In recent weeks I have been doing a lot of travelling (involving taking a lot of taxis) and speaking at various events about the so-called ‘sharing economy’, so Uber has been much on my mind.
I am never quite sure how much various different audiences know about the topic so one of the things i sometimes do is show a powerpoint slide with various phrases people might have come across ( ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘cloudsourcing’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘peer-to-peer networking’ etc.) and then show them the logos of various online platforms which they might have heard of to see what glimmers of awareness emerge. Last year, with a bunch of students I thought would be quite savvy about such things, I asked them to put up one hand if they had heard of the company or recognised the logo and two hands if they had used it. One admitted to having heard of Airbnb, two people had heard of Uber and one (a lecturer sitting in on the class) confessed to having used it. Of the dozen or so other companies (including several – like Elance, Peopleperhour, and Taskrabbit) that might have offered them a source of supplementary income, none kindled a spark of recognition. I was astonished by their ignorance.
European academics tend to have heard of Amazon Mechanical Turk (partly, perhaps, because it is used a lot to find samples for surveys, as well as having been much studied in the USA) and a few have also heard of ‘clickwork’ but not of the German company of that name. Some make use of online platforms that provide cleaning, household repair or construction services without putting much, if any, thought into how their workers are treated. And many are enthusiastic customers of Airbnb and Etsy.
A couple of months ago at the European Parliament I didn’t ask the question formally, but it was clear from the discussion that quite a few people were familiar with both Airbnb and Uber, though less so with the platforms that co-ordinate things like construction work, cleaning, hairdressing and so on. This suggests that the topic has begun to appear at least at the periphery of policy debates about the ‘Digital Single Market’.
The politicans’ concern is not trivial. Uber vowed in January 2015 ‘to create 50,000 jobs in Europe as part of a “new partnership” with European cities’*. And this is welcomed by many in some cities, where taxi drivers are regarded as a privileged elite (and taxi licenses cost a small fortune). One Italian participant at the meeting spoke eloquently of the way that working class people in her city welcomed affordable taxis, regarding the existing drivers as a kind of mafia-like closed shop. There was nobody there who spoke to represent the taxi drivers as organised workers represented by trade unions, which better reflects the reality in many countries. It is clear that much popular opinion is not on the side of the official taxi drivers but welcomes what it thinks will offer cheaper alternative taxi services (though Uber’s ‘dynamic pricing’ policy suggests that this is sometimes not the case, and, if official taxis are driven out of the arena, may become less so in the future). Even leaving such qualifications aside, it is clear that the policy response has to be more sophisticated than a simple knee-jerk defence of the existing regulations.
On my way back from the European Parliament building to the train station, with Uber on my mind, I was amused to see how the Belgian official taxi drivers were responding to this threat to their dominance. In what I can only presume to be a conscious and witty reference to the famous Magritte painting of a pipe, captioned ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe’, but with reversed significance, they have added stickers to the sides of their cabs proclaiming ‘ceci n’est pas un taxi clandestin’.
Cut to Berlin, where, a month later, I was doing a talk, also on the sharing economy, for a conference organised by Die Linke, the Left Party, and the situation is very different. I was expecting a high awareness of Uber, given the news stories that went around the world in september 2014 about a ruling by the Berlin court upholding a ban on Uber in the German capital. It was reported at the time* that this had come about as a result of heavy lobbying by the German taxi drivers’ associations.
Yet when I gave my presentation nobody in the audience admitted even to having heard of Uber. And when I left the conference, outside the nearby railway station in the official taxi rank, what should I see but taxis actually advertising Uber.
What’s going on here? I cannot pretend to know anything about the background to this. Has some huge administrative or legal sea-change taken place in the last six months? Is Uber now running official taxis? Have the organisations that represent official taxi drivers capitulated to such an extent that their members are now forced to drive around advertising the very service that spells the death-knell of their bargaining power? Has Uber adopted the kind of bullying strategy that the forthcoming TTIP will open up to many more international corporations – to sue any body that prevents them elbowing their way into any market, including the market for advertising on taxis? Whatever the case, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what is going on in the streets and what is going on in the perceptions of German left-wing intellectuals.
A week later, in Toronto, I was confronted with a different sort of disconnect. Many North American intellectuals are only too aware of the changes in work organisation signalled by the advent of the ‘sharing economy’ and this is starting to become evident in that most reliable of indicators, the topic of a growing number of PhD theses. Yet I found absolutely no evidence that this awareness is being translated significantly into political positions that inform daily practice. One leading US socialist intellectual with whom I had a conversation about how we had both got to central Toronto from the airport told me that although he had taken a regular taxi on the way in, he was planning to use Uber on the way back because it was so much cheaper. I detected no sense that he felt any matter of principle was involved.
Thus are wedges driven into the working class, with the USA, as so often, showing us in Europe what lies ahead of us: with workers acting as service users placed in a position where every act of consumption runs the risk of worsening other workers’ positions as service producers, with ever-expanding proportions of transactions mediated by increasingly powerful global corporations.