New platforms – new labor

And new forms of exploitation.

Today’s platform capitalism is symbolized by a handful of multi-national corporations such as Alibaba, Facebook, Google’s Alphabet, Amazon, Tencent, Uber, etc. Increasingly, these corporations are not just re-shaping how people shop, but also how work is structured impacting even on global labor relations.

Particularly, labor platforms have started to define work as digital platforms organizing labor by matching labor providers (workers, deliberately misrecognized as self-employed) with clients and consumers. Under platform capitalism, this is done when labor is controlled by algorithmic management which exercises disciplinary control often leading straight to what has been termed as despotism on demand.

Labor platforms’ raison d’être is to link a multitude of clients to individual workers via the Internet. As a consequence, work can be carried out remotely (away from the factory floor). Simultaneously, online companies and corporations create an even more atomized labor market. Businesses that do this are, for example, Upwork, Workana, Clickworker, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Uber, Cabify, Deliveroo, Glovo, Helpling, Aliada, IguanaFix, Jobin, etc.

All too often, these online firms turbo-charge capitalism’s already precarious and exploitative work regimes. They do this by elevating the managerial level of control to previously unseen altitudes. For one, platform capitalism achieves this by doing two things: a) by relying on an insufficient body of legal protection for workers that has been deliberately created during the last four decades of neoliberalism’s zeal towards de-regulation; b) and, by removing or weakening trade unions and the collective representation of workers. Much of this follows Hayek’s deeply ideological handbook of neoliberal prescriptions.

Perhaps, Hayek was right to call his little catechism as Road to Serfdom because removing legal protection for workers and obliterating trade unions will, inevitably, lead to a road to serfdom for workers. Unforeseen by the Austrian aristocrat von Hayek, who died in 1992, platform capitalism has a number of key elements:

  • Digital labor platforms represent an innovative frontier for capitalist expansion;
  • Enhanced by algorithmic management, online labor platforms augment new management-labor dependencies;
  • Platform capitalism deepens the international division of labor between the global North and the global South;
  • Labor platforms are capital’s newest tool to intensify (remote!) control over workers;
  • Platform capitalism fosters the ideology of the so-called entrepreneurial self;
  • As always under capitalism, online labor platforms are defined by contradictions and tensions between a worker’s dependency on algorithmic management and a worker’s autonomy over how to conduct work; and lastly,
  • All this defines not only workers’ resistance, but also how workers can organize resistance.

Of course, online labor platforms are part of the development of capitalism. Yet, they represent a new mode of optimizing labor in order the increase profits. They do this by moving core elements of Taylorism, Fordism, and the McDonaldization of work onto online labor platforms. These platforms introduce unilateral (i.e. management run) non-transparent algorithmic management.

This is a tool to domesticate workers, increase efficiency, create one-sided (read: managerially-defined) flexibilities – for companies and corporations, but not for labor. Algorithmic management establishes remote control regimes while reducing the costs of a commodity, called labor.

The ideology that flanks platform capitalism seeks to fabricate workers as self-driven entrepreneurs. It highlights a fake autonomy and neoliberalism’s beloved individual responsibility. As the structural imperatives of platform capitalism become overwhelming, the ideology of ‘being responsible for your own success’ fosters ever more intense competition among workers.

Beyond that, online labor platforms play a key role in capitalism’s eternal quest to bring more and more areas of human-to-human activities under capitalist relations. This means that more and more areas of a previously untouched sphere of human existence are made part of the capitalist’s megamaschine. It is the colonization of the lifeworld.

To achieve this, online labor platforms seek the continuous accumulation and commercialization of virtually all online data, as well as those data collected that cover nearly all aspects of workers’ activities. While online labor platforms continue to produce profits for shareholders, they rely on a different type of exploitation. Key to platform capitalism are two aspects:

  1. Capital continues to obtain surplus value at the expense of exploited workers; and more importantly,
  2. Exploitation does not necessarily occur any longer inside our traditional understanding of labor relations.

This fits well with the ever expanding financialization of capitalism. More than ever before, under financial capitalism, rentiers – finance owners and financial institutions – are core actors in the new platform economy.

This comes at the expense of wage stagnation and ever intensifying household debt. What emerges is a massive investments in platforms, and the colossal growth of many platform companies and corporations.

Much like in any other so-called “market”, in the online market, a handful of large multi-national corporations dominated. As a consequence, they are less and less subject to the rules of neoliberalism’s hallucinations of a free market.

As predicted a very long time ago, these corporations strive for a monopolistic or – if that is unachievable, for oligopolies. Corporations, CEOs, the apostles of neoliberalism, pro-business writers, business school professors, and business executives are society’s leading champions of free markets and competition, All the talks about the virtues of competition notwithstanding, the aim of business is the monopoly.

Worse, for online platforms it is particularly straightforward to circumvent most, if not all, the remaining local regulations. This is done with the ultimate excuse that legislators did not expect the coming of digital employment with online platform workers. Worse, corporate HQs and online workers may very well be located in different countries, or on different continents.

Even better for capital is the fact that online labor platforms are somewhat removed entities with some of them almost entirely closed-off to workers. Algorithmic management, for example, allows management to never physically meet workers.

Worse than in many other industries, much of this leaves workers without real protection against precarious employment conditions, abusive practices often metered out by management with the kind support of algorithmic management where algorithms do exactly what management tells them to do. Essentially, algorithmic management is a managerial opinion put into mathematical formula and then, and most importantly, sold to labor and everyone else as objective, neutral, and mathematical.

This turns algorithmic management into a managerial ideology serving three purposes: ideologies camouflage contradictions such as those between labor and capital; ideologies support the domination of management over workers; and finally, ideologies prevent the emancipation of workers from the structural violence of capitalism.

Driven by its own ideologies, online company’s first strategy is to deny that they are employers of the workers working for their platform. These corporations refuse workers the status of being an employee. By that, they hope to annihilate protective labor regulations and social security rights. Beyond that, many online corporations constantly and consistently lobby politicians to assure that these legal and sociological fiction – of workers aren’t workers – continues.

Yet, they are also involved in many court cases around the world to safeguard their self-invented statuses as a non-employer. Worse for workers – and good for capital! – is the fact that many trade union’s strategies to organize, to protect online platform workers, and to engage in collective bargaining are still in their infancy.

The overbearing ideology of neoliberalism – e.g. strong anti-unionism, destabilizing of the state, weakening of labor law while strengthening macho-management – achieved its desired outcome, namely it worked against trade unions.

This ideology has supported the successful setup of a regulatory environment in which the corporations behind online labor platforms are free to do several things: they can lower costs, reduce wages (this is known as wage stagnation), increase managerially-defined flexibility, and control workers. Much of this can be done by being able to position themselves somewhat outside the reach of labor regulations.

Meanwhile inside an online labor platform, new modes of workplace surveillance is holding sway. They combine a variety of forms of software and hardware. Supported by algorithmic management, these are forms of semi-automated management control regimes. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk frames much of this as,

MTurk enables companies to harness the collective intelligence, skills, and insights from a global workforce to streamline business processes, augment data collection and analysis, and accelerate machine learning development.

Algorithmic technology allows labor to be performed by thousands of crowd workers who cooperate 24/7. Meanwhile, management’s monitoring techniques turbo-charge traditional Taylorism while at the same time, obscuring Taylorism’s strict division of work into managerially-defined work tasks with the help of algorithms – Managerialism embedded in computer codes.

Simultaneously, platform capitalism fancies the hallucination of the so-called entrepreneurial self. Platform capitalism projects the ideological image of the autonomous entrepreneur. The neoliberal ideology pretends to be working unfettered by direct bosses. The ideology also promises free will for workers from managers while offering free choices concerning what kind of work to be performed.

The essential task of the ideology of entrepreneurship is the concealing of capitalism’s wage relationship by alluding to self-employment. Secondly, it disconnects the managerial systems of wage payments from working hours – a vital step.

Platform capitalism also means that companies and corporations gather, systematize, analyze, and commercialize an enormous volumes of data. These data often come via the continuous surveillance of workers and the manipulation of information on employee profiles and their performances.

Management in online labor platforms achieve this through the use of so-called bio-political technologies such as GPS tracking, so-called wearables, the cyclic capture of identities by requesting selfies, and through other information about the private sphere, such as data related to civil status, illness, photos, and videos of the workers’ faces and bodies.

Worse, customers and online providers can – and do – produce evaluations on workers which, in some cases, are published as online comments scrutinizing – if not blame workers – on individual performance. Commonly, such evaluations are expressed via point-systems and dehumanizing rankings.

In a second step, these are converted into multifaceted systems used by algorithmic management for reward and punishment in the form of temporary or permanent deactivations. This is a managerial euphemism for suspensions, dismissals, and as they say, FIFO: Fit in or f*** off!

Under online despotic management, such ratings and rankings are designed to control labor. For that, algorithmic management establishes tariffs, bonuses, commissions, regulations, and strict work procedures to be followed by individual workers. Most importantly, algorithms are a further expression of the stark asymmetries of power between capital and labor.

Worse, such algorithms force workers into a constant state of attention – made a necessity by management – to be able to catch any new job offer that lights up on your device. Under platform capitalism, this dictates working hours and free time. Even the so-called ‘free time’ is now used. It forces workers to engage in unpaid work as workers are forced to monitor and scan websites for new job offers.

Furthermore, workers are compelled to constantly update their online profiles while searching for the next job. The reality behind the ideology of entrepreneurship is a dystopian hunt for the next job or work task. With that, the entrepreneurial-self becomes wholly dedicated to capital. The entrepreneurial-self becomes an appendage to capitalism.

To camouflage all this, self-management manuals broadcast the ideology of success-oriented lifestyle aimed at self-optimization. In reality, it is a crypto-(in)-voluntary submission to the demands of platform capitalism. The silent domestication of labor is further disguised by standard entrepreneurial ideologies such as: new opportunity for workers, increase autonomy, organize your own time, earn a good income, get additional benefits such as on-the-job learning, self-development, meeting new people, forming new networks, etc.

In short, the dream of the human relations’ school becomes reality as modification becomes self-modification and manipulation becomes self-manipulation. All of this is nicely masked by the ideology of entrepreneurship that flanks platform capitalism.

It is designed to foster exploitative and sycophantic workplace conducts and work practices pre-designed by management. In other words, the ideology of entrepreneurship not only leads to simulation – simulating to be the perfect online worker – it also leads to simulacra: the workplace as a pathological totality of simulation.

To fight the madness of platform capitalism, workers have developed three types of resistance: i) micro-level cheats (gaming the online work system) and individual resistance; ii) informal collective actions; and finally, iii) actions organized by trade unions, organizations representing workers, NGOs, etc.:

  • There are online click-workers warning other workers about bad online clients who pay badly or don’t pay at all.
  • There are app-based taxi drivers reporting on managerial changes in work-related algorithms and ways of circumventing them (gaming).
  • There are also online food delivery workers who share information on high-demand neighborhoods.

Many of these actions of workers are collective actions. They often follow what German sociologist Offe calls The Two Logics of Collective Action. Yet, in the case of workers’ resistance against platform capitalism and the despotic algorithmic management that comes along with it, no questioning of the underlying logic of platform capitalism – and capitalism as such – is made. Overall, most of theses forms of ‘resistance’ are mere reformist’s responses to platform capitalism.

Yet, there has also been a worldwide strike of workers against Uber in May 2019. Despite this, labor relations under platform capitalism are defined by a giant power asymmetry that is even worse compared to traditional areas of capitalism – not yet colonized by platform capitalism.

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