Who is the corporate person? a psychopath!

We are habituated to companies presenting themselves as people. Organisations such as churches, colleges and municipalities have had the legal status of personhood for centuries – in Europe going back to the days of the Roman empire and in India, where the shreni (associations of merchants and artisans) had such a status, right back to 800 BC. When companies began to be formed, they also acquired the status of being ‘legal persons’ and, in the USA, this was cemented in 2010 by a Supreme Court ruling that even allowed corporations to make political contributions as if they were private citizens.

Outside the courts, in everyday life, we have become increasingly used to being addressed by companies as if they were people. Pret a Manger have been telling us since the 1980s that they are ‘passionate about food’ while Odeon cinemas have been telling us for almost as long that they are ‘fanatical about film’. And we are constantly reproached with guilt-tripping messages about how sorry corporations are that we have chosen to leave them if we terminate a contract, or reminded that ‘it’s a while since we heard from you’ if we have neglected to visit a website. Corporate mission statements are infused with affect – telling us how much the brand-holders care – about our children, animals, the future of the planet or whatever cause they think will tug at our heart-strings. It can be hard, sometimes, to remember that they are not flesh-and-blood entities with eyes that weep and skin that responds to touch.

So let us for a moment suppose that corporations really are people. If so, what sort of people might they be? The answer is actually very creepy; on close examination they turn out to exhibit many of the most toxic pathologies to be found in the 21st century lexicon of personality disorders. Here are a few.

Narcissism

A medical website defines people with Narcissistic personality disorder as having ‘an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.’

This is a pretty accurate description of the typical corporation with its obsession with brand image. Staff are not only issued with minutely detailed instructions on how to present it (or themselves, as its representatives) but it may even be a disciplinary offence to voice any scepticism about its boasts. Such rules also extend to anyone receiving sponsorship, such as athletes, students on scholarships or organisers of cultural events. Press releases trumpet its virtues and lawyers are kept on standby so that critics may be sued if any grounds can be found for doing so. There is a need to be forever in the limelight, with logos and corporate slogans always on show. The more branding, the better. (If you still haven’t got the idea, think of the White House under Trump.)

Coercive control

Here’s a definition of coercive control, from another medical website ‘Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instil fear. The abuser will use tactics, such as limiting access to money or monitoring all communication, as a controlling effort.’ As Women’s Aid explains, ‘This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Sound familiar? Many taken-for-granted management practices follow very similar patterns. Workers are given targets to meet and minutely monitored to make sure that they meet them. Detailed procedures are prescribed, to be followed to the letter. Budgets are laid down with penalties for overspending or deviating from them. Communications may be monitored and movements tracked. Warnings are issued if these commands are not followed precisely, with an escalating scale of warnings, leading to the ultimate sanction of losing the job altogether or being dropped from the online platform. Seeking support from a trade union may be punished savagely.

These forms of control, often administered via online digital interfaces, to which there can be no answering back, are not just applied to workers but also to customers where the corporation has established an ongoing relationship of dependence. Some of the most extreme forms of terror are inflicted on customers who owe money (or are accused of doing so) with the threat (or actual use) of physical force by bailiffs to seize their property. But many organisations, including landlords, suppliers of energy, broadband services, phone contracts, insurance, maintenance contracts on malfunctioning appliances also routinely generate enormous amounts of misery as they force their customers to spend hours of their time following convoluted procedures and proving that they have met obscure legal requirements in order to access their rights.

Corporate relationships with such clients often follow a pattern that is well-known in abusive relationships, whereby an initial period of ‘love-bombing’ with seductive promises is followed by the creeping introduction of ever-more controlling behaviours.

Bullying

Closely related to coercive control, bullying can involve a single person being directly targetted by a corporate person or, more insidiously, the encouragement of a culture in the organisation that allows for the spread of collective forms of bullying, especially of vulnerable groups or individuals. There is now such a large literature on bullying and harassment at work that I won’t discuss it further here, other than to point out that the corporate person does not just bully its workers but may also bully people outside the organisation, including competitors (especially small organisations, from whom it might have stolen ideas) and critics, such as journalists or NGOs who point out its imperfections in public or – in the case of large global corporations – even governments who try to stand up to their worst excesses, for instance by trying to extract taxes, protect indigenous industries or minimise environmental damage.

Stalking

As wikipedia succinctly puts it ‘Stalking is unwanted and/or repeated surveillance by an individual or group toward another person’ and, in this digital age, probably represents the most definitive feature of contemporary corporate behaviour. To paraphrase Churchill, they stalk us on the beaches, they stalk us on the landing grounds, they stalk us in the fields and in the streets, they stalk us in the hills; they never surrender. Tracking our every movement online or offline and incorporating the resulting information into every more precise means to monitor us, control us and target us with their commodities, they are omnipresent.

I could go on. Check out ‘borderline personality disorder’, for example, or ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’. But I hope I have said enough to give you the general picture.

In short: a psychopath

Put all these things together and you have what starts to look very much like the condition, described by wikipedia in these words: ‘Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits’.

In short, the corporate person is a very nasty one – not somebody you want to share your life with in any intimate way. What part is played, I wonder, by enforced subjection to these abusive and controlling relationships with corporate ‘persons’ in the creation and reinforcement of the epidemic of depression that seems to have swept the world? And to what extent has it generated such behaviours in the population? Abusive parents, we are told by scientists, produce abusive children. And there do seem to be an awful lot of abusive people around these days. Just look at the statistics on femicide, child abuse and racial harassment, to name but a few.

But, as any therapist can tell you, it is the recognition that one is in a relationship with someone with a personality disorder that constitutes the first step to escaping it. Get the self-help books out, comrades! And remember the importance of solidarity.

Hospital transport – a problem in search of a solution?

Today’s announcement that the UK government is planning a massive hike in parking fees for NHS staff who travel to work by car draws attention to a lack of joined-up thinking in public policy – one example among many of a situation that represents the intersection of several different public problems that, when addressed separately, generate new dysfunctionalities with the solution to one problem adding to another.

In my latest book Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, I argue that if people are brought together at a local level to discuss such problems, new and creative solutions can be found, where necessary using digital platform technologies to develop new kinds of public service that meet environmental and social goals in innovative ways.

Transport to and from hospitals provides a good example of just such a multifaceted situation – perhaps best conceived as a set of overlapping problems – to which publicly managed platforms might provide a solution.

Here are some of the problems:

  • NHS workers need to get to and from their work safely at all hours of the day and night
  • Hospital parking is at a premium and must be controlled carefully to ensure that emergency vehicles are not blocked
  • Ambulance services are expensive to run and there is a need for transport for patients who are not in a critical condition to attend outpatient appointments or taken home on discharge
  • There is also a need for family members, friends and support workers to be able to visit patients, often staying with them for unpredictable hours (for example if they are terminally ill, about to give birth or undergoing a mental health crisis)
  • Many hospitals are some distance away from the nearest major public transport hub
  • Taxi services are unaffordable for many patients and their families and friends
  • Taxi drivers have precarious working conditions and are rarely provided with adequate drop-off, waiting and pick-up arrangements at hospitals, let alone facilities (such as toilets) to use while they are waiting

Here are some of the policy challenges:

  • Maximise use of public transport; minimise use of private cars (for environmental and other reasons)
  • Optimise use of ambulance services
  • Maximise benefits for NHS staff including safe and affordable travel to work
  • Maximise benefits for NHS patients and their families and carers
  • Avoid wasteful use of NHS land
  • Improve working conditions for precarious workers

How about this for a possible solution?

Develop a platform for the provision of hospital transport services, using a range of different types of vehicle (suitably adapted for people with disabilities and using fuel from renewable sources), managed by a consortium including representatives from the health authority, the ambulance service, the local public transport provider, the local authority care service, patient representatives and representatives of trade unions.

Drivers could be offered flexible shift patterns to fit their personal circumstances but would receive the basic rights of employees (such as sick pay, holiday pay, minimum wage, pension contributions and the right to trade union representation). They would also be provided with suitable training including, perhaps, the possibility of career development, for example into becoming a paramedic.

Any profits from the platform would be used to improve the quality of its services.

This platform would provide a range of transport services including:

  • 24-hour shuttle services to and from the hospital from the nearest public transport hubs
  • emergency transport to hospital for non-critically-ill patients (referred by GPs or NHS 11)
  • transport to and from outpatients appointments (perhaps provided on a sliding scale of payment – eg people entitled to free prescriptions would be entitled to free transport; others might pay subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for NHS staff (perhaps with subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for hospital visitors (perhaps with subsidised rates for designated carers)

If the platform were efficient enough, well-enough integrated with local public transport, and its services sufficiently well priced, it could become the normal way for everybody in the area to get to and from hospital. A fleet of suitably adapted ‘green’ vehicles would be available round the clock, discouraging people from using private transport, freeing up hospital land, providing decent employment for drivers and generally making the whole process of attending or visiting a hospital more pleasant and affordable.

In short, it would provide a new kind of 21st century public service.

Jenni Murray, the BBC and the Welfare State

If ever there was an event that justified the use of the cliché ‘the end of an era’ it was Jenni Murray’s departure last week from hosting Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4. With the possible exception of The Archers, this is perhaps the last remaining programme that still enacts the BBC’s symbolic relationship with an abstraction of British society as a unified, entity that can be spoken to as a single audience by a singular voice.

In writing my recent book Reinventing the Welfare State, I did a lot of thinking about how the welfare state was formed in the mid-20th century, and the assumptions that underpinned its creation. The post-war world, it was presumed, was one where either you had a job, and were ‘employed’ or did not and were ‘unemployed’ or, more rarely, ‘self-employed’. Employment was full-time and permanent. Employees were assumed to be men, or unmarried women. On marriage women were supposed to leave the workforce to bring up their children at home, supported by the male wage. The benefit system provided universally for the whole population, in the form of free health services, child benefits and old-age pensions. A contributory national insurance scheme took care of workers in the case of misfortune like becoming ill or disabled, or losing their job.

This imagined world was faithfully reflected in the BBC’s radio programming which assumed that people were doing more or less the same thing at the same time, right across the nation. In the mornings (1946-1967) housewives did their dusting and hoovering while listening to each other’s music requests (always presented by a man) on Housewives’ Choice.

On their lunchbreaks, the skilled men and less-skilled unmarried women of the working class listened to Workers Playtime (1941-1964), broadcast from factory canteens around the country. Then at 1.45 (1950-1982) the housewives sat down with their toddlers to Listen with Mother. With any luck, by two o clock they had got them to sleep in time for Woman’s Hour (1946-now) which, perhaps more than any other programme, has surfed the waves of change that have rocked the last three quarters of a century.

The story of the last seven decades has been that of the slow disintegration of these unities – a tale with a double aspect. The first aspect involved a bringing to visibility of the ways in which this unified image never quite fitted the script, in a narrative that pointed to the realities of life for immigrants, single parents, travellers, homosexuals, the mentally ill and others whose lives did not conform to these norms. The second involved challenging the rigidity of the very template itself, by people whose lives fitted into it, but who experienced it as a straitjacket. Over the course of these decades there have been shifts of emphasis among those people who agitated for change, in particular a shift from looking for collective solutions, affecting large social categories en masse, to more individualised ones.

Murray’s 33-year term as the voice of Woman’s Hour spanned the most recent stage in this process. What began in the 1960s and 1970s, in a series of demands and actions by the women’s liberation movement, rooted in an insistence that the category ‘woman’ encompassed far more than just ‘housewives’, had, by the 1980s, diversified into a range of different campaigns and positions as feminists found themselves entering diverse positions in the professions and in the labour market, and women who were not feminists stepped through the doors that they had helped open. When Murray took the chair, there was hardly a topic on which a ‘woman’s angle’ could not be identified, and it is greatly to her credit that she interviewed an extraordinary range of women in different positions (including myself, on a few occasions), while continuing to address ‘core’ feminist issues seriously. By the time she left, a third of a century later, the very category ‘woman’ had itself been problematised, opening up existential questions for the future.

Over the years the BBC has come under attack in many of the same ways as the welfare state. Presented by neoliberals as an expensive, inefficient colossus, draining money from the state and impeding the free play of markets, it has been subjected by successive Tory governments to cuts, outsourcing and accusations of political bias. As I write, its future is very much in doubt. But as a broadcasting network among many it has greater ability to adapt, and more independence, than other state-funded institutions. The diversity of its audiences can be addressed by multifying the channels of communication, although this may come at the price of confirming minority voices as marginal, and conceding more ground to the power of global markets.

But pity the poor old welfare state. Like a ramshackle building subjected to cut-price extension, renovation and demolition of its various parts by a succession of cash-strapped owners, it now bears little resemblance to its founders’ bold visions of universality, but its scope for adaptation is minimal. That imagined post-war scene of the worker in the factory, the housewife in the kitchen and the sick and unemployed living in their council houses on the ‘dole’ seems quaint and fantastical. And, in volatile 21st century labour markets where growing numbers of people do not know from one week, day, hour or even minute to the next when the next ‘task’ might ping into possibility on their mobile phone, being readily classifiable into the status ’employed’, ‘self-employed’ or ‘unemployed’ is beyond the creaking capacity of the outsourced bureaucracy that adminsters the benefit system to determine with any approximation of fairness.

As I have written elsewhere, the combination of the tax-credit system on the one hand, with it subsidies to low-paying employers, and the benefits system, on the other hand, with its penal sanctions regime, in a deadly pincer movement, traps the poor into accepting precarious and dangerous work quite as effectively as the Poor Laws that preceded World War II and the workhouses that they replaced in 1930. No further tinkering with the current obsolete mechanisms will remedy this. What is needed is a complete reboot.

To find out more, you can order my book Reinventing the Welfare State  by clicking on the link.

If you enter the coupon code ‘HUWS30’ at the checkout you will get a 30% discount. The discount applies to both the paperback and the ebook editions.

New worker’s rights – and enforcement – needed for the digital age

As I look out of my window in Dalston, one of the signs that lockdown is over is the increasing density of the congregation of delivery riders outside.

delivery riders outside my window last week

As more of the surviving local restaurants reopen, my neighbourhood is once again becoming selected by the algorithms as a hot spot for food collection. And the nearer you are to the restaurant when the order comes in, and the quicker you hit the ‘accept’ button on your phone when it does, the more likely you are to get some work – and hence some income – that day.

Of course their work did not disappear during the pandemic. On the contrary, many of these riders were redeployed – at great personal risk – to deliver food and other goods from local shops and supermarkets in a newly intensified competition for dominance of the ‘last mile’ of delivery which suddenly became so lucrative when people were prevented from going out to the shops themselves. As consumers google their options online, a great reconfiguration of labour has been taking place on our streets.

For many, it might be more or less a matter of chance, or slot availability, that dictates where you order things from, but these choices dictate whether it is delivered by an employee of a supermarket chain like Tesco or an online retailer like Ocado (arriving in a branded van driven by someone who is most likely an employee), a Royal Mail worker (an employee), a worker for a courier company like Hermes or DPD (with a variety of different employment statuses but mostly casual), a car driver for a platform like Uber, redirected from the dwindling taxi market to the expanding field of food delivery via Uber Eats (not an employee but the Supreme Court will soon announce whether the status of ‘worker’ will be awarded), or the rider of a scooter or cycle, working for a platform like Deliveroo or Just Eat (most definitely treated as a self-employed ‘independent contractor’).

As the newly unemployed join this expanding labour pool of ‘key workers’, the jungle becomes denser and harder to navigate and it is increasingly difficult to work out what they are entitled to. One of the key themes in my new book, Reinventing the Welfare State is the need for a new set of worker’s rights for the digital age.

Instead of the hodge-podge of existing laws, and exceptions to those laws, that leave growing numbers of workers outside their scope, confused about what rights they do have and – even if they are entitled to some of these rights – unable to claim them without expensive legal costs, I set out some basic universal principles that should apply to all workers – with a clear definition of self-employment so that genuine freelancers (who set their own rates, control their own labour processes and work for multiple clients) can be distinguished from dependent workers.

These rights include some that are traditional, such as entitlement to the minimum wage, sick pay, paid holidays, pensions and the right to organise, join and be represented by a trade union. But they also include new ones for the digital age, such as the right to communicate with your employer directly rather than via an app and the right to see what information is held about you, feeding the logarithm that determines your chances of being allocated a task, and hence your working conditions and income.

Enforcement

But rights mean nothing if they cannot be enforced. One of the ways my book breaks new ground is by suggesting a new, and simplified, approach to the enforcement of labour rights. Of course when it comes to representing workers nothing can replace the power of an organised trade union, but – as unions have known since the 19th century when they first started campaigning for factory inspectors – these need to be backed up by public systems that publicise the legal standards and make sure they are complied with.

In the book, I propose the reorganisation of existing services, and, where necessary, their expansion, into a three-tier model. This model would link the provision of basic information with other kinds of local and national specialist services, through a single access point, contactable in real time.

Tier One would consist of an easily accessed national helpline (along the lines of the NHS 111 service) that would provide an instant response to everyday queries but, if more specialist information or local enforcement were needed, would carry out a triage function, referring callers on to specialists in one of the other tiers.

Tier Two would draw on the expertise of specialist services, such as those currently provided by ACAS, the Health and Safety Executive, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit of the National Crime Agency, and make it quickly available.

Tier Three would be made up of locally-linked networks of inspectors combining the knowledge and powers of wages inspectors, health and safety inspectors and the many other inspectors, currently spread across different local authority departments, with powers to investigate issues relating to such varied matters as consumer safety, traffic violations and public health – on the spot.

To find out more, you can order Reinventing the Welfare State  by clicking on the link. If you enter the coupon code ‘HUWS30’ at the checkout you will get a 30% discount. The discount applies to both the paperback and the ebook editions.

Take care!

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Pondering the strange period we are living through, I have several times been reminded of these memorable words by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. Despite the many horrors, some of the ‘best’ features of these unsettling times have been the way that the pandemic has stimulated forms of neighbourliness and mutual help that had lain dormant for far too long in many communities, as well as awakening some big discussions about what sort of post-COVID society we want to live in.

Thanks to the valiant efforts of left publishers, this unique set of circumstances has created an opportunity – and an appetite among readers – for books that, instead of focusing on the minutiae of social developments and policies, start to address some of the big political questions that confront us in the search for alternative ways of managing our society and economy. Into this category I would place Ann Pettifor’s clear and compelling The Case for the Green New Deal and my own Reinventing the Welfare State as well as the marvellous Care Manifesto: the Politics of Interdependence, also published this week.

The Care Collective: Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg and Lynne Segal
The Care Collective (left to right): Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler,
Catherine Rottenberg, Andreas Chatzidakis
and Lynne Segal

The authors of this concise, beautifully-written book have put their finger precisely on our collective pulse. In one word, they have identified what is both the key deficit in our current society and the key component in any alternative future: care. What has been so deeply troubling in the way that our government has treated the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic and in the years of austerity leading up to it has been, in a nutshell, it’s failure to care. The realisation that ‘they really don’t care’ has been a painful shock to many, especially those who grew up believing that Britain had a welfare state that would look after them ‘from cradle to grave’, but there it is. We live in a world that the Care Collective characterise as ‘careless’ and this book is an idealistic call to design an alternative future that puts universal care at the heart of its vision.

The authors define the word broadly as ‘our individual and common ability to provide the political, social, material, and emotional conditions that allow the vast majority of people and living creatures on this planet to thrive – along with the planet itself’ and discuss the ways that this goal has been thwarted at every level starting with interpersonal relationships and building up via kinship networks, neighbourhoods, communities and nations to the world itself. They draw on a wide range of research from the fields of psychology, sociology, political economy and environmental science to build their argument but, more importantly, illustrate their points with inspirational examples from around the world of social experiments that have shown how it is possible to do things differently.

I particularly like their emphasis on developing pilot schemes at a local level that can then be scaled up, perhaps because it is the approach I favour in my own new book where I suggest developing publicly-managed local platforms for delivering care services and organising local food distribution strategies. This has several advantages. It is something that can be done straight away, into which people can put their energies without waiting for a change of government. It builds on neighbourly initiatives that are already there, which have sprung into life during the pandemic. It demonstrates that alternative futures really are possible. And it can give us hope in these bleak times.

If only to lift your spirits, I urge you to read this book.

As to our government and its manifest failure to care, I am put in mind of that gruesome nursery rhyme:

Don’t care didn’t care,
Don’t care was wild:
Don’t care stole plum and pear
Like any beggar’s child.

Don’t care was made to care,
Don’t care was hung:
Don’t care was put in a pot
And boiled till he was done.

PS Just after I finished writing this blog, I looked out of the window beside my desk and this is the shocking sight that confronted me. How desperately we need the lessons from The Care Manifesto!

For the sake of the economy

In most of the countries where the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic has already crested, and even in some where it has yet to do so, we are being urged back to work ‘for the sake of the economy’. Yes, people are told, you may be worried about catching the virus, or conveying it home to your family, but aren’t you being just a wee bit unpatriotic? Look at these photos of boarded up sandwich bars in the City of London and whited-out shop windows on the high street. Unemployment is going up, GDP is falling, and if this sort of thing goes on it will be YOUR FAULT!

The ‘economy’ referred to here is a slippery thing. You, the consumer, are supposed to keep it going by emerging from lockdown and queueing outside Pret a Manger for your takeaway lunch, or pawing your way along the clothes rails at Next for a new outfit to wear for your next promotion interview. But you haven’t exactly been starving, or going naked during the lockdown either, have you? While some sectors of the economy have been suffering, others have benefited mightily. As one survey report put it ’62 per cent of 2,000 Londoners surveyed increased their online shopping habits during lockdown, helping add £5.3bn to the UK economy during lockdown as high street shops remained shuttered for months’. Another UK survey found that ‘nearly half said they have become “obsessed” with buying things online since lockdown began on 21 March, while 39% admitted to buying something they “wouldn’t normally buy.”’ Losses for bricks-and-mortar city centre service firms thus translate into substantial gains for their online equivalents. Furthermore, the more business is transacted online, the greater the opportunity for other companies to take their cut, whether this is from providing you with wifi or arranging the delivery.

If (like many members of the current Tory government in the UK) you belong to the capitalist class, keeping your income high is just a question of adjusting where you invest your funds. It is no accident that, according to the US Institute for Policy Studies, during the first three months of the lockdown, the wealth of the top five billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison) grew by $584 billion, in a period when $56.5 trillion was wiped off the value of household wealth. The pandemic may have been bad for the airline industry (Buffet shrewdly sold off his airline holdings early in 2020) but, with a sizeable portion of the population working from home, reliant on online links, it has been boom time for the likes of Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.

Once again, we are witnessing tectonic upheavals in global capitalism, in which some firms are winners and some are losers but the system itself remains intact. This time round, the main losers seem likely to be small and medium sized firms, many of the sort that have in the past provided employment that is relatively stable and paid their taxes and business rates diligently. The winners seem likely to be large global corporations, many of whom provide only precarious, digitally-managed employment with little security, and many of whom are expert tax evaders. When Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, speak of ‘the economy’ now what exactly do they mean? Their rhetoric suggests concern for the firms that are losers, at a national level, but all their past practices suggest that the interests they seek to protect are those of the winners, at a global level. What seems certain is that the interests of the people who actually produce all that wealth – the workers – are most definitely not their top priority.

Caveat auctor

Oh Auctor

You with your desire to please

You with your bright ideas

You with your joy in solving a problem

You who have observed green shoots coming through the soil to learn how to recognise the good plants from the bad

You who have laboured to cultivate them for food and find ways to make them delicious

You who have learned which are good for healing and which can kill

You who have fashioned instruments to make music

You who have sung songs into being and taught them to others

You who have calmed children with your stories

you who have crafted clothes from plants and animal pelts and made them beautiful

You with your ingenuity that has spanned rivers, moved boulders, channelled streams, calculated the distance to the stars

You with your deft fingers

You with your strong arms

You with your charm

You with your endurance

Beware

It is your skill and your generosity and your strength and your knowledge and your bright ideas that make you prey

To those who want to appropriate what you make, capture you and farm you and your children to make more

What you produce travels a long and tangled circuit before it meets its user, with booby traps all along the way. With a predator waiting at every twist to take a rent, a toll, a duty, a tithe, a tax, a charge, a cut, a levy, a fee, a fine, a royalty, a profit, ‘a few minutes of your time’.

What has been made by you belongs to others. You must buy it back, duty by duty; cut by cut.

Caveat auctor*.

*Auctor is a Latin word meaning originator, creator or author. It can also be used to denote a distinguished scholar or scientist. Caveat comes from to the Latin verb for warning, as in the phrase ‘caveat emptor’ meaning ‘let the buyer, beware’.

Crunch time for the platform management model

In what may come to be viewed as a historic court case, a group of UK Uber drivers from London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Glasgow have launched a legal action against Uber in the Netherlands, supported by the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers (IAATW) and Worker Info Exchange.  The complaint against Uber, which is headquartered in Amsterdam, centres on its failure to provide access to data on drivers or explain its algorithmic management practices as required by the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Meanwhile, two other members of the ADCU, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrer, will be appearing in the Supreme Court in London tomorrow to defend themselves against Uber’s challenge against earlier landmark rulings that when they were working for Uber they should have been treated as workers rather than independent contractors, and should therefore have been entitled to paid holidays and the minimum wage.

ADCU outside court

ADCU Members outside the Supreme Court on July 20, 2020

The coincidence of these two cases exposes very clearly the contradiction that lies at the heart of the platform management model – which seeks to control workers with a minuteness of detail unprecedented in the history of capitalism while at the same time denying that they have any relation of dependence at all. Like Schrödinger’s cat, which is simultaneously both alive and dead, they are simultaneously both managed and not managed, forced to live out their working lives in a stressful borderline state in which they are denied both autonomy and security.

Platform labour has to be seen as part of a larger continuum of precarious, on-call work that also includes a range of different temporary, on-call and zero-hours contractual arrangements. As  recent research I carried out with colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the European Foundation for Progressive Studies (FEPS), the trade union confederation UNI-Europa and – in the UK – the TUC, has shown, not only has it been growing exponentially over the last few years, but the algorithmic management practices associated with it have spread widely across the labour market.

Between 2016 and 2019 in the UK the number of working age adults who said they did work obtained via an online platform at least once a week doubled from an estimated 2.8 million people to an estimated 5.8 million (from 4.7 per cent to 9.6 per cent of the adult population). The proportion of people using an app or website to be informed of new tasks, more than doubled, from 10% to 21% of the working-age population, but barely half of these were platform workers. The use of apps or websites to record what work had been done rose over the same period from 14.2% to 24.6%. Again, most people reporting these practices were not platform workers. Nearly a quarter (24%) of UK adults surveyed in 2019 also reported having their work rated by customers, of whom nearly half (11.7%) were not platform workers.

Platform workers are part of a growing army of what I have elsewhere called ‘logged’ workers, logged in three senses of the word. First their work has been chopped up into separate interchangeable tasks, as a tree is cut into standardised logs, making it possible for them to be paid by the task. Second, they have to be logged on to the app, constantly alert for a new task to be notified, waiting thumbs-poised to ‘accept’ it in order to obtain work. And third, they are logged in the sense of being closely monitored and recorded,  with every action captured digitally, whether this is through GPS tracking, keystroke counting, webcam capture or voice recording, with a digital registration of anything from the speed with which brakes are slammed on to the emotional content of a customer service call, subjecting workers to an unprecedented level of 360 degree surveillance. The results of this logging can be combined with data from other sources, including customer feedback, and analysed using complex algorithms (whose exact nature is hidden on the grounds that it is commercially sensitive) guiding decisions that may have life-changing implications for those workers – but against which there is no appeal.

The outcomes of these two cases will therefore have huge ramifications for very large numbers of workers: not just Uber drivers and couriers but also groups as diverse as non-tenured university lecturers and care workers.

The ADCU is a recently certified union, too new to have yet affiliated to the TUC, and with few resources. They need all the help they can get. You can contribute to their crowd funder for the international case here.

The force behind the form

When you ask somebody to fill in a form the message you are actually giving them is as follows: I am in charge; My time is more valuable than yours; I get to decide what is important and what is not; I have a right to information about you; I control what sense is made of this information.

Most of us have learned that filling in a form is a precondition for getting most of the things we want in life, whether this is a job, a bank account, a passport or an online delivery and have learned, with reluctance, to weigh up the value of gaining this benefit against the cost (in terms of time, effort or loss of dignity) of filling the wretched thing in.

Yet the underlying power relations are ever present. The injunction to fill in a form is experienced as particularly pernicious and coercive when it is embedded in a larger relationship of control, for example when it lies between you and being able to claim a state benefit, or is commanded by an employer. It becomes an important way of reinforcing that power, sometimes giving it, in addition to the sanction of withdrawing entitlements if its requirements are not complied with, an additional symbolic ritual force that becomes evident when the filler-in is required to provide (often in duplicate or triplicate) documents whose contents are already known to the form-setting institution or a repetition of information that is already available. The overall effect is to humiliate and demean.

gender questionThe disrespect for the time of the filler-in is amplified when set in the context of other imbalances – when, for example, a young fit bureaucrat requires an elderly or disabled person to go through processes that are painful or time-consuming in order to supply the requested information (to sort through years worth of records to find old payslips or contracts or receipts; to find the reference number in tiny print below the bar-code on the base of the appliance; to knock up a neighbour to witness a signature; to plead with a doctor to provide a letter). The excuse is mistrust. How can they know that you are really you, really live at your address, really own the object or policy in question, without such evidence? In other words the assumption is that you are guilty unless proven innocent. In the telephone version the call centre workers need you to confirm that you are you even when it was they who initiated the call. The French authorities (for example) do not just require copies of innumerable documents (already held on file in sister departments) to accompany an application but also, if these are foreign, require them to be translated and stamped by a government-authorised translator, for whose services a fee has to be paid. Similarly, they don’t just need a copy of your birth certificate each time but this has to be a copy that has been issued within the last three months (again requiring the payment of a fee).

The illusion of impartiality created by the standard nature of the form, and the mistrust that refuses to recognise one as anything other than a potential criminal with intent to defraud often falls apart in subsequent face-to-face encounters with the bureaucrats, who make it clear by their speech and body language what pplease treat our staff with respectarticular prejudices they hold against people of your age, weight, sexual identity, ethnicity, dress style or accent. Usually this personal encounter with the bureaucrat does not mitigate the effects of the impersonal form-filling that preceded it but makes it worse, adding yet another dimension of disempowerment to the experience. The recipient may end up feeling not only unheard and misunderstood but also guilt-tripped – the silenced victim of a peculiar kind of unfairness that cannot be named as such because of the way that it is dressed up as fairness. A fairness that is, moreover, often cemented in place as part of a broader equality agenda that includes protection of workers’ rights, proclaimed for example in notices that remind customers not to use abusive language to staff. Service users are thereby positioned as anti-social, or, worse, racist or sexist, if they try to express their anger or frustration at the way they are treated. The anger therefore remains suppressed and unspoken, though liable to be redirected explosively into who knows what unexpected irritable outbursts against who knows what innocent scapegoat.

So far, so familiar; these are assertions that would have been recognisable in the early 20th century, say to Max Weber, or Kafka. Digital technologies have multiplied them and added extra twists but the role of the form in propping up existing hierarchies is still fundamentally the same.

What is exercising me today is the way in which the form also provides the means to introduce new hierarchies or (to coin a phrase) formalise existing ones or – even more perniciously – to strip relationships of the mutual respect and understanding that they traditionally entailed: the way its relentless expansion is smuggling these power relationships into areas of life that were previously the preserve of free, open and often creative communication. This is especially outrageous when the underlying relationship is one in which one the form-filler is someone who is being asked for, or generously offering, a service as a favour: to review an article, to provide a character reference, to volunteer to help out in a charity, to give up one’s intellectual property for publication (unpaid or poorly paid) or one’s time to contribute to a public event.

There are probably many different ways this comes about. For example you might get somebody who is new to his or her job who is frightened or bored by the prospect of having to have open-ended conversations with each one of a group of colleagues, clients or subordinates with whom he or she will have to deal. This person might be wondering Where might these conversations lead? Might they expose my lack of experience? How can they be managed in a way that preserves my authority? Then comes the brainwave. I know, I’ll design a form for them to fill in. That will really look good as far as my boss is concerned; it will present me as efficient and innovative and, furthermore, provide me with standardised data that I can use to measure the progress I am making and make into charts that will look good in powerpoint presentations. Or the pressure to standardise may be imposed from above – by an employer or funder or the need to comply with a new regulation. But the consequences are similar. A new level of bureaucracy has been created. Real time human interaction has been removed from the relationship. Opportunities for the communication to become the basis for developing new ideas have been removed. Form setters (with all the prejudices, inexperience,  ignorance and arrogance they may have) have claimed a right to dictate the terms of interaction to form fillers (however much wiser, more experienced or more insightful they may be) in the process depriving themselves of any opportunities for real learning and development. And in the process left an awful lot of people mightily – and often needlessly – pissed off. This is how social solidarities are destroyed. And this is how the voracious algorithms that increasingly shape our lives are fed with data. (At which point I should inform you  that the next issue of Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation, the contents of which I delivered to the publisher last week, will be on ‘the algorithm and the city’)

 

 

 

Scentless in Dalston

We can use the word ‘silence’ to convey instantly the experience of the lack of sound, or ‘darkness’ to denote the lack of vision, but there is no generally used word in the English language for the lack of scent, despite the fact that its very name is closer than any of the four others (touch, sight, hearing, taste) to the parent category ‘sense’. Hard to categorise  in many ways, it is also one that sparks our emotions most deeply, with the power to summon up enormously powerful memories and associations quite unexpectedly, sometimes knocking us sideways with the surprise of the impact.

In these strange times, when senselessness (used in another – yes that versatile word again – sense) seems to characterise so much of the behaviour around us, the anosmia which is one of the symptoms of covid-19 seems to be acquiring a metaphorical force which is as hard to describe as scent itself, along with the even more strangely named ageusia which accompanies it.

It is now four weeks since, after a weekend of exhaustion which, at the time, I ascribed to the after-effects of the surgery I had had the previous week, I awoke with a strange metallic taste in my mouth accompanied, I soon realiswisteria april 2020ed, by a complete loss of any sense of taste or smell or indeed appetite. After four days of fever and flu-like symptoms I became breathless enough to call the NHS helpline number 111 for advice and they sent round two brilliant paramedics in an ambulance, who administered a lot of tests and then told me that (given the way my heart and lungs were performing) I was better off staying at home using my CPAP machine to help me breathe than going back into hospital, and predicted that the effects of the virus would probably peak in two to three days time. 

Sure enough, a couple of days later I did indeed start feeling a bit less tired and breathless and was able to get out of bed for a few hours a day. The appetite started creeping back and it looks as if I have survived the virus (if that’s what I had. This was the one test they were not equipped to give me). But there is no sign of any return of smell or taste.

So I can’t wake up and smell the coffee. Nor can I enjoy the scents of the wisteria which is in full bloom up the front of my house (see picture) or the jasmine running amok at the rear which would normally be wafting in through the windows. On the plus side, neither can I smell the characteristic Dalston odours of decomposing restaurant rubbish or grilling kebabs that these plants were in part planted to combat. But, sequestered as I am indoors and without these smells to guide me, are those odours even there any more? Surely most of the restaurants and bars and clubs in the neighbourhood must be closed (though a few may be supplying takeaways to be delivered by brave platform workers, for all I know) and I have viewed rats scuttling across the rooftops, perhaps suggesting that the dustbins they normally feed from are empty.

This scentlessness affects daily life in unexpected ways. There is nothing to signal that I need a shower, that the toast is starting to burn, that the rubbish needs to be put out. I suppose if I had visitors I might worry about an unpleasant stink that would put them off. But there are no visitors, though the occasional key worker enters the front door in my absence to leave a delivery in the hall and the tenant of the flat upstairs goes backwards and forwards carefully wiping handles and switches with the disinfectant we keep by the front door on her unwitnessed way (we communicate by email. I have not seen her in person since before she moved in in February).  But even if there were visitors I suspect they might prefer to be hit by the honest pong of organic decomposition than a chemical miasma of artificial deodorants. Who knows?

Taste is another matter. In line with what the textbooks say, I can just about discern sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness and the hit of chilli. But wine, reduced to these elements of its flavour, tastes quite disgusting. As does most food. Some of the then-fresh truffles my nephew sent me from France in February (one of the most luxurious gifts I have ever received) are languishing, carefully wrapped in tissue in a kilner jar, at the bottom of the fridge in the hope that I will be able to enjoy them before they are completely dessicated. Mostly, I am resigned to eating what might as well be cardboard.

When will these senses return? Who knows? Perhaps, I was told by my GP, they never will. Anosmia and ageusia may sometimes be permanent and very little is known about the role they play in covid-19. One theory is that the virus works its way in through the nose via ACE2 receptors to infect the nerves, in much the same way that it enters the lungs via the mouth, and nobody yet knows what long-term damage will remain.

This renders the future mysterious, giving it an unknown character at the personal level that is analogous to the equally unknown effects of the pandemic at a broader social level. How will life change? Will we go back to some sort of replica of the taken-for-granted normalcy of life under conditions of neoliberal capitalism, returning to our consumption patterns based on global supply chains, our labour markets based on the atomisation of work and competitiveness among workers, our disdain for the future ecology of the planet? Or will we enter some new reality, based on different values, in which it is possible to create new social and economic institutions based on solidarity and respect for each other and for nature? There are encouraging signs that, in the crisis, embryonic forms of organisation are developing that could prefigure a change to saner and more humane values. But can they withstand the larger context of political senselessness? Such questions are hard to answer from a position of isolation (sometimes, in more paranoid moments, I wonder whether the UK Government’s refusal to test the population is deliberately designed to keep us locked away and inactive). But let’s try to keep hope alive.