Uber and the Luddites

The fight against the sharing economy, and Uber in particular, can be disorienting. Opposition is often painted as techno-phobia. The good guys in this story are Uber and progress; on the other side are opponents afraid of flexibility and smartphones, kicking and screaming against a future already here. In many ways, this is like the fight of the Luddites (machine smashers) 200 years ago at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. While the Luddites were fighting the way technology was used to further exploit rather than liberate workers, they were and are misrepresented as simply afraid of and opposed to technology.

Just as power looms and other machines inaugurated a technological revolution that ultimately produced more work for the many and greater wealth for the few, so too modern technologies are enriching Silicon Valley’s billionaires at the expense of drivers, delivery folk and all manner of service workers. The sharing economy that is experienced by consumers as a friendly convenience is a low-wage, precarious trap for workers. It would sound all too familiar for the skilled cloth-makers who wanted machines to give them more leisure and continued control over their work, but instead found themselves subsidizing the profits of the machine owners in England’s “satanic mills.”

Today, few technologies have as much potential for easy cooperative management as those of the currenly-mislabelled sharing economy. These tools are not to blame. In fact, internet-based technologies are an opportunity for worker management. As Mike Konczal wrote in The Nation a year ago:

Given that the workers already own all the capital in the form of their cars, why aren’t they collecting all the profits? Worker cooperatives are difficult to start when there’s massive capital needed up front, or when it’s necessary to coordinate a lot of different types of workers…If any set of companies deserves to have its rentiers euthanized, it’s those of the “sharing economy,” in which management relies heavily on the individual ownership of capital, providing only coordination and branding.

Silicon Valley’s version of sharing means that while we carry the risks of illness, breakdown and everything else that comes with own our tools—the cars that we drive for Uber or the computers we use for online Taskrabbit chores—they get to say how the gains from our services are distributed. The Luddites surely would be impressed that technology owners can now get rich simply by connecting people with each other. If looms and frames were the symbol for Luddites of their degradation, today’s drivers, couriers and taskrabbits can only point to ephemeral platforms and apps. While the Luddites attacked their bosses by destroying their looms and faced violent reprisals sanctioned by law, the privately-run digital networks of today are virtually impossible to physically disrupt while having the full force of the law behind them.

Instead of greater socialization that spreads wealth and decision-making, the sharing economy is a funnel of money and control towards the top. Yet today’s world still has space for some pretty old school demands the Luddites would recognize. They wanted to work less and have a say over how they worked (with technology!). We too could be using the fruits of technology to get ever shorter workweeks, cooperate more and manage aspects of the economy together.

Faced wth the charge of techno-phobia, remember that the fight against Uber is a fight for a technology that could be used to distribute work more equally and foster genuine cooperation. I hope that this fight today won’t be remembered with the same misunderstandings in some dystopian 23rd century capitalism, though I’m sure the Luddites would have had the same hopes of us…

7 thoughts on “Uber and the Luddites

  1. Yeah … and the printing press put all of the scribes out of work. Boo frickin hoo.
    Most of the technology that’s coming is a solution to significant problems: bed bugs in hotels or crappy, run down vehicles driven by distracted lunatics. Eventually teachers, janitors, bus drivers and others will be out of work because of automation that results in better, safer and more cost-effective delivery.
    Sure, many people at ‘the top’ benefit, but those at the top shot up there rapidly because they introduced … technology. Technology is what differentiates our market economy from failed states.
    Get your thinking cap on: come up with something good and you’ll ‘advance directly to go’ as well!

  2. I think a key point here is why in heavens name should we pay tribute to a US firm for merely helping to connect a buyer and seller in Canada with a simple AP. I don’t get the connection to a sharing society but I do know when I see politicians shirking their responsibility to their own local businesses and helping to destroy them in the name of an interloper from afar.

  3. Let’s quit with the sharing economy BULLSHIT. People are not sharing anything they are purchasing services. The goal for the end result is for actual workers to be paid less and capitalist intermediaries to rake in more profit.

  4. The vital question here, though, is what sort of strategy can we adopt towards automation (not just of work but of labour relations themselves) that is both a powerful strategy for labour organizing (rebuilding weak trade unions, or strong new unions) and one which develops a serious politics to deal with the organisation of society in a non-capitalist vision (ie: one where the breakdown of wage labour as a model for social organisation does not simply create a massive reserve army of labour)?

    Luddism is an interesting historical example to consider, but let’s not forget that the Luddites were defeated by the alliance of capital with the armed state. The same will not necessarily be true of Uber in the same way (what would an anti-Uber riot look like? How would it be put down?) but we’re already seeing traditional attempts to organised against automation quashed by state power: take the UK government’s new offensive against trade unions while London’s tube drivers organise against driverless trains. We need to re-invent industrial organising for a labour market that is already hyper-casualised, managed in a non-fordian way – an already uberised economy. To do otherwise is surely just to wish for the conditions of the 20th Century in the hope that we could fight with 20th Century models (but better, presumably).

    The point being: we shouldn’t be fighting Uber, we should be fighting the forces of capital that are expressed through the mechanisms of Uber. Doesn’t that mean we should be looking for opportunities to develop labour organising in the space created by Uber and its ilk – because that space already exists, and is strong – rather than pretending we can stand in the pre-Uber world and beat it?

    1. Thanks for this! I agree completely with the vital question being that of strategy and organizing. Seems like we’re in a situation where the old ways aren’t working, the new ones aren’t yet fully born.

      In short, to your final question: yes! I agree that we shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to romanticize the past. Concretely, right now it seems some are working to just get Uber and other contract workers the right to unionize (as in Seattle), some are working to form alternatives that use similar technology (though, as you point out, with the state behind Silicon Valley, the market isn’t all that free!) and the last are those working on UBI and other schemes. Each has its weaknesses (I have the most reservations about the last actually, because despite being the most expansive, it is also most liable to become a neoliberal, put-everything-on-the-market option).

      The final thing is to keep in mind how much of the economy has actually undergone casualization of the type associated with Uber, etc. The answer for now seems not actually that much. This isn’t to say we don’t need to adjust our organizing to the realities of today but to keep our eyes on how much of this is new, and how much is that fact that workers have been precarious in one way or another throughout capitalism’s mutations.

  5. The underlying problem is the risk shifting. Uber is essentially transferring (externalizing) all of the costs and risks of operation to the public and the drivers. We have to decide whether Uber should, given their revenue, undertake some of the risks of the venture, or should more revenue shift to government regulatory agencies and the drivers to account for the risks. I think it is important to account for the externalities inherent in the sharing economy; that is not happening now.

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