Friday, June 30, 2017

Disrupt the Citizen

The ouster of Travis Kalanick last week brings to an end nearly a year of accumulating scandal at Uber. The company—its specious claims to being a world-beating disruptor significantly weakened—now joins Amazon as one of the more frightening entities of our time, with Kalanick taking his place among Elizabeth Holmes, Jeff Bezos, Martin Shkreli, and the late Steve Jobs in the burgeoning pantheon of tech sociopaths. Few moments in history have been so crowded with narcissists: incapable of acknowledging the existence of others, unwilling to permit state and civil society—with their strange, confusing, downright offensive cult of taxes, regulations and public services—to impede their quest for monopolizing the mind, muscles, heart rate, and blood of every breathing person on earth. The Mormons, with their registries of the unsaved, have beaten Silicon Valley to the hosts of the dead—but it’s safe to assume that this, too, will not last. (...)

In the same vein, the proliferating but ever meaningless distinctions between the “bad” Uber and the “good” Lyft have obscured how destructive the rise of ride-sharing has been for workers and the cities they live in. The predatory lawlessness that prevails inside Valley workplaces scales up and out. Both companies entered their markets illegally, without regard to prevailing wages, regulations, or taxes. Like Amazon, which found a way to sell books without sales tax, this turned out to be one of the many boons of lawbreaking. (...)

But lying and rule-breaking to gain a monopoly are old news in liberal capitalism. What ride-sharing companies had to do, in the old spirit of Standard Oil, was secure a foothold in politics, and subject politics to the will of “the consumer.” In a telling example of our times, Uber hired former Obama campaign head David Plouffe to work the political angles. And Plouffe has succeeded wildly, since—as Washingtonians and New Yorkers are experiencing with their subways—municipal and state liberals are only nominally committed to the standards that regulate transport. Never mind that traffic is something that cities need to control, and that transportation should be a public good. Ride-sharing companies—which explode traffic and undermine public transportation—can trim the balance sheets of cities by privatizing both. The choice we make should be between unchecked ride-sharing and fully funded mass transit. Instead, the success of ride-sharing means that we choose between Uber and Lyft.

What Plouffe and the ride-sharing companies understand is that, under capitalism, when markets are pitted against the state, the figure of the consumer can be invoked against the figure of the citizen. Consumption has in fact come to replace our original ideas of citizenship. As the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has argued in his exceptional 2012 essay, “Citizens as Customers,” the government encouragement of consumer choice in the 1960s and ’70s “radiated” into the public sphere, making government seem shabby in comparison with the endlessly attractive world of consumer society. Political goods began to get judged by the same standards as commodities, and were often found wanting.

The result is that, in Streeck’s prediction, the “middle classes, who command enough purchasing power to rely on commercial rather than political means to get what they want, will lose interest in the complexities of collective preference-setting and decision-making, and find the sacrifices of individual utility required by participation in traditional politics no longer worthwhile.” The affluent find themselves bored by goods formerly subject to collective provision, such as public transportation, ceasing to pay for them, while thereby supporting private options. Consumer choice then stands in for political choice. When Ohio governor John Kasich proposed last year that he would “Uber-ize” the state’s government, he was appealing to this sense that politics should more closely resemble the latest trends in consumption.

by Nikil Saval, N+1 |  Read more:
Image: uncredited