Tech Billionaires Are Coming for Workers
Paris Marx is joined by Wendy Liu to discuss what it was like to work in tech in the 2010s and why structural changes in the industry are empowering an increasingly reactionary capitalist class to strike back at workers and upend the expectations of the boom period.
Wendy Liu is a writer and the author of Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism. You can follow her on Twitter at @dellsystem.
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Paris Marx: Wendy, you were the first guest on Tech Won’t Save Us way back in April of 2020. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. But welcome back to the show!
Wendy Liu: Oh, my God, I can’t believe it’s been two and a half years. Wow! Thank you for having me back. What a pleasure to be back on the show. And I mean, in the meantime, obviously, Tech Won’t Save Us has been doing so well. Listenership has grown astronomically.
PM: There will be many more people listening to our conversation now than listened to way back in April of 2020!
WL: That is a lot of pressure. Okay, so I have to sound a lot smarter than I used to.
PM: I’m very sorry — no pressure. But it’s great to have you back on the show. I’m so sorry it’s taken so long, because you have so many great and insightful things to say about the tech industry, your book “Abolish Silicon Valley” was fantastic. And I think really kicked off and helped contribute to a really necessary conversation around Silicon Valley to challenge people to think even more critically about it than we had been at the time. And so I’m very happy to have you back on the show to talk about what we’ve been seeing with labor in Silicon Valley for a while. I know that this is a topic that you’ve been really engaged on, really following, really involved in for quite a while yourself. And so I think that there are a few different ways that I want to approach this. But first, because you wrote about your experience in Silicon Valley, working in the tech industry, in “Abolish Silicon Valley,” your time at Google — very short, I know — and then your time at a startup. And I know that you’ve worked some other kinds of tech jobs besides that. So I wonder, can you give us an idea, especially for people who don’t work in the tech industry, who listen to the show, what it was like in the 2010s to work in the tech industry — whether you were at a big tech company, or whether you were on the startup side of things, and really trying to launch something on your own? What was it like to work in the industry in that period?
WL: So the way I would answer that is I will say that I was trying, in the book, to capture not just my own experience, but also capture something that was in the air for people who were orbiting around Silicon Valley as this idea. And in the 2010s — so I worked at Google in 2013, I was an intern, and then I started a startup in 2014 — there was just this idea that things were mature enough that you could expect some degree of stability, and that you were pretty sure you were doing the right thing. But there was still this opportunity to make it big, to do something innovative, to be your own sort of hero. And I was definitely drawn in by that. A lot of people I’ve talked to who were active in that era felt the same thing. And it was a weird time. It was a very, very heady time; there was a lot of potential, but people could see that there was a backlash that was going to happen. And maybe the best way to describe the 2010s versus 2020s is that we’re living in firmly in the post backlash era.
No one can talk about tech these days without being aware and having to mention the criticism. You can’t just be like: This is a great company. You have to be like: Well, this is great company, but…Or you have to be entirely critical. And then just say: All of these companies are doing awful things. And I think that’s great. On the one hand, because when I was writing “Abolish Silicon Valley.” I remember I felt so nervous so many times because I felt like: Oh, everything I’m saying is so bold. It’s so radical. It’s so mean, and people are going to be mad at me. I just I was plagued by these feelings of fear that I would be ostracized and everyone would hate me — my friends, my acquaintances, everyone would be like: Wow, look at this weird radical! And now I read the book, and my criticisms were pretty mild. I could have been a lot harder, because the discourse has just shifted so much. And people have become much more aware of the criticisms. I think that’s great.
But still, there are times when I miss the sense of yearning, the sense of possibility, when I first was drawn in by the tech industry, and I think a lot of people had a similar feeling of this idea that you could have a degree in, I don’t know, say something technical, or even not something technical, but then go to work for one of these companies, and they would treat you really well. And you would make a lot of money. But more than that, you can work on something that was good for the world and would change the world. And so there’s this conflation of on the one hand, the money you can earn from working in these companies, which is part of it. But also, it wasn’t just the money. It was also this idea that you could use your skill set and work on something with smart people, build something that would be good for the world, and not bad for it. So you weren’t exploiting people — you were innovating!
PM: You weren’t going into the finance industry, and making derivatives and all this kind of stuff. You were working on technology that was going to transform the world, make things better in so many different ways.
WL: There was this feeling of an industry without a history — that it’s a thing without a shadow. There’s no sense that this industry is part of the worlds as it exists with all of its structures and history of exploitation. It feels like a totally new thing that can be made into whatever you want it to be. And I mean, by the 2010s, things had solidified to the point where there wasn’t that much room for new startups or anything. But still, definitely for me, I thought I could be a founder. I don’t have to just be a worker. I can be a worker, or I can also be a founder, and I can make a lot of money and make an impact as a founder. Whereas that possibility now it feels a little bit different. It feels like more people see themselves as part of the rank and file, because there isn’t as much opportunity. And if you do start a startup, either it dies, or it’ll get acquired by a bigger company. It’s harder to make an actual impact now. So the industry has changed, and people’s attitudes towards it have changed. And it feels a little bit more mercenary. People’s, like you were saying, expectations have been reset. I think it’s harder to see people viewing the industry with the same starry eyed, dreamy way of being like: Oh, this is going to change the world, it’s going to make the world better.
Instead, it’s like: Well, I might as well get a degree that will let me work at Microsoft or Apple or whatever, because then I can make some money to support my family. It feels like more this recognition that these companies are bigger, and they’re assembly lines, as opposed to these little R&D labs where you can just invent things and be a genius or whatever. A little bit of the glamor has faded, which I think is good, because I think it’s a more realistic vision. But also a little bit sad. For all my criticisms of the industry, I do think there’s something kind of beautiful and powerful about feeling like you’re in the proverbial garage. You’re inventing something, and you don’t know what it might be. But it’s new and exciting. And I mean, I think there was a time maybe like, last year or earlier this year when crypto felt like that for a lot of people. With anything involving Web3 people thought: Oh, this is the new thing — this is where the the new garages are. Now, I mean, after the crypto crash, it doesn’t seem like that is as much of a narrative that people are holding on to but who knows, we might see more of that in the near future.
PM: It’s almost interesting, especially when you talk about crypto, also how that demonstrates how this kind of vision has shifted. Say even from the early part of the 2010s, when you had the app boom, and the gig economy boom, and there was a startup boom that was associated with all of that, and how this kind of boom and excitement around crypto, and certainly there were some companies started around it. But really how, I think very early on, it was clear that this was less so about transforming the world in this very positive way. But the kind of criticism of it, and the very obvious problems with it were so apparent right from the beginning — that this was really this kind of speculative bubble, this attempt to really pull money from a lot of people and, sure, they were positive narratives around it. But it was really not like that kind of earlier period that we saw. You didn’t have this excitement around it in the same way. Certainly among some people you did, but like this kind of widespread vision that this was really transformative in the way that we thought about the tech industry and that boom in the aftermath of the recession in 2008.
It’s interesting to hear you describe that kind of moment in the tech industry and what it was like to work in it or to want to work in it because obviously, I was looking at it from the outside. And the narrative around the tech industry was very much that you go kind of get your degree or diploma in coding or computer science or whatever, you get one of these jobs. You’re kind of like set for life. You’re doing these really positive things. You get all these perks by working at these companies — it’s all positives. Why would you not be going into this industry? Why would you pursue something else when there’s all this opportunity in tech? And when this is really where all the growth is happening, where all the dynamism is? Why are you not heading in there? But then I think what your book also reveals, and what is obvious to anyone who’s really looking at the industry critically, is that there’s all this excitement, there are people making a lot of money, there are people feeling that they’re making these positive contributions. But then also, because there’s that kind of feeling that you’re doing something good in the world, it’s easy for these companies in this industry, and these venture capitalists to also take advantage of those people.
Sure, you get all these perks at your job, but you’re only going to get free dinner if you stay past a certain hour, put in those extra hours of work. If you come in early, you’ll get free breakfast, or what have you. And there are all these other perks available to kind of keep you at work to keep you working for so much longer, so that they can extract these extra hours of work out of you. And I also feel like the startup boom, was part of that as well. You had so many startups that were being acquired by these bigger companies, or were just failing over time. And then their IP or what they had been working on were kind of gobbled up by one of these bigger companies in the end, maybe at a discount. But in that moment where these founders or these workers were trying to build these companies, they were putting in a ton of hours, probably not getting properly compensated for all the time that they were putting in. There was also this way of these capitalists in the industry to really take advantage of labor or founders — whatever you want to call them — that I think maybe didn’t get the attention that it deserved in this moment where there was all this excitement.
WL: For sure, and I think there’s there’s something that money does that it just warps — there’s sort of a reality distortion field around that. And people think that being paid a lot of money, and getting nice perks, and being associated with the glamor of this industry is somehow more important than anything else. And I think what you’re saying about employees and founders having to work really long hours, there’s that. And there’s also the fact that they actually have no control over what they’re working on. Even as a founder, even as an early employee, you don’t actually have control. You think you do; you think you can choose what frameworks you usel you can choose theoretically, what products you build, maybe. The incentives or the end of the day are larger than you, are larger than your choices. You have to build what your investors are going to find. You have to build what your boss wants you to build. And so I think people were realizing that in a way that inspired them to start doing collective action. And that’s what we saw with Project Maven, for example, with these workers at Google, who said they do not want to build something that can be used by the US military. We saw that with a lot of other collective worker actions over the last few years.
And I think that’s something that a hidden secret of the tech industry — in any industry that produces a lot of money for certain employees — which is that all the money in the world is not enough. People realize that they want more than just to clock in and clock out or even go to their well-paid, highly regarded job and just to do what someone else tells them to do. They want some control over what they build, they want to build something that is aligned with their values, they want to contribute to the world in a way that they think is good for the world and not actually harmful. So I think these companies were really good for a while, and letting the money just shadow everything else and get people to not think about what they’re actually working on. And maybe even convince them that what they wanted to be working on was precisely that which they were working on. And money is great at that — it can do so many things if you let it, but only for a while. And then eventually people get to the point where they think like: Okay, I have all this money, I have theoretically a really nice life — the best that money can buy. And yet I’m kind of unhappy, and I feel kind of unfulfilled. And I have this vague feeling of doubt that what I’m working on is good for the world. And I think that people will get to the point eventually, because money is unfortunately not actually a substitute for, I don’t know, happiness.
So I think for me, that is a big part of the story of this industry: trying to use money to smooth everything over and bribing people with money and everything it can buy, in an attempt to get them to forget that they are human beings who want more from life than just to be told what to do and have like a vacation house in Tahoe in exchange or whatever. So then I think what’s worth remembering here is that this isn’t that new. And for anyone who’s lived through the Dotcom crash — the boom and bust cycle of the late 90s, early 2000s — this will seem very familiar. And so for people who haven’t lived through that, or aren’t that familiar with it, there’s a book I would recommend called “Down and Out in Silicon Valley” by Patricia and Mel Krantzler who are basically writing about their clients. So they’re psychologists. They worked with a lot of clients who were these high-performing, high-achieving engineers and other people in Silicon Valley, who had to live through this boom and bust cycle. And a lot of them lost their jobs and they also were realizing that they were making a lot of money, but they weren’t happy. There’s something that was missing.
And I think, reading this historical narrative of how people had to deal with an older cycle of boom and bust, which is not that dissimilar to what we’re going through now, I think it’s probably very helpful to anyone who is trying to place themselves into context, trying to understand what’s going on. This sort of thing has happened before, and it will probably happen again. And it’s nice to have a narrative of why these things happen, and what they do to the psychology of the people who are embedded in these industries. There are these patterns that reoccur for structural reasons. So I think I would highly recommend this book, “Down and Out in Silicon Valley.”
PM: I love that. And I think it relates to what you said before — how it felt like this was an industry that didn’t have a history, that didn’t have these connections to broader structures. But as we talked about before, as you talk about in your book, as I talked about with many people on this podcast, this is an industry that does have a history. And it’s a history that the people at the top of the industry don’t want us to know about, don’t want us to remember, because it reveals a lot about what they’re trying to sell us and what they’re trying to do. And the real harms that can come of that when we actually know the long history of this industry, where it comes from, what has happened in the past, and how things just keep repeating over and over again. But they don’t want us to recognize that. So I will have to check out that book as well. Thank you for the recommendation! I wonder then we talk about the history of this industry, the past 15 years or whatever what has been happening in the 2010s.
Obviously, we are seeing a shift. And we have been seeing a shift, I would argue for the past couple of years, since the pandemic, that certainly kicked some things off. There was a lot of excitement; there was a lot of hiring in some companies. But there was also the shift to remote work. There was attempts by Facebook to say: Okay, you’re going remote, but we’re going to cut your pay. There was a lot of companies who were saying: Okay, you’re going remote, but we’re going to implement new tools to surveil your workspaces and things like that, even though you’re remote. Uber cut engineering jobs, and then hired engineers in India as part of an effort to outsource more of that kind of work. So get it done for cheaper somewhere else in the world. So these things were already starting to happen. And now it feels like we’re moving in a direction where these companies and these founders, the CEOs are much more desiring to change the just kind of the basic structure of work in the tech industry and the expectations that workers have. So how do you think about what we’ve seen in the past couple of years? What are you observing about that?
WL: That’s a great question. So a couple of things. One is, I think it’s worth bringing up that Paul Graham tweet that we talked about earlier.
PM: Do you want me to read it out?
WL: Yes, please read it out.
PM: All right. So on December 6th, so quite recently, Paul Graham tweeted: “Automation is an inductive proof that Marx was wrong.” And then he followed it up a little while later with a tweet that read, “You still hear people saying that founders don’t deserve to be rich, because their employees created all the value. But the falsity of this claim becomes increasingly obvious as automation enables founders to grow companies with fewer and fewer employees.” So what do we make of that?
WL: Perfect — it’s wonderful. I think he really managed to distill the essence of this vibe shift that’s going on among the the billionaire class, the Executive Class, the capitalist class in the valley, because I don’t think this is something that he would have said 10 years ago. I think the vibe was different than that. Now, it’s important to have an ideological justification for why actually employees don’t really deserve that much of the value. Because 10 years ago, there was more of a sense that especially if you’re an early employee, you deserve something. You contributed your labor, you helped innovate, you help produce something, you deserve something and now it’s more like, well, maybe we can get away with giving them nothing. What if capital took even more and more of the credit? Obviously, just on the face of it, this tweet is a complete misreading of Marx, complete misunderstanding of history of what capital is and how that works. We don’t even need to go too much into that. But I think it is important because it captures something of this spirit, of this zeitgeist, of how the investor class is thinking and what they want to do to just claim more and more of the power.
PM: There’s been a clear radicalization of the VC and of the investor class. I spoke to Jacob Silverman about this recently. But it’s very clear in looking at a lot of these powerful people in the valley, that they’ve really gotten kind of tied up in this kind of right-wing reactionary, narrative ideology — whatever you want to call it — that is really popular right now. And that it’s important to say really serves them in trying to reframe how we think about the tech industry, how we think about the economy more broadly, how we think about the position of billionaires in society, very helpful for them to pick up on these narratives, to kind of push back against the power of workers, the other pressures that have been placed on them increasingly over the past decade or so. And they really desire to push back on this.
WL: For sure, and I think it’s we should see it as like a naked attempt by capital to consolidates power to get back more more of its power. And to take back even the the little scraps it was throwing at certain workers because there was a time when capital thought it needed to give people lavish salaries and treat them really, fairly well and give them all these little perks. And now it’s like: Oh, what if we don’t need that? And I think we see this shown so clearly in the Elon Musk buying and subsequent gutting of Twitter incident, and my theory for how we should see that is like, we should probably look at that the way labor historians now look at the air traffic controllers strike. And the way Reagan reacted to that, in essence, crushing the strike. Because as a lot of journalists are saying, CEOs and other people who have power in the industry are watching. They’re watching what happens. They’re like: Oh, that’s interesting. What if I did a little bit of laying people off and asking my employees to commit to being hardcore? What if I did that? That probably would be fine.
So, I think it’s important not just in the sense of like Elon Musk has taken a company a quite large company, and changed the employment status of a lot of employees, and created this culture of fear in the rest of them. But also, because what he’s doing will have effects on everyone else in the industry. And even if individual executives are not trying to emulate Elon Musk, they will probably be pressured by investors and others who are who are like: Why can’t you get rid of the, I don’t know, the SJWs or whatever at your company? Why can’t you just make your workers accept a pay cut or layoff all these other performers? That is something that in the future historians will be probably talking about in terms of like pre and post-Elon Musk buying Twitter? Not necessarily because it has that much of an impact on itself, because it was such a spectacle such an outsized cultural event, people all over the world were watching and were fascinated by it. The layoffs that we’ve seen recently, it seems like some of them are due to financial circumstances. Sure, there are definitely companies that are struggling. It doesn’t really feel like a lot of them are that way. It feels like a lot of the sentiment is more: Oh, everyone else is doing layoffs, I might as well do layoffs, too; I’ll cut my teams, I’ll cut my projects that I don’t want anymore; I’ll get rid of people who are on performance improvement plans; I’ll just like, trim the fat a little bit. So it feels like that is what’s happening.
And I’m not going to make predictions. I don’t know if what we’re seeing is something that is going to last for a while or just part of the normal boom and bust cycle. It’s sort of hard to tell if the golden ages of the 2010s were the norm or the exception. I think this is something that we can debate forever. And it’s really hard to know. We’re probably going to see more boom and bust cycles in the near future. It’s just hard to know what the magnitude will be. But I think it is probably pretty concerning for anyone who is about to enter the industry. Especially people who have degrees in STEM, and were planning on working at a tech company and maybe plan their whole resume so that they would be able to get a job at these companies. And then suddenly, they’re seeing that all these big companies have hiring freezes, the vibe feels different. It’s concerning as to whether they can even get a job. I think that is going to feel like a qualitative shift in the industry for a lot of people.
And as to whether that’s good — it’s kind of both good and bad in a sense. Because it’s good — we probably don’t need that many people going into the industry, at least in such an unconsidered way. It’d be nice if more people could do things other than work for Google or Meta. That’d be great. But also, it’s bad because, well, where else are they going to work? The economy is not actually set up to allow people to do something that is socially valuable most the time. It’s like you take your pick — you work for a company where you make a lot of money and do soul crushing work, or you work for a company where you make very little money, and maybe it’s also soul crushing work. So there aren’t a lot of great choices. So there’s no winners with this. Honestly, it’s pretty demoralizing.
PM: I think you’ve put it so well. And I think you’ve made so many great points there. Your point about the Twitter moment, that Twitter layoffs being a defining moment that we might look back on I think is really important. And I think you’re spot on with it, because even if it isn’t the most significant layoff, it’s one that really kind of signals a shift to a lot of other people in the industry that they are probably watching. And just to give some context for the listeners. I did some looking before we had this conversation. CrunchBase News estimates that so far in 2022, as of early December, more than 90,000 workers in the US tech sector have been laid off in mass job cuts so far. True-Up’s tech layoff tracker, that is more global estimates 1405 rounds of layoffs that have affected almost 220,000 workers up to the first week of December through 2022. So that’s a lot of people losing their jobs. We’ve seen Meta cut 11,000 jobs; Amazon is rumored to be cutting up to 20,000. In total, they’ve already cut 10,000 or so Twitter, and of course laid off in initial 30,750 then some more after that, who weren’t considered hardcore enough, plus 4400-5500 contract workers who also lost their jobs as a result. Those are people in various parts of the world who do content moderation and things like that on the platform. Stripe, 1100; Microsoft, 1000; Apple hiring freeze until late 2023.
As you say, a lot of these companies are not facing real financial challenges, real financial difficulty. Sure, they might have seen their share price drop a little bit. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not financially solvent businesses. It’s just that there’s this moment that they’re taking advantage of where they can lay a lot of people off. And I want to put this to you, because I think it aligns with what you were saying there. I was talking to a software engineer recently, I won’t name them because I didn’t check with them before we’ve recorded this about repeating what they said. But they were essentially telling me that in that kind of moment, in the 2010s, especially in the earlier part, there was a lot of demand for this kind of labor in the tech industry. And there was a shortage of the workers who could do this kind of work, because you didn’t have as many people coming out of the colleges and universities who are doing it. So the companies were really desiring to get as many of these workers as they could. And even companies like Google, were kind of over hiring to make sure that they had the workers that they needed, but also to deny their competitors access to the labor that they might need.
And now we’re entering this period where there’s been all this hype around the tech industry for the past decade, a lot more people have kind of gone into that pipeline, whether it’s university and college degrees, whether it’s kind of training, boot camps, coding, boot camps, all this kind of stuff to develop these skills. So the companies have a lot more access to labor, there’s a much larger pool of labor for them to draw from when they are trying to staff their companies. And so as a result, there’s a feeling that there doesn’t need to be as many perks, there doesn’t need to be as high of pay to attract all these people to the companies. And it’s a lot easier now to attack the workers, to lay off the workers, to cut the benefits, as we’re seeing in many of these companies, to cut the pay even because there are enough workers for them to draw from and continue drawing from. And so they don’t need to kind of hold on to as many workers as they did in the past. Do you think that kind of aligns with what you were seeing as well, and part of the shift that we’re seeing in the industry?
WL: For sure. To that point, it’s worth thinking about the materialist origins of any ideology. So if we look at the 2010s. Okay, there’s a lot of money to be made; a lot of companies are hiring; they’re throwing out a lot of money. There a lot of startups that raise a billion dollars, and then just crash and burn. But still, for some time, they have this money to pay to people. And in that material structure, the culture, the ideology that emerges will be one that’s sort of like meritocracy. So you have these people who believe that they’re making all this money, because they’re so smart; they’re so hardworking; they have the skills and no one else has, which is like—
PM: And this is something that you talked about in your book as well, something that you really believed, as you’re going through this.
WL: Mea culpa — this is something I definitely, and I’m not saying that that there’s no truth to that. I’m not saying that people in this industry are stupid. It’s more that it’s a very dangerous ideology, because it’s one that can justify a lot of really horrific things. And if unchecked, then it means the people in this industry will just tell themselves, like: Oh, I just make this much money, because I’m that much smarter than everyone else. And then they’ll look at the economic inequalities and the rest of the world and power imbalances. They’ll be like: Oh, that’s fine — that’s just normal. And so this sort of ideology is very, very good at justifying hierarchies that are anything but natural. And I’m curious what this decade will bring because the material conditions are definitely changing. And I don’t think that this meritocratic narrative is going to have as strong of a hold anymore, because there isn’t as much money being thrown at people. Maybe for certain people, maybe if you have 10 years of experience in the industry, and you’ve worked at Google or wherever, then you might still be able to make like a million dollars building something — something for the metaverse or whatever. There’s still some money.
PM: Really valuable work there [sarcastically].
WL: Really valuable — just like making legs for people in the metaverses [both laugh]. And I think that’s an increasingly small proportion of people who are going to be able to command the same kind of lavish salaries and perks that felt like more of the norm in the previous decade. And so I think for most people in the industry, and people who are about to join the industry, there’ll be this dawning sense of: Okay, well, the Gold Rush is a little bit over. And now this is the time for a new ideology to emerge. And I think what I’m scared — what I’m afraid of — is that this ideology will be one driven by these more revanchist elements, reactionary right wing elements, like: Oh, well, software engineers are just coddled or something, we need a fire everyone who is like a woman or something because they just aren’t hardcore. It’s the sort of ideology represented by Elon Musk and people like that. We all just need to work 80 hour weeks again, we’ll have to like build more hardcore products, something that’s obviously untethered from reality, but at the same time is are appealing to people who are feeling like the ground is shifting beneath them. What I would hope would dawn on people instead is the sense that, actually this meritocracy myth was always a lie, the amount of money you make, as a worker, in our current society has so little to do with your individual worth in any sense like it.
And we should probably just like not think of it that way at all. Just think of it in terms of you make how much someone thinks they need to pay you — for whatever reasons of their own — that have nothing to do with anything inherent in you, nothing to do with your innate value as a person. It’s all to do with what they need from you. And so maybe it’s because the company that you’re a part of makes a lot of money for reasons that have to do with the structure of the economy, and they need you because you have a skill set that is rare, or they just think you’re worth it, you know, maybe it’s nepotism or whatever it is, whatever reason has so little to do with you as a person, that it’s worth training yourself to ignore the conditioning by capital. Don’t think of it as any reflection of yourself. Think of it as in terms of: Okay, this is the amount of money the labor market deems me has been worth. That’s it. I’m not going to let it infest my sense of self. The thing that the industry does — the toll it takes on people — is that it does creep in, in this very insidious way into their sense of worth, and it warps their mind and makes them think: Well, if I don’t have a job where I’m making a lot of money, then am I really worth it as a person? Am I doing anything valuable?
I think that is a sense we have to kill that is something that just needs to die, because otherwise then it’s like capital wins. Capital has infested your brain and has you thinking in its terms, and we all deserve better than than that. As anyone who’s even vaguely critical of capitalism as a system should know, money does not flow to the right places. Money is not going to the right people; it’s not going to the right ventures. And therefore we need to detach our sense of self from how much money we make, and whether we’re employed by this lucrative industry. So that’s kind of my hope is that, in this moment of crisis, this crisis in the industry, in this moment of change, that an ideology will emerge that is more critical of the money in the industry. And more conscious of the fact that the money is not going towards anything meaningful. I probably sound like a broken record. But honestly, this is a message that we’re being told every day, every day by the rest of the world. And we have to remind ourselves, this is not a reflection of my worth as an individual. And even if I were to make a lot of money, I can’t let that affect my self esteem, I can’t let myself think: Oh, I’m a genius, because I can make like a million dollars at Facebook building legs for Mark Zuckerberg. That is going to break you. And that’s going to break your brain — it’s going to keep you trapped in this hedonic treadmill.
PM: I think it’s such an important point. Because especially when you think about these people who are entering this industry that has a unique kind of ability to quickly build a global kind of market for its product, so you can exploit a lot more customers very quickly. And that allows the company to make a lot more revenue to pay these employees in a way that might not be as easy to attain in other industries. And thus, they can’t kind of pay the kind of salaries that are expected in the tech industry. Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of people saying, as the news of these layoffs kind of increases that, you know, it’s probably a good time to have a skilled trade instead of having a computer science degree or something like that. Because there’s so much demand for infrastructure investment and stuff like that, especially as we’re responding to the climate crisis.
But on your point about the ideology — I think it’s so important. It really strikes me as something that is something that we need to be paying a lot of attention to in this moment. You talk about the ideology of meritocracy that was very kind of common in the 2010s. I would say that was also kind of connected back to some of these kinds of countercultural ideas that have influenced the tech industry a lot in decades past. And then you also have the desire by these companies to show that they are diverse, that they are responding to the kind of progressive ideas in society, that they are representative and all these sorts of things. As we’re seeing this push back against labor by these people at the top of the industry — the Paul Graham’s, the Elon Musk’s, the Marc Andreessen’s — all these kinds of folks who are really turning towards this right-wing ideology, really pushing back against the “woke culture” and all this sort of stuff that you see at a lot of tech companies that’s really popular in the industry. And really, that’s supported by most of the United States and the Western world, and the people who would be using these products and working at these companies, that there is a shift that’s happening in the ideology as well, because you talked about the hierarchies and how these ideas of meritocracy kind of promote and make people accept a kind of false heirarchy that exists in society, that they are kind of higher up because they have these technical skills.
And it seems like now there are these ideas that are being pushed by the people at the top of the industry and being funded by those people at the top of the industry, things like Effective Altruism, or longtermism, or pronatalism. These ideas that if we just invest our money effectively, then it’s okay for us to have billionaires, because we’re making a good impact on the world. Or we need to be thinking about the very long term future of humanity, not the things that are affecting everyday people right now. Because we need to protect what humanity is going to look like in a million years. And it’s only us really wealthy billionaires who are so disconnected from human society as it exists today, who can actually think in these kinds of long timescales that are so essential. Or we really need to be focused on the declining population rates in the Western world, and the declining white race, so to speak, that they won’t explicitly say.
But then when you actually dig into some of what these folks in tech, who have really benefited from this boom are talking about, they’re very clear about trying to look at the genetics of their children and ensure that they are the best offspring are the ones that will kind of lead the future of the world. These hierarchies are all built into it, but it’s a different kind of hierarchy. And it’s a different way of thinking about hierarchy than in those kind of boom times of the 2010s. Because now you have these people who are incredibly wealthy, who are seeing the tide turning as we’re seeing higher interest rates, as we’re seeing the dynamics of the industry, the larger economy and society shifting, and they are looking for a new ideological justification for their position in society. And it’s not one that’s around meritocracy, but it’s around maintaining their position at the top, and ensuring that we don’t question their wealth and their power at a moment when I think there’s a growing backlash toward those things.
WL: For sure. And I hope that people who are paying attention to this, I hope that this makes them realize or remember the lie that’s always been under any meritocracy narrative. And just to see this moment where elites are trying to consolidate their power, and they’re not even pretending anymore, that they actually really care about everyone else. They’re like: Oh, we care about people in the future, but not not people who exist today. Too bad — you can go die, it’s fine. I hope that this radicalizes people. Especially, I hope that radicalizes people who previously would have been the targets of this meritocracy narrative, people who theoretically could have gotten really nice jobs and done really well for themselves, and maybe even still can, maybe even still, now they can still do that. But I hope that the behavior of the elites makes them realize that they should aspire to more — they can aspire to more, and that the crumbs that are being thrown at them by the elites, in exchange for help in their accumulation of capital process. Those crumbs can be so much more, and that we all actually deserve so much more than this awful system that we’re being forced to live under.
Just remember: don’t believe rich people, whatever they say, they might believe it. That doesn’t mean they’re right. And they always have an ulterior motive. They’re going to tell themselves these amazing stories about how they are the only ones who can save humanity. I don’t know if you saw this, but I tweeted out some excerpts from seven years, which is that Neal Stephenson story that features a character who’s basically Elon Musk, saving humanity. And no shade on that story. It is a good book, “Seveneves;” it is a fun book. It has weird ideological elements. But it’s a fun read. But I do think there are people who really believe that these elites are the only ones who could save us, and especially the elites who have any sort of technical bent. They’re the only ones who are going to save us. And I think we have to be very careful in questioning that. Because that’s such a convenient narrative, it would be so nice if that were true, that it’s so easy to just like sit back and be like: Oh, yeah, tech is gonna save us. I know that’s the opposite of the name of this podcast.
But unfortunately, I believe that. I think like one of the things I want to hammer home in this conversation is just don’t trust rich people — don’t believe what they’re saying about themselves about their own motives, but also what they’re saying indirectly to you. If you get a job offer to go work for some company owned by some like rich asshole, and most of them are, unfortunately, and you’re like: Oh, wow, we can make a lot of money working here. Maybe this person isn’t so bad after all, and they value me. They see how amazing I am. I going to let you know: I just don’t believe that crap. I think that’s just something that it’s too easy to fall into that trap of believing that these people are genuine, and that they have anything worthwhile to say, just because they have money, and not on the merit of actually what they’re saying. And it’s important to realize that power is always going to tell stories about itself that justify its power, and that will help the little people feel better about about the hierarchies that exist.
PM: Absolutely. You can see that in a lot of Elon Musk’s companies, where people have specifically tried to work for him. Even in some cases, there are stories in SpaceX, where he’s purposely paid people a lot less than the industry standard, because they know that people will come just to be close to Elon Musk, the need to challenge those ideas. And I do wonder whether this kind of moment that Elon Musk is in is making some of those people kind of reassess or if they’re just so kind of body in that they have to find a justification, right. I want to go back to what you said about Elon Musk, just briefly before we start to wrap up the conversation, because I do think it’s really important and instructive. Elon Musk has kind of has taken over Twitter has started to rework this entire company has laid off a ton of people has cut benefits. It’s very much aligned with some of the things that we’ve been talking about, but kind of like a really extreme example of what might be coming and what some of these founders might be trying to do.
And as you indicated, Casey Newton and Zoe Schiffer have written an article where they essentially say that, and I’ll quote here: “For executives who have been looking for an excuse to stop pretending that they care about diversity issues, then Musk seems to be providing huge inspiration must seems to be proving similarly inspirational to CEOs who believe their employees have grown too lazy, too coddled, too opinionated about their workplaces,” end quote. And so he is providing this inspiration to a whole load of venture capitalists, founders, CEOs who really want to push back on the workers. What do you think that the future of work in the tech industry is going to look like moving forward, as you have these empowered and radicalized in many cases, CEOs and venture capitalists setting the tone for what happens going forward?
WL: I think we’ve been talking about capital cracking down a little bit. And I think that’s going to continue probably. I don’t want to make too many predictions and concrete predictions, because who really knows? But it does really feel like more layoffs, less remote work, probably more offshoring, probably more hiring freezes, fewer perks. That feels like that’s going to happen. In terms of what I hope is going to happen, I hope people in the industry will respond by trying to fight back, the only way that they really can, which is not on an individualist sense. You can’t fight back against capital, by being the ideal worker, and by being the most diligent individual and climbing up the career ladder, because that’s not going to work. That’s not a challenge — that is just playing on their terrain. That is playing by their terms. The only actual way to fight back is through solidarity, is through a collective struggle, recognizing that the other people in the industry, they’re not your enemy. They’re not your competition. They’re your comrades. They’re part of your class.
It’s not going to be a natural thing. This is complete anathema to the way the industry wants people to think. And it’s the way the industry is set up. But I think this is the only way out of the moment we’re in. This is the only way that the power of elites can actually be held in check. It’s through building solidarity with your peers, recognizing that you are in this together, and that your fortunes as a worker are much more a response to these broader structural things, and anything to do with yourself, anything to do with your own actual abilities. It has more to do with the political climate, the economic climate, the associational power that people have, whether you have a union, whether you have the possibility of a union. I think this is this is going to be really hard to do, there will be a lot of reasons and opportunities to see other people in the industry as your enemy. And you’re going to want to build yourself into this little fortress of meritocratic achievement as you climb up this ladder all by yourself.
But I think it is a choice that you can make, and that once you make this choice, you will see that there are a lot of things that you really just can’t change on your own. But that there are things you can change as a class and as part of a movement. Even if it’s slower, even if it’s harder, even if it feels more nebulous, because it’s not just a matter of outcome, it’s a matter of outlook. Because once you recognize yourself as part of this larger project of class struggle, it will change your view of the world. It will change your understanding of what’s important. It will change your understanding of what’s worthy and what’s possible. And I think that’s what I hope will change in this industry — that people will start to identify as workers and will see themselves not as just these brilliant, hard-working people who are getting what they deserve, at these companies that are paying them so well but instead, as members of a class that is being held back by the economic structure that we have, and that everyone in this class deserves more than the worlds that were that has been constructed for us by these elites in in tech and outside of tech. That is what I would hope. I will not make any predictions more concrete than that. But that is something that I hope to see.
PM: I love the hopeful message. Let me ask you this, though: we know from the history of this industry that there has been a very individualist bent that has been built into it for decades, going all the way back to Hewlett and Packard and their desire to fight unionization by giving workers stock options to make them feel like owners instead of workers. And so you’re not going to try to unionize because you want the company to succeed; you’re an owner in the company, all these sorts of ideas. And that really influences what other companies do going forward, and their tactics to stop unionization within the industry. As we’ve been talking about, there was this moment in the 2010s, where there was a strong desire for workers, where there was a lot of pressure to hire, and that workers could demand a lot as a result. And that’s part of the reason why they had a really high pay, why they had all these perks that were provided to them by these companies to ensure that they could work more, they had a lot of influence.
Do you think that if there is like kind of a pool of labor that a lot of these companies can draw from where there’s not these kinds of pressures that existed in the past to have to hire up as many workers as possible, because there is this limited supply, that some of the pressure that these workers could apply to the company by organizing, by trying to demand more has now been lost? Because we’re shifting into this new moment where these companies and capital are gaining greater leverage, in some ways, have you been surprised by the lack of organizing that we’ve probably seen in the past couple of years, as the conditions of work in the industry have started to shift? For example, there were some conversations around why aren’t Twitter workers trying to organize or unionize? Why are they just kind of letting Elon Musk get away with doing some of these things? What do you think of that kind of approach or question to what’s going on with labor in the industry?
WL: I think that’s a fantastic question. I think if you look throughout the history of labor movement, what you do see a lot of the time is this unfortunate sort of balance, where as the ease of organizing increases — it’s theoretically really easy to build power, when you have a crucial position, when you’re able to get a lot from your employer— also, the reasons for organizing kind of go down. And so there’s this sort of balance where a place that really, really needs a union, maybe it’ll just be really hard. Because people aren’t really paid that much they read, they’re really desperate, they really need the job, everyone’s decentralized, everyone’s dispersed, they don’t have chances to talk to each other. So that is the unfortunate reality of a lot of labor movements in the past, where you have to find this almost magical spot where it’s both possible to organize. And it’s also people feel the need to organize people feel this urgency. And unfortunately, it’s like, as the urgency of organizing goes up, it also becomes a lot harder.
So I think the tech industry is weird in that sense, because for a while people didn’t really feel the need to organize. Because they were given as a gift, these working conditions that felt like they were optimal, even though I really don’t believe they were optimal. I think people should have demanded more than just money, and everything that comes with that. But still, for people it felt optimal. And I think people got used to feeling like they can get what they wanted without having to fight for it. When the reality of really so many industries that have any degree of labor protections or labor standards, those were only achieved through fighting for it. I live in San Francisco. This is a city that had a general strike in 1934. That started with the Longshore workers who now actually — I mean their union has suffered a little bit because of automation, because of all these structural changes — but even now, they still have pretty good working conditions and salaries. They didn’t get these things because they were lucky. They didn’t get these things because they just happened to receive these crumbs from employers, they got this because they fought for it. Some of them died while fighting for it.
The tech industry as a whole — especially the parts of it that are white collar and well-paid and higher up — is plagued by this problem where a lot of people were able to get a lot of things without having to fight for it. And the way I think about that is if you didn’t fight for it, you don’t really have it. If you didn’t fight for this power, if you didn’t fight for this wealth, you don’t really have it, and it can be taken away from you just like that. I think maybe the answer and hopefully, what’s going to happen is that people are going to start fighting for it. But it’s hard. Because if you’re this little entrepreneur of the self, you’re this meritocratic individual, you believe that you just have to be really good at your job, and you’re going to get what you want. I think that is an ideology that is ingrained, so deeply in a lot of people who have done well in this industry. And it’s going to be hard to break out of that mold and to see themselves as part of this collective movement.
I think that is a big part of why a lot of these companies — where theoretically it’s so easy to organize — it’s just hasn’t really been happening because there aren’t, on the one hand, worthy reasons for organizing. And on the other hand, it’s because it’s so easy to just stick with this much more individualistic narrative of how change gets made and how you’re supposed to live your life. But hopefully — I don’t want to say hopefully — but as the elite class continues to crack down, because they will, that is what they’re going to do. That is what they always do. As it happens, maybe that will spur people to see themselves differently, to see their own interests differently and to hopefully see themselves as part of this larger project, and not just concern themselves with their own careers, their own lives, but to see that actually, the best way to ensure that they’re able to live a life worth living is to find common ground with other people who are trying to do the same thing. And to realize that they do have to fight for it, that the things that they want will not just be given to them, because power is never going to concede anything worthwhile without fight.
PM: No, I think very well-put. And I should be clear, when I say the relative lack of organizing, I do mean among the white collar part of the tech industry. We’ve seen a lot of organizing around Amazon warehouses, and it looks like the Teamsters are going to be stepping up their efforts around that as well. We’ve seen long-term the organizing by Uber workers and other gig economy workers to demand employment rights and other kinds of fair treatment by these companies, and how they continue that fight against the laws in California, and that Uber is trying to push forward in many other parts of the country. We’ve seen QA workers in a number of video game companies unionized recently, so that is still moving forward. So that’s not to say that there’s no kind of hope that things aren’t happening in this industry, but often, where we see that they’re having these successes, or that there is a lot more pressure to organize, for example, like the janitors at Google and things like that. It’s by these lower paid workers who are making these gains, rather than in the upper part of the industry. But now that they might be facing more pressure, it will be interesting to see if that happens more on that level too.
And so I wonder, you know, to close off our conversation, what are the final thoughts from Wendy Liu on where we’re going with labor in the tech industry? What should we be looking for? I know, you said, you don’t want to predict very much. But one thing on my mind is that we had a lot of these companies, even though it didn’t get the kind of attention that it deserved. A lot of these companies were shifting a lot to work contract workers. Google, for example, had a ton of contract workers even more than its full-time workers, I believe. And that kind of didn’t play into the broader kind of discussion around work in the tech industry, because they didn’t get nearly the pay or the perks as the full-time workers who had the right color badges as compared to these contract workers. So where do you think things go next, as we are in this period, with higher interest rates, with stock prices being affected with the CEOs who are wanting to push back against workers? What are we looking at it in the months and years to come?
WL: So I think we’re going to see more of the mask-off behavior from capital. I think we’re going to see in the tech industry and elsewhere, too. I think we’re going to see this elite consolidation, not even pretending that they care about making the world a better place anymore, and more just like: Oh, yeah, we just really like money; we really like money, and having all the money, we need to be able to do our little projects and populate the world with our descendants and build a spaceship, whatever. It’s money for the sake of money, dressed up in this ideological cloak of the future of humanity. But really, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s for their own sake, and for what they believe is important, not any sort of democratically arrived at vision of what the world should be. So the elites are going to keep doing what they do.
I think we’re going to see more interesting opportunities for solidarity. All the labor organizing that’s been happening in the last few years has been so inspiring, so amazing, I think we’re going to see interesting opportunities for solidarity between workers in different types of roles, and maybe different companies and maybe different parts of the industry. And I definitely hope that those opportunities will be seized upon. And then, in general, maybe the message I want to leave on is just returning to the title of my book “Abolish Silicon Valley.” So what does that mean? What I’m trying to get at with this concept, and it’s partly just a catchy phrase, it’s not that meaningful. You don’t have to read too much into it. But I do think it’s useful in that it poses a question about what the world could look like. And I don’t have the answer. I don’t think any individual has the answer. I don’t think anyone can exactly describe what that looks like. But it’s worth it for all of us to think about, what would the world look like if the development of technology was not monopolized by these massive corporations that don’t actually care about any of us?
How could we aspire to more? What can we build instead? How else could we govern things? How else could decisions be made? How else could people be allowed to live in this world? It feels like such a mild question, but really, I think it’s the most radical and challenging thing to ask is like, not only what could it look like but also how it everything else in the world has to change. If, for example, Elon Musk didn’t have the power to do what he just did with Twitter — it’s such a tiny thing. But actually everything would have to change. Everything about our financial system, everything about the way labor laws work, the way corporations work, that would all have to change. And I think it’s worth remembering how much of these institutions and these structures, these norms are all just fictitious. None of them are natural. They’re all created, they build on top of each other — they’re symbiotic.
But we don’t have to have things this way. We don’t have to have a world that is run by billionaires, for billionaires —where the future is determined by these middle-aged men who just throw tantrums all the time. And no one can tell them no. We don’t have to have that. But the problem is that we’re not going to be able to get out of this just by wishing. We’re not going to be able to tell each other just: Oh yeah, let’s have a different world, and that’s enough. I think the only way we can get there is by fighting. And what that fight looks like that will just determine what opportunities are available and how things play out. But I think it’s worth remembering that we all deserve so much more than this world that we’re in now, but the only way that we’re able to get what we deserve is by fighting for it. And we might not win. We might not always win. The history of the labor movement, the history of the left, the history of any sort of social movement is littered with defeat. And that’s just how things are, but that it is worth fighting for. Because we all do deserve better. So I think maybe that’s the note I want to end on.
PM: I love that the solidarity, the organizing is essential to realize a better future. But especially at a moment where these tech billionaires are so invested as they have been for a while in defining what our future is and defining how we think about the future. We still need to be able to imagine a different way of organizing society so that when we have that solidarity, when we do organize, we know what we’re fighting for. I love it, Wendy Liu. Sorry, it has taken two and a half years to have you back on the show but it’s been fantastic to talk to you again. Thank you so much!
WL: Thank you for having me.