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.