On the Sharing Economy

The rise of what has been called, inaccurately, “the sharing economy” presents a number of problems for how we conceive of eventual worker liberation and the establishment of a more sane and equitable society. It requires the nationalization of platforms more than industries.

The psychological model of “platform” based work relies on the schizophrenic split between the identities of consumer and worker; a master/slave dialect that exists within each individual that exists within this economy. The person as consumer feels all powerful and pampered so long as they have money, and in some respects even without money provided they have an internet connection. I can get most of my needs besides food and a place to sleep extremely cheaply or free if I live close enough to an urban area and know how to navigate the system of thrift stores and things like Freecycle. When I do buy things, the standards of customer service have been automated to points where I can, in certain cities, order almost anything on the internet and have same day to within the hour delivery. I’m not sure there’s ever been a better point in human history to be a person with money buying things or living on the fringes of people buying things than the present.

However, as a worker, the environment is chaotic and assaultive. Attempts to dismantle what protections workers have gained over the past hundred years come from all directions; there’s a large portion of the working class in the United States that seems convinced that the primary problem of class tensions is that they haven’t given the bosses enough. Economically the US is in decline and facing tough competition from China and others.

This creates theoretical problems for the engaged Marxist. While a crisis of overproduction is a classic problem that Marxist theory is extremely well-equipped to tackle and the consumer identity side of things makes a lot of sense, the sharing economy is predicated on the bizarre notion of charging the worker for the privilege of…their owning the means of production. An Uber driver owns their own car, etc etc. It could be said that the thing actually being produced isn’t rides but work; that the actual customer of Uber is the driver and that therefore the largest growing market is the market for employment (that, for added absurdist sci-fi flavor, refuses to call itself employment and will fight over that in court.)

In terms of the present, this being the growth market makes some sense. The end point of technological sophistication, one of them anyhow, was always going to be the replacement of human labor by said technology. This was supposed to happen, this was the dream that you see in so many science fiction stories and popular TV shows dealing with the future-flying cars, and, more importantly, robotic servants, always viewed passively as set decoration. The other side of the sci-fi coin were anxiety dreams the robots would enslave the humans. This template isn’t especially far removed from the passive mammy/frightening minority threat coming to destroy “our values/homestead/etc” dichotomy that’s been a hallmark of the movies since Birth of a Nation. The comforting aspect of these films to the technologist or the racist is that they all still presume a strongly bonded community and an other, a stable world where the privilege stemming either from being human or white is a divine right. It avoids the question of whether the problems that would arise from technology wouldn’t stem from the inertia or weakening of man in the face of machines but from where most problems of the past 250 years and many from before then have stemmed-the banal and crushing inertia of the accumulation of wealth to a small minority of the population.

Technology’s advance has not led to a more fair or equitable society. Conveniences have multiplied, yes, but these have been trojan horses. The creation of massive quantities of so-called redundancy in the workforce, the speed-up that expedited the process of accumulation, and the powers of control and surveillance that have been handed over to massive tech giants while no one was paying attention all speak to this.

If I was accumulated capital personified, in the long term, what would I want? I would want to replace the specific functions of the federal government that collect money, while leaving the husk of said government to deal with the externalities that cost money. I’d want a couple private towns I had complete sovereignty over that could be designed to use soft-behaviorist techniques to control the activities of especially skilled employees. I would want to collect my employees’ taxes instead of the government. I wouldn’t want my employees to be considered employees so they couldn’t have collective bargaining rights. I wouldn’t want my employees to think of themselves as employees so they wouldn’t think about collectively bargaining. I would want access to massive zero percent interest loans backed by the government.

The above paragraph is not a new analysis. Much has already been said about the point of accumulation where the interests of concentrated capital are in the position to discipline state governments and not vice versa. This situation in some aspects is already happening. The rise of independent contractor “platforms” like Amazon used selling, Uber, etc. are ways for private interests to collect a second layer of sales tax, not land rent.

The platforms need to be seized for the workers.

The automated economy is an assault on the petit bourgeois in the same manner that industrialization was an assault on the artisan class at the advent of the industrial revolution.

 

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