'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

Pirate Philosophy, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast

HyperCritical Theory

Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

Recent publications

Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 

 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repositories PURE here, and CURVE here 

Radical Open Access

« Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University III: The Freelance Microentrepreneur To Come That I Am | Main | Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University I: Socialism for the Wealthy, Capitalism for the Rest »

Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University II: Platform Capitalism

(Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University is a series of 3 posts. Together they constitute the draft of an essay, which is itself the first part of a larger project on capitalism and inhumanism)

As a socio-economic ecosystem, the sharing economy is understood as supplying individuals with information that makes access to things like ridesharing and sofa surfing possible on a more efficient and expanded basis. Indeed, because of the emphasis that is placed on the collaborative sharing and renting of pre-owned and unused goods, the activities and services of the sharing economy are frequently held as being very different from, or even offering an alternative to, those that are provided through private, state or public means. As such, it is portrayed as a means of bringing community values back into the ways in which people consume, and of helping to address environmental issues resulting from the depletion of the planet’s resources (e.g. by reducing the carbon footprint of transport). It’s almost as if this economic ‘model’ has been devised to take the edge off some of the harsher aspects of life in the anti-welfare regime of financial capital, including those generated in the name of austerity: unemployment, precarity, increasing income inequality, high levels of debt and so forth.

In the last few months, however, a number of texts have appeared – e.g. Mike Bulajewski’s 'The Cult of Sharing', Evgeny Morozov’s 'What You Whistle in the Shower: How Much for Your Data?' – that position certain aspects of the sharing economy as enacting a significant societal shift. It is a shift in which state regulated service intermediaries, like hotels and taxi companies, are replaced by information and data management intermediaries, such as the start-ups Airbnb (a community marketplace for renting out private lodging and other kinds of accommodation) and Uber (an app that enables passengers to connect with a taxi, private car or rideshare using their mobile phones). Of course, it's important to acknowledge that the sharing economy ecosystem is made up of a variety of different economic arrangements, many of which are not directly involved in the replacement of state regulated service intermediaries. These arrangements embrace for-profit, non-profit and co-operative structures, too (e.g. those associated with fair trade collectives, freecycyling networks, peer-to-peer file sharing, Open Data or the Occupy movement). Even the information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy (which also include TaskRabbit, PeoplePerHour and Lyft, among others) are not all the same. Each has its own particular features, characteristics and spheres of operation within the larger socio-economic ecosystem. Nevertheless, rather than sharing activities, goods and services in a fair and resilient fashion that enables a more direct exchange between the parties involved by cutting out the unnecessary middlemen, what most of these for-profit sharing economy start-ups are doing is corporatising and selling cheap and easy access to assets that are underutilised. In the case of Airbnb and Uber, which continue to be the two most well-known examples, these assets take the form of spare rooms in homes and seats in vehicles that are otherwise occupied on an infrequent and temporary basis; idle resources it has up until now been difficult for capital to commodify, and whose value from an entrepreneurial point of view has therefore been wasted.  

For some, this move away from state regulated service intermediaries like hotels and taxi companies toward for-profit businesses is part of market capitalism’s increasing co-option and rebranding of the ‘true’ community values of the sharing economy. Even if this form of economy is presented as a revival of community spirit, it actually has very little to do with sharing access to goods, activities and services, and everything to do with selling this access. It thus does hardly anything to challenge economic inequality and injustice. At best it is capable of providing an additional source of income in what many are experiencing as economically straightened times. For others, including Yochai Benkler, these technology start-ups are simply innovating too fast for the politicians and law makers to keep pace with – a state of affairs seen as likely to have highly disruptive social consequences if it continues unconstrained.  

When it comes to understanding how neoliberalism has been able to proceed with its programme of minimising the role played by the state, the public sector and welfare in the age of austerity, however, the really important point to note is that, by avoiding pre-emptive state regulation, these profit-driven sharing economy businesses are operating according to what can be understood as a post-welfare state model. Here, as Morozov notes, ‘social protections for workers are minimal, they have to take on risks previously assumed by their employers’.  There are also very few possibilities for establishing trade unions or other forms of collective agency, action or means of generating the kind of solidarity that might be able to challenge this state of affairs. It is a situation that often leaves those providing services on the platforms of these information and data management intermediaries labouring for less than the minimum wage and without a host of workers’ rights. The list of lost benefits is a long one. For Bulajewski, it includes ‘the right to have employers pay social security, disability and unemployment insurance taxes, the right to family and medical leave, workers’ compensation protection, sick pay, retirement benefits, profit sharing plans, protection from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin, or wrongful termination for becoming pregnant, or reporting sexual harassment or other types of employer wrongdoing’.  

It thus comes as no surprise that one of the other names associated for this aspect of the sharing economy is ‘platform capitalism’.  Indeed, the for-profit sector of this socio-economic ecosystem appears to be almost the neoliberal ideal. It helps to create a situation in which the general population now not only aspires to own their own homes - which is the vision the conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold to the British working-classes in the 1980s, with the right to buy scheme - they also have the opportunity to become private capitalist entrepreneurs themselves. And in the case of Airbnb, one way they can do so is precisely by trading otherwise underutilized space in their now privately owned homes. As the company’s cofounder and CEO, Brian Chesky, puts it, previously ‘only businesses could be trusted, or people in your local community. Now, that trust has been democratized - any person can act like a brand.... It means that people all over a city, in 60 seconds, can become microentrepreneurs’. (It is worth noting that this last point is not strictly correct: more often than not you need to have an asset – be it property or a car or time – to be in a position to ‘share’.)

The information and data management intermediaries of the sharing economy may create jobs, then, but ‘it’s a new kind of job’, as Chesky readily acknowledges. ‘Maybe it’s like a 21st-century job’, he suggests. Or maybe, given the lack of worker’s rights and degree of externalised risk, it’s like a very old kind of job, a late 19th, early 20th century job.  For these for-profit companies, and the microentrepreneurs who labour for them (and who in the past would have been known as employees), are operating in an open market that is relatively free from the ability of state regulators, the labour movement and trade unions to not only put a limit on the maximum hours those employed in these new kinds of jobs work in a day or week, but also to specify the minimum wage they should receive, the number of days off they need, as well as the paid holidays and free weekends they are entitled to.  (In the era of platform capitalism it’s as if many of these means of having a break from work are now to be provided by the for-profit sharing businesses themselves - along with other companies with an investment in the management of information and data such as Google and Apple - through their ability to save people’s time and complete tasks for them. Witness, to give one by now quite commonplace example, Google’s linking of users’ electronic diaries to their email accounts and sending of automatic appointment reminders to them on their mobile phones. The ‘taptic engine’ feature of the new Apple Watch means they don’t even have to spend time taking their phones out of their pockets to know they’ve received message: the watch just gives them a gentle tap on the wrist.)

Production and control, profit and risk, are thus not shared in this sector of the sharing economy at all. It’s the networks of users who help to build the platform and who provide the aggregated input, data and attention value that function to generate a market. Noticeably, these users do not themselves form a social community in the manner they can on other kinds of digital platforms: Wikipedia, for example, or even Facebook. What is more, because they never really own the products and services they are purchasing, these users are more susceptible to questionable practices on the part of the sharing economy’s microentrepreneurs than would ordinarily be the case in a state-regulated market. 

Meanwhile, it is the owners of the information and data management intermediary who take the profits generated by financializing, corporatizing and exploiting the ’sharing’ of goods and services between the users and microentrepreneurs that they make possible by turning this exchange into a market. Moreover, the former tend to be well-funded professional entrepreneurs, as opposed to the more amateur microentrepreneurs who do a lot of the actual labour. These owners also control the platform, software, data and associated ecosystem, deciding pricing and wage levels, work allocation, standards, conditions, and preferred user and labourer profile. This means that who does and does not get to work as a microentrepreneur in this economy is not delimited by state legislation or organised union activity designed to protect workers from being discriminated against. In fact, research on the sharing economy shows a certain ‘homophily’ occurs, by which it is often ‘similar “types” of people [who] provide and use these services (in terms of class, education and race)’, especially when a rating system is employed.  (Uber, for example, enables both customers and drivers to rate one another, and suspends drivers if their scores are not high enough. There is also reported to be a regular scarcity of female ‘drivers for hire’ in many of the cities in which Uber operates at present.)

Finally, it is the often quite isolated microentrepreneurs (who can now be potentially ‘any person’, rather than a specific set of employees) who labour to provide services in the market created by the platform on a freelance, on demand, and frequently precarious basis; who take the risks associated with having lost their rights, benefits and protection as employees in this ‘gig economy', as it is also sometimes known; and who, depending on the particular platform, often face ‘increased surveillance, deskilling, casualisation and intensification’ of their labour too. 

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