Excerpted from Ursula Huws, who asks the question:
“How should political economists understand the new phase of capitalism that is now reaching critical mass? It has several dimensions.
First, it brings new areas of life within the orbit of capital, allowing profits to be made from activities that were previously freely shared. Companies like Airbnb, SnapGoods, Lyft, or the Italian Gnammo, for example, bring human sociality within the orbit of capitalism, allowing a rent to be taken from each act of sharing, even when no employment relationship exists.
Second, whether it involves the online organization of online work (like Elance, Amazon Mechanical Turk, or Upwork) or manual work (like TaskRabbit, Handy, or Zaarly) or markets for petty manufacture (like Etsy) the platform economy extends capitalism’s scope into the informal economy, again taking a hefty rent from each transaction, as well as bringing this labor within the scope of capitalist discipline and time regimes.
Third, it represents an externalization of investment costs. In the past, companies that ran hotel chains or car fleets had to invest in real estate or automobiles, which represented depreciating assets. Now Airbnb, Uber, and the like have persuaded citizens to carry this cost, including the interest on the loans and mortgages they have had to take out to acquire these assets. This ties them ever more tightly into the capitalist system even while they carry the burden of risk.
The fourth impact is perhaps even more insidious because it extends way beyond the scope of the new online platforms into the heartlands of the “old” economy. By establishing a new normative model of what work should be like — logged in all senses — it removes any sense of entitlement to work that is organized differently.
The bodies, minds, and daily lives of the members of this new global labor force are sites of intense contradiction. They are both highly atomized and highly connected with each other. Their tasks are highly specialized, yet they also have more in common with other workers than ever before.
They must be both autonomous and compliant. They must both compete and collaborate. They must be always available but not show signs of fatigue. They must demonstrate past experience and reputation but are still only judged on the last job. There is the potential for new antagonisms as well as new solidarities between them.”
However, she does not answer the questions that are at the heart of the work of the P2P Foundation:
“What kinds of consciousness are emerging in these conditions? What potential is there for common demands? Should we look back to the normative models of the third quarter of the twentieth century when, at least for the privileged core workforce of the developed world, it was normal to expect a stable job, with health care, paid holidays and a pension? Or has the time come to consider completely different ways of organizing work and welfare?”