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Amir Anwar

Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

How Marx predicted the worst effects of the gig economy more than 150 years ago

The UK government’s recent review of modern employment practices defined gig economy as ‘people using apps [or platforms] to sell their labour’. An estimated 50-60 million workers are part of the global gig economy. The Online Labour Index, developed by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, suggests that the demand for gig work or platform work grew by about 22 per cent since 2016.

At the heart of the rapid growth of the gig economy (both place-based gig work, such as food delivery, care work and taxis; and remote gig work, like transcription, video editing, software development, and data entry) is the proliferation of internet-based apps or platforms, which facilitate most transactions in gig work.

For the last three years, I have been studying platform-based workers in Africa, many of whom work well over 60 hours a week, some even working 100 hours weekly to make a living. While wages from platforms are higher for some workers compared to local alternatives, long, unsociable and unpredictable working hours, physical exhaustion and stress are also common. Many similar accounts from the experiences of platform workers in the UK give a disturbing picture of the global gig economy.

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 organisational 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 revolutionising 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 organised labour 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 labour unions (under Thatcher in the UK).

The contemporary gig economy represents the latest manifestation of the restructuring of capitalism. Since the late 1980s, the world economy has shifted from labour-intensive manufacturing to services, most of which are digitally mediated, organised 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. Similarly, Uber can seamlessly connect drivers to customers merely with the tap on the phones.

Secondly, advancements made in digital technologies have generated new divisions of labour, defined as the specialisation or separation of tasks between different types of workers. Marx’s foresight about how division of labour devalues labour power and enables corporate greed is remarkable. In The Communist Manifesto, he sums up, “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, 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 labour results in increasing the productive powers of labour, for Marx, this division of labour into small chunks (as we see in the current gig economy) leads to simplified labour or less skilled workers. Transformation of the global automobile industry from skilled craft manufacturing to mass-production assembly line production, is a classic example.

Similarly, on platforms commodification of labour power is made possible as thousands of workers compete globally for digital tasks. They are hired by clients based on per-tasks (‘piecemeal’ in labour-intensive factories) or number of clicks. With more than half of the world population connected to the internet today, more are potentially able to join the gig economy in future, particularly from the low and middle-income regions. This a dream from a capitalist point of view, a global pool of labour available cheaply, but not from workers’ perspectives.

Platform workers compete against a global pool of labour 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.

This brings us to one of the most important points Marx made regarding capitalist production. For Marx, alienation of workers is at the heart of capitalist production. Workers are alienated both from their objects of labour (products or goods) and the production activity. Alienation is ever more present in the way much of the global gig economy is organised and controlled. 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 labour power or workers need each other for their survival. However, what we see today is the ascendency of capital over labour power through the global gig economy practices. But Marx also shows that labour power presents a challenge to capital accumulation. For example, if all London Tube drivers decide to go on strike one day, that will bring the City to a halt and have a massive impact on its economy.

But many gig economy workers on various platforms lack such kind of associational power and hence we need to think differently as to how to make a better future for gig economy workers. 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 organisations 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.

Amir Anwar is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. His research focuses on the political economy of neoliberal globalisation in the Global South, mainly in India and Africa, with a particular interest on the growth of knowledge economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and its developmental impacts.