Self-employment: a two-edged sword for workers

Maritime Union picket against contracting out

Maritime Union picket against contracting out

by Daphne Lawless (Fightback Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland).

According to the 2013 census, just over 15% of residents in Aotearoa/New Zealand report earning income from self-employment. This is about the same percentage reported for Britain, according to Richard Seymour in The Guardian, which is apparently “the highest level since records began”. Another British socialist, Chris Bambery, points out that over the last five years, the income of British self-employed workers have dropped by something like 25%.

What does this mean for those interested in socialist politics, workers’ power, and liberation today?Marxist theory has traditionally described the self-employed as “petit bourgeoisie” – in other words, as small capitalists, squeezed between big business and the working class. Such people are commonly stereotyped as conservative politicialy, obsessed with profit-making, somewhat anti-social and with a “not-in-my-back-yard” suspicion of social programmes. Perhaps the classic image in our culture would be the classic TV comedy character Basil Fawlty.

This is an image which leads many socialists to think that self-employment is a bad thing, in that it binds people to the system. Chris Bambery argues, for example: “One crucial effect of such precarious workers is to drive down wages and conditions for all and to make it more difficult to take any form of collective action.”

Everyone a contractor

Indeed, it’s true that self-employment has increasingly been “thrust upon” workers as part of an ongoing attack on wages and conditions. Jake Williams, a commenter on the revleft.com forum puts it like this:

a whole lot of people who are regarded as something like “self-employed” are self-employed in a sort of legalistic way that actually means they’re more exploited and fucked over by their real employers.

A classic local example would have been the former maintenance workers of Telecom NZ (now Spark), who were forcibly converted into “independent contractors” in 2009. The identity of the boss and their rates of pay remained the same; however, now they had to buy and maintain their own vehicles tools, and lost their rights to paid vacations, sick leave and other benefits of salary/wage workers.

The current major form which global capitalism takes, neoliberalism, is based on bringing “the principles of the market” – buying and selling for money – into every part of society. In a neoliberal economy, workers are expected to sell themselves, to see themselves as products or as “human capital” and market themselves accordingly. This breaks down all traditional social ties, and teaches workers to compete rather than cooperate with each other.

The ideal would be for everyone to become a tiny capitalist “contractor” rather than a waged worker, without those few rights that organized workers have won over the centuries. The right-wing property millionaire Bob Jones once said that, in his ideal society, everyone would be an entrepreneur – down to trash collectors owning their own trucks and competing among each other for business. It is doubtful that such a world would have much room for solidarity, respect for others or for the environment.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

Karl Marx himself, in his 1864 work on “productive and unproductive” labour, had this to say:

The self-employed labourer, for example, is his own wage labourer, and his own means of production confront him in his own mind as capital. As his own capitalist, he employs himself as a wage labourer. (old-fashioned sexist language in original)

In other words, the self-employed worker exploits his/herself , to earn a living in the market. Ash Ambirge, from the “snarky business advice” website themiddlefingerproject.org, puts it like this:

[B]eing your own boss is infinitely harder than having a boss… Gone are the days when you just take orders and go home at 5pmto your cozy little cottage to watch Desperate Housewives while shoving Twizzlers down your throat.

Being your own boss means a humongous fucking time investment.

Being your own boss means mega responsibility.

Being your own boss means that the work is never done.

Being your own boss means rules, regulations, taxes, paperwork.

Given that, why would anyone do it? Ambirge continues:

Because being your own boss also means freedom, of course.

As John Whiteside Parsons, the American rocket scientist and occultist, put it: “freedom is a two-edged sword”. The self-employed worker is free in the sense that a stray cat is free. The freedom from having to sell one’s labour-power to a boss is replaced with the necessity of selling one’s labour-power, or the products of it, to a host of different clients – the alternative, of course, being to starve.

Control over labour

But, as Ambirge puts it, this freedom is also “creative freedom… to be you in ways you’ve never been before.A self-employed worker has autonomy over the process of work; they can decide when and how to do the job. To a telecommunications contractor, this possibly doesn’t mean much; for an immaterial or “creative” worker – for example, in software, publishing or design – it is quite important.

Even as neoliberal capitalism dumps workers into self-employment whether they like it or not, some workers find that they find that the upside of autonomy over the work process makes up for the downside of insecurity and the vagaries of market forces. This makes the increasing numbers of self-employed under neoliberalism a more complex political issue than to simply declare it a social evil. Cheerfully informing a freelancer that under socialism they’ll have a steady full-time job in a state enterprise may not be as enticing as some conservative leftists might think.

In a post-industrial advanced capitalist economy, where industrialisation is increasingly “outsourced” to low-wage and low-freedom countries, increasingly creative and intelligent young people will find the self-employed life to be actually preferable to having a steady job. But more crucially for socialists, they may also find new ways to organise.

Freelancers Union

Sara Horowitz, a former union lawyer and organizer in New York City, founded the Freelancers’ Union in 2001. The main selling point of the FU was not to engage in collective bargaining with clients – partly because, under United States labour law, it is not actually recognized as a union. Rather, the FU specialises in providing collective access to subsidized health insurance – an absolutely vital social goal for workers in the pre-Obamacare United States. It also provides a Portable Benefits Network, where self-employed workers can keep their social benefits while moving between temporary assignments – another gain which is not usually available to low-paid US workers.

On the FU’s website, Horowitz and other writers enthusiastically extol the freelance lifestyle as “the way of the future”, with traditional workers’ unions described as “a moment in history”. In an article entitled “Welcome to the Quiet Revolution”, Horowitz links freelancing to other lifestyle changes which promote the ability to live better under neoliberalism:

It’s a revolution away from consumption and toward connection. Away from individual acquisition and toward collective action. It’s a million small choices that, together, add up to big change.

We’re saving more — and putting our money in credit union instead of banks. We’re eating healthy and local — and shopping at local farmers markets instead of corporate chains. We’re buying our clothes at thrift stores and abandoning mass-produced mall stores.

We’re thinking about what each purchase means—for us and for our community.

The numbers back it up. Since the recession ended, spending by the richest 5% has risen 17 percent. The rest of us? Just 1 percent.

We’ve stopped looking for more. We just want enough. And better.

Freelancers know this best of all. When you get by on fluctuating income, you know you’ve got to plan for your low-times, not your high-times.

In another article “Freelancers Redefining Success”, she continues:

As the availability of the traditional 40-hour-a-week job wanes, so does its appeal. Who wants to “clock-out” at the end of the day when you can dictate your own schedule?

Many freelancers rightly see the standard workweek as a prison of the past. Managing your own time isn’t just rewarding–it’s practical and efficient. Parents don’t have to “leave early” to pick up their kids. The idea of “killing time” until the clock strikes 5:00becomes obsolete when that time is chiefly your own.

Time is a new currency, and successful freelancers manage, save, and spend it wisely.

In this regard, the Freelancers’ Union has a lot in common with Green politics – a narrative of both individual and collective lifestyle changes, which – while not challenging the big guns of corporate neoliberal society – “opt out of it”, to some extent. This is not a political project that the Marxist left thinks is adequate to bring about a new future. But it is a movement of workers seeking to better their lives collectively, by making horizontal connections among themselves. This is thus a kind of “reformism from below” – to re-purpose a slogan from the 1960s – that we should be paying attention to.

New ways of being workers

How should the Left react to this? Certainly, a freelancer who enjoys setting her own hours and choosing her own clients and working habits, and has learned to live with administrative overhead and financial precarity, will not be attracted to a socialist project which considers her lifestyle a pernicious artefact of neoliberalism. Chris Bambery again: “One of the problems facing the left is that they tend to focus on those who make up their core membership – older, fulltime workers who are active in trade unions and are overwhelmingly employed in the public sector.”

So the Left has to consider a way of relating to self-employed workers as workers, of finding a place for the self-organization of independents and freelancers within a project of workers’ power. In New Zealand, where we still have some kind of socialised health system, the main selling point of the American FU – health insurance – doesn’t have the same appeal.

But an argument could be made that, as joining or forming a union is the basic form for wage- and salary-workers to express their power, so joining or forming co-operatives or networks should be the way forward for the self-employed. Perhaps the structures of co-operation of the “open-source” software industry offer us a way forward.

But also, as Chris Bambery suggests, self-employed and other precarious workers can be appealed to on apolitical, rather than a purely economic, basis. “[They] are very likely to have taken part in other forms of social protest or to have accessed anti-capitalist views via social media, the internet or books. They are watching Gaza and are fuming, watching Ferguson and feeling sympathy.”

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