A wolf in sheep’s clothing: The next phase of capitalism

It’s not just music and films streaming that’s wanting monthly access to our bank accounts. We own nothing, but have access to everything. For a limited time. And at a price.

‘There are too many damn streaming services, study finds’, reads a VICE headline, dated November 2019. With Disney and Britbox joining the vast swathes of TV and film streaming platforms at the end of last year, it seems we have reached peak subscription.

But it’s not just music and film streaming that’s wanting monthly access to our bank accounts. Everything now is available via subscription, from access to articles through a newspaper’s paywall to upmarket designer dresses at Rent the Runway. We own nothing, but have access to everything. For a limited time. And at a price.

Is this new brand of capitalism simply a wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing? With Silicon Valley technologising everything we do, the world has opened up to everyone in a way which seems utterly democratic. We all can borrow these dresses we could never afford before and listen to as many albums as we could wish for. It makes us feel — just for a moment — as though we live a charmed life. But ultimately, the dresses have to be returned at the end of the night with a vastly inflated dry cleaning bill, and our shelves — which were once stacked high with records — now sit empty.

The landscape is changing. What initially might seem to be a democratising system of giving access to everyone will ultimately have an impact on industries across the globe. It’s estimated that artists and musicians get paid $0.003 per stream from Spotify. Will fashion rental services have a similar effect on designers and fashion houses? If we are no longer buying direct from the creators, choosing instead to participate in this so-called ‘sharing economy’, are we not simply filling the pockets of the tech giants behind the apps?

As Jia Tolentino wrote in the essay, ‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’ in her recent collection Trick Mirror, ‘Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, but his warehouse employees often make just enough to clear the federal poverty line’. His ex-wife, who recently finalised her divorce from the world’s richest man, has signed the Giving Pledge, a campaign which encourages the world’s wealthiest people to contribute their wealth to philanthropic causes. To date, Jeff Bezos has never signed.

Sure, what Jeff does with his money is his prerogative (but it does speak volumes about his attitude to others). But the tech industry encourages vast wealth and power to remain in the hands of these few elite entrepreneurs.

Reaching ‘peak subscription’ is not only overwhelming, but also damaging. Instead of supporting the creators, designers and producers behind the products we desire, we are funnelling huge amounts of money towards the tech entrepreneurs. We pay, but receive ‘property on loan’ in return.

With the housing crisis, we’ve accepted the fact that we’ll all be renting our homes for the rest of our lives, but should we have to rent everything else in our lives at vastly inflated rates too? We’re not so sure.

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