Sunday, December 05, 2021

Homework: Three Recent Books on Work


Because I regularly teach a class on work, and have my own book on work coming out, I make it a habit to keep up on all of the writing on work, from theoretical studies and polemics, to ethnographies and studies of contemporary political economy. It is getting to be quite a lot to keep up with, what seemed like a slow trickle a decade or so ago when Kathi Weeks The Problem with Work came out, has become a steady stream of books. Perhaps this is a sign of changing ideas about work, but at the very least it means that there is a lot to keep up with in reading critical studies of work. What follows is a short review of three of the recent ones.

Heather Berg's Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism offers a corrective to two major trends in scholarship. First, in response to literature on pornography that primarily treats it as commodity, as an object to then debate its effects, it addresses the work in producing that object. Most debates about pornography start with the commodity, with the thing in question already produced, and not the work in its production. Second, even studies of the precarious nature of gig work rarely discuss the way in which the production of porn is part of the same process of platform mediated work. In other words, when porn is discussed it is not as work, and when work is analyzed it rarely includes porn. This limits not just our understanding of pornography, but more importantly the world of work. Berg's addresses both of these limitations by considering the work behind the production of porn. For that reason alone her book is important, rather than assume, by either a moralizing or hedonistic logic, that the production of porn is different from other forms of work Berg examines the way in which porn work is both like and unlike the larger transformations of work.

One of the most interesting aspects of her book, at least for me, was her examination of the way in which the boundaries between gig work, getting paid for a scene; free labor, putting clips or photos online without charging; and "entrepreneurial" activity, running one's own site or video channel, are incredibly porous. The same performer often criss crosses these different boundaries in the course of a week or a day, doing different kinds of work with different kinds of payment (or nonpayment). As Berg states, "Porno dialectics are messier than conventional stories of classed struggle because class boundaries are less calcified here. Porn workers are very rarely only workers. Instead they occupy constantly shifting class positions as entrepreneurs, independent contractors, formal employees, contracted and freelance managers and producers." The logic behind this shifting of positions is one in which work for a production company, and even scenes made freely available online, can be used to help to build one's brand. The trajectory across these different types of labor are sustained by a strategy, a strategy to deal with the declining pay and lack of control by building a brand, but it is a strategy, as all strategies are, without guarantees. As Berg writes,

"With opportunities for waged scene work waining just as opportunities for exposure widen, this is especially true in porn. For porn and other workers, "microcelebrity" has no reliable connection to material security. One publicist complained that a client with over 100,000 twitter followers had only ten paying subscribers to her website. Likewise, the free webcam shows performers offer in hopes of driving paying clientele do not always yield paying customers. In fact, they can work as a kind of scab labor, raising expectations for what other performers will do for free and making it more difficult for everyone to charge for interactive time."

I do not want to efface the specificity of porn work, but it is hard not to see in that passage a more general problem facing many contemporary workers. That workers work against themselves while working for themselves, increasing the power of capital while earning their own wage, is not new, one could argue that it is integral to Marx's criticism (and definition) of capitalism. What seems new is the idea that in this struggle to be one's own boss one could be one's own scab, that working for exposure, which is sometimes necessary and could be the condition for increased money, power, and opportunity, is at the same time the condition for increased subjection and exploitation. Working for free, for exposure, could become the basis for autonomy, for starting ones own streaming service with the fans one accumulates, that is a possibility, but the reality is that it is often working for free. This condition is even made more striking in that one of the thing that drives people to work in porn is the promise of less work and more autonomy, making enough in few days to last the week, but that promise is increasing squandered in a life in which the search for work increasingly becomes its own work. 

An illustration of the old mechanical turk

Phil Jones' book Work without the Worker: Labour in the age of Platform Capitalism also deals with a break down of the distinction between work and non-work. Jones' area of investigation are the mostly invisible workers behind the scenes of the digital world. They are the workers who make the algorithms work by tagging images, filtering videos, translating text, and so on, what Bezo's refers to as "artificial artificial intelligence." The doubling of the word artificial is Bezo's seeming acknowledgement of the human as "conscious organ of the machine," which is also reflected in the name of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, named after a supposed machine that hid a person inside. As Jones writes about this invisible labor, "In a postmodern twist on the eighteenth century device, the platform disguises humans as computations, now to woo a credulous--or simply cynical--audience of start-ups, conglomerates and university researchers." There is a lot of labor in our intelligent machines, much of it invisible, global, and poorly paid. 

Not only are the workers hidden behind the computer screens, making the later seem smarter, quicker, and more responsive. They are also helping perfect them. Training the machine learning to recognize images, or or do other simple tasks can also working to make one's own work, already precarious to begin with, obsolete. It turns out that you cannot just be your own scab you can also be your own automation, or at least contribute to it. 

While the breakdown between the human and the machine, or the human in the machine, is one of the shifting positions that Jones charts. The other, just as important, is the status of the workers themselves, as gig works they work by piece, by specific job, but the platforms are set up to discipline workers, anyone who does not complete work fast enough, or is deemed to do a poor job, loses even the chance for future employment. This liminal status is in some sense the worst of both worlds. As Jones puts it, "In the so-called 'gig economy," for instance, workers are denied all of the rights afforded an employee but given none of the freedoms of an independent contractor." Rather than cross between boundaries, as in the case of Berg's study of porn work, the platform gig worker is stuck in a liminal state between machine and human, worker and contractor, and even work and play. Jones argues that there is an increasing gamification of gig work, replacing pay meager as it is, with gift certificates or other forms of what are basically script. The internet has brought back piecework and the company store, now even shinier, global, and at the same time more isolated than before.

The last point is important, gig workers for platforms often do not have any contact with each other or even have anyway to get to know each other. They are often spread over the world. The platforms that organize their labor are heavily monitored by employers and thus hostile to worker communication. Platforms are a capitalist ideal that make possible organizing workers without creating the conditions for workers to self-organize, to communicate in the break room or after. Jones argues that despite this there have been attempts to use the very technology that connects while separating them to organize, creating forums for digital organizing. Reading Berg and Jones together it is hard not to imagine that whatever form worker organization will take in the future will involve an ability to disrupt and appropriate the technologies that organize work.

Turning to the third book, Berg and Jones' specific examinations can be understood as particular instances of a major general breakdown, the breakdown of the division between life and work. This is one the central points of Amelia Horgan's Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism.  While Berg and Jones' books already began to chart some of the transformations of COVID-19, especially as it drove more work online, Horgan's book begins with the shock that the pandemic brought to our understanding of the reality of work. We became aware of our dependence on the work of others, and were reminded how difficult and unsafe most work actually is. As Horgan writes, "Covid-19 called into question the soothing idea of progressively improved and it revealed the prevalence of bad new work." 

Horgan does not just remind us how bad much contemporary work is, not just in terms of long hours and poor pay, and abuse that is integral to service work. (This is also something that got worse during the pandemic), but that all work stems from a fundamental asymmetry of power that is often occluded in the way that we think about it.  

"We don't control the conditions of our work and challenging them can be difficult. Because of the background unfreedom--the fact that we are compelled to work--challenging bad workplace practices, such as not having proper safety equipment, routine paid overtime, even harassment and discrimination all become harder. If you need a job to live, especially if it's hard to get one (you don't have the right kinds of skills or the right permits to work, or there's hight unemployment), the direct control your boss has over you is greater."

This might seems elementary, a basic fact of existence, but, as Horgan demonstrates, the entire way that we think about and represent work in contemporary society is oriented towards eclipsing this fact. Work is generally presented not as something we are subject to but as something that constitutes us as subjects, as realizing who we are. The extreme disconnect between work as something that we have to do, compelled by our survival, and work as something we are, as a realization of ourselves, makes it difficult to make sense of it and ourselves.

Despite this gap between how work is lived and how it is represented, a compelled conditions that is lived as self-realization, as freedom, that distorts and disorientates, we continue to resist. We do so in little ways, extending breaks, checking social media on work time, or just ducking out to the bathroom. As Horgan writes, "While workers try to carve out time away from work at work, management intensifies the process of work." 

Reading Berg, Jones, and Horgan together we can see that while the structures, terms, and discourses of work have changed, rendering the old terms of struggle obsolete, it is still a struggle, an attempt to gain autonomy, pleasure, and power, from a system bent on turning all of that, even life itself, into a source of profit. The task remains as how to create new terms, new organizations, that can turn that struggle from something that happens silently on a purely individual level to a politics. 

No comments: