The Alienating Effects of Technology

At the same time as alienating workers from work, the on-demand and “sharing” economies have increased our alienation from each other. Our interactions with one-another now increasingly take place through an app and a list of prices or profiles. Marx explained throughout his writings how such alienation was inherent within a society dominated by money and commodities. Now everything has been — or can be — commoditized, turning all human relations into money relations.

The fact that the on-demand and “sharing” economies have risen to prominence in the wake of the 2008 crash is no coincidence. For starters, as explained above, it is the swelling ranks of the “reserve army of labor” and the permanent scar of mass unemployment that has fueled the seemingly endless supply of cheap, self-employed labor that the on-demand economy is so reliant upon.

Back in 2008, when the market crashed and full-time jobs evaporated, millennials graduating from college were left with few secure employment opportunities. This particular group had very little choice but to move into their parents’ basement and work entry-level jobs that did not match their degrees or interests.

Meanwhile, the demand for on-demand services has picked up; not because people are richer or “lazier”, but rather because people have become desperate for convenience and leisure. Despite the proliferation of “time saving” devices, we are more busy, stressed, and anxious than ever. The increased productivity offered by automation and technology has meant bigger profits for a tiny elite, not more leisure time for the masses. All the benefits have been concentrated at the top, both in terms of time and money.

Workers everywhere are so squeezed for time by the intense pace and rhythm of life under capitalism, that they are willing to pay someone else for even the most basic of services. Time has become a luxury for the privileged. Hence the appeal of the on-demand economy for ordinary people.

In terms of the “sharing” economy, it is clear that the ongoing crisis of capitalism has impoverished millions and shaken up lifestyles. As a result, people are seeking out cheaper, alternative ways of living and consuming. Working class families — previously reliant on an expanding credit bubble to make any major purchases — are now forced to rent (sorry, “share”). It is surely no coincidence that many peer-to-peer rental firms were founded between 2008 and 2010, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Some see sharing, with its mantra that ‘access trumps ownership’, as a post-crisis antidote to materialism and overconsumption.

The economy of 2008 was necessary to create the conditions that these new business models could thrive in: mass unemployment; austerity and impoverishment; and growing inequality. In this respect, the rise of the “sharing” economy and the on-demand economy is not the product of any individual genius, as some would like to claim, but — again — a reflection of the impasse, stagnation, and crisis of the current system.

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