Uber is more than an app. It’s a metonym. For well-to-do chaps whose hair is styled per former politician Wyatt Roy, the company name has come to signify those acts of innovation and free exchange unhindered by any law less “natural” than capitalism. For thinkers whose thought is less utopian, the name Uber has come to mean that unnatural coercion to which much human labour is subject.

(If you fancy a look at the latter case against this “sharing economy”, read Tom Slee’s What’s Yours is Mine. If you fancy a defence of corporate power, just read The Australian any time, most particularly when it’s ruining the reputation of Emma Alberici without basis.)

Uber is more than a metonym. It’s often a means of transport so efficient and inexpensive, one simply cannot afford a boycott. Ethics are for people with nice cars or Cabcharge vouchers. Uber is a commodity for insecure workers, and is itself a site, and a rationale, for work that is even more insecure.

Uber is more than transport. It’s a place in which chatty persons, such as your reporter, learn what other insecure workers most ardently believe. In an informal study, over rides of a number greater than I care to disclose, I have found this is not chiefly batshit-crazy, moon-landing stuff. Rather, a majority of drivers prefer to talk so rationally, I began taking notes about a year ago.

Sure, there’s been the occasional anti-vaxxer, and my attendant urge to leave a one-star review. Uber has otherwise provided me with amusing and/or useful knowledge. Here, I describe four exchanges, and by extension propose that many of our nation’s Uber drivers could together form a vanguard that will crush the very oligarchs who keep them destitute.

1. Zhang. March 2016. Five Stars. To Melbourne CBD.

Zhang was not a good driver. Not at all. He took me over the Westgate twice, but this was largely due to a commitment to conversation so complete, he had no time for Google Maps. We spoke of the ascension of China, the place of his birth, and his belief that the current accelerated period of state capitalism was planned and true to the ultimate dream of stateless communism — a perspective only otherwise held in the West by bold theoreticians.

Still. This wasn’t the best thing about Zhang. He gave me a free lesson in Mandarin to make up for his shit driving. I paid him for future lessons, but he has refused to teach me again until I get my stupid mouth around at least two of the five tones.

2. Parsa. October 2015. Five Stars. To Brunswick.

Parsa was a navigator of exceptional skill. This may have been due to an extreme youth spent in flight. Born and orphaned in Afghanistan, this guy made his way to a UNHCR camp alone at 12 and arrived in Australia just before our national vow to liberate that place from, um, its existence.

Somehow, this guy got himself a Masters in IT. Somehow, this guy had interests that exceeded PC networking. I had never before known of the extraordinary power likely held by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and he totally saved me the trouble of reading Jacobin or The Intercept that week.

3. Michael. May 2015. Five Stars. To Open Gardens event.

Michael, a white Australian millennial, was broke. This disappointment, he explained, had turned him into a “citizen economist”. I prepared myself for some David Icke-type rot about our Reptilian Overlords, or similar anti-Semitism dressed up as lizards. Instead, I got what the Grattan Institute neglected yesterday in its report on house prices: an account of a financialised market that does not appear in economic modelling.

Michael’s view, which has been formed in some part by the work of Steve Keen, was one I found extraordinarily useful. The idea that “the market” sets a price for a commodity based only on “the laws of supply and demand” makes no sense when one considers how much banks profit from lending. The idea that houses cost what we are prepared to pay rests on an equilibrium understanding of capitalism and does not consider that we pay what banks are prepared to lend.

Whether this is a predatory loan, per the GFC, or one offered to comfortable investors, the macro result is the same: house prices ascend. And, I end up reading Ann Pettifor.

4. Mohamod. Yesterday. Five Stars. To my shrink.

Born and raised in Iraq, Mohamod keeps close watch on wars of that region. He commits to read accounts in English as well as Arabic, largely so he can help the kids with their homework. But, he is frustrated with the dearth of English reporting he deems trustworthy.

Iraq, he says, was falsely reported enough. Syria is enough to make him believe that Australia is not a country, but an office of the US State Department. If Mohamod reads one more article praising the White Helmets with no interest in their likely affiliations, he will give up reading English. “I am not saying Assad is a good guy,” he says, before making his unnecessary case for a five-star rating (I always award five stars). “I know,” I say. And we agree that fake news facilitates real proxy war, but, what can you do?

So many Drivers. So many stars.

Uber has managed to convince many suggestible governments that its product is technology, not transport. The men and women who provide this transport know that this is false just as surely as they know that the GST and income tax they pay is far in excess of that paid by the company to the Australian government.

This week, a report from MIT calculates the median wage for a US ride-share driver at $3.37 per hour. An Australian study has not yet, to my knowledge, been commissioned. However, one local financial services comparison site places estimates at around or below minimum wage. Many Uber drivers, some of whom feel that they were coerced into recruitment and car leasing — I have no evidence of outreach in vulnerable communities, just front seat anecdotes — estimate the pay lower.

Behind the wheel, I see a revolutionary class, or, at least, a curious one. This may mean that the meds my shrink gave me are working. This may mean that this is a time for shared optimism.  Either way, Uber is likely to remain one of my news sources.


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey