Don’t Kid Yourself – It isn’t just the Gig Economy that Celebrates Overwork

Some examples of the “gig economy”

The New Yorker had a great article last month (which I only got around to reading yesterday) about how the “gig economy”, e.g. jobs like Uber, Task Rabbit, Fivver celebrate overworking to death. Those jobs and others like them are ones made up of an economy that encourages the breaking down of jobs into bite-sized parts that can be “contracted” out. So Uber drivers (infamously) aren’t employees, they’re more like “independent contractors”. This makes the legal status of (let’s be honest) their employees at an elevated level of being legally exploited

There’s many in the press and elsewhere who (rightly perhaps) think that Uber and other companies are doing this on purpose. They accuse Uber in particular because it’s a notably large corporation that has used its powers to go so far as influencing legislation in their area to make sure they keep it that way.

But the problem doesn’t stem from the gig economy exclusively but rather the broader economic system we all live under – capitalism. To its credit, the article does acknowledge that the celebration of overwork goes deeper, but it misses it’s mark by first labeling it as some sort of vague “American obsession” when this problem isn’t limited to America (c.f. Japan). It also mentioned “late-capitalism” and a “flawed economic system” but it’s description of what makes it flawed is (wait for it) flawed itself. I’ll be getting to both of these points later on.

Further, the article centering itself around the “gig economy” (GE) is a little rough around the edges. While I have no trouble admitting that the GE is largely in collaboration with capitalism, I also want to stress that there are some good things about it. For example, I’m happy that Uber drivers are able to work for themselves as opposed to renting a car, even if the system Uber is using isn’t the best either and needs improvements as well.

I consider Uber and Lytft an improvement over the taxi medallion system but think we can all still see that sometimes improvements aren’t enough by themselves. Both of these companies still exist within capitalism and are mainly dedicated to doing nothing but painting a fresh coating and make it look new again.

Going back to the article, some of it feels more like useful scapegoating for a political agenda than an attack on an important aspect of work culture itself. It’s not like there haven’t been many women outside of the gig economy (in the article’s example: Lyft) that have worked extra hours, denying that they’re going to give birth and should go to a hospital.

Yes, it’s unfortunate Lyft decided to brag about this but at least they’re being more honest about how a normal capitalist company would feel about it. At least Lyft has the gall to own the overworking ethic that most capitalist firms are already implicitly embracing or have been embracing for a long time. I prefer the honest murderer over the lying one.

I actually find the Fivver example more interesting and worth discussing, so let’s start there:

Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.”

One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

This goes beyond just celebrating a woman doing a lot of work, even though she was going to give birth. That’s a horrible thing but Fivver is actively celebrating a life of that whereas Lyft is only celebrating a moment of it. The one who is more in the wrong seems obvious to me, Fivver is actually trying to cultivate a whole new person around their job.

The subsumption of the individual is often one of my biggest concerns in work culture and Fivver has expertly demonstrated why. They make your eating habits, your lack of sleep and your over-work as a part of who you essentially are which is way above the pale of celebrating the undermining of a woman’s motherly instincts in one instance.

Fivver actually doubles down explicitly on this attitude:

A Fiverr press release about “In Doers We Trust” states, “The campaign positions Fiverr to seize today’s emerging zeitgeist of entrepreneurial flexibility, rapid experimentation, and doing more with less. It pushes against bureaucratic overthinking, analysis-paralysis, and excessive whiteboarding.”

The article will address this in a second but I just wanted to throw in that this jargon (as the author rightly identifies it as) irks me as well, but for separate reason. I really do feel things like entrepreneurial flexibility and experimentation are important things to replace bureaucratic organizations, but gosh, not like this.

Not in some depraved search for meaning in the death of your own identity and then replacing it with something that hardly has any kind of life aside from the job you’re involved with. Fivver’s campaign is not only dastardly in its orchestration but it’s infuriating to folks like me who really do think things like independent contractors can be an important part of a healthy economy, but then corporations decide to ruin that too.

And then of course you have liberal sites like The New Yorker ragging on the GE as if it’s the manifestation of gigs that many of us would like to see in the world. As an anarchist, I don’t want to see independent spirits who are only independent because corporations allow them to be. That’s no kind of independence in my book.

This is the jargon through which the essentially cannibalistic nature of the gig economy is dressed up as an aesthetic. No one wants to eat coffee for lunch or go on a bender of sleep deprivation—or answer a call from a client while having sex, as recommended in the video.

It’s a stretch to feel cheerful at all about the Fiverr marketplace, perusing the thousands of listings of people who will record any song, make any happy-birthday video, or design any book cover for five dollars. I’d guess that plenty of the people who advertise services on Fiverr would accept some “whiteboarding” in exchange for employer-sponsored health insurance.

Okay, I doubt that no one does but regardless, most people at least don’t likely see it in such a romantic light.

But then, it shoudln’t be so surprising that the folks who actually own the means of production see it from the best perspective. And what if folks did want to do these things? It wouldn’t really prove anything other than some folks have unhealthy work habits. That’s not something that I’d have a hard time believing, so desire seems irrelevant here.

I want to discuss the article’s root analysis here:

At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.

I agree the idea of self-reliance in its American form is deeply flawed (“pull yourself up by your bootstrap!”) but I don’t think it’s the root of the issue here. The American notion of self-reliance is one aspect of work culture but there are other aspects of the American culture such as the importance of profit over people, the importance of embracing your company’s identity as if it’s your own, the importance of not being seen as a “slacker” (AKA a loser) and so on.

It’s a complicated issues with many roots and I’m skeptical we can narrow it down to a misunderstanding of what self-reliance should look like. I’m weary about the mentioning of self-reliance at all but I’ll presume the author doesn’t have any issue with self-reliance per se’ but more so the way that Americans have used it.

Also, the flaws of the economic system go past the fact that we may not have dependable wages or jobs. The fact that these wages and jobs are controlled by systems of power we often have very little power over is a much more troubling aspect of this economy. The fact that workers have little say in their working conditions and so-called “citizens” have very little control over whether “their” president (for example) bombs Syria is a much more frightening thing.

I’ll finish by quoting the last passage from this essay,it cites a book I’ve never heard of but sounds like a good read and worth checking out for my fellow anti-work advocates:

There’s a painful distance between the chipper narratives surrounding labor and success in America and the lived experience of workers. A similar conflict drove Nathanael West, in 1934, to publish the novel “A Cool Million,” which satirized the Horatio Alger bootstrap fables that remained popular into the Great Depression. “Alger is to America what Homer was to the Greeks,” West once wrote.

His protagonist in “A Cool Million,” Lemuel Pitkin, is an innocent, energetic striver, tasked with saving his mother’s house from foreclosure. A series of Alger-esque plot twists ensue. But Pitkin, rather than triumphing, ends up losing his teeth, his eye, his leg, his scalp, and finally his thumb.

Morris Dickstein, in his book “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” notes, “The novel ends with Lem as a vaudeville clown being beaten nightly until he simply falls apart.” A former President named Shagpoke Whipple gives a speech valorizing Pitkin’s fate, extolling “the right of every American boy to go into the world and . . . make his fortune by industry.” Whipple describes Pitkin’s dismemberment—“lovingly,” Dickstein adds—and tells his audience that, through Pitkin’s hard work and enthusiastic martyrdom, “America became again American.”


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