18 September 2018

The gig economy should worry every supporter of democratic capitalism


Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, knows more about saving souls than share prices, and more about sacred vestments than stock investments. But we won’t be rid of that turbulent priest just by mocking his sentimental socialism. However much we bash the bishop, he’s largely right about the ‘gig economy’ and corporate tax-dodging.

Anyone who cares about democratic capitalism, and liberal democracy too, should think about what he said last week. Even if he said it in that annual festival of sentimental socialism, the Trades Union Congress’ conference. Too many people experience the twenty-first century ‘gig economy’ as the “reincarnation of an ancient evil”, the return of a nineteenth-century job market.

I should know: I’ve lived all my life in that market. I’ve always been a freelancer. But, unlike my fellow freelancers in gangsta rap, or the millions now trapped in zero-hours contracts and other forms of no-future odd-jobbery, I chose the gig economy; it didn’t choose me. And unlike them, I do actual gigs, and will be delighted to continue doing them until the day I die.

For more than a decade, I was a professional musician. Since then, I’ve been a professional writer. Economically, the jobs are pretty much the same. The work comes in, or it doesn’t and I go out after it. The main differences are that a writer works sitting down, and does his drinking at home.

The person who called driving for Uber or wiping the bottoms of geriatrics a ‘gig’ deserves the George Orwell Prize for Linguistic Mendacity. I chose my freelance life, and on balance I love it, even though I’m currently suing a well-known American art monthly for $6,000 in unpaid fees. I enjoy the hustle, and I enjoy the variety. Last week, I wrote about Assyrian history, American politics, and a movie about an Egyptian who spied for Israel. I didn’t have to drive an Uber or wipe a geriatric’s bottom, though I did have to write about Boris Johnson.

I play music and write because of an inner compulsion. Recently, the small number of perennial freelancers like me have discovered that huge tracts of the labour force are now compelled by external forces to be freelancers too. Of course, us perennials do it for the money, but if it wasn’t for the love of doing it, we’d all be doing something else for money. When we see those who are now forced to become freelancers for the money alone, we feel an emotion the Archbish knows all about: pity. With our long experience of the gig and the hustle, we can see that they’re being ripped off.

The people who commission articles eulogising the ‘gig economy’ are mostly full-timers with contracts, salaries and even pensions. The articles are mostly written by freelancers; they have nothing to lose. The people who created the phrase ‘gig economy’ are the same Silicon Valley giants who are pouring money into Washington, DC to avoid regulation and anti-trust suits; they have everything to gain.

The people who live in the ‘gig economy’, apart from the small numbers of volunteers who work in tech and the media, are mostly unhappy and generally angry. They didn’t ask for this: it’s being forced upon them in the name of the national balance sheet. Like their parents, they’ve been paying half their earnings in taxes to the state precisely so that they can avoid the gig economy. Now, the state is feeding them into an economic wood chipper, and telling them that it’s for their own good that their labour is being sprayed all over the place by a digital economy.

It isn’t. It’s for the good of the balance sheet. That might be the way to run a business, though most of us would agree that a successful business must consider employee satisfaction at least occasionally. It isn’t the way to run a government, unless you’re building the Pyramids or seeking a future without the welfare state.

If in doubt, ask your Uber driver or bottom-wiper or nanny or cleaner, or whoever else works cash-in-hand for you. If, that is, they dare to tell you the truth, because their economic position may be too precarious to permit honesty. As George Orwell said, people can’t be friends when one of them earns five times as much as the other.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow people to earn multiples of the average salary. But we shouldn’t deny the cost to the social fabric. Liberal democracy is a middle-class business, and it depends on egalitarian relations with the workers. People who are trapped in underpaid, insecure and unfulfilling jobs with no health insurance, pension or promotion prospects aren’t going to feel friendly towards those who have salaries, insurance, pensions and career plans.

The people on traditional white-collar contracts cut their margins at work and increase their leverage when it comes to hiring nannies and gardeners. They also have everything to gain. But only for now. When they get automated too, they’ll change their minds pretty quickly. They will also be furious about what seems to them, and on fairly good grounds when you think about it, as a betrayal of their children’s future.

Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other expert on socialism about the social profile of Karl Marx’s ‘vanguard’, and they tell you the same thing. From the French Revolution to now, the ‘vanguard’, the fomenters of revolution, are educated, entitled and frustrated young people who are losing their inherited social standing and the prospect of increase in earnings or status. People like Karl Marx, really. But also people like the thousands of students who chant Jeremy Corbyn’s name at Glastonbury.

We talk about ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘democratic capitalism’, but we should talk of ‘liberal democratic capitalism’. Our system is a three-legged stool. Across the Western states, governments are allowing the capitalist leg of that stool to kick at the democratic one. The voters kick back, electing populists who promise to save them from the maw of the ‘gig economy’. The democratic leg of the stool kicks the liberal leg, the rules-based system that is losing its popular legitimacy.

Carry on like this, and we’re going to land hard on our collective bottom. To save democratic capitalism, and quite probably the liberal democratic state too, we need to accept that most people are neither able nor willing to turn their working lives into a living gamble. Nor are they prepared to think of the value of their lives in purely economic terms.

People aren’t stupid. They’re being remarkably patient and polite, when you consider how quickly the safety nets are being hacked away. They can see that the skilled and literate worker who waits for a mobile phone alert so she can earn enough to service a payday loan is in the same position as the unskilled and illiterate immigrant who hovers at a junction or rotary, hoping for a day’s heavy lifting.

But they won’t be patient for ever. The ‘gig economy’ is a disgrace to our social ethics, a solvent to human relations, and the best recruiter for socialism since the welfare state. All the entertainment in the world will not reconcile the Western middle classes with their new, precarious and futureless lives in the digital proletariat. Après nous, le deluge.

Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA and CapX’s American correspondent.