Ten Years Later: The History of Possibility

The attacks on September 11 had an unforeseen consequence for the Left. The “anti-globalization” movement abruptly entered public consciousness after the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and disappeared just as quickly. But, for a moment, radical politics appeared pregnant with possibility.

It’s hard to say how much of this was a fantasy. While the fight for Seattle’s streets caught the media by surprise, it was the result of months of planning and organizing, and underpinned by broader historical shifts. Occurring almost exactly a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protests couldn’t have been imagined in the era of “actually existing socialism.” Stalinism and “democratic centralism” lay discredited and new organizational forms—less ossified and ideological, more ad hoc and lyrical—gained currency among leftists.

Yet this new conjuncture simultaneously called into question the future of radicalism itself. The economy was booming. The Left, seemingly, transformed overnight. Eurocommunists shed all pretenses and embraced liberalism. Postcolonial states abandoned economic nationalism and courted foreign investment. Venerable labor parties fell under the sway of third-way modernizers. All, whether with delight or remorse, recognized there was no visible rival to free market capitalism. Perry Anderson put it bluntly: “Whatever limitations persist to its practice, neoliberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history.” Facing a triumphant capitalism, with debates ended and battles lost, radicals were forced to mimic William F. Buckley’s injunction to stand athwart history, yelling stop.

Seattle rattled this consensus. Street mobilizations, long dormant, remerged. And this generation’s marchers found new allies. Labor participated in the protests, reflecting a progressive turn inside unions. Commentary at the time harped on Seattle’s “teamster-turtle” unity and how it represented the healing of wounds cut during the Vietnam era. Abandoned by a rightward drifting Democratic Party, a party whose trumpeting of NAFTA and “welfare reform” put it at the vanguard of neoliberal restructuring, labor saw potential allies in the new social movements. This recognition was only possible through reformed stances on immigration and overtures to environmentalism, evolutions born in response to the breakdown of the postwar consensus.

Many on the left were quick to trumpet the confluence’s potential. The carnival-like atmosphere and frenzy of the protests struck a chord with its participants. Naomi Klein wrote at the time:

On the ground, the results of these miniature protests converging is either frighteningly chaotic or inspiringly poetic—or both. Rather than presenting a unified front, small units of activists surround their target from all directions. And rather than build elaborate national or international bureaucracies, temporary structures are thrown up instead: empty buildings are hastily turned into ‘convergence centres’, and independent media producers assemble impromptu activist news centres. The ad hoc coalitions behind these demonstrations are frequently named after the date of the planned event—J18, N30, A16, S11, S26—and when the date is passed, they leave virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website.

Her account is telling. After an “inspiringly poetic” protest, the actions she championed left “virtually no trace behind.”

Ironically, the climate within the young counter-hegemonic movement mirrored a neoliberal, “post-ideological” disdain for grand narratives and mass organizations. The mainstream press spoke of a “new economy” that was light and adaptive, the product of an unprecedented technological and organizational revolution. The old Fordist workplace was dying, but we had an immaterial, recession-proof future to look forward to. The radical press may have envisioned something similar with its alternative.

But the broader climate did seem to signal change. Ralph Nader, whose campaigns for president were ignored in 1992 and 1996, packed Madison Square Garden in 2000. A dense text written by a forgotten Italian revolutionary and an obscure American academic, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, became an international bestseller. Marxist sects resumed polemicizing against anarchism with urgency worthy of the 1930s. Nor were the often somber and professorial pages of this magazine immune to the new spirit. Dissent inaugurated a series on globalization in 1999. Fittingly, it was over by the end of 2001.

A common sentiment among those who took part in the movement is that of a historical moment cut short. The Islamist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon fostered a domestic environment that allowed American troops to be deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. The “anti-globalization” movement receded from view, but before long street protests returned. The build-up to the Second Gulf War saw history’s largest demonstrations. But now the Left was on the defensive. “Anti-imperialist” rhetoric was resurrected, Students for a Democratic Society was reborn, but the anti-war movement proved no more able to stop war than the “anti-globalization” movement was able to end capitalism.

But a narrative that begins on a cloudy November day in Seattle and ends on a sunny September one in New York is a bit too neat. Other factors have worked against the protesters in the last decade. Activists portrayed the World Trade Organization as a purveyor of old-style imperialism: unaccountable and undemocratic, holding the periphery hostage to the core. But with the continued rise of China and India and the success of a market-oriented, left-wing government in Brazil, one has to question whether these assumptions hold true.

There were signs, even then, that the future would not be kind to the Left. In December 1999, while broken storefront windows were still being swept up in parts of Seattle, Ahmed Ressam was arrested around eighty miles west of the city. He was found with an impressive cache of explosives, weapons he loaded into the trunk of a rental car and planned to use to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. At the dawn of the millennium, some socialists looked forward to the resurgence of the Left, but this may have always been reaction’s moment.

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Taking Back the Wheel

much fanfare. Never one to misjudge the importance of well-timed publicity, SpaceX founder Elon Musk attached his cherry-red Tesla Roadster to the rocket and shot it into orbit. Images of the car, manned by an intrepid space-exploring mannequin dubbed Starman, were beamed around the world to delighted audiences.

There was undoubtedly something fantastic about the image of the faux-astronaut behind the wheel of a convertible car destined for the stars. In one fell swoop Musk tantalized us with two of our deepest futuristic desires: the colonization of Mars and flying cars. Soon, Starman hinted, we’ll all be able to shuttle ourselves to other planets.

It barely mattered that neither of those achievements seem practically imminent. Musk’s Tesla was still just a standard earthbound car attached to a giant rocket, and colonizing Mars remains the realm of Hollywood blockbusters. Back on earth, progress is a little slower.

Flying cars, however, are certainly on the agenda. Daily reports inform us that Toyota, Google, Airbus, and Uber are all investing in them, along with a bevy of newer companies. Uber has published a white paper, Uber Elevate, outlining a future of “on-demand urban air transportation.” The goal is to ferry customers high above the chaos of the gridlocked, pollution-saturated, earthbound commute. “What if you could save nearly four hours round-trip between São Paulo’s city center and the suburbs in Campinas?” Uber asks.

The pitch isn’t exactly original. The notoriously congested São Paulo is well known for the number of helicopters that ferry the rich from suburb to conference room. An Airbus-owned Silicon Valley incubator, Voom, already has an app for hailing helicopters in Brazil’s industrial capital. Uber’s proposed improvement on this model—replacing the noisy, polluting, expensive, and inefficient helicopter with a drone hybrid—doesn’t exactly conjure the Jetsons future that most of us associate with the words “flying car.”

But Uber’s pitch is worth paying attention to, because it tells us where the company—and, perhaps, its innumerable would-be imitators—are going. And that means it’s not just about how we might get around in the future, but how labor and the economy are organized today. Uber’s flying cars are just one part of a far-reaching business model that, at its most ambitious, aims to jump-start a sputtering capitalism.

Our research shows that the idea of flying cars does three related things. First, it provides a place to invest surplus capital. Second, it functions to exploit and discipline surplus labor. Third, it provides a broken economic system with a technocratic and ideological fix. And ultimately, that means that the main purpose that flying cars serve is not just technological or even economic—it’s political.

To understand the scope of Uber’s sales pitch, and what it means for politics today, we have to come back down a little closer to earth.

Uber is one of the world’s most valuable private companies. Despite its recent trials and tribulations, it remains a poster child for a new generation of Silicon Valley start-ups. In 2010 the company was valued at $5 million. In February, at its latest valuation, Uber was valued at $72 billion. A wide range of investors, including Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures, Sequoia Capital, Fidelity Investments, Qatar Investment Authority, Microsoft, and the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund have fueled this astronomical growth. What exactly are these investors buying into?

Uber’s business model appears to be based on three stages. First, Uber will monopolize cities’ ride-sharing market through an expensive battle to eliminate competitors and change cities’ regulations, allowing its business model to flourish. Second, it can begin to raise prices for consumers based on its market dominance. Third, it can invest the resulting profits in autonomous and flying vehicles, thus promising investors a ground-floor buy-in to the future of transportation. This vision has proved irresistible to many investors.

Uber’s rise in the wake of the global financial crisis is not coincidental. Ride-sharing companies and other start-ups provide at least a short-term solution to broader problems of capital accumulation presented by the financial system’s collapse. Expansion into new spaces—both physical and digital—is a way to offload accumulated capital and to create fresh opportunities for bigger and faster returns. This is what radical geographers might call a “digital spatial fix.” However we call it—the gig economy, the sharing economy, platform capitalism, or the surveillance economy—the aim is clear: the proliferation of new on-demand services circumvents barriers to accumulation in the form of unused private cars, spare rooms, lawnmowers, regulations, data, and the ultimate barrier, free personal time. These companies allow the market to colonize new spaces and monetize our lives in new ways. To combine the language of Marx and Apple, capital cannot abide a barrier; luckily, there’s an app for that.

Investors are gambling on riding this wave of digital accumulation and are swelling Uber’s coffers. And it is a gamble. Uber made a loss of $4.5 billion in 2017. In January 2018 it sold 15 percent of its shares to Japanese tech giant Softbank, at a price reportedly 30 percent lower than its $72 billion valuation, and probably much closer to $48 billion. Uber remains a private company and it is difficult to get exact numbers regarding its operations and finances. However, even the selective numbers Uber releases has given rise to increasing skepticism about its ability to turn a profit despite high revenue. The company spends much more than it makes, and it is difficult to see where it can make up the shortfall while pleasing consumers, shareholders, and drivers.

So far, enough investors have looked past Uber’s financial losses and eroding market share to keep the company growing. Those investors may look back fondly on the 2010s as a transformative decade, when capitalism ushered in extensive automation and a peer-to-peer economy. On the other hand, we may look back and marvel at an era of Juicero capitalism, where investors, desperate for increasing returns on their capital, threw money at every purported “disruptive” technology in hopes of owning a significant stake of the future.

Which will it be? For most of us, the answer lies firmly in the realm of speculation. Moving it into the realm of politics, where it belongs, means first of all understanding how these technologies function in the present. This brings us to Uber’s second major innovation: disciplining labor.

The future of work is no work

Uber argues that its biggest boon to “driver partners” is to present them with independence, flexibility, and more-than-competitive compensation. In this argument the on-demand economy ushers in a bright new future and an ostensibly new labor category: the flexible worker. In a twist on Marx’s utopian dream, such a worker can, Frank Pasquale pithily comments, “knit Etsy scarves in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and write Facebook comments at night, flexibly shifting between jobs and leisure at will.”

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