Effacing Solidarity II: Propaganda Disguised as Philosophy, Research Time, 09/08/2018

Today, I want to write about what yesterday’s post was supposed to be about. As often happens with my blogging, what was supposed to be a preamble turned out to be long enough to justify its own post. That’s how my two-parters happen.

Understanding common frameworks among very different phenomena* is an essential aspect of any empirical approach to philosophy. In this case, those different phenomena are the propaganda of nationalist mobilization, corporate public relations, journalism, and philosophical thinking.

* And the real differences obscured by superficial common features.

Here’s the conceptual continuum that runs through all four – the relation of language, message, and truth in political movements, how societies constitute themselves.

My hatred of Uber has only grown over the last few years, as its
driving principle seems to be reducing our economic life of taxi
service to a dangerous shit show without rules. For one thing, I know
how poorly paid Uber drivers are. I don't use the app myself, but I have
several friends who do, and I'll ride along with them. I slip a driver
cash after as many rides as I can
Propaganda removes truth from communication, making messaging into the transmission of orders. Corporate PR uses messaging science to shape public perception of actual events, organizations, and people. Done ethically, PR messaging emphasizes some real aspects of a company’s client, de-emphasizes others, and generally puts its subject in the best possible light, given circumstances. Done unethically, PR messaging promotes outright lies.

Journalism and philosophy critique both. That’s not all they do, of course, but it’s what they do relative to propaganda and corporate PR. When done ethically, they both reveal the full truth of a situation that powerful actors would often prefer obscured. Journalism does this through empirical investigation. Philosophy does this through analysis and argument.

This four-sided distinction came to me as I reflected on some later chapters of Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have space or context to fit this exploration into the main review. A couple of chapters work through some new economic and business ideas that – ostensibly at least – discourage modern capitalism’s fragmentation of community solidarity into disconnected warring individuals.

Unfortunately for their subjects, these business models are slight of hand moves. You think a new system is correcting some terrible harm, until you’re able to put yourself in the position where you can see all the worse injury that this system is doing.

In these chapters of false solutions, Sassower makes some solid critiques. But I think he tends to give too much quarter. Best example I’d say is Chapter 13 from The Quest for Prosperity. It’s about the sharing economy.

The corporate culture of Uber and pretty much every other sharing
economy and Silicon Valley industry leader encourages
mercenary hostility and paranoid anger more than any kind of
community-building solidarity. The most famous image is of
Travis Kalanick himself losing his temper at a driver who had the
gall to question the company's pricing policy. But when I was
briefly a student affairs manager at a private college, the
students who had the most trouble with their programs were the
part-time Uber drivers. They had to work overnight almost
every day of the week to survive.
Sharing economy companies pitch becoming a service provider with them by promoting the job’s flexibility and your own autonomy from corporate control of how you do the job. Sassower explores the promises of the sharing economy from an even more profound booster than Uber’s PR and recruitment departments, Arun Sundararajan.

Sundararajan himself is a professor of operations management at NYU’s Stern School of Business. The book is the ostentatiously titled The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism.

I can understand how your first instinct on hearing about the “end of employment” is to reach for medication to prevent heart attacks. But Sassower does Sundararajan the benefit of the doubt. Sundararajan describes the sharing economy as having the potential to restore community to capitalism.

Sharing economy companies, he says, give people who would never otherwise have found each other a platform to build a community of mutual support. Platforms take advantage of internet connectivity to return to the informal, decentralized networks of commerce and relationship building as in the medieval market squares.

The industrial revolution, says Sundararajan, brought authoritarianism to markets and production. It’s an authoritarianism of the factory floor’s automation, the demands of oligarchs to beg for the least crumbs of productivity as wages, and government police suppression to maintain those oligarchs’ power.

Heavy industry flattened and crushed the friendly truck and barter of small communities. Sundararajan expects the sharing economy to restore it. As people become linked through networks of sharing goods and services, they come to trust each other. Since the platforms network people without regard to ethnic or cultural boundaries, our networks will become more diverse.

But it gets worse. There are many examples of Uber drivers
assaulting and robbing their customers. This actually happened
to a former partner of mine: a (now former) friend left her in an
Uber after getting her too drunk to speak. The driver physically
threw her out of his car at her destination, cracking the back
of her skull on the parking lot and robbing her phone and cash.
As brutal and unforgivable as acts like these are, I can
understand why people might be driven to that desperation if
this is their only means to live..
Sassower critiques this cheap utopianism as far from inevitable, and in fact quite unlikely.

When the platforms set to work, the result isn’t an end to authority, but the stress of being subject to an app provider’s whims. As any Uber driver knows, drivers shoulder all the risks and costs of daily business – fuel, insurance, upkeep – but with no control over such business essentials as their rates.

TaskRabbit is the sharing economy company that came closest to this model. It began as an auction platform for handyfolk workers – plumbers, carpenters, appliance repair people, renovation workers would bid on jobs, schedule tasks around existing jobs, and build relationships with repeat clients that would get them regular business, referrals, and friendships. Clients and contractors were all happy.

An acquisition in 2014 saw it become an Uber for home repair. The auction forums and ability to schedule were gone. Instead, clients posted a job to be done now, and the nearest available contractors decided in the moment whether they’d take it, then grab the required tools and get to it.

Life for TaskRabbit contractors became hell. They could no longer schedule tasks, but had to have their day free of any work whenever they wanted to log on and look for gigs, which kept them from optimizing their income. It became impossible to build relationships with clients, as there was no guarantee you’d ever connect again. So there goes your repeat business or referrals.

Things only picked up for the company when IKEA bought TaskRabbit last year, and began using its platform to schedule furniture assemblies in the cities where the company was active. After all, it had to restore the scheduling function to do so. Now contractors could plan their other jobs around TaskRabbit assignments.

The sharing economy can only function when its platforms encourage workers to take control of their own working lives, and the platform is a proper communication tool that opens the space needed to build thick relationships.

But the developers and investors in sharing economy companies have no interest in this. Because it’s easier to maximize revenue with a fleet of desperate, under-employed contractors incentivized to tie themselves to the rhythms of the app instead of a working life that would improve their own prosperity.

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