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The Despotism of Workplace Flexibility


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At least in hospitality and retail, the global service industry is moving into an on demand and 24/7 economy where jobs are fragmented into tasks, or broken up into gigs. In some cases, this leads to the appearance of faked self-employed workers, which in reality means that workers are solely dependent on corporations like Uber. This determines their everyday work. 

Other workers are kept on so-called flexible contracts with high insecurity as a result of flexible scheduling which occurs within a new temporal order deliberately designed by management. The much-trumpeted work-life balance and well-being becomes a mere ideology – often instigated to make HRM look good. 

In the USA and the UK, between a sixth and a fifth of employees experience precarious scheduling with little control given to workers. Two factors are relevant for the emergence of these flexible scheduling regimes that result in what might best be called flexible despotism. 

Firstly, with the deliberately engineered decline of trade unions, a deterioration of collective bargaining that previously protected workers. 

Secondly, since the electoral triumph of neoliberalism that began with Ronald Reagan in the USA and Maggie Thatcher in the UK in the 1980s, the near-global application of Hayek’s quasi-religious catechism of neoliberalism created shifts in legal and normative regulation. The ideology of neoliberalism sells this as deregulation. In reality, it is a version of pro-business re-regulation that systematically disadvantages workers.

This creates flexible despotism – a term invented by the sociologist Jennifer Jihye Chun. To a large extend, flexible despotism is based on managerial scheduling power. This semi-dictatorial scheduling power, as well as flexible despotism, is beginning to spread into conventional sectors of the economy. In 2016, an astonishing 37% of US workers knew their schedule only a week or less in advance, and 17% found out about their schedule only one day’s notice or less. This makes a mockery of work-life balance. Worse, 63% of workers in the USA’s 80 largest retailers have experienced variable schedules. Overall, about 20 million US workers and 40 million European workers currently experience precarious scheduling – 60 million workers.

Perhaps since the dawn of capitalism, flexible working time has been a source of control used by managers, supervisors and overseers. Yet, capitalism also generates a structure of antagonism between capital and labor. As a consequence of this and the despotism that often comes along, workers’ resistance against the despotic power of management comprises hidden resistance which includes working slowly, feigned ignorance, sabotage, and pilfering, along with humor and gossip aimed at management. In short, it creates organizational misbehavior.

In regimes of flexible despotism, control is achieved through modern electronic surveillance technology creating a panopitcon in the workplace. But flexible despotism also means that discretionary control shifts from workers towards managers. We know this from such seminal workplace classics like Beynon’s Working for Ford. 

In some cases, this has also led to the emergence of macho management. Macho management can be expressed in the way one worker expresses it – if the supervisor doesn’t happen to like him, he can lose his overtime for a week or forever. This is flexible despotism – internally. Externally, flexible despotism means workers need three cards: a company discount card, a state-aid card to access social benefits, and a credit card.

With flexible despotism comes verbal abuse and bullying by management, favoritism and management’s ability to retaliate against workers who attempt resistance. Some of these things mirror working life in Blake’s Satanic Mills (1804). These early factories and workshops were based on the military, autocracy, labor camps, slavery, workhouses and prisons. 

Then as today, it means that management holds autocratic power over workers like a dictatorial legislator. Company internal rules via managerial legislation reflect what HRM calls HR policies. It shows what these policies truly are: unilaterally installed management rules that favor management – not workers. 

The internal policies are based on the ideology of deregulation that makes the state step back and, worse, remove protection for workers. Meanwhile, this process gives management a free hand to rule over workers. The outcomes are flexible despotism. Overall, one can say that flexible despotism is based on four key elements: 

  1. Competition among companies and corporations;
  2. A thoroughly controlled labor process;
  3. Workers’ dependency on the company employers for a wage; and 
  4. State regulation of the external conditions of production – no labor rights.

This, of course, turbo-charges insecurity. None other than Friedrich Engels once wrote, it was insecurity that made life worse. Worse, a key determining a factor of digital fascism is the ability of managers to secure control by punishing workers for transgressions a fact that is only increased by the effectiveness of surveillance. In the past, trade union officials and well-trained union reps were able to protect workers from managerial punishment. Since the advent of neoliberalism, this has increasingly been removed; consequently, flexible despotism flourishes.

Besides all this, flexible despotism also creates a form of at-will employment define through an employment status in which workers lack an implicit or explicit legally binding employment contract. Accordingly, managers are free to end a worker’s employment at any time for almost any reason without notice. Almost self-evidently, managers who push flexible despotism is often keen to make workers aware of their weak status.

In a rare moment of truth-telling, some HR managers call this my way or the highway and FIFO – fit in or F*** off! In some cases, flexible despotism and the increased power given to managers can even lead to behaviors that begin to resemble the conduct of an ordinary Kapo employed by a German company (Siemens, Krupp, Mercedes-Benz, etc.) during Nazism to make sure prisoners work. 

Today, flexible despotism comes to the fore when a manager’s personal relationship with workers become dictatorial and abusive with routinely patronized, shouted at, and insulted employees, for example, calling them lazy, useless, stupid, and rubbish.

Displaying the behavior of a classical aristocrat in Dostoevsky’s The Karamazov Brothers, some overseers no longer set dogs onto peasant children. Still, their abusive behavior displays all the hallmarks of inhumanity. Setups that encourage this sort of conduct are often deliberately engineered by those sitting on a desk somewhere. It happens when one man rules over another. Flexible despotism is in full swing. As the abusive manager isn’t enough, flexible despotism also comes with three forms of managerial surveillance monitoring: 

  1. Information technology;
  2. CCTV cameras; and
  3. Managers control the shop floor.

The information technology Wal-Mart, for example, is using is called – in the typical managerialist-Orwellian language, My-Guide System, appropriately re-labeled by working into my-slave system. Most obviously, the CCTV cameras used to spy on workers are only installed to protect the company against customer theft yet, it created a awareness among workers of being constantly watched by management. 

Much of this is camouflaged through what the standard fair Managerialism has to offer. This is Managerialism’s infamous open door policy, which turned out to be an open door to the sidewalk  – reflecting the aforementioned FIFO.

In the US version of flexible despotism, management also created an environment of fear mixed with extreme hostility to unions. In the USA, flexible despotism means that all workers had to undertake anti-union education activities during their orientation. The goal of flexible despotism is that anti-union propaganda acts as a instrument of fear. 

Not surprisingly, many workers suffering under flexible despotism are not too keen to buy into management’s ideology and attend management meetings. As one worker said, I never go to the meetings, because it’s all bullshit. 

Management controlled flexibility under flexible despotism remains a powerful mechanism because management can use it to arbitrarily discipline workers and it can also be used for the control of scheduling to punish workers. Managers can simply cut a worker’s hours so that these hourly paid workers can no longer make ends meet. Flexible discipline has other advantages for managers, in that it is impossible for workers to be certain that they were being punished or whether managers were genuinely responding to changing demand. Flexible despotism seems to produce a Kafkaesque nightmare for workers.

This, of course, applies more to the bottom (i.e. workers) than to the top (i.e. top-management and their corporate apparatchiks). Meanwhile a worker said, the gap between the bottom and the top is horrendous, and if you work it out in cans of baked beans … how many we have to sell for a store managers’ wage and how many we have to sell for us, it really puts it into perspective, a worker said. He concluded, we’re working for one of the biggest companies in the world, let alone in the UK, and getting paid pittance. Despite the grant announcements of neoliberalism to offer opportunities to everyone, the opportunity to earn a living wage remain non-existent 

Meanwhile, the much-claimed opportunities for promotion also remain unreachable. There is little opportunity for genuine mobility and very little possibility of advancement into salaried management. Yet, these middle-managers remain the willing executors of flexible despotism. Virtually nobody dares to challenge these mid-level corporate apparatchiks. 

As one worker said, if I challenge managers … I might not get the overtime … or might not get my Sundays, or the hours I am doing at the moment are perfect as I can finish at two, I can go home and pick up the kids … if I make a fuss I might have that taken away, or I’ll have my hours change, so if I keep my head down and do as I’m told I’ll keep those hours.

In short, many workers under flexible despotism depend on the whims of the manager for their income and try to organize their lives upon an ever-changing work schedule. And it is getting even worse, under flexible despotism, scheduling is a zero-sum game; any benefits one workers gained can be made by management to be at the expense of others who, as a consequence, would receive either fewer, less stable, or less desirable hours. In short, flexible despotism plays out the entire evilness of the prisoner dilemma, learned helplessness and Stanford prisoner experiment.

Beyond that lurks the issue of low pay which remains a major source of outrage among workers. As one worker said, there are people … who bust their ass for Wal-Mart and get a 20 cent raise every year, what is that? … these assistant managers, as lazy as fuck, disrespecting people, getting a $1,500-$5,000 bonus a year. 

Another worker said, this is a multi-billion dollar company, they make billions of dollars in profits a year, my store alone this Black Friday made over a million dollars just in that day. You know this company can afford to pay me a livable wage. 

He continued by saying, here in America, the poverty line for a family of four is $20,000, and I am making close to $16,000, and I think that is the most unjust thing.

Combining extremely low wages and unpredictable work schedules with the macho-management of flexible despotism, one can understand why workers say things like: I would compare it almost to feeling like a slave because your power to control your own life is taken from you and, they work you like a slave. 

It also makes one understand why there are state-of-the-art workplace sabotage techniques. Sabotage is easy as one worker explains, Oh look, I just dropped a jar of pickled onions – that is easily done. Much of sabotage centers around purposefully damaged goods. Yet these acts demonstrate that control is neither complete nor all-encompassing.

In the end, there is a positive and a negative note. On the upswing, there are limits to managerial control. Secondly, resistance is possible. On the negative side is the high potential that flexible despotism might be turbo-charged by algorithmic management, enabling platforms to control, rate, rank, and eliminate workers at will. In that way, those with the lowest ratings are deactivated – in other words, fired. 

Even better. Managers can claim that they are neutral administrators of an objective algorithm system, and it is the worker’s fault for receiving a low rating. Algorithms in the hands of despotic managers give management yet another controlling and disciplinary stick: Weapons of “Math” Destruction.

Thomas Klikauer (PhD Warwick) teaches MBAs at the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Western Sydney University, Australia. He writes for Counterpunch, ZNet, Buzzflash, Countercurrents, BraveNewEurope, Barricade, etc. His next book is “Media Capitalism” (Palgrave, 2021).

Nadine Campbell holds a PhD from the University of Sydney. She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students at Western Sydney University. Nadine writes for Counterpunch and Buzzflash but has a passion for academic literacy and has written several books on the topic. She is also the founder and CEO of Abydos Academy providing online courses in academic and professional writing.

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