The “gig economy”: Some cursory thoughts and link dump

The “gig economy”: Some cursory thoughts and link dump

Despite being a generally annoying term, the “gig economy” does signify some major shifts in class composition and the strategies of capital. But what should it mean for us as radicals?

I remember the first time I learned that, in some gyms, personal trainers pay for the privilege just to be there and solicit customers. This is a terrifying vision of the future. It's neoliberalism taken to its furthest logical conclusion: the wholesale dissolution of the obligations employers have towards their workforce, the “independent contractor” status bestowed upon the most diverse elements of the working class; and the institutionalization of the mantra that we must have our “personal brand” to succeed in the labor market.

With the advent of “smart technology”, capital has accelerated its attempts to spread this highly privatized model to more and more sections of the economy. Already, smart technology – under the guise of the “sharing economy” - is being used to restructure the labor market in dramatic ways.

Uber and Airbnb are the best known examples, but across industry, capital is investing in smart technology that allows it to do everything from track the workforce to automating the kinds of jobs previously thought to need a human touch. With the continuing development of A.I., there's little doubt that the global workplace - and the balance of class forces that determines what it looks like - is in for a serious shakeup.

I mean, does anyone really believe that Google is interested in building those autonomous vehicles for the element of consumer novelty? In huge parts of America, truck driving is the single most common job. Drones, self-driving cars – as sexy as those things would be be under full communism – have the potential to throw literally millions out of work in America alone, decimating communities already reeling from decades of de-industrialization and capital flight.

There has been some resistance to this, much of it playing out through legal processes. Uber drivers, for example, recently gave up on a class action lawsuit seeking reclassification as employees and the right to unionize as such. In San Francisco, Airbnb beat back a ballot initiative that would have seen tighter regulations on short-term rental services. And across the country, gig sector companies are pouring millions into lobbying efforts while generally just being dicks to anyone they see as standing in their way.

Unsurprisingly, the courts haven't been very useful in terms of worker protections or regulations. As radicals, this should come as no surprise. But it does mean that we need to be thinking about what an effective fightback could look like. It seems to me that we need a two-pronged approach encompassing a practical as well as a theoretical response to what – once A.I. really takes off – will be a seismic upheaval of class relations.

In terms of practicality, it goes without saying that workers in the gig industries are not the enemy. Trade union sectarianism has already begun to rear its ugly head in some of the disputes and discussions around the gig economy, and we need to be the first to counter this and any other fractures new technology may throw up within the working class. We need to build links between workers in the destabilized industries and these emergent industries. We need to focus on bringing up the standards for gig workers while envisioning what new forms of collective action and collective bargaining look like in the 21st century.

Much has been made of the potential of technologically-driven “non-market collaborative ventures” as a way out of capitalism. Whatever value these may have in terms of prefiguring a new society or movement building, they won't amount to much without class power exercised at the point of production.

We can, however, take inspiration from points in history where workers took on wider social issues and demanded industrial policies that reflected the needs of our class. The Australian green bans are one example. But the Lucas Aerospace workers, in their fight to resist job cuts and and turn their munition factory over to social use, perhaps provide a better template for a class movement that resists workplace destabilization while fighting for the social application of new technologies.

In conjunction with on-the-ground fights, we need to lay claim to a radical, transformative, and liberatory vision of an automated, post-work society – one that goes beyond a return to social democracy or more politically “reasonable” options like universal basic income.

This has historically been the terrain of the left and there are already a number of outlines to build on and engage with. On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs lays some theoretical groundwork, while in the world of memes fully automated luxury communism has spurred discussion on both alternative media sites like Novara and within more mainstreams sources as well.

As always, our vision for the future needs to be directly linked to the struggles and problems people face at work and in their communities. But as smart technology begins to threaten more and more jobs, we may find our fellow workers are increasingly open to radical arguments. Being able to effectively present a vision where modern technology is put to social use may very well allow us to engage with people who, rightfully, find political discussions boring and alienating.

In the comments below this blog, I'll be posting any “gig economy” links that I think will be of interest to libcom regulars. Feel free to add your own, but please be so kind to include a short description with the link – it looks a lot cleaner and you'll get more hits that way, so, ya know, win-win.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
May 4 2016 21:03


  • There's little doubt that the global workplace - and the balance of class forces that determines what it looks like - is in for a serious shakeup.

Attached files


Chilli Sauce
May 4 2016 21:07

Generally good clip – albeit liberal – clip about Uber here from the Daily Show. Sorry, UK folks, but no Trevor Noah for you.

Slightly weird one here about Airbnb trying to pal-up with SEIU to gain some sort of weird ethical consumption street cred:

An Affirming Flame
May 9 2016 18:31

Hey Chili, did you see this yet? A follow up today to one of your links about ride-sharing companies' dickery in Austin.

"Uber and Lyft halt Austin ride-sharing service"

Ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft have stopped operating in Austin, Texas after proposals to let them self-regulate their drivers were rejected.

The companies had sought to overturn city council regulations which meant drivers had to pass fingerprint-based background checks before they could operate.

However, when put to a public vote, the regulations, introduced in December 2015, were upheld.

Chilli Sauce
May 9 2016 22:48

Thanks AAF. I actually hadn't seen that. In any case, it should put to bed any ideas that Uber and their "sharing economy" friends will act in any way different than traditional companies when it comes to regulation or restrictions - or in any other substantive way, for that matter.

klas batalo
May 12 2016 00:36

Uber partnership with Machinists Union in NY. Looks like company unionism.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 18 2016 02:41
Does anyone really believe that Google is interested in building those autonomous vehicles for the element of consumer novelty? In huge parts of America, truck driving is the single most common job. Drones, self-driving cars – as sexy as those things would be be under full communism – have the potential to throw literally millions out of work.

Looks like Andy Stern and the Guardian were only a few weeks behind me on this one wink

Self-driving trucks: what's the future for America's 3.5 million truckers?

The race is on to get driverless trucks on the roads, and experts say the impact on professional drivers ‘is going to be huge’

Chilli Sauce
Jul 3 2016 01:40

Some interesting stuff:

How Airbnb and co have contributed to the housing crisis in NYC:

Google to look at taking over public transport systems in the US:

GM and Lyft getting together on self-driving taxis:

Chilli Sauce
Jul 14 2016 21:40

Amazon hosting competitions for roboticizing warehouses.

Aug 1 2016 10:55
Chilli Sauce
Aug 12 2016 13:19

Some good first person accounts here of the reality of working in the gig sector:

Chilli Sauce
Aug 18 2016 01:33

Article about Ford producing automated cars specifically for "ride-sharing" companies:

Aug 20 2016 15:40

Since this Wall Street Journal article is from behind a paywall, I'm posting the whole thing:

The biggest heavyweight in the “gig” economy is putting its considerable capital and research capabilities behind self-driving trucks. Uber Technologies Inc. is buying Silicon Valley trucking startup Ottomotto LLC, the WSJ’s Greg Bensinger and John Stoll report, in a deal worth around $680 million that promises to accelerate the push toward autonomous technology in trucking. The agreement comes as Uber is stepping on the accelerator In its broader push toward self-driving technology, laying out a plan to offer autonomous vehicles for passenger rides in Pittsburgh. The move into trucking may have a more immediate impact, however. Ottomoto believes regulators would look more favorably on vehicles that operate primarily on highways, rather than through dense urban streets. And Uber’s new interest in trucking will likely spur other truck manufacturers already researching autonomous technology to step up those efforts.

Aug. 18, 2016

Uber Technologies Inc. will begin using self-driving taxis to ferry customers around Pittsburgh as soon as this month, a first for the industry in a race among automobile and technology companies to make driverless cars commercially available.

Uber’s service, using specially-equipped Volvo XC90 sport-utility vehicles and Ford Focus, would appear to be the first time that commuters could hail a ride in a driverless car. But while the effort signals a breakthrough in commercialization of the technology, it won’t be a brave new world of robot cars: Two Uber employees will be sitting in the front seat of each vehicle.

One Uber employee will be in the driver’s seat with hands on the steering wheel as an emergency backup, another observing from the passenger seat, the company said. Uber will only make a few cars available to start—with the eventual goal of having 100 in Pittsburgh and possibly elsewhere in the coming months—and they will only go limited distances within the city.

The test, which could begin in as soon as two weeks, is limited. The autonomous vehicles may be assigned at random based on customers’ preference, the start location and the length of the trip.

Uber Chief Executive Travis Kalanick said the technology is necessary to lower the cost of ride hailing and car ownership, even if it means the future loss of jobs among Uber’s 1.5 million active drivers world-wide.

“The technology is going to happen because the promise is so real,” Mr. Kalanick said in an interview. “It’s existential. We have to have all the best minds working on this.”

As part of that effort, Uber said it acquired Ottomotto LLC, a startup that is working on self-driving tractor trailers. Anthony Levandowski, Ottomotto’s chief executive and a co-founder of Google’s driverless car project, will become the head of Uber’s automated-vehicle efforts. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

The announcements are an attempt by Uber to claim pole position in a contest to implement technologies some observers think are years away from safe, widespread use.

General Motors Co., which has invested $500 million in Lyft Inc., Uber’s chief rival, plans to test driverless Chevrolet Bolt taxis with its partner next year using technology it acquired earlier this year in a $1 billion deal for startup Cruise Automation Inc. Ford Motor Co. this week set a goal of producing fully self-driving fleet vehicles with no steering wheel or pedals within the next five years.

Volvo Car Corp., owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., has been aggressively developing and advocating for automated car. As part of its announcement, Uber said it struck a $300 million deal with the Swedish auto maker to co-develop additional autonomous-driving SUVs.

Uber doesn’t plan to make autonomous vehicles. Instead, it aims to build the software powering self-driving cars and forge partnerships with auto makers. For the Pittsburgh trial and elsewhere, Uber will buy cars and provide the self-driving technology.

Separately, a federal judge on Thursday rejected a proposed $100 million settlement between Uber and drivers in two states, reopening the debate over the car-hailing company’s freelance labor model.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google founded its driverless-car team seven years ago and its vehicles have amassed more than 1.8 million miles in automated driving, yet it hasn’t said when it will bring the technology to market—or even test it with consumers.

“The difference is Uber is in the business today of transporting people and trying to do it as cheaply and efficiently as possible, and this is technology that is existentially important to them,” said Karl Iagnemma, chief executive of Cambridge, Mass-based nuTonomy, which is testing self-driving taxis in Singapore. He said Uber’s plans to start rides so soon also signals that the company’s existing self-driving software likely is more advanced than previously thought.

Uber also aims to be a full-fledged logistics firm, not simply a ride-hailing service. Uber drivers deliver packages and food in several cities, but Mr. Kalanick has said driverless vehicles “should be used to move all the things.”

Ottomotto’s Mr. Levandowski said it isn’t clear when his company’s self-driving truck technology would be deployed. Uber issued stock to Ottomotto, which goes by Otto, that could be worth up to 1% of the company if goals are met, according to a person familiar with matter, implying a value of around $680 million based on Uber’s most recent $68 billion valuation.

Proponents of driverless vehicle technology promise a suite of benefits from reducing deaths and congestion to environmental conservation. But much of that depends on software that isn’t yet battle tested and the willingness of regulators.

Indeed there have been some high-profile accidents involving autonomous or semiautonomous vehicles, such as a fatal one in Florida involving Telsa Motors Inc.’s driver assistance software earlier this year.

State regulators largely don’t prohibit self-driving cars. In Pennsylvania, where Uber’s trial is taking place, driverless cars are OK as long as they follow the rules for regular vehicles, including that a licensed driver is behind the steering wheel.

Uber, founded in 2009, only plunged seriously into the autonomous-driving race last year. It recruited researchers and scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, which is based in Pittsburgh, hired the hackers who wirelessly took control of a Jeep in 2015, and earlier this year named former Ford executive Sherif Marakby to head its global vehicle programs.

Aug 20 2016 22:53
Chilli Sauce wrote:
Some good first person accounts here of the reality of working in the gig sector:

would be cool if you could post them up to the library/news section

Chilli Sauce
Sep 3 2016 15:50

Some uber stuff: - self-driving uber cars to be on the streets of Pittsburg. - looks like that big class auction may be going back to trial

Oct 17 2016 01:28

New study claims 30% of US workforce (with comparable levels in Europe) are now engaged in gig economy.

Also this seems more than tangentially related, as it addresses, in part at least, the disappearance of the traditional working class base of social democratic parties to the gig economy.

Oct 17 2016 19:03

In the thread on Endnotes/TC, Tom Henry posted a link to this.

It seems like an important contribution to the discussion on the gig economy. I'm certain I haven't fully absorbed what the author is getting at, but without quoting too much at length, this


At the level of lived experience, the expulsion of labour diminishes the subjective capacity for class conflict and supplants it with a pacified environment. The subjective component necessary to the abolition of labour is entirely absent.

seems to sum up the thesis, and if so I more or less agree.

I haven't done enough reading on the issue to have a fully formed opinion on the matter, but I can't help wonder -- (a) if social democracy represented concessions to a militant working class movement in an effort to stave off revolution and (b) neo-liberalism simultaneously represented the ruling class' fight-back against those concessions as well as their effort to destroy the workers' movement itself, then (c) does the gig economy--once fully implemented--represent Capital's victory lap, the ultimate crushing of the vestiges of the working class movement? And is it possible that this ultimate victory would eventually eliminate the proletariat as an agent of revolution?

In the US, classifying workers as independent contractors is an ingenious, if despicable, way of eliminating pretty much every 20th century labor law (except perhaps the abolition against child labor). The Gig Economy turns the clock backwards by dialing it forward with automation and other technological advances, and the resultant prospective future is defintionally dystopian. (Even if, as many have suggested, the very worst excesses of this future were somewhat mitigated by introducing some form of UBI.)

The already precarious position of organizing on the job under normal employment circumstances becomes nearly impossible in a contract employment situation, as one no longer needs to fear termination; instead the employer simply stops scheduling troublesome staff. Things like the NLRB and local labor administrations are traditionally not particularly reliable for protecting on the job organizing, but they do tend to somewhat tame the worst union busting tactics. If one is labeled an Independent Contractor, those paper-thin protections cease to exist.

With no paid time off, no health insurance (or sometimes even no on-the-job accidental insurance) or any other benefits traditionally associated with employment, amongst many other things, the gig economy completely shifts all of the costs of reproduction of labor onto the individual worker.

Additionally, in the US an Independent Contractor (1099) is responsible for the 7.5% FICA employee tax AND the employer's 7.5% contribution. As there is no automatic tax withholding for 1099 workers, the burden of saving back and paying these taxes is soley the individuals' responsibility. This is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for those making subsistence 'wages'. As a result, social programs, like in this example, Social Security will be starved of resources and whither away much more quickly than many of the current, already dire, projections.

I'm really interested to hear others' impressions. For instance, is the taxation regimen similar in the UK and elsewhere for contracted employees? What, if any, protections do independent contractors have elsewhere?