Discipline, Time and Surplus Value in the Gig Economy

By Juan Cruz Ferre


 “There is not a single moment in life of which one cannot extract forces.”

                                                   Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

Interior view of Illinois State Penitentiary – Panopticon structure

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish provides a valuable insight into the scientific arrangement of space and time in different settings. In factories, the fragmentation of the production process and the creation of schedules regulating working hours allowed capital to extract the maximum amount of labor at the lowest cost.

Has this changed in recent years? Have certain sectors of the economy in 21st century capitalism radically changed time and space work arrangements typical of the Fordist era?

The proliferation of jobs with no fixed schedule, irregular working hours and short-term contracts (sometimes conceptualized as flexible capitalism) pose the question of a shift away from fixed working timetables. Companies are relying more and more on irregular time schedules imposed on workers in order to swiftly respond to changes in demand or unexpected events that would otherwise cause them economic losses.

But to what extent has technology allowed capital to circumvent the enclosure, that is, the need to regiment human bodies distributed in scientifically parceled-out spaces, in order to efficiently extract human labor? As Foucault points out in Discipline and Punish, in the factories that appeared at the end of the eighteenth century, “[i]t was a question of distributing individuals in a space in which one might isolate them and map them. […] By walking up and down the central aisle of the workshop, it was possible to carry out a supervision that was both general and individual: to observe the worker’s presence and application, and the quality of his work.”

Today, technological innovation has allowed bosses, foremen and managers in many industries to keep an eye on workers without abiding by this spatial distribution, sometimes without even being there. As Benjamin Snyder writes in The Disrupted Workplace,  “[m]anagers can measure work rhythms in minute detail through digital surveillance and manipulate those rhythms so that workers’ effort more precisely matches demands for output.”

There is another aspect that has dramatically changed over the past few decades with regards to oversight and control of the labor force. With the rise of domestic outsourcing, it is no longer clear who is the employer. Workers employed at a specific location do not necessarily have the boss under the same roof, nor do they have the same boss. Furthermore, workers in the share economy may not even know who the boss is, or if they have a boss at all.


The Production Machine


capitalism-2Although Foucault’s main focus is the treatment of space and time in prisons, he argues that the same logic is applied at schools and workplaces in order to achieve the goals they are supposed to fulfill.


“Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body […]. If economic exploitation separates the force and the product of labour, let us say that disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination.”


Foucault called discipline a “political economy of the detail.” He argues that, “[t]hese methods […] made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, […] assured the constant subjection of its forces and imposed upon them a relation of docility-utility.”

The capitalist mode of production is based in the ability of capitalists to extract labor from working bodies. To accomplish this, the fledging bourgeoisie in the transition from feudalism to capitalism had to create some mechanisms to force peasants and artisans to sell their labor power, that is, to accept the Faustian bargain of wage labor. This was achieved mainly through dispossession of land (enclosure of the common arable territories), laws against idleness and outright displacement. This created an army of laborers who, deprived of their means of subsistance and of any other choice of securing their livelihood, became ready and willing to sell their labor power.

Once inside the factory, a mechanism to guarantee and maximize capitalist profits was needed. Foucault poses this problematic in a rhetorical question: “How can one capitalize the time of individuals, accumulated in each of them, in their bodies, in their forces or in their abilities, in a way that is susceptible of use and control?” The ability to extract a surplus value—that is, a margin of profit that sets off and exceeds the costs—from industrial production was maximized through the fragmentation of the labor process.

The distribution of space inside the factory in rows and individual posts made it possible for the foremen to oversee the work of each and every worker in the factory at the same time, their performance and their pace. Hand in hand with the regulation of space, the scientific administration of time became a necessity. Clocks spread across all factories. Timetables and work schedules replaced the irregular, uncontrolled labor characteristic of handicraft and the putting-out systems.

A further rationalization of work-time was achieved in the early twentieth century with the process known as Taylorism. This new technique correlated the time measurement of every step in the production process to the second in order to find the most efficient organization of tasks. Taylorism was a response to inefficiencies of the contracting system, where contractors used the factory owner’s facilities but managed their own labor. The unpacking and rationalization of their production allowed employers and foremen to win total control of the labor process. This is explained in detail in Harry Braverman’s famous Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.


Disruption, Outsourcing and the Gig Economy

The corporation model had its heyday during the glorious 30 years of capitalism. Companies grew larger and larger, absorbing neighboring branches of the industry, merging with competitors, building vertical monopolies and boasting their immensity. In the past few decades, however, we have seen a counter-tendency towards downsizing and decentralization. The process known as neoliberal globalization gave way to an enhanced competition among companies in a globalized labor market. Large corporations turned to rely more and more on temporary labor, part-time employees and outsourcing of services in order to lower labor costs and preserve or gain competitiveness. As labor scholars Arne Kalleberg, Peter Cappelli and Guy Standing among others have pointed out, this process of ‘precarization’ has been a global trend since the 1970s.

The need to adapt to the acceleration of movements in a dynamic market forced the transformation of mammoth corporations into smaller, nimbler firms. As David Weil explains in The Fissured Workplace, in the 1980s large companies began to reverse the tendency to vertical integration: they kept their core competencies while outsourcing the rest of the tasks to other (usually smaller) companies. This allowed them to effectively split the workforce in one privileged group of workers with good salaries, benefits and stability carrying out core activities; and a second layer of workers hired through a third company, earning lower wages with no stability or benefits and performing more ‘generic’ activities such as cleaning, maintenance and security. The proliferation of satellite companies providing the labor power for non-specialized but necessary tasks results in a workplace that resembles more a chaotic piece of patchwork than a squared patterned fabric.

This shift towards a dismembered but profusely connected production model is thought to be the result of a twin phenomenon: a steady improvement in information and communication technologies, and the constant pressure for profitability in a very competitive global market.


Panopticon 2.0


The widespread use of technology has enabled real-time monitoring of the workforce in new settings: transportation and distribution of goods, retail, clerical work and others. Video cameras are ubiquitous in retail stores of all kinds and, much like the watchman atop the tower in Bentham’s Panoticon model, the threat alone of being surveyed already exerts the pressure necessary to impose discipline and efficiency standards on employees.

But there are other more innovative examples. The case of workers at the United Parcel Service (UPS) hit the headlines around 2011, when the company started using a software to track all movements of its truck drivers. Each unit is equipped with a system that gathers over 200 data points throughout the workday. As Jessica Bruder explains in an article for The Nation published on May 27, 2015, the sensors register everything the employee does:  “when he open[s] the bulkhead door. When he back[s] up. When his foot [i]s on the brake. When he [i]s idling. When he buckle[s] his safety belt. A high-resolution stream of data, including all that information and his GPS coordinates, flow[s] back to the UPS offices.” What is this if not an improved version of the Panopticon? With detailed records of everything that took place during the workday, managers routinely call the attention of those employees who didn’t perform as expected. The data is right there, the control over their bodies is complete.


Shifting the Burden of Dead Time


The transformation of working hours and time schedules follows a different pattern. In this case, instead of an intensification of the scheduling system described by Foucault, what we see is disruption. Although regular time schedules still reign in most of the economy, an increasing number of companies that are exposed to brisk changes in the market have figured out a way to deal with troughs or gaps in the demand: putting it on the shoulders of workers. This is referred to in the literature as risk shifting from employers to workers, meaning the risk of providing labor force when it is not needed. If we take a closer look, however, risk shifting is in actuality unpaid working time.

Retail stores and online sale giants such as Amazon have a two-tiered workforce: a permanent staff of full-time employees and an army of part-timers who the company disposes of in order to ramp up output capacity in peak hours. This system allows them to keep a relatively low baseline of labor costs while at the same time enjoying a capacity of output expansion when needed. Part-time employees are often asked to have wide availability, which means that they cannot occupy their time in other work activities. Some workers are submitted to unexpected changes in their work-schedules. During low demand hours, part time workers wait “behind the scenes” (not at the store) to be called in, but they are not paid for the wait. In this way, companies avoid having idle labor force during periods of low demand: they have effectively shifted the burden of dead time on the shoulders of part-time workers. Temporary contracts serve the same purpose in a different time frame: in response to short and middle term fluctuations, the company can dispose of them at will.

The case of truck drivers is an extreme example of the time-squeeze some workers are submitted to in the twenty-first century. In The Disrupted Workplace (2016), Benjamin Snyder dissects the cunning mechanism by which truckers are systematically forced to overwork themselves. The starting point is to lure teamsters (or would-be teamsters) into a scheme of becoming truck owners by paying the truck in monthly installments. The same company that leases/sells them the truck works as a contracting agency providing trailers and dispatch services to match drivers to freight. Truck drivers then manage their own working schedules, but they do so highly conditioned by freight loading times and shipping deadlines. Truckers get paid per mile driven or receive a percentage of the freight bill once it’s delivered, so only the hours they spend on the road are paid for. If they have a 6-hour delay waiting for the freight load, those are six unpaid hours. If they cannot deliver the freight because the receiving shop is not opened yet, no one accounts for that time loss. Since trucking is a dangerous job, there are strict federal regulations on how many hours truckers can drive straight, how long they must rest before resuming the journey and how much time they need to spend in the sleeper berth (the rear section of the truck equipped with a bed) within each shift. Squeezed between the pressure to get the freight to destination despite unpredicted delays and the strict regulations limiting their effective working hours, truckers end up blaming the latter for the pockets of dead time. The boss is out of the scene. The state (the “government”) is found responsible for these conflicting forces that pull the driver in opposite directions. And it is, indeed responsible, though not for issuing safety regulations, but for allowing truck companies to “shift the risk” on the truck drivers. If they were paid a fixed wage they wouldn’t have to overwork themselves or worry about idle time at work.

This is only one example within a larger trend. Harriet Presser shows in Working in a 24/7 Economy that only about 30 percent of working Americans worked a standard schedule–defined as 35 to 40 hours a week on daytime from Monday to Friday, in 1997. This figure is expected to be lower after the 2008 crisis and the additional increase in part-time jobs. Over 60 percent of those who worked non-standard schedules did so against their will–because they didn’t have any other choice.

Along with the tendency to more flexibility in working schedules, we have seen a steady increase in overall working hours. Although it is contested whether or not individuals are working more hours than in the mid-20 century, it is indisputable that households have longer working days than those in the second post-world period. (See Juliet Schor’s The overworked American; or Pietro Basso’s Modern Times, Ancient Hours.)


Employment Relations in a Back Swing

What underlies this ostensibly dramatic change in the use of time and space in social production is a shift in employment and labor relations. Labor relations not only are a measure of the hand of the state in the realm of labor regulations and social production but they also represent a picture of the relation of forces between labor and capital. The balance of forces between labor and capital is an essential factor in determining where the average job stands in the spectrum between security and contingency. The weakening of trade unions, the crisis of workers’ (social democratic or communist) parties and the succession of defeats on the side of labor in the past 40 years has a direct influence on the relation of forces that allows employers to impose employment conditions/relations increasingly favorable to capital.

Today it is relatively easy for employers to outsource part of their labor force, avoid responsibilities towards their employees, and even become unattainable or invisible to them. A vignette in the already cited book Benjamin Weil reads:

“A member of a loading dock crew working in Southern California is paid by Premier Warehousing Ventures LLC (PWV) (…). PWV, in turn, is compensated for the number of trucks loaded by Schneider Logistics, a national logistics and trucking company that manages distribution centers for Walmart. Walmart sets the price, time requirements, and performance standards that are followed by Schneider. Schneider, in turn, structures its contracts with PWV and other labor brokers it uses to provide workers based on those prices and standards and its own profit objectives.” Although Walmart is setting time requirements and performance standards, it is far enough from the worker in the chain of mediators that it looks like an alien agent.

Although the withering (or concealing) of the figure of the “boss” is not new as part of the blurring of the class divisions at the workplace—for example, it is well-known that Walmart calls its employees “associates”—there is a bourgeoning industry in which this tendency is stronger: the sharing economy. Sometimes referred to as platform economy or gig economy, the sharing economy is an umbrella term that encompasses for-profit online-based companies (such as Uber or TaskRabbit) as well as not-for-profit platforms of exchange and shared use of goods or property, such as Couchsurfing. In the for-profit platforms, the company usually takes a percentage of every transaction.

Uber is the largest and, probably, most profitable of these companies. With hundreds of thousands of drivers worldwide, Uber is a prominent example of “panopticism”, of time squeeze and of deteriorating employment relations. I will focus on the third aspect.

Uber drivers are not considered employees but independent contractors. As such, they are responsible for expenses on gas, car maintenance, insurance and other related costs. At the same time, the company does not provide health insurance, pension or other benefits. Emily Isaac writes in the “Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy Working Paper 7”, that there are three main reasons why Uber was able to attain so much success and profitability: (1) the legal void that allowed Uber to register as a technology company instead of a transportation company, and thereby avoid strict restrictions and regulations that apply for taxi companies; (2) the shifting of fixed costs to workers; and (3) a depressed labor market that encouraged unemployed and underemployed people to engage in this economic activity taking considerable financial risks and without any employer-provided benefits.



Micro-powers or Class-power?


Foucault’s work offers a detailed analysis of disciplining mechanisms, but remains obscure about the forces behind them. In his framework, the agent exerting the domination over the (workers’) body is not easily recognizable. In fact, according to Foucault, it is not the power of the state, or the power of one class over the other, that enforces this discipline in the factories, in the prisons and elsewhere. The disciplining of the workforce responds, instead, to the action of “innumerable points of confrontation, struggles and power relations”: what Foucault calls “micro-powers.” Not the state, not the capitalist class. But is it not, effectively, the fact that the capitalists own the means of production the reason why they are able to force that discipline on the working masses? Isn’t this relationship evident? Is it not the system of laws upheld and enforced by the state that maintains the conditions for capitalist exploitation?

A materialist analysis can help us understand the centuries-long success in imposing discipline at the workplace, as well as the changes these techniques have undergone with the passing of time. As mentioned before, the dispossession of large swaths of peasants was needed to create an army of laborers to work in the fledging factories in the wake of capitalist production. Similarly, a large reserve army of labor (the unemployed) operates as a constant pressure for those in the labor market to take the jobs on offer regardless of the working conditions, stability or benefits. The unemployment is the whip that cracks outside the factory window–it reminds the toiling masses that their subsistence depends on the selling of their labor power, on keeping the jobs they have.

In this way, as Marx notes in Capital Vol. I, “[t]he over-work of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of its reserve, while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subjects them to the dictates of capital.”

It is baffling how Foucault overlooks how these overwhelming pressures outside the factory enable and facilitate the coercion exerted inside the factory.

And how can we explain the changes in time and space discipline?

The spread of monitoring and surveillance technology is a mere technical improvement that allows employers to avoid the necessity of “enclosure” and expand their oversight over the production process without having all employees parceled out under the same roof. Moreover, it enables close monitoring in logistics, transportation and service sectors, something that was difficult­—if not impossible—until recently. But both the spatial arrangements and the working-time overhaul can be understood as attempts by employers to squeeze as much labor power as possible from workers at the lowest cost. Part-time contracts, broken schedules, irregular hours, they all represent strategies to maximize the use of labor-time and dispose of the labor-force when it is no longer needed.

While relying heavily on new information and communication technologies to enhance monitoring and surveillance, a growing sector of the economy is able to employ cheap, docile and disposable labor thanks to the pressure exerted by two system-level mechanisms: unemployment and lack of proper regulations. These two elements are necessary for capital to maintain profits and shift the burden of economic downturns on the back of the working class. The state is not a neutral institution in this process: despite some level of autonomy, the capitalist state will ultimately guarantee capitalist profits. During the past 40 years, productivity has risen steadily but real wages have decreased. As a result, labor’s share of income plummeted and the concentration of wealth and income skyrocketed. It is impossible to understand these trends without recognizing the parallel weakening of labor.

To get the full-picture, then, and make sense of the new reality in the production process, we need to account for the level of class-struggle, the action of the state, and the shift in the balance of forces between labor and capital. The poststructuralist framework falls short in this endeavor and raises the need for the more solid scaffolding of historical materialism.

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