The Future of Work looks a lot like the Past and Present of Work

The Future of Work looks a lot like the Past and Present of Work

By Joseph H.

The creation of the proletariat, the wage-laboring working class, is the definitive characteristic of Capitalism.  As capital is accumulated, the working class grows, a mutually reinforcing process that powers the dynamo of Capitalism.  The number of people exploited in this manner, and the extent of the exploitation, grows in proportion with the growth of the wealth of the capitalist class.  This is the definition of Capitalism, and the ways in which this dynamic manifests are numerous.

One particular expression of this relationship of exploitation has been in the rise of Gig Work.  Particularly associated with “App-Based” work, and coming into prominence with the rise of Uber and its cadre of  “on-demand” companies, this work is characterized by its unpredictable nature, lack of company benefits, and piece-work pay.  In addition, it has characteristics that make it particularly corrosive to the worker solidarity that is supposed to accompany collective exploitation.  Gig Workers don’t ever see each other in the ordinary course of their work, and they are subject to “Algorithmic Management”; hired, fired and disciplined by a computer that reaches them through their phones.  The pitch for workers is flexibility and independence, but that’s really only true for the company, which can command and dispose of these workers with enviable ease.  

These characteristics seem to differentiate Gig Work from what we understand as normal (time wages, W-2 employment status, 9-5) labor.  While of course this “normal” status is both less common and more contingent than we tend to imagine, some people consider this difference so stark that they propose that it represents a significant alteration of the class relationship.  One term you may hear to describe this is “Neofeudalism”, which imagines that Capitalism is undergoing a transformation into another (worse) system, in which state protections are eroded, capital is concentrated into a mere handful of firms, and the working class has been entirely stripped of its revolutionary potential and rendered into a perpetually embattled “Precariat” or “Serf” class.

Fortunately, there is an already existing term to describe this system in which capital is concentrated and workers are increasingly immiserated, which is “Capitalism.”  To suggest that we have sunk to new lows which transcend Capitalist exploitation is to have an excessively rosy picture of Capitalism.  Gig Labor is neither so gruesome in its exploitation nor so futuristic in its specifics that it heralds a fundamental change in our class society.  Gig Work is simply an expression of the core dynamic of capitalism, a particular local minimum derived from the particular technology, labor environment, and legislation of our time.

Gig Work as we conceive of it came into existence in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.  The reserve army of labor was particularly swollen, and the opportunity to turn car ownership into (semi-) reliable income seemed almost too good to be true.  Smartphone ownership was starting to become more ubiquitous, and investment capital was looking for new outlets for growth, following the unprecedented success of other Tech companies like Google and Facebook.  Uber arrived at precisely the right time to capitalize on these trends, becoming a perfect example of the “asset-light” company that offered huge investment returns by monetizing “connections” rather than producing goods.

To facilitate growth, the company offered rides relatively cheaply to riders, and paid drivers relatively well.  Drivers could earn supplemental income in their spare time, and committed drivers could earn a living wage (albeit without labor protections or benefits).  From the start, Uber conceived of their relationship with the drivers actually providing their company’s service as an independent contractor one (from a legal perspective), but as the company and their market developed and there was an increased demand to provide a uniform, curated service, the company tried to increase control over their drivers without altering the legal fiction that they were independent contractors.

They were largely successful in this endeavor thanks to their rapid growth; by the time governments were beginning to question this status, Uber had reached a scale that made it difficult to challenge, particularly on the local scale.  Many state and local governments were more than happy to accommodate Uber’s stance, as they saw “job creation” as more important than labor protections.

The first significant legal framework to challenge Uber’s labor paradigm was the Massachusetts “ABC Test,” which proposed a three-pronged test and presumed a legal “employee” status as a default.  Uber, and almost all Gig Work companies manifestly fail this test, and as a result would have had to reclassify nearly all drivers in a state that adopted this rule.  When the California Assembly first passed AB5, Uber and other Gig companies saw this as an existential threat, and managed to secure a court stay on implementing the rule, and funded an ultimately successful campaign to carve out an exemption for App-Based work, precisely what the law was meant to target.

The legal fiction of “employee” vs “independent contractor” status can obscure the fact that neither of these statuses fundamentally alters the class character of this work, merely how our Bourgeois state processes individual workers.  Certainly, in either case, the driver is a proletarian laborer.

The characteristic that distinguishes artisan or independent contractor labor from proletarian labor is that proletarians lack the tools to convert their labor into goods, or the market to sell these goods themselves, and are thus obliged to sell their labor power as a raw commodity to capitalists.  This is manifestly the case with Gig Workers; for example, despite (usually) owning their own vehicles, very few Uber drivers are in a position to operate their own private car hire or chauffeur service.  The market for this service is fundamentally distinct from the market for an Uber/Lyft ride, and would never support the number of drivers doing Rideshare.  Secondly, the primary tool for doing Rideshare work is not the car, but the App, which is firmly in the control of the company.  Drivers can lose access to the app without warning and at a moment’s notice, and without it they have no means to sell rides.

The advantage for Gig Work companies to insist upon this independent contractor fiction is that the “flexibility” of their workforce is the origin of their revenue and (potential) profitability.  In our declining profitability world, there’s no room left for inefficiency, and the route left is to wring as much value as possible from workers, without spending a penny more than is necessary to purchase their labor power.  Long-term drivers have witnessed their earnings drop over the years, as Uber and other companies have refined their algorithm, restructured their pricing, and removed driver incentives that made the work worthwhile.  In the meantime, as drivers have become increasingly specialized to perform this work, and their options for alternative gainful employment has dwindled, they are often dependent on Gig Work to earn a living, even as the companies continue to drive down wages.

In Capital, Marx addresses the issue of “Piece-Wages,” the practice of paying workers per unit of production rather than for a set duration of work.  This is the essential formula, with some modification, by which Gig Workers are paid: per delivery, per trip, per job.  

Marx notes that piece wages are “the form of wages most in harmony with the capitalist mode of production,” as they not only incentivize workers to maximize their production in pursuit of more pay (see Uber drivers working 16 hour days, driving to major markets and sleeping in their cars) and allows Capitalists to easily replace workers who fall below the average threshold for the quantity or quality of their work, raising the bar and driving up the intensity expected from workers.

This form of wage labor has been in the toolchest of Capitalism since its infancy (Marx cites 14th century labor laws) and its reemergence is a sign that Capitalism is flourishing, rather than being superseded.  Keeping labor costs piecemeal allows companies to divide their expenses into neat, granular units.  The more granular the division, the more precisely can formations of labor be rearranged, and as the rate of profit continues to fall, rearrangement is the essential formula for eking out continued capitalist profit.

There’s a tendency to see Gig Work as foreshadowing a grim future, a preview of a Future Capitalism where corporations have bent labor protections to their will, where even workers in higher-paying, more prestigious jobs have been reduced to precarity, competing on the open market for elusive “gigs” instead of having a secure income.  Algorithmic landlords, privatization of local governments, online surveillance, ubiquitous crypto; the dark portents of “Late Stage Capitalism” seem dystopian in comparison to our familiar arrangement of first world capitalism.

Capitalism is not defined by either the immiseration it produces or the technology that powers it, but by the fundamental contradiction of workers being exploited by Capitalists. Factory work and 12 hour days were the most profitable capital formation in Marx’s time, but it was superseded (in the first world, and only in part) by shorter working hours and a shift to service work.  That shift didn’t signal an end to Capitalism any more than a transition to Gig Work would.

Workers in low-wage industries are already mostly deprived of labor protections, exploited in the same ways that workers have been since the dawn of Capitalism.  The challenges of organizing Gig Workers are unique, but the reasons for organizing are the same, the nature of the enemy is the same, and the route to victory is the same.  The novelty of Tech Industry Capitalism is neither as great as they claim or as we fear.

Joseph H. is a member of DSA San Francisco.