued that a genuine mutation takes time.  A lot of time. And patience.  “We are dealing with a process ,” he wrote, “whose every element takes considerable time in revealing its true features and ultimate effects…We must judge its performance over time, as it unfolds through decades or centuries.”

My point here is plain enough. Every disruption and digital business model is not a mutation.  The status of  “mutation” implies a very high threshold, one that is crossed in time through the serious work of inventing new institutional forms embedded in new consumption requirements. Mutations fundamentally change the nature of capitalism by shifting it more radically in the direction of those it is supposed to serve. This sort of thinking is not nearly as sexy or explosive as the ‘boys and their toys’ approach would have us think, but this is what it takes to move the dial of economic history.

III. Disruption's Tragic Flaw

Is Uber a mutation? Does it meet Schumpeter’s standard? Should Uber’s “sharing economy” model be a role model for Germany, and Europe?

The first thing to note is that Uber is among a new group of firms that has taken disruption to the next level.  The first round of disrupters, like Apple’s iPod and iTunes, bypassed old industry structures to distribute digital goods and services directly to individuals.  The iPod/iTunes bypass was a model for the first wave of digital disruption.

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