The insides of the digital economy: between new Taylorism and social discipline

Il·lustració © Maria Corte

Digital Taylorism changes the production processes (with data as raw material) and the forms of labour exploitation driven by digital capitalism. But we must break with the monopolies of private power that appropriate data and human profiles to turn them into a source of profit until inequality is consolidated.

No one can foretell the features of the social and economic system that will characterise the post-pandemic era. There are too many unknowns about the recovery and too many debt imbalances and inequality that it will bequeath us. However, the driving forces towards green and digital transitions are already part of a new consensus in which, besides NGOs and social forces, global elites and centres of strategic thinking are comfortable, along with large technology corporations and the old energy oligopolies.

The power centres somehow assume that the huge injections of public State funds (which now exceed 15% of global GDP) are a great opportunity to restart a new wave of capital accumulation, thereby overcoming the fears of undergoing a prolonged period of “secular stagnation”. Let us remember that this concept, recovered in 2013 by the economist Larry Summers, envisaged a decade marked by low rates of private investment and limited profit expectations. With the state taking entrepreneurial risks, optimism is returning to the power centres.

There is consensus as to the direction of the path, the question concerns who hegemonises it. The crux of the matter is how it affects the labour market, or, better still, how it resolves the slump in aggregate demand associated with consumption constrained by low wages and the depreciation of labour. We are entering an exciting time that is being described in many ways, some of which are more precise than others. Understanding the underlying trends is the only way to restrain them and turn their more negative aspects around.

We can define the current time using the term data economy, but, in doing so, we counteract and embellish the social components they bring with them, by turning everything into a change of the raw material, the data, presented as an abstract element disconnected from the citizen-worker, as an object of expropriation. On the other hand, the term surveillance capitalism employed by Shoshana Zuboff has the advantage of connecting the present time with a change in the power logic, but ends up laying the emphasis – excessively, in my opinion – on the consumer, overlooking the impact on production processes and the exploitation of labour. The concept of New Taylorism (or Digital Taylorism) is closer to bringing both perspectives together, integrating them in the changes in production processes (with data as raw material) and in the new logics for the exploitation of labour driven by digital capitalism.

Taylorism: depreciation of labour and capital accumulation

Taylorism was and is much more than a set of production techniques. It is a veritable philosophy that drives a mode of production and certain social relations. If a hundred years ago it gave rise to Fordist capitalism, today it is the foundation of digital capitalism. Whereas the systematisation of mechanical tasks through the exhaustive analysis of their sequences and processes facilitated the optimisation of the relationship between workers and machines in the late 19th century, now any intellectual work subject to routines is open to total or partial automation.

While the improvements of industrial Taylorism facilitated the revolution of simple processes in situ, Digital Taylorism facilitates the breakdown and relocation of complex tasks on-network. The most varied intellectual tasks, such as translating a book, teaching virtual classes, interpreting a legal text or developing telemedicine, can now be broken down and dismantled, so that their simplest parts are outsourced to a robot or low-value sub-contracts all over the world. Both Taylorisms end up exhibiting similar social consequences: greater control over production processes and the worker’s times, in other words, greater intensity in the exploitation of labour directly linked to a new wave of capital accumulation.

That is the gist of the current change. We are facing a new qualitative leap in the fragmentation of tasks and the outsourcing and relocation of production. New routines that can be taken on by digital applications, under the scope of artificial intelligence, performed by isolated individuals but connected from outside the organisational perimeters of companies, located anywhere, near or far: this will be the predominant profile of the new production system.

Taylorism: scientific advances and social discipline

The growing intensity of labour exploitation needs to be explained and justified with scientific and moral arguments. The inequality generated by the processes of capital accumulation needs to be justified to be acceptable.

When Taylor asserted, in the early 20th century, that “soldiering constitutes the greatest evil with which the working-people of both England and America are now afflicted”, or that “wage increases above what is necessary end up encouraging alcoholism and the fall in production” is not very far from the arguments used to justify the removal of subsidies or the declarations of northern European countries to discredit idlers in the south. It is a question of conveniently covering and hiding the will to control and discipline the poorest or the weakest and, by extension, to hold people responsible and blame them for their circumstances.

Il·lustració © Maria Corte Illustration © Maria Corte

Divided by more than a hundred years, both Taylorisms also share the desire to present themselves as “drivers of progress and human freedom”. While industrial Taylorism introduced variable remuneration systems and the payment of performance-based bonuses as incentives around 1900, now Digital Taylorism is introducing new forms of remuneration, as is the case of riders or payment for micro jobs, which are sold as a manifestation of the new worker’s “freedom”, when they are just another justification for new forms of human dependence.

It is therefore essential to justify the new changes with the prestige of science. If industrial Taylorism called on the “scientific organisation of work” to maximise the workforce’s efficiency through the close monitoring of the worker’s movements at each moment and the timing of operations, now the treatment of cognitive routines is associated with new scientific breakthroughs linked to the “use of algorithms and artificial intelligence”.

The exploitation of labour is intensified through employee traceability, considered as merchandise, in all their key variables. There are instruments and applications that allow a significant part of their work history to be accessed (origin, training, work experience, participation in conflicts, absenteeism, incidents, etc.); there are applications that allow their current route to be tracked (where they are at any given time; the time spent travelling, on each task and on breaks) or their output to be measured (minute-by-minute productivity, efficiency and quality indicators, appraisal of their work, etc.).

What is exceptional at the moment is that this capitalism does not exhaust the generation of surpluses in production processes, but rather extends them to any moment of human life through instruments that invade their intimacy, designed to identify tastes and to influence and determine their behaviours. Any citizen that is in possession of a device and surfs the Internet is already “a traceable product”. Any comment said aloud and any search made identifies a need that will, from that point on, make insistent adverts appear in any news you read or websites you visit. They are followed to the nearest millimetre. It is the result of the so-called “programmatic advertising”, which is based on algorithms that establish instant matches that draw your attention, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Artificial intelligence, human impoverishment

The term artificial intelligence broaches features of a superior society that is connected to the idea of the “knowledge society”. But the reality is that is it associated with the impoverishment of vast majorities.

Neoliberals propagated the myth that we were entering a historic period in which the investment in training was the most profitable investment for any citizen. Whether born in California, in Spain or in Egypt, training would generate universal opportunities for improvement and growing job satisfaction, similar to that associated with creative work in the traditional middle classes. But the myth came tumbling down. There are two palpable manifestations of this failure: on the one hand, the growing rate of underemployment and professionals’ overqualification;[1] and, on the other hand, the loan crisis to finance university degrees, especially serious in the United States.[2]

[1] The 2017 Report by the CYD (Science and Development Foundation) established that, in the European Union, 23% of graduates performed their tasks in low-skilled jobs (37% in Spain), to which another 16% that did so part time must be added.
[2] The rise in student debt in the United States, which affects 45 million North Americans and amounts to 1.54 billion euros, 20% higher than Spanish GDP, is the most obvious indication that the market does not value investment in knowledge. (Source: Moody’s agency and Student Debt Crisis).

The fact is that, contrary to what the myth of the knowledge society predicted, the current economic system needs, on a global level, a diminishing volume of knowledge to produce goods and services. Or, more precisely, it needs less living knowledge, associated with the work of humans, and replaces it with more dead knowledge, meaning this part of knowledge that is condensed and is crystallised in applications and systems, and in robots and artificial intelligence.

Put another way, digital technologies facilitate the extraction of a large part of human knowledge, understood as an attribute of work, and harness it in applications and systems, turning it into capital. Human knowledge follows the same logic as manual work: it ends up being replaced by capital and fuelling accumulation according to a logic that Marx described with a statement that is as precise as it is cruel: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Only a highly-qualified minority, dedicated to identifying problems and coming up with and presenting imaginative solutions, will be able to revalue their work. But this minority will be mainly located in California or in one of the technology centres in a few countries in the world (Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, etc.).

Adam Smith, the father of political economy, said in The Wealth of Nations that, with machines, “labour comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently one or two”, and that routine becomes self-destructive and ends up damaging the worker to the point that they end up “becoming as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. This is what we are contending with.

Dreaming of a better world

A saying attributed to Louis Blanc, a Utopian socialist from the mid-19th century, still represents the fairest way of imagining the creation and distribution of wealth. It goes “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. When Marx wondered in what material conditions his development would be possible, he answered “(…) after the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished (….); after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”.

The interesting thing is that this aspiration can define the current time. A time that calls for an exhaustive volume of information to, first, identify the capacities and needs of each person and, then, to handle them promptly throughout the different stages of each person’s life. The capacity to manage millions of data instantly and in a decentralised way, and to understand and map social needs in detail, would allow us to successfully address this challenge.

It is also clear that we are at a time when “the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”, enough to tackle and meet the world’s most ambitious challenges. What is lacking, simply, is to break with the monopolies of private power that appropriate data and human profiles to turn them into a source of profit until inequality is consolidated as a social trait. Pure and simple, this is lacking.

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