I’ve been reading about the political economy of late 19th century US, and a quote from a recent article by historian Charles Postel caught my eye.
The advocates of the new work regime claim that it is paving the way to the “flexible” economy of the future. In the process, it is unleashing the inner entrepreneur of the Walmart “associate” and the Uber “peer.” But for millions of workers the new “flexibility” means little more than overwork and insecurity, and the advertised work regime of the future represents a throwback to the exploitative tyranny of the first machine age.
In the late 19th century, the telegraph, steam engines, and electric power changed everything. But they also changed nothing. Because, as before, most work involved long hours at low pay in domestic service, farm labor, construction, mining, and other strenuous jobs. Hiring was often day-by-day, and many workers operated as semi-independent contractors. The infamous “sweating system” meant families set their own hours, their own pace, in their own living spaces (tenements). Coal miners, too, often worked as their own bosses, getting paid by the ton. This “flexible” work regime translated into hazardous work, child labor, and physical and mental torment. Workers stood one accident or bout of unemployment or sickness from catastrophe.
Uber may be using an app to manage the people who do its work but the people infrastructure “stack” the app sits on is right out of the 1880s.
The tech world is skilled at making us believe that everything it’s selling is new. And because change is occurring at a blistering pace, it’s easy to assume that when we compare the present to the past it is “disrupting,” the only history we need to consider is the history of Right Before Now. It’s not.
The work arrangements of Right Before Now, where many people had one employer who provided steady employment and benefits, wasn’t natural or inevitable. People fought and bled to create it, to “disrupt” the previous people infrastructure stack so children could have a childhood and an unprecedented number of working families could benefit from the prosperity they helped create.
In short, let’s not get suckered by companies like Uber. Let’s stop talking about “disrupting” and start talking about what values we want the new world of work to uphold.