The gig economy can be defined as ‘people using apps [or platforms] to sell their labor’. An estimated 50-60 million workers are part of the global gig economy. At the heart of the rapid growth of the gig economy is the proliferation of Internet-based apps or platforms, which facilitate most transactions in gig work.
Looking at the current global gig economy through the lens of Karl Marx, it seems that many of his insights on capitalism are still relevant in the contemporary era. Three inter-related points are critical here.
Firstly, Marx argued that continuous technological and organizational restructuring are critical to the expansion of capitalism and capital accumulation (in simple terms, increasing value of assets, investment flows, profits, rents, royalties, fees or capital gains).
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instrument of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of the society,” wrote Marx in The Communist Manifesto.
The post-Second World War period was built on the mass-production techniques which generated high growth rates until the crises of the 1970s. It was also known for increased workers’ power (in the form of rising wages, welfare states and organized labor unions) which posed a threat for business owners’ profits.
By the end of the 1970s, worker’s power was diminished through a number of measures: outsourcing and offshoring of production process both in manufacturing and services; emergence of non-standard employment relations; suppression of wages and a clampdown on labor unions. Since the late 1980s, the world economy has shifted from labor-intensive manufacturing to services, most of which are digitally mediated, organized and delivered. Gig economy platforms (such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, Freelancer.com, Upwork, Fiverr, CrowdSource and Peopleperhour) connect workers with their clients to complete digital tasks instantly such as tagging the contents of an image, converting Word documents into PDFs and answering emails for the CEO of an American firm.
Secondly, advancements made in digital technologies have generated new divisions of labor, defined as the specialization or separation of tasks between different types of workers. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx sums up, “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labor, the work of the proletarians [workers] has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him.”
While Adam Smith maintained that the division of labor results in increasing the productive powers of labor, for Marx, this division of labor into small chunks (as seen in the current gig economy) leads to simplified labor or less skilled workers. On platforms commodification of labor power is made possible as thousands of workers compete globally for digital tasks. They are hired by clients based on per-tasks (‘piecemeal’ in labor-intensive factories) or number of clicks.
Platform workers compete against a global pool of labor and try to underbid each other for thousands of jobs posted regularly. This creates a downward pressure on wages and workers end up earning less and less. The result is longer working hours but lower and devastating physical and psychological consequences.
For Marx, alienation of workers is at the heart of capitalist production. Workers are alienated both from their objects of labor (products or goods) and the production activity. Job descriptions on platforms are often vague and unspecified; the client is looking for workers with the lower rates rather than a certain skill set. Workers do not know who their client is. The fact that workers are competing for short-term gigs like these means they have less incentive to know what they are creating, for who and to what purposes. Thus, the more work they do, the more alienated they become.
Marx’s insights on the functioning of capitalism tell us that both the owners of capital and labor power or workers need each other for their survival. However, what we see today is the ascendency of capital over labor power through the global gig economy practices. As Mario Tronti famously proposed:
“We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head […] and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class.”
The class struggle for gig economy workers must be built, first, on the proper regulation of the global gig economy. Institutions, both locally and globally, such as governments, trade unions and international organizations must make sure that appropriate regulatory checks are put in place for the decent and fair working conditions among gig economy workers.
The final step is to develop a sense of collective identity among platform workers through internet-based forums such as social media, which will enable agency development for their well-being.