Global judgements and ideas.
There are around 80 million people working in the ‘gig economy’ in the USA and 23 million in the UK. While the ventures now understood to sit within what is also called the ‘sharing’ economy often started as grass roots start-ups, they have scaled upwards significantly, and what might have once been seen as a kind of social movement where peer to peer production was heralded with its opportunities for shared production, is now a bloated corporate bouncy castle backed by venture capital including such megaliths as AirBnB and Uber (Balaram, 2016).
Revenues from the ‘sharing economy’ across Europe are projected to exceed 80 billion euros and facilitate 570 billion by 2025. Five sectors of the sharing economy across Europe: peer-to-peer accommodation, peer-to-peer transportation, on-demand household services, on-demand professional services and collaborative finance, generated 4 billion in revenues and facilitated 28 billion transactions in 2015 (PWC, 2016).
The early enthusiasm for the possibilities of the ‘sharing economy’ obscured workers’ experiences fuelling these new engines for seeming progress and prosperity. But people working in insecure conditions have felt increasingly forced into relationships of flexible ‘reciprocity’ between workers and management (where management even exists as an entity) and alongside the emergence of crowd sourced working spaces, they continue to be subject to ongoing privatisation and shrinkages to the welfare state (Berlant, 2011: 192).
Simultaneous to a more general rise in unstable working conditions in Britain, management has become more aggressive and conditions more strained. For example New Public Management techniques in the post-Thatcher eras have led to intensified work and the ‘rise in stress, bullying and mobbing in the workplace’ (Hardy, 2016). A 2004 NIDL CGIL Associazione Nuovo Welfare survey on the typologies of new work demonstrates that 42.5 per cent of casualised workers talk about job flexibility such as seen in the gig economy as ‘synonymous with fewer rights’ and 24.6 per cent as a ‘necessary evil’. The data shows that the rise in flexible work has led to people living at home for longer and being required to share accommodation, where 35.8 per cent of respondents to the NIDL CGIL survey saying that they lived with family, 32.5 per cent with a partner and 12.7 living alone. 71.6 per cent surveyed did not have children. The unpredictable hours inherent to gig work is the antithesis to sociality and any possibilities to ‘construct sociality itself’ (NIDL CGIL 2004, Chiara@CW, 2004; cited in Tari and Vanni, 2005).
Gig work is contingent, insecure, flexible, illegal, casualised, temporary, piecework, fractional, project, sessional, intermittent, freelance, unstable, uncertain, unpredictable, risky (Gill and Pratt, 2008; Tari and Vanni 2005; Kalleberg, 2009) and is often conducted by workers who are over-qualified for the work they are doing, and so, are underemployed. This is the most relevant international threat to decent and dignified work, and precarite is the root of all problematic social issues in the 21st century (Bourdieu, 1998).
Gig work draws attention to both ‘the oppressive face of post-Fordist capitalism’, and the ‘potentialities that spring from workers’ own refusal of labour and their subjective demands’ (Neilson and Rossiter, 2005). The lack of stable waged labour can give rise to an affective condition that is predicated on social insecurity and can infect subjectivities with perpetual unrest and anxiety. The nature of flexibility endemic to gig work could also supposedly lead to a shared subjectivity that some may see as a replacement for the traditional view of ‘class’, when written about in celebratory terms (Hardt and Negri, 2000); but class does not disappear. As Huws (2014), Dyer-Witheford (2015) and Silberman and Irani (2016) note, a global digitalized proletariat is emerging, driving taxis for Uber and translating documents for Amazon Mechanical Turks. Workers are beginning to unionise and become conscious of their own strength in numbers and the larger trade unions to realise digitalisation is creating considerable psychosocial and physical risks for workers that I am writing about elsewhere for the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s discussions for a new labour standard.
While the sharing economy may have promised much in its early days, the reality of what it has meant for workers gives rise to caution. Already under great strain, gig workers are pressured to not only survive unstable life conditions but also to socially reproduce the capitalist future for themselves and everyone else (largely for free). Franco Berardi (Bifo) (2009) explained early overlap in workerist and autonomist overtures with new management rhetoric of wellness and liberation that we in fact see in rhetoric around flexible working endemic to gig and sharing economy work, by outlining the way that capitalism has appropriated many of the radical possibilities ‘preached’ by San Precario (who an effigy who first appeared in 2004 and has been used in many protests reflecting the autonomist movement from its origins), where the rejection of work was linked to revolutionary motivation. While gig work attracts people with its liberatory overtones, where you can ‘choose whenever you want to work!’, the question, given the rise in insecure life conditions with the rollback of investment in education, health and other basic social services linked to austerity and conservative government policy, is, could gig workers actually refuse to work? Research now must look at the ways that working conditions are maintained through specific management practices (Moore and Joyce 2018), the rise in risks for workers’ mental and physical health (Moore 2018; Akhtar and Moore 2016) posed in these new environments that these once-heralded glossy new working worlds of possibility. The digitalised future of work must be protected.