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  • Writer's pictureAlice Wästberg

Marxism and Biopower in Gig Economy

This paper was originally written as an assignment for the Culture and Change program at Malmö University.


With the emergence of liberalism, non-structural work has become the new norm. Fluctuating structures and a complete economization of human life have changed the way we structure and understand our purpose in life. Within the urban middle and upper classes of Western society, gig work has become a common commodity where people order services by hitting a button without any need for human encounters or questions. This consumption relies on a normalized hierarchy based on race and class which makes it non-questionable for the consumer to buy cheap services from someone who is exposed to poor working conditions.

In this article, I examine both working and consumption conditions with a starting point in Marxist theory, particularly the concepts of alienation and reification. I also include a biopolitical perspective since gig work is enabled through technological tools and algorithms that control workers. In that sense, I make a connection between Marxist theory (Marx & Engels, Lukás, Althusser) and the postmodern theory of biopolitics (Foucault). I argue that biopolitics could be seen as a tool for capitalist control over precarious workers. Additionally, biopolitical state racism creates a basis for the reification and exploitative relationship between the consumer and the gig worker. I start by briefly discussing my definition of gig work and how it works, followed by a Marxist description of alienation and reification. I then connect the structure of gig work to biopolitics and ultimately discuss how these theories can be combined to understand the development of gig work.


Gig Work

Gig work is a broad concept that has several definitions (1, 2, 3). In this paper, I focus on “the manual unqualified work that takes place offline but is mediated online” (4). This could be the delivery of food, transportation, and other manual services. The work is operated locally and is mediated online through algorithm-based apps or platforms such as Foodora, Uber, Wolt, TipTap, etc. The worker is not contracted by the company but works on demand with a so-called “freedom” to choose whenever they want to work.

Gig work is categorized as non-standardized work which involves different forms of employment that don’t fit into the 9-to-5 model of employment. Non-standardized work refers to time-limited contracts, part-time work, freelance and work on irregular hours. The emergence of the gig economy needs to be reviewed as a part of bigger social, structural, and economic changes in society. Technological development and the strengthening of neo-liberal structures within the labor market in the last decades have led to more non-standardized work, streamlining, flexibility, and independence (2). This development has also resulted in more “freelance” work, constant pressure and long working days, intensification, acceleration, and streamlining of work, without regulations, and organized resistance within unions. These are, according to Marx, the wage earners' social and economic situation in full-blown capitalism (5).

Scholars (1, 3) have described gig workers as precarious workers since “employment that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky from the point of view of the worker” (6). This is because gig work comes without employment safety, regulated working hours, social insurance, and the possibility to organize and make changes within the organization (3).

Statistics show that young men with an immigration background are the ones who often apply for jobs as gig workers (2, 3). This is because of the difficulties of finding other jobs matching their competence and education. Further, we can connect the precarious working conditions of the gig worker to the words of Marx and Engels:"…a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These laborers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market" (7).


Alienation

Negative effects that have been highlighted in the gig economy include competition, the lack of security and control over one’s economy, and social isolation (3). Instead of experiencing the independence and working freedom that the platforms marketize themselves with, gig work likely leads to alienation.

Alienation is a widely used Marxist term that usually describes the separation and estrangement between the worker and the product, service, or work (3). In my understanding, alienation also reaches a social level where the worker is being used as a commodity or servant and becomes separated from society. According to Marx, alienation constitutes the starting point and basis for the capitalistic process of production (5). The labor performed by the worker becomes - to them - something foreign, objective, and independent. The gig worker – e.g., the food deliverer – delivers food without having any other connection to the chain of production of the food other than the delivery. The worker, then, becomes no more than a piece in the machinery in providing food for the richer.


Reification

Reification is a Marxist concept that refers to the exclusion of social relations from (economic) interactions which become understood as nothing but relations between things. Lukács proceeds from Marx's economic analysis and discusses the problematic character of reification and commodity fetishism (8). The chain of production gets larger and larger between the workers, the product, and the consumer. In between, or above this chain, we have capitalists or bourgeoisie who control the production and gain profit from it. The effort of the worker becomes a commodity, and commodity fetishism conceals the relationships in the chain of production.


Commodity Fetishism

Similar to a religious fetish - a sacred or symbolic object that is ascribed supernatural powers - commodities are the fetishes of capitalism because they do not have an intrinsic value but are assigned a certain value. Simply put, money has value because we believe it has. A diamond is more valuable than a flint stone because we believe it is.


Applied to the gig economy, this means that when the consumer receives a meal they ordered, they don’t see the person biking all over town for hours; they see a robot. They don’t see the cooks or even the production of the ingredients used in the meal; they see a menu and press a button to order. They see commodities and claim their right to use them to make their lives more efficient.


Alienation and Reification in Late Capitalism

The capitalist system continues to produce and reproduce itself. In late capitalism – which is what Marxists call the neoliberal economic era of today – the structure of reification is already a definite part of the consciousness of humankind (8). Marx, as well as Lukács and other Marxists, anticipated economic development within capitalist society which is based on rationalization and the elimination of the worker’s qualitative, humane, and individual attributes. The process of labor has been aggressively broken down into specialized, separate, rational, and abstract operations so the workers lose the main contact with the finished product. Their main work is thus reduced to the mechanical repetition of some specialized set of actions.

In Marxist theory, every society is built upon the notion of class hierarchies, the Communist Manifesto declares "[h]itherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes. But to oppress a class, certain conditions must be assured to it under which it can, at least, continue its slavish existence". (9)

Class hierarchies and other power relations, i.e., based on racism, are sustained through ideology, exploitation, alienation, and reification. Division of labor creates an important structure to maintain the reproduction of labor and the social order between classes. As materialists, Marxists claim that “the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production” (10). This means that people produce personal and collective meaning depending on the material conditions they have to use and reproduce.

Connecting this to the gig economy, people turn to becoming gig workers as they find no other option (3). According to Marx, ideology is based on the ideas in the superstructure that serve to legitimize the base. Division of labor, and different opportunities given to and created by people are dependent on hierarchical structures in societies. Those structures are based on the superstructural ideology that becomes normalized in society, and thus the reproduction of labor continues. This is where I connect Marxist theory with Foucault’s concepts of biopower and state racism.


Base and Superstructure

Base refers to the means and relations of production, the material reality of a society whereas the superstructure is a concept that describes the ideas, laws, religion, thinking, and consciousness of this society. According to Marx, the base is reflected in the superstructure; material reality influences how we think and act. Ideology, too, is located in the superstructure and refers to the ideas that are used (by the dominant class) to justify the base.


Biopower

Previously, I have explained how the exploitation and reification of the gig workers convert them to nothing but a piece of the bigger machinery of production. The individual is seen as a part of a larger collective, a bigger mass of bodies that operate in a certain area in the gig economy. A way of controlling this mass is through biopower.

The concept of biopower was outlined by Michel Foucault in the late 1970s to formulate a post-Marxist theory and analysis of the emergent logic of power in the 18th and 19th centuries (11). It addresses a non-disciplinary form of power that is applied to people, not as individuals but as “living beings”, a mass that collectively is affected by the biological processes of birth, death, production, illness, etc. (12).


Power According to Foucault

Foucault viewed power as productive (“power to”) rather than coercive (“power over”). Power is dispersed in society, permeating all aspects and relations of society. As such it can be produced and reproduced to eventually be seen as natural, but it can also be challenged and changed.


Foucault writes about a historical transformation in social forms from a sovereign society, to a disciplinary society to a society of control, where both the disciplinary and sovereign power over the population was “the right to take life and let live” (12). A society of control, in contrast, possesses the power to make life and let die. This means that there is a constant fragmentation created of the population where subjects are divided and classified as superior and subordinate. Some get to live while others don’t.

The society of control emerges from ideas of democracy, and instead of discipline, it mediates through the regularization of the population. Foucault argues that state racism – the classification of the population based on the notion of racial hierarchy – is necessary to control the mass and keep everyone “in their place”. I argue that “making life” in a capitalist neoliberal society means making good, privileged conditions of living for some, the life provided to the middle/upper white (Western) class.

To “let die” falls on the ones who don’t fit in those groups. In Foucault’s words: “Racism makes it possible to establish between my life and the death of the other” (14). Acknowledging that class society is induced by processes of racialization, “To let die”, doesn’t mean killing in its morbid sense, but an indirect death, exposing someone to death or increasing the risk of death of some people. It can also be a political death, like expulsion, all of which are consequences of racism in today’s society. I argue that it also means a social death, through exclusion, discrimination, isolation, and objectification. Letting gig workers “die” can also happen when the state doesn’t regulate insecure and unhealthy working conditions that feed racial and social hierarchies where the consumer treats the worker as their servant or even as a thing.

Though Foucault primarily highlights biopolitics, the first targets to control are birth rate, mortality rate, and longevity, he also mentions that it is related to a whole series of related economic and political problems (12). What characterizes neoliberalism as governmental rationality is that it redefines human nature in economic terms. In Marxist terms, one would say that everything has been absorbed by capitalism. One central aspect of the economization of human life and relations is how everything gets centered around the notion of the enterprise (6). Gig work is often marketed as self-directed and independent jobs that give the worker a lot of freedom and control. The worker becomes an entrepreneur. However, the freedom of a gig worker often comes at a high price.


Governmentality

Governmentality combines the terms “government” and “rationality”. It is linked to notions of power according to which people’s conduct is no longer regulated through sovereign or disciplinary power but through the internalization of norms so that people willingly conduct themselves according to them.


Biopower and Surveillance

One aspect of biopower is how technologies take control over human bodies. Techniques used for rationalization and strictly economizing life have been and are still today possible thanks to a whole system of surveillance (12). Foucault argues that power and biopolitical control are performed everywhere (6). The society of control has its basis in an intensification of the normalized social hierarchies formed in the society of discipline and is expressed in an extended control that operates far outside the structured sites of social institutions through flexible and fluctuating networks (15). This can be confirmed when looking at a white middle/upper class consuming the precarious non-white working class in gig work as if they were things/robots.

The disciplinary technology of gig work is a large part of its structure, the worker is constantly monitored through GPS, and the customer can follow their every step and then rate the worker afterward. Gig work like food delivery and taxis is managed through algorithmic leadership and technological surveillance. Work is steered through a digital platform where an algorithm mediates work depending on a person’s physical position and personal rate (3). In this sense, the consumer can limit the gig workers' influence on their jobs by giving them a low grade.

It is also algorithms that decide how much the worker is going to earn on a gig, which makes it difficult for the worker to control or even know how much they are going to earn. Time is also controlled and strictly monitored. In Weidenstedt's interview study with gig workers in Scandinavia, one participant claimed that “Foodora is very tense. They are always testing you, where are you. If you are two-three minutes late, then you get a warning” (16).

All these examples of control can be translated to managerial and technological control in the form of biopower, which leads to greater alienation of the worker. The alienation benefits the platform owners, the capitalists, as they maintain control over their workers and they are being kept apart from the actual possibilities to affect their own work. In other words; biopolitical control benefits the platform-capitalist. In the context of neoliberal capitalism, biopower brings out individuals as active economic subjects (1), what is forgotten are the social relations and power dynamics that intersect with that economization.


Marxism and Postmodernism

Postmodernists seek to look beyond or redefine the concept of base and superstructure. Although Foucault rejects Marxism as a theory of the mode of production, as a dialectical method, and as a critique of political economy, his theories can somehow be linked to Marxist historical materialism. Foucault continues to problematize domination and explains its practice as something transitory and its intellectual formation as something closely connected to power relations (17). His approach is, then, compatible with materiality in a broader sense. One can see how state racism and biopower “make life and let die”, which has a strong material connection. Material conditions are being made for people to live and create their lives in a certain circumstance that either benefits them or disadvantages them.

Mode of Production

While the mode of production of feudalism was an economy based on estate owners producing agricultural goods for consumption combined with taxes paid to the ruler, the mode of production of capitalism is capital which is invested for profit. The mode of production thus refers to 1) the means of production (material things such as factories, tools, and production materials) and 2) relations of production between those that produce (workers and capitalists).


It is interesting to review society in terms of enterprise and streamlining. People tend to do more and care less. A Marxist reading of it would be that capitalism demonizes care, play, and reproductive labor, and makes us idolize labor. Gig workers deliver us the food we don’t have the time either to cook or to go out and buy. They clean our house, take care of our children, drive us home from the club, and deliver our old couch to the dump because we bought a new one and we don’t want to bother dealing with it. That is how biopower regulates social life, as an integral function that every person reproduces and embraces on their own accord (15). Gig workers are being managed as enterprise units to make the streamlining of the middle-class life possible, and the consumer maintains the structure of the social and economic division through their economic support to gig work.


Conclusion

In this paper, I have connected Marxist theories on alienation and reification to the postmodern theory of biopower through the use and practice of gig work. The profound reification makes people overlook social relations - relations with other people - which are reduced to relations between things. In late capitalism, neoliberal structures of economization convert humans to commodities, and therefore work also becomes things. The use of commodities and other people's work as commodities reflected in the use of gig service as food delivery maintains a structural hierarchy of class and race.

Biopolitical control of gig workers is performed through algorithmic leadership and digital surveillance. The managerial control keeps the workers separated from each other and their own actual work. This leads to economic and social alienation that benefits the platform capitalists as the workers don’t have the opportunity to affect their jobs. In the sense that biopolitics “makes” “life” and lets “die,” one can see how the gig worker is left to “die” an economic and social death through exploitation, isolation, and racism. Biopower regulates social life in different domains of society. It becomes an integral function of every person's consciousness and that is how the structure reproduces itself when a white middle-class person buys services from a precarious worker as if they were buying it from a thing or robot.


Written by Alice Wästerberg.

Cover photo by Kai Pilger.


References

(1) Moisander, J., Groß, C., Eräranta, K., 2018. Mechanisms of biopower and neoliberal governmentality in precarious work: Mobilizing the dependent self-employed as independent business owners. Hum. Relat. 71, 375–398. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726717718918

(2) Palm, J., 2019. Arbetsvillkor och arbetsförhållanden inom gigekonomin. Forte - Forskningsrådet För Hälsa Arbetsliv Och Välfärd 51.

(3) Weidenstedt, L., Geissinger, A., Lougui, M., 2020. Varför gigga som matkurir? förutsättningar och förväntningar bakom okvalificerat gig-arbete. Ratio, Stockholm.

(4) Weidenstedt, L., Geissinger, A., Lougui, M., 2020. Varför gigga som matkurir? förutsättningar och förväntningar bakom okvalificerat gig-arbete. Ratio, Stockholm, p. 18.

(5) Marx, 2013. Kapitalet. Kritik av den politiska ekonomin, 7upl. ed. Arkiv Förlag, Halmstad.

(6) Moisander, J., Groß, C., Eräranta, K., 2018. Mechanisms of biopower and neoliberal governmentality in precarious work: Mobilizing the dependent self-employed as independent business owners. Hum. Relat. 71, p. 3.

(7) Marx, K., Engels, F., n.d. Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 18.

(8) Lukács, G., 2011. Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat 1923, in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 172–187.

(9) Marx, K., Engels, F., n.d. Manifesto of the Communist Party, p. 20.

(10) Marx, K., Engels, F., 2011. The German Ideology, in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 162.

(11) Means, A.J., 2022. Foucault, biopolitics, and the critique of state reason. Educ. Philos. Theory 54, 1968–1969.

(12) Foucault, M., 2011. Society Must Be Defended, 17 March 1976, in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 125–133.

(13) Foucault, M., 2011. Society Must Be Defended, 17 March 1976, in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 124

(14) Foucault, M., 2011. Society Must Be Defended, 17 March 1976, in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 127.

(15) Hardt, M., Negri, A., 2011. Biopolitical Production (2000), in: Cultural Theory - An Anthology. Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 143–149.

(16) Weidenstedt, L., Geissinger, A., Lougui, M., 2020. Varför gigga som matkurir? förutsättningar och förväntningar bakom okvalificerat gig-arbete. Ratio, Stockholm, p. 55.

(17) Olssen, M., 2004. Foucault and Marxism: Rewriting the Theory of Historical Materialism. Policy Futur. Educ. Volume 2, 29.



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