• Jonathan Carter

Side Hustle, the American Dream, and the Erosion of Labor

While I was sitting on the couch watching TV and grading, an advertisement for Uber popped across my TV. The advertisement was remarkable in a few ways. First rather than trying to encourage consumers to use their product, it was recruiting employees. Second, the campaign was built around the slogan “get your side hustle on.” I focus on two different ads for Uber. The first titled “It's Time,” features a montage of clips of various individuals driving for Uber. The voice over tells the story of their increased earnings. The commercial opens with the question “what if your car could make you money?,” promises “extra cash whenever you feel like driving,” and notes that “you might already have a great job, but this is a new way to earn.”

While this ad features Uber as an easy way to increasing income outside of one’s job – which it delineates between by calling the former “earnings” and the latter “work,” the second commercial focuses more on the enjoyment of driving. Titled “earning/chilling” this ad follows a driver whose life jumps between “earning,” “working,” and “chilling.”

The commercial shows their work as teaching – a profession that is notoriously underpaid. The remainder of the commercial jumps between images of leisure accompanied by the word “chilling” and driving scenes with the word “earning.” Not only does Uber free the driver to “chill” as needed, but the driving itself is portrayed as exciting and fun. The driver dances to music, laughs with passengers, and has the excitement of ferrying a runaway bride. Combined, these commercials promise fun and flexible earning power, allowing drivers to make the money they want but cannot get through their jobs alone.

Although the ads promise profit, leisure and freedom, this blog post is interested in why a seemingly liberating ability needs to advertise to get employees. Specifically I argue that “side hustle” is an enthymematic allusion to the mythic understandings of the American dream. This mythic allusion serves to reframe Uber's economic shortcomings as opportunities. To more fully understand the contradictions between the myth Uber utilizes and the realities of Uber, I will first use Marxian tools to illustrate how Uber – and the sharing economy more broadly – intensify the real subsumption of labor while shifting the burden of necessary labor time away from companies. Then I will illustrate the mythic components in the Uber ads to explore how Uber seeks to obfuscate and/or reframe their shortcomings.

Uber is one of the most successful and well know examples of the sharing economy (also known as collaborative consumption or the gig economy). The basic premise of these businesses is that by renting out your possessions (car, house, tools etc.) you can valorize these commodities during times when they have no use value to you. As the "It's Time" commercial posits, your car is “a four-wheeled money-making machine.” While sharing is still a relatively small part of the American economy, it is growing. Pew research has found that more that 15% of Americans have used ride sharing apps and 10% home sharing services. Certainly, as the ads promise, these techniques are a way for an individual to supplement their income. However, when run through a Marxian lens we will see that these small monetary gains are disempowering to workers in a larger sense.

One of the first ways that the sharing economy functions is by mitigating employer’s responsibility for necessary labor time. Accounting for the production of wealth under capitalism, Marx notes that the profit made on any commodity is decided on the outcome of the tension between necessary labor time and surplus labor time.[1] Necessary labor time refers to the amount of labor required for the worker to reproduce themselves as a commodity. That is to say, it is how much money a worker needs to continue performing their tasks as a laborer. Generally, Marx notes the wages a worker accepts reflect the monetary value of necessary labor time. However, to profit, companies need a worker to work more than necessary time, without increasing wages. This extra time is surplus time and is the source of profit. In an attempt to clarify, lets run through an example. Pat works at a book factory and needs 700 dollars a week to maintain their standard of living. Consequently, when Pat took a job at the factory, they accepted a salary for this amount. While working Pat’s labor adds 200 dollars of value to the raw materials a day; the company can sell the books Pat makes each day for material costs, machine depreciation, etc. and an additional 200 dollars. Under this math Pat brings in 1000 dollars of added value to the company over the course of five day work week. The first 3.5 days Pat is engaged in necessary labor time – producing the value needed to survive. However the other 1.5 days of labor produce surplus value – all profit for the company. It is important to note that necessary labor time is not a fixed value. Labor movements have struggled for increased quality of life (higher wages), benefits, safety regulations and other value increases. A wage has to meet a socially set definition of what necessary labor can provide. And this social value is a focus of labor struggle.

However, the sharing economy, exemplified by Uber, undermines this balance by distributing the responsibility for accruing necessary labor across multiple labor practices. In a world where laborers are assumed to have one job, the company that hires them becomes responsible for the making sure that a job at minimum meets necessary labor time. However, the side hustle commercials frame Uber as a supplement to income, “earning” not “work.” Because Uber is not an employer, and driving is not work, the obligation of “earnings” to meet necessary labor time would seemingly not apply. Moreover, the entire sharing economy movement is predicated on the assumption that workers “have the freedom” to piece together an income from a variety of sources. While this does allow a sort of freedom from a singular labor relationship, it also disempowers the laborer. As independent contractors – which is the common perception of participants in the sharing economy -- Uber drivers do not have rights to benefits nor the leverage to demand a higher “necessary” labor time. Rather, workers must compete to remain relevant on the software, driving high demand hours, to compete on the market. The worker is now responsible for working enough to meet necessary labor time, rather than negotiating it with a single employer. This empowers each company to engage in a race to the bottom to maximize surplus value without any incentive or impediment of this trend. For an easy example, see how Uber removed the option to tip drivers to drive down costs. Similarly, because these jobs are “independent” they lack the benefits – another facet of negotiated "necessary" labor time. Under this model, collective politics becomes more difficult as your unwillingness to rent your time or possessions is an opportunity for another to supplement their piecemeal attempts to meet their basic requirements.

In essence, the sharing economy demands that all laborers must valorize all of our time if we want to live a free and luxurious life. In this way, it intensifies what Marx identifies as the real subsumption of labor under capital.[2] This term refers to the tendency of capitalism to not only maximize its control over the traditional spaces of labor and exchange, but also its need to valorize those moments that used to be outside the expectations of commercial exchange. In the frame of the sharing economy, one is not sufficiently “hustling” if there is a product or waking that cannot be transitioned into a valorized product – your car is wasting money when it is in your driveway. Thus, while the popular vernacular frames Uber drivers as independent contractors, because they are driving for the profit of a company, we must remember that they are still wage laborers – albeit without many of the protections afforded to other laborers. In intensifying the real subsumption of labor under capital, the sharing economy is turning hard-fought-for leisure time into the imperative to work beyond the 40-hour week merely to establish the necessary conditions.

Liberal defenders of this economy have declared it Marx’s dream come true. After all compared to a hotel or a cab, does not side hustle empower the worker to own the means of production and switch trades at their leisure? However, setting aside the redistribution of necessary labor and the intensification of real subsumption, this argument ignores an important reality in contemporary capital. Namely, that physical means of production are no longer enough to successfully participate in capital. As Hardt and Negri note, the contemporary economy is increasingly driven by the valorization of information and other intangible commodities produced in common.[3] In that sense the most important “means of production” is not the car or the highway, but rather the information about where drivers are and where passengers want to go.[4] This part of the system will never be owned by the workers (the scale of Uber allows a fast pickup that prevents genuinely freelance work to be competitive). However, as long as this is not framed as an employment relationship, the labor politics that can fight to increase necessary labor time will have no leverage, as we view each participant a capitalist, rather than the laborer they are.

Yet if the sharing economy is a manifestly exploitative mode of production, increasing subsumption and placing the burning for meeting necessary labor conditions on the worker, why then are increasing numbers of Americans participating in these systems? I believe that the side hustle commercials begin to offer an answer. Specifically, the popular frame of side hustle allows proponents of the sharing economy to frame it as an opportunity to achieve mythic conditions of the American Dream. As is perfunctory when referring to myth, I am not referring in the colloquial usage to some untrue story. Rather, following Christopher Flood, I am using myth as an “ideologically marked narrative.”[5] One of the most powerful of these in American culture is that of the American dream myth. This narrative, following the rough form of the famous Horatio Alger novels, posits that with enough grit and pluck anyone can succeed in America.[6] Aside from ignoring the realities of class immobility in the United States, such a myth of a “self made man” has a dangerous corollary. If one is poor, it is simply because they have not worked hard enough.

Uber’s (and other sharing economy sites’) reliance on “side hustle” uses enthymeme to employ this myth. While there are a range of meanings assigned to this word, when I googled the term I was presented the following definition :

A side hustle is a way to make some extra cash that allows you flexibility to pursue what you're most interested in. It can also be your true passion – a chance to delve into fashion, travel or whatever it is you care about the most without quitting your day job.

In promising extra income by following one's passion, the term implicitly suggests that any persons who are willing to hustle can achieve both happiness and material success (which are dissociated here as younger generations are increasingly demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice money for happiness). This implies that those who drive for Uber, or rent their spare room are hardworking and savvy – the ideal successors of the American dream. While the teacher in the advertisement can do a social good in their job, Uber lets them have the material rewards of harder work. Not only does such a frame provide personal gratification to the participant in the sharing economy as a better American – as they are living the dream in a way less engaged Americans cannot – but it promises the better life. The drivers in the commercials still have time to turn off the app, enjoying the leisure that comes with the actualization of the American Dream.

Yet I am not positing that participants in the sharing economy are dupes of capitalism. As Slavoj Žižek notes, most often we knowingly buy into ideology, even when we know it may be false.[7] Despite my awareness of the costs of the sharing economy, I have certainly used these services as they allow me to stretch my limited graduate stipend. Similarly, the workers of these businesses may know that spending your free time driving or cleaning your private space is not living the American dream, but it does allow them to get b(u)y. After all, the “earning/chilling” commercial opens with the sentence, “these days everyone needs a side hustle.” In the commercials Uber lets workers work harder under the auspices of freedom and fun. However, the end goal is always hustle and earning. That is ultimately the paradox of the sharing economy, the pressures of contemporary capitalism are increasingly enabling business to exploit the financial insecurity of workers (organized cab driving is only questionably a better working environment than Uber), but that same insecurity forces individuals to forego the power of collective agency in the name of short term survival.

All told, I am not saying that participants of the sharing economy must wholesale reject it. However, we need to recognize that the individuals within it are not the entrepreneurs hustling to live the American Dream. They are laborers who have found a socially acceptable way to work a second, third, fourth, etc. job. This is the foundation of labor politics in the era of independent contracting and sharing – answering the question what is work and what isn’t. The more we can frame participants in this economy as laborers, and Uber and similar companies by extension as employers, the sooner we can begin to consider the larger costs of this new mode of meeting conditions of necessity. Yes the economy demands hustle, but it is not to a better life, but rather just to live one.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 300-302. Chapters 7-9 give detailed breakdowns of these concepts. My examples are also loosely inspired by similar (but more detailed) work done by Marx in these pages.

[2] Marx, Capital Volume I, 1023-25.

[3] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Time of Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 65.

[4] This trend is highlighted in the aforementioned Pew research that notes these companies are popularly imagined as software companies, rather than being identified by the service they provide.

[5] Christopher Flood, Political Myth (New York: Routledge, 2001), 44.

[6] Aaron Duncan, “Reimagining the Self-Made Man: Myth, Risk, and the Pokerization of America,” Western Journal of Communication 78 no. 1 (2014): 44

[7] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), 33.

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