Microlabor and Pure Precarity

[28 November 2011]

By Rob Horning

Today’s WSJ has a story by Emily Glazer about p2p personal-servitude sites like TaskRabbit (slogan: “Get just about anything done by safe, reliable, awesome people”) that allow people to post request for odd jobs and services. Need a latte but don’t feel like waiting in line? Need someone to bring you In N Out? Need someone to inflate hundreds of balloons for a birthday party? These services can help you find the most desperate person out there (or the sort of servant who suits your prejudices best) for a one-off job. Watching the scrolling feed of new jobs at TaskRabbit is like getting to hear the tentative commands of emerging petty tyrants in real time, people taking the plunge and indulging the fantasy of ad hoc aristocracy.

But the request for someone to “Bring some In N Out” seem to capture the spirit of the enterprise—a desire to find someone else to do something already designed to be expedient, but something that also has some inexplicable brand cachet. I want to eat a burger from In N Out, but it’s cool to like In N Out, so I want other people to know I am getting it—if I advertise on this site, then lots more people will get to know just how into In N Out I am! This is not so much about buying personal service—the site’s users almost certainly don’t have the habitus of a person who inherently expects to be waited on and would not likely feel that comfortable casting people more or less like themselves into some inferior caste—but rather about identity display. It’s a means to make consumption of personal service more conspicuous, which is probably a chief reason for TaskRabbit’s clients to be doing it.

Noted labor expert Ashton Kutcher, an investor in another online labor market, Zaarly, approves of these sites: ” ‘Companies like this are really tackling things like unemployment in an efficient, viable way,’ Mr. Kutcher says.” Yes, what could be more efficient than to hire labor on an as-needed basis without any having to take any sort of responsibility for workplace safety or worker well-being? It is the reductio ad absurdem of the points Doug Henwood raises here about small businesses.

people who presumably care about workers should also rethink their passion for tininess: the experience of actually existing small businesses show that they’re not great employers, with poor pay, cheesier benefits and more dangerous workplaces. Bigger firms are easier to regulate, more open to public scrutiny, friendlier to affirmative action programs and more vulnerable to union organizing.

What these online microlabor sites posit is a kind of pure precarity, in which labor is entirely disembedded from ongoing social relations and is purely exploitative; it defines the relation between worker and boss as a kind of unbridgeable chasm. Though Glazer points out how longer-term working relationships sometimes evolve out of microlabor encounters, the premise is still anchored in hire and fire at will, at literally the first moment it is convenient.

It reminds me of something Angela Mitropoulos argues in this essay:

The regular work, or regular pay, or the ‘normal working day’ that is regarded as typical of Fordism is an exception in the history of capitalism.[1] Outside a small number of countries for a brief historical moment, and outside particular occupations in specific industries, the experience of work in capitalism has, for the most part, been intermittent, without guarantee of a future income, without punctual limit and, oftentimes, without any income at all. Indeed, regular, full-time and secure work, where it did exist, depended upon the organisation and maintenance of precarious conditions for the vast majority of the world’s populations.

It may be that technology in thus instance is not allowing us to progress but is being implemented to strip capitalism to its essentials, to return it to its core principles. The exemption from precariousness may once have been a first-world prerogative, as Mitropoulos suggests, but now the technological elaboration of microlabor markets may mean that everyone around the world can look forward to being equally immiserated.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/151728-/