In 1944, Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, reinvigorating free market thinking at a time when the state was on the march after years of economic depression. Peter Fleming’s Sugar Daddy Capitalism similarly argues that the Dark Ages are just around the corner, although not as a result of the state but, instead, because of the very free markets that Hayek argued would guarantee individual freedom.
Fleming unpicks the dark side of modern markets: the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and “uberisation”. He argues that capitalism has been “deformalized” – that the market now reaches all through our personal lives, including into our bedroom, whether we want to rent that bedroom out for a stranger to sleep in, or to borrow someone else’s in return for providing sexual services. The result, Fleming argues, is “flexploitation”, leading to the behaviour associated with the likes of Harvey Weinstein.
Hayek argued that the market helps to protect us from the whims of the state and society. It allows us to exchange with one another in an anonymous fashion – it caters to all tastes and lifestyles, even the most bohemian, as there is always a profit incentive to do so. The commune, by contrast, requires us to get along with one another: if we don’t conform, we are bullied, excluded and forced into the closet through fear and desperation. Markets provide an escape.
Yet Fleming notes that markets have not succeeded in defeating bullying, harassment and favouritism. When we become our own individualistic islands – when we have no power relative to employers who hold all the cards – we are inevitably vulnerable. We have to be whatever people want us to be in order to get the next “gig”: the next shift in the bar; the next acting role; or the next instructor slot at the local gym. Every hour of our day is devoured as we desperately try to get enough gigs to survive – in competition with an expanding number of fellow gig workers.
Fleming succeeds in highlighting today’s vulnerabilities, although it would be naive to suggest that the world would be a better place without the market. Individual exploitation was common in the Soviet system; the welfare state and trade union movement crystallised patriarchy; and societies that provide for themselves – such as traditional extended families – can restrict the freedom of individual members, particularly women. Bad apples exist in all economies. When we blame markets, we would at times do better to point to dangerous social norms.
Disposing of markets is, therefore, no panacea. The question is: What can be done? Fleming argues that this very question “is a trap”, although he does go on to offer some suggestions: universal basic income; outlawing sham self-employment and zero-hours contracts; growing the public sphere through greater regulation and “radical” bureaucracies; and alternative labour unions, such as the Independent Workers’ Union. Ultimately, however, his book is a call to cast aside the individual freedom agenda of neoclassical economics. To be honest, I’d rather keep the individual freedom bit but rebuild markets in a way that delivers more equitable and sustainable outcomes.
Victoria Bateman is a fellow in economics at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.
Sugar Daddy Capitalism: The Dark Side of the New Economy
By Peter Fleming
Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9781509528196 and 8202
Published 12 October 2018