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Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle
THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
How the Right Weaponized Free
By Joan W. Scott JANUARY 07, 2018
was 10 years old when my father was
suspended from his job as a highschool
social-studies teacher. Two
years later, he was fired for
insubordination and conduct unbecoming a
teacher because he refused to cooperate
with an investigation into purported communist infiltration in the New York City
public schools. His defense was eloquent.
How the Right Weaponized Free Speech – The Chronicle of Higher Education Page 1 of 12
“I have been a teacher for 15 years — a proud American teacher. I
have tried all those years to inspire my youngsters with a deep
devotion for the American way of life, our Constitution, and Bill of
Rights. Hundreds of my youngsters fought in World War II, and I
know their understanding of the need to fight for their country was
inspired by my teaching and the Bill of Rights. … From that teaching
our youngsters got the feeling that we are living in a country where
nobody has a right to ask what are your beliefs, how you worship
God, what you read. As a teacher and a believer in fundamental
principles, it seems to me that it would be a betrayal of everything I
have been teaching to cooperate with the committee in an
investigation of a man’s opinions, political belief, and private
At the time, I took it all in stride — we were expected to be proud of the principled
stand my father had taken. But looking back, I can see that I was also afraid. Our
family life was rendered uncertain by his firing and not only because he no longer
had a job. In fact, it was not so much economic insecurity that I felt, but a sense
of foreboding: FBI agents showing up at the door, friends whose fathers were in
jail, Joseph McCarthy’s voice leering, insinuating, angry — the sounds that to a
child conveyed dangerous, unreasoning hatred.
That was 65 years ago. I thought all of it was long passed, a stage in my history —
in American history — we had all survived and that even some of its most ardent
supporters had repudiated. So I was unprepared for the power of my reaction to
the election of Donald Trump: diffuse anxiety; a sense of fear in response to an
How the Right Weaponized Free Speech – The Chronicle of Higher Education Page 2 of 12
indeterminate threat; dread about what would come next, as day after day more
draconian measures were announced. It was, in some sense, the return of the
repressed, and not only for me, but for the country as a whole.
Looking for insight, I turned (not for the first time) to Richard Hofstadter’s AntiIntellectualism
in American Life, a reflection on the experience of the 1950s,
published from the critical distance of 1963. In the book’s first chapter,
Hofstadter comments on “the national disrespect for mind” that characterized
the era. “Primarily it was McCarthyism which aroused the fear that the critical
mind was at a ruinous discount in this country. Of course, intellectuals were not
the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations — he was after bigger game
— but intellectuals were in the line of fire, and it seemed to give special rejoicing
to his followers when they were hit.” Hofstadter went on to argue that the
experience of the ’50s was not new, but a recurrent aspect of American identity
with “a long historical background. An examination of this background suggests
that regard for intellectuals in the United States has not moved steadily
downward … but is subject to cyclical fluctuations.”
My son, Tony, characterized these fluctuations as the escape of the American id
from the confines of its reasonable containment. The return of the repressed with
The American id has been let loose again, this time by Donald Trump, and, as in
the McCarthy period, intellectuals are only one of his targets. But targets we are.
It’s not only the president’s preference for alternative facts that challenge
evidence-based argument, but direct attacks by him and others on scientists who
work on climate change or who support the Affordable Care Act. It’s also an
apparent distrust of and dislike for professors. Secretary of Education Betsy
DeVos tells college students that “the fight against the education establishment
extends to you, too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what
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to do, what to say, and, more ominously, what to think.” We are, in her view,
dangerous agents of thought control, purveying our ideology to the detriment of
“Professor Watchlist,” established by the conservative organization Turning Point
USA, publishes online the names of professors that it describes as advancing “a
radical agenda in lecture halls.” Two Arizona legislators introduce a bill that
would prohibit state institutions from offering any class or activity that promotes
“division, resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political
affiliation, social class or other class of people.” The bill failed, but it is a sign of
the times. (Arizona has already banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades
K-12.) In Arkansas, a bill seeks to prohibit any writing by or about Howard Zinn
from school curricula. In Iowa, a state senator introduced a bill to use politicalparty
affiliation as a test for faculty appointments: “A person shall not be hired as
a … member of the faculty … if the person’s political party affiliation … would
cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten
percent the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other political party.” The
Anti-Defamation League notes that since January, white supremacists have
stepped up recruiting on campuses in more than 30 states. Anti-Semitic and antiMuslim
leaflets have caused concern, but also — as in the case of speeches by the
likes of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos — they have raised the question
of what counts as free speech.
These days, free speech is the mantra of the right, its weapon in the new culture
war. The invocation of free speech has collapsed an important distinction
between the First Amendment right of free speech that we all enjoy and the
principle of academic freedom that refers to teachers and the knowledge they
produce and convey. The right’s reference to free speech sweeps away the
guarantees of academic freedom, dismissing as so many violations of the
Constitution the thoughtful, critical articulation of ideas; the demonstration of
proof based on rigorous examination of evidence; the distinction between true
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and false, between careful and sloppy work; the exercise of reasoned judgment.
To the right, free speech means an entitlement to express one’s opinion, however
unfounded, however ungrounded, and it extends to every venue, every
The Goldwater Institute’s model legislation, the “Campus Free Speech Act,” has
been taken up in several states and by the National Association of Scholars. It
calls on professors to present both sides of an issue in the classroom in order to
protect students’ right of free speech. Professors, in this view, have the right to
regulate speech, provided that they do so in a “viewpoint- and content-neutral”
manner. In effect, students are allowed to say anything they want, removing
intellectual authority from the professor. Here is the vice president of the College
Republicans at the University of Tennessee supporting a bill to protect student
free speech: “Students are often intimidated by the academic elite in the
classroom. Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch
professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.” The
National Association of Scholars has proposed new ways to evaluate the
“academic elite.” Among its recommendations is the elimination of peer review
and its replacement by experts “who are of genuinely independent minds.” It’s
hard not to see in these recommendations a more veiled version of the politicalparty
test proposed in Iowa.
here’s a kind of blood lust evident in those charges, an attempt to rein in
serious intellectual work, critical thinking, scientific inquiry. I don’t
want to deny the existence of real problems on our campuses: the
moralism that is apparent in some courses and some student activism,
the calls for trigger warnings, the insistence on the authority of their experiences
by those whose minority status has silenced or marginalized them, and who look
to “safe spaces” as a way to gain traction in an otherwise hostile or neglectful
environment or erupt in protests that are sometimes ill-considered violations of
the rights they need to respect and protect. But none of that explains the ferocity
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of the anti-intellectualism we are witnessing, the desire to impugn our motives
and disparage our work, to do away with what power academics are supposed to
If Tony’s reference to the unleashed id is right, we are the superego who would
spoil the fun. We keep asking questions, they already have their answers. We have
to be silenced if they are to enjoy their power to its fullest — because that power
depends on reversing advances in equality and undermining the institutions of
democracy: the Constitution, the citizenry, the courts, and the schools. Those are
the institutions that, arguably, provide the ground rules for the conflict and
diversity that are the permanent condition of the republic.
That may be why freedom is the principle invoked so forcefully on the right these
days — freedom in the sense of the absence of any restraint. From this
perspective, the bad boys can say anything they want, however vile and hateful.
The worse the better, for it confirms their masculine prowess, their ability to
subvert the presumed moralism of those they designate “eggheads” and
“snowflakes” — female-identified prudes who, in a certain stereotypical
rendering of mothers, wives, and girlfriends, are the killjoys who seek to rein in
the aggressive, unfettered sexuality that is the mark of manly power.
Intellectuals, liberals, and progressives (the terms are often taken to be
synonymous) are portrayed as the enemies of freedom. “Inside every progressive
is a totalitarian screaming to get out,” warns David Horowitz, who has been on
the front lines of the anti-intellectual movement for years. The strategy of the
extreme right these days is to provoke situations that can be used to demonstrate
Horowitz’s claim. By collapsing the distinction between free speech and
academic freedom, the right denies the authority of knowledge and of the
professor who purveys it.
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Danielle Allen, a university professor at Harvard, fell right into their trap when
she compared Charles Murray’s experience at Middlebury College in March with
that of the Little Rock Nine, the black high-school students in Arkansas who had
to be protected from violent crowds by the National Guard as they sought to
integrate Central High School in 1957. In a column for The Washington Post,
Allen rendered the proponent of racist false science as a defender of “the
intellectual life of democracies.” Like the Little Rock Nine, who defied racists and
“tried, simply, to go to school,” she concludes, “Murray and his hosts were also
trying, simply, to keep school open. In this moment, they, too, were heroes.”
What happened at Middlebury was not about “the intellectual life of
democracies” — that goes on in classrooms and forums where tests of truth and
evidence apply. It was about the violation of an individual’s right of free speech,
in which no such standards are applied.
The confusion between these two — between academic freedom and free speech
— is also evident in the statement issued by the unlikely duo of Cornel West and
Robert P. George. Insisting on the importance of respecting free speech, they
concede what should be refused: the conflation between an individual’s right to
express his opinions, and criticism — lack of respect, even — of the opinions
themselves. They assume a necessary parity between different sides of debates
about discrimination, equality, and justice, as well as about what counts as
scientific evidence and about the validity of certain forms of political protest. The
authority of knowledge is denied in their call for neutrality, as is the unequal
distribution of social power; it is as if everything is of the same quality in the
marketplace of ideas.
Free speech makes no distinctions as to quality; academic freedom does. Are all
opinions equally valid in a university classroom? Are professors being
“ideological” when they refuse to accept the Bible as scientific evidence? What,
then, becomes of certified professorial expertise? Does the university have a
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responsibility to uphold standards of truth-seeking outside the classroom as well
as inside it? When does an invitation imply endorsement of a speaker’s views? Is
the exchange of ideas really impeded by passionate debate, even angry
exclamations? Should the right of free speech be restricted to polite and civil
exposition? Is righteous anger unreasonable in the face of racial, economic,
religious, or sexual discrimination? Is there really no difference between the
structures of discrimination experienced by African-Americans and the criticism
of those structures? Does “all lives matter” carry the same critical commentary as
“black lives matter?” What does it mean historically for those groups
marginalized by or excluded from majority conversations and institutions to
protest their treatment?
The students participating in the sit-ins that launched the civil-rights movement
were deemed “uncivil” by their segregationist critics. Sometimes it requires
extraordinary actions to make one’s voice heard in a conversation that routinely
ignores it. Incivility, even today, is most often a charge made against protesters
on the left, while the hate speech of those on the right looks for — and finds —
protection in the right of free speech.
lthough there are differences between the reaction to student protest
and the more general defamation of the life of the mind that takes aim
at faculty members, there are also connections between them. These
have to do with the status of criticism or critique in the national
conversation. It was in defense of the university’s role as the crucible of critique
that the doctrine of academic freedom was formulated in the United States over a
century ago. When John Dewey and his colleagues founded the American
Association of University Professors, in 1915, they articulated a vision of academe
that was at once immune to powerful economic and political interests and also
promised to serve those interests, however indirectly, by producing new
knowledge “for the common good.”
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The university was defined as “an inviolable refuge from [the] tyranny of [public
opinion] … an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate
and where their fruit, though distasteful to the community as a whole, may be
allowed to ripen.” Scientific and social progress depended on the nonconformity
that is protected, indeed fostered, by the university. The well-being of the place
came from its ability to support critical thinkers, those who would challenge
prevailing orthodoxy and stir students to think differently, to become “more selfcritical,”
hence more likely to bring about change. The role of professors was to
be, in the words of one university president, “a contagious center of intellectual
enthusiasm.” He went on: “It is better for students to think about heresies than
not to think at all; better for them to climb new trails and stumble over error if
need be, than to ride forever in upholstered ease on the overcrowded highway.”
The century-old notion of academic freedom insists on the expertise of scholars
and the importance of that expertise for advancing “the common good.” That
principle is full of so-called elitist implications. It views the faculty as capable of
inspiring, inculcating, and judging students’ mastery of subjects being taught.
Students’ free speech is appropriately limited in the classroom, subject to the
disciplinary tutelage of the professor in charge — a professor who has been
subjected to and certified by a disciplined formation of his or her own. This does
not mean silent acquiescence in the face of indoctrination — far from it. It does
mean learning how to evaluate things critically, how to question orthodoxy and
challenge it from a position of knowledge rather than one of unexamined belief.
This training in the rigors of critical thought is not without its difficulties, and it is
more often characterized by strong differences and contentious argument than
by consensus. But that is what makes it the preparation required for the exercise
— inside and outside the classroom — of free speech. Academic freedom — the
right of professors to teach as they choose, without outside interference — is the
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key to the exercise of free speech: not as an expression of the unruly id, but as a
voice given to reasoned argument. That voice can be angry, insistent,
condemnatory; there is no contradiction between reason and outrage.
That is why exhorting students to respect the ideas of individuals with whom they
disagree is not the solution to their purported misbehavior: We can respect the
right of free speech without having to respect the ideas being uttered. Critical
thinking is precisely not a program of neutrality, not tolerance of all opinion, not
an endorsement of the idea that anything goes. It is about how one brings
knowledge to bear on criticism; it is a procedure, a method that shapes and
That kind of critical thinking has been discouraged in university classrooms in
recent years; it has been severely compromised as the mission of the university,
replaced by an emphasis on vocational preparation, on the comfort and security
of students, on the avoidance of controversy lest students, parents, trustees,
legislators, and donors find offense. Its absence in the university curriculum has
produced some of the problems we now face.
This is the result of the introduction into university management of a corporate
mentality — one that defines students as clients (paying customers) and that
measures the value of a university education in terms of the salary earned upon
graduation by its students. Administrators increasingly turn to risk consultants to
figure out how to avoid the costs of legal challenges from disaffected
“customers”; they bow to the demands of donors with political agendas (for
example, the enormous power of donors who support Israel’s current policies
and seek to prevent any criticism of them); and they accommodate (by necessity)
state and federal laws that may violate their mission.
Consider the warning to University of Houston faculty members in 2015, after the
passage of a law permitting concealed weapons on campus. If a class discussion
threatened to become heated, new guidelines suggested, it might be better to
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change the subject, to “not go there.” The problem is also evident in the tendency
of administrators to punish the extramural speech of left-wing faculty members
when it is attacked by right-wing bloggers. Students learn that the free expression
of ideas is not always protected; indeed, that silence is a wiser choice. The
university as a place for critical thinking, for difficult dialogue and frank, open
debate, has been damaged.
The lack of training in critical thinking extends beyond subject matter in courses
to strategic planning for political action. If students haven’t learned how to
analyze texts and historical arguments, they won’t be able to bring critical
thinking to political engagements; they will tend to act more impulsively, venting
their rage rather than directing it to considered strategic ends. They will
underestimate the power of the opposition to discredit their aims along with their
actions. They will end up as the bad guys, while Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard
Spencer bask in their First Amendment martyrdom.
It’s unfashionable to look to the past for answers to the present; unrealistic not to
accept the corporate neoliberal university as a fait accompli. But there is value in
conserving the principles that inaugurated our democracy and that informed the
founding missions of the colleges and universities of this country. If the
production of knowledge was understood to be vital to the progress of the nation,
then intellectualism is our best answer to anti-intellectualism. Not the watering
down of ideas or the search for popular consensus, not the notion that all ideas
are worthy of respect, but the more difficult task of honing our critical
capabilities, cultivating them in our students, and insisting on their value even in
the face of ridicule, harassment, and repression.
In 1954, Leslie Fiedler described McCarthyism as a “psychological disorder
compounded of the sour dregs of populism [and] the fear of excellence,
difference and culture.” It’s time, I think, to reassert the authority of knowledge in
the face of the Trump administration’s attempt to elevate mediocrity to a heroic
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virtue. The pursuit of knowledge is not an elitist activity, but a practice vital for
the exercise of democracy and the promotion of the common good. Those values
— knowledge, democracy, the common good — are worth reasserting, despite
their corruption and neglect. The university was once considered the crucible of
those values; its mission has been diminished over the course of the past 20 or 30
years. Still, we have no choice but to hold on to that vision and to find ways to
reanimate it, so that it can inspire our thinking in the difficult days that lie ahead.
Joan W. Scott is a professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study, in
Princeton, N.J. This essay is adapted from an address she delivered at the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the occasion of being awarded the
Talcott Parsons Prize.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2018 issue.
Copyright © 2018 The Chronicle of Higher Education
How the Right Weaponized Free Speech – The Chronicle of Higher Education Page 12 of 12
Associate Professor in International
Development Studies, Dalhousie University
Academic rigor, journalistic flair
New technology can have profound impacts on society in ways never intended.
The radio carried codes during the First World War, but later became a household fixture.
Early telephones were leased in pairs but after Western Union, a telegraph company,
adopted “exchanges,” it led to rapid long-distance communication. Likewise, mobile
phones have evolved from bulky “walkie-talkies” to small supercomputers.
And now Facebook, originally a connection platform for university students, conjoins one
in four people. But today, in Myanmar, Facebook is helping fuel a genocide against the
Rohingya Muslim women who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh stretch their arms out to collect aid distributed by relief agencies in this September 2017
photo. A campaign of killings, rape and arson attacks by security forces and Buddhist-aligned mobs have sent more than 850,000 of the country’s 1.3
million Rohingya fleeing. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)
January 2, 2018 6.04pm EST
Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the
Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide Page 1 of 4
Researcher, Dalhousie University Based on our research in Myanmar and in Cuba, we argue that internet usage in Myanmar
is dangerous. Unbridled connection to Facebook creates what we call a “virtual coercive,” a
digital space that bolsters coercion. We suggest that Cuba’s internet model may provide
lessons to manage social media amid political chaos.
The utility of inventions can be unpredictable, and so too can the social impacts be catastrophic.
Distracted driving is an unforeseen consequence of mobile phones that kills or maims thousands each
year. Dealing with distracted driving involves better driver education, curbing usage behind the wheel
and penalties for stupidity.
Radio enabled unimaginable horrors during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
‘Blood on hands’
But in conditions of genocide, can a technology like radio be limited or restricted? It’s an essential
service, but with blood on its hands. That’s a burden Facebook now shares.
In 2010, Myanmar had 130,000 heavily restricted internet users. In seven years, SIM card prices
plunged from more than US$3,000 to $1. The government also relaxed censorship laws, allowing
Facebook to attract 30 million Burmese users. Many of them view Facebook as the internet.
Beginning in late August, Burmese security forces pursued a scorched-earth campaign against the
Rohingya. Some 6,700 were killed and 645,000 were forced to to seek refuge in Bangladesh.
Along with ultra-nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu, a host of Facebook pages spread hate speech. This
vitriolic propaganda further vilifies the already marginalized and much-maligned Rohingya.
Anti-Rohingya content includes explicitly racist political cartoons, falsified
images and staged news reports. This content goes viral, normalizing
hate speech and shaping public perception. Violence against Rohingya
people is increasingly welcomed, and then celebrated online. This virtual
coercive serves the Myanmar military’s interests.
The military junta’s monopoly on information has provided little arena
to foster media literacy. Such propaganda in this virtual coercive of antiRohingya
propaganda preys upon the ill-informed. For many, the misinformation
spread through Facebook justifies what the United Nations
has dubbed a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.
Myanmar’s radical Buddhist monk, the anti-Muslim Ashin
Wirathu, is seen here in Sri Lanka in 2014. (AP Photo/Eranga
Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide Page 2 of 4
Myanmar citizens now have unbridled access to low-cost internet on their mobile devices. Freedom of
speech advocates will laud this. But this open information pipeline reinforces Facebook’s dark side of
self-reaffirmation with limited perspective.
This is to the Burmese military’s advantage. Just as radio fuelled genocide in the 1990s, Facebook is
making it happen in Myanmar today.
Fiction becomes reality
Facebook’s virtual coercive is one of division, competing realities and a lack of mutual acceptance. In
Facebook’s virtual coercive, fiction is reality and lies can validate.
Considering this, we argue that constant Facebook use in Myanmar is too risky to ignore. Societies
require spaces for tolerance of differing ideas, trade, negotiation, volunteerism and face-to-face
dynamics. This is lacking in Myanmar.
Cuba may be an important example in this discussion.
The nature of internet access in Cuba has not led to the abusive coercion or divisive politics. Protests
through social media that are common in other parts of the world do not exist in Cuba.
Internet in Cuba is, simply put, expensive. Spending US$3 for an hour of WiFi in internet parks is
about 10 per cent of a Cuban’s monthly earnings. With only limited time to be online, Facebook’s
bandwidth-clogging bulk makes it unpopular in Cuba. Instead, other SMS and chat apps such as IMO,
a direct video chat service, is preferred.
Cubans access internet in small doses
Cuba has only limited capacity to monitor its internet traffic, and the government worries about
And so Facebook cannot be accessed during working hours in most government and university
settings in Cuba. It creates a disincentive to rely on Facebook for news and connections.
Cubans surf the net in small doses and often in public spaces. This breaks the virtual coercive through
The shortcomings of Cuba’s model are obvious given it creates a barrier to information. Free-speech
advocates will be quick to dismiss the idea of limiting the time spent online, never mind the dangers
of a state having the responsibility to curtail social media.
Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide Page 3 of 4
Facebook Social media Refugees Hate media Burma Myanmar Genocide Cuba Bangladesh Propaganda
Hate speech Rohingya Cyberhate Misinformation Fake news Hate Social media misuse disinformation
But is unbridled access to Facebook really a pillar of free speech if the platform can be harnessed for
the purpose of eliminating an entire population?
It’s time to entertain disconnecting from the virtual coercive in order to engage in real space. Maybe
in this way, Facebook’s dark side can be kept at bay while still serving its original purpose of
connecting people and enriching, not destroying, lives.
Unliked: How Facebook is playing a part in the Rohingya genocide Page 4 of 4
Image: Chloe Fox
When it comes to responding to the fallout of the gig economy, the European Union is leaving the United States in the dust.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, in an effort to bring more transparency and predictability to workers in the gig economy, the
European Commission adopted labor reforms that will set minimum standards and will apply to all workers. The Commission contends
that radical labor market changes have made it necessary to balance the flexibility offered by new, non-standard work opportunities with the
economic security accompanied by more traditional forms of employment.
It is the gig economy’s self-conception as a welfare program that has protected platforms from
But the Commission stressed that its policies will go beyond simply ensuring basic rights for workers. By creating a universal set of standards
for all workers, it argued, the proposal will help both employers and countries by reducing “the risk of competition based on undercutting
social standards.” Such competition and deteriorating social standards, after all, have harmful consequences for employers “who are subject
to unsustainable competitive pressure and for Member States, who forego tax revenue and social security contributions.”
The Commission’s clarity of thinking and its holistic view of the labor market stands in stark contrast to the United States, where the current
gig economy labor arrangements have proceeded largely without government regulation or intervention. Why the difference? Plenty have
acknowledged the troubling trends and “disruptive” qualities of the gig economy, and yet U.S. policymakers have, by and large, failed to offer
any response. Our inaction can be explained, in part, by the effective spread of a false narrative—one that suggests that the gig economy itself
is providing a social service.
Back in 2015, for instance, Seattle’s City Council considered a measure that would allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize despite their status
as independent contractors, thus ensuring them the right to bargain for minimum wage and benefits.
CLASS & INEQUALITY
The Gig Economy’s Great Delusion CLARA HENDRICKSON
The Gig Economy’s Great Delusion | Boston Review Page 1 of 5
As the ordinance’s sponsor, Councilmember Mike O’Brien, said, “We’re trying to balance the playing field. We have this multibillion-dollar
company trying to monopolize the taxi industry around the world, and then we have drivers making less than minimum wage.”
But Uber, the multibillion-dollar ride-hailing company in question, wasn’t going to let this happen without a fight. In the days leading up to
the vote, Uber sent David Plouffe to the city to register his opposition to the effort. The former advisor to Barack Obama was one year into his
new role as a paid strategist for the company, and his goal in Seattle was to show how an ordinance extending collective-bargaining
protections to independent contractors was, as he saw it, counter-productive to helping Uber drivers. In his pitch, he harkened back to the
recession, asking people to remember just how precarious the economy still was.
The state is forced to subsidize gig economy employers by providing the kinds of benefits a
traditional company ordinarily would.
“We’ve lived through a period where, even as the economy recovers, most people say they don’t have enough money,” he told The Seattle
Times. “How people are using the Uber platform now is . . . to provide a bridge when they may lose their job or get their hours cut.”
Uber, Plouffe suggested, serves to buffer its drivers against the uncertainties of the macroeconomic climate, providing a source of stability to
assuage economic anxiety. Though the city ordinance passed, Uber has spent the past two years reiterating this argument and fighting the
Seattle ordinance in court. That battle is being watched on the national level, perhaps most closely by other platforms in the “gig economy”
who have likewise marketed themselves as creating a new kind of social safety net. Indeed, it is the gig economy’s self-conception as a welfare
program that has perhaps done the most to protect platforms from greater regulatory scrutiny.
Besides claiming to alleviate the effects of economic displacement, these platforms have also positioned themselves as a response to the
failures of the modern economy to deliver material progress to its citizens. When asked why he chose the sharing economy over traditional
policy solutions, for example, Chris Lehane, a former Clinton Administration strategist who now serves as Airbnb’s head of policy, answered
by bemoaning the country’s insufficient social safety net: “The social safety net wasn’t providing the support that it had been. I do think we’re
in a time period when liberal democracy is sick.”
The gig economy, executives such as Lehane and Plouffe argue, protects Americans from the failures of the labor market at a time when
Washington can’t. It offers itself as a pragmatic path for economic mobility. According to Airbnb itself, the home-sharing service is a “new
resource for the middle class,” while Lehane argues that the platform is “democratizing capitalism.” Stacy Brown-Philpot, the CEO of
TaskRabbit, says her favorite “tasker” is a “homeless woman who got back on her feet by tasking.” Uber, Plouffe argued, “can quite literally
help transport people out of poverty,” all while saving “the government money in terms of benefits.”
But is it fair for the gig economy to see itself as a substitute for the social safety net?
The promise to enhance the economic wellbeing of its freelancers undergirds the gig economy, but how these platforms operate in practice
challenges the legitimacy of its welfare vision. Indeed, while the gig economy has positioned itself as a substitute for welfare—a kind of public
good in and of itself—it has actually served as a substitute for traditional work, with the state subsidizing gig economy employers by providing
the kinds of benefits a traditional company ordinarily would.
The first gig economy delusion we need to clarify is that these platforms offer temporary work to help bridge gaps in employment. In reality,
many gig economy platforms tend to encourage full-time work, not the empowering, flexible part time arrangement they so often claim.
While sharing economy platforms promise freelancers they can earn income on their own terms, evidence shows that to enjoy this promised
economic security, freelancers often have to labor under conditions that mirror those of full-time employment. For instance, an analysis of
Uber earnings data suggests that average hourly earnings only become reliable for those who work over thirty hours a week while the
earnings are typically erratic for those who drive part time. Not to mention Uber, Lyft, and Postmates incorporate psychological tricks into
their apps, like those used by video game designers, to keep their drivers on the road longer.
Freelancing in the gig economy is thus not just a safety net for those in between jobs or those looking to “get back on their feet.” In reality, it is
often a full-time job. Yet because these companies assert they’ve created a safety net rather than a labor market, they’ve successfully justified
abnegating their responsibility as employers. Given their status as independent contractors, gig economy workers are denied the benefits,
such as health care and paid time off, usually enjoyed by workers in traditional arrangements.
The Gig Economy’s Great Delusion | Boston Review Page 2 of 5
Welfare dependency is not the result of individual laziness. Instead, it is today’s employers who
are too negligent to ensure the economic wellbeing of their workers.
The second delusion we must address is that these platforms offer a path forward for a more equitable and inclusive economy. Airbnb calls
itself “an economic lifeline” and often boasts about the economic opportunities it has opened up to ethnic minorities. Similarly, Lukas
Biewald, the CEO of CrowdFlower, argues that the crowdsourcing industry is “bringing opportunities to people who never would have had
them before.” Anyone “who wants to can do microtasks,” Biewald says, “no matter their gender, nationality, or socio-economic status, and
can do so in a way that is entirely of their choosing and unique to them.”
Such inspiring and hopeful talk is common among the platforms, but it represents a willful ignorance on the part of their executives who have
not only denied their freelance workforce benefits but excluded them from the byproducts of corporate success. As economist Robert Solow
notes, the “casualization” of work means that many of today’s worker “have little identification with the firm,” and thus “correspondingly
little bargaining power.” As a result, these workers “have little or no effective claim to the rent component of any firm’s value added.” This
reality stands in stark contrast to the empowering message of economic inclusion delivered by gig economy platform executives.
Moreover, though they are often advertised as opportunities for economically excluded communities to build wealth, there is emerging
evidence that these platforms enable a regressive wealth distribution. Wealthy Airbnb hosts, for example, typically spend extra money on
cleaning and booking logistics services that are specifically designed to boost hosts’ ratings and attract more guests. The platform often ends
up advantaging hosts who reside in wealthy, urban hubs even while the platform boasts it is building wealth in underserved communities. As
New Yorker staff writer Nathan Heller keenly observes, the platform is “helping divert traditional service-worker earnings into more
The rapid spread of contingent employment makes these trends particularly alarming. While Plouffe remarked, “I don’t think you’re
necessarily going to see the world or America turn into a nation of freelancers,” recent metro-by-metro data reveal platform freelancing
might soon displace payroll employment.
The gig economy’s promise to serve as a better poverty-alleviating scheme than any coming out
of Washington has only underscored the urgent need for public action.
This doesn’t bode well for the government services left to pick up the slack. The precarious nature of gigging means that platform workers,
more than their regularly employed counterparts, often have to turn to the state for assistance. As Politico recently illustrated in the piece
“The Real Future of Work,” the gig economy is just a small slice of a workforce increasingly subjected to contingent work arrangements. This
surge in alternative work arrangements, which began in earnest in the 1990s, has been termed labor market “fissuring” and includes workers
who are on-call, subcontracted, or independent contractors. These contingent workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found, earn lower
incomes, receive fewer benefits, and rely much more on public assistance compared to workers in standard work arrangements. If Clinton-era
welfare reform was premised on the idea of moving able-bodied citizens off the welfare rolls and into work, the gig economy demonstrates the
breakdown of this vision in the twenty-first century platform economy. Today’s gig economy workers are often reliant on state assistance even
though they are already working hard. A Lyft blog post even praised a driver who was shuttling passengers when she was nine months
pregnant and went into labor.
Regardless of how often and how hard freelancers must work to reap to benefits of the gig economy, an evaluation of the platform economy as
a safety net often fails on its own terms. Indeed, today’s reality does not confirm that welfare dependency is the result of individual laziness.
Instead, it is today’s employers who are too negligent to ensure the economic wellbeing of their workers.
Obviously the status quo is not sustainable. Other countries have already established or are working towards remedies to address the needs of
gig economy workers. A group of UK Members of Parliament have offered draft legislation that would extend rights to minimum wage and
paid time off to workers in the gig economy. Canada already classifies gig economy workers as “dependent contractors,” which allows
freelancers to continue to work flexibly while still enjoying the benefits traditionally offered to regular employees. The European
Commission’s recently issued Directive, if implemented, would extend protection to 2-3 million workers currently excluded from the
protections outlined in existing legislation.
The United States is notably behind in implementing its own solution. In fact, the recently passed Republican tax law, which will allow
independent contractors to claim a 20 percent deduction on their earnings, may exacerbate the problem by further incentivizing firms to
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classify workers as independent contractors. But a few promising proposals remain on the table. One option, such as the one recently put
forward by Virginia Senator Mark Warner, seeks to disentangle benefits from work. “Portable benefits” schemes would make platform
companies contribute to worker accounts with funds set aside for Social Security, Medicare, injured workers’ compensation, health care, and
paid time off. Other proposals are more straightforward, such as Paul Secunda’s argument that independent contractors should simply be
reclassified as regular employees.
Whatever the solution, policy should step in, forcing gig economy companies to take more responsibility for their workers. If it doesn’t, the
government will continue to foot the bill for corporate laziness. And therein lies the irony of the gig economy’s self-delusion: its promise to
serve as a better poverty-alleviating scheme than any coming out of Washington has only underscored the urgent need for public action.
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