🌹Misappropriating unions, Lyft's IPO, Instagram influencers

Tech/left newsletter - March 31

A weekly newsletter from a socialist perspective on economics, inequality, and the late capitalist dystopia that is Silicon Valley.

Personal news

My book has a subtitle! Abolish Silicon Valley: How To Liberate Technology From Capitalism coming to a bookstore near you sometime in 2020, courtesy of Repeater Books.

I initially had much more dramatic subtitles in mind, including “greed and disruption in the ruins of late capitalism”, but Repeater gently steered me away from that. The new subtitle is eminently more sensible, in hindsight.

Fragments round-up

Recommended content

  • 💰 Means TV: “an anti-capitalist on-demand digital streaming platform launching in late 2019” (Netflix for the left!). Sorely needed imo. Some coverage in The Intercept, and an interview with the founders (who worked on AOC’s campaign video) in Jacobin.

  • 🎙Antifada episode featuring Kim Stanley Robinson: Also featuring Will Menaker of Chapo Trap House. I loved Robinson’s insights on sci-fi, utopian imaginaries, and socialism. As one of the hosts mentions on the show, it’s amazing how much Robinson’s work in speculating futures is deeply entwined with a rigorous understanding of political economy and society today, influenced by teachers like Fredric Jameson and Ursula K Le Guin. (I haven’t actually read any of his fiction yet, but it’s high on my list now.) Robinson also makes some thoughtful comments on why we shouldn’t be too attached to “socialism” as a name—“if we get a good political economy, maybe it’ll need a new name”—or even to the entirety of the idea—“[we should consider] destranding the toolkit [to find] the defining characteristics of socialism: which ones are crucial and necessary, which are accidental and historical. How do we apply the former to the current moment we’re already in? Because we don’t get to have a fresh start.”

  • 🔗 Forget Your Middle-Class Dreams: Alex Press for Jacobin responds to that Kickstarter anti-union memo (see also: this fragment). This stellar piece is an exhortation for white-collar workers to choose the side of their fellow workers, drawing on Erik Olin Wright’s concept of “contradictory class location” and a pamphlet created by a 1930’s left wing group: "Noting white-collar workers’ immiseration — “There are teachers in the bread lines, engineers patching the sheet-iron sheds in the ‘Hoovervilles’” — the pamphlet articulated a dividing line for this group. Their choice was “between serving either as the cultural lieutenants of the capitalist class or as allies and fellow travelers of the working class.” There are two sides, it argued. Pick one." This paragraph sums up the piece nicely: “Building power for blue- (and pink-) collar workers requires building working-class power everywhere. Unionizing one workplace makes it easier to unionize another. It builds up unions’ coffers. It strengthens a culture of unionism, something desperately in need of a comeback when union membership in the United States stands at a lowly 10.7 percent. Plus, at their best, unions are vehicles for building working-class power as a class, rather than just interest groups looking out for their members’ interests — we’re far from that vision of unionism, but we won’t get anywhere near it without rebuilding the labor movement. We need more unions, not less.”

  • 🔗 Workers for Workers: contingent workers at Facebook share their stories anonymously. These stories brutally illustrate the harsh reality of life on the bottom end of Silicon Valley’s two-tier employment system. As this post by “Camila” says: “I didn’t understand what it meant to be a contingent worker until my first day at Facebook. During orientation, they repeatedly emphasized that we weren’t “actual” Facebook employees. I was told by my contracting agency, after asking for clarification multiple times, that I was “contract-to-hire”. They phrased it as going from a contracting position to a full-time position after a 3 month period, like a probation period. I thought that if I really kicked ass at my role for 3 months, then I would have it made as a full-time employee of Facebook.” The post ends with: “I am done dealing with Facebook's two-faced behavior, talking big words about the good of the global community while crushing tens of thousands of contingent workers across the very same globe under its heel.” The site has 3 stories so far, and it’s worth keeping an eye on if you’re interested in labour conditions in the tech industry.

  • 🔗 ‘Organize or Die’: Kooper Caraway Ushers in a New Labor Movement: An article by Rebecca Zweig for The Nation, profiling the 28-year-old president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO. Some great takeaways about why organising is such an urgent task for younger generations (“By the time we’d hypothetically be old enough to collect Social Security, we won’t be able to breathe the air or drink the water, and nothing will grow from the ground. We know that it’s organize or die.”) and the importance of internationalism (“The largest corporations and the richest folks in the world don’t recognize borders and neither should the unions. If we implement a working-class solidarity that runs across all borders, there’s nowhere for the corporations to go.”).

  • 🔗 A Design for Life: How Platforms Are Weaving Their Way Into the Fabric of Capitalism: James Meadway (former economics advisor to John McDonnell) writes for Novara Media about this week’s Apple announcements, contextualising them within the new direction of travel for global capitalism. (This is a topic I’ll be writing more about in the future, too: the fact that Apple, not content with declining growth for hardware sales, is encroaching on more virtual ways of making money tells us something about the latest stage of capitalism.) As Meadway writes: “As profits become harder to find through the textbook route of investment and the creation of new markets (whether for goods or services), capitalism in general is turning towards various forms of rent-seeking. It’s significantly easier to enforce property rights on what has been created elsewhere, and demand tribute for access, than it is go through the costly and risky business of creating new value yourself.”

  • 🔗 Evaluating scholarship, or why I won’t be teaching Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: An interesting critique of Zuboff’s book on surveillance capitalism from an academic perspective, by Blayne Haggarty of Brock University. Haggarty draws on Evgeny Morozov’s critical review of Zuboff’s work for The Baffler, which came out earlier this month and which I am ashamed to say I still haven’t read (it’s really long!). The argument boils down to the fact that Zuboff 1) does not cite work she should have; and 2) maintains a limited analytical framework that places too much emphasis on “surveillance” and not enough on “capitalism”. I’m not really in the world of academia anymore (and will hopefully never be again), so 1) isn’t my biggest concern, but I’m sympathetic to 2). h/t to Daniel Joseph for sharing this link.

  • 📖 Catalyst Vol 2 No 4: Not exactly a book, but the latest issue of Catalyst has some really good stuff. I really liked Suzy Lee’s “The Case for Open Borders”. Nicole Aschoff’s review of Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy’s recent book on managerial capitalism was interesting, though I don’t know that I agree with her dismissal of the potential of highly-paid professionals: “Why would someone making half a million dollars a year side with someone making thirty thousand? A shared belief in meritocracy?” But isn’t the whole point of politics that one’s political views are not wholly determined by material conditions? It’s obviously not easy to build that kind of solidarity between vastly different types of workers, and it might not even be necessary in the long run, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The burgeoning tech worker movement—which, yes, does include people making half a million dollars—is a potential force to the contrary. We can’t know in advance what techniques and strategies will work, so we might as well try anything that will push us in the right direction.