As I write this, I’ve got late-stage capitalism on my mind. That’s a hell of a phrase, isn’t it? “Late-stage capitalism.” It sounds like a terminal disease. Maybe it is; that’s an argument for another day.
In any case, as we continue to rapidly approach the arsehole end of this phenomenon, what I find striking is how late-stage capitalism seems to have lost interest in keeping up appearances. Our captains of industry once mouthed pieties about freedom and standards of living; but the current buzzword for innovation — disruption — lays bare the violence at the heart of the business model. The mask is slipping.
Two developments from the New Economy, in particular, bring this point home. The first is the news — predictable, but appalling still — that Uber, having already decimated taxi companies and car services by undercutting them with an fleet of gigging “contractors” who provide their own vehicles, receive no benefits, and are exempt from even the most basic regulation, has gone all in on self-driving cars. In the brutal war of all against all, in other words, Uber has shifted its target from eliminating its competition to eliminating its own workforce.
The other is the failure of Washio, an on-demand dry cleaning and laundry service that some had described as “Uber for laundry.” Although the service itself ultimately proved unsustainable, the disruption it caused has lingering aftereffects. In Washio’s major markets, many laundromats have been driven out of business—and now that Washio is gone, those laundromats aren’t coming back. And it is the poor — who have the fewest laundry options — who will take the hardest hit from the loss of these local businesses. The architects of the new tech economy understand this very well, and have collectively decided that they do not give a damn.
What’s infuriating here is that for all the damage it can do, a service like Washio doesn’t even create many steady jobs. Washio had no wash facilities of its own; it cut deals with high-capacity industrial laundries to do the actual work, and a cadre of contractors to do pickup and delivery. Its main function, in short, was to funnel money upwards.
Entrepreneurship, we are continually told, is the motor of our economy. But economies of scale are a real thing; and just as always, the game favors size and deep pockets. Car services, laundromats, mom-and-pop wash ‘n’ fold joints — these are all legitimate small businesses, and they help to keep our economy running. But a dozen little neighborhood entrepreneurs can be squeezed out of business by one deep-pocketed international entrepreneur, and those who cannot afford the new monopoly — or who are left behind when it closes up shop — are shit out of luck.
Ever go away for the weekend and forget to feed your fish, and when you got home you had — instead of five little fish — one big, fat fish? That’s late-stage capitalism. A couple of years ago I wrote that many financial practices that are today lauded as “visionary” would, in an earlier age, been derided as banditry. But now the business model of the tech-bro economy stands revealed as something more gruesome than mere thievery; it’s nothing less than cannibalism.
Something to think about, as you hoist your jug of Soylent.
Select individual tracks provided for reference; as always, we encourage you to download the full mix (1:14:42).
Collect ’em all!
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Working on the Highway from Born in the USA (1984)
Florence and the Machine – My Boy Builds Coffins from Lungs (2009)
David Bowie – The D.J. from Lodger (1979)
Prince – Let’s Work (dance remix) original track on Controversy (1981)
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues from Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
The Curse – Shoeshine Boy (1978 single)
Rihanna featuring Drake – Work from Anti (2016)
The Equals – I’m a Poor Man from Unequalled (1967, out of print)
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues from Helplessness Blues (2011)
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Trick Pony from IRM (2010)
The Proletariat – Options from Distortion EP (1982, out of print)
The Replacements – Skyway from Pleased to Meet Me (1987)
Della Mae – Boston Town from Della Mae (2015)
The Specials – Rat Race (1980 single)
Special thanks to old pal and popcult provincialist nonpareil Andrew Weiss for alerting me to the existence of The Proletariat, the greatest fake UK punks to ever come out of Fall River, Massachusetts