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gig economy

Uber Still Hasn't Turned a Profit

In 2016 alone, the company lost $2.6 billion.

Sam Kriss

Sam Kriss

Why not just nationalise Uber? Now that London has finally struck back against an emerging monopoly – one that shows no respect for the safety of its customers or the security of its drivers or the law – why waste time with half measures? Uber has shown that it's not fit to run its own service: couldn't we, together, do a much better job of it?

After all, it's not enough to just clamp down on the worst excesses of techno-capitalism, to say that in the interests of fairness and decency we're no longer allowed to have the magic taxi that appears from nowhere, or the meals a computer dreams into your house, or the universal holiday slideshow that makes everyone feel miserable. If a more emancipatory way of doing politics and organising society is going to succeed, it has to show it can do everything the shadowy Silicon Valley mega-firms can do – except better, kinder, less rapaciously, less maliciously; arriving not like the latest super-weapon of some evil Californian genius, but out of the collaborative work of hundreds of people trying to build themselves a better world. We could take over Uber's platform and its infrastructure, or build a new one, owned in common by the drivers rather than speeding them frantically across the city to escape a poverty that looms around every corner. And instead of going into the pockets of callous, invisible investors, the incredible surpluses that Uber used to take over the world could go back to the drivers themselves, the ones who made it all possible.

It's a great idea, and it would probably be a popular one too. But it won't work, and for a very simple reason: there are no incredible surpluses to recapture.

In its entire history, Uber has never once made a profit. In 2016 alone, the company lost $2.6 billion. The idea that we can nationalise these tech platforms and turn them towards better ends fundamentally misapprehends what these industries are: not a productive capitalism but a necrotising one; not an enterprise that blindly spits out useful objects and transforms surplus value into capital, but one fixated, relentless and demented on bringing about a state of affairs that would make all our hopes of the common good meaningless for the rest of time.

Uber isn't alone in its implausible unprofitability. Twitter has also been in the red for its entire existence. So has Spotify. And so has Snapchat, which breezily announced to investors that it expects to be in this condition forever. Facebook took years to work out that its massive user base could be instrumentalised into something that might actually cover its costs. And for most of its history, until very recently, Amazon too was unable to actually make any money – profits were sluggish or nonexistent, even as the company rampaged around the world, eviscerating smaller firms that actually made financial sense, turning shopping in general into a minor feature of the Amazon services constellation.

These firms don't make money from their actual day-to-day business operations; instead, they suck in venture capital. Let's be honest: the reason you used Uber – and the reason I used it too – is because it was cheap. This is partly because Uber has significant scope to depress wages for its workers, but it's mostly because everyone who pays for Uber is actually enjoying a heavily discounted price. Only 41 percent of the cost of an Uber trip is actually paid for by the rider, while the rest is covered by the massive amounts of investor money that's being pumped into the company: this way, Uber can mercilessly crush all competition by undercutting traditional taxi companies on fares.


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This is the way these companies are supposed to work – they run at a loss until they become a virtual monopoly, and hopefully by the time they dominate the market entirely they will have found a way to repay their investors. It's what Facebook and Amazon did. And Uber has a plan too, a particularly unpleasant one. It was never meant to be a taxi firm; this is only its chrysalis. Uber's future most likely lies in financing self-driving cars: it could put down the cost of your car for you, on the condition that after dropping you off at work, you car will be free to roam off elsewhere, picking up other people, watching them with its inbuilt CCTV. Of course, if your car breaks down, you will have to cover the repairs. Uber is planning a world in which nothing belongs to you except the damage.

This is one explanation. But there's something else simultaneously at work. Uber's investors are losing billions every year; they must be buying something, beyond the promise that everything will work out once there's a self-driving car in every garage and a chip in every brain. You could argue that companies like Uber or Amazon fill a role somewhat similar to that played by the state in more traditional capitalism: their job isn't to produce a profit by themselves, but to ensure that the relations of production are upheld, so that profits can be made elsewhere. Uber's shareholders are buying the world.

Uber isn't just a company; it's a fully-fleshed model for the economic structures emerging throughout the developed world. It breaks the laws of old-fashioned national and local governments with impunity (just watch; London will roll over eventually). Just about every new tech firm has to announce itself in relation to Uber: an Uber for dogs, an Uber for education, an Uber for sadness. It's a machine for processing human relations. We wander blind in the darkness, until an algorithm puts one person in another's car. From then on, all our relations are transactional, and all of them are processed – from tipping to conversation – through Uber's platforms. It's not just a piece of computer technology; it's a social technology, designed to individuate us, to turn us into consumers and entrepreneurs and nothing more, to leave us utterly alone and utterly powerless.

There have been attempts to adapt Uber's platform to protect less vampiric industries – New York, for instance, has an Uber-like app that allows you to summon a traditional yellow cab. But a workers' co-op version of Uber simply wouldn't be able to compete with the original or its equally unscrupulous imitators (in Austin, Texas, which also banned Uber, another app called Fasten simply moved into its space), because it won't be able to depend on the vast reservoirs of venture capitalist investment. A fully nationalised People's Uber could turn instead to state subsidies – but it would still be reproducing, with every tap on every grease-smeared screen, the conditions for the most rapacious and exploitative capitalism.

But there's a better alternative. We already have the means to move around a lot of drunk people on a Friday night, one that doesn't depend on icy individuation or the relegation of large sectors of the population to atomised terror. We can return to those years-ago memories of good-natured screaming and banging on windows, the lively stink of vomit and congealing booze, the scratch and flake of woven seat-covers, the hypnotic blur of London from four feet in the air. Expanded fleets, unionised jobs. It's time to go home. It's time to go back to the night bus.

@sam_kriss