Platform capitalism: a new era or business as usual? (Part II)

Aleksandra Piletić

This is the second blog post in a three-part series critiquing platform capitalism. Read part one here.

In the first part of this blog post, I highlighted the benefits of employing a regulationist approach for studying the rise of platforms in a neoliberal context. In this continuation, I study transformations through the lens of the wage-labor nexus; I adopt an expansive definition of this institutional form, conceptualizing it as the ensemble of relations, both within and outside the workplace, that shape the forms of labor prevalent in a particular accumulation regime. This encompasses both the class relation – i.e. the relation between labor and capital – which has traditionally been the focus for regulationist scholars, as well as relations of gender and race which normally tend to be neglected in regulationist scholarship. I do so by analytically focusing both on work and social reproduction (i.e. the ensemble of everyday activities required to reproduce communities, including the labor force) and I ask – what are the effects of platform-led shifts in these two spheres? What are the disruptions and continuities that they have introduced into neoliberal accumulation? Ultimately, a dual, mutually constitutive process can be identified – on the one hand, platforms have benefited from decades of neoliberal reworking of labor relations, coupled with the sudden availability of a large pool of flexibilized and precaritized laborers in the post-2008 crisis period; on the other, they have addressed the demand for low-cost alternatives to existing modalities of social reproduction in the era of austerity and fiscal downsizing. Platforms have in this way generated new ways of legitimizing the existing neoliberal wage-labor nexus, strategically exploiting crisis-tendencies in context-specific configurations of work and social reproduction.

In the first instance, decades of neoliberal policymaking have produced a wide array of new contractual forms – replacing full-time working arrangements with flexible contracts, on-call contracts, zero-hour contracts, and other hypercontingent work forms. Hypercontingency has become a core feature of labor relations and has been coupled with the neoliberal-era assault on unions and various collective bargaining agreements. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, weak labor protections led to a drastic rise in unemployment, as well as a general decrease in living standards, as austerity programs unfurled across Western European and North American contexts. Platforms offered a lifeline in this respect, and this fueled their initial rollout, which was contingent on large worker turnover. It is this feature that enabled the rapid rise of ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft, as well as food-delivery platforms like Deliveroo, Foodora and Uber Eats. Platforms subsequently proceeded to ‘unbundle’ and redefine work – by stripping workers of benefits, reclassifying them as independent contractors, offloading unpaid tasks to them, obscuring that work is even occurring, etc. This has occurred in conjunction with renewed efforts to discursively legitimize these types of work, particularly through notions of ‘fictitious freedom’ – i.e. discourses that represent platform work as providing greater autonomy to workers than other, offline forms of work (while neglecting the many structural factors that constrain that autonomy). Although this has played out in an uneven, context-specific fashion, platforms have not created “a new world of work” but have rather created new socio-spatial patterns within existing (neoliberal) forms of work.

At the same time, platforms have responded to the neoliberal crisis of social reproduction by becoming a coping mechanism for households faced with the effects of decades of individualization and (re)privatization of reproductive tasks. As states and employers retreated from providing welfare, public services and benefits, families were compelled to turn to the market for meeting reproductive needs. The increasing participation of women in the labor force combined with the rise of irregular work, the increasing intensity of work, as well as the spread of work obligations beyond the confines of a formal working day have led households to experience a chronic time-squeeze, increasing the demand for paid help for household chores.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, states have drawn from existing neoliberal toolkits to individualize risk and devolve social reproduction down to families through various forms of austerity and fiscal downsizing. The household has emerged as a site for absorbing the punishment imposed by the economic crisis and austerity policies. In this respect, platforms have responded to this crisis by offering the “massification of ‘servant’ tasks”, that is, by allowing households to access reproductive services that would normally be more expensive and/or less easily accessible than those offered by traditional providers. Food delivery, cleaning, childcare, pet sitting, grocery shopping and other reproductive tasks can now all be easily accessed through a platform. Platforms have therefore engendered a hyper-personalization of social-reproduction, and individual gaps in the provision of reproduction and moments of the care crisis have served as “business fields or recruitment strategies for new clients and workers.” Platforms have also offered new possibilities for caring individuals – usually women, as well as others (e.g. single parents, the disabled) not able to work full-time jobs – to more easily combine work and reproductive tasks. Through different forms of piecework and flexible work, they have provided new work modalities for individuals who are unable or too burdened by reproductive tasks to gain an income through formal, on-site employment. At the same time, however, platforms have not fundamentally disrupted extant, neoliberal forms of social reproduction; instead, they have reinforced its tendency to download responsibilities for systemic problems to individuals along gender, race and class lines.

Future research on platforms must be more reflexive about the assumptions inherent in concepts like ‘platform capitalism’ and ‘digital capitalism.’ A focus on the disruptive features of new technologies threatens to blind us to the fact that they have emerged out of endogenous dynamics and are very much a response to these dynamics rather than a wholesale departure from them. At the same time, a host of transformations are taking place that cannot be accounted for simply by analytically privileging recurrences and historical features of capitalist accumulation. In line with this, a regulationist focus on the platform-led hybridization of institutional forms methodologically provides a productive way forward, showing us that platforms have selectively exploited crisis tendencies within neoliberal institutional arrangements, offering new, equally crisis-ridden, ways of mediating these crises. In the next blog post in this series, I show how work and social reproduction have been hybridized under the influence of platforms in two empirical case studies – Amsterdam and Berlin.