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The Sharing Economy : Disruption’s Tragic Flaw

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Uber and similar disruptive businesses are supposed to be the correction— the solution. Instead they appear to be  an extension of the decades-long trend toward emptying the enterprise of the human as executives and investors devour the labor share.  In this “business model,” “sharing” is simply the new rhetoric of accumulation.  The tragedy for a company like Uber is that it risks becoming the “Justin Bieber” of disruption—young, brash, and so overindulged that it has no incentive to mature into the kind of pioneering mutation that can aspire to greatness.

The tragedy is more than Uber’s.  It affects all of us. People the world over are hungry for genuine mutations that produce new trustworthy forms of enterprise aligned with the genuine interests of individuals.  According to the 2015 Edelman Global Trust Barometer, respondents in all nations by a two-to-one margin, feel the new developments in business are going too fast.  Even worse, 54 percent say business growth or greed/money are the real impetuses behind innovation – two times more than those who say that business innovates because of a desire to make the world a better place or improve people’s lives.

Schumpeter reflected on the inherent vulnerability of modern enterprise because it induces ever more distance, anonymity, and indifference.  In his time he worried that the shift from owning property to owning shares would destroy the moral center of the enterprise. “Dematerialized, defunctionalized, and absentee ownership,” he wrote, “ does not impress and call forth moral allegiance as the vital form of property did. Eventually there will be nobody left who really cares to stand for it—nobody within and nobody without….”

In our time the abstractions of the  “God View” reduce human beings to just so many digital assets and leave firms like Uber subject to the same harms:  nobody within and nobody without who cares to stand for it, except the new billionaires, of course.

IV. Europe Can Do Better

Europe can do better than mimic the Silicon Valley- inspired playbook of the North Atlantic where, despite so much disruption, the principles of neoliberal indifference and their consequences have not really been disrupted.  Instead, Europe can enjoy the advantages of the second mover. Learn from the shortfalls and ambivalence of the so-called disruptors. Learn from their tragic flaws.

For example, in the U.S. new social institutions are emerging to fill the gap left by the disrupters’ failures of institutional creativity and discipline.  The Drivers Network aims to organize drivers from a variety of ride-sharing services in order to effect more fair and democratic business practices. Another organization, peers.org,  is an online community that supports workers in the sharing economy.  Activist groups such as 15 Now, Jobs with Justice, and Fight for 15 advocate on behalf of on-demand workers for minimum wage protection.

These kinds of creative advocates will be necessary to stimulate 21st century regulatory innovations that help compel immature “disruptions” into the disciplines of a new social contract.  In what may seem like a paradox to some, the  healthy prosperous evolution of capitalism—along with the needs of the servers and the served—- depend upon these disciplines. Advocacy-oriented capitalism requires the reciprocal rights and obligations long associated with strong market democracies.  If the prospects of capitalism and democracy are to find new common cause, this is the new terrain on which they must meet.

Genuine mutations unlock historic new levels of prosperity, not only for investors and executives— but for the wider societies in which they flourish.When it comes to digital disruption and the pseudo-sharing economy, Europe can do better.

Europe can be the new world.

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