Marxist economists have spent a lot of time in recent years deconstructing capitalism, showing that there are lots of spaces within modern economies in which capitalism does not prevail. The idea behind “iceberg economics” is that lots of alternatives to capitalism already exist (barter, self-help, producer cooperatives, and the like) and, once recognized, they can be fostered and further developed.
By the same token, it’s also important to focus on instances where capitalism does exist, even when—as in the case of the so-called sharing economy—it might appear that the typical relations of capitalism don’t apply.
Uber, the ride-sourcing service, is a case in point. The owners of Uber maintain their drivers are independent contractors, and all they’re doing is providing “a technology platform that helps willing drivers connect with passengers willing to pay for a ride.” Drivers, in turn, benefit “because they have complete flexibility and control.”
But the California Labor Commission has now ruled that Uber has an employer-employee relationship with its drivers. As Katy Steinmetz explains,
The growing independent-contractor workforce is a key reason that companies like Instacart and Uber have been able to grow so quickly, because the cost of organizing independent contractors is much less than hiring employees. There’s no requirement to pay unemployment tax or ensure that workers are making at least minimum wage. In many cases, the companies don’t have to pay for the smartphones or data plans workers use on the job. They don’t have to deal with the costly spools of red tape that come with federal and state withholdings and healthcare and anti-discrimination laws.
Uber’s relationship with its drivers is an essentially capitalist one, in the sense that it hires the drivers and extracts a surplus from them—without many of the rules and regulations that pertain to other capitalist employers.
Recognizing the capitalist dimension of that relationship is important, at one level, because it pushes back against the ability of Uber and other companies in the so-called sharing economy to shift many of the expenses of running a business onto their employees. Drivers and other workers will certainly benefit as a result.
But only partly. They’ll still be employees of billion-dollar companies. Recognizing the capitalist nature of much of the on-demand economy is even more important, on another level, because it means we can finally go beyond the false image of flexible and in-control independent contractors and put on the agenda the abolition of the wages-system itself.
Then we’d have the chance to build a real sharing economy.