Due to trade crises and labor shortages toward the end of the Roman Empire, large tract farms cultivated by slaves were converted to estates owned and managed by wealthy individuals and families. Tenant farmers whose status gradually became hereditary now provided the labor. Subsequently, the tenant farmers evolved to become a serf class (from the Latin servus, slave) tied to the land from whom manorial lords collected taxes and whose labor produced agricultural products, a system that survived through the Middle Ages. The Latin term feudum defined a landed estate, also characterizing an economic system.
Serfs were deemed people in the legal sense—though they had far fewer rights than free peasants (poor farmers of low social status). Serfs’ movements were constrained, their property rights were limited, and they owed rents of all sorts to their landlords. The Roman estate farms did not disappear, but the land changed hands and purposes. Landowners switched from growing grapes and olives for export to producing grain and animals for survival and for the landlord to engage in trade.
Serfs could earn a portion of the harvest of the demesne, the lord’s land, and paid an annual rent for the privilege. Excess of the serf’s share of the harvest might be sold or exchanged in a local market fair. The mores of the economy —where cultural or political intervention limited market prices or freedom of contract—was reinforced by religious teachings. Many estates in Europe were subject to the rule of monasteries or church authorities. Traces of this type of relationship have recently emerged in the United States, where Georgetown University, a Jesuit Catholic institution, and the Virginia Episcopal Seminary, have acknowledged ties to slave labor.
The feudal economy ultimately also led to artisan specializations, the growth of populous centers, and a desire for goods from far-off places. Those factors together would lead to the rise of guild economies, the Renaissance, and the colonial voyages of discovery. These developments were subsequently functionally disrupted by the burgeoning of the Industrial Revolution, as it sought wage labor to staff factories and construction of infrastructures to facilitate commercial trade.
Uber and Lyft are the prime examples of the illusion of the independent entrepreneur, self-managed, and able to choose when and where to perform work. The Catch-22 arises from the characterization of the status of such workers as independent contractors. The term itself is contradictory as the “contractor” portion implies conditions.
Enter the so-called gig economy (a term introduced by jazz musicians in the 1920s and short for “engagement”), promising economic freedom to all comers. The actual experience is, however, quite the contrary. Uber and Lyft are the prime examples of the illusion of the independent entrepreneur, self-managed, and able to choose when and where to perform work. The Catch-22 arises from the characterization of the status of such workers as independent contractors. The term itself is contradictory as the “contractor” portion implies conditions.
As a rule, independent contractors receive a Form 1099 from the IRS, which reports and records earnings paid by the contractor to the independent worker. According to an IRS report, 1099 filings rose only by one percentage point from 2016 to 2017. More telling is the fact that 1099 filings were largely from individuals with primary annual incomes from traditional occupations. Thus, the gig economy reflects the efforts of individuals to supplement primary sources of income rather than to fundamentally transform economic equality or distribution of wealth.
At most or best, such income supplementation may be described as “freelance,” meaning a less extensive relationship with supervisory or management personnel along with flexibility as to commitment of worker time. Platform-based freelance work, such as with Uber and Lyft, convert the time or labor of drivers into a commodity not unlike that of the serf. The companies themselves in security filings categorized drivers as customers along with other end users, i.e. riders. In this way, a greater share of economic risk is shifted onto the work force, improving the balance sheet. By categorizing drivers as independent contractors, companies seek to avoid unionization and reduce normal employee costs, such as payroll taxes and Social Security.
The gig economy in the mind of its corporate promoters was conceived as a novel evolution of capitalism, enabling participation by every individual. As it stands, it appears to be working to a degree of success for people seeking additional income but failing to create a vast entrepreneurial population. The estates that engaged the serfs are now replaced by platform estates using electronic applications to connect workers with other end users. Whether gig workers will be characterized as employees or independent contractors is being tested in several state legislatures across the country, attempting to determine the nature of the relationship between corporations and workers. As it stands, not unlike the lords of the demesnes, the overseer corporations have the upper hand and are enjoying the benefits of the labor of those in the streets and highways, hauling those who pay for the service.