Departing Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
If the name Travis Kalanick is yet to stir your fury, I’m afraid you’re very unfashionable. Hop aboard the “call out” express and know that this guy is to Silicon Valley as Bernie Madoff was to the finance sector — or, if you prefer your devils local and more currently despised, the Mia Freedman of disruption. Which is to say, of course Kalanick, the co-founder and CEO of transport giant Uber, seems genuinely unpleasant. One does not boast, as he is reported to have done, that one’s company has a secondary function of babe procurement so reliable, one renames it “Boober”.
Then again, one does not shape what remains the world’s most highly valued start-up without performing actions at least as bad as bragging about the ladies. I’d say that building a business on the backs of broke drivers was always questionable. I’d say that contributing about as much in tax to a nation on whose infrastructure and economic health your business depends as, say, an individual heart surgeon, was always taking the piss. I’d say that a PR declaration of your commitment to workers — who, in some estimates, take home about two bucks an hour — while piloting a program for their future erasure is a cynical, if standard, act of annihilation.
There is a good deal written about the “toxic culture” of Uber; allegations about its frat house-style harassment of female staff trouble the principled investor class as it had its principled riders, who were, in any case, already cross with a business chief who had joined a Trump advisory council. It may be true that Kalanick is the type of twit who leads strategy meetings in a Bros Before Hoes shirt and finds solace less, as is the preference among his Silicon Valley fellows, in modified Buddhism and more in the plot of Animal House. It is almost certainly true that Kalanick’s unspecified period of leave from the company has been taken to redeem it as an investment prospect.
Kalanick has likely not returned to his boob-less existence to retain us, his consumers. We, a precariat growing in number, are very likely to keep buying what’s made cheap by other members of our class. We don’t reject clothing sewn in Bangladesh simply because we can largely not afford to do so. We won’t spurn Uber, a company that uses AI to determine exactly how much the consumer on a stagnant wage is prepared to pay, for the same reason. I mean, seriously. If the deaths of more than 1000 women at Rana Plaza was not sufficient to move me to check my garment labels, allegations of the workplace harassment of a handful of women in San Francisco is not going to prompt me to delete the app.
If you see my admission as the product of an unprincipled mind, cheers to you. I will endure your lecture on individual morality and even follow your advice if it is accompanied by a per annum donation of around $20K, which is about what it would take for me to scale the moral high ground. Like many people, I can currently get to where I’m going, in work and on the road, only if I buy cheap clothes and cheap rides. Unlike the investor class, and like the vast majority, I am unable to make powerful ethical statements with my money.
Kalanick’s move to quasi-retirement is a classic US business manoeuvre. It is made not to truly uphold ethics, but to bolster the business community’s belief in the possibility that ethics and late capitalism are simultaneously possible. Get the dirty man out and replace him with a clean one.
Where many investors want to put their money is in an Elon Musk, his eyes beyond this earthly horizon and his heart committed to the notion that renewables and profit will coincide. Where many investors want to place their faith is in a Bill Gates, a chap apparently committed to the health of Africa’s most immiserated, but equally committed to patent law, which places pharmaceuticals beyond the reach of many.
It may turn out, of course, that Musk, a man whose influence on economic policy now approaches that of Gates, will deliver us all the batteries we need. “Progressive” investors, and the consumers eager to identify with this class, want to believe that there’s a hack so ingenious and an individual so pure that we can live in a post-Kalanick utopia. But, just as my consumer morals are determined by my income, even Musk’s are driven by the race to profit. To urge a capitalist to be truly good is a bit like reasoning with a lump of coal. Don’t ask it to be clean. Its filthy nature has been determined in its very creation.
I am very unlikely to boycott Uber, with or without Kalanick at its helm. Uber is very unlikely to sacrifice profits to tax or to its workers. The behaviour of both consumer and capitalist have already been determined by time.
But, the investment community, and those many who admire them, will make an “ethical” sacrifice to believe that individual goodness can shine on through. You sacrifice a Lehman Brothers. You throw a Madoff behind bars. You switch CEOs and make a good night’s sleep possible for those who will continue to believe that you can reason with a lump of coal.