Lyft is the best capitalism has to offer

March 25, 2019 (1476 words) :: Boots Riley's 2018 film 'Sorry To Bother You' is not just a piece of speculative fiction - it depicts a dystopian future that's already here.
Tags: class-struggle, startups, gig-economy

This post is day 84 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

"serfdom 2.0" in the style of lyft's logo Hire me for all your corporate logo defacing needs.

Let’s talk about Lyft. As far as “ridesharing” startups go, Lyft seems positively benevolent. When revelations trickled out about the toxic atmosphere at Uber (Susan Fowler’s post, then-CEO Travis Kalanick being a dick to a driver, its program for evading law enforcement, to name a few), they all made Lyft seem comparatively decent. The #DeleteUber movement that lots of well-meaning progressives (including myself!) participated in had an obvious, if unstated, counterpart: #UseLyft. It was a simple Manichaean story of bad Uber and good Lyft, and we could all rest easy in the knowledge that we were helping good defeat evil without really having to sacrifice anything.

Now, as we slide further into the year of the tech IPO bomb, a couple of things are becoming increasingly apparent. First: Uber isn’t exactly dead - their most recent private round of funding valued them at $76 billion, and they’re set to IPO later this year with a probable valuation of over $100b. And second: Lyft isn’t all that much better. It may be less awful than Uber in many ways, but that doesn’t make it an absolute good whose fortunes we should unreservedly cheer. It is, at best, the lesser of two evils. Not because Lyft and Uber are uniquely evil, but because both are products of a system whose optimisation function values outcomes independent of moral considerations.

In the Boots Riley’s 2018 film “Sorry to Bother You” (which I reviewed for Notes From Below), the giant corporation that serves as the villanous backdrop is named Worry Free. It’s a very apt name, one that captures the essence of how exploitation functions under contemporary capitalism, where corporations legitimate their existence through an appeal to consumer welfare. Consumer-facing companies are no longer merely selling services or products, they’re selling a particular corporate self-image - one communicated through bright colours and fun logos and brand names that radiate serenity and benevolence. No need to worry; Worry Free will provide you with all the goods and services you could ever desire. How could you not love them?

What if your primary interaction with the company isn’t as a consumer, but instead as a worker? Ah, well, that picture isn’t so pretty. I won’t spoil the entire plot of Sorry to Bother You, but suffice to say that it hinges on deliberate mistreatment of workers in a way that’s simultaneously absurdly horrible and also not that far off from what is actually happening today.

What’s amazing is that it just keeps happening even though everyone knows about it. It’s not like Worry Free is exploiting workers in secret, fearing the day that the public finds out and puts a stop to it. Instead, Worry Free has found a way to spin exploitation into a glorious thing, taking advantage of a larger economic landscape that makes working for Worry Free look wonderful in comparison. After all, sleeping in a bunk bed in a company dorm is better than being homeless because your house has been repossessed. Even the most dystopian possibility can be made to look palatable when the alternatives are all so much worse.

Today, Lyft drivers showed up at the Omni hotel in San Francisco, where representatives of Lyft were supposed to be meeting with investors as part of the IPO roadshow which will enable them to go public at a valuation of around $25b. As Bloomberg reports, drivers were protesting declining pay:

Jeff Perry, 38, a Lyft driver for almost three years, said outside the Omni that the company is “constantly” cutting payments to drivers.

“I equate it to a traditional employee being called into the office every 60 days and being told hey your wages are getting cut, click here or you’re fired,” Perry said.

So what happened? Did Lyft, once confronted with the consequences of their actions on the drivers who power their business, immediately back down and agree to include drivers in future decision-making? Did investors, suddenly made aware of the unethical foundations of Lyft’s business model, decide to pass on the investment?

No, of course not. For one, because Lyft moved their meeting elsewhere, so there was no actual confrontation (the Bloomberg piece quotes someone who suggests it was because Lyft needed more space). But in an emailed statement to Bloomberg, the company clarified their position:

Lyft has a “strong track record of helping drivers increase their earnings,”’ company spokesman Adrian Durbin said in an emailed statement. “Drivers are integral to our mission of improving people’s lives through the world’s best transportation,” he said.

There’s something exhausting about this style of corporate double-speak. I almost wish they would just be honest: “Drivers are integral to our business model, but there are lots of potential drivers in this era of high underemployment and a shrinking pool of good jobs, so we can treat them as badly as we like because more will step up to take their place.”

And it’s not going to get better, either. As a private company, it’s okay for Lyft to be losing a ton of money every year because it’s still growing & figuring out its business model. But once it’s public, it’s going to come under increased pressures to turn a profit, which most likely entails squeezing drivers even harder.

Back to Sorry to Bother You. There’s a scene when Worry Free announces a particular new “innovation” that allows them to extract more surplus value from employees in a way that’s absolutely horrifying to anyone with a conscience. What happens next? Well, their stock price soars, and their courageous CEO is personally congratulated by politicians from across the aisle. Because the stock market - and the economic system that underpins it - was not designed to value ethics. Issues around morality are orthogonal to the profit maximisation directive, and will only be incorporated insofar as they might generate a broader public backlash that could endanger revenue. Otherwise, there is no built-in mechanism for ensuring moral outcomes within the purview of the system.

So what if some Lyft drivers are committing suicide? So what if some drivers who rely on the app as their main source of income are barely getting by? It’s not as if the executives who make decisions to lower driver pay simply do not know about the human costs of their actions - they have more insight into the financials of their company, and the amount the drivers ultimately make, than anybody else. They have to know, because it’s part of their job. All I can conclude is that they simply don’t care. They’re not paid to care, after all, and in fact their chance of becoming instant multi-millionaires absolutely depends on their continued not-caring. The (road)show goes on.

This doesn’t mean that the people making these decisions are monsters. They are just behaving rationally according to their place within the system - this is just the system working as intended. Once a company like Lyft is ready to IPO, it is no longer primarily driven by a desire to actually “help drivers increase their earnings”, if it ever was. Now it’s all about increasing shareholder value, even if it means degrading the working conditions for the drivers without whom Lyft wouldn’t exist at all. As long as there are still people willing to drive for Lyft, and Lyft is still able to make money, who cares? Investors clearly don’t, given that Lyft’s IPO is already oversubscribed. “Exploitation” is just another name for “good investment opportunity”.

Part of the brilliance of Sorry to Bother You stems from its navigation of the uncanny valley between fiction and reality, ultimately suggesting that the difference between the two isn’t as great as we might hope. In an ideal world, capitalism would correct itself, with the invisible hand of the market inexorably guiding us toward the best of all worlds. But as the protagonists of Sorry to Bother You discover, the forces behind economic system are not always going to align with the outcomes we want. Sometimes a system that appears broken is, in fact, the system working as intended. Sometimes you have to go outside the realm of business-as-usual to make things better.

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