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Uber app

Uber app. Photo: Ivan Radic / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

The Uber leak has exposed the shady relationships between Big Tech and the political elite and the role of companies like Uber in “disrupting” laws and regulations for the benefit of the capitalist class, writes Kieran Crowe

The set of crises affecting formerly unstoppable “tech sector” businesses is a complex symptom of the post-Covid troubles of capitalism but does not lack for spectacle. Big names like Netflix, Twitter, Tesla and Klarna are all suddenly succumbing to their historic lack of actual profits and legal trouble necessitated by the same. None of these companies, however, is going supernova quite like Uber.

The proximate cause of Uber’s controversies is the sensational release of thousands of leaked documents that lift the lid on a worldwide multi-million-dollar campaign of political, economic and media manipulation. To call this “lobbying” would be insanely polite. The company was spending its venture-capitalist funding to subvert laws in countries all over the world, and to secure the complicity of top politicians. These included world leaders like French president (at the time finance minister) Emmanuel Macron, an EU digital commissioner (allegedly recruited as a lobbyist while still working for the EU!) and senior British politicians all the way up to then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. The full extent of the assistance that these political elites gave the “platform” are not yet fully understood, and further scandals seem highly likely.

In addition to the dealings with politicians, the leaks also reveal almost gleefully unethical discussions taking place amongst Uber management. Messages bragging that they were “like pirates” and doing things that were just “fucking illegal” abounded within the company. This wasn’t just disregard for laws and standards, this was a culture of seeking to break them. Thanks to a disgruntled former executive, they are now available for the world to see.

If Uber’s activities seem to resemble more that of an organised crime network than that of a service company, that’s probably appropriate, because it has scarcely ever been a business in any normal capitalist sense. Indeed, obfuscating what Uber is has always been part of its model: it officially defines itself as a “a ride-sharing platform”, because admitting they were a taxi and delivery company that did not abide by the regulations applicable to taxi and delivery companies would have been giving the game away just a tad too much. Better keep that sort of naughty talk for the internal emails.

Uber’s rise to ubiquity was meteoric. It launched in 2010 and became one of the first big brands associated with the proliferation of smartphone apps. Like many of the previously mentioned tech players, however, it had already been in trouble for a while. Its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, left the company in 2017 under a cloud of scandals involving sexual harassment and other accusations of abusive corporate culture. More recently it’s chronic inability to make any actual money has been catching up with it: earlier in the year Uber’s board were literally saying that it was time to become a “for profit” company. It had also been engaged in some major industrial and civil disputes, as the people working for it in fake self-employed status attempted to organise against its exploitative practices in cities around the globe. The latest revelations are just making a brand that was going toxic turn radioactive.

It does all raise one big question, though: why was this disreputable, dysfunctional company receiving funding to the tune of many millions every year, to not make a profit? The answer is in what they, and other similar companies, like to call “disruption”.

Tech companies claim this word to be synonymous with “innovation”, but you can call it abolishing regulations and increasing worker exploitation. What Uber did was undercut pre-existing transport services, making use of the functionality provided by 4G phones. They presented an alternative that was cheaper and that could ignore little things like insurance, criminal background checks and labour laws.

The fact that race-to-the-bottom pricing offered by Uber meant they weren’t technically making money didn’t matter, so long as they could convince investors that they were permanently breaking down restrictions on businesses. Of course, that was never the pitch to the public. The well-aimed corporate propaganda would always insist that could use these under-priced services guilt-free for a jumble of “progressive” reasons.

Uber claimed to be fighting road congestion, which was a lie, because they Uber made congestion worse. They claimed that they were making it safer for women to travel, which was another lie because many women were in fact assaulted by unscreened dangerous men working as Uber drivers. Still more ridiculously, they said that they were providing job opportunities to marginalised workers. Uber has in fact intensively exploited it’s fake-not-staff, by denying them employment rights, making them charge insanely low rates and over-recruiting drivers forcing them into unreasonable competition. The fact that Uber drivers and deliverers were often drawn from poor, and often immigrant, demographics led to a further piece of insulting propaganda: that criticising Uber was racist because you were favouring the “privileged” drivers who worked in properly regulated services! You do have to hand it to their marketing, it has been a masterclass in woke-washing neoliberalism.

The corruption and criminal behaviour that has been revealed with Uber is only shocking in its scale: many commentators, particularly on the left, had been in no doubt that Uber was primarily a battering-ram against workers’ rights and democratic oversight. What’s perhaps most interesting about it is what it tells us about how big tech really operates, away from the propaganda of the past decade.

The narrative of disruption in tech has always been the use of new (or perceived to be new) technologies to create new ways of making money out of services that where either pre-existing, or not even commercialised. Part of the act has always been to blind the public with science and pretend that this aggressive monetisation is an inescapable result of the progress of technology. Anyone who stands in the way of the tech companies, according to the narrative, is no more than an out-of-touch Luddite.

If any of this libertarian determinism were even remotely true, there would never have been any need for Uber to be spending upwards of $75million to influence political and social elites. The reality is that Big Tech has been working with and using the state (including getting it to turn a blind eye to criminality). It is fundamentally a class project to redefine the terms of markets and services to benefit their section of capital. Nothing was ever inevitable about any of it. Without that essentially political strategy, an organisation like Uber would never have gone anywhere, let alone become a household name.

The most useful thing for socialists to consider, as these houses of cards collapse, is how we would do a “disruption” of our own. What would be our alternative projects of using technological change to disrupt the system in ways that benefit the working class and the environment, rather than capital?

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