Trump, Uber, and the Changing Shape of Work

On political rhetoric and the sharing economy boom.

“You’re fired.” A decade ago, in the heat of the TV lights, those two words served as Donald Trump’s trademark. The Apprentice was a world energized by endless competition and entrepreneurial risk. No safe employment here.

On the campaign trail last year, Trump began broadcasting a new message. Now, in fairgrounds and stadiums, he spoke of good jobs, manufacturing jobs, long-term jobs. Trump dropped his initial interest in decreasing the minimum wage. The minimum wage needed to go up, Trump declared in July, because “people have to be taken care of.” Now, it seemed, Trump’s line was You’re hired.

If Trump started as the avatar of flexible competition, how did he become the standard-bearer for stable employment? How did Trump move from “You’re fired” to you’re hired?

This question calls out for an anthropological perspective (Shoshan and Muehlebach 2012; Appel 2012), because Trump’s success has everything to do with changes in the everyday texture of work, its patterns and its feelings.

***

Perhaps Trump is not just channeling nostalgia for industrial work relations. Could he be communicating the bossy realities of a newly monopolistic workforce?
One cold evening in December 2016, I arrived at a US airport and glanced at the chain of taxis puffing exhaust, with no customers. A ride in one would cost $35. Instead, I hailed a $19 Uber. The driver—call him Sebastián—drove late into the night, in a car that was his on paper but that Uber, in part, commanded. Uber determined whom he would pick up, how much he would get paid, and how the money would arrive. Sebastián could refuse to accept a ride request, but if he refused too often, Uber might fire him by kicking him off of the app. The company stipulated how old the car could be, who else might accompany him, and even how he would speak to the people he transported.

Words like market and entrepreneur seemed inadequate to describe the relationship between Sebastián and me. We were relating through a corporation that night.

Donald Trump’s message raises uncomfortable questions for anthropology, but so does Sebastián’s job. In both cases, the term neoliberalism does not quite fit. The US workforce has changed, and direct corporate management is the order of the day. A form of hegemony, as Nancy Fraser argues, seems to be at its end. What if neoliberalism is over?

***

To engage with that question, anthropology should look to the tumultuous 1970s, when the outlines of a neoliberal socio-economic order emerged (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000, Ho 2009). Trade routes opened up and migration increased. Unions were suppressed. Stable jobs melted away, and companies wove production webs that spanned oceans. A shoe might be cobbled by one subcontractor on one continent, and its lace might be knitted by another subcontractor on another continent. Income inequality increased in many countries, but on a global level it decreased, as nations grew closer to each other, and millions left poverty in China, India, and Latin America. In this new global dispensation, workers were to be disciplined by the market. This was the world of The Apprentice, a “You’re-fired” world.

Gregory Duff Morton

As neoliberalism dawned, the expansive corporations of the mid-20th century became smaller. Each one began focusing on a single core competency, like designing shoes or producing computer chips. This structure seemed to push down the share of corporate profits: in 1990, profits from domestic firms accounted for only 3.3 percent of US gross domestic income, the smallest share since 1934 (Figure 1).

Then, around the time of the 2008 economic crisis, something different happened to the US corporation. Corporation size grew again. US corporate profits rose higher than they ever had during the entire 40-year-long neoliberal era. In 2012, profits from companies accounted for 7 percent of US gross domestic income, a level last seen in 1966, during the apex of Fordist production.

Today’s new behemoths are monopolistic. Grullon et al. (2016) recently found that more than three-quarters of US industries have become more concentrated in fewer hands since 2000. And this change is not confined to the US. Among the world’s largest transnational companies, employment—which had actually declined in the early 1990s—jumped after 2008 (Figure 2).

In retrospect, then, 2008 does seem to signal a more general watershed: a moment when corporations started growing larger, less competitive, and more all-encompassing. The unregulated market lost its luster, and companies became newly assertive about the management of work.

There is a pendulum at work here, a long-term oscillation in the dynamics of capital. One point on the pendulum’s path is market exposure, as old management structures are gleefully destroyed, and workers find themselves exposed constantly to market trade—entrepreneurs at every turn. On the opposite side, the pendulum swings towards market insulation: corporations expand, and they mediate between the worker and the market.

The oscillation is, at base, a change in the signs of authority that define the labor relation. During the moment of market exposure, work relationships tend to be expressed through the metaphor of the transient money bargain. It is as if every act were a trade between a buyer and a seller.

Gregory Duff Morton

During the moment of market insulation, work relationships tend to be expressed through the metaphor of hierarchy, the connection between a boss and a subordinate. You don’t act because the market tells you to. You act because your boss tells you to.

This second metaphor sounds familiar today. It is the same hierarchical dynamic that is so eloquently thematized in Donald Trump’s rhetoric of domination and submission. The metaphor has particular meaning inside the contemporary US workforce, where to work increasingly means to engage in a service relation that is organized and homogenized from a corporate center.

***

Trump frequently describes work relations in terms of dominance:

I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. […]

I have visited the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.

I am your voice.

Hierarchy is conveyed, with particular force, through Trump’s deictics. Trump insistently frames his sentences with the pronoun “I,” breaking a taboo among US politicians, who tend to use “we” when speaking of themselves. Trump’s “I” makes his speech feel fresh and revelatory. He is less politician than CEO.

Trump’s “I” is often spoken in conjunction with “you,” especially when he is ordering someone or ordaining the future. During his first inaugural address, Trump referred to you the people.

Trump, in the world of politics, speaks like a boss.

What is the well from which this hierarchical rhetoric springs? Perhaps Trump is not just channeling nostalgia for industrial work relations. Could he be communicating the bossy realities of a newly monopolistic workforce? To think through that question, we need to take a closer look at Sebastián’s job.

***

Although Trump speaks frequently about manufacturing, 80 percent of US jobs are now in services. How are these jobs evolving today? For a glimpse at new developments, consider the arena where Sebastián works: the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is often called a giant marketplace. Nowadays, however, it might be better described as the realm of several large corporations, corporations that are busily inventing novel work relations. After the 2008 crisis, Uber, in particular, has taken the lead in developing labor trends that are less entrepreneurial and more monopolistic.

To drive for Uber means to work with information—information on who needs a ride where. Uber carefully limits this information by flexing its monopoly power. Take ratings, for example. On older platforms, like eBay, sellers distinguish themselves (and charge more) if they get good ratings. Uber turns this rating system on its head. On Uber, all drivers, whether rated highly or poorly, must charge the same. Moreover, a rider sees her driver’s rating after she reserves the ride. This makes it difficult for drivers to capitalize on good reputations by getting more riders.

Driver ratings do have a purpose, however. Uber will “fire” a driver whose rating falls below 4.6 stars. No market here: Uber uses ratings to discipline drivers hierarchically.

Similarly, Uber constrains the information that drivers receive about riders. On the app, a driver cannot see how far a potential rider needs to go or how much money the ride will cost. Thus drivers are induced to accept riders they would rather reject, such as riders wanting low-value runs and riders headed far from the driver’s home.

Uber channels information in a one-way flow to the corporate center. The resulting platform bears little resemblance to a competitive market. It is the environment of an authoritarian boss. This “boss” is built into the Uber app. But for an Uber driver, authority is also imposed by another kind of superior: the rider. Sebastián (like service workers of earlier generations) spends all day laboring in the presence of his riders, adjusting his emotional presentation to match their wishes. Hierarchy is not just one feature of Sebastián’s work process. Hierarchy is the predominant character of his job, where he works alone—except for the riders. This is less a world of entrepreneurial markets and more a world of orders that must be obeyed.

It is common for analysts to describe Trump voters as former industrial workers. That is, it is common to think of these voters in terms of the jobs that they once did. But what if we thought, instead, about the jobs that many Trump voters now do? What if we thought about service jobs? Jobs now often performed by white men? Then the new conservatism might come into focus as a raced and gendered expression of dissatisfaction with service work, as an uprising in the service sector.

***

Trump presents himself as an icon of corporate managerial dominance, the same sort of dominance that Uber is reinventing for a new generation of workers. Fifteen years ago, things were different. Managerialism was on the wane, and the ultimate sign of business power was simply to let everyone be fired and allow the market to decide their futures. Today, some US companies seem increasingly interested in market insulation: offering to mediate the work lives of their laborers, but in return exacting a surprising level of (digital) control. When Donald Trump promises you a good job at a good wage, he does not sound so different from New York Uber, which guarantees drivers $7000 in earnings in their first month on the job—as long as they loyally complete a specific number of rides in specific places at a specific time of day.

How did Donald Trump go from “You’re fired” to you’re hired? He did it, I wager, by expressing the realities of corporate monopoly after 2008. Work has become both less entrepreneurial and more centrally managed. Trump is the voice, the sign, of the new corporate world—our new big boss.

Gregory Duff Morton is an economic anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute, Brown University. He studies money’s movement through Northeastern Brazil. He considers the reverse migrations of agricultural laborers, the wanderings of countryside merchants, and the payouts that come from the world’s largest national welfare program, Bolsa Família. He sustains an interest in the meeting as a mode of linguistic action.

Further reading

Appel, Hannah. 2012. “Offshore Work: Oil, Modularity, and the How of Capitalism in Equatorial Guinea.” American Ethnologist 39(4): 692–709.

The Economist. 2016. “Special Report: The Rise of Superstars.” The Economist, September 17.

Fraser, Nancy. 2017. “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism.” Dissent, January 2. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser

Milanovic, Branko. 2013. “Global Income Inequality in Numbers: in History and Now.” Global Policy 4(2): 198–208.

Muehlebach, Andrea and Nitzan Shoshan, eds. 2012. “Special Collection: Post-Fordist Affect.” Anthropological Quarterly 85(2).

Cite as: Morton, Gregory Duff. 2017.  “Trump, Uber, and the Changing Shape of Work.” Anthropology News website, May 18, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.459

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