Mutualising Uber?

Musings on platforms, democracy and economics.

On Friday 21st September, Transport for London (TfL)announced that it would not renew the operating licence for Uber, the “ride hailing app”. In the wake of this announcement much concern was raised about the 40,000 drivers who earn their living from porting London’s residents and visitors around the capital in private hire cars.

An Uber-lead petition on Change.org collected over half a million signatories within 24 hours with many Uber “riders” wanting to retain the service across the metropolitan area. Many Uber defenders cited the 40,000 livelihoods that could be ruined by this move. Uber itself is calling for TfL to work with to make the necessary changes.

In contrast to those seeking a reformed and compliant Uber, a much more interesting development occurred as many calls for alternatives to be identified and established including suggestions that TfL should establish its own app and that drivers should form a worker’s cooperative. For the purpose of this supposition I refer to this as ‘mutulising Uber’ although I mean this metaphorically, in the sense of mutualising the conceptual thinking embedded in the ‘ride hailing’ logics of the sharing economy, and not figuratively as analogous act of state sanctioned mutualistaion.

I’m sympathetic to a worker’s cooperative for Uber drivers. I’ve been wondering why there was little mutualisation in the sharing economy for some-while, with tweets referencing Uber as early Jan 2016.

I’d originally thought of a solution which was more guild-like in approach although still operated through cooperative ownership and principles of democratic engagement. In this model, the operators licence would act as a monopoly grant in exchange for guarantee of standards in practice, which could cover everything from internal democracy to external relations, with clear emphasis on establishing and enforcing areas like car quality and driver training and regulation. A guild-like structure would establish a ‘social capital’ of normative behaviours, common standards, industry wide sanction and even political voice for drivers.

The Guild analogy is useful here because what destroyed the medieval guild movement was rent-seeking behavior — the Guilds used their monopoly grant . This is precisely what Uber is being accused of, and is at the source of my criticism of the platform economy: it was long held that the platform economy would be defined by dis-intermediation — the removal of the middle-man (if you’ll excuse my gendered language). However, what it has delivered is monopoly-focused intermediaries whose focus is domination and price-control.

It may be provocative to add here that private hire in London, with Uber at its apex, is a market response to to Black Cab’s monopoloy of the Hackney carriage licence through ‘the knowledge’. But it’s worth acknowledging. And, as far as I’m aware, there is nothing inherent in the cooperative structure to stop a worker’s coop acting as a rent-seeking agent, with a new monopoly power, operating against consumers.

This lead me to wonder, if we were to stick with the mutualisaing approach (and I contrast this with an anti-trust approach to monopoly break-up), if there an alternative that supposes a consumer cooperative could be the answer?

It’s worth considering at this point that there maybe no inherent benefits to a consumer coop over a worker coop, structurally that is. It just places control and democracy on a different side of the supply equation. Although it’s not the purpose of this supposition to engage in a survey of the differences and merits of either model, its worth noting that while worker coops have been the main approach for several decades because they emphasise the workers democratic control over the means of production, the initial impetus of the cooperative movement was consumer-orientated to give democratic control to buying of essential items and equity of purchasing power to workers.

The Rochdale Pioneers for example used the cooperative model to bring their power together to determine what could be stocked as a priority and how to manage the pricing for a precarious emergent workforce in that classic Mill Town at the peak of the industrial revolution. It seems apposite to draw this analogy, not just to their structural model but also to the economic conditions of that moment.

When we consider what a mutualised Uber might look like, we are talking about the app and not about the means of production: the cars. In the current modal logic, driven cars will still be owned by their drivers (or their lessors). This the democratic control of the app by the drivers will give them more power as owners. This offers a critique of ownership but not of economic logic itself.

In his work ‘A Critique of Economic Reason’ Andre Gorz begins the intellectual process of trying to liberate workers from the concept of work-under-capitalism, offering a critique of the economic reason of Capitalism including festishisation of work. In offering ideas that of basic income models and flexible working Gorz creates the conditions in which an alternative society focused on social and cultural realtions. Gorz offers not just a critique of capital but of work itself as an undecomposable aspect of the mode of production. Although Gorz is not widely cited in the current exposition of transition-economics, which is full of automation, the end of owkr and basic incomes type models, its hard not to credit his early insight into where this might take us. So it seems useful to extend this intellectual approach to platform economy and the potential emergence to of a post-capitalist society at what could be an epochal moment in human history.

So the response to ‘mutualising Uber’ should also offer a critique of economic reason in a transforming-world. It then seems apposite to consider if a consumer coop helps us to shift economic logic towards a civic-economy, in which we focus on the relations of society, rather than the extant producer-economy in which we focus on property relations. A worker’s coop implies a continuation of an economic logic that is constituted through ownership, even if this is through a democratised model.

There are two big features for me that make a consumer coop stand-out as a critique of economic reason. Firstly, it allows us to think as transportation/movement as an operation of social, as a fundamental constituent of place. It will still have an economic logic, but we are not casting for solution of economics.

Secondly, it is in keeping with a wider technological trajectory of Gorz’s critique. As technological possibility comes available we should be harnessing for social goods. So mutualising the App, as a original intervention to harness a technological, seems to offer more social possibilities in the hands of consumers — with at least the same social capital outcomes that we might expect workers-coop-as-guild type model I outlined earlier.

In the longer-term, as autonomous vehicles become possible and practical, who will own the App then? Without wanting to assume a teleology of technical outcomes, it seems that the logic of the driver-less car as an economic critique for a post-work world fits more coherently with a social transformation. If we’re to be consistent about this, Uber drivers should be a beneficiary of the transition to Gorz’s world.

So while I remain sympathetic to the logic of of worker’s coop as the force for Mutulising Uber, I feel a consumer coop would offer a richer and more pertinent critique.

Idiosyncratic Bricoleur Hacker. Trying to understand today by looking at yesterday so we can make a better tomorrow.