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  Issue No 73 Official Organ of LaborNet 13 October 2000  




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Fighting The Flexible Firm

We are told that hardship and exploitation at work is dying out, and the new economy offers opportunity, freedom and job satisfaction for all. Richard Sennett unveils the true nature of the flexible workplace.


How do you understand work to have changed over the past 20 or 30 years?

One of the changes that has most interested me is the changing experience of time. There has been a development within capitalism away from the long term and towards the short term. Employees tend to be on short-term contracts, and in the welfare state, welfare is regarded as a short-term intervention in people's lives as long term dependence is humiliating. I see my project as exploring what it is like to live through these changes, under the effects of a capitalism that is dismantling any sustained connection between people and institutions.

This shift towards the short term is a result of changes within the operation of capitalism. Let us be clear about this: it is not about technology, it is not about innovation, it is about capitalism and how capitalism operates to achieve profit. Capital is now driven by short-term return. This results in organisations having to quickly change what they are doing and where they are going, and adjust their personnel accordingly.

This move towards the short term is specific to the contemporary, neo-liberal era of capitalism. For example, when John D Rockefeller was building up Standard Oil, the situation was very different. The struggle for domination in the oil industry was decided by who owned the infrastructure; Rockefeller succeeded through acquiring the right plants, the means of transportation and the retail outlets. Such an infrastructure is relatively enduring, and Standard Oil could develop slowly, giving each of the various parts of the organisation a well-defined, ongoing function. Its employees likewise had a well-defined place - they knew what they were doing and they knew what the future held for them.

The situation is quite different with a giant of the new economy, like Microsoft. Microsoft is not interested in owning things; it is concerned with occupying the strongest position in a market. That means being the most recognised and visible brand to consumers. It means being connected to other companies and institutions in the best way. It means getting access to capital. All these factors demand that the Microsoft corporation responds to changing circumstances very quickly. The corporation becomes an empty shell, whose principle activities are developing strategy, marketing, and farming out work. The actual people who do the work are on short-term contracts.

At the personal level, it is not clear what work you will be doing a few years from now. It is often not clear what work you are doing at that moment, because you are a temporary cog in an ever-changing machine. There is not time to develop knowledge of how the work that you are doing fits into the ever-changing organisation and into the economy as a whole. It is not clear what one should do to prepare oneself for the future. Governments insist that one should develop skills, but what skills? It is not the case that there is a general lack of skills. Only a minority at the bottom of society lack skills; most people do have skills that previously would have been enough to ensure employment for them throughout their lives.

The problem today is that the demand for skills constantly fluctuates. For example, many people at IBM lost their jobs in the late 1980s. They had been employed on mainframe computers and then retrained to work on PCs - only to find that the mainframe came back into fashion. The act of retraining had left them behind once again. There is not an optimal set of skills you can give people to equip them for the new economy. So, against the mantra of 'education, education, education', which is conceived as a remedy to this exact situation, I would say to New Labour that there is no quick fix to make this new capitalism more humane.

At present, one often encounters the argument that transformations in the economy are an emancipatory force for workers. It is a very elitist idea. The flexible labour market may be liberating for the top 15-20 per cent of people in modern capitalism, but flexibility means something very different to people who are further down the social scale. Those lower down lack both the material and social resources which those higher up can employ to navigate a flexible labour market. They lack the material resources that would allow them to deal with periods of unemployment. They also lack the networks through which further work can be found. For lawyers or accountants the notion of pursuing a flexible strategy towards employment makes a lot of sense. That same entrepreneurial approach to work among people in call centres or flipping hamburgers has devastating results. So, when New Labour or the Democrats in the USA generalise from the experience of lawyers or accountants one needs to be aware of how this conceals the real nature of work for most people. The reality of one social class is being universalised as the reality of everyone.

There is also the argument that flexibility within a workplace empowers employees - that people are given more freedom over how they manage their work. Do you see this happening?

Again, there is a vast discrepancy between the top and bottom that is erased within this ideology of flexibility. There is a huge difference between the experience of a computer programmer or advertising executive and someone doing data entry. There is the conception that all these people are doing 'knowledge work' that is intrinsically more humane, creative and satisfying than traditional, manual forms of work. But to include call centre work in this category is absurd. Everything is scripted for you; there is no room to use your mind or exercise discretionary power. The work is extremely tedious.

That said, for many people it is the case that they are expected to take more responsibility for their work. The management orthodoxy now is that rather than employees merely being expected to obey the orders given to them by their immediate superiors, they are expected to develop ideas and respond imaginatively to problems on their own or in co-operation with their fellow workers. The traditional hierarchical structure of the organisation is thereby seen to be flattened, and these changes are regarded as being both egalitarian and empowering.

However, again we need to distinguish the reality from the ideology. Employees in fact have very limited decision-making power. They do not have power over what kind of work they are going to do - what product they are making or what service they are providing. They are set tasks in advance. Their only power is deciding how they are going to do that work. They are set targets by higher management, and it is their responsibility to meet those targets. This situation is more demanding and stressful than in a traditional bureaucracy, because there is a greater possibility of failure. In a bureaucracy, as long as you follow normal procedures and the orders of your superiors, your work is considered satisfactory. In the flexible workplace, you are merely given a target and if you choose the wrong approach, you are perceived to be a failure.

The situation is made more stressful for workers by being given impossibly high targets as an attempt to increase motivation. The result of this, as I found out in interviews I had with people who are employed in these flat organisations, is that employees feel that they are always falling short - merely trying your best is not enough. This 'empowerment' becomes a technique for making employees work harder, making them feel more insecure about their work, and, ultimately, provides a justification for disposing of workers who fail to meet targets. What we have here is people in the grips of an economic system which has powerful personal effects on their lives, which is obscured by a very sophisticated, class bound ideology.

How have relations between fellow workers changed in the flexible workplace?

Relations between workers tend to be weak. Young managers are taught at business school that people should not get 'ingrown' within the organisation. That is to say, employees should not develop any attachment to each other or an attachment to the kind of work that they are doing as this could come into conflict with the greater good of pursuing the organisational goals as set by higher management. Therefore, teams are periodically reshuffled and the kind of work one is doing is constantly changed not just because changes in organisational strategy demand it, but also because such changes ensure that employees are more compliant. The possibility of people getting to know each other and forging structures of fraternity, and also structures of resistance, disappears.

If they are not being moved from team to team and project to project, then they are actually moving from employer to employer. The result is the same. This is one reason why worker solidarity is so weak in call centres or fast food restaurants - people stay six or eight months at one place and then move on. They are not in one place for long enough to develop strong attachments with their fellow employees. Relations between employees are even worse in companies where different teams are set to compete against each other in an internal market. This transforms those workers outside one's own small team into rivals.

How do these changes in work affect how we workers can get a better deal and resist the advance of capitalism?

Given that the workplace by itself provides so little as a basis for solidarity, we have to look elsewhere. We have to draw on the fact that there is more to people's lives than their identity as workers, and use this as a basis. This goes against the traditional approach taken by trade unions. For instance, secretaries at Harvard University organised a union in a manner that absolutely baffled old-fashioned union organisers. People sat around and discussed problems with their children and where to find cheap groceries. They arranged baby-sitting for each other. You could say that none of these things addressed their position as secretaries. However, it was a way of creating a community that allowed secretaries to break free of a very paternalistic bond that Harvard had with this mass of secretaries. I have found a similar pattern amongst garment workers in New York. They are mainly young Latino women with some young Asian women, while their union organisers are generally older Jewish men. The garment workers have tended to bypass the official union structures to do such things as set up creches and baby sitting networks, and setting up a health resource network.

In developing stronger ties with each other, these workers were drawing on the fact that they belong to the same community or live in the same neighbourhood. In the garment industry in New York almost all of the Asians live in a very concentrated space in the Lower East Side in Manhattan while the Latinos live in a place called Crown Heights. I believe that the fact of belonging to a certain community would be a far stronger basis for a trade union than doing a certain type of work. As things stand, if you're changing jobs frequently then your union association is weak. People are in need of some kind of durable social network that supports them through different jobs and through periods of unemployment. Communities can provide this - we tend to stick to the same place more than we stick to the same job, particularly when we have children - that is true in both Britain and in the United States.

How would a community or locality provide an effective identity around which to organise resistance?

How would it engage with the specific problems relating to the workplace? I am not saying that a community would provide the basis for an anti-capitalist identity. Rather, a community would provide a space where such an identity could be formed. This is an important distinction. We tend to think of social identities as group portraits in which people recognise themselves; we say 'I'm black', 'I'm gay', 'I'm Jewish', 'I'm old'. One of the really interesting things about people's experience of flexible corporations is that they cannot find 'group portraits' to apply to their situation. For instance, they find it very hard to decide which social class they belong to. The normal interpretation of this is that they have weak identities. I don't think this is necessarily so. I think one can have a strong sense of identity without recognising oneself in a group portrait. We can develop a sense of identity by sharing our experiences with others in a process of ongoing interaction. This is quite different to a group portrait, which is a well-defined, discrete entity that we can adopt unilaterally. An identity that exists through dialogue is open, subject to change, and incomplete.

What we find with the Harvard secretaries or the New York garment workers is that they are not asserting a single, complete identity - 'I am an oppressed worker'. Rather, they have multiple, fragmentary identities, because they have lots of different bits to their lives - as mothers, wives, homeworkers, Catholics, etc. Their multiple identity only reaches some kind of unity through the group dynamic found in the interaction between workers.

This kind of identity can be a lot more radical than simply sharing the same group portrait. Group portraits can be divisive. Joint communal action can often be undermined by a struggle over whose image should dominate the action. In urban community groups, I found that this struggle is normally fought around determining who is the biggest victim in the community. In contrast, community groups succeed in their struggles when people stop competing and enter a dialogue with each other, which is to say that they enter a relationship with each other that is partial, fragmentary and unresolved. It is only once people enter such an unresolved relationship that new kinds of social relations emerge and a form of oppression can be overthrown.

If we are thinking in terms of group portraits, or in terms of being a victim, we are simply reacting to the force that is dominating us. When movements succeed, they go beyond this. It was important for the women's movement to get beyond simply thinking in terms of male-female relations, and to develop notions of female autonomy - of a space which men could not enter. Likewise, it has been important in America to develop ideas of what it is to be black beyond one's relation to whites - being African American. Ultimately, this is how we need to think about dealing with global capitalism. We do not fight it head on, but we bypass it. Limited examples of this would include local co-ops, local exchange trading schemes (Lets), and even illegal street markets.

I find it helpful to use an idea of philosopher GWF Hegel's when thinking about this, an idea that had a particularly strong influence on Karl Marx - the master-slave dialectic. Hegel argues that the slave remains subordinate to the master for as long as he is saying to the master, 'look what you did to me'. One remains a slave for as long as one still addresses the master and seeks redress from the master. The slave only becomes free at the point at which he or she begins talking a language the master cannot enter into, for the master relies on his power being ratified and recognised by the slave. We need to stop asking the master for redress, and begin to think instead in terms of how we might get on with each other independently of the master. In practical terms, this means finding ways to interact and live with each other in ways that are indifferent to global capitalism.

Richard Sennett is a socialist sociologist from the USA, now based at the London School of Economics. His most recent book, The Corrosion of Character, examines the personal effects of the shift towards 'flexibility' in the workplace.

This interview first appeared in redpepper (


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*   Issue 73 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Righting The Wrongs
Improving the lives of Aboriginal people can't be taken out of the context of the economy, welfare and other areas says Bob McMullan, Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
*  Economics: At The Mercy Of Gamblers
The plunge of the Australian dollar relative to the greenback has consequences for Aussie workers according to Frank Stillwell.
*  History: Labour History Under Seige Again
The Friends of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre have recently been informed of proposed changes to the Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC), changes that will cut staff by more than 50% and leave the Archives mothballed in the tunnel where the repository is situated.
*  Workplace: Fighting The Flexible Firm
We are told that hardship and exploitation at work is dying out, and the new economy offers opportunity, freedom and job satisfaction for all. Richard Sennett unveils the true nature of the flexible workplace.
*  Safety: Being bossed around is bad for your health
A survey of more than 3,000 Australian workers has revealed that some 54% of workers experience intimidating behaviour in their workplace. In almost 85% of cases it is employers, managers and supervisors who are identified as the culprits.
*  Unions: Discrimination
New to the union and the maritime industry and with only a few days casual work to live off, Stephen Rolls courageously spoke up against individual contracts during a job interview with Burnie Port Corp.
*  International: Serbian Workers and Their Unions Fight for Freedom
Serbian workers and their unions have been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Yugoslavia as they led a general strike in response to attempts by President Slobodan Milosevic to nullify the defeat he faced in the Sept. 24 election.
*  Satire: A few more years of civilised brutality will advantage Aborigines: Ruddock
CANBERRA, Tuesday: The Minister for Reconciliation Philip Ruddock has defended his comments to French newspaper Le Monde claiming that Aborigines were disadvantaged because they were late in coming into contact with developed civilisations.
*  Review: Poetry For Workers By Workers
Poems about the trials and tribulations of a waitress and what you learn in a chocolate factory are among the gems from the 925 anthology.

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