Precarity and the 'Gig Economy'

The translation of the Theses on Precarity and the ‘Gig Economy’ that follows, appeared in Mutiny/Mutinerie, the bilingual agitation sheet of our comrades in Klasbatalo, the Canadian affiliate of the Internationalist Communist Tendency. Here we just want to make a few observations to add to Klasbatalo’s correct summary of the situation of the workforce in this sector, as a contribution to further analysis and discussion.

Submitted by Internationali… on November 11, 2019

The comrades rightly observe that we are witnessing a growth in the number of struggles in the ‘gig economy‘ and that, often, those struggles take place outside the traditional trade union framework of mediation. This is also because – we should add – the traditional trade unions have so far had little to do with this "emerging" sector, or are only now beginning to look at it. In addition to this, it must be stressed that, beyond the ready determination of the workforce in these sectors to fight, their actions, as far as we know, always lack any sense that the system has to be overthrown, and that only real alternative to this society based on exploitation is communism.

But this is no surprise, because only the revolutionary organisation, or class party, can give us this perspective. Instead, and once again no surprise, the basic organisations that arise from those struggles remain substantially within the union logic of negotiating the conditions of the sale of commodities including labour power, a logic that presupposes the continuing relationship between capital and labour and, in fact, accepts it, regardless of any improvements (even if only for a short time) that might be extorted from this relationship. The possibility for such improvements are thus very limited today, despite the fact that in the ‘gig economy‘ exploitation is so intensely above the average, that it could be argued that there is room – limited and only if the workers fight decisively – for an attenuation of exploitation itself, that is, to obtain what are currently defined, with a very ambiguous word, as "rights". This includes the limitation and/or suppression of piece work, pay increases, the recognition of their status as wage workers (and not self-employed), with all that flows from this such as sickness benefits, pensions (if and when there are any): in short, the enjoyment of the "rights" of indirect and deferred wages. In some respects, it is a scenario very similar to that in warehouse distribution (logistics), a sector taken as a reference point by the "riders", who deliver meals to homes. It is no coincidence that the conditions of riders and distribution centre workers are very often rightly defined, as "slave labour" and "nineteenth century", precisely because the owner – who still really exists, even if hiding behind an algorithm – oppresses the workforce just like the masters of the steam powered factories of nineteenth century memory. Needless to say, however, the return to forms of exploitation and ruthless domination of the nineteenth century type is now to be found, with greater or lesser intensity, in every category of paid work and, indeed, in apparently “self-employed” work.

We understood this fact from the beginning of this phenomenon (see our VIth Congress in 1997). "Manchesterisation" of the labour force was (and continues to be) the response of capital to its own structural crisis that first manifested itself in the early 1970s, as a basic countertendency – though not the only one – to the fall in the rate of profit.1

This aspect – the intensification of exploitation as an imperative necessity of capital – rightly underlined by our comrades, obviously does not mean passively accepting capitalist conditions, with the consequent disarmament of the class, whilst waiting mechanically for the fateful hour X of the revolution to come about. It would be a mistake for the working class not to fight on a daily basis, even for the smallest demands, because if it did not do so it would certainly not be able to carry on (nor be worthy of...) the fight to free itself from the chains of the bourgeoisie. Only malevolent opponents, usually the defenders of some form of radical reformism, attribute that stupid opinion to us. We do not say that one should not "demand", but only that in times of deep crisis the spaces for making such demands are considerably restricted, and even tending to disappear. This only underlines even more clearly that the interests of capital and those of the working class are irreconcilably divergent, completely opposite, and that the road to a real improvement in the conditions of existence of the "old" and "new" proletariat can only come about, today more than ever, over the corpse of the capitalist system.

Internationalist Communist Party
Translated from the Italian

Theses on Precarity and the ‘Gig Economy’

1. The emergence of new ‘gig economy’ jobs into the spotlight cannot be separated from the ongoing crisis of capitalism and the generalization of precarity among wider layers of the working class. It is in the era of austerity, caused by the decline of profitability in the world economy, that many workers are forced to take on “flexible extra” work just to survive in the face of public service cuts, rising rents and a general increase in the cost of living.
2. The new precarious jobs in the ‘gig economy’ are in part defined by their application of new digital technology. With this, these companies compete with old forms of services by centralizing it into apps as the chief coordinators of distribution. Companies such as Uber and Foodora use phone apps backed up by algorithms which mediate between the worker and capital. The use of these apps come as the capitalist dream of obsessive calculation of tracking the moment to moment labour of the workers.
3. Politicians and TV personality capitalists appear close to tears when praising the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation of these companies, owners and managers. In reality, these technologies were largely funded by the state in the process of the military industrial complex and other partnerships like universities. Despite the bourgeois illusions peddled, capital remains dependant on the increasing help of the state, and the state is completely subjugated to the interests of capital.
4. The ability for these new tech companies to exploit its workers to the hilt in large part relies on the method of labelling the workers not as employees, but rather, as self-employed contractors. Thus, allowing capital to refuse ‘benefits’. As well, typical of ‘gig‘ jobs is a return to piece work, i.e. paying workers by the number of services rather than by hour. Mixed with the steady elimination of the shop floor as a reference point, this digital task appointed piece work allows capital to bring down wages by pitting workers against each other by their efficiency in isolation. This competition between workers seeks to increase the average efficiency of workers who are under constants threat of being calculated unworthy of work. This serves to both intensify labour as well as prolong the working day, bringing down pay. “Piece-wages become, from this point of view, the most fruitful source of reduction in wages, and other frauds committed by the capitalists.” (Marx, Capital Volume 1)
5. But, despite the separation of worker from worker by the increasing elimination of the shop floor, and despite ‘gig’ workers not being registered as employees and thus having little to no protection, class struggle in the ‘gig economy’ pushes the working class immediately into unmediated self-activity such as wildcat strikes. From Foodora workers in Italy, Deliveroo workers in the UK to Uber driver in Los Angeles, militancy in the ‘gig economy’ is on the rise.
6. The misery of workers in the ‘gig economy‘ continues to reveal one of the tragic ironies of capitalism. Despite these new digital technologies' ability to serve humanity, inside the capitalist shell they are instead used as instruments to intensify and organize an increase in exploitation. Only a total social revolution can do away with this misery. The ‘gig economy’ is one piece of this crisis and its struggles must be connected to the total struggle of the proletariat against capital. When our class declares its independence on an international stage it will declare: “the working class has no country, and neither will the instruments of production once expropriated and placed at its service” (Marx), finally unleashing technology from the chains of profit and towards the needs of humanity.

October 2019

  • 1The definition refers to the city of Manchester, "capital" of the Industrial Revolution in England, during which the working class conditions were, as we know, appalling. The document referred to from the VIth Congress of the Internationalist Communist Party can be found on the website at Globalisation and Imperialism