Uber executives love to compare themselves to civil rights leaders. Because there’s nothing closer to being Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King than being a millionaire CEO. But despite this, one might argue that said Uber executives actually are analogous to figures in the civil rights movement–for instance Orval Faubus and George Wallace:
But there is a better analogy from the US civil rights era for law-flouting firms of the on-demand economy. It’s just not the one corporate leaders claim. They are engaged in what we call “corporate nullification”, following in the footsteps of Southern governors and legislatures in the United States who declared themselves free to “nullify” federal law on the basis of strained and opportunistic constitutional interpretation.
Nullification is a wilful flouting of regulation, based on some nebulous idea of a higher good only scofflaws can deliver. It can be an invitation to escalate a conflict, of course, as Arkansas governor Orville Faubus did in 1957 when he refused to desegregate public schools and president Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce the law. But when companies such as Uber, Airbnb, and Google engage in a nullification effort, it’s a libertarian-inspired attempt to establish their services as popular well before regulators can get around to confronting them. Then, when officials push back, they can appeal to their consumer-following to push regulators to surrender.
This happened just last week in New York City, when mayor Bill de Blasio moved to limit the number of Uber cars choking city streets during the heaviest hours of congestion. Uber pushed out advertisements voiced by celebrities including model Kate Upton and urged its wealthy users to write to city hall in protest. Mayor de Blasio stood down. Consistently, these nullifying companies claim they are striking a blow against regulations they consider “out-of-date” or “anti-innovation”. Their major innovation, however, is strategic and manipulative, and it’s meant to undermine local needs and effective governance.
Consider what it would mean for such a universalising approach to prevail. The business model of Uber would become that of law-flouting bosses generally. Reincorporate as a “platform”, intermediate customer requests and work demands with an app, and voila!, far fewer laws to comply with. Worse, this rebel attitude signals to the larger culture that laws and regulations are quaint and archaic, and therefore hindrances to progress. That could undermine faith in republican government itself.
In the 1950s and 60s, Southern governors thought they’d found a similar tactic to avoid the civil rights laws that they most despised. Though the strategy failed, the idea still animates reactionaries. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, now running for president, has even suggested that the US supreme court’s recent gay marriage decision should effectively be nullified by sovereign states.
Of course, a republic can’t run without authorities who follow the rule of law. Civil disobedience by citizens can be an important challenge to corrupt or immoral politicians, but when corporate leaders themselves start breaking the law in their own narrow interests, societal order breaks down. Polishing their left-libertarian veneer, the on-demand economy firms now flouting basic employment and anti-discrimination laws would like us to believe that they follow in the footsteps of Gandhi’s passive resistance, rather than segregationists’ massive resistance. But their wealthy, powerful, nearly-all-white-and-male cast of chief executives come far closer to embodying, rather than fighting, “the man”.
As Silicon Valley guru Peter Thiel has demonstrated, the goal of tech firms is not to compete – it is to so monopolise a sector that they basically become synonymous with it. Uber’s and Airbnb’s self-reinforcing conquests of markets attract more venture capital (VC) investment, which in turn enables more conquests, which in turn attracts more VC money. As that concentration of economic power continues apace, it’s more vital than ever to dispute Silicon Valley oligarchs’ self-aggrandising assertions that they follow in the footsteps of civil rights heroes.
One might complain the argument is a bit overwrought, but hardly more so than the outlandish claims of Silicon Valley executives themselves.