The ouster of Travis Kalanick last week brings to an end nearly a year of accumulating scandal at Uber. The company—its specious claims to being a world-beating disruptor significantly weakened—now joins Amazon as one of the more frightening entities of our time, with Kalanick taking his place among Elizabeth Holmes, Jeff Bezos, Martin Shkreli, and the late Steve Jobs in the burgeoning pantheon of tech sociopaths. Few moments in history have been so crowded with narcissists: incapable of acknowledging the existence of others, unwilling to permit state and civil society—with their strange, confusing, downright offensive cult of taxes, regulations and public services—to impede their quest for monopolizing the mind, muscles, heart rate, and blood of every breathing person on earth. The Mormons, with their registries of the unsaved, have beaten Silicon Valley to the hosts of the dead—but it’s safe to assume that this, too, will not last.
In the way of such companies, the cult of the CEO and of market share have bled out into the language and thinking of the press. Is Uber’s culture too damaged to change? Will it lose out to Lyft? These questions place too much of a premium on how an individual shapes an organization. It’s not a coincidence that unchecked sexual harassment runs through Uber and GitHub and virtually every other Valley company; that even well-established and friendly Google attracts the ire of the federal government for its “extreme gender pay disparity.” A recent survey titled Elephant in the Valley reported that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley have suffered harassment, and one in three felt afraid for their personal safety. One would have to go back to the offices of the 1970s and earlier to find such a pure concentration of irremediable chauvinism. The removal of a single toxic CEO, like the condemning of a single home in the wake of a chemical leak, won’t make the region livable.
In the same vein, the proliferating but ever meaningless distinctions between the “bad” Uber and the “good” Lyft have obscured how destructive the rise of ride-sharing has been for workers and the cities they live in. The predatory lawlessness that prevails inside Valley workplaces scales up and out. Both companies entered their markets illegally, without regard to prevailing wages, regulations, or taxes. Like Amazon, which found a way to sell books without sales tax, this turned out to be one of the many boons of lawbreaking.
The taxi system was and is an exploitative one, in which drivers were often classified as independent contractors. But ride-sharing is incalculably more exploitative. In regulated markets, taxi companies are at least required to maintain, acquire, and insure all the cars in a taxi fleet. Ride-sharing companies are not. This means for example, as Quartz reported recently, that Uber can force its drivers into “deep subprime” loans to acquire their vehicles, leaving them drowning in debt. In addition to undermining every possible regulation to screw their drivers more, Uber claimed as late as 2015 that drivers could earn $90,000 working for them. In a landmark piece for the Philadelphia City Paper, reporter Emily Guendelsberger worked as an UberX driver and discovered the truth. “If I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week with one week off, I’d net almost $30,000 a year before taxes,” she wrote. “But if I wanted to net that $90,000 a year figure that so many passengers asked about, I would only have to work, let’s see . . . 27 hours a day, 365 days a year.” The jobs created by ride-sharing are emblematically crappy, part-time, and contingent. In fact, according to the loophole in labor law that ride-sharing companies exploit, they’re not even “jobs” so much as gigs; the drivers are independent contractors who just happen to use the ride-sharing app.
But lying and rule-breaking to gain a monopoly are old news in liberal capitalism. What ride-sharing companies had to do, in the old spirit of Standard Oil, was secure a foothold in politics, and subject politics to the will of “the consumer.” In a telling example of our times, Uber hired former Obama campaign head David Plouffe to work the political angles. And Plouffe has succeeded wildly, since—as Washingtonians and New Yorkers are experiencing with their subways—municipal and state liberals are only nominally committed to the standards that regulate transport. Never mind that traffic is something that cities need to control, and that transportation should be a public good. Ride-sharing companies—which explode traffic and undermine public transportation—can trim the balance sheets of cities by privatizing both. The choice we make should be between unchecked ride-sharing and fully funded mass transit. Instead, the success of ride-sharing means that we choose between Uber and Lyft.1
What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen. Consumption has in fact come to replace our original ideas of citizenship. As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued in his exceptional 2012 essay, “Citizens as Customers,” the government encouragement of consumer choice in the 1960s and ’70s “radiated” into the public sphere, making government seem shabby in comparison with the endlessly attractive world of consumer society. Political goods began to get judged by the same standards as commodities, and were often found wanting.
The result is that, in Streeck’s prediction, the “middle classes, who command enough purchasing power to rely on commercial rather than political means to get what they want, will lose interest in the complexities of collective preference-setting and decision-making, and find the sacrifices of individual utility required by participation in traditional politics no longer worthwhile.” The affluent find themselves bored by goods formerly subject to collective provision, such as public transportation, ceasing to pay for them, while thereby supporting private options. Consumer choice then stands in for political choice. When Ohio governor John Kasich proposed last year that he would “Uber-ize” the state’s government, he was appealing to this sense that politics should more closely resemble the latest trends in consumption.
As ride-sharing companies stepped up their lobbying pressure, politicians quickly folded—especially the politicians that already fashioned themselves as tech CEOs. The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, frustrated with the pace of regulation-skirting in Pennsylvania, took up the cause of illegality with fervor, proclaiming, “I will not let the governor and the Public Utility Commission shut down innovation without a fight.” (When did one of the charges of government become “innovation”?) Over time, Peduto and his ilk succeeded. Uber was made temporarily legal in Philadelphia—one of the last holdouts in Pennsylvania—just in time for last summer’s Democratic National Convention. Uber operated outside the arena where the Convention took place, and, in one of the highlights of the week, the first night’s party, hosted by the company, was picketed by taxi workers. Hundreds of Democrats (“the party of the people”) crossed the line.
It is that memory, rather than the brief surge of solidarity with striking taxi workers in New York that marked the (recently restarted) travel ban in January, that we should keep in mind as we consider the future of these companies. Consumer boycotts, like #DeleteUber, have thus far had a partial effectiveness. They can raise awareness and help force the removal of a carbuncle like Kalanick from a vile organization. But, still, ride-sharing companies, unprofitable juggernauts, are on the verge of dominating their markets. Bloomberg reported last year that Uber and Lyft are negotiating with cities to replace public buses with subsidized rides. The Financial Times recently noted that Uber would work with Moda, a British property developer, to give £100 worth of free rides a month to residents that agree not to have a parking space, so that the developer can “swap the space previously used for car parking for greater amenities within the development, including fitness centers and media rooms.” This will surely be spun by Uber and Moda and their paid representatives as an environmental triumph. It is nothing of the sort. That ride-sharing eases traffic congestion is a lie. The only way to ease congestion and reduce pollution is to invest in mass transit. Meanwhile, the architecture of entire cities, top to bottom, is being slowly reshaped to fit the profit motives of ride-sharing companies.
Behind all this is the specter of the “self-driving car,” the paradise in which all transportation, everywhere, is replaced by proprietary software that regulates, with serene efficiency, the motion of an entire civilization. This is the vision that animates every regulatory collapse, every public transportation failure, every taxi driver’s lost livelihood. As with earlier phases of automation, the workers in the situation—the drivers—have already lost to the system: their knowledge of the city has been transferred to mapping programs; their control of the wage structure to the algorithm. Eventually, the story goes, it will all be worth it, because it will become a utopia better than any seen before—in Hegelian terms, the real will become the rational, and the rational the real. (Karl Polanyi’s argument that the idea of the self-regulating market, not socialist planning, was always the truly utopian idea, obtains.) It doesn’t matter that these advances are far in the future, and may never take place. Their hold on the imagination of planners means that another, more plausible, actually existing concept—affordable mass transit—is being lost.
Regardless of whether the self-driving paradise could ever arrive, would it be possible, even imaginable, to make it a subject of democratic deliberation, rather than one more feature of a society incapable of controlling its corporations? Do we want an entire transportation order at the mercy of the ride-sharing companies? Can the idea that we should control how we move through a city be made a matter of public policy? Can we think for a moment about whether, in our heart of hearts, we want the private sector undoing every law, every social compact, that stands in its way, in order to secure, at last, the data that tells them how each of us moves and breathes? We must recognize that there is no situation in which the ride-sharing companies will be sated, short of total monopoly; and that any impediment to their order they will seek to circumvent or remove, as they already have. To stop even part of their plan from coming to pass, we will have to do much more than delete apps, however bad, and replace CEOs, however loathsome. Regulators have more than enough capacity to destroy ride-sharing, and activists can force the issue. What Uber and its ride-sharing fraternity want cannot exist alongside a democratic society; only one vision can prevail.
Lyft was the first company to invite drivers to use their personal cars, thus inventing the euphemistic concept of “ride-sharing.” Uber then responded. ↩