Jane Bradley: This is what happens to Communism-lite in our Capitalist world

Greed has turned the sharing economy '“ Communism-lite in a Capitalist world '“ into something very different, writes Jane Bradley
The logo of online lodging service Airbnb  (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)The logo of online lodging service Airbnb  (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
The logo of online lodging service Airbnb (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

Karl Marx’s brand of Communism, argued American politician and TV personality Jesse Ventura, was possibly the best for everybody as a whole. “But what he didn’t figure into was human nature, and that’s what corrupts it,” Ventura added. And this is the problem.

While people might think they want to share, while they believe they are the kind of people who want to spread the love, greed always creeps in.

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Communism in Europe went largely by the wayside a quarter of a century ago, but the so-called sharing economy embodies all of the best parts of what a Communist ideology believes without, arguably, some of the worst.

It was a lovely idea. I have something you need, why should I not lend it to you? It spread like wildfire. AirBnB, the lynchpin of the sharing economy, began with the notion that people could rent out their spare room – or their sofabed – to like-minded people who were looking for somewhere cheap with that personal touch. The idea morphed into organisations matching those with a need with others offering ride-sharing, meal-sharing and parking space-sharing.

Of course, we live in a Capitalist economy. It was never really going to be for free. But initially, at least, prices seemed reasonable. Mates rates, if you will.

Yet gradually, greed on the part of the “sharer”, met by backlash on the part of all around them, began to encroach on altruism and the concept has, after just a few years, inevitably gone sour.

Uber is under fire from the London authorities after a number of years facing the wrath of angry taxi drivers perturbed that they are being undercut by the “gig economy” workers of the cut-price taxi firm and AirBnB is being attacked from all sides by residents and local authorities alike. Only Couchsurfing – set up by computer programmer Casey Fenton in 1999 when he booked a cheap flight to Iceland, but realised he had nowhere to stay – remains a non-pay-for organisation. However, even it turned from not-for-profit to for-profit a few years ago when it realised that its original model was not economically viable.

The most recent affront on AirBnB came from Edinburgh’s historic Stockbridge Colonies district, where residents fear a constant flow of holidaymakers is changing the unique community in which they live, as reported by Scotland on Sunday last month.

Of course, they are not alone. In recent years, cities across the globe have cracked down on AirBnB – and there is no doubt that its use has moved away from the original concept. Few still use it as a way to supplement income, like students renting out their pad for a few nights while they themselves are crashing on a friend’s floor in south-east Asia. Instead, it has become big business. In Scotland’s capital, there are tales of investors running around snapping up multiple properties in prime areas specifically to rent them through AirBnB and similar sites. Service companies have even sprung up around the concept, providing cleaning, changeover and management for those who are not present to service their own AirBnB – or have too many to manage on their own.

Certain cities and states have introduced a maximum number of days that a landlord can rent a property. Others have insisted that the AirBnB concept is taken to the letter, with the host present on the property on the night of the let, meaning that the short-term holiday let concept has been entirely banned.

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The Scottish Government is currently reviewing the issues, taking into account the woes of community groups. It is not yet clear what their plans are exactly, but it is likely that some kind of restriction will be introduced. Across the world, there are various options which have been tried out.

In Amsterdam, there is a 90-day limit on rentals, meaning that people can legitimately only use the website for renting out their own home while they are away for short periods of time, not operating a buy-to-let, while Los Angeles is currently debating whether to restrict lets to 60 or 180 days.

Another option being mooted in Scotland is to make all people wanting to run a full-time short-term letting business register a change of use of the property, so the number of holiday lets in an area could be regulated. One thing we have to remember about Uber in the UK, of course, is that it is not a ride-sharing company at all – UK laws don’t allow it to be. In certain states in the US, where Uber began, literally anyone can be an Uber driver. You can switch on your virtual yellow light as you drive home from the supermarket, hoping to pick up a fare. In the UK, however, the company is little different to a private hire cab firm. Now it is facing backlash from authorities in London, who have refused them a licence to operate in the UK capital, where “to Uber” has become a verb.

The problem is that none of these “sharing economy” businesses have ended up where they began. Inate human greed has polluted the touchy feely, personal side of businesses which were set up with a strong person-to-person connection as their USP.

The ones that work well have expanded, become global entities, some with shareholders and chief executives and dividends. As a result, the public regards them as they do any other organisation trying to make money in their backyard – and expect them to be held to account.

If they do not like what these companies are doing, then they have a right to try to stop them. They are no longer a cottage industry which should be encouraged, an altruistic business model trying to carve out its own unique – and better – way in the world.

That is not to say there is anything wrong with these companies expanding and making a success of themselves. But as a consequence, they have to play by Capitalist rules.

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