On the “Gig” Economy
The emergence of the so-called “gig” economy is another structural shift in the composition of the working class. Currently, these jobs provide additional income for millions of un- or under-employed people, filling a niche in the United States’ economy partially created by union-busting and subsequent wage depression. Not only are these workers non-union, but non-employees–they are independent contractors liable for health and other insurances, expenses, and taxes out-of-pocket. In addition, workers are paid per “gig” (per ride, per delivery, per transcription, etc), rather than wages. This all adds up to dramatically increased workloads for dramatically lower earnings per hour. As everyone knows, to make money in the gig economy, you have to hustle.
Yet, as indispensable and structurally disruptive as the gig economy has become to the working-class, it also appears to be transitional. Corporations utilizing gig workers are engaged in or relying upon research that aims to replace these very workers in the near future. Uber and Lyft wish to replace their drivers with automated, driverless vehicles, as do corporations like Dominos Pizza to replace delivery drivers. Transcription and captioning services now done by humans for corporations like Rev can easily be automated as software develops.
With so much money being thrown into this kind of research, driverless cars and other automation technologies are short-term inevitabilities. Indeed, the only reason the gig economy currently exists is due to either: 1) short-term technological limitations or; 2) the disturbing fact that human labor, even in the most developed nations, is less valuable than the cost of automation under present economic logic. Both of these factors are on track to be overcome in the near-term, indicating the fragility and seemingly transitionary nature of the gig economy.
On the other hand, though much less likely, is the possibility of the gig economy becoming a long-term fixture of capitalism. Under such a scenario, it is conceivable that the working class would swell even further than at present, due to automation and technological displacement of even skilled workers. The middle-class being wiped out, economic stratification would reach unprecedented levels. The gig economy then becomes the primary source of income for the vast majority, with a super-wealthy elite overseeing largely automated industries. An army of independent contractors would all be competing among themselves for the few, low-paying gigs available.
Why is technology developed and implemented in this way? What are the motivating forces driving technology in such a direction? The short answer is: capitalism. The same social logic that warps technological development in pursuit of profit and at the expense of working people is the same logic that also pits technological advancement against the natural world (insofar as it drives society toward wasteful and polluting commodity production, or non-renewable energy use and emissions).
The trajectory and the permanence of the gig economy hinges upon the answer to the question: what will capitalism do with the displaced and unemployed at the hands of technological development? Can the current economic system survive an even larger expansion of the working-class and unemployed, and subsequent contraction of the ultra-rich bourgeoisie? Would such a stratification necessarily result in a fascistic political form to protect and enforce the existing economic order?
At present, the gig economy appears to be “lumpenizing” the entire middle- and working-classes (that is, in the Marxist sense, creating an underclass within which members are detached from social participation, connections, and obligations, subsequently lacking class consciousness and the ability to organize). Jobs that cannot be automated or are economically unfeasible to do so (de-skilled jobs where human labor is cheaper) will be thrown to the gig economy. There, de-skilled, non-union, non-waged workers will work longer for less, unconnected even to an employer. In a word, immiserated.
(As an aside, this is precisely the “utopian” society advocated by right-libertarians and “anarcho-capitalists,” many of whom reside within the technology sector and preach an elitist and misogynistic techno-optimism.)
The monopolization of, and affect on, technological development by capitalism serves to illustrate the deeply social, political, and ideological roots of one large component of modern society. For while capitalism is an economy, and its real-world existence as well as its ideology (along with Marx’s critique of it) are materialistic, it is nevertheless an ideology. As such, capitalist ideology affects technological development through such prevailing social factors as consumer sentiment, in addition to material factors such as the physical, private ownership of the means of technological research and manufacture.
Technology does not develop along its own logic, in and for itself. The trajectory of technological development is mediated through a “social matrix,” to borrow a phrase from Murray Bookchin.
Indeed, technology and the trajectory of its development represent one of the most acute examples of social values shaping human institutions and structures. In turn, this affects the harmony of the human-nature relationship and the natural world itself. It is a primary example of social and ideological roots (or a “social matrix”) affecting the ways in which human institutions are influenced, developed, and ultimately built.
That was a brief examination of the current gig economy and where it is headed if its current path remains unaltered. It is important to remember the potential inherent to change, to processes in development, to things unsettled. That which is not resolved is an open situation, subject to countless forces (be they material, scientific, social, political, environmental, etc) which can be altered to attempt to produce a desired outcome. Nothing is inherently predetermined. We are excited to know the world not just for the reward of understanding, but to understand enough to intervene in ethical, beneficial, and meaningful ways. This immersive education, or praxis, is a foremost joy of the revolutionary, as “[p]hilosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
In an upcoming post, we will take the elementary analysis presented here and see what sort of insights for thought and action we can discern. We will also compare this analysis of contemporary capitalism to Murray Bookchin’s late-period works to see what can be strengthened or discarded as the structure of capitalism continues to shift.
Charles Imboden is a social ecologist with expertise in non-profits, solar energy, and liberatory technology. He specializes in arid lands and is based in the American Southwest. Contact him here.
For more discussion of technology and technological development, please see our posts, “‘Faulty Generalizations’ and the Trajectory of Technology,” and “Genetic Engineering will not Benefit Society.“
During the 1980s through the turn of the century, Murray Bookchin and his critics engaged in fierce polemics on a number of issues (by most accounts, these polemics did more harm than good to all involved–Better Worlds, Brighter Futures refers to this period as the “dark time,” only partially in jest). For this reason, it is difficult to engage comprehensively on the subject of technology and technological development without wading into these choppy waters.
For more discussion on technology from Bookchin’s social ecological perspective, see his essay, “Towards a Liberatory Technology” in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, as well as several essays in Toward an Ecological Society. Further discussion can be found in Damian F. White’s excellent Bookchin: A Critical Appraisal.
For critical, sometimes polemical engagement of Bookchin’s conception of technological development, see “Social Ecology and the Problem of Technology” by David Watson and “‘Small’ is Neither Beautiful nor Ugly; It is Merely Small: Technology and the Future of Social Ecology” by Eric Stowe Higgs, both in the volume Social Ecology After Bookchin (1998). See also an expanded, book-length critique from Watson titled Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a Future Social Ecology. Unfortunately, many of these works have yet to be made available online, it seems.
Lastly, please keep an eye out for further discussion of social ecology and technology at Better Worlds, Brighter Futures, as we are currently working on a forthcoming piece.