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Biopolitics, territories and signs of crisis in multinational network companies

There is still a solid social cushion in France if we compare it to other European countries. But the pressure for work-hour productivity – one of the highest in the world – oppresses generations of digital cognitive workers. 

Giorgio Griziotti
10 May 2012

Network labour remains central in the sector of new information and communication technologies (NICTs), but has invaded a much more extensive area, expanding to every sector of production under corporate control. Beginning in the ‘70s and ‘80s, corporations introduced ERP business application packages (Enterprise Resource Planning), developed by large companies like the German SAP or the American Oracle, in order to restructure and automatize organization in the search for profit. Once the internal machine was fine-tuned, beginning in the ‘90s, these programmes were directed toward the outside through CRM (Customer Relationship Management) packages. CRMs are the first instance of an interactivity with the multitude understood as “client consumers” and it is these that launch the era of the “client producer” (i.e. crowdsourcing), thus contributing to the age of economic rent.

charlie_chaplin02_0.jpg

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Cinematography: Max M. Autrey

More recently, over the course of the last decade, we have moved towards a strengthening of the ability to capture and control the multitude integrating the web 2.0’s “collaborative” procedures and the pervasiveness of “always connected” mobile devices into ERPs and CRMs. Initially experimented on in companies tied to NICTs – like services in technological engineering, large digital publishing and the giants of the web 2.0  – the methods and the procedures that integrate planned management with network labour tools have multiplied in proportion to NICT’s expansion into all other sectors. This expansion was not only into digital management, but also into the daily production of the media, financial, industrial and commercial sectors.

Consequently, the presumed dichotomy between digital and traditional capitalism collapses, with the emergence of a growing number of activities piloted using these applications and infrastructures, even in the companies most representative of the ‘old’ industrial system. In the constellation of cognitive capitalism, multinational corporations are the giant stars and, at the same time, the black holes that swallow up living labour and common production. The network is the driving force and central tool of this reorganization.

To cope with all the social, political and financial dynamics, this complex system of capture and control must also be continually regulated, hierarchized and finely tuned. Multinational corporations go to great financial, organizational and technological lengths to generalize normalization. Here, we want to examine in detail certain ways of exercising biopower and the corruption of the commons through offshore operations, the financialization introduced by cloud computing, the circumvention of national labour laws, the control of open spaces and the persuasive techniques of marketing. We will also see how unions are a mere cog in this machine, at risk of becoming completely inoperative, thereby accelerating the demise of a discredited form of representation, one that is increasingly rejected by the people they sought to represent.

To be sure, this form of governance presides over zones of great turbulence, born alongside the emergence of key new social movements. But, for the moment, it still manages – though not without difficulties – to maintain its trajectory of the destruction and privatization of collective services. It also manages to give itself an avant-garde image thanks to the ambiguities surrounding capitalism 2.0 [1] through Google, Apple or Facebook.

But there are ways of fighting back. The emerging lines of rupture, antagonistic forms of organisation and the concept of exodus as an alternative for moving toward commons production also need to be explored.

Techniques of exercising biopower – Offshore: maximizing exploitation

In the last five years, the practice of offshoring has become a lot more refined in the digital sector and in network labour. Solely relying simply on the willingness of digital operators in emerging countries for every project, using strong incentives when it comes to managerial salaries, has been abandoned due to the catastrophic results. The attempts to strictly nest single projects into onshore and offshore workers have failed for the same reasons.

Contrary to the Chinese government’s famous slogan for resuming control of Honk Kong in ’97, “one country, two systems”, the “one project, two cultures” methodology didn’t work: what incentives can be given to the Indian software engineer, paid a few hundred dollars a month and easily fired, to reach a European level of training and productivity? What control mechanism can efficiently measure the productivity of individuals integrated into a single project but separated by continents, time zones, languages and cultures?

Learning these lessons, multinational corporations have moved from hierarchical models to contractual models: offshore teams become the subcontracted entities entrusted with well-defined tasks for which they must take complete responsibility through ad hoc contracts. For example, in a large European project, a team of Indians is assigned the task of “manually” executing the boring and repetitive validation tests of a banking application. The Indian programmer or software worker does the job with the least “added value”, while above and below, the “nobler” tasks of conception, development and final integration are still assigned to European teams.

Techniques of exercising biopower – Cloud computing: corrupting the commons in the network

Today we are also witnessing another great change: capitalism is facing the decline of the client-server technological architectures that exploited so well its hierarchical model of control and privilege (as evoked by Dmitri Kleiner in his “Telecommunist Manifesto”), [2] while common productions in freeware and open source instead constructed through a collaborative form of the commons (defined as “peer production” by Yochai Benkler) are now becoming predominant. [3]. For sure, freeware is exploited in capitalist production as an externality, but evidently this is not sufficient for digital governance to take back the initiative.

The more recent invention of cloud computing [4] can be considered an attempt that goes in this direction. Cloud computing consists of entrusting a private enterprise, called service provider, with one’s own applications and data to make them “run” on a “cloud”, a virtual infrastructure (servers, networks, etc.) that is opaque and with little user control. Many denounce this as a marketing operation, but above all what we are looking at is a gigantic stream of “business” that implies the expulsion of manpower from IT services of companies to accelerate the processes of externalization (outsourcing) and the physical elimination of millions of servers and public or private tech centers in transferring this computing power to the immense, hidden and anti-ecological “server farms” of Google, Amazon or Microsoft.

A capital expenditure (CAPEX) is incurred when a business spends money either to buy fixed assets or to add to the value of an existing fixed asset with a useful life extending beyond the taxable year. An operating expense, operational expense, (OPEX ) is an ongoing cost for running a product, business, or system. In the short and medium term, cloud computing also seems to answer the requirement of drastically reducing fixed investments in productive systems (CAPEX) and converting them into more flexible and  controllable management costs (OPEX) that can also be offshored.

Beyond the loss of control of one’s own information, rightly denounced by Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, the operation seems to configure itself as a kind of digital communism of cognitive capital, a way of transposing the corporate corruption of the commons into the net.

Acting on a global level: circumventing local legislation to maximize profit and rent

Corporations refine their tools for extracting wealth both from common production and for the direct exploitation of cognitive network labour. The new parameters now consist in adapting the activity to function in every different national context, taking into account economic, cultural and legal dynamics, especially with regard to labour regulations.

The founder of one of these entities recently stated in an interview that, “it is easier to hire an Indian than a Frenchman. Above all because he speaks English well and doesn’t count his (working) hours. And if one day he realizes that there is no more work for him, then, pragmatically, he looks for a salary elsewhere. In France, when someone is hired, it is for life…”. [5].

The intention here is not to abandon Europe, where hundreds of thousands of employees procure comfortable profits for their companies, but to transform the major part of them into precarious workers, just like their Indian counterparts. To do this, corporations have adopted forms of organization able to adjust their aim with extreme precision between local and global levels.

In France, for example, where social and legal protections are still quite solid, a nifty tactic is required: standardizing and reselling the work of trainees and numerous temp workers through state subventions that are supposed to reduce youth unemployment. Or even transferring the salary costs of a senior to the social collectivity for a few years: as soon as a senior employee no longer guarantees sufficient profitability, they are fired and, despite unemployment benefits, have difficulty in reaching a retirement age that is pushed further and further into the future.

In European countries where the labour market is already flexible, there are other opportunities that involve dismantling public structures: for example in participating in and winning public contracts that consist in the externalization of fiscal computing services. In exchange for a multi-decade and multi-billion Euro contract, several thousand state-employed technicians belonging to fiscal services are thus “privatized”. Later, in the name of efficacy and profit, a large part of them will not be replaced or will be fired with greater ease, and the services themselves opportunely offshored to India or elsewhere.

New mechanisms for subjectivity: marketing and business ethics

“Working in a contemporary company means belonging, adhering to its world, to its desires and beliefs”, wrote Maurizio Lazzarato in 2004. [6]. In just a few years, this process of subjectification, as dictated by financial governance, has totally invaded the nooks and crannies of company labour, often turning the worlds of technological corporations into nightmare scenarios.

For the young neo-graduates in scientific or technological disciplines who looked forward to getting their first job up until a few years ago, there are some unpleasant surprises. Most for at least the first two years of a job will find themselves doing tedious tasks on a daily basis, like repetitive corrections of old programmes, or working from 7 a.m. to assure client hotline hours. The resulting demotivation is one reason for the explosion in turnover, completely reversing the impact of the period before the burst of the internet bubble when, despite the paradigm of profit, the need to integrate collaborators into a company project over the long-term still existed.

Faced with this disincentive, corporate governance has invested in personnel departments – re-baptized as Human Resources (HR) – to make them profitable recruiting centers. People charged with recruiting are called “business resource partners” and their remuneration (or bonuses) can be directly tied to the quantity and quality of the “resources” hired. In the “industrial” epoch, these offices, beyond recruiting, had the almost exclusive function of control and repression, acting as a kind of Minister of the Interior for big business. Today, along with these old functions, they are now entrusted with the new tasks of communication and gathering network information that is then managed and consolidated through the algorithms, technology and applications of “business intelligence” and “data mining” in order to perfect candidates’ “profiles”. The latter have now become “clients” for which HR wants to have complete profiles. Beyond traditional data like age, sex and education, these folders now contain an infinity of important indications regarding race, health, family life, relationships, habits, technological orientation (i.e. “geeks”, “hackers”, etc.), hobbies… and also the notorious “stress resistance capacity”.

The main objective of their propaganda is to limit turnover that, in certain tech sectors, has risen from 5% to 15% or even 20% a year. Young neo-graduates and especially by those of non-European origin, respond where possible by limiting themselves to staying 1 or 2 years in a large company only in order to acquire a minimum of experience and to add a well-known brand to their résumés. Recruiting campaigns are conducted with refined techniques and at huge expense: massive expo stands where multinational corporations show off their incentives and media campaigns – also using social networks – like the famous slogan “My work, my life” that confuses labour and life in a way that may well be irresistible for “geeks”.

A certain work ethic is artificially enforced. In the gaping chasm between management and the “troops” (a commonly used term), cynicism, aggression and competitiveness emerge in frequent episodes of mobbing, harassment and discrimination. Sales departments’ practices of lobbying and influence are persistent features, not to mention the regular corruption cases that visit even large international projects.

Trying to counterbalance this image, corporations draw up corporate ethics charters that describe the “moral” values, behavioural rules (audaciousness, modesty, respect for others, etc.) and even the aspects of the company’s “social” responsibilities. These “commandments”, hammered into the heads of employees through the intranet, are accompanied by the obligatory greenwashing, the widely used marketing technique that a company uses to display an ostensible interest in environmental responsibility.

Competitiveness, open spaces, profiling and other pathogenic agents of cognitive labour

Company mantras like “up or out” invented by one of the first (US) multinationals in consulting services and are now adopted everywhere: if someone isn’t promoted to vice president in a certain number of years, they are fired. This competitive drive is expressed on multiple levels: collectively, with managers of business units of one group ferociously struggling amongst themselves to get clients and to win contract bids, individually to produce and train, through a single model, a small minority of young “soldier managers” responsible for extracting profit from the work directly done by project teams through the capture of value on the net. Arrogance, and the use of humiliation are everyday stances. Xenophobic and discriminatory attitudes toward women, seniors and union members also proliferate in these conditions.

A step down the ladder, project managers, overloaded with work billable to the client that they must accept to stay in the race, no longer have the material time to pilot projects and thus positively contribute to the team’s work. Overburdened by heavy reporting duties, in continual fear of becoming the scapegoat for possible financial losses and at the mercy of clients who are often despotic since they are put under the same stresses, project managers lose all daily human contact with their teams. In this way, the traditional role of mediation covered by intermediate management disappears.

In France, one of the countries with the highest work-related stress levels, these pathogenic tools have been publically exposed and given wide media attention due to the numerous suicides that are the visible tip of an iceberg of suffering. To complete the picture, continuous restructuring campaigns – like France Telecom’s infamous “Time to move” – force a maximum number of employees who cannot be outright fired (since they work for the state) to change position and/or office and/or city systematically every 3 years, driving them to quit. Today, suicides are multiplying at post offices, in job centres and other services that are being privatized.

Then there are the “open spaces” – large offices without walls where network laborers are packed into a minimum of vital space without any privacy. In a recent pamphlet and bestseller in France, they are presented as the panopticon of modern labour. [7]. Add in the factors that condition that space, including the pervasive use of instruments like the PC, smartphones, tablets and the whole gamma of network mobile devices and applications that interact through our senses: a complex system that we have previously defined as bio-hypermedia. [8].

The climate of fear and tension is periodically revived in phases of individual evaluation. The old, artesian and patriarchal management of evaluation undergoes a decisive transformation with the introduction of profiling techniques applied to the individualization of every single worker. These reduce the cognitive worker to a “package of skills”, “an interchangeable cog in the industrialization of network labor […] no longer a person”. [9] Dehumanizing is worsened by the rupture between management and software developers. In companies that sell “man-days”, personal information is opportunely used according to the specific conditions and context, but always with the final objective of rendering employees obsessively responsible for the fact of being profitable and employed; if necessary, pushing them to a voluntary resignation that, in certain countries, remains much less costly and less complicated than firing them directly. All those who find themselves “intercontractual” – the time between one project or mission and another – must therefore be made to feel as guilty as possible. Obviously, for senior employees – i.e. for anyone over 45 years of age – this prescription becomes the dogma of the “self-made entrepreneur”. Even in companies with tens of thousands of employees, the wage labourer is responsible for his or her profitability and mustn’t expect that the company provide work but, instead, must get busy to find it independently, even if he or she doesn’t have the means to do so.

Lastly, company social networks now increasingly replace knowledge management (KM) for two main reasons: growing reticence in publishing directives that might communicate techniques and procedures that could be exploited by the competitor, and cutting the length of time in the race to productivity; consultants or project leaders no longer have the time to insert the contents and data into company KM, a job that is often not incentivized or acknowledged. In some companies, employee participation in internal social networks is starting to become an element in evaluation and therefore influences career evolution and bonus values (the variable part of remuneration that now has an important role, accounting for nearly 20% of global income). 

Union decline and precarious network labour: the French example

In France, maybe more than anywhere else, unions are growing weaker as the low level of adhesion, around 6% or 7%, testifies. Union leaders bear a heavy responsibility for having allowed the deterioration of wage labour working conditions in general and especially the conditions of cognitive labour. The fatal blow in the long agony of union representation came from the two main bodies, the CGT and the CFDT, when they signed the 2008 accords with the most neoliberal rightwing government in French history. In exchange for the consolidation of a presumed hegemony, they accepted a law that substantially reduced union presence in large companies, eliminating smaller union organizations through drastic electoral rules.

Except for rare exceptions and initial periods, the role of a union organizer is often reduced to managing the budgets extracted from payrolls and spent on “recreational-touristic” activities. These activities are themselves managed by “company committees”, a veritable company within a company. The endless embezzlement scandals in large public and private groups like EDF (France’s national electric company), RATP (the company responsible for Parisian public transport) and AirFrance, etc. testify to this. There is still a minimum of vitality over feminist questions, however, in the battle against sexism in the workplace.

The role of the union, as a containment mechanism for labour antagonism, has now been reduced to almost nothing, particularly in network labour companies and in software integration services: the political initiative is always in the hands of the higher-ups, seconded by a Ministry of Labour that, except in rare cases, is aligned with employer organizations. Often, unions are content with fighting for minor or marginal advances, or avoiding total defeat: they migth fight a reduction of the number of delegates, for economic guarantees or union prerogatives.

At the same time, in France we are witnessing the advance of a precarization that strikes young undergraduates or neo-graduates through increases in temporary contracts and the extension of training and trial periods. These paths are fraught with further obstacles in the case of foreign citizens. On the other hand, the education system actively participates in this precarization. Long-term training conventions allow students to be rapidly accorded the status of low-wage worker but with full responsibilities. Engineering degrees and training for university diplomas are more and more organized along the lines of the financial and profit “needs” of large companies and the very functioning of professional engineering schools is completely corporatized. Despite all this, unions privilege stable employees with permanent contracts. They fight to render the borders between the company and the external world impenetrable, with the pretext that precarious workers and trainees don’t vote in internal elections, and thus their problems are to be ignored.

In spite of the unions’ defeat over the question of pension reform, there is still a solid social cushion in France if we compare it to other European countries. But the pressure for work-hour productivity – one of the highest in the world – oppresses generations of digital cognitive workers. The attack against what is left of welfare is conducted in the form of a steady trickle, punctuated by periodic surges that risk social explosion in which unions, in the best of cases, stand by impotently and watch.

Physical exodus and network counterpower?

Our attention is drawn to multinational NICT corporations mainly because of their cornerstone role in the production of instruments of control and capture of the commons, whether we look at the creation and direct management of “walled gardens” like Facebook, Google, Apple and others companies that gave birth to the famous acronym B2C (business to consumer), or at the supply of these instruments to other large companies in the so-called B2B model (business to business) typical in software integration services and consulting sectors, where IBM is one of the progenitors.

Schizophrenia animates this sector: on one hand, the instruments of enclosure and control are a prerequisite; on the other hand corporations must keep all hatches open in order to suck out the greatest amount of commons production as possible. An important example lies in the widespread diffusion of Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones that is derived, like many others, from what Yochai Benkler defines as the admiral ship of the common production of freeware: GNU Linux.

This schizophrenia ripples through workplace climates: in order to maintain the profit levels and rent of multinational NICTs, they must protect the fortress by occupying as many interstices of employee life as possible, blurring life and labour, and maintaining a continually oppressive climate of stress and competitiveness in spaces that are created ad hoc to do so, using the very tools that influence and enclose the multitude.

It is just as important to note that this multinational NITC rationality also dictates the model that financial capitalism imposes on the public sector to actuate the transformation of collective welfare services into private companies, thus creating new frontiers to conquer. The system attempts to feed itself in this way: the destruction of welfare generates a social climate of fear favourable to accepting the pathogenic dispositions of large private companies and these dispositions are then applied in the privatization of collective services. And the circle closes.

In the dissolve of the space-time of labour into a generalized cognitive metropolitan factory of precarious workers, tele-work, offshores, sub-contracting, in the smooth surfaces of alienated business neighbourhoods denounced by the occupy movement, where can cracks be found from which new common creations can emerge? Can we identify the uneven surfaces that are hiding points of potential rupture? What forms of struggle could be effective?

It is difficult to imagine the ex-nihilo creation of instances of collective organization in multinational NICTs that are inspired by the autonomous social experiments now being conducted in Greece and Spain, nor is it certain that strikes are the most effective form of struggle when the space-time of work has been completely de-structured. On the other hand, schizophrenia is not a symptom of stability and usually generates crisis: the signals that predict this crisis are beginning to become visible.

The first sign is that of exodus. Beyond the previously mentioned “soldier managers”, the vast majority of workers are pushed in the first 15 years of work to frequently change positions, encouraged by management through wage stagnation and then, once over the age of 40, by the desperate need to hold on in the vain hope of not being expelled before a retirement age that is nearing 70. The more or less obligatory passage from one employer to another is also indispensable to obtaining a minimum of income progression but still doesn’t resolve the fundamental nodes and risks of changing jobs; employees will undoubtedly find the same conditions and constructions in the new company. The salaried network labourer may begin to dream about a start-up as a liberation and, sometimes, he or she realizes this dream.

Beyond the capitalist myth, à la Steve Jobs, of rapid and immeasurable wealth, these people are looking for a way out of a system that they no longer believe in and that allows for no hope and no future. Participating in the development of freeware, many of them have seen and appreciate the values and organizational and cooperative tools of this environment. The attractiveness of “peer production”, freeing people from the compulsive and pathogenic ways of companies, is the real driving force of exodus, even if start-ups can also find themselves trapped in the same system. In accordance with the principle that the network is the origin not only of the threats facing the multitude but also of its opportunities, a tension exists in exodus which is also a search for other modes of production that correspond to the social relations emerging from new movements on the streets (like Occupy and Democracía Real Ya) and on the net (Anonymous, etc.). The formidable affirmation of freeware and open source extends itself to science, arts, horizontal communication and innumerable other forms of creation.

A second piece of evidence comes from the fact that a growing number of tech consultants in multinational NITCs are evermore present in the net beyond their jobs. At the beginning it was often in the form of specialized tech blogs, but now authors are taking stands on questions of net freedom and against political policies, laws and treaties that extend rent through copyright (i.e. SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, etc.). Sometimes they go as far as denouncing, even if in a humorous or satiric fashion, their working conditions. The potential danger is not underestimated by corporate governance codes, always including threats to fire employees for publishing unwanted criticism on the net or in social networks. [10].

A third indication is the rise of the Anonymous movement that, as evoked in numerous articles, [11] is becoming more and more a door into politics for geeks and hackers who want to start acting on their convictions. Anonymous offers new possibilities for debate and action that are much more simple, fluid and confidential. Articles have appeared on non-political sites [12]. that evoke the birth of a mass Hacktivism and new forms of protest and antagonism for the multitudes on the net. For the moment, goals have been tied to visible political questions and the defense of net freedom. With the clamorous case of Sony, multinational NITCs are coming under fire, for now as places of capture and rent more than as places of worker oppression. But beyond the more highly publicized operations, there is a growth in microprotests that are becoming endemic and that are the prelude for a wider epidemic.

These signs converge and are part of the growth in the confluence of social movements: in the grand balls that the multitude hosts in the world’s squares and on the net, the workplace may be their next guest…

 

 

The full version of this article was originally published in italian on uninomade.org  as the author's contribution to the conference 'Enterprise and subjectivity' in Turin on March 24/25, 2012.  Thanks go for this translation into English to Jason Francis Mc Gimsey .

[1] Giorgio Griziotti, “Capitalismo digitale e bioproduzione cognitiva: l’esile linea fra controllo, captazione ed opportunita’ d’autonomia, in Uninomade, 2011,
http://uninomade.org/capitalismo-digitale-e-bioproduzione-cognitiva-lesile-linea-fra-controllo-captazione-ed-oppotunita-dautonomia/

[2] Dmitri Kleiner, “The TeleKommunist Manifest”, http://media.telekommunisten.net/manifesto.pdf

[3] Y. Benkler and H. Nisselbaum, Common Based Peer Productionhttp://www.amwiki.de/download/attachments/589977/commons_based_peer_production_benkler2006.pdf

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing

[5] Patrick Bonazza, “Si l’on dort on est mort”, Le Point, 03.06.2010 [our translation].

[6] Maurizio Lazzarato, Les révolutions du Capitalisme, Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2004, p. 108 [our translation].

[7] Alexandre Des Isnards, T. Zuber, L’open space m’a tué, Paris: Livre de Poche  Paris, 2011.

[8] Andrée Steidel and Giorgio Griziotti, “Production du commun, réseaux et bio-hypermedia : menaces et opportunités”, in Savoirs Communs, http://savoirscommuns.org/reseaux-et-bio-hypermedia/

[9] G. Griziotti, op. cit., “Capitalismo digitale…”

[10] http://www.agoravox.fr/actualites/medias/article/salaries-licencies-pour-84703

[11] Biella  Coleman, “Anonymous: From the Lulz to Collective Action”,
http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action

[12] G. Griziotti, D. Lovaglio, T. Terranova , “Netwar 2.0: the convergence of streets and networks”, http://www.opendemocracy.net/giorgio-griziotti-dario-lovaglio-tiziana-terranova/netwar-20-convergence-of-streets-and-networks

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