Justin Ward is a Journalist, activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN. Follow him on Twitter: @justwardoctrine
Being self-employed is the American dream. It’s embedded in our culture. The United States was initially conceived of as a nation of yeoman smallholders living off the land. After industrialization, small business owners replaced farmers as the Platonic ideal of the American citizen. My dad was the living embodiment of this ideology. He wasn’t that ambitious. All he wanted was the modern-day equivalent of a little plot of land for his family to make a living on — a restaurant, a convenience store, etc.
For much of my childhood, he worked as a distributor for a cookie company. This involved traveling all over Texas and West Louisiana in a Ford Econoline van stocking displays at grocery stores. The hours were long and he paid all his own costs. When inventory didn’t sell and passed the expiration date, he had to absorb the loss himself.
He was essentially doing the same work as he would be if he were a delivery driver working for a company or a stocker at a store being paid a wage. But he “owned” the route, so dad saw himself as an entrepreneur. And that was important to him.
To a certain extent, I’ve inherited the same mindset. Like my dad, I tend to equate self-employment with freedom. I eschewed a steady paycheck in favor of working as a freelancer.
Rather than working 9 to 5 at a newspaper or as a copywriter for an advertising agency, I grind out articles on Medium and publish a few in the occasional media outlet. I supplement that income by selling my editing services piecemeal on platforms like UpWork.
Meet the new boss
But it’s not as liberating as it’s chalked up to be. The flip side of “being your own boss” is that you’re basically doing two jobs. You’re both the employer and the employee — the task-doer and the taskmaster.
In the 19th century, Karl Marx proposed a theory of exploitation. It was a simple but profound concept. The bosses try to get as much out of workers as they can in an hour while paying a fixed wage. The difference between the value the worker produces and what they are paid becomes profit.
Marx was writing mostly about factories in the newly emerging industrial system. At the time, he couldn’t possibly foresee the complex kinds of working arrangements that would take shape more than a century after his death.
For many, self-employment becomes a kind of self-exploitation. Being your own boss means pushing yourself to extract more value out of your labor.
There’s an intense psychic strain that comes with that.
The manager in your head is constantly cracking the whip on you to work harder. There’s a nagging voice that’s haranguing you for not writing enough or taking on more clients.
Paradoxically, you feel somehow less free than you did when you were working a fixed schedule because you start interrogating whether every hour of free time would be better spent working. The pressure of the boss is replaced by the pressure to earn. You wind up feeling even more guilty when you let yourself down for not being more productive.
The “self-employment” offered by the gig economy is largely an illusion. You’re less like a yeoman smallholder and more like a sharecropper.
Gig jobs are marketed as liberatory — be your own boss, set your own hours, etc. — but you aren’t really working for yourself, are you? Someone else is taking a portion out of the value you produce, whether it’s Upwork’s 20 percent service fees or Uber’s cut of all your earnings.
You’re not really free but rather subjected directly to the discipline of the market.
Uber drivers aren’t “setting their own hours.” They’re working whichever hours earn them the most. Upwork writers aren’t naming their own price. They’re engaging in a race to the bottom to underbid their competitors while short-selling themselves.
The relationship between the exploiter and the exploited is merely mystified. It’s transformed into something more psychologically gratifying for the latter and financially lucrative for the former. The job of managing the workforce is just outsourced to workers themselves along with various costs, like providing healthcare and pensions
Gig workers of the world unite
This form of employment is fast becoming dominant. By 2027, the majority of the American workforce will be freelancers. The proletariat, i.e. the industrial working class, will be supplanted by the precariat, a class defined largely by the precariousness of its working conditions.
The implications are troubling.
Marx theorized that a “class consciousness” would arise among workers in factories. Solidarity would develop from the shared experience of exploitation. Workers would realize that their interests are fundamentally opposed to those of their employers and self-consciously organize as a class to pursue them.
Gig workers are more like peasants, whom Marx described as a “sack of potatoes.” By this, he meant that potatoes don’t become something else when you put them all together. Unlike workers, who are molded into a class by their common experience, peasants continue to have a separate identity and individualistic interests.
The future of work is essentially corporate serfdom. What collective power workers formerly had will be diluted as the workforce grows increasingly atomized — as full-time employees are transformed into contractors and freelancers.
With the writing on the wall, the only hope we have is to stop viewing ourselves as “self-employed” entrepreneurs. Instead, we are self-exploiting workers who need to organize and press our interests as a group.