Is the gig economy a capitalist exploitation

Night studio: The world of work after Corona and digitization Does digital make us poor?


Where there was a black zero and healthy economic growth, there is now the risk of an economic downturn. Wouldn't this be the right moment to create something new that can deal with crises better than the old economic model?

By: Michael Hirsch and Martin Zeyn

Status: 06/10/2020

It is a truism: our economic policy, but also our thinking, face major challenges. But the problem is so clear, the solutions are so difficult. What does a future look like that doesn't just prolong the problems of the past by perpetuating old behaviors? The ecological realignment after Corona is being discussed intensively. But isn't there also a need for a new cultural definition of how we imagine work in the first place? The corona pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the so-called employment miracle within a few weeks: no sustainability, no protection for employees. Although that was clear beforehand - the fleeting job miracle in the USA was based primarily on jobs in the low-wage sector. Corona has shown in the USA how the platform economy distributes the risk: the "free" companies bear it almost alone. Do we really want a system that can only generate profits if it pays employees so badly that they cannot live on it, let alone pay for health insurance?

Exploitation as a business model

With the exception of a small number of highly qualified specialists, the digital or platform economy does not create any kind of employment that can be regarded as securing a livelihood and sustainable. Few programmers face many gig workers. We can complain about that. But we could also say: Finally, the neoliberal framing ends, according to which everyone benefits if the corporations can act unregulated.

Perhaps the end of an era in which one proceeded according to the motto: "The main thing is employment". Today this norm is slowly losing its legitimacy - because it contradicts the life experience of many people across all social classes. As the sociologist Oliver Nachtwey writes in his book "The Descent Society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modernity", we lived in a "precarious full-time society" even before the Corona, "which relies entirely on employment at any price. [E A society of social decline emerges, which is not running out of work, but of integrative work. " Integrative means: work promised social advancement for a long time. This is no longer the case today. Because the employees are too weak, too little organized, too briefly employed in the respective companies to find allies and to be able to represent their own interests with them.

Nachtwey describes a fundamental change. We no longer live in an industrial society, but neither do we live in a service society. Rather, in an industrial service society in which the logic of industrial production and that of services are fused together. This changes the mechanism of the "industrial reserve army" first described by Karl Marx: "In the past, the unemployed took on the role of the capitalist reserve army, through which structural pressure was exerted on wages and working conditions from outside. Precarious employment now internalizes this function in the companies. The temporary worker is inside the company at the same time, but has one leg outside of unemployment, and so his presence alone reminds the permanent staff that the future could look worse for them too. "

Big industry for small services

A lack of security harms people - their sleep (this has actually been proven), but also their pension entitlements if they do not have a straight, uninterrupted work history. As retirees, they don't even get the respect because they worked as freelancers or worked irregularly. This is reflected in their attitude towards life. They think they are worth less. Because although social normality has long been established, precarious employment is still socially stigmatized. As always, the language here is treacherous: The pension law term "lifetime achievement" disparages all those who have only achieved an "unsatisfactory lifetime achievement". This acknowledges my neediness, but only at the price of a social death sentence.

A movement against apparent independence

Mathematically, there was almost full employment in Germany - until Corona. But even this historically rather rare situation did not necessarily lead to more prosperity and social security for everyone. Rather, it tended to lead to increased competition and extra work. The winners were - for a long time - shareholders and - to this day - property owners. But large parts of the population have no assets. Because their income only goes from hand to mouth.

One reason: the gig workers naturally find it more difficult to organize themselves socially. Whereby: Why should everything possible be organized over the Internet, only not workers' rights? Almost unnoticed in this country, the Californian Assembly Bill 5, which was passed in 2019, finally made all gig workers, precisely those virtual serfs who were previously almost without rights, employees of the companies concerned with social insurance. The bill could turn an entire industry in the USA inside out - if such projects do not fall victim to a purely industry-friendly post-corona policy. The Californian example shows that the state has a great deal of creative power at the level of labor law to support the rights of employees and thus also the possibilities of action for the trade unions. The overriding question would be: Is an intellectual and political movement emerging that systematically fights against bogus self-employment and massive social welfare fraud?

"Working people are much more than mere resources. This is one of the central lessons of the current crisis. Caring for the sick, delivering food, medicine and other essentials, disposing of our waste, replenishing shelves and serving the tills in our grocery stores: The people who keep life going through the Covid-19 pandemic are living proof that work cannot be reduced to a mere commodity: concern for human health and supplies the weakest cannot be governed by market forces alone. Otherwise we run the risk of worsening inequalities to the point where we jeopardize the lives of the most disadvantaged groups. "

- 'Manifesto on the future of work'.

But not only the state, we ourselves are also challenged. Questions have to be answered honestly: What do I want from my work? How do I relate to my own profession? Is it actually inevitable and inevitable that I reproduce a highly problematic social model of overtime, exploitation and social inequality with my own work life? It is about the potential for democratic shaping of the economy and society in general. Perhaps this is also the most important arena in the fight against growing right-wing populism. The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno had already warned against a general incapacitation in his essay "What means: coming to terms with the past". People would turn to fascism because they were subject to brutal constraints, both social and economic: "If they want to live, they have no choice but to adapt to the given, to conform; they have to cross out that autonomous subjectivity to which the idea is based appealed by democracy, they can only sustain themselves if they renounce themselves. "

We have to stop simply submitting to the circumstances and cross out our autonomous subjectivity as responsible citizens in everyday life, as Adorno says. Whether we stop believing those who tell us that there is nothing more to complain than in private. I wish for a progressive and emphatic attitude towards my own working life and my own professional field. Jürgen Habermas brought the term critical professional practice into play in 1969 in his influential book "Protest Movement and University Reform".

A "critical professional practice" lies in the application of general progressive ideas to one's own professional field and the working conditions prevailing there. This is diametrically opposed to today's rather vulgar ideology of self-optimization, career and professional self-realization. So: We should learn again to vigorously increase the demands on the working conditions as a whole, but also our demands on the work. This is the only way we can resist foreign determination and alienation! We must finally use critical knowledge as a potential for resistance: When will the intellectuals in the radio and television stations, in the newspapers and in the universities finally begin to politicize their own areas of work? Instead of just continuing to complain verbally and generally about social inequality, precariousness, exploitation and self-exploitation?

Certainly there are individual cases where this dream of self-determined work is actually lived out in phases. But not in bulk and not in the long term. It is now known that companies do brilliant business with the promise of self-fulfillment in their job. They cleverly mask their mostly quite simple strategies of exploitation and self-exploitation: that is, waiver of wages, overtime, waiver of social benefits and occupational health and safety regulations. The first in France to point this out in 1999 were the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiappello in their now classic book "The New Spirit of Capitalism". In it they show that management advisors have increasingly taken up motifs and metaphors from the world of free artistic work since the early 1990s. You build these linguistic figures into entrepreneurial self-descriptions and the jargon of advice and coaching.

"Know your excellence
Believe in the challenge
Give freely
Promote the growth of the whole personality "

- From the online article 'Creating A High-Trust, High-Performance Culture'.

Of course, all mature subjects, including you and I, have an insatiable desire for more autonomy. But he should actually defend himself against the fact that more autonomy means at the same time to work more and more intensively. Why doesn't that happen, ask Boltanski and Chiappello? Because it's only about individual improvements, what the two call "artist criticism". So: a veil of individualization has fallen over the employment relationships. This is supposed to hide the fact that partially increased scope for autonomy is at the same time clamped into tough constraints of optimization and extra work. When work pressure rises overall, both at the lower end of the professional and income groups and among the relatively privileged, then autonomy is a poisoned gift that tastes sweet of freedom but has a bitter aftertaste of overtime.

This new spirit of capitalism undermined the labor and social law achievements of the welfare state and the labor movement over the past 20 years. The trick is: The pressure to be more productive and overtime is apparently no longer ordered from above, it is desired from below. This is because the workload in normal working hours cannot be managed with the existing staffing capacities - in simple terms, more work for fewer staff. The compulsion to work more and to activate oneself is transferred to the subjects themselves. This applies to the new digital service economies, but also to the changed working conditions in industrial companies and state cultural authorities.

That sounds like a sado-maso relationship: I love the chains that cut into my flesh. Say yes to autonomy, flexibility and mobility! And forget the chronically underexposed dark side of precariousness and overtime, forget about the weakening of health and safety regulations. Yesterday was "Fordist" assembly line production, today project-based production in working groups. They have democracy and freedom - but only for a time. Get together, think, criticize - and then the boss is the boss again. And how does the bait work to participate? By holding in front of their noses what is normally reserved for top-level employees: networking and activity. In this way, employees perceive their work as more valuable. But they also pay for it. By continuing to work on the projects at the weekend and by being available on the phone in the evening to answer questions. The boundary between work and freedom is lost - with serious consequences for health and social life. As women experience it, who had to deal with care and childcare all by themselves during Corona.

We live in a world of aesthetically souped-up self-optimization and creativity imperatives. No one can now overlook the mass phenomenon of psychosocial exhaustion diseases. That is why there are also offers to take care of yourself more. They should then slightly esoterically dampen the traditional creativity imperatives with their aggressive language of conquest and struggle. On December 31, 2019, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which was not suspect, said: "The workload of employees is increasing. According to a survey of 1,500 German employees by the consulting company EY, 70 percent said that their workload had increased in the past five years , at 40 percent it has even risen sharply afterwards. "

The semantics of the great project

Because of its youthful aura, the internet economy is particularly susceptible to pseudo-egalitarian and pseudo-emancipatory self-marketing. It fulfills an avant-garde function here, which also radiates into the other work areas. Claiming an entrepreneurial spirit internalized by all employees, the semantics of the awesome project that everyone is passionate about, not only obscures growing workloads. It also disguises real inequalities in power, income, social security and prestige. This is also the basic thesis in "Gig Economy", the new book by British political scientist Colin Crouch. On the linguistic level alone, the gig economy is "a cynical maneuver to spruce up a precarious form of employment with the romance of the entertainment industry".

Nomen est omen. How great: I can realize myself like a musician at a gig, that is, at a performance. Of which we should know that the vast majority of them cannot make a living - also thanks to internet companies such as Spotify or Amazon Music, which have caused CD sales and thus the income of musicians to plummet. You have to be able to afford freedom - or you pay for it with old-age poverty. Should work devalue just as much as music over the next few decades, then I dread the future.

The gig economy not only relies on the naked, silent compulsion of circumstances, i.e. the forced compulsion to survive. Nobody works voluntarily with poor pay, but the eroded welfare state security forces him to do so. We claim we enjoy our work. In truth, however, we are being exploited. Not a new phenomenon, as Antonio Gramsci already spoke of. The Italian theorist showed that capitalism is as much based on exploitation as it is on consensus. Which is astonishing, because there are, which nobody denies, people who benefit more from this form of economy than others.

Gramcsi believed that domination was created in the mind. Two figures of thought intertwine: on the one hand coercion, on the other hand the conviction that domination and exploitation are more or less natural. Gramsci used the word hegemony to describe the crucial mediation of coercion and consensus. It is about the cultural leadership, the mastery over the language, the terms and the definition relationships. Gramsci's famous formula for securing rule was: "Hegemony armored with coercion". The side of coercion is obvious, because many people have no alternative, they have to accept bad working conditions. The side of hegemony, however, is just as important: with which cultural patterns of interpretation and with which political agreements an at least relative consensus, i.e. a provisional consent of the ruled to the socially insecure employment relationships, is generated. And this is where the realm of ideology begins, the realm of deception and aiding and abetting self-deception.

What is being sold to us as new are age-old patterns of exploitation. Political scientist Colin Crouch rightly says that the new economy isn't all that new. This pseudo-independence existed in the so-called publishing trade as early as the 19th century. Wholesalers made advance payments and supplied homeworkers with raw materials. They had to weave them into fabrics. The retailers then picked up the finished product and paid for it.Very little because the women did not have the capital to buy the raw materials themselves. That means they had to buy dearly and sell cheaply. Because they had no bargaining power. Like the gig workers who are subject to a eat-or-die system. The provider's app specifies what is to be done when and at what time.

We have known since Marx that capital is structurally more powerful than the workers. But, as the history of the labor movement teaches us, it is a question of a thoroughly open struggle, a struggle that waves to and fro. And that has something to do with the representation of interests and politics, but also with culture and ideology. So with a struggle for power of interpretation. That is why public discussion and political decision-making are so important. I think we are slowly awakening from a nightmare today: it was the nightmare of a long post-political or post-democratic age. Post-democracy was also the title of the book that made Colin Crouch famous in the 1990s. It was the nightmare of a political impotence.

We are handing over power to the experts, the administration and internet companies because they know much better than we do what is good for us. Dictatorship light. A nightmare that turns citizens into consumers. Incapacitation through administration, recently also through algorithms. A depletion that is accompanied by a huge increase in inequality. The sociologist Saskia Sassen predicted years ago that the development of centers would become decoupled from the periphery. That means large metropolises or industrial centers are the winners of the future.

Winners that produce losers. This does not only apply to the relationship between the rich global north and the global south. It also affects the global north itself, which, if we are not careful, will increasingly produce its own south. It produces its own margins, its own split between the center and the periphery: "Homelessness is growing in prosperous areas like San Francisco or Seattle - because many can no longer pay for an apartment with their wages. And like Krupp once, like 150 years ago, some are catching today Companies are building apartments for their employees, 20,000 from the Google Group alone. It looks as if the promise to solve all problems with a few clicks has failed because of very old problems. And Corona let the queues ahead The soup kitchens are getting very long because the unemployment rate in the US has risen to over 20 percent. "

Are new zone margins emerging?

If a two-class society emerges The Basic Law states that the legislature should equalize living conditions. It is not possible now. And how is it supposed to succeed when multinational corporations instead of governments determine where power and wealth are concentrated? It has not yet been decided whether we can wake up from this nightmare. To do this, we need a new belief in the power of the political and the intellectual debate. In popular culture terms: Yes, we can.

We need to raise historical awareness. It is exactly as you say with Colin Crouch: the new is not so new at all, it is rather the very old in a new edition: precarious employment, bogus self-employment, poverty, expropriation of wage workers from their means of production, dependence on big industry , bad and sick work, massive existential fear. The social policy of the Hartz IV sanctions is not new either. The most important function of critical historical consciousness is the ability to effectively counter certain ideologies with which rule is to be stabilized. That is also Colin Crouch's intention.

"The platform providers show their workers that they are independent entrepreneurs, when in reality they are only thoroughly subordinate, strictly monitored cogs in a huge profit-maximizing machine."

- Colin Crouch, 'Gig Economy'. Suhrkamp 2019

But now it depends on how such statements as Colin Crouch's are received in the public debate. Do they remain a pure provocation? Are they becoming a new form of hegemony, a new common sense, to use the language of Antonio Gramsci? Gramsci coined the beautiful term interregnum to describe a situation that is very similar to ours today: a certain historical hegemony is beginning to disintegrate, but no new hegemony, no new common sense, no new ruling view of things has yet established itself .

I advocate making it clear to ourselves what responsibility we as intellectuals, as knowledge workers, bear: namely, to help shape this new common sense. What is fair pay? What good work? What is the minimum pension everyone is entitled to? Are companies allowed to transfer profits to countries with lower taxes? The question that we should ask ourselves every day: Why can't we regulate the corporations on the Internet in the same way as those in the real economy? Of course we could. Indeed, there have been more specific considerations in the European Union for a long time. For example, favoring companies that continuously train their employees so that they are not dependent on unqualified gig and click jobs. A bonus system for companies that are committed to reintegration after parental leave. Preferential treatment for tenders if all employees are socially insured. And overall, efforts to enforce corporate profit taxation where the profits are made.

But we must not just think about such new welfare state and labor law institutes. But also about new forms of business. In response to the obviously failed previous forms of private capitalist sharing and platform economy, more and more platform co-ops are emerging, i.e. platform cooperatives or platform cooperatives. For example, there is the FairBnb project as a fair alternative to AirBnb and some cooperative supermarket projects.

It is exactly the same, and society will have to get back to it. So far, the digital economy has not yet led to mass unemployment, but it is deepening social rifts. The macro-earners in the few centers contrast with the micro-earners on the fringes.

We are at a crossroads. If we don't do anything, we'll leave the field to the internet giants. We finally have to develop our own pictures of good work. From fair payment, from cooperative ownership, from a limitation of the power of capital, from real personal responsibility. It's about anchoring democracy and everyone's participation in the economy.