Platform capitalism: How many cars will a robot buy?

Scholtz mainly focused on the impact of what he calls ‘platform capitalism’ – the model whereby companies act as intermediaries between those who sell their labour and those who want to buy it. The platform capitalists don’t own the surplus created in this way – they just facilitate its creation by enabling the market for labour to function as efficiently as possible.

There were lots of examples of this, including the well-known Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows remote digital labourers to pick up and execute small mainly online projects; TaskRabbit, which focuses on physical tasks including domestic work (and is now partnering with Amazon to offer a services marketplace for local tradesmen); and of course Uber, which is mainly about taxi-type service but is increasingly moving in to other kinds of transportation including courier services.

The talk was billed as being about alternatives, which did feature towards the end – including the California Apps Based Driver Association, and a BlueRidge initiative to create a cooperatively owned version of TaskRabbit. It didn’t include this taxi-drivers’ plan to create a unionized co-op alternative to Uber in Denver, but there wasn’t that much time.

Most of it wasn’t about alternatives, though, but about the gruesome mechanics of these markets and their consequences. To be scrupulously fair, some of these might be thought of as accidents of platform capitalism, rather than essential to it. For example, Scholz argues that Amazon Mechanical Turk effectively sanctions ‘wages theft’, by allowing buyers to keep the product of labour even if they reject the work and refuse to pay for it. Similarly, he draws attention to the high commissions that some of the market makers charge, and the drive towards monopoly that some of them are clearly pursuing.

It’s important not to over-emphasise this, though. Amazon Mechanical Turk could have a better, more protective set of terms and conditions for its crowd-sourced army, and if temporary, precarious contract labour was in short supply it probably would have.

Even without the abuses, though, the overall impact of platform capitalism would be much the same; to grind down the imperfections in the market that enable workers to snatch a little ‘rent’ for their skills, contacts and knowledge. The trajectory of this is back to the hiring fair, the ‘lump’, and the street-corner labour exchanges where my grandfather sold his tailoring skills during the ‘season’. Platform capitalism makes this possible for all kinds of labour, including that of skilled professionals.

It’s a bit sad that this is what the term ‘sharing economy’ has come to mean, because that did start out as being at least partly about collaborative consumption, that is owning less stuff and sharing more with your neighbours. Scholz points out that platform capitalism continues to deck itself in some of that cool communalism, which he calls the ‘theatre of solidarity’.

It’s worth noting, too, that the most gruesome example of all that Scholz quoted in his talk wasn’t really anything to do with platform capitalism or casualised labour markets but takes place within an industrial workplace.

This was the ‘inactivity report’ that Amazon warehouse employees receive every day, showing the time and duration of every break, no matter how tiny, that they take. The tracking is facilitated by body scanners that the employees wear – a nice example of the Internet of Things being applied to people as things, or of “computers making people easier to use”.

There is no obvious boundary to platform capitalism, no domain of the economy that is naturally exempt. That ought to give even the most ardent capitalist pause for thought. As long ago as the 1950s there was a joke doing the rounds about a conversation between Henry Ford and the US Auto Workers’ union leader Walter Reuther, in which the former asks how the union will collect dues when all the work in the factory is done by robots, and the latter replies that Ford will have a hard time selling cars to robots.

It’s possible for businesses to casualize many aspects of work, turn the employees in to precarious ‘self-employed’ contractors, and reduce the cost of labour to a minimum. But who is going to buy the services, or the stuff, that such businesses produce?

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