The Platform Capitalist Pandemic. An introductory inquiry into the Brazilian neoliberal management of uberization during the COVID-19 lockdown

© for the photo: Andre Porto

1.  Platform capitalist companies in Brazil

These processes effect consumers and workers in the industry alike. On the one hand, the platform companies profit and extract data from consumption, which is turned into a productive activity as it involves choosing what you want to order, creating (sometimes numerous) customer profiles, and finally evaluating the services. On the other hand, the companies refer to their workers as collaborators. This is not merely a question of terminology, as it is indicative of the increasing precarity of the workforce, as workers are stripped of the social welfare safeguards and fragile labour rights that had been won over the course of historical struggles. This bare worker is a just-in-time, flexible and independent partner rather than an employee protected by rights and regulations. Between consumers and workers are the tech enterprises selling their programmes to mediate supply and demand. At first glance, it may seem that by working with these sorts of apps, workers might be able to seize some kind of autonomy, restricting the arbitrary power of bosses. However, these companies manage the digital flow of supply, demand, and workers through a range of measures, including special offers aimed at increasing consumption at certain times and locations, as well as proposing occasional challenges aimed at impelling their “collaborators” to pick up orders from distant locations through a variety of incentives and punishments. However, as attested by many researchers, platform workers are usually subjected to one-sided contracts that define charges levied and the criteria according to which their “collaborators” are evaluated by consumers.

The trend towards these mechanisms for controlling and exploiting labour has been labelled uberization. Although they rose to prominence internationally with Uber, they transcend the sphere of mere platform companies, and have now become common even in highly qualified professions. Seeking to shed light on current developments in the course of neoliberalism, this article looks into the situation of delivery platform workers in Brazil during the pandemic.

In doing so, I argue that uberization must be explained from the standpoint of the Global South. In other words, certain forms of labour organization that have long been established in the South are now being brought to the capitalism of the North by the process of uberization, which is reshaping labour through new technologies of control and algorithmic management. In addition to this, the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil has unveiled other aspects of platform labour that have previously remained hidden, suggesting new research approaches to the phenomenon of uberization. 

2.  The Brazilian lockdown and the multiplication of platform workers

From the very start of the Brazilian lockdown, there was a notable increase in platform workers rushing through the streets on motorbikes or bicycles with heavy, colourful bags on their shoulders. This perception is corroborated by the Instituto Locomotiva’s survey that shows a rise of 30 percent in demand for products through apps in just the first month of social distancing measures. Of 1,131 consumers interviewed, 15 percent started to order food and medical items after the beginning of the pandemic, and about 25 percent reported an increase in their use of apps to purchase food. Another survey commissioned by Guiabolso revealed an increase of R$6.00 (US $1.05) in individual weekly expenses on food deliveries between the pre-pandemic period and the first week of May. The use of apps is also spreading to low-income groups, which altogether represent more than 50 percent of the entire consumer population of Brazil. Despite the absence of official financial reports, the CEO of Rappi, one of the biggest platform companies in Brazil, revealed in a TV appearance that his enterprise had grown a remarkable 300 percent between March and April.

Nevertheless, this data contrasts with the workers’ perspective. Whereas company profits have been increasing since the beginning of the lockdown, the platform workers saw their wages steadily decrease, making it harder for them to make ends meet. According to a survey[i] coordinated by Rede de Estudos e Monitoramento da Reforma Trabalhista (Remir Trabalho), in which 252 workers from four Brazilian districts were interviewed, 60.3 percent reported a drop in revenue in comparison with the pre-pandemic period, while only 10.3 percent declared they were making more money now than before. Moreover, this survey reveals a concentration of low-income workers (less than R$ 520 per week) after the pandemic. Among those interviewed, 35.7 percent reported earning less than R$260 per week, which represents two times more workers at this level of payment than before the COVID-19 crisis. In this scenario, more work does not mean more money, in that 56.4 percent of those interviewed who work more than 9 hours a day have been suffering a 66.65 percent decrease in their earnings when compared with the period before the pandemic.

How can we explain this situation? To state just one reason for such a reality, more than ever, the companies have been keeping hiring rates high in order to create a kind of “surplus population” of precarious, just-in-time workers. Thus, in many cases, most of the labour time is spent waiting for an order.

In addition to this drop in revenue, 62.3 percent of workers interviewed stated that they had never received any kind of personal protective equipment from the companies they work for to guard against infection. For this reason, some of them decided to adopt their own protective measures, such as wearing masks and gloves, carrying hand sanitizer with them, and keeping a safe distance when handing products to customers. What’s more, the research indicates that 85 percent of participants reported being afraid of exposure to the virus while working, expressing a high degree of tension and anxiety among workers on a daily basis.

At first glance, one might conclude that these are unwelcome affects for the reproduction of neoliberal platform capitalism. However, neoliberalism must be understood as a manager of affects, which it transforms into productive subjective conditions in order to maximize profit[ii]. In this way, instead blocking out forms of psychic malaise, neoliberalism administrates them by controlling their intensity and frequency within society, as well as disseminating specific psychotherapies and models of psychiatric treatment which shape the ways in which individuals explain to themselves and others why they are suffering, and how to treat these symptoms.

   3. How uberization manages subjectivity effects

The COVID-19 crisis revealed many of the management strategies to which platform workers have been subjected. In analysing this situation, it would be inaccurate to simply ascribe to these workers a general conception of neoliberal subjectivity as an individual self-entrepreneur. Rather, a more accurate description is provided by the notion of the “subordinated self-manager”, a classification that was proposed by the Brazilian sociologist Ludmila Abílio[iii].

This expression attempts to capture an apparently paradoxical position of the restricted autonomy of a manager who is subordinated to someone or something. Indeed platform workers are at once commanded by companies and responsible for administrating themselves, their labour and leisure time, labour strategies, and so forth, with the aim of getting better ratings and, consequently, more orders and more money.

What is at stake in this terminological shift is a new understanding of how uberization produces and mobilizes subjectivity effects. Since Freud, psychoanalysis has been inquiring into the production of subjectivity through a series of identification processes by which individuals internalize a social normativity transmitted from the primary and smaller circles of social interaction to the largest ones. This whole process performs a libidinal economy of subjectivities. However, experience and clinical data show us that socialization is always unsatisfactory since, from the subjects’ perspective, something has been lost forever: a mythological, immediate and absolute state of enjoyment, or jouissance, as Jacques Lacan puts it. To participate in a society is to be subject to the demands of others while at the same time making demands of them, and never getting exactly what one had demanded in the first place. It is to be agent and object of speech; in sum, it is to be a split within ourselves by being introduced to sociolinguistic exchanges.

At the same time, if speech separates the subject from a supposedly original state of total jouissance, it is nevertheless, as Lacan states later, a means of seeking partial and supplementary forms of satisfaction. Hence, speech and satisfaction are always tied into knots, which Lacan attempted to categorize and explain through the concept of discourse, which functions to manage ways of reaching partial enjoyment through speech. However, whenever satisfaction is reached, the loss continues to appear elsewhere, impelling subjects to continually repeat their efforts to formulate new solutions. In this way, Lacan shows us that at the core of any social bond lies the impossibility of definitively recovering that structural dissatisfaction.

Looking at the emerging neoliberal capitalism in France around the end of 1960s, Lacan stated that capitalist discourse intends to administrate the subjects’ abandoned search for enjoyment by means of stimulating the consumption of commodities which bear the promise of definitive satisfaction. In this way, neoliberal capitalist discourse rejects the subjects’ structural lack, veiling it with the fantasy that they can achieve their self-realization. Nevertheless, once one gets a certain good, the unpleasant feeling of loss reappears, driving the consumer to purchase a new product. In other words, neoliberal capitalism has been succeeding in transforming dissatisfaction into the psychic motor of the system of production and consumption. 

As it is not my aim in these few pages to delve into the details of the Lacanian conception of discourse, I will move on, but I simply wished to stress that each social bond is concerned with the question of how to deal with enjoyment, desire, impossibility, and their effects.

4. Algorithmic systems and labour exploitation

Returning to the scenario of Brazil in the pandemic, we could ask: Is there a platform capitalist discourse spreading from the Global South to countries of the Global North? And if so, how does it structure both enjoyment and its irresolvable impossibility? What would a libidinal economy of the social bonds created by the process of uberization look like?

In the following, I would like to outline a number of hypotheses on these questions. To begin with, platform capitalism manages its “collaborators” through a high-tech system of algorithms. It dilutes labour exploitation into an allegedly impersonal and neutral form of scientific knowledge whose data is produced by a multitude of consumers and workers. From the standpoint of the workers, success depends on their competence, availability, and commitment to the consumers and companies. By strengthening this belief, platform capitalism creates an overall appearance of freedom and autonomy among its “collaborators”, as if becoming a five-star worker were only a matter of individual initiative. According to this logic, if they had few orders today, tomorrow they can get more orders and money as long as they commit themselves more comprehensively to the work, completing the challenges created by the companies, and winning over consumers with new strategies.

In this sense, the relationship between companies/software and workers could be described by the theory of the neoliberal subject as a self-entrepreneur. However, underpinning that relationship there are two other elements that need to be analysed.

First of all, in the pandemic crisis, many workers are denouncing arbitrary wage reductions and the unjustified cancellation of their contracts as collaborators. All these processes make clearer than ever before that what seemed to be an impersonal system of administration and distribution of orders, price management, and punishments, is actually guided by profit motives. The decentralization of workers corresponds to increasingly centralized control over the whole process of production.

Moreover, there are essential elements pushing platform capitalism forward: both the material and immaterial production of workers. It is not just a certain percentage of the fee for each job that these companies extract, they also harvest a huge amount of data and other immaterial outcomes, such as information about consumer profiles, rates of consumption and sale, distribution of urban traffic, and so on. On the one hand, this data has the potential to become valuable for the companies; on the other hand, it can be used to control those same workers. Besides this, material, embodied work continues to play an essential role in the capitalist process of accumulation through platforms. From the bike couriers to more qualified positions, the workforce is still producing value.

5. The peripheral roots of platform capitalist discourse

Last but not least, though there are novelties brought about by platform capitalist algorithmic management, they intersect with older forms of labour that have existed in peripheral regions of capitalism for some time. As Abílio has pointed out, the prime example of this is domestic labour, which is predominantly carried out by women, and is characterized by low-wages, lack of job security, high levels of flexibility, the blurring of labour and leisure time, and deregulation. These forms of labour have been around in poor areas and favelas in the Global South as a means of making ends meet since long before Uber arrived on the scene. In this way, uberization is rooted in gendered and racialized forms of labour that has been hijacked, monopolized, and then exported by platform companies to the North.

Based on these analyses, we can put together a rough draft of the platform capitalist discourse that shapes the social bonds in the era of uberization. The algorithmic management guided by companies’ interests drives platform workers to engage their skills and desires in labour. By fulfilling all the software’s demands and protocols, the workers receive decreasing wages after waiting for long periods of time for a job. By contrast, platform companies have been growing, fuelled by profits and data that are continually expropriated from the workforce. The daily failures experienced by workers are administrated both by charging them for poor results and by promising better revenue if they are able to manage themselves more strictly in the future. Thus, the workers’ dissatisfactions are transformed into fuel to impel them to keep working. What has remained opaque in that whole process was the role played by the companies as the puppetmasters operating the purportedly neutral data technologies.

Due to the arbitrariness and unjustified decisions these companies have been making during the COVID-19 crisis, labour relationships that platform capitalist enterprises want to conceal from the workers have been brought to light. Over the past few weeks, Brazilian delivery platform workers have been strengthening their collective mobilization in concert with their colleagues around the world. In São Paulo, for instance, workers have been striking and pushing boycotts to demand fairer working conditions, such as increased delivery rates, accident and life insurance, and changes to the rating systems. The next chapters in the struggle of platform workers is just beginning to be written. 

Photo caption:

A platform worker rushing through the empty streets of São Paulo during the COVID-19 pandemic.  I thank the independent photographer Andre Porto for this photo.

[i]                  ABÍLIO, Ludmila. C.; ALMEIDA, Paula. F.; AMORIM, Henrique; CARDOSO, Ana. C. M.; FONSECA, Vanessa. P.; KALIL, Renan. B.; MACHADO, Sidnei. Condições de trabalho em empresas de plataforma digital: os entregadores por aplicativo durante a Covid-19. (São Paulo: REMIR, 2020. p. 11).

[ii]                 SAFATLE, V., SILVA JÚNIOR, N., DUNKER, Christian, eds. Patologias do social: arqueologias do sofrimento psíquico (Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2018).

[iii]         ABILIO, Ludmila Costhek. “Uberização: Do empreendedorismo para o autogerenciamento subordinado”. Psicoperspectivas. vol. 18, no. 3 (2019): pp. 41–51.