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The Uberization of the Democratic Party


Unlike most of my colleagues here at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, I do a lot of work within the Democratic Party – not just working to try to get my candidate elected in a primary or getting the nominated/endorsed Democrat elected in the general, but day-to-day Party Central Committee work and serving as a Convention delegate. The upside of doing this work is that you can push the Democratic Party from the inside by influencing endorsements, platforms, and elected officers and caucus officers; the downside is that you get on every fundraising email list ever.

Sometimes that’s a good thing, because I get emails like this one:

Hey Steven, question for you. Ever taken an Uber or a Lyft to get where you’re going? How about Airbnb – have you used it to book yourself a room?

You’re not alone if you haven’t, and some of you may not have even heard of these. But trust me – they’re just the tip of the iceberg in what’s known as the “sharing economy.”

For the uninitiated, here’s the basic idea: you’re connected through your computer or mobile device to someone offering a service, whether that’s a ride to work or someone to pick up your clothes at the cleaner.

Money generally changes hands through the app itself. Customers are served, and more importantly workers are given the chance to make a little – sometimes a lot – of extra money.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s taking hold. And it’s an example of how quickly the way we do business is changing thanks to the unprecedented interconnection we enjoy through the internet and our mobile devices.

It’s also a lesson for government leaders at all levels. Because sometimes, we simply aren’t keeping up. Rather than supporting these new and innovative technologies, too often we just get in the way.

 Given my well-established issues with Uber, I’d say this is a failure as far as targeted marketing goes. However, for a jumping-off point for a discussion about the links between the Silicon Valley “sharing economy” and future conflicts within the Democratic Party, it’s excellent.

What’s interesting about this email in particular is the way it’s clearly pitched to putative progressives – the actual corporations are de-emphasized, and the shift towards casualization of labor is pitched as a pro-working people move (look at all those happy workers with all that extra money they’re earning!). For the skeptical, it allows that there are sometimes road bumps on the road to progress. And of course unions are airbrushed out of the picture, rather than demonized.

But what really separates the neoliberal from the arch-conservative is the way that government is positioned here. It’s not anti-statist per se; it just pivots the focus of government activism from consumers and workers to tech companies who need to be supported and protected.  As scholars of neoliberalism have argued for quite some time, it’s not the case that neoliberalism is anti-statist – in fact, neoliberalism requires a lot of state intervention and protection in order to function, it’s just a very specific kind of state intervention:

The world is changing, and the government can play an important role. Protecting citizens from fraud and abuse. Holding businesses accountable for the way they treat customers and keep them safe. Maintaining the integrity of the systems we all depend on. This is where government needs to step up.

But if it gets in the way of progress, growth and new development – we’ve failed.

This interventionism, this activism, is crucial for Third Wayism to work – you have to convince people who identify as on the left that what you’re doing is not a betrayal of their old ideological commitments, but an extension of them to meet new challenges that somehow, never quite explicitly stated, mean that social democracy has to be abandoned. Look at the way that a kind of attenuated populism is threaded throughout that paragraph, the way that tropes of regulation and fighting against bad corporations are used to circumscribe the state. At the same time, there’s a tension there between the desire for post-industrial capitalism with a human face and the needs of post-industrial capitalism: government is allowed to regulate against fraud and abuse, to ensure good customer service, but not if it gets in the way of growth and innovation.

And from what source cometh this reimagining of parasitical middlemen apps that avoid taxes and bust unions as the savior of the working class?

 It will take creativity. It will require open minds. But I know we can do this. There are big things on the horizon! Time to get ready.

Gavin [Newsom]

Not a surprise, for people who’ve been following Gavin Newsom’s career, or who’ve forced themselves to read his book Citizenville. As one of those Democratic Party activists with the fancy badges, I’ve actually gotten the chance to meet Gavin Newsom. In person, he comes off as a Lego Minifig, perfectly turned out in a slightly unreal way (and very good at charming the exact kind of idealistic but not policy-savvy youth that put so much energy into getting Obama elected in 2008) but nothing behind the eyes.

However, this Lego Minifig is the Lieutenant Governor of California, and when Jerry Brown retires, he’s going to run for Governor of California, and President thereafter if he can get his foot in the door. And he is full on-board with the “Uberization” of the Democratic Party – unlike other bête noirs of the left, he’s not in it for the grift, since he’s got plenty of his own money. He genuinely believes that the Democratic Party should become the champions of the so-called “disruptive” technologies of Silicon Valley, and that this will lead to the best of all worlds.

This is why I think it’s important for progressives to get active in the Democratic Party if they aren’t already. Because the fights over whether Gavin Newsom or Kamala Harris becomes the next Governor of California, or over whether Rahm Emmanuel or Andrew Cuomo or Martin O’Malley or Corey Booker get anywhere in national Democratic politics, and most importantly of all, the fights over who becomes a state senator or assembly member or city councilmember and gets to start climbing the ladder – these fights take place inside the Democratic Party. Often they take place in environments in which well-organized activists can have an outside impact on the process (see the caucus states in 2008, or the Tea Party).

And only progressives can make these fights about more than just which candidates win, but whether we want to live in a world in which Uber and its ilk disrupt full-time employment, a living wage, and economic security, or in a world in which all workers have those things by right.

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