The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.

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