July 19, 2021
From Internationalism
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During our last two meetings in France, on 27 March and 12 June, one of the central themes was the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. In addition to the article which gave an account of these debates[1], we endeavoured to consider a more specific line of questions raised by the participants as well as in written contributions[2]

The article below takes up and extends a whole on-going reflection by integrating a good number of elements brought up by the discussion on the phenomenon of “uberisation”. In addition to the insights provided, based in part on the contributions from the debates, the article below endeavours to place the issues in a historical framework by drawing on the foundations of marxism and the experience of the workers’ movement. From our point of view, this effort should help to provide a political framework for further reflection and clarification. As such, the article is in our view more a contribution than a definitive answer to the questions raised.

In the 2000s, a new form of business emerged in the United States, driven in particular by the car and driver booking platform Uber. Other companies were quickly born or transformed on the basis of this model, a phenomenon that would soon be called “uberisation”. Some see in this the capacity of capitalism to evolve in order to adapt to new technologies and make the most of them, while others are alarmed at the destruction that the model is wreaking on the contractual employment relationship, in other words, on wage employment.

For the ICC, there is no doubt that this model is an attempt to generate new and profitable activities by making good use of the means provided by the Internet and using it to achieve flexibility of work and the lowest possible costs. Today, we see these “new” workers every day, bicycle delivery drivers, cab drivers, etc.

However, these workers are not, strictly speaking, employees. They own at least part of their tool of the job (their bike, their car, etc.); they are not bound to their platform by an employment contract but sell it as a service. They generally have the official status of “independent entrepreneur”. This raises fundamental questions: are these workers, whatever their economic condition, part of the working class? Can their struggles contribute to the effort of the working class to resist exploitation?

Uberised workers are part of the working class

At first glance, the proletarian character of these workers is fluid. On the one hand, young bicycle delivery drivers often only have this activity to survive. On the other hand, some cab drivers proudly display their big cars and openly dream of being “their own boss”. The fact is that we are not faced with a “homogeneous” sector, as might be the case for railway workers, teachers, textile workers, etc. Beyond this real heterogeneity, we know that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being; it is their social being that determines their consciousness”[3]. The fact that a cab driver dreams of being a boss does not make him bourgeois or petty-bourgeois. He may be bourgeois or petty-bourgeois by virtue of his material conditions.

So are the self-employed workers on platforms materially bosses? To answer this question, we could base ourselves on the legal relationships that bind them to their platform. As we have explained, these workers are not employees, they sell a service as any craftsman does to his customers. The only difference here is that this sale is part of a triangular relationship between a service provider, a seller and a buyer, a relationship that can also be found in the transport sector (travel agencies), brokerage, etc. The worker therefore has no legal obligation to pay for the service.

The worker is therefore not legally dependent on the platform. He is legally free. However, legal relationships are not sufficient to analyse this type of relationship. In his examination of the birth and development of capitalism, Marx stresses the need to take into account the relations of production in the relationship between capital and labour. Within this framework, he identifies two historical phases: the formal domination of capital, and its real domination[4]. 

In the formal domination, we find the first capitalist concentrations, the manufactories, which precede the industrial era, particularly in the textile field. In this first evolution of the relations of production of capitalism, the workers remain more or less dependent on capital. Many of them still keep their tools and, from the raw material supplied by the capitalist, produce a product which they sell to the same capitalist. The best-known case concerns the textile sector, such as the Silesian weavers mentioned by Marx in 1844, or the first silk workers in Lyon. The latter owned their own loom and produced silk pieces for a manufacturer. They therefore worked “by the piece” or “to order”.

This ‘pre-capitalist’ labour relationship is similar today, by analogy, to the relationship between the self-employed worker and his or her commissioning platform: the worker is not legally dependent on the capitalist but remains dependent on him or her economically. Marx outlines two characteristics of this relationship: “1. an economic relationship of domination and subordination, because the capitalist now consumes labour power, and thus supervises and directs it; 2. a great continuity and increased intensity of labour”[5].

In this context, too, the early textile workers were forced to work long hours to compete with other exploited workers in greater concentrations. How can we fail to see some of these characteristics in the Uber driver or delivery person or whatever? They have no other way of working than to wait for orders from their platform. There is no other way to increase their income than to increase their working time (for example, for a pizza delivery driver by multiplying his daily runs). The platform is therefore the sole authoriser, unlike a craftsman or a transport company, which can generate business outside the agencies or brokers. What is more, the economic dependence is total when we know that the platform bases its orders on algorithms that favour the most available and fastest workers and can “deactivate” a worker who does not give satisfaction. This is done by pushing competition to the extreme, with no regard for workers’ health. Finally, it is the platform that takes most of the surplus value generated by the activity. The worker receives a fixed payment for each order.

We can therefore see that although the worker’s submission to the platform is not based on a tangible legal link, this submission nevertheless takes all the forms of the platform in economic terms. It is therefore not disputable that these workers are part of the working class, although their exploitation is not enshrined in a wage contract.

Are uber-workers the new spearheads of the working class struggle?

The status of these workers also makes them very precarious and subjects them to super-exploitation. Along with the unemployed, they are undoubtedly among the proletarians most affected by the effects of the crisis of capitalism. It would therefore be tempting to think that this situation inflicted by capital is likely to develop in them a greater combativeness than in other fractions of the proletariat whose status would be more “protected”. Moreover, this brutal confrontation with the effects of the economic crisis could lead them to understand more quickly than other sectors of the proletariat that capitalism has no way out for humanity. After all, didn’t their predecessors, the silk workers or the Silesian weavers, lead what are considered the first “anti-capitalist” struggles in history?

However, while there is much that brings today’s self-employed workers closer to those of the 19th century, there is also much that separates them. In the 19th century, this form of relationship between capital and labour prefigured the relationship that was to dominate capitalist production, i.e. the wage-earning system brought about by the development of mechanisation and industry. Today, uberisation is the result of the impasse of the economic crisis and the need to find ‘new’ forms of labour exploitation. In the 19th century, the silk workers, for example, were among the most skilled and therefore best paid workers in factories. Today, digital platform workers are among the most precarious of proletarians.

Furthermore, the development of the capitalist mode of production has led to an extreme division of labour within factories, made both possible and necessary by the development of machinery and technology. This division of labour causes a “mass socialisation of labour by capitalism”. As Marx puts it, “the co-operative character of the labour process now becomes a technical necessity dictated by the nature of the means of labour itself[6].

Thus, for two centuries capitalism has not ceased to develop a production based on associated labour, progressively destroying the relations of production based on the formal domination of capital over labour. Uberisation operates a reverse dynamic, atomising workers in relation to each other, putting them in brutal competition for the sale of a service.

Yet the associated character of labour in capitalism is a fundamental element of the identity of the working class, a character that allows proletarians to become aware that they suffer the same conditions of exploitation and therefore have the same interest in fighting it. In other words, associated labour is an essential determinant of the development of class consciousness and this determinant is sorely lacking among the self-employed.

The bourgeoisie tries to valorise this model by presenting the status of “self-employed” as a much “freer” status compared to wage labour and offering much more perspectives to develop one’s own “business”. This flexibility has, in fact, allowed the model to develop well in the United States, as it allowed the many workers who needed a second job to support themselves to synchronise more “freely” their main job with this side activity. The illusions of being able to get by on one’s own has led to the petty-bourgeois individualist ideology taking root among these proletarians. This ideology is also expressed in the attempts to create self-managed delivery companies such as Coopcycle, which aim to be an “anarcho-communist” alternative to the market domination of large groups such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and others.

Such great precariousness has never been a factor favourable to the development of workers’ combativeness and consciousness. This precariousness is accompanied by extreme insecurity and an exacerbation of competition between workers.

Moreover, because of the atomisation in which these workers find themselves within the sphere of production and their inexperience of the class struggle, their struggles remain very isolated. This also constitutes a serious handicap for linking up with the struggles of other sectors and building on the historical gains of the working class struggle.

The ICC has always defended that the vanguard of the proletariat is located in the countries where it has experienced the greatest development, acquired experience of associated labour, of struggles and their collective organisation, of its defeats and of the lessons that can be drawn from them. In this respect, this sector of “uber-workers” cannot play a leading role in the general struggle of the working class against the capitalist system. For all that, these workers are by no means lost to the class struggle. However, this role can only take place in a movement initiated by the most advanced and experienced fractions of the proletariat who, through the development of their conscious struggle, will succeed in rallying the whole class to their fight, even its weakest parts.

It is important that revolutionaries have a lucid analysis of the state of the working class and do not seek to console themselves with the present weaknesses of the proletariat through the hope that the proletariat will quickly overcome the difficulties that weigh on its combativity and consciousness. The decomposition of the capitalist system only accentuates the difficulties of the working class to reconquer its identity and to reconnect with its historical project. The whole working class is under the weight of the decomposition, but it is clear that its weakest parts remain much more vulnerable.

If the most precarious and isolated fractions of the proletariat can show a great combativity, they do not present, by themselves, a real threat to capital. Nothing in the current situation favours any change in this reality, on the contrary. It is clearly in these fractions that we must today classify the workers of digital transport or delivery platforms. The emergence of this fraction of the proletariat cannot displace the historical responsibility that continues to be entrusted to the most experienced fractions of the world proletariat.

Révolution Internationale, 29.6.21

 


[3] Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy

[6] Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 13




Source: En.internationalism.org