Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The sharing economy and the casualisation of labour

I love sharing and the sharing economy. I think the idea of collaborative consumption, P2P 'production', and commons-based economics is great. I'm attracted to the idea of sharing physical goods, either through joint purchase, through commercial sharing schemes (like car clubs) which provide 'thing as a service', and through making my stuff available when I am not using it. The internet makes all of this a lot easier, though it's important not to overstate this - after all, public libraries are an old idea.

I like the sharing of 'non-rival' goods even more. There are some things that I can share with you without having to give it up myself - digital goods are an example of this, though not the only one. If I put my music collection in the cloud, other people can enjoy it as well as me, and even at the same time as me. Lots of people do this without any expectation of reward, as part of a reciprocal thank you to other strangers who do the same thing. It's wrong and silly to call this piracy or theft, and to put it on a par with going into a shop and stealing a physical object.

At the same time, it's clear that this does have implications for the earnings of the producers of non-rival goods. We can argue about whether the way that the value chain for such goods is structured means that the main losers are not the actual producers but the bloated middle-persons who sit between the producers and the consumers. But it's obviously true that the internet is making sharing easier, and thereby reducing the returns to the ultimate producer. It's harder to make a living as an independent artist producing recorded music. A little bit of artisanal production and the life-style that went with it has been destroyed by the forces of the internet. These forces include not only me and you sharing our records on an 'outlaw' website, but also the massive advertising businesses of the internet, who make their money by selling our eyeballs to the sellers of physical and other goods. These are as much winners from the sharing economy as the musicians are losers.

This is not a unique phenomenon in history, as the history of printing, and then radio, show. There was a time when the production of illuminated manuscripts allowed some people (mainly monks) to sustain a higher standard of living than the pure sale of their labour power would have given them. There was a time when being able to manipulate a wooden pen and steel nib to produce nice handwriting was skill enough to provide a decent living.

The latest generation of 'sharing' internet projects takes this one stage further. Taskhub and the older Taskrabbit are happily endorsed sites like 'People who share' as if they were a benign, P2P community-building phenomenon. Taskhub's launch video portrays it in exactly that way, with a little group of more or less equal people taking each other's dogs for walks, doing each other's ironing, and then getting together for a party. This is just dishonest. These 'task' sharing sites are not about sharing at all; they are about making the market for low-grade casual service work available to more buyers, and making that market work more efficiently so as to drive the price of casual labour down. It's a nineteenth century hiring fair, with all the misery that this entails, but hidden away behind screens and avatars.

The return of domestic service over the last twenty years has been little discussed. Alongside Downton Abbey and the return of Upstairs Downstairs, many people who cannot afford full time servants nevertheless buy domestic service on a part-time, cash-only, undocumented basis. The proliferation of dog-walkers, cleaners, child-minders and so on indirectly provides a cheap labour subsidy to these people's who employers, who can get them to work for longer hours because the reproduction of their labour power is done for them more cheaply than they could do it themselves.

Many of the buyers of domestic services see the relationship as mutually beneficial, and so it is - as are all buys and sells of labour power in a 'free' market. They are just not equally beneficial. One side in the market is in a much weaker position than the other. They are often women, often immigrants without documentation or language skills to get better jobs, often needing to work around their own childcare needs. The absence of little lace caps and aprons as servants' uniforms makes this culturally more acceptable.

Task sharing sites are not part of a 'commons-based' approach to sharing out the work; they are away of expanding the market for domestic service to a new layer of users, and in the process driving down the price of casual labour to the lowest possible level.


Ori Pomerantz said...

Wouldn't expanding the number of buyers for casual domestic work increase the demand for casual laborers, and therefore the amount casual laborers earn?

Casual laborers are already VERY interested in any way they can earn money, so they are already looking for that work. As you wrote, they typically don't have other options. So this is likely to expand the consumer base more than the supplier base.

Jeremy Green said...

Well yes of course. But the imperfections in the market (lack of information, reliance on personal connections, need for a personal relationship with the producer or domestic services) work in favour of the seller. The point of 'task sharing' is to iron out those imperfections, removing the 'friction' that works in favour of the seller and increasing the pool from which buyers can shop. I don't mind this when it's a thing that it being sold, but labour power is different because it's a human being, not a commodity. And because labour power is very perishable, so the pressure on the seller to accept the lowest possible price needed to keep body and soul together is very strong.