Do workers in a gig economy have more flexibility?

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In this essay, I contend that whilst it may seem a great majority of workers operating within the gig economy are exposed to high levels of flexibility, this is in fact an illusion. For whilst the environments within which workers are employed may be new, the nature of corporations operating as bureaucratic organisations necessitates a substantial degree of control be wielded over workers operating across multiple sites and within various cultures. Philosopher Žižek’s (in Kay 2003) contention that fantasy is the screen on which ideology is built, is referred to in order to illuminate how the new, young, and narcissistic symbolic authorities, situated within Silicon Valley, are tapping into individual’s fantasies of freedom. The result is, whilst some workers excel in an environment that seems to offer varying degrees of flexibility and autonomy, a great majority of workers operating on digital platforms experience conflict in negotiating their subjectivities: oscillating between expectations of flexibility and the reality of dealing with corporate bureaucracy, control, and surveillance. Furthermore, I argue that whilst existing within new forms of technology, this conundrum is in fact not dissimilar to conditions experienced by workers compelled to negotiate (and re-negotiate) their subjectivities in a Fordist system of production that exercised control and surveillance within a bureaucratic system.

Emerging in the mid-nineteenth century, the expansion of organisations and the need to manage them, necessitated the evolution of bureaucratisation. That is, the use of rationality to create specific structural and procedural features that, in turn, should lead to the effective and efficient attainment of desired corporate goals (Volti 2012). Indeed, this use of bureaucracy by corporations is characterised by five consistent elements: impersonality (aiming to treat all people equally, regardless of such things as race, gender, or ethnicity); elaborate division of labour (whereby an organisation has multitudes of specialised job titles governed by specific rules); rules, regulations, and strict procedures (to guide and control the activities of employees); hierarchical authority (to delineate responsibilities, motivate employees for promotions, and show who is subordinate to whom); and finally, organisations’ extensive use of and reliance on written records (for the preservation and dissemination of rules, regulations, and procedures) (Volti 2012). Whilst these aspects are considered theoretically necessary, in reality, corporations rarely behave in a rational, coherent, or even ethical manner; rather, they often operate as a socially constructed, organic, and dynamic collection of competing personhoods (Sasin 2018).

The use of a bureaucratic style of organisational management was further enhanced when American industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), introduced principles of scientific management into workplaces in the early 1900s (McShane, Olekalns, Newman & Travaglione 2016). Such techniques including, goal setting, the use of work incentives, and specific employee selection techniques, were all referred to by organisational management in order to use rationality to control employee attitudes and behaviour. These techniques really came to the fore under the “Fordist production system” which flourished in the United States in the 1920s (Clarke 1992). This is because it promised to subordinate “the economy, society and even the human personality to the strict criteria of technical rationality” (Clarke 1992, p.13). From a worker’s vantage point, this system promised ontological security via the implementation of predictable rules and routines.

This historical context is important to note because the neoliberal narrative of the 1970s, dramatically altered the way in which workers were expected to both negotiate relationships with employers and their own subjectivities. Instead of being beholden to the corporation – the prevailing moderator of social relationships – this new economic narrative elevated the status of ‘the market’ as the new conduit of social relationships and the rational worker as the indispensable hero (Duff Morton 2018). As a result, workers were expected to carry the burden of risk as companies attempted to become leaner by shedding huge numbers of workers, thus making work more temporary, contingent, and less guaranteed (Duff Morton 2018). From a psychoanalytic perspective, philosopher Žižek (in Kay 2003), argues that this situation stems from a breakdown of what is referred to as the ‘symbolic order’: that is, the big Other that had otherwise provided the symbolic and moral order by which individuals could make their decisions. In the ‘risk society’ thesis proposed by Beck (1992), individuals are now required to negotiate their subjectivities – as well as decide everything from how to raise children to which expert to trust – against an absence of a defined and stable symbolic order. Unlike Beck (1992), however, who argues that the modern individual is a rational being able to assess risk and make decisions accordingly, Žižek (in Kay 2003) contends that individuals are prone to anxiety and irrational behaviour that leads to decisions thwarting their best interests. To this end, individuals engaged in work on digital platforms, are often lured to them by the tech leaders’ reinforcement of freedom fantasies – enveloped in the ideology that this system is the optimum methodology to pursue – but often to the detriment of the individual worker’s physical, emotional, and social wellbeing.

In his insightful book Lab Rats, Lyons (2018) argues that the combination of this neoliberal ideology, coupled with the infiltration of mercenary tech culture management techniques from Silicon Valley, colluded to pressure large corporations to behave as small, agile start-ups. In the process, workers succumbed, not only to a prevalence of what anthropologist Graeber (2018) calls an epidemic of ‘bullshit jobs’, but also to corporations subjecting their workers to, amongst other things, management fads, desktop surveillance, personality tests, and diminished job security (Lyons 2018). Thus, the convergence of Silicon Valley’s domineering venture capitalists’ ideology of shareholder capitalism (Lyon 2018), the advent of major technological changes from the year 2000 (such as the first dotcom bubble peaking and crashing, speedy broadband connections, and the proliferation of personal mobile devices), and the economic crisis of 2008, has witnessed a fundamental shift in the role and power of the market to mediate social relations as it had previously done. Rather than workers having to constantly present themselves to market forces, Duff Morton (2018) contends that giant corporate behemoths emerged from the Internet economy to become the new moderators of social relationships. Furthermore, Duff Morton (2018) argues that neoliberalism has actually ended, and that this is evidenced by workers now having to navigate their way through the bureaucracy of corporate structures that now serve as the intermediaries between themselves and the market.

So once again, it would be seem workers are beholden to the organisational bureaucracy of corporations – just in a new form. An example of this is the ride sharing platform Uber. Employees of this organisation work as independent contractors who lack the legal protection that accompanies full-time employment (Gray & Suri 2019). Whilst apparently pushing a sense of autonomy for its drivers, Duff Morton (2018) argues that the corporation has heavily used bureaucracy to regiment the details of the transactions occurring between drivers and ‘users’. Furthermore, via an app, workers are subject to arbitrary decisions made by this apparently faceless platform designer, including such behaviours as; who the driver can and will pick up, how much he or she will get paid, and even how they should speak to the user. In fact, if a driver receives low ratings, they may be required to attend a training session on customer service (Smith 2015 in Duff Morton 2018). As a result, this level of control may leave drivers feeling disempowered and caged. Besides these feelings, Snyder (2016) contends that the combination of surveillance and control by corporations around when workers drive, wait around, and take breaks, counters the natural biological rhythms of individuals and may thus lead to longer-term health problems on both body and mind. Furthermore, because workers are investing in unsustainable work practices and accompanying unhealthy emotional states, they may hinder their ability to plan for long-term alternatives (Snyder 2016).

Other gig-economy platforms connect, what Gray & Suri (2019) term as ghost workers, “with projects [that] are often intentionally designed to atomise and anonymise workers, hiding their labour from the view of both the companies that hire them and the customers who ultimately use the products to which ghost companies contribute” (Gray & Suri 2019, p.1283). In fact, this hiding of labour is a key strategy used by tech start-ups to increase their value to investors, as they are seen as technology companies rather than labour companies (Irani 2015). In the ethnography of how workers contribute to the virtual marketplace of Amazon Mechanical Turk, Irani (2015) exposes the creation of tech behemoth Amazon, in creating and contributing to what is colloquially referred to as “crowdsourcing”: a virtual forum where, for example, a single person can hire thousands of workers for a two-day project, rather than hire vast numbers of workers. To this end, the often-menial work is carried out by workers who are vetted and tested by computer algorithms rather than managers. In effect, these human workers are viewed as human computation which “integrates the capacities of human workers located all over the world under the rubric of computational resources and digitised labour relations” (Irani 2015, p.226). This, in turn, can have the effect of making workers feel concealed and devalued as they are seen by the corporation as interchangeable and expendable (Gray & Suri 2019).

But what of individuals and groups who exist outside these digital platform corporations, but are nonetheless affected by their behaviours? In the insightful ethnography of the contestation of public space within San Francisco, Maharawal (2017) illuminates the resistance enacted by the broader community against the perceived direct and implicit control of their urban public spaces. This ethnography first examines how Google buses ferrying its workers to its buildings, makes use of public bus spots, often at the expense of community-provided buses. In a series of blockades, many – particularly senior and disabled protestors – attempt to thwart the buses’ travel. They aim to bring attention to the way in which the tech industry in general, is gentrifying and displacing the broader community through such actions – summed up in the slogan, Privatisation of Public Infrastructure (Maharawal 2017). Similarly, the ethnography highlights how groups, in this case the Latino community, have resisted efforts of private tech organisations making use of public spaces, at their whim, and at the expense of other established and local groups. Like the protestors engaging in the Google bus blockade, these community members resist what they perceive as challenges to the use of public space, issues of dispossession, as well as what it means to ‘belong’ to the city in a renegotiating of their subjectivities (Maharawal 2017). To this end, both groups are compelled to engage with faceless corporations and mindless workers who fail to consider the impact of their decisions to privatise previously public spaces for their own personal gratification.

The renegotiating of individual work subjectivities does not, however, always result in a sense of internal conflict. Indeed, some workers thrive in the perception of having more control over their time at work compared to abiding by a rigidly scheduled workday (Volti 2012). In fact, management of time may be experienced by some workers with a sense of energy and excitement from the very act of bringing order to an otherwise disordered work system (Snyder 2016). Similarly, many workers value the perceived control they have over how they manage their time, their choice of projects, and with whom they choose to work, as far outweighing any downsides (Gray & Suri 2019). Indeed, many workers benefit from fitting their work around care-giving commitments, unpredictable schedules, and the like, whilst some groups, who would normally be stigmatised in the workplace, can gain financial independence, and learn new skills (Gray & Suri 2019). In addition, within the gig economy, many workers who earn money within digital platforms designed to isolate them are able to innovatively create connections with others (Gray & Suri 2019).

In conclusion, many scholars have examined what is termed the rise of flexible capitalism: a concept that certainly encapsulates the gig economy – relying as it does on a system of interconnecting production processes and technologies and management strategies that have all shifted the burden of risk from employers to workers (Snyder 2016). This new system of employment has emanated from what Duff Morton (2018) argues is a move to a market insulated system in which the corporation now mediates social relationships and subjectivities between individuals and the market. To this end, it heavily relies on an intricate system of bureaucracy, control, and surveillance to ensure rationality is the benchmark upon which worker attitudes and behaviours are conformed.

Individuals working within this paradigm, in turn, are thus forced to constantly negotiate (and re-negotiate) their subjectivities in order to adequately attain a desired self and an appropriate contextual identity. Consequently, individuals are therefore “in a constant state of defining a range of viewpoints from which to see themselves in terms of multiple identities” (Sasin 2018, p.3): a situation which Žižek (in Kay 2003) argues stems from an “apparent claim to unlimited freedom of choice on the part of the postmodern subject [but which] is reflected back into him or her as the complicitous subservience to constraint” (p.142).

Furthermore, new narratives of a good life are conceived upon the foundations of an uncertain present whereby “jobs are often designed to afford workers with feelings of autonomy and imaginative space to envision themselves as heroic individuals” (Snyder 2016, p.794). However, whilst these workers’ efforts may indeed be concealed and devalued, Gray & Suri (2019) argue that the creation of automated production systems, such as those existing within the gig economy, have always required a cohort of interchangeable and expendable workers to covertly monitor and maintain the machines. Therefore, for this group of workers to operate as an ‘organic’ whole – one that is dependent upon each other but can simultaneously be replaced if not standardised (Clarke 1992) – and through the medium of bureaucracy, corporations defer to the use of predictable rules to give the illusion to workers of ontological security coupled alongside individual flexibility. In this way, as existed within a Fordist production system, there is created a “new collective form of [the] organisation of labour in which individual productive contributions [are] subsumed under the whole” (Clarke 1992, p.20).

As a result, I argue, the current paradigm through which the gig economy operates is one in which individual flexibility is offered as the enticement for worker involvement, but which is rarely realised. In fact, in many ways, it is not the system itself that has changed – just the dominant players who act as intermediaries in affecting the narratives of individual subjectivities. And whilst, as Gray & Suri (2019) propose, workers, no matter where they are situated, may lament the loss of (amongst other things) transparency and a sense of fairness within their workplace arrangements, I contend that the tools with which organisations wield control over the minds and bodies of individuals have not changed – only the intermediaries. Instead, perhaps it is the individual meanings workers attach to their contributions that are, in fact, the most malleable aspect of the gig economy. For in the quest to negotiate the ideal subjectivity, an individual existing within modernity and operating mostly in the service sector (Duff Morton 2018), will inevitably experience friction between their desire for the fantasy of freedom via flexibility, and the reality of dealing with corporate control and surveillance delivered through an ever-expanding, complicated, and faceless system of bureaucracy. As a result, individuals must constantly attach suitable meanings to the system in which they operate to allow them to simultaneously, outwardly comply with imposed rules and regulations, whilst attaining an identity that fulfils fantasies of perceived freedom.


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