Been tryin’ hard not to get in trouble, but I’ve got class war in my mind: Riding for Deliveroo

Riding for Deliveroo
Callum Cant
Polity Books, 2019
ISBN: 9781509535514

In November, Deliveroo and UberEats couriers in Sheffield went out on strike, the latest instalment in an unpredictable series of flare-ups and disputes that have broken out in the industry over the last few years. But where does this militancy come from? Callum Cant’s recent book, Riding for Deliveroo, is an excellent starting point for anyone who’d like to gain a better understanding of the ongoing class struggle among delivery workers.

It could be said that books analysing contemporary British capitalism through a deep exploration of the daily routine in specific jobs are like buses, you can wait for ages for one and then two come along at once. Like the recent Angry Workers book, Class Power on Zero Hours, Cant’s approach is heavily informed by the insights of Italian workerist/autonomist Marxism, with its focus on workers’ self-organisation and activity. As Cant puts it: “When we are discussing a job, we’re also discussing a specific conflict. It’s a conflict between the strategies of resistance developed by the workers and the system of control developed by the boss… This back and forth between bosses and workers is the motor of capitalist development.”

In contrast to the heaviness of some academic Marxist texts (and, let’s be honest, some academic anarchist texts too), Riding for Deliveroo is a lively and easily accessible read – it certainly helps if you already know your class composition from your social reproduction, but Cant is careful to explain any unfamiliar jargon and the basic concepts he’s using.

While the heart of the book is a detailed examination of the experience of working for Deliveroo and the strikes and militancy that Brighton couriers engaged in during 2016-17, this book rounds out its relatively short length (around 180 pages) by considering a number of related issues, such as the way app-based gig economy platforms have broken with traditional management models, the impact of piecework pay rates, a history of how dockers and construction workers have managed to turn their own casual employment into a source of strength in the past, and a thought-provoking consideration of what Deliveroo means for its customers. As Cant memorably observes: “What Deliveroo is selling is the opportunity to take your inability to look after yourself due to exhaustion, stress, childcare, lack of facilities, skills, and time, etc., and reinterpret it as a luxury… You’re not exhausted, you’re enjoying a night in.”

One possible area of criticism comes towards the end of the book, where Cant examines a range of possible futures. His critiques of Deliveroo’s vision for fully automated luxury food delivery, and of the vague suggestions made by charitable Silicon Valley types about how the industry could be humanised, are sharp and welcome, but cynical readers may raise an eyebrow at some of Cant’s own suggestions for the future of the industry. The model he suggests of community food infrastructure under workers’ control may sound appealing, but the scattered references to things like “a renationalized Royal Mail” and “a high-wage apprentice system” sound less like parts of a revolutionary transformation of society, and more like items on a shopping list of demands for a fantasy Corbyn government.

Despite this reservation, Riding for Deliveroo is very clear overall that “speculations about platform expropriation under workers’ control remain completely utopian if they do not deal with the question of power… That kind of reorganization of society from the bottom up will only be possible if the working class overturn the dominance of their bosses through class struggle.”

Coming at the tail-end of a historical moment when so many well-intentioned socialists found themselves sucked further and further into the parliamentary swamp, Cant’s emphasis on the basic truth that “the balance of power on the streets matters more than the balance of power in parliament” is a welcome one.

Another area where more discussion would be welcome is the subject of hiring freezes as a demand. This issue was raised in the recent Sheffield couriers’ strike, and was also demanded by one of the Brighton strikes that the book covers. In Class Power on Zero Hours, the Angry Workers argued strongly against such demands, seeing them as a step towards the broader divisive logic of “immigrants taking our jobs”. But, of course, it’s one thing to make criticisms from the sidelines, and another thing entirely to persuade a mass meeting of couriers to change their demands, or indeed to force the bosses into changing their payment structure away from the piecework model that sets workers so directly against each other. Hopefully worker-organisers will be able to find some way forward here.

Overall, Riding for Deliveroo is solidly recommended for anyone wanting a better understanding of the recent couriers’ strikes, the conditions that led to them, the strategies of the bosses at the sharp end of capitalist development and a perspective on how those plans can be ruined. Hopefully, it might even provoke some readers to start writing up notes on their own jobs. To rephrase the method of workers’ inquiry after the model of that old punk diagram: “This is a day at your job. This is another. This is a third. Now write a book”.

~ Cautiously Pessimistic