Before trying to make some sort of coherent sense out of my reflections of the past several days, let me say a few words about what is now called the “gig economy.” Recall that in Das Kapital, Marx argued that one of the central mystifications of capitalism is its misrepresentation of workers as petty commodity producers who come into the market with their product, labor, and exchange it freely and without compulsion. As I have argued in the books and articles I have written about Marxist theories, this misrepresentation conceals the exploitation of labor by capital that lies at the base of the capitalist economic order.
As you are all aware, it is at the very end of chapter 6, “The Buying and Selling of Labor Power,” that Marx with bitter irony speaks of the marketplace as “a very Eden of the innate rights of man (where) alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Benthem.” But though the capitalists seek only to extract a surplus from the workers, they are, Marx argues, doomed to bring about their own downfall, for in bringing the workers into the factory in order more efficiently to exploit them, the capitalist enables the workers to discover their common class interests, on the basis of which they organize into progressively broader coalitions, giving them the strength collectively to confront the capitalists. The capitalists are, ironically, their own gravediggers, Marx believes.
During the century after Marx published his great work, workers throughout the capitalist world successfully organized unions that struggled, at times with great peril and cost, to improve working conditions, shorten working hours, raise wages, and even secure what came to be called fringe benefits such as paid vacations, pensions, and even health insurance. I still remember the old bumper sticker: “unions, the people who brought you the weekend.”
The capitalists never gave up their efforts to weaken or destroy unions and take back the benefits they had been forced to concede. In the United States for a long time labor unions were the base, the backbone, of the Democratic Party. Their needs and interests were paid attention to, they were courted at election time, they were given pride of place at national conventions, and they managed in this way to win legislative victories that dramatically improved the condition of working men and women. We can perhaps date the reversal in the fortunes of the labor unions to Ronald Reagan’s successful attack on the air traffic controllers union shortly after he took power in 1980. But capital did not rely only on its Washington political employees in its struggle against the workers.
Its most effective antiunion weapon was of course the international outsourcing of jobs that had been protected by union contracts. The American economy became a service economy not because automation took the place of human labor but rather because lower paid workers in other parts of the world were offered the jobs unionized men and women in the United States had been doing.
But in what must be considered a truly world historical irony, American capital has been increasingly successful in transforming its workforce into precisely that cadre of petty commodity producers that 19th century ideological rationalizers of capitalism misrepresented workers as being. Thus was created the gig economy. Capitalists discovered that if they got rid of their full time unionized workforce, to whom they had to pay decent wages, guaranteed pensions and healthcare and paid vacations, they could compel them to offer precisely the same labor services as “entrepreneurs” producing commodities to be sold in the free marketplace.
Thus a traditional taxi company that hires drivers, pays them wages, and may run the risk of being confronted by a union of drivers demanding decent wages, is replaced by Uber or Lyft, which contracts with large numbers of "independent entrepreneurs" who drive their own cars, pay for their own gas repairs, and perform the same services that a union of taxicab drivers would perform. There is no garage whether cabdrivers will meet, get to know one another, recognize their common interests, and organize.
But whatever the ideology of the gig economy, the underlying reality remains the same. Capitalists exploit and workers are exploited.
Tomorrow I will try to weave all of this together so that perhaps I can make some sense out of what has become of politics in the United States in the 21st-century. Now I must prepare for my sister’s 90th birthday party.