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Ownership is dead.
In the early 17th century, one of the most powerful companies in history was born.
Famously marked by the initials VOC, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie—otherwise known as the Dutch East India Company—was formed in the year 1602. And it was given near-unlimited power by the Dutch government to ply its trade across the world.
It was the first multinational corporation on Earth, and the first company to issue stocks. But more than that, it wielded powers that few businesses ever had before.
The company was legally sanctioned by the Dutch stadtholder Prince Maurice of Orange to be able to create currency, establish colonies, raise armies to wage war, negotiate treaties, and even take and execute prisoners. It was a private, for-profit organisation, but in almost every sense, the VOC was a government in all but name.
Within decades, the Dutch East India Company became one of the most powerful entities on the planet. It created colonies throughout Asia, and conquered entire civilisations in places like Java, and Ceylon.
In Indonesia, the company ruled with an iron fist. It wiped out almost all pre-existing forms of exchange, mandated the use of its currency the Duit, and enforced a strict monopoly on the spice trade. And after dissolving many of the Javanese royal families that traditionally ruled the land, the company forced the local populations into almost absolute dependence on the VOC to survive.
Entire markets of nations were dependent on a single company to survive. And to the people who lived there, their economic choices became nothing more than an illusion.
The Dutch East India Company would eventually fade into history, as its final charter was allowed to expire on the 31st of December 1799. But it seems that the company’s spirit of absolute power may be enjoying somewhat of a resurgence today.
To most of us, it’s obvious that some of the world’s largest organisations have far too much power.
Last year, almost a third of all money made at global box offices was earned by Disney. In the United States, most people buy almost everything they eat daily from three or four companies that own nearly the entire market. And almost 90% of the world’s oil supply flows from the ever-tightening grip of the nations that form OPEC+.
Just like the people conquered by the VOC, we too have limited options. And very soon, we may become much more reliant on large companies for our survival.
You might have never heard of Invitation Homes, Tricon Capital, or Home Partners of America, but they’re some of the biggest landlords on Earth. Collectively, it’s estimated these companies own over 200,000 properties in the US alone.
They’ve been accused of seriously driving up housing prices in the United States, by focusing their efforts on acquiring affordable single-family homes—the kinds of homes that are the most desirable during a time of rising house prices. Not only that, but they consistently outbid normal home buyers and pay above market prices, further driving up the real estate market.
All three of these firms have some tie or another to Blackstone; arguably the largest owner of residential real estate on the planet. Blackstone is snatching up valuable residential real estate around the world, including in Spain where it’s the largest owner of property in the nation, and is lobbying against the government’s efforts to provide affordable housing to the masses.
In other words, if you live in North America or Europe, you could soon be renting your home from Blackstone or a company like them.
We’re currently experiencing a global housing crisis. And while there are other factors at play—including rampant inflation caused by a global health crisis—there’s no doubt investment firms like Blackstone are at least partly to blame.
And if you’re one of the many who can’t afford a home right now, luckily for you some brilliant solutions are being offered to this crisis.
In a stroke of absolute genius, the New York Times recently commented on the housing crisis in New York City, in an article titled “Their Solution to the Housing Crisis? Living With Strangers.” In other words, one of the world's most respected news outlets has just figured out the concept of housemates in the year 2022.
But beyond living with housemates, another solution comes from the minds of WeWork. The world’s largest innovators in the coworking space have dipped their toes into the co-living market, by creating two WeLive spaces in the United States. WeLive is the company’s future vision for a residential utopia, where inhabitants each have their own bedroom and bathroom, but almost everything else is communal—kitchens, event spaces, and even living rooms.
They call it an “exceptional, community-based living experience.” But to me, it sounds like living full-time in a hostel.
However, the concept is catching on. There are already dozens of for-profit co-living spaces around the world, primarily in dense metropolises like San Francisco, Singapore, London, and New York. And these kinds of services will likely only become much more common over the next decade, as companies scramble to profit from the need to provide more affordable housing to people.
In short, not much is being done to address our world’s current housing affordability problem. Apart from the fact that large companies are using the situation to consolidate as much power in the real estate industry as possible.
This trend of large-scale corporate consolidation of power will likely soon rule the automotive industry as well.
To curb congestion, and to move towards a greener future, large numbers of electric, autonomous vehicles will become a common sight in many of our world’s largest cities over the next decade.
As early as next year, companies like Oxbotica will be rolling out fleets of cars in European cities, which they say will become something of a new normal in the way we look at transport globally. Gone will be the need for anyone to own a car; moving around will be as easy as hailing a robot car via a smartphone app.
To me, this does sound cool. But I do have concerns.
How long until companies like Apple, Tesla, or Google’s Waymo (all three of which are currently developing autonomous vehicles) will be lobbying governments about the dangers of a fleshy meatbag behind the wheel of a car, so that they can sell more of their products?
But just like how oil companies have spent decades lobbying against the rise of electric vehicles, so will autonomous automakers lobby against having human-driven cars on our roads. A software-driven vehicle will never get tired, speed, or drive inebriated, and they’ll use these points as bargaining chips to write legislation that favours them. Sure, this will be great for overall road safety, but it’ll also mean yet another essential human service will fall under the control of large corporations, to whom we’ll need to regularly pay rent if we want to get from A to B.
Look, I’m not against humans sharing resources. And I’m not against progress.
But it seems as if our society is inexorably being driven towards an economy where we will rent almost everything we use in our daily lives. But unlike some oft-imagined communist utopia where the ownership of goods and services will be controlled by the people, it appears as if for-profit corporations will hold the keys to divvying out the very things that we all need to survive.
I believe this kind of future is inevitable. But the good news is that it likely won’t arrive everywhere equally.
While it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where you won’t be able to live in a place like Oslo, Sydney, or Los Angeles without a ride-sharing or rent-sharing account, I don’t see the same happening in a place like Tunis, Lahore, Mombasa, or Lagos anywhere near as quickly. Sharing economies will hit the wealthiest, most advanced, and most organised regions of the world first, and arrive much later—or possibly even never—in those that are more chaotic.
If you don’t like the idea of living in an economic technocracy where you’ll be required to rely on the services of mega-corporations to survive, there will always be places you can go to avoid this. Sure, you may have to give up familiarity, your friends, and some of the more modern services you’re used to at home, but this may be a small price to pay if you desire to live a more free existence, instead of living a shadow of one.
And if you live in the west, maybe one of the only solutions to attaining this kind of existence will be to go where these companies aren’t.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—maybe now is the time you start taking steps towards acquiring that second passport or seeking new nations to become a resident of. It may take time—possibly years—to take the steps needed to make this happen, so the best time to get started is now.
You may have to work for it. But there will always be options to where you can seek a better life.
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