What do Uber and sugar daddies have in common?

In "Sugar Daddy Capitalism," Peter Fleming argues the casualization of work culture creates all kinds of ills

By Keith A. Spencer
Published April 4, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)
 (Getty/ stray_cat)
(Getty/ stray_cat)

In the formative years of Lyft, when the rideshare company was just getting its footing, Lyft cars were identifiable by giant pink mustaches that adorned the grill. The company encouraged passengers to sit up front in the passenger seat, and instructed drivers to greet passengers with a fist-bump. Such quirks might feel cute and friendly, yet they mask a more sinister intent: by making Lyft seem less like a job and more of a hobby, and making its employees seem less like workers and more like hobbyists, Lyft was trying to prevent its workers from seeing what they were doing as, well, work. Such a culture would mean that said employees are less likely to speak up about exploitation, and less likely to organize, and so on and so on.

This phenomenon, the rise of a capitalist culture of "deformalization" — professor Peter Fleming's term to refer to this sort of arrangement — has the side effect of making workers more readily exploitable and workplaces less formal. We associate deformalized workplaces with industries like tech — think of the infamous and oft-parodied kindergarten-esque interior design and play spaces that characterize startup life — but Fleming argues that deformalization trickles down from neoliberalism, the particular iteration of regulation-lite, anti-democratic capitalism that dominates the global economy today.

In his recently-published book, "Sugar Daddy Capitalism," Fleming connects the dots from deformalization to a rising culture of "sugar daddies" and "sugar babies" — respectively, older men who seek relationships, often sexual, with much younger women, and who pay them in cash and luxury goods for their time. Such work is not fully considered sex work, and thus is not regulated as such in places where sex work is legal. Rather it blurs the line between sex work and patronage, between romantic partner and commodified arm-candy.

I interviewed Fleming about the new book and what constitutes his idea of “Sugar Daddy Capitalism”. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Keith A. Spencer: First, I want to ask about sugar daddy relationships and their social underpinnings. I've heard that the less robust the social welfare state is, the more common it is for people to seek out sugar daddytype relationships. I'm curious, as someone who's lived in Australia and the UK, if sugar daddy culture is as common in those countries as in the USwhich has a much less robust welfare state than Australia or the United Kingdom?

Peter Fleming: I think there is a link. One of the things I've tried to do with this book is place it in a political economy and show what these very intimate interactions are actually reflective, or mirror, certain economic trends. And so in the UK [sugar daddy culture] took off because Sugar Daddy Capitalism kind of creeps into the crevices, if you like, the unregulated spaces, as the welfare state begins to recede. The UK’s [w]elfare state has been basically eviscerated…. Not the extent it is in the US, which has probably got a little bit more of a history behind trends. It is certainly going in that direction and Australia as well.

Australia [has] a little bit more regulation around labor, but the thing is, the sugar daddy phenomenon is really kind of an “uberization" — it is [similar to Uber] in that it sidesteps regulation.

That point is really interesting. How would you describe the connection between gig economy jobs and sugar daddy culture?

So, let's just compare the Uber and taxi drivers. Beforehand, you had a regulated  [taxi] industry in which you had drivers with certain skills, who were licensed, and so forth — drivers were trained. And then along comes Uber and says, "Well, we'll just use everyday private citizens to provide the ride. They don't need to be trained. They don't need a license or anything like that, because they're really just people like you and I. And we can do what we like with their cars, as long as it's within the realm of the law."

So it's analogous to what's happening [with] the sugar daddy phenomenon. It was recently pointed out that sugar daddy relationships really do resemble sex work. The demographics are similar: You've got richer, older men, who have a desire to be with a younger woman — always a younger woman — who tend to be — a good percentage of them are at university or college, and need financial help. They want to have expensive dinners and sometimes travel and so forth. And so there's a transaction, an economic transaction.

Now, [sugar daddy] arranging-sites are often pitched as “dating” websites. But as soon as [the phenomenon] emerged, a lot of people did point this out that it is kind of transactional and sex is involved and therefore it looks a lot like sex work. But of course it's all draped in this [language] of private people doing what they want, literally meeting for an arrangement, coming up with a deal of what's going to be exchanged …. It's not seen as sex work, which is highly regulated for obvious reasons. Of course in some jurisdictions sex work is legal, and where it is legal, it tends to be, workers pay tax and follow safety regulations, et cetera.

So, it's really part of the informal economy a lot like Uber is. That's essentially the argument that I would make in terms of how the gig economy is kind of reflected in Sugar Daddy Capitalism.

I wanted to ask you about this term that you use, “deformalization.” You write that it is an unanticipated result of the changing economy, but how would you describe deformalization?

Deformalization is similar to deregulation. It's basically arguing — it stems from a particular ideology, neoliberalism, the [idea] that private citizens should be able to do what they like in the economic realm, as long as it's within the law. And that there should be little regulatory oversight by any institutions associated with the state or whatever, that would stop private citizens making deals and the private deal behind closed doors.

So, with that ideology being really kind of pushed in countries like the US, UK, and Australia, also you have this attack against bureaucracy. Red tape is considered to be anti-entrepreneurial, is considered to make us all uniform and kill initiative — all of that sort of stuff. So all of a sudden you get this retraction of bureaucracy.

In the UK, you could see this with health and safety when it comes to restaurants. An informal economy sprang up, like, it's private citizens making deals, and you see this in the workplace as well because it's no longer regulated as it once was by institutions and labor standards. Every worker will tell you today that getting on with the boss personally is really important, because they can hire and fire. So that kind of personal judgment comes into power relationships like that.

Ultimately, deformalization is where you have less standardized and formalized rules around conduct in the workplace or conduct in the economy, resulting in this resurgence of informal relationships. And it's not new. This is really how things were until regular jobs and regular economic regulations kind of come along. It's a throwback, I think, to older forms of economic behavior.

When you say "older forms of economic behavior," do you mean like before capitalism, say, under feudalism, where you didn't really get to choose your job, and people just lived in their feudal lord's land?

Yeah. Or even early capitalist relationships where personal connections and networks were important. You can see those coming back. I use the term "cyber-feudalism" when it comes to the gig economy. If you do look at the gig economy worker, and increasingly the contingent workforce too, it really does resemble these feudal motifs — where you own your own tools, no one gives them to you. If you take away the digitalization of course. And that looks remarkably like feudal relationships, where patronage and personal relationships and formalities really come to the fore.

I'm curious if you see any parallels between deformalization and social media. I'm thinking of how a lot of people who are professionals in some aspect are compelled to cultivate a personal brand, a commodified digital version of themselves.

Oh yeah, definitely. Talk to any manager in an organization that's hiring someone. It's not just skills — they're looking for other stuff. "What type of person is this? Are they going to be a good ambassador for the organization? Can I go running and complain about my wife at the gym with them on Monday morning?" This sort of thing. And those qualities become really important, even in deskilled jobs.

So if you look at call centers, there's a lot of research in call centers that show that they hire people for a personality, for an attitude and for a language. Going back to sugar daddies, that's exactly what the sugar daddy wants when he goes looking for the sugar babies — there's definitely some skills that they've got to have, but it's your individual personality and the brand that they want... So, social media is very, very important for that. It's kind of strange because it kind of creeps into the workplace as well.

So, organizations now are kind of concerned about how their employees are talking about their companies on Facebook and other social media. And you've got to be very careful about what you say and what you don't say. It's kind of an extension, if you'd like, of that personalization of our economic relationship.

Did you start writing this book before the first #MeToo–related revelations? 

I'd written most of the book, and then when the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfolded, I saw this was the perfect illustration. It turned out that in order to get ahead in your career, you had meet with him — literally, he called these "business meetings" — you know, it summed up the gist of the book quite nicely, albeit in a depressing way, of course. I wasn't expecting that.

Since the advent of #MeToo, it seems like a lot of workplaces have become more formal in a sense — that people are more concerned with keeping their personal lives out of the workplace, being less informal there. And formalization seems like a clear-cut way to curb abusive or harassing-type behavior.

For years business managers have being told to deformalize their workplaces, treat people like [they're] a family or whatever, because bureaucracy stifles innovation. And so, deformalization is seen as how you make a happy workplace.

But I think what we've realized since #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein is that has a real dark side. It doesn't always turn out great. Making the workplace more human — only half of being human is good. Humans can be quite nasty and arbitrary and fickle and harassing. This is the dark side of deformalization, and I think people are becoming aware of that.

I'm not necessarily a champion of formalization per se, but I think around things like promotion, safety, career advancement and all of that sort of stuff, that a degree of formalization is really, really important. I've talked to people who prefer to wear these bland, nondescript, work clothes rather than what they would wear when they're at home because it creates a separation. Whereas 10 years ago, the idea of wearing jeans to work was all the rage — it was liberating, to be free to be yourself.

So, I think there's been a little bit more of a pushback on deformalization, because of its dark side has become a little bit more evident. Harvey Weinstein really showed us how bad it can get.

It's interesting what you say about workplace and workplace self-expression through fashion and clothes and attitude and whatever, particularly since the industry that really started the trend of a super casual workplace was the tech industry. Incidentally, the tech industry is also who normalized the gig economy, labor via smartphone. Do you see this as connected?

Oh, I think so. If you want to look at where this kind of neoliberal entrepreneurial individualism really took hold in the industry and in capitalism, it was in Silicon Valley. Right? And the mythology around that has built up ever since the great innovators who "broke the rules."

I think that casualization seems to be associated with that part of the industry because they were the ones that really embraced it, and that kind of neoliberal ideology. Some call it the Californian ideology.

Definitely, we’ve written about that.

It's interesting also what you were saying about people preferring formalization in the workplace. I’ve worked at non-union jobs and jobs with a union, and in my experience, one of the side effects of joining a union was that a lot of things were formalized that weren't before. So for instance, women can't be paid less than men, wages have to be equal in the company, you have to start entry-level workers at a certain salary, we get annual pay increases in a certain way, and so on. So, I guess I'm curious if you see unionization as partially an antidote to some of the bad things that come out of deformalization in a workplace?

I think that unionization is a really important part of the solution to this. [Unionization] provides standards, basically… if deformalization could be defined as [a situation] where me and my boss come up with a deal and hopefully it's good for me, but I don't have a great deal of power in this power relationship, then [with unions] the boss has to say, well, no, these are the rules because they've been sent by your representatives. I think that's a really nice antidote to the negative side of deformalization that we've been talking about.

The only problem is in the gig economy is very difficult to unionize and that's for a number of reasons. The first — and if we're just talking about contingent work — because it is built upon this principle of individualism.

Often times, unionization is kind of actively thwarted by the platform company. And also there's the ideology of entrepreneurship and self-employment. Why would I be part of a union if I'm a self-made person? You know? So there's a lot of barriers.

And then the gig economy, there's a huge battle at the moment in the US in particular around unionization because these companies are bringing these anti-trust laws against employees. If you're self employed, and you join the union, then you're regulating prices and you are a monopoly, and so they can bring in the Sherman Act. I think that [unions] are an important part of the solution, but there's quite a lot of barriers.

What else do you propose policy-wise to create a less exploitative economic situation than we have now?

I think that there's a number of solutions, partial solutions at least. I think that one of the reasons work has become so bad for so many is because of the erosion of power. It's all a one-way street now. The employer has so much power that they can do, practically, whatever they like. And so that power relationship needs to be rebalanced. And I think that can be done in a number of ways. But the type of work that is being produced tends to reward disempowerment, you know — it's deskilled, it's low paid, there's desperation in the economy because we're going through a recession, et cetera, et cetera.

So, rebalancing that power relationship, I think is really important. So, that would be the first thing. Unionization standards around a living wage would be very important and [provide] a little bit more oversight in terms of what employers can and can't do.

But I think the real solution would be to just decenter that ideology of work in our society. It's amazing that, in 2019, labor and employment is still the number one thing that everything revolves around. In this so-called high-tech, advanced society, if you don't have a job, then you are nothing. And so I think decentering the ideology of work so that it's not the only thing in town is an important solution as well. And a lot of people are writing about this at the moment, about “post-work” — the idea that the employment now is more than just about economics.

It's kind of a cultural ideology as well, that work is inherently good.... In fact, a lot of the time the work, the kind of jobs that we have, are more detrimental to our economic wellbeing. So, I think that cultural decentering and reprioritizing the role of work in our lives, I think would be important.

Lately I've read some essays, including in Salon, that suggest we've hit some kind of inflection point where neoliberal economics are finally on the way out now. I mean, do you think that's true? Do you think that collectively the leaders and people who manage the leavers of society are no longer enamored of neoliberal economics? Or is that just wishful thinking?

It depends on where you're looking, but in a country like Australia, it's still the only thing that they really talk about. It's all about markets. It's all about competition. It's all about job creation and all of that sort of stuff. And the US is interesting with Trump because some have argued that he's anti-trade.

One might argue that there's an interesting development in the neoliberal story, that perhaps we've hit a "post-neoliberalism," if you could use that word. It's kind of worse than neoliberalism, if you know what I mean? It's got fascist overtones to it. So, it's not like it's a pendulum swing back to the welfare state. It's going one step further to the right — I think people are still trying to figure out what's going on in that sense. [Post-neoliberalism] is still neoliberalism, but it's just taking on some very authoritarian attributes, and xenophobic attributes.

So, it's neoliberalism filtered through this kind of semi-fascist prism, if you like. And where that will go, it still remains to be seen. I think as you say that we're on the tipping point, and it looks like it's actually going to get worse, if that's possible. As you see, I'm a pessimist.

Do you think that the reason that's happened is partly because — at least in the United States — our mainstream politics have this defined limit to them, which is what's acceptable to the wealthiest, to billionaires? What I mean is, for the rich donors who fund campaigns for Republicans and Democrats, they'd rather have this semi-authoritarian post-neoliberalism than have redistributive economics, something a little more left?

Oh yeah, and I think that's always been in that neoliberal mindset. The ultimate model of neoliberalism is Singapore. And that's an authoritarian state, a police state basically, draped in a corporate facade. Neoliberalism is such an extreme variant of capitalism that you're going to get all sorts of antagonisms and all sorts of exclusions. And so to keep things in order, the tendency is to move towards an authoritarian position when it comes to the state. So in Singapore, the state didn't wither, or withdraw, it's just become reconfigured into a more police-orientated situation.

And you can see this in the US in various ways — obviously Trump as an example of that. But you could see it before with the rise of militarized policing and so forth, even under Obama.

So, I think there is a tendency within the ideology of neoliberalism itself. It officially champions the free private individual, but when you build a society around that ideology, you need some pretty strong institutions to keep the power structure in place.

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Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor for Salon. He manages Salon's science, tech, economy and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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