Uber, But For The Proletariat

Will Wilkinson —  Dec 16 2014 @ 7:42pm
by Will Wilkinson

Uber Graphic

There’s something about Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, that brings out the nutty in people. During the awful hostage situation yesterday in downtown Sydney, the volume of people trying to get out of Dodge by beckoning an Uber car kicked the app’s surge pricing into effect. This is most sensible. You see, the increase in demand (and no doubt the dangerous conditions) had reduced the supply of available drivers, leaving many of those desiring a car without one. Surge pricing sweetens the deal for drivers, drawing idle supply into action, helping to ensure that those who want service can get it. This does not amount to the exploitation of a dire situation. It is the best way to ameliorate it. The alternative to temporarily higher prices is a total lack of cars, not a bunch of open cars at normal non-surge pricing. This ought to be obvious, but apparently it is not, and there was an instant backlash to the implementation of surge pricing. Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast gets it exactly right:

Uber’s surges are not price gouging, as some have erroneously claimed. Uber––which is actually not the only method of transportation on Earth, despite what it may seem like––warns passengers about the surge before it allows them to order a car, and if the surge is over two times the normal rate, the app forces users to type it in, just to make sure they really understand what they are getting themselves into.

As the Sydney hostage crisis unfolded, Uber customers and observers alike took to Twitter to complain about the sky-high fares, calling the policy “Marxian” and “downright predatory.”

Gawker sneered that Uber is “Ayn Rand’s favorite car service.”

Uber responded to the PR nightmare by reversing the surge, refunding those affected, and doling out free rides. They shouldn’t have. There is plenty to chastise Uber for––I am a frequent and enthusiastic critic of the company’s inadequate background check process––but price surging is not among its sins. […]

How does the world owe you a private car, priced as you deem acceptable, that didn’t exist five years ago? If you don’t like Uber’s surge pricing, you are still welcome to travel by subway, cab, bus, camel, horse and carriage, or you can just fucking walk. If none of those options appeal to you, you might consider meandering over to a country with a different economic system.

Or… Or… transform this country’s economic system and socialize Uber! That’s the entertaining proposal of Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert in The Nation:

[T]hink about what the capitalist managers at Uber are doing with their cut of the company’s money. They are fighting regulators and hiring lobbyists in order to bring down the incumbent taxi-medallion business. They are also spending money on advertising, in order to get customers interested in using a ride-sharing service. These are both expensive projects, and they open the door for competitors. Newer ride-share ventures can piggyback on Uber’s success and take advantage of these new terms, with Uber having already spent all that initial money. This is called the “second-mover advantage,” and it explains why Uber is such a vicious company.

But after this initial project, what exactly are the capitalists at Uber contributing to the company? Almost all of the actual capital is already owned by the workers, in the form of cars that they pay for and maintain themselves. And these workers labor individually, doing the same tasks, so there’s no need for a management class to control their daily operations. The capital owners maintain the phone app, but app technology isn’t the major cost, and it’s getting cheaper and easier by the day.

Given that the workers already own all the capital in the form of their cars, why aren’t they collecting all the profits? Worker cooperatives are difficult to start when there’s massive capital needed up front, or when it’s necessary to coordinate a lot of different types of workers. But, as we’ve already shown, that’s not the case with Uber. In fact, if any set of companies deserves to have its rentiers euthanized, it’s those of the “sharing economy,” in which management relies heavily on the individual ownership of capital, providing only coordination and branding.

There’s perhaps a problem or two with this proposal. “It takes an entrepreneur to start up ride-sharing,” Konczal and Covert write, “but not to run it as a firm. A worker collective is the obvious transition.” A system in which entrepreneurship is routinely rewarded with a forced “transition” to a worker collective is a system that is unlikely to continue to producing a valuable of entrepreneurial innovation.

But I really do like the idea of the drivers getting a bigger share of the profits. If it’s true, as they say, that “Newer ride-share ventures can piggyback on Uber’s success and take advantage of these new terms,” then it seems that Uber and Lyft drivers ought to be able to organize, finance the creation of a new app (no big deal, it would seem), and then dominate the market by charging less than those awful, useless, Silicon Valley tech-bro rentiers, all the while getting paid more. Why go through the tumult of trying to socialize Uber when a worker collective would so clearly out-compete Uber? Or maybe it’s not so clear that it would. Maybe organizing drivers, developing, maintaining, and continuously improving an app, doing all the necessary marketing, and managing the whole system isn’t really such a breeze, and by the time you take into account all those costs, which worker-collective drivers would have to cover, they’d end up keeping something in the neighborhood of 80% of their fares, just like Uber drivers. That’s my hunch.

Still, a more worker-centric Uber seems like a neat idea, and the prospect of developing one from the ground up, no matter how unlikely it may be, seems a lot less unlikely than simply stealing Uber – at least here in the mad-dog capitalist Amerikkka. Maybe the government of a country less in the grip of neoliberal market fundamentalism will gently force Uber to transition to a worker collective. Actually, I hope that happens. It would be interesting to see how it works out.