My partner returned from overseas recently, and after an extended time apart we wanted to catch up on many things in Sydney. But with limited hours on one Saturday afternoon, I realised that we wouldn’t be able to both go to Leichhardt for lunch and go to a park in Mosman and still make it to dinner in Glebe on time unless we relied on taxis to do so.
I euphemistically mention ‘taxis’ here, because of course my first instinct was to call an Uber. My partner, outraged, told me to not rely on the overexploitation of workers that Uber is famous for and to take a damn taxi. And so the long argument of our day began, with me referring to the undeserved monopoly of Sydney’s taxi ranks, and her pointing to Uber’s anti-worker practices. It was a bizarre twist of events, considering this is an issue I’ve thought about a bit. On the day in question, I argued that we just did not have the money to do exactly what we wanted and pay for the ethical highroad, and out of convenience and jetlag my partner relented.
Like most disagreements, neither of us was wrong, exactly – it was the framing of the argument itself. On the one hand, taxis are enormously expensive, and even a functional public transport system like Sydney’s has stops, delays and the necessary evils of urban planning, so Uber has become the best option to get somewhere cheap and fast. On the other, it is ridiculous to expect that an economy be shaped around making your every whim affordable. The fact that my partner and I could actually fulfil our overambitious expectations, effectively using private cars as a form of public transport, is testament to how little ‘sharing’ occurs in this sharing economy.
In trying to search for some ethical mode of consumption, we both had forgotten that the possibility of such under capitalism is thin. As such, my partner’s lesser-evilism and my ethical nihilism are both part of a broader symptom of an alienated society and a depoliticised subjectivity. Demanding the ‘sharing’ economy to go away is as ridiculous as expecting Uber (the company) to suddenly become pro-union. There is no more ‘normal’ economy, and it is doubtful that there ever was. While we should not see the economy in isolation – structural considerations are far more important than individual economic actions, and whether we choose one taxi service or another ultimately means little – we cannot displace our own role in furthering the very kind of consumption that Uber and its ‘tech’ allies in AirBnB, TaskRabbit, etc facilitate and thrive off. Consumers like us, who might otherwise take moral queries seriously in our economic lives, cannot maintain our political opposition to these trends and just shrug off these problems as we continue to push forward the very trends we decry. In existentialist terms, we cannot continue to act in such incredible ‘bad faith’.
I think it’s time that many of my fellow comfortable working- and middle-class left-of-centre types admit that we too are part of the problem. We are not going to find a better world in our brunch-laden, alcohol-infused culture, in which life is just the pursuit of one aesthetic pleasure after another, whether it’s in the form of a fancy breakfast, a Japanese-liquor cocktail, an artisan burger delivered straight to our door or our latest outlandish travel adventure.
Don’t get me wrong: these problems were not created by ‘unethical’ consumption, and nor will they be solved by resolving our ethical transgressions – capitalism has become superb at assuaging guilty consciences through options like ‘carbon offsetting’, greenwashing, corporate social responsibility, and so on – but they can be thrown into the light of day. We can account for how we further these trends which we notionally disavow.
This is doubly important because there is a genuine class of unreflexive techno-progressivists who not only see nothing wrong with the practices of Uber, but are perfectly happy to poison the well with regard to other industries. Scratch any liberal nihilist who doubts whether things can really get better and you’ll find a techno-utopian who envisages a twenty-first-century totally administered society – a kind of fusion between J Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the classical Taylorist factory system. Between nihilist moralism and an unfazed plunge into the totalitarian abyss of Silicon Valley-style capitalism, there needs to be an articulated position on behalf of the progressive, economically comfortable left – that our ethics are more substantive than our immediate desires.
I originally wanted to title this article ‘millennials are also the problem’, based on the simple observation that as people, and increasingly powerful and influential ones at that, millennials exist within the same sphere as many of these trends; indeed, millennials invented some of them and are the dominant cultural ‘form’ for which many other said trends are packaged. But even this framing already concedes too much to the notion that we are witness to some grand clash of generations, with all class, gender and racial differences cast aside in an amorphous mass of age-related fury.
The more appropriate point is that we should not be too quick to abandon ethical categories in political considerations simply because ethical concerns inconvenience us. Our culture and economy should be understood as interrelated phenomena, part of some totality which is possible to unpick, rather than some series of aphoristic statements which bear no relation to each other. Rarely are many of us forced to think about how our individual behaviour connects with our morals and our politics – but if cognitive dissonance is a necessary fact of modern life, it’s hardly a recommendable one.
If there is no ethical consumption under capitalism then there is certainly no right living in the wrong world. Yet while catching an Uber does not damn us to some ethical hell – and the point is not to condemn Uber so much as to replace it and the taxi industry with a worker-controlled alternative – a consistent reliance on its form of labour extraction is, I think, an indication that our personal priorities are messed up. We cannot prevent complicity, but we can actively resist, subvert and undermine it. Whether this means joining your union, becoming the ‘militant’ one among your friends or supporting workers’ solidarity through pen, protest or app-design (remember, we do need a new system of organising labour), these struggles need to be central to our existence for our values to have any meaning at all.
As ‘millennials’, young people have an increasing voice and power within society. Yet we should remember that other generations have been in this position before us, leaving us with the failures (and some achievements) of society today. Let us not slip into the tantalising drug of self-congratulatory nihilism – we have a world to win.
Image: Sydney-City-36 / Mark爱生活