Change Is In The Air

Quite literally.

In a single week air pollution cleared up, housing was found for the homeless, evictions were banned, the stock market ceased being the gauge of social well being, water shut-offs ended, jails were emptied, debt peonage was suspended, universal basic income was proposed by “free market” die-hards, people started caring about the elderly and front-line workers, personal competition gave way to mutual aid networks, kids abandoned digital serfdom to go outside to play, and Donald Trump outflanked Bernie Sanders to the left, calling for public equity in bailed-out corporations, in other words, public profit.

The only restrained observation one can make is: Holy Shit!

The battle has barely begun, but all can plainly see that the U.S. operates a planned economy, which places socialism squarely on the table, even as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign fades rapidly away, like Joe Biden’s mind.

The neo-liberals may grasp power again, though that is far from guaranteed, but legitimacy will elude them, as an aroused populace in revolt will not heed their irrelevant commands once it becomes clear that the crumbs they are willing to toss the public’s way will not in any way arrest exploding indebtedness, much less bring economic security. A second consecutive generation of young people – Generation Z – has no future, while politicians continue indulging economic masturbation fantasies about a mythical free market bringing prosperity to all. “Gigs” are nothing to hang one’s hat on.

We have been fed a steady diet of illusions about the gig economy constituting a “labor revolution,” which is like calling panhandling an earning revolution.  Deliberately misclassified as independent contractors, gig workers remain unprotected by minimum wage laws, earning as little as $3 or $4 an hour or even less, as by definition there is no economic floor in our glorious “free market.” Crowd workers, forty percent of whom rely on the work as their main source of income, earn somewhere between $1 and $5.50 an hour.  ((See: Gigged – The End of The Job and The Future of Work, by Sarah Kessler (St. Martin’s Press, 2018).))

Worse, these digital coolies have no way of knowing when work will be delivered, so they can’t take on other commitments for fear of forfeiting income. They check their computer screens anxiously, trying to piece together fragments of work so as to earn a decent income, like a hungry diner assembling crumbs in hopes of enjoying a decent meal.

The agonizing search for gigs without ending up with a real job is capitalism’s latest refinement of torture for the poor. Digital work delivered over the internet requires being glued to a screen. You can’t go anywhere or do anything for fear of missing a work opportunity. All one’s downtime goes to the search for more work. Spending endless hours applying for gigs and not getting them is one thing when one has money in the bank: it’s quite another when one doesn’t know how this month’s rent will get paid.

Prospects are especially bad given that Third World workers can underbid America’s poor, who can’t afford to work for $3 an hour. True, there are better paid gigs, but those tend to be extremely specialized, requiring college or master’s degrees. Only thirty percent of Americans have college degrees. ((See: Temp – How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, by Louis Hyman (Viking, 2018).))

As a whole, gig economy workers are disproportionately poor. Compared to Americans in general, twice as many of them earn less than $30,000 a year, below what MIT calculates to be a living wage for a family of four. They are members of in increasingly insecure “precariat,” living permanently hand-to-mouth. (According to a report from the Federal Reserve released in May, 2015, forty-seven percent of Americans cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense with their savings or a credit card).

The grossly exploitative nature of gig employment is nowhere more apparent than in the current crisis of Uber drivers during the corona virus pandemic. The unofficial “plan” is to let these drivers work right up to the moment they get sick, then hope they don’t die as they shelter in place at home awaiting a compensation check based on their collapsed earnings. In short, a token tiny payment inside a get-well card.

The Uberization of everything promises a “sea change in work” the same way sub-prime mortgage debt promised a sea change in wealth generation leading up to the 2008 financial collapse.  New technologies chop up traditional jobs into discrete tasks that are then assigned to individual workers just when a paying customer needs them, with wages set by highly volatile supply and demand, and every gig worker’s performance constantly tracked, reviewed, and publicized.  Though Kim Jong Un didn’t invent this system, he should probably pay the ones who did.

Long in the making, this dismantling of jobs and middle-class prosperity has been openly celebrated by CEOs, presidents, pundits, and stock markets around the world. Consultants replaced executives at the top, temp-workers took over from office workers in the middle, and day laborers displaced union workers at the bottom. Now gig workers are slated to replace everyone, including themselves, once they have taught computers to perform the rote tasks still done by humans.

Yes, change is in the air in the form of a virus that has stopped the market cold, starkly revealing its socialist underpinnings. Trillions of dollars are shamelessly funneled to corporations that refuse to concede public equity to the taxpayers underwriting their operations. If the “aid” comes at that price, say the corporate chieftains, we do not want it. But if they do not want it, then it’s clear they don’t really need it.

The socialist moment will pass if we don’t build a fierce and sophisticated democratic movement that can replace the current oligarchy’s disastrous rule. The former Occupy movement, the two Bernie Sanders campaigns for president, and the Medicare For All struggle can become the basis for economic democracy in the United States, otherwise known as socialism.

Our minimal demands should be full and dignified employment in good times, universal basic income in bad times, and free medical care (at the point of service) all the time.

Let’s make it happen.

Michael K. Smith is the author of The Madness of King George from Common Courage Press. He co-blogs with Frank Scott at Read other articles by Michael.