The Reddit Shadow Work Strike Pt. 2: Neoliberism and the Breakdown of Non-Gender Binaries

The Reddit strikers have won. Ellen Pao has resigned as company CEO. And with the exception of my previous essay, nothing I’ve encountered has called it a strike.

A NY Times op-ed by two of the /r/AMA moderators came close, at least framing it in terms of unpaid labor and using the word “protest”.

Besides that op-ed the vast majority of the analysis presented has been monolithic in its conclusions and terms-that Pao is a crusader against sexism in the male dominated Silicon Valley culture and was primarily pushed to resign because of the sexism of Reddit users. Though nothing has been confirmed, by all accounts Victoria Taylor was fired because she stood in the way of attempts to make herself and the unpaid mods do more un(der)compensated labor by expanding the scope of the popular AMA features.

Despite the less savory flavors some expressions took, what the reddit users and moderators were saying is “We built the site. We produced the content. The site is ours. We demand a say in how it runs.” That this is being ignored by the media speaks to the larger cultural assumption: “You’re lucky to have work even if they aren’t paying you anything.”

That the media is barely considering or mentioning the place of Victoria Taylor’s firing in the articles and op-eds following Pao’s resignation shows the neoliberal flavor of the “feminism” on display. “Feminism” in the workplace here is just the freedom of women to carry out the neoliberal project of exploiting shadow labor while claiming any and all profits. It is not the right of democratic influence in the form and future of one’s labor. The corporate structure is a literal dictatorship of capital.

One of Pao’s first moves as Reddit CEO was to ban salary negotiations by employees, claiming that salary negotiations were unfair to women with no mention of or regard paid to their rights as employees. The segregation of identity politics and class issues is one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism. Social progress is acceptable only insofar as it gives power disproportionately to the wealthy. This attitude foreshadows the Victoria Taylor firing and Pao’s subsequent relations with the shadow laborers.


As was stated in my prior instalment, useful analysis of this incident has been hindered by a collective and false mental separation of identity politics from class issues. There is just as much identity politics inherent in class issues as vice versa. Just as the cultural gender binary is collapsing publicly with the (welcome and necessary) entrance of transgender topics into the public discourse, several other identity binaries are collapsing with little comment or awareness.

Culturally the internet constitutes the formal emergence of the post-structuralist breakdown of traditionally opposed identity binaries under capitalism, usually to the detriment of the smaller players. Crowdsourcing facilitates the collapse of the charity/capital binary. The fragmented temp work nature of internet employment with its emphasis on unpaid or barely compensated labor in hopes of “making it” or “going viral” breaks down the capitalist/worker identity binary. The rise of unpaid user produced content on sites like Reddit represents the breakdown of the work/leisure binary. The availability of workers by phone and e-mail, frequently abused by management, breaks down the “I’m at work”/”I’m not at work” and worker/consumer binaries.

What the Reddit shadow labor strike represents is one of the first times one of the binaries of economic identity has broken down (however weakly, however problematically) in favor of the unkempt masses.

The void left in the wake of these collapsed oppositional definitions of self and experience creates an economic paradigm defined by splintered pastiches of memories of prior economic formations and identities. The hard-line Marxists repeatedly relive the October Revolution like Civil War reenactors. The emergence of firms in Europe offering unemployed people unpaid “jobs” “selling” fictional “products” to other firms of unpaid unemployed people for imaginary “money” represents nothing else but a sick parody of Keynesianism. The cargo cults have figured out that they can in fact successfully wave the planes in with coconuts tied to sticks so long as the planes are imaginary as well.


This is the world we’re living in. As activists we must adjust tactics accordingly. We can learn from history but we can’t hold it too tightly the same way a person driving in reverse is only going to have limited visibility and will most likely just crash the car.

In the previous essay I mentioned that the Reddit strikers weren’t aware they were on strike. Given the cultural logic outlined above, the question arises: would the strike have been more effective if they were aware they were on strike?

OWS provides some insight. OWS’s defining aspect was the lack of a monolithic definition. It wasn’t a strike, it wasn’t a sit-in, it wasn’t fully Marxist, liberal, or anarchist, but could fluidly be any of these or all them simultaneously. The powers that be could only silence it through coordinated violence because traditional propaganda techniques amounted to a game of whack-a-mole. It might be argued the propaganda did work some of the time. But to extend the metaphor-usually in a game of whack-a-mole one does whack at least a couple moles.

The collective uprisings of the present and the future will not resemble those of the past. As McLuhan pointed out, “Innovation always initially looks like chaos.” And so it is with the Reddit strike.

Catch up on Pt. 1

Guest post by Daniel Levine. His first book, Every Time I Check My Messages, Somebody Thinks I’m Dead is available on his Etsy store.

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