drifting icebergs

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By RICARDO ANTUNES*

Newly published book article excerpts

Digital platforms and their origins

For some decades now, capitalism, under financial leadership, has been developing in such a way that capital productivity is always valued at its peak. By proceeding in this way, global corporations increase their profits and exasperate competitiveness among themselves, introducing more and more highly advanced informational-digital machinery, capable of exponentially enhancing the use of the workforce.

For large corporations, the expansion and intensification of working hours that generate profit and surplus value have become even more vital in the face of the intense competition they face among themselves to expand their dominance in the market, both in industry, agriculture and services, as in its known interconnections (agribusiness, industrial services and service industry) and present in the new productive value chains.

Central to this reorganization of capital was the significant expansion of the services sector, increasingly subordinated to the commodity form. This configuration, in addition to dismantling the myth that the “post-industrial service society” would eliminate the working class, triggered a significant expansion of the new service proletariat in the digital age. Such procedurality, contrary to what was advocated in recent decades, did not lead to the loss of relevance of the theory of value, but to the expansion of new generating forms of surplus value, even if frequently assuming the appearance of non-value.

And capitalism has been demonstrating an enormous capacity to articulate material activities, which are highly prevalent in the transformation industry and in agroindustry, with those in which immaterial activities are also expanded, such as those developed in the service industry and on the large digital platforms. These arrangements contribute so that we can better understand the vital role that information, converted into a new commodity, starts to assume in the process of valorization and generation of more value that, it is imperative to add, is under the command of financial capital, which is responsible for promoting and economically, politically, and ideologically directing the totality of value production and reproduction.[I]

With the expansion of the digital universe, through information and communication technologies increasingly present in production (in a broad sense), we find new components that deserve a careful analysis, in order to better capture the role that these technologies have been playing in the forms of accumulation present in current financial capitalism.[ii] That's because these new productive spaces, increasingly connected with digital platforms and the world of algorithms, have been playing a huge role in generating profits and more value, forcing us to better understand how the great digital platforms - which in fact they are true global corporations – they have been participating in what Srnicek called “platform capitalism”.[iii] These are companies that, in addition to holding information, are increasingly the owners of society's infrastructure, with a strong monopolistic and concentrationist potential in the global economy as a whole.

Even knowing that the conceptualization of platform capitalism can and should be problematized, here we use it more in a descriptive sense, that is, in reference to an informational-digital-financial phase of capitalism in which the system increasingly depends on the intensified use of platforms fingerprints. Always reiterating that platforms, as a techno-digital instrument, are increasingly used by a huge range of companies and corporations that have the most different purposes, having in common, however, the recurrence of this informational artifact.

It was in this context that platform capitalism was able to expand to the point that today technology corporations are among the most valued companies in the world, displacing those that occupied the top of capital in the period before the informational-digital explosion.

But it is also important to point out that the digitization of work was not a “surprising revolution. In fact, the digitization of work has introduced (or favored) multiple, profound and rapid changes in structures and production processes; in the organization of work and in the labor market. These alterations resulted in “a strong fragmentation of the production process; an equally strong acceleration of the cycle of valuing goods (in production, in the management of supply chains, in sales); a significant decomposition of the workforce (reducing its physical concentration); an intense individualization of labor relations and contracts”. And this great transformation of the economy “was based on a high degree of informatization, automation and robotization, under the aegis of digital technologies”.[iv]

If in the 1980s/90s we had the computerization and automation of the industrial sector, through the outsourcing of activities in the countries of the South of the world, in the first two decades of the XNUMXst century we witnessed the “advent of total connectivity, of cloud work, the digitization of Industry 4.0, services and specific sectors such as care”. And that's how digital work, which is now expanding across much of the world, found great momentum in the context of the pandemic.

As a result of what we indicated earlier, we are going to present the three critical theses that may help us to understand the size, meaning, risks and depth of the metamorphoses underway in the world of work.

 

The new labor experimentation laboratories

The first thesis – the new work experimentation laboratories – can be summarized as follows: during the pandemic, new work experimentation laboratories were developed, of which work linked and subordinated to service platforms, the home office and telecommuting (with its similarities and differences) are exemplary. If these practices were already used before the pandemic crisis, during its duration they expanded even more significantly.

Result of a complex movement, whose origins go back to the structural crisis of capital, large corporations have been simultaneously using a huge mass of unemployed people who start working under the command of digital technologies and their algorithms. This symbiosis has also allowed the incentive to individualize work (the “entrepreneurship”, “autonomy” and similar mystifications) and by doing so, they manage to circumvent the protective legislation of work, a trend that has enormous potential for expansion into a set of activities that develop in the service industry, that is, in commoditized or commoditized services.

The results are visible: strenuous working hours, often without weekly rest; reduced wages; summary dismissals without any explanation; funding for the purchase or lease of vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, cell phones, the internet, among many other aberrations, which comprise uberized work, in which exploitation/spoliation/expropriation are mixed and intensified. It is for no other reason that, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also experiencing the uberization pandemic. [v]

Thus, the business recipe for the post-pandemic phase is already designed and outlined: more flexibility, more informality, expansion of outsourcing forms, with the consequent explosion of intermittent and uberized work, all under the command of algorithms with their only apparent neutrality .

In this way, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, global corporate platforms have created, with seemingly limitless ingenuity, new capital experimentation laboratories, expanding and intensifying the working world, involving it in a new reality characterized by the uberization pandemic. That is why, in all spaces, particularly in privatized services, there is an increasing push towards a “new” modality of work in which wages are transformed and assume the appearance of “enterprise” and “autonomy”.

This process, which has its roots in a structural process of crisis, was particularly accentuated after 2008/2009. It is in this context that, due to its unique socioeconomic repercussions, the pandemic becomes a moment that spurred new capital experimentation laboratories, apparently contingent, but which focused on the most different activities, whether productive or reproductive, paving the way for a significant accentuation the precariousness of work in the post-pandemic period. The only way to stop it will depend on the resistance capacity of the working class, imposing limits on labor exploitation and demanding new rights.

Thus, the “new” traits that characterize uberized work are all too evident: there are no longer limits, either in time or working hours; the separation between working time and life time is disappearing; labor practices are increasingly deregulated; labor rights suffer a daily corrosion process and labor justice, when it succeeds, is hampered by supreme decisions. The intensity and rhythms of work are exercised to the limit, and the mystifications underlying the work that ceased to be work, the salary that miraculously became “entrepreneurship”, “autonomy”, are all too evident.

As the expansion of uberized work finds fertile soil in an almost unlimited range of activities in services, it would be a true miracle that such a destructive order did not produce more accidents, illnesses and sufferings at work, with an emphasis on psychic illnesses, more subjective, more interiorized .

Burnout, depression, ordeal and suicide, all of this becomes the rule rather than the exception. Turbocharged by the nefarious “target system” that has become the new chronometer in the era of flexible, systematic accumulation that has become a powerful creation of capital, in its endeavor aimed at the deconstruction of work. The era of work devastation then intensified in the labor experimentation laboratories. A scenario that provocatively leads us to the second thesis: platform capitalism seems to have something in common with the protoform of capitalism.

 

Platform capitalism and the protoform of capitalism

We indicate that platform capitalism, shaped by social relations of capital, ends up subsuming the informational-digital arsenal primarily to the needs of its self-expansion and valuation. And, in doing so, it resorts more and more to past forms of exploitation, expropriation and spoliation of labor that the XNUMXth century had already, to some extent, taken care of eliminating, or at least restricting, at least in parts of the world.

We know that the protoform of capitalism was marked by the enormous exploitation of labor, in the early days of the factory universe in Manchester, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in the 12th century, whose days for men, women and children exceeded 14, 16, XNUMX hours a day, in addition to resort to putting-out system and outsourcing, forms of outsourcing work often based on piecework. Thus, our thesis indicates an odd (but not paradoxical) approximation between these different historical phases of capitalism, the past and the present.

This occurs because, in the midst of the digital era, the methods of sucking up surplus labor (intellectual and manual) are intensified in all spaces where capital is reproduced, exactly in the period in which, given the enormous technological advance, the working day work could be significantly reduced. The uninterrupted competition between global corporations converts the devastation and corrosion of work into an indisputable imperative for capital.

That is why we are witnessing a variant of accumulation that is both very digital and abusively primitive. A platform capitalism that seems to have something in common with the protoform of capitalism. This is because, once again, the antisocial metabolism system of capital[vi] imposes its course, articulating the modern, which is found, for example, in artificial intelligence, with the archaic, intensifying the binomial exploitation and spoliation.

And, in addition to the forms of labor exploitation, forms of expropriation and dispossession are also expanding, since, in addition to providing their workforce, workers are responsible for the costs of purchasing or allocating vehicles, cell phones , equipment (such as couriers' backpacks), increasing their financial dependence to pay for work tools that should be provided by companies. Thus, for this process to take place, it was also necessary to expropriate the working class, which, once deprived of instruments of work and indebted, would have no choice but to accept “any” work.

That is why the work that expands in the “productive base” of the Amazon (e Amazon Mechanical Turk), Uber (and Uber Eats), 99, Cabify, Lyft, Ifood, Rappi, Glovo, Deliveroo, Airbnb, Workana, GetNinjas, among so many other examples, it is increasingly resembling a type of work that, despite its many differences, can be called uberized work.

In a historic era in which the uberization of work and Industry 4.0 are endowed with an enormous destructive dimension in relation to the workforce, our third thesis ends with a critical design of great intensity and depth.

 

A new era of the deanthropomorphization of work

It is within this capitalist process that, simultaneously with the growth of uberized work, we see the global expansion of Industry 4.0, a proposal that was born in Germany and was conceived to provide a new technological leap in the productive world (in a broad sense) from the expansion of robotics and new information and communication technologies.

Its implementation has led to an even greater intensification of automated production processes throughout the value chain, so that all production and business logistics become increasingly digitally controlled and commanded.[vii]

It is in this context that our third thesis emerges: in addition to the intensified precariousness that has been shaping uberized work, at the other end of this same process, where Industry 4.0 expands, we are witnessing a significant expansion of dead work, with digital machinery as dominant and conductor of the entire production process, with the consequent reduction of live work, through the replacement of activities that become superfluous, due to the entry of new automated and robotic machines, under the command of algorithms.

More robots and digital machines invade production, which leads us to indicate that we are entering a new qualitatively superior phase of real subsumption of labor to capital. Now with the presence of the internet of things-IoT, artificial intelligence, cloud, big data, 3D printing, 5G internet, cell phones, tablets, smartphones and similar, the informational-digital world started to control, supervise and command this new phase of cyber XNUMXst century industry.

It is because of these socially destructive elements that we are on the eve of a new process of deanthropomorphizing work (to recall Lukács[viii]), since the trend towards the elimination (and/or subjection) of our contingents of living labor and its replacement (and/or subordination) by dead labor, resulting from this new business venture aimed at consolidating the new digital factory, is significantly accentuated. , in the most different branches and economic sectors.

We are entering, then, a new level of real subsumption of work, which deepens its condition as an appendix of the informational, digital and algorithmic machine, expanding the deanthropomorphization of large contingents of living work, in an even deeper dimension than that which occurred with the introduction of machinery during the First Industrial Revolution.

This is because, if during the artisanal and manufacturing cycle, work had command and control over the work instruments (tools) and their movements (being, therefore, an active and conducting part of a living mechanism), in large industry it a complete inversion took place: the command was transferred to a dead mechanism, independent of the living work, which, in this way, became an appendage of the machine. It became, as Marx pointed out, an automaton, given the real subsumption of living labor to capital, to dead labor.[ix].

Thus, when defining the deanthropomorphization of work, we are alluding not only to a quantitative dimension, but also to the qualitative loss of living work and its subsumption to dead work. In current capitalism, commanded by financial capital, under the fog of algorithms, artificial intelligence and the internet of things, with its appearance of neutrality, our thesis is that the real subsumption that is forged in the cyber industry, which is undergoing permanent productive restructuring, becomes even more complex and profound, both in the universe of objectivity and subjectivity of the working class.

Even more objectified and fetishized, without even minimally holding control of the movements of the new informational-digital machinery, living work, when it does not disappear via unemployment, is subsumed even more intensely by capital, since it does not even know the gears that are in motion in the new digital factory under the command of algorithms, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, etc.

 

A new era of revolts

It was this scenario of structural precariousness of work present in uberized work that on July 1 and 25, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, Brazil found itself facing two important strikes – called #brequedosapps – which signaled a new scenario of struggles and resistance of digital platform delivery workers, a movement that has expanded to several countries in Latin America and in various parts of the world, as shown by the British experience and that of other European countries.

Along with numerous strikes that followed in Brazil, Latin America and in various parts of the world, added to many other workers' strikes, they have been expressing a mosaic and a multiplicity of forms of action and resistance triggered by the new service proletariat, segment that does not stop expanding, indicating clear signs of dissatisfaction that should expand in this era of dereliction and erosion of the rights of the working class in the informational-digital era. [X]

Here, then, is an invitation to read the 28 chapters in the book. drifting icebergs.

*Ricardo Antunes is a full professor of sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Pandemic capitalism (boitempo).

Reference


Ricardo Antunes (org.). Drifting icebergs: work on digital platforms. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2023, 552 pages (https://amzn.to/3KH2VuN).

Releases:

At Unicamp, on August 22, at 14 pm, in the Marielle Franco Auditorium.

In São Paulo, on September 1st, at 19 pm, at Livraria da Travessa (R dos Pinheiros, 513).

Notes


[I]Francois Chesnais, The globalization of capital (São Paulo, Xamã, 1996) (https://amzn.to/3YEz3om).

[ii] For a broad and critical overview of these trends, covering several countries, see Ricardo Antunes, Fabio Perocco and Pietro Basso, (eds.), Il lavoro digitale: Maggiore autonomy or nuovoasservimentodel lavoro, in Socioscapes International Journal of Societies, Politics and Cultures II, (Special issue, Italy, 2021) (https://amzn.to/3E2ZSt6).

[iii]Nick Srnicek, platform capitalism (Cambridge, Polity, 2017). P. 86 (https://amzn.to/3OJDfik).

[iv] Ricardo Antunes, Fabio Perocco and Pietro Basso (org.), The digital work, cit., p. 10-11.

[v] See Ricardo Antunes, Pandemic Capitalism (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022) (https://amzn.to/3OJGqqf)

[vi]István Meszaros, Beyond Capital (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020) (https://amzn.to/3OJjGGG).

[vii] See, in relation to the advancement of Industry 4.0 in Brazil: Geraldo Augusto Pinto, Industry 4.0 in the automotive chain. In: Ricardo Antunes (Org.). Uberization, Digital Work and Industry 4.0 (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020) (https://amzn.to/3OImTGt).

[viii]Gyorgy Lukacs, Towards an Ontology of Social Being, Book II, (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2013) (https://amzn.to/3KLfULQ).

[ix]Karl Marx, Capital, book I (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2013), p. 494-95 (https://amzn.to/3qCU4Du).

[X]This article summarizes some of the central ideas present in chapter 1 of the book we edit, entitled Drifting Icebergs: Working on Digital Platforms, which brings the research carried out by the Group World of Work and its Metamorphoses, from IFCH/UNICAMP, and has the participation of authors from the country and also from abroad (Italy, England and Portugal).


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