Reviewed by Robert Ovetz
The ongoing global wave of wildcat strikes and protests by primarily precarious service and health care workers resisting dangerous working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic has made Callum Cant’s first book, Riding for Deliveroo, extremely urgent reading. Workers’ inquiries and class composition theory, such as found in Cant’s book, are being quickly rediscovered after nearly half of decade languishing in obscurity. Last wielded by Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, and Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia in Italy, Zerowork and the Johnson-Forest Tendency in the US until the 1950s to 1970s, Riding for Deliveroo is the latest critically important addition to the emerging field of workers’ inquiries. A founding editor of the online magazine Notes From Below, Cant has given us less a theory of class composition and workers’ inquiries and instead a militant workers’ ethnography of self-organized class struggle in a new rapidly expanding platform or ‘app’ work sector of capitalism.
Cant takes us along on his journey from his desk chair at his day job with the Student Union to the harrowing streets of Brighton, England when he signs on to deliver fast food for Deliveroo, inspired by a high profile 2017 strike by its London workers. Deliveroo riders provide their own bicycles or mopeds in a modern variation on what Karl Marx called the ‘putting out’ system in Capital, Volume I. Employers provide the capital and materials, and workers labor remotely with their own tools and are paid by the piece (67-69). Cant breaks down how Deliveroo manages its thousands of pieceworkers using its own data driven putting out system with exquisite detail. As with all other app-based work, the ‘black box’ app creates an authoritarian ‘algorithmic management’ system (13, 43-65, 85-6), as Cant calls it, that processes data on speed, efficiency and location, to drive workers’ intensity and productivity and alter the piece rates up- or downward to expand the supply of drivers and maximize profits.
In Riding for Deliveroo Cant shows with precision detailed class analysis how the labor is an example of precarious work. The company is constantly hiring workers who are pitted against one another to make ‘drops’ only to find that the harder they work the lower their piece rate. But to the company’s surprise these are not atomized disempowered workers who muddle through the best they can.
Cant isn’t content with only critically analyzing ‘platform capitalism’ but understanding how workers self-organize to disrupt it while circulating the disruption to other related sectors of the capitalist economy. Getting past the quirky British slang and idioms, the tendency to hyperbole – e.g. ‘explosions’ of striking Deliveroo workers (18 and 72) – and the over-simplistic, and sometimes wrong attempts to explain Marx’s analysis of capital, value, surplus value and work (1-4, 66), as well as the questionable idea that technology can be used for ‘human benefit rather than profit’ (13), Riding for Deliveroo offers great rewards. Cant has written a captivating and utterly honest ‘how to’ guide for carrying out a workers’ inquiry using social action militant co-research.
It’s not an exaggeration to say this easy-to-read workers’ inquiry is a page-turner. Cant fills the pages with vivid accounts of overcoming racial divisions, gaming the ‘black box’ algorithmic management strategy of the app and the harrowing details of zipping through traffic on the hilly rain soaked Brighton streets to make what comes out to be a sub-poverty level wage. These anecdotes keep you coming back to the book’s step by step process of Cant’s role in organizing and participating in two strikes of Deliveroo workers. Consciously avoiding dwelling on the terminology of class composition theory, Cant makes brief but effective passing references to just enough of the theory to contextualize the lessons learned when these workers decided to self-organize and fight the human and virtual boss.
Taking us through his analysis of the ‘technical composition’ of the app-based work, an exploration of the ‘social composition’ of the workers riding for the company, and the step by step actions to recompose the workers’ ‘political composition’, Cant identifies the difficulties, missteps, mistakes and opaqueness of trying to confront and resist a company that manages thousands of workers across the country remotely using automated virtual management strategies.
In his refreshingly honest portrayal of the ebb and flow of the organizing that led to the first strike in 2017, Cant explores how workers found ways to interact both off and online. He takes us through the detailed process by which the workers assessed what existing networks of what Romano Alquati called ‘invisible organization’ (130-133) among workers already existed and what further information, relationships and resources the workers would need to take collective action. Agile and flexible, these workers effectively identified the social composition of workers riding for the company, students who need part-time work to cover outrageously high tuition and rent, undocumented immigrant workers working 60+ hour weeks to support their families and the cultural, linguistic and gender divisions among them. This information about both the workers and how the company managed their labor using algorithmic-based management informed their tactics, strategy, organization and objectives.
In the process of finding one another in person between drops, they set up a Whatsapp chat to communicate and coordinate, visited organized Deliveroo workers in other cities, organized a branch of the IWGB union and organized in person effectively using old tech like a printed A4 newsletter. Each of these tactics inform their strategy of using a mobile strike tactic that leaves food rotting on counters and the streets of Brighton clogged with bikes and mopeds.
Ultimately, following their 2017 strike, which won a few modest changes to their pay rate, the company quickly adapted by shifting their pay structure to emphasize deliveries by moped rather than bike. While their fledgling union withered, the company cleverly adapted to use the app to weed out the primarily student bikers, who dominated the strike organizing and union, in favor of the mostly immigrant moped riders. The workers’ failure to fully recompose their power across race and legal status proved to be their weakness. Although Cant at this point began to move on from riding to focus on teaching, he soon learned that the moped riders soon after launched a new strike. The ebb and flow of class struggle continued. Paradoxically, this seems to contradict Cant’s backwards reading of Mario Tronti’s point that ‘the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working-class struggles’ (Tronti 1966). Cant rather inverts Tronti when he describes class composition theory as demonstrating ‘how shifts in the organization of work and society impact on the form of class conflict’ (9), or that the technical composition drives working class recomposition – the opposite of Tronti’s meaning.
If the strengths of Cant’s book give us much to celebrate, the weaknesses must also be acknowledged. One of the common pitfalls of those using the workers’ inquiry approach is that they tend to over emphasize the micro for the macro. In other words, carrying out such ‘inquiries from below’, the militant investigator is at risk of drowning in the narrow particularities of a single struggle and misses the shared lessons for circulating the struggle through the social factory. Granted, Cant is alert to the potential for such circulation to the many exploited office workers who design and tend the app, restaurant workers who cook the food and farm laborers who grow it (101-102 and 157-173). But all of this is like looking out the window of a moving train. He sees it at the very same time he is passing it by, swept along by the momentum of the struggle he is focused on.
This matters because ultimately the Deliveroo struggles are hardly ‘explosive’ as Cants repeatedly asserts. Hyperbole aside, this struggle is primarily focused on softening the blow of exploitation by raising wages and reducing the impact of the faceless totalitarian gaze of the app, no small feat to be sure. But even those are pyrrhic victories. The riders are back at work only to find the company has adapted its technical composition to find new ways to divide and conquer while their fledgling union dwindles and the Whatsapp organizing group goes silent.
It may be that Cant’s analysis of the risks and opportunities of precarious worker organizing is the greatest strength of Riding for Deliveroo. Inspired by the IWW’s principled refusal to sign contracts, Cant makes a convincing argument that is hard to counter: there is actually strength in precarity. As he insightfully observes, ‘precarity doesn’t necessarily make workers weaker or stronger’ (82). As Cant shows in chapter four, the term ‘precarious’ is traced back to its first use by Parliament in 1812 (73) and its emergence on the docks and the building trades in the mid twentieth century. Cant reminds us that precarity is hardly a new capitalist strategy used to break powerfully organized workers. Capital uses Fordist wage-productivity deals and new technology to give employers necessary breathing room to find a new technical composition of capital and decompose workers power.
Denied status as employees through now well-documented shenanigans and euphemisms of Deliveroo and other app-based companies that their workers are ‘contractors’, the drivers are not covered by labor law. Without a contract they are also not subject to discipline by a union. In Brighton, the Deliveroo workers demonstrated what I have called ‘no union, no rules’ (Ovetz 2020) to be a powerful weapon in the class war. While Deliveroo and other app-based companies’ business model is to do away with the employee-employer relationship, they have also lost the very tools of the state to regulate, manage, diffuse and suppress class struggle.
The US style libertarian ‘disruptors’ are now finding themselves disrupted. Since ‘all legal restrictions on strike action no longer applied’, Deliveroo workers no longer had to give notice that they would strike or even have a strike vote. While they were also not protected by a legal strike, the barriers and impediments to striking put there by capital and the state were swept away. ‘We could use workplace democracy in its most immediate form to decide our course of action.’ And like that, ‘suddenly, we began to understand how precarious conditions could be a source of strength’ (114-115). Workers, we have nothing to lose but our employment status.
We can adapt the concept so that it now reads ‘no union, no labor law, no rules.’ This may be the most important lesson in Riding for Deliveroo – that even the hyper precarious Deliveroo app workers ‘proved that they have the capacity to self-organize, form alliances, and fight back together’ (18). But to truly understand its existence and impact will require using class composition theory and workers’ inquiries, ‘the best chance we have of getting out of the mess of the twenty-first century in one piece’ (17).
15 April 2020
- 2020 Workers’ Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives London: Pluto Press
- 1966 Lenin in England Operai e Capitale Turin: Einaudi https://libcom.org/library/lenin-england