Taxis vs. Uber: Courts, Markets, and Technology in Buenos Aires (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021)
Reviewed by Kathryn Henne, The Australian National University & Will Orr, University of Southern California
Uber has operated in Buenos Aires since April 2016, when its arrival produced a disruptive force that would span economics, law, and politics. The taxi industry quickly took legal action against the company, which prior to 2016, was something of a protected service, with strong regulations and an influential trade union. In Taxis vs. Uber: Courts, Markets, and Technology in Buenos Aires, Juan M. del Nido explores how and why an industry with robust legal and structural protections was readily cast aside when a foreign competitor entered the market.
Drawing upon extensive archival research and fieldwork carried out in Buenos Aires between 2015 and 2016, del Nido traces how an influential segment of the middle class and their appeals to capitalist rationalities came to frame the political and legal dispute between Uber and the taxi industry as a moral problem. The mobilization of “logic, rhetoric, and affects” eroded the taxi industry’s long-standing institutional protections in the name of upholding the unassailable consumer “right to choose” (p. 10). The book’s central thesis addresses how these developments reflect “postpolitical reasoning”, which, according to del Nido, conjures and legitimizes a shared experience to foreclose the possibility of certain forms of disagreement (p. 8).
Taxis vs. Uber takes place within a particular political moment in Argentina: a time when middle-class residents are anxious about national economic decline, with some openly distrustful of Perón-era institutions, including courts, government, and unions. Against this backdrop, consumers’ right to choose became the basis for “gladiatorial truths”—that is, “prescriptive truth claims based on the moralizing bottom line of minimally mediating popular legitimacy measured in actual vocal support or its late capitalism proxy, consumption” (p. 89). In the book, del Nido’s interlocutors, which include taxi and Uber drivers, union officials, taxi car owners, passengers, and other members of the middle class, feature prominently, conveying insights into how this form of reasoning buttressed support of Uber and disarmed the taxi industry’s ability to respond.
Taxis vs. Uber chronologically follows Uber’s entry into Buenos Aires across eight chapters. The first three chapters document the city’s taxi industry prior to the company’s arrival. The government had fiercely regulated licenses to manage and limit the number of taxis working within the city, with drivers required to pass psychological and physiological tests to assure they were fit to drive, and cars standardized to homogenize the experience of catching a taxi. These chapters capture how the industry received extensive institutional support and exercised intensive oversight and scrutiny of its drivers.
The remainder of the book focuses on the response to Uber’s arrival in Buenos Aires, detailing how middle-class sensibilities precluded political debate about its presence. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the central dispute in which the taxi industry asserted that Uber’s presence was a political and legal issue, raising questions about who has the right to operate in the city. This stance, however, proved incongruent with a vocal segment of the middle class who would shape the debate by asserting people’s right to choose as a moral imperative. Uber appealed to the right to choose through campaigns and presented itself as external competition resistant to domestic influences. Its strategies, which evoked narratives of progress and rationality, aligned with a middle-class worldview that saw the taxi industry as a Peronist legacy out of step with contemporary values.
Additional differences between the industries crystallize in Chapter 6. Del Nido’s description of taxis as a protected, regulated service contrasts sharply with Uber’s algorithmic ordering of drivers through naturalized axioms of “[e]fficiency, supply, and demand” (p. 147). Circumventing the required benchmarks for taxi drivers, Uber’s aggregated customer ratings instead provide a “mosaic of broken ghosts” (p. 155) that flatten all aspects of driver suitability into a single score—the meanings of which are dependent on customers’ interpretations.
Chapters 7 and 8 consider the failures of legal attempts to remove Uber, contextualizing how Argentina’s late-capitalist political economy laid the groundwork for accepting Uber’s arrival within a national narrative of “normalization” informed by notions of neoliberal development (p. 179) and how the taxi industry’s response failed to resonate widely. Its court proceedings and claims regarding unfair competition diverged from postpolitical reasoning, which does not subscribe to resisting Uber’s presence but would recognize the choice to not use its services. In practical terms, this privileging of the right to choose meant the taxi associations’ concerns, particularly regarding regulation or safety, were never fully acknowledged or heard. Instead, Uber’s reconstruction of transport labor appeared to bring order to the industry, transforming concerns related to safety into individually based decisions. These shifts positioned consumers as central authorities, arbiters of both truth and reason.
Taxis vs. Uber offers rich reading for anyone interested in the changing dynamics of (post)political discourse, making it distinct among studies of the gig economy. Although the text itself can be dense, its critical insights about the pervasiveness and influence of gladiatorial truths resonate well beyond Uber and Buenos Aires. It brings a welcome anthropological sensibility to the study of major platform companies and their impact. Readers should note, however, that del Nido’s primary focus here is exploring the dynamics of postpolitical reasoning; accounts of the embodied experiences of driving, individual resistance and work-related disruptions are secondary to this analysis. In doing so, Taxis vs. Uber’s compelling analysis highlights the importance of scrutinizing how certain rationalities and rhetorical devices aid in legitimizing technological developments and bypassing political debate. The book makes productive inroads in explaining these distinct modes of governance and invites us to think critically about the complex challenges they present.