Stiegler: Stop the uberisation of society!

Posted below is a translation of a piece co-authored by Bernard Stiegler with Ariel Kyrou (journo),  Yann Moulier-Boutang (writer) and Bruno Teboul (Director of innovation at Keyrus) and published in Libération on the 10th April.

I suppose it doesn’t really propose anything especially novel, if you’re familiar with others involved in debates around “postcapitalism”, automation, worklessness and universal income (e.g. Srnicek and Williams, or Mason). What is perhaps novel is an application of the ideas in a distinctly European flavour, with examples in France and in the context of a much more robust unionised response to Uber (and the task/gig economy).

Anyway, it’s an interesting read I think…

The piece is rather conversational in tone and uses idioms I have only been able to infer (not being a fluent and native speaker) so it was quite difficult to translate, and so I’m pretty sure there are errors. As usual clarifications or original French are in [square brackets].

Stop the uberisation of society!

Libération, 10th April

The war by taxi companies against an Uber society cannot be reduced to the storyline of a film depicting an ancient evil battling benevolent forces of modernity. If on the one hand the participatory economy threatens our social structures, it can also, on the other, make possible a society with greater solidarity.

Since the first moves towards the draft Thévenoud law in June 2014[1], the urban transport soap opera has generated multiple variations on the theme of the standard storyline. On one side are the taxi federations, which have been labelled a horde of grumpy medieval malthusians by Uber, who in the opening of the second act of the performance of the trial of the 11th February demanded a whopping €100m in damages from Uber, on the other the ‘white knight’ of the new economic order, the high-tech Robin Hood of its pleb users whose UberPop service enables simple fellows in search of employment the opportunity to offer at cut-price their talents for automotive locomotion, between February 2014 and July 2015. This tale of jokers against modernisers is more attractive than the G7, queen of opaque rentier sorcery, who could not turn themselves with the wave of a magic wand into the cinderella of Parisian Transport.

Except that the movie script of the ancient evil against the benevolent ‘disruptors’ rings as hollow as any Hollywood blockbuster: seen quickly, soon forgotten. It works in the short-term, like the groan of the indefinite vigil for a taxi at 3 o’clock in the morning in the banlieue, but it hardly takes us any distance towards solving the questions about the future of our society and the search for sustainable solutions to the crisis we are experiencing.

Let’s not misunderstand this scenario: the agonism presented by this contemporary drama [série du moment] is neither the ardent need to pit global start-ups against French corporatism [corporatismes franchouillards] nor its exact opposite, namely the obligation to defend the capitalism of tired old barons against the hyper-capitalism of the rulers of the digital future. No, the issue that should be obvious to everyone with a stake in the debate is the urgent need to think about the society we want, and then act in order to build it.

For why should we anoint an ‘uberisation of the economy’ without interrogating its ideology and long-term deleterious effects? Uber, which declares only a fraction of its profits in France thanks to a complex form of tax evasion through the Netherlands, Bermuda and Delaware, is participating in the liquidation of our social structures. It embodies a short circuit that threatens the fragile economic balance between taxation, social law, transport policy, infrastructure investment at the local level and the pensions system. Worse still: its social and economic logic foreshadows the advent of a futuristic no-man’s land in which the a priori ideal of liberty becomes monetised against an a posteriori generalised casualisation throughout society. Indeed, the rictus predatory behaviour of platforms like Uber, Lyft and others such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is founded upon a low intensity of capital, little infrastructure, a minimum of salaried employees with more independent or self-employed workers.

The uberisation process forms the first wave in the tsunami of automation. Its primary consequence will be a net loss of five million jobs in industrialised countries by 2020, according to a report published on the 18th of January by the oracles of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the shameless apostles of the “fourth industrial revolution”. This deeply unappealing assertion has been amplified by several studies in the last three years (by Oxford, MIT, the Breugel Institute and Roland Berger) which predict around 47% fewer people in employment by 2025. This slow but inexorable extinction of of the salaried world effects not only warehouse workers, supermarket cashiers and lorry drivers but also barristers, solicitors, journalists, those working in medicine, and so on. Why should it remain necessary to use human beings for tasks that are reducible to systematic procedures? Which in our data economy robots and algorithms will soon perform much more efficiently. The combination of robotics and ‘big data’, algorithms and network effects, is already transforming us into the involuntary gravediggers for salaried employment. Welcome to a world that is ultimately ‘flexible’, boosted by robotic automation [robotisation] and work on the meter. A world where users and customers constantly account for themselves, where each becomes their own big brother and where most of the activity in every market, like with car insurance, will increasingly play out more in an automated big data-driven fashion than according to laws or to forms of trust that are not based in calculation.

Nevertheless we should beware skewed perspectives: such a world is not inevitable. The digital gives us an opportunity to reconsider work not only in terms of jobs doomed to become ever more precarious, provoking anxiety about self-exploitation, but also as a part of a project for a contributory society in which salaried employment would be one means amongst many, rather than an end in itself. A company like TaskRabbit certainly creates use value through its platform of small on-demand jobs, but it keeps for itself and its shareholders the [accompanying] exchange value in the form of profit. In contrast, Loconomics is a co-operative owned by those who use it to advertise their services. Against the platforms of the so-called sharing economy (which it is in name only) Trebor Scholz endorses a ‘platform cooperativism’ [2] to build a society of commons that operates beyond solely economic and financial dimensions.

This shambles needs to be urgently addressed. Thinking in the long-term, this is political in the principal sense of the word. To buckle down to the future of work equally concerns: expertise in data to use and liberate ourselves from algorithms and a care for people without the need for machines; to classify work in a way that is both protective of our ways of life and much less administrative than today; to examine the establishment of an adequate basic income, structurally justified by massive unemployment due to automation and the coming slow death of employment; to experiment with the extension of the regime of casual work in the context of a true society of contribution, with the acquisition and sharing of knowledge by and between everyone; to study tax reform based upon the principles of a financial transactions tax [la taxe pollen], beginning with the establishment of a European tax on the flows of High Frequency Trading, to finance a universal income.

Rather than the two opposing and yet complimentary nightmares that are the integral uberisation of society and the sovereignist protection of the capitalism of yesteryear we prefer the realisation of a dream: to imagine, to experiment, to build, step by step, a freer society with greater solidarity; preferring disagreement to the brainwashing that has played out, historically, through the carrot and the stick, or, in our high-tech times, through a blind obedience to shiny artificial devices [l’obéissance aveugle à de rutilantes mécaniques artificielles et augmentées].

1. For more information on the Thévenoud law see this article – Sam.

2. See this article on Medium by Scholz.

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