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Recently, an exposé by The New York Times placed Amazon’s corporate culture under the microscope. The authors described a workplace that cultivates antagonism, competition, and obsessive workaholics. Disturbing stories about Amazon’s warehouses have circulated for years,1 and this recent story only substituted warehouse workers for white collar employees. Yet, what we learned about Amazon was less surprising than the reaction; incredulity that this picture of crying employees answering email on vacation might accurately portray a modern American office. Why should their white collar workers be treated with less callous exploitation? But “Inside Amazon” struck at the heart of the middle-class, American dream, where work is part of living a complete, fulfilled, and happy life.2 It speaks to our anxieties after 2008: the only jobs we will find are highly precarious, less fulfilling, and more demanding.

We accept that labor is necessary on some elemental level for survival and are habituated to the capitalist organization of labor that exchanges labor for income. Something about the ubiquity of work makes it difficult for us to see it as something other than a natural, inevitable part of everyday life. But middle-class, educated workers are awakening to the reality that work resembles the precarious, austere, back-breaking conditions of the global poor rather than providing a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

Reflecting upon work as a social practice is not new. What is new seems to be the acuity with which a generation feels disenfranchised by the economic system after 2008. Inequality is eroding the edifice of class cooperation. To make sense of this moment, scholars and journalists are turning to sociology, political theory, and economics. Several tendencies appear more often than others, often blending together in greater or lesser amounts depending on the particularities of the author.

One narrative places skill and tactile experience at the center of the labor act. In this story, the pressures of modern life have led us away from the simple pleasures of work. There is plenty of nostalgia in this perspective: for a time before the corruptions of the modern office, for work as character building, as vocation, as a moral activity. But if the modern office worker is caged and alienated, it is not, or not primarily, the fault of capitalism. Commodity culture isolates the individual, occludes the worldliness of our lives, and transforms our experience of the world into one of consumption and abandonment. In this story, a more thoughtful sort of work can coexist harmoniously with capitalism.4

A second tendency is concerned with changes to labor caused by technology. By this reading, the primary assault on the middle and working classes comes from automation and algorithms that threaten to replace human employees with computers. Recent examples include Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” and Peter Mason’s “The end of capitalism has begun.”3 Fear of technological progress goes hand in hand with a sense that rationalization is out of control. Widespread unemployment, income inequality, and the erosion of the middle class are problems created by technological changes, but a stronger welfare state (or more deregulation depending on your perspective) might mitigate the worst excesses of deregulated capitalism.

The third species of critique argues that work must be surpassed. It began as a variety of post-Marxism that grew in the wake of the post-War economic boom. For Herbert Marcuse, the intellectual godfather of the American New Left, capitalism was built upon a perversion of human needs that convinced us to become consumers of commodities. At the same time, technological progress driven by capitalism opened up for the first time the possibility of a labor-free existence. For Marcuse, a post-scarcity economy free of work as we know it was central to the anti-capitalist dream. Work inhibits our full humanity. In true dialectical fashion, as capitalism drives work to its apotheosis, it simultaneously opens up a path beyond it.5 Transcendence of capitalism is synonymous with the transcendence of work.

Today, it is impossible to disentangle our discussion about work from the critique of neoliberalism leveled by a growing chorus on the Left. In this narrative, the post-2008 world is part of a decades-long reconsolidation of power by the ruling class. Part of this critique is an appraisal both of neoliberal austerity policies and of the legacy of Keynesian economic policies. The excesses of capitalism are no longer moderated by a regulatory, redistributive state. Consequently, the middle class is no longer seeing the benefits of increasing productivity. Neoliberal austerity constitutes a renunciation of the non-aggression pact between the middle class and capital.26 This pact underwrote decades of post-War, late-industrial capitalism where incremental improvements to middle-class lives bought the stability of a system which, as Marcuse pointed out, “delivers the goods.”21 This arrangement no longer functions either economically or ideologically.

Two new books, by Peter Fleming and Nick Dyer-Witheford respectively, contribute to these discussions around work. Both are firmly in the anti-capitalist camp and conclude by considering potential resistance to capitalism. Their differences are partly a matter of profession: Fleming, a professor of Business, focuses on subtle forms of exploitation and control deployed by capitalism. Dyer-Witheford is steeped in critical theory, broadly speaking, and the legacy of Marxism.

2

Fleming’s Mythology of Work begins with a simple question, often asked since the 1950’s: Why, when we live in a time of unprecedented wealth and productivity, do we work more than ever?27 While this is not a new question,6 the argument by Fleming and others is that these pressures have grown more acute especially since 2008. A poignant example appeared in The New York Times Amazon story:

When they took a vacation to Florida, [an Amazon employee] spent every day at Starbucks using the wireless connection to get work done.

Fleming’s spin on this well-documented trend, which he terms “The I, Job function,” pivots on a psychological account of our desire to work.7 Occasionally, Fleming indulges in psychological reductivism and crude metaphors that equate work with addiction.8 But at its best, Fleming’s analysis reminds us how deeply entwined our professional and private selves have become. “[W]ork is transformed into something we are rather than something we simply do…”9 Work is something deeply existential, “somehow tied up with our very sense of identity and personal worth.”10 Consequently, capitalism’s power comes not only from inclusion, but from the threat of exclusion, of unemployment, of losing our identity.

If the conventional narrative, as in The New York Times’ Amazon story, focuses on an inhumane corporate culture, Fleming suggests that the alternatives are little better. “Managerialism” whether antagonistic and authoritative or horizontal and collaborative maintains the same underlying threat of abandonment.11 This focus on management technique is what sets Fleming apart from other critics. By discussing “managerialism” as a coherent ideology, he undercuts the claim that humane working conditions are merely a matter of better hierarchies, principles, or philosophies.14 This ideology “continually communicates our postponed but inevitable abandonment [of workers].”19 Its effect is to make employment a zero-sum game, which fragments the working class by pitting workers against each other. Managers are just as replaceable as other workers, but according to Fleming they act as prison guards insulating elites from critique.

What ties the narrative together is the ubiquity and insidious power of ideology, specifically neoliberal ideology. Borrowing from Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Fleming describes society as an “open prison” in which freedom within the office is merely another tool of control. Biopower is ubiquitous and furthers the nefarious ends of the neoliberal agenda.12 Workers and managers are trapped within a system which, by this account, causes psychological harm and which disallows (or commodifies) dissent.13 As with other sweeping denunciations of ideology, Fleming allows no outside from which we might judge the system. Resistance amounts to a general “refusal” of work. What this refusal might look like or where it might occur are not well answered. To be fair, Fleming understands his dilemma, but his fear that all speech is distorted by capitalism leaves him in much the same place as the pre-Habermasian Frankfurt School28—totalizing ideology from which the only escape is a mute refusal. How you feel about this probably depends on how you judge the last 50 years of intellectual history.

In contrast with Fleming, Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat primarily addresses changes to the global working class caused by technological innovation.

This book is about digital capital’s making of a planetary working class tasked with working itself out of a job, toiling relentlessly to develop a system of robots and networks, networked robots and robot networks, for which the human is ultimately surplus to requirements, on a fatal trajectory…15

While much of the book focuses on how cybernetics changes the conventional Marxist narrative of the working class, Dyer-Witheford insists on two important facets of the proletariat. First, the term includes groups outside the working class that are nevertheless potential victims of capitalism. Second, his definition emphasizes insecurity as a distinguishing mark. Quoting from Marx, Dyer-Witheford defines the proletariat as anyone who might become “superfluous to the need for valorization.”16 No worker, middle-class or otherwise, is safe from the threat of “re-proletarianization,” his term for the precarious reality of employment today. Escape from the proletariat is ephemeral; success is transitory and each upwardly mobile worker is constantly under the threat of being returned to the pool of surplus labor. Here the narratives of Dyer-Witheford and Fleming converge, with Dyer-Witheford emphasizing insecurity and Fleming emphasizing the explicit threat of banishment.

Dyer-Witheford retells the story of globalization as an extension of the “vortex” of capitalism with a particular emphasis on global class composition.20 A global logistics chain links the labor-rich, manufacturing South to the financial, service-oriented North. The comforts of American-style consumer culture are built on the ecological and economic exploitation made possible by globalized capitalism. In the affluent Western economies, workers are themselves exploited by the neoliberal turn to financial indenture. Wealth is increasingly centralized in the hands of the global banking elite.

Pace Marx (and Negri, who is a chief interlocutor), the global working class does not spontaneously share any coherent ideology or interest.17 The proletariat is stratified and at cross purposes. The unemployed, the workers, and the precarious middle class do not constitute a homogenous, “universal” identity. Nor do other cleavages—gender, race, etc.—dissolve into purely economic oppositions. Dyer-Witheford is mindful of these frictions.18 Instead the challenge of class unity is re-conceptualized as a process of composition, decomposition, and recomposition.

This process of creating precarious, just-in-time labor is made possible by technologies that both lower costs and contribute to the socialization (or subject-formation) of docile, disciplined workers. Using the cell phone as an example, Dyer-Witheford describes how capital flows from the global periphery to the centers of the technologically advanced West.

The cell phone as the genotypic commodity of the world market, ready-to-hand techno-science for a system that requires people in perpetual motion…22

The story begins in the resource-rich South with the extraction of minerals in morally and ecologically dubious conditions;23 it continues in the factories of Bangladesh and China,24 where workers are underpaid, overworked, and temporary. Sales and support are now outsourced to cheap call centers in India. Meanwhile, ‘hacking culture’—“an intermediate class strata between capital and labor”25—builds new technologies with the profits afforded by this ongoing extractive process. The Western middle class is then dispossessed by debt and stagnating wages. But what makes the cell phone seminal is its indispensability. The development of migratory, informal employment, upon which the cheap phone is premised, requires workers to own a cell phone. Technology—abetting globalization and rationalization—makes manufacture cheaper, logistics more calibrated, and the workforce more mobile and transitory.

All of this should sound familiar without mentioning “cybernetics.” What Dyer-Witheford means by cybernetics is technologies that drive automation and logistics. Technology deepens and extends the basic mechanisms of capitalism—the concentration of wealth and immiseration. Here, globalization and rationalization, two well-established social forces, are folded into the idea of cybernetics, which in turn is rendered into an effect of capitalism. Technology and innovation have no independence outside of capitalism. Certainly, automation has not proved to be the emancipatory force expected by Marxists. However, I suspect that the insistence that cybernetics represents some novel form of exploitation is overstated. In other words, the cyber-proletariat is still just the proletariat with cell phones.

3

Our anxiety about work, evidenced by these books, has assumed a new importance in the post-2008, anti-neoliberal zeitgeist. Along with recent books by Kathi Weeks and Frederic Lordon, and forthcoming books by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams and David Frayne, there is a growing critical mass of literature on this topic, which is not to mention the near-weekly deluge of “think pieces” on unemployment, work-life balance, and self-fulfillment. It seems clear that the current organization of work is deeply unsettling to many people.

Fleming is certainly correct to point to the existential dimension of work: in some sense we are what we do. The existential aspect of work—which appears in Marx as a distinction between alienation and exploitation—has been explored by critical theorists primarily as a lever through which capitalism disciplines workers. Too often, de-alienated work is relegated to the utopian future, while theorists speak today only of exploitation. It is not surprising therefore that this literature, including Fleming and Dyer-Witheford, advocates some form of “refusal” or “post-work.” Peter Frase, who has written about this topic several times at Jacobin and elsewhere, characterizes this assumption as:

Any attempt to reconstruct the meaning of work in a non-alienating way must begin, then, by rejecting work altogether.

The challenge is how to “refuse” work. A complete divorce from work is impossible for all but the most affluent; the poor don’t have resources to exit the economy and live “off the grid.” We should also question the possibility of constructing an oasis of de-alienation in the shell of the modern corporation, if as Fleming argues, the strategy of using psychology to create humane working environments is rooted not in health but in productivity, like an insidious, novel form of micro-Taylorism. Calls for a shorter work week or a basic income appear similarly infeasible insofar as we are, as Dyer-Witheford reminds us, part of a global labor supply. Policies that make labor more expensive in any one state may lead to unemployment as jobs chase cheaper labor markets. Unless we have concrete, achievable alternatives, the current situation is unlikely to change.

One model for such alternatives might be found in the anti-communist dissidence in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Communist societies were marked by the expansion of the state into apolitical areas of life. All public appearances became de facto political by virtue of the way ideology legitimated the Communist state. Under such conditions, even the ostensibly apolitical act of selling groceries—to borrow Vaclav Havel’s example—became an act which legitimated and perpetuated an oppressive political regime. An analogy can be drawn between this pervasive politicization of society under Communism to the situation today where we face the subordination of public life to economic norms. The rise of homo economicus is, I think, one of the fundamental diagnoses made by the critique of neoliberalism. And like Soviet propaganda, we are forced to tacitly accept and perpetuate the rationality of capitalism each time we act publicly, each time we, for example, go to work because we cannot imagine doing otherwise.

Dissidents recognized that the greengrocer and indeed all citizens were bound to perform the empty ideological gestures required in the public realm because there was no alternative—no space in which one could be both public and critical. The strategy pursued by intellectuals in Eastern Europe carved out areas of life where one could cultivate authenticity and honesty, in contrast to the overt displays of fealty demanded by the regime. In Poland, to combat the influence of the state ideology, “flying universities” were organized to teach students proscribed subjects. In Prague, Vaclav Havel and George Konrad called for anti-political civil society, by which they meant non-state or non-communist institutions.29 Today, our task is to similarly carve out areas within and at the margins of capitalism.

By pooling wealth and building cooperative structures, perhaps we can afford to work less or work meaningfully. As a strategy, it is not enough to “refuse” work, but civil society must build alternative institutions and spaces around healthy social relationships. But to do this requires that we understand what remains valuable in work, not just how capitalism deforms it.


  1. Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” The Morning Call, September 18, 2011. 

  2. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” The New York Times, August 15, 2015. 

  3. For a discussion of this perspective, see Peter Frase, “Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future”, Jacobin, August 7, 2015. 

  4. I am primarily drawing on: Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Books, 2009) . 

  5. Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future.
    Herbert Marcuse, Essay on Liberation (Beacon Press, 1969). See also Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Beacon Press 1964/1991). 

  6. For example: Studs Turkel, Working (New York: Avon, 1975) or Arlie Russell Hochschild The Time Bind (Metropolitan Books, 1997). The point is not to highlight these books above others, but to illustrate that the problem of work/life balance is hardly a new question. 

  7. Fleming The Mythology of Work, 37. 

  8. Fleming makes an extended analogy between work and nicotine addiction (The Mythology of Work, 23-30). 

  9. Fleming The Mythology of Work, 37. 

  10. Fleming The Mythology of Work, 58. 

  11. Fleming The Mythology of Work, chapter 3 passim. 

  12. Fleming The Mythology of Work, 116 ff. 

  13. Fleming discusses theory, ideology, and speech in chapter 6. 

  14. For example, Amazon has “leadership principles.” 

  15. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 21. 

  16. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 12. 

  17. Contrast Dyer-Witheford with Peter Mason’s recent article:

    By creating millions of networked people, financially exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being.
     

  18. Gavin Mueller and Nick Dyer-Witheford. “Cyber-Proletariat: An Interview with Nick Dyer-Witheford”, Viewpoint Magazine September 8, 2015. 

  19. Fleming The Mythology of Work, 182. 

  20. Dyer-Witheford references Marshall Berman’s essay “All that is solid, melts into the air” (Simon & Schuster, 1992). 

  21. Marcuse One Dimensional Man, 84. 

  22. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 103. 

  23. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 105-6. 

  24. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 107-108. 

  25. Dyer-Witheford Cyber-Proletariat, 63. 

  26. On the “non-aggression pact,” my term, please see David Harvey’s discussion of post-War Keynsian policies in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2007):

    A ‘class compromise’ between capital and labour was generally advocated as the key guarantor of domestic peace and tranquillity (10).
     

  27. This is also the question that opens Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work. Available online. See also the review by Peter Frase. On the link between feminism and the critique of wage labour, which is very much at stake in Weeks, see a recent interview with Nancy Fraser. 

  28. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1990). 

  29. See Václav Havel et al., The Power of the Powerless (Routledge, 1985) and George Konrad, AntiPolitics (Harcourt, 1984). These two texts merely scratch the surface of a theoretically and existentially rich literature. For a more synthetic overview, see Vladimir Tismăneanu, Reinventing Politics (Free Press, 2000).