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Neoliberal digitalism: The gig economy in the global South

The recognition that industrialization and wage employment is the way out of poverty has always been at the centre of the International Political Economy discourse. Although its developmental outcomes are obviously contingent on decent wages and working conditions, the rationale is that low-income countries will be able to achieve sustainable structural and societal transformations and most importantly, paid jobs, by investing in technological change to trigger added-value sectors. Yet, high in the debate on global development is the question of whether the fourth industrial revolution, symbolised by the digitalization typical of the gig economy, will replace and/or displace the already underemployed labour in the global South.

Indeed, technology has been historically one of the most important variables of societal change. Technological change was and is still prone to disrupt and change relations of production. The technology behind the gig economy is indeed shaping the time and space that organises labour in dramatically different ways. For instance, the gig economy compromises the Fordist model of centralised production as work can be executed anywhere and anytime through the digital platforms behind a mobile phone. However, this employment flexibility is likely to become a Hobson’s choice or, worse, a non-choice in the non-space of anytime. In other words, yet again, positive freedom risks the concealment of oppression.

Furthermore, in recent years, innovation has ‘entered into’ social relations of production from many doors. Developmental experts and ‘manufacturing fundamentalists’ have mostly looked at the impact of technology on labour welfare in the agricultural and industrial sectors from cotton mechanization to hybrid cars, and from pharma-GMOs to hydroponic salads. However, less attention has been paid to the disrupting effects that the digital era has created in the service sector.

Services are indeed an interesting lens through which to observe the socio-economic idiosyncrasy of developing countries (and in truth countries with high-levels of unemployment at large). Evidence shows that often an advanced emerging banking or tourist sector coexists with atomistic forms of petty trading and self-employment, which altogether generate up to 50% of GDP. In this context the gig economy could therefore represent an opportunity. In the scattered and disenfranchised world of economic neoliberalism, and in contexts of ‘failed industrializations’ where rural urban interconnections are not fully realised, work decentralization and horizontal platforms could provide a way of absorbing the reserve army of labour underemployed in the rural and low-productivity sectors.  Algorithms could also provide new ways of formalising a division of labour that already exists in informalized forms. And what if all these networks of taxi drivers would be able to trigger backward linkages with the local automotive sector? How could such cybernetic leapfrogging connect global service networks? 

The huge transformational potential of such technology is however confuted by the reality of inequality reinvented and reproduced by neoliberal digitalism. We have soon realised that the gig economy does divert value from labour to capital in creative ways, yet the forms of exploitation are still the same. Questions remain. Would this mobile industry reframe the flow of capital or just reinforce it?  How will the state be able to generate revenue from these new business forms to invest in decent existence? Under which political and institutional conditions will labour be able to use technological innovation in their favour? Are gig-cooperatives possible solutions?  Are these new business models, by changing patterns and the pace of value distribution, able to change patterns of food consumption or other commodities towards more ecologically sustainable systems of provision?  

These are some of the big open questions we need to explore to disentangle the contradictory scenario we face.  Empirical evidence and comparative studies are necessary to understand how power relations and institutions are configured, can be re-configured and re-organised on the ground. The ‘futures of work’ in the multiple global and local Southswill depend on the capacity of challenging such neoliberal digitalism on multiple levels. On the one hand, we need the workers’ organizational capacity to revendicate their competences, ownership and decent working conditions despite the control and surveillance regimes in which they perform their work. On the other hand, we need the ability to translate the complex and fragmented space-time of the algorithm in effective political responses through just-in time social policy. This fluid industry will continue to be one of the main sources of global capital accumulation for many years to come, and the politics of work has not been ready to decodify its challenges. Yet, the data platform it relies on could be adapted and used as a vehicle to create radically new internationalist political and economic arrangements.  

Lorena Lombardozzi is a Lecturer in Economics at the School of Social Sciences & Global Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at the Open University.

Image credit: Dan Gold on Unsplash