With the proliferation of Uber in developing markets, we see an interesting alternative for lower-income individuals to work their way out of debt. Sharika Nair tells the story of Nandini, a woman from India who had a story very typical of lower-middle class people that fell into times of hardship. She had a dream to become a doctor, but was unable to go to college for financial reasons. The alternative to going to college in lower-middle class India is to get married, which is exactly what Nandini did: she was married to a temple priest with a salary just as meager as the one that was unable to send her to school. Not for the first time in her life was she was forced to do a life-activity that she would not have chosen.
Furthermore, she was burdened by having to take financial care of her sister’s wedding, an endeavour which often leaves even the most solidly middle-class Indian family riddled with debt. At this point, Nandini’s story could have turned out to be another black mark in India’s history books: she would be forced to go into a job that she was decent at– had “dexterity” with, as Smith would put it–but did not love. Unfortunately, this outcome is much more common than we can hope, as women across India often take jobs as clothes washers, servants, and full-time babysitters to help out with the family’s finances.
As seen in The Wealth of Nations, Smith believes that humans are motivated by self-interest. In their best self-interests, they proceed to specialize in labour, as stated by Smith in the quotation below:
“First, the improvement of the dexterity of the workman necessarily increases the quantity of the work he can perform; and the division of labour, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this operation the sole employment of his life; necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman.” (Smith, 8)
“Dexterity” allows a workman to increase “the quantity of work he can perform,” which means that he can earn more at one job by being skilled at it. This reduces his business to “one simple operation” that he is good at. By this we can see that in Smith’s world, man cannot choose his labour as he is driven by self-interest to choose the job that he is most dexterous and skilled at. Reflected in Nandini’s (and the generic lower-middle-class Indian woman’s) story as the necessity to first become a housewife and then potentially take on cooking and cleaning duties for others, self-interest did indeed drive the actions of many women in pre-Uber India. Nandini herself took contracts for painting and home-work in her locality.
Marx, however, believes that a particular labor activity is chosen by an individual when the individual recognizes her species being. He elaborates in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts:
“It is just in the working-up of the objective world, therefore, that man first really proves himself to be a species being. This production is his active species life. Through and because of this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created” (Marx, 76)
As a result of the labour that man chooses, “nature appears as his work and his reality,” and this labour is also “his active species life.” “The object of labour” is the “objectification of man’s species life” which “proves himself to be a species being,” that which is defined by being able to have consciousness and to have the freedom to choose whatever he does. To Marx, being a human and a species being means that a human individual chooses their labour.
Uber offered a way out for Nandini. She started off as a driver before becoming a part of the Uber Dost (Hindi for “friend”) platform, which offered cash incentives for referring other drivers. Her type-A personality made it so that she loved finding people to refer, and she set up an office and hired four others, turning her referral endeavours into a full-fledged business. She chose the activity that she wanted to do, and because of Uber’s presence, it was possible for her to recognize her species being. With the money earned from her business, Nandini paid off her loans and plans to send her daughter to college, thus ensuring that her daughter would not suffer the Smithian fate of being forced down a labor path that she did not enjoy. Instead, her story reflected Marx’s theory of human choice.
While she went into the business with the goal of paying her debts, the important takeaway is that she chose to refer for Uber and chart her own path rather than follow an established one. She was not certain that she’d be good at it, since there was no story of any woman like her who had done this before; rather, she chose to do it because she wanted to.
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