By Ali Zain, Hacettepe University, Graduate School of Social Sciences
Every day millions of people access information through paper-printed newspapers around the world, and an enormous news reports, updates on latest developments and hyperlinked information is accessed via social media networks, websites and online newspapers on the screens of computers and smartphones. This is the summary of our compelling impulse to commodify every aspect of our lives in the twenty first century: which is a novel example of capitalism and a clear indication that how this digital-era is being taken for granted. Ursula Huws has academically explained this plain story of evolution of networked capitalism in the digital age in “Labor in the Global Digital Economy”. The book which has been published by Monthly Review Press, New York in 2014 is actually a reprinted version of her seven essays. She has raised crucial questions about the actors of new economy, both the waged and the unwaged workers all across the global division of labor. Establishing her case by proving the link between information communication technology (ICT), accumulation of capital and latest restructuring of work phenomena, Ursula Haws has examined how a “sea change in the character of work” (17) has been prompted by these technologies while leading the debate to what future holds for this form of labor. Without any exception, Huws has successfully carried the discussion from the explanation of the “cybertariat” to create an awareness about the multilateral ways in which the series of mutually reinforcing economic, political and technological factors are transforming not only the global economies, nature of work, but also the individual lives.
This work is a follows up of Huws’ previous book titled “The Making of Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World” which is an early exploration of the impact of technological change on the workplace experience just after the change of millennium. This book takes the discussion forward to explain how, as the title of the book suggests, the cybertariat has “come of age”. The book is an organization of a series of essays which describe some of these issues at a greater level. Chapter 1 discusses the concept of occupational identity, and how the idea of division of labor has vastly dispersed contractually and geographically. Huws reviews the class notions of dual labor markets in general and in particular the internal labor markets (Doeringer and Piore, 1971), and why a more up-to-date conceptualization of this idea is needed by raising several questions over the nature of job destabilization by presenting it as a manifestation of capitalism. Chapter 2 takes the debate to work identities to consider the nature of jobs and workplaces, how they are transforming, and the potential impact of this change on nature of cities and societies because after all “social structures and relationships are played out in the physical geography of the city” and human communities (48).
While mentioning the change in the nature of work in the digital world, Huws points to the similarity between increased movement of populations around the world and the breakdown of old traditional occupational identities. She notes that increasingly more people are experiencing features of being both static and footloose often in complex configurations – leading to their fractured existence, and how “there has been an erosion of the clear boundaries of the workplace and the workday, with a spill-over of many activities into the home or other locations” (58). Here she raises a key point that “the future of our cities will depend in large part on how we reintegrate these fractured selves, workplaces and neighborhoods” (60).
It’s certainly not possible to do justice with each of these chapters based versatile academic concepts in a few sentences as each presents a complete essay explaining several issues in depth, such as: “the intensification of work and increased precarity” (ch.3), the establishment of a conceptual framework to analyze the restructuring of industries and the potential impact of such changes on employment (ch.4); the interknitted complexity between actors of the creative industries, and the important role of creative workers in development of capitalism (ch.5); the financial crisis to be seen as a capitalist opportunity to encourage reformation and modification of public services (ch.6); and a discussion on how to apply Marx’s fundamental concepts of class, commodities and labor in the era of the modern world (ch.7). In doing so the final chapter beginnings with a consideration that how we can understand the functioning of the modern capitalist systems, how one may visualize alternatives for them and act to instigate a collective action to foster change.
Chapters 5 and 7, together, present a picture of labor circumstances in “the information and media industries” and the changing situations of information workers where “there is the urge by individual workers to do something meaningful in life, make a mark on the world, be recognized and appreciated and respected, on the one hand, and, on the other, the need for a subsistence income, the ability to plan ahead, and some spare time to spend with loved ones”, resulting in “a contradiction between a drive for autonomy and a search for security” (125). And chapter 6 carefully reveals the key contradictions of the neoliberal political project to privatize functions of the state, which is not so much anticipated to “shrink” the size of government but to actually increase the scope of the public service sector as a new terrain for accumulation of capital “in which services are standardized and capable of being delivered by a compliant and interchangeable workforce, embedded in a global division of labor, and subjected to the discipline of that global labor market” (128).
In this book, Huws has also provided a detailed analysis of the possible ways in which information and communication technologies have created new opportunities for capitalist accumulation, and new options for commodification for sociology, public services, biology, art and culture.
To build an argument on social relations of labor she quotes the social caste system of Hinduism where division of labor has become so embedded in the social structures that occupational identity is something that one is born into. Haws cites Sudheer Birodkar: “Occupational specialization was the essence of the sub-division of the two lower Varnas (castes) of the Vaishyas and Shudras into the various Jatis (occupational sub-castes). . . . Infringement of caste rules of vocation could lead to expulsion; thus a Chamar (shoemaker) had to remain a Chamar all his life. If he tried to become a Kumar (potter) or Darji (tailor) he was in danger of being expelled from the Chamar caste and obviously under the caste rules he would not be admitted into any other caste in spite of his having the knowledge of any other vocation” (10). To add more on this in the context of innovation driven economy, she says: “the development of an ever more technologically complex capitalism results in de-skilling or reskilling are therefore beside the point. The nature of innovation is such that both processes happen simultaneously: each new development in the technical division of labor entails a new split between “head” and “hands”” (13). Huws terms it as an extraordinary ability of capitalism to survive through the centuries and generate newer commodities by redesigning the nature of work and labor. However, she also terms it as a contradictory experience because workers’ jobs have been standardized by the institutions and yet they are told to be more creative and innovative in their work.
Exactly like the emergence of electricity led to the new commodity development based on domestic labor in early twentieth century (for things such as washing machines) or entertainment goods (such as radio and television), today the modern technology is also creating a new set of commodities with attractive set of features. Capitalism has used these new technologies to further speedup the already intensified wave of commodification, which also faces contradictions within itself. As part of this, the author points to new fields of capital accumulation that have emerged such as: public services, art and culture, sociology and. The first of them, biology: includes the ways in which plants and animals are being transformed into commodities, new drugs or production of genetically engineered food. Of these new fields, the issue of biology is only introduced but not discussed in detail in the book, as Huws argues that it needs further consideration and debate. For art and culture Huws notes the ways in which several areas of production of cultural commodities have been swayed by technology and how this area has increasingly crawled into the ownership of the large international companies. Of the creative industries such as publishing, TV, film production and development of games have renovated into industries comprising an infrastructure ruled by “corporate behemoths”. The companies involved here also transnational in terms of nature of business and structure and have their involvement in different areas of cultural production, using “content producers” which work under increasingly indefensible terms.
Technology has made it easier to break labor into micro-tasks, with usually being executed at different locations around the globe and for very little expense. For public services, Huws mentions the ways in which public sector work has been privatized to a great extent, how the commodification of public services sector took place during the twentieth century. In particular, Huws focuses on how the 2008 financial recession acted as a turning point to begin a new era of accumulation purely based on the concept of the commodification of public services. As a result, apart from the most primary public services, other skilled professionals are also getting their work transformed, for example the large number of academics which provide materials using opensource online courses.
The fourth area, sociality is termed by Huws as the new opportunity of commodification which has “mindboggling” implications due to the ubiquitous nature of technology being adopted within social life. She points out how the need for communication through technologies has made this part of life a new opportunity for the consideration of capitalism systems. She demonstrates the point with four scenarios: “school children and the proliferation of mobile phones (and the impact on young people who do not have access to such hardware); people in a café, again with multiple uses of the mobile phone; on a crowded London bus the multiple and in many ways mundane conversations, again happening through technology; and from a conference session where academics during presentations look at iPads, laptops or phones”. All of the time, there is a an interaction with technologies there is a potential profit to be made from it, and the presence of capitalism is built-in throughout all of these situations, from the production of the hardware, software and the ICT framework to facilitate the data downloads to the provision electricity to keep the technology active and running. Contemporary consumer trends have also led to a greater global connectivity through ICTs as well as various forms of manipulation.
Most importantly, Huws describes how capitalism is not only occupying the world of work but also personal relationships by making them part of larger system of corporate to make profits. Each of these concepts present the potential for the understanding of the work of the work, and human lives if said more broadly, to be shaped by the presence and use of technologies. Of course the transformation brought about by any system cannot be without its own contradictions, just like Huws has also noted some of these which occur at different levels from the workers to the nation and state.
The book introduces multiple examples from around the world, beginning from analysis of the impact of such changes in capitalist societies, and meanwhile raising questions about the possible implications of the digital-era for the world of labor in the future. At times the themes are not meticulously developed, but are vividly illustrated with examples from real world. This shows a variety of the contexts and levels at which these phenomena are marking their presence. Overall, this book presents a convincing and illuminating criticism of the contemporary capitalist world where so many people do not take care of their use of information and communication technologies which have become part of almost every sphere of modern life. It raises also important questions about understanding these transformations of capitalist world. The concepts have been illustrated through the author’s experiences from daily life, which have affinity with many of the readers. In terms of taking charge of change, Christian Fuchs claims that users the source of economic power as well as a source of change in this capitalist economy because they create economic value of corporate sector (ch.2). For this he presents a hypothetical example of Facebook, which is quite close to 2018’s famous case of Google that was ordered by European Parliament to take measures to change its pattern of commodifying the data of the users. However Huws does not suggest solutions for the issues presented in the book and instead only raises awareness about them by explaining the importance of a continuing research agenda based on the impact of digital economies on the nature of work and workers. As Huws moves towards conclusion in her final essay, she says “tedious though it may be to unravel the complexities of global value chains and position our labor processes in relation to them, this seems to be an absolutely necessary task if we are to learn how this system might be changed, act collectively to change it, and start to imagine what alternatives might be possible” (181).
Doeringer, P., & Piore, M. Internal Labor Markets and Manpower Analysis. Cambridge: Lexington Books, 1971.
Fuchs, C. Reconsidering Value and Labour in the Digital Age. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015.
Huws, U. The making of a cybertariat : virtual work in a real world. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003.
Huws, U. Labor in the global digital economy : the cybertariat comes of age. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.