Razer's Class Warfare

Mar 6, 2018

Razer: four revolutionary scenes from inside an Uber

Behind the wheels of these Ubers, Helen Razer sees a revolutionary class, or, at least, a curious one.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

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.)

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29 thoughts on “Razer: four revolutionary scenes from inside an Uber

  1. Mr Smith

    I’ve always regarded my boycott of Uber (et al) as a noble, principled stand against exploitative, race to the bottom, non-wage slavery. Your piece gives me pause, but I’m still not sure about wanting to support the beast who devours unsuspecting cabbies.
    Of course I have the relative luxury of not needing taxis very often, and not being on the cutting edge of penury (although home ownership is well beyond me).

    I can however recommend boycotting Menulog (et al). This Jeff Goldblum endorsed juggernaut takes a sizeable cut out of every order, to the point that it’s barely profitable to sell the food. However, if they don’t get on board, they lose business. Catch-22 in the Rye, or something. So, instead, I use Menulog up to the point where I place an order, then call the restaurant directly, so every last shekel goes to Mr. Singh.
    Hopefully this qualifies me for some sort of Red Medal of Lenin, or whatever.

    1. Helen Razer

      A true comrade, in the terms of personal ethics. Well done.
      But, I do think that it is impossible to boycott everything objectionable. Because, really, it’s all objectionable. Compassionate commodities are a myth. None of which stops me, though, from paying a cent for The Australian. Like being vegetarian, this choice largely serves to make me feel better.
      But, really, our instrumental actions aren’t the same as our individual ones. Unless we believe in that key liberal tenet: you have the power to change the world.
      Nah. Not unless large numbers of folks do the same thing as me. And, if I am ever going to encourage this, I won’t waste my efforts on a single boycott of a company. A boycott of an entire nation-state would be worth it, though.
      (This may seem like a cop-out. But, is based on the advice of an old lecturer which stayed with me: think about where your breakfast came from, he said. Now, can you really tell me that its entire supply chain was clean? Also, I don’t have the choice to refuse goods made in slave conditions. If I did, I would be off the internet and naked. And, what’s the good in nakedness offline?)

      1. Mr Smith

        I don’t think I’m ready to boycott food and clothes just yet. Sure, boycotting Menulog doesn’t change the world, bruh. But it might make an appreciable difference to Mr. Singh and his family if a few people followed my example. Which in turn might lead him to eschew cheaper food sources and use better, more ethical suppliers? It’s a bit on the Clifton Hill side of Mary Poppins-ism, but hey. A bit like setting up a community garden in the face of the modern industrial “food” machine. Probably more a signal of middle-class affluence than anything else.

      2. AR

        Sorry MzRaz, you’ve gone too far – or not far enough – through the looking Glass.
        Not unless large numbers of folks do the same thing as me.
        If not you, who? If not now, when?
        This is NOT directed just at the author, just every wanker with latte in their veins.

      3. MAC TEZ

        Radical Raz says “Viva la revolution, but don’t expect me to join until everyone else has” ! Yeah, fight the power Helz !!

        1. MAC TEZ

          Following on with the logic that lecturer left you, whaddaya reckon we ditch all this equality for women & people of colour stuff ? Y’know, our Saudi sisters aren’t doin’ it for themselves yet and it’s not like black lives really matter in the U.S. these days.
          I’d love to stay and chat but I need a dump and I’ve gotta find someone on Air Tasker who’ll wipe my arse (at an affordable gig economy below the minimum wage rate of course) because D.I.Y. in the dunny is so “last week” don’t ya think ?

          1. AR

            The best way to gauge colleagues’ commitment to equality & sharing is where they are on the latrine roster.
            Yay for shared houses.

  2. davelec

    Note: I drive for Uber on weekends. I have a 4.84 rating and have Platinum status.
    You cannot understand Uber, the company, without looking at where they spend their money, and management effort.
    This is focussed heavily on driverless cars. They clearly see drivers as an unfortunate, but temporary, necessity.
    The management believe they are a technology company, not a service company.
    But they are a service company.
    They are so obsessed with this idea that they will do anything but ever pay attention to their drivers.
    To give you an idea of how obsessed they are, they will not even attempt to address the basic flaws in setting the pick-up location. Around 50% of pick-up locations (higher in dense and/or high rise locations) are wrong, and require drivers to verbally communicate with customers to find the right location. If they cannot get the pick-up location correct, what difference does it make if they can ever get a driverless car to get to a customer in a place like Barangaroo on a Friday evening. [Sydney office work rs will know how ridiculous that would be]
    The management of Uber clearly have no idea that they run a service company, and tbat their drivers are what makes the company successful.
    The only good decision the management ever made was the rating system for drivers.
    To illustrate the obsession of the management, one only has to see what it is like to drive in a surge. Usually you can be in the middle of a surge, and be getting no jobs. This is because the algorithm to set surge pricing is based on demand, not supply. Makes no sense when you have drivers, but makes perfect sense when there are a fleet of driverless cars available.
    That algorithm perfectly illustrates the disconnect between management and what their company actually does.

    1. gjb

      Yep, the bright young digital entrepreneurs (or $$$blind ME generation) & their Utopian future of automation has no need for the majority of the population.

    2. Helen Razer

      Yes, D. It is a treat to read the tale Uber tells to mainstream journalists, and contrast it with the one reserved for finance industry press. “We are creating jobs” is one story and “we are going driverless” is for investors.
      FWIW, “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall” (due to decreased human labour) might be something interesting for you to read about. Please don’t make me explain “organic capital” as I will only embarrass myself. Long story short (and I apologise if a clearly erudite person like yourself has already read this Marxist theory) is that there is a mathematical case for the inevitable loss of profit due to the inevitable loss of human labour. There are plenty of social/social democrat ones, too, as in the Wal-mart Effect. (Big labour-defining company pushes wages down, wage-earners have less money to spend. Big company sells nothing.)

      1. Mr Smith

        Luckily for Walmart, not everybody works at Walmart. They took in 486b last financial year. That’s about $1500 per capita, which means the average Joe Six-pack spends a lot more, given how many people can’t shop, or would die of shame if they were spotted there. There aren’t any cheaper places to fill the car with stuff, and people do love stuff.

  3. federali

    Bring on a world federal government in which Uber is publicly owned by said government.
    Baby step for worker protection would be to create a new class of worker by statute in employment law – “dependent contractor” as is recognised in the UK.

    We even use Uber as a courier service for our business (sending broken PCs to our IT people), quicker, cheaper and more reliable.

    And Uber drivers tend to have something better to say than Taxi drivers. My anecdotal evidence suggests there rate is $15-25 hour

    1. Helen Razer

      My anecdata tallies with yours. Uber drivers earn about the same as non-owner taxi drivers. But, they have less scrutiny. (Greater costs, possibly diminished insurance and more administrative tasks, though.)
      Why not give Uber to the people that make it productive: the drivers? Pay these people dividends and bring ’em on to the board. We will need the state to enforce this, I guess. But, it could be a fun experiment.

      1. federali

        you will need a world government state to enforce that (and many other worthwhile matters e.g environment), a new topic for your memoirs perhaps?

        1. Helen Razer

          Look. A short period of international totalitarian rule is okay IF it rids us of carbon emissions, real WMD and private property. Otherwise, no dice.

          1. Mr Smith

            Idealistic, benevolent totalitarian rule? Has that ever been tried before?

          2. federali

            not sure the totalitarian part is necessary, re private property – need some carrots to go with sticks and competition helps gets rid of fat. Need locks/checks and balances on streams (Scandinavian/Viking democracy), your trying to reverse the flow of a stream – it is against human nature not to be able to own something of your own.

            Highly recommend reading Monbiot’s – Age of Consent Manifesto for a New World Order…
            though his recent writing is getting a bit too panic merchant, western civilisation is doomed

          3. AR

            So that would suggest benevolent dictatorship tempered by assassination.
            Fing with “a (short) period of totalitarianism” is that it is rearely ‘short’.
            Kinda-sorta, one vote, one time thangy.
            But worth the experiment, given the lethargic ennui which engulfs hoi polloi, they do need their lard arses kicked.

      2. Warren Armstrong

        Why do you need to involve the state at all? There are already models of driver-run taxi co-ops with phone apps out there, such as the Union Taxi Co-operative in Denver, Colorado. Why not just set them up here in opposition to Uber, then organise a mass walk-out of Uber customers; off that death star platform and onto the shiny new worker-run ones, where all the ex-Uber drivers would be welcomed with open arms?

  4. Rais

    Helen, re your difficulty picking up the tones of Mandarin: I once lived in southern Thailand for a couple of years and one of my Thai friends had an Apple laptop with a program for reading English words aloud. If you get the tone wrong in a tonal language you have a different word so you do have to get them right. They taught me a tongue twister, “kraai kai kai kai,” which, when you put the tones in, means “does anyone here sell chicken eggs?” I played about with the computer, remembering it read English spelling and punctuation, and typed something like, “cry. kye, kye? kye! and got close enough to the Thai tones for it to be intelligible in Thai. It was nearly 20 years ago so a Thai speaker reading this might correct it but this is basically what I did. My point is that we have something in English that sounds like tones, we just use it for emphasis rather than to distinguish different words. If you think of it this way it may be easier to distinguish (kai?) from (kai!) from (kai,) etc.

    1. Helen Razer

      This is immensely helpful. Thanks for this approach.
      I do know the lesson that we use emphases in English, but I had never thought to try out a “tongue-twister” in Mandarin. I will seek one out.
      Fun name-dropping story: I made the mistake of asking the writer, translator and Sinologist Linda Jaivin to help me out with beginner Mandarin. She is a very lovely and generous person. She is also so fluent that (a) she works directly with Wong Kar-wai on subtitles and (b) she probably cannot imagine being as bad at language as me.
      Tongue-twister is a darn good idea.

      1. Woopwoop

        First step is to realise there are four, not five, tones in Mandarin.

  5. Di Keller

    Sometimes your articles really piss me off and sometimes they make me want to bow down to you 🙂 This one is very a bow down !! Thank you. 🙂

    1. Helen Razer

      Second favourite cririque, Di. “I normally hate Razer” is number one!

      1. Di Keller

        Nah, definitely wouldn’t say that Hahaha!!

  6. [email protected]

    At the moment i live in san francisco and use a compay called lyft, similar to uber, the competition, I suppose. I’ve met some wonderful young people lyft drivers, mostly just starting out in the USA and only here for a few years or months so far, trying to get a toehold in an expensive city where rent is as much as $4000 a month for a one bedroom apartment and for some of them speaking English is a challenge. The thought of replacing these young people with an algorithm driven sensor array is repugnant to me. I loathe uber, and lyft too probably, and am fully aware that the long game is driverless machines. But as mentioned in the article, my loathing, if I wanted to put my money where my mouth is, would put me on public transport. No.
    I reckon that governments need to step up and make this ‘sharing’ economy pay it’s dues. For each tax paying driver job that they destroy with automated machines, in the name of personal profit, they should have to pay a ‘lost tax payer fee’ that recompenses society for the loss of tax base. Not to mention a ‘social fee’ for reducing the amount of human interaction within society.

    I foresee a government v private industry war on the horizon where, if the government loses, we all lose.

    1. MAC TEZ

      That war is already being fought and lost by Governments everywhere, prepare for a lot of losing.

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