Book Review

Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism

Phil Jones

Verso, London, 2021. 144 pp., £10.99 hb
ISBN 9781839760433

Reviewed by Katjo Buissink

Imagine a factory, employing hundreds or even thousands of workers, suddenly disappearing overnight. Its employees would find themselves without their next expected pay cheque and with zero right of appeal to a manager or HR representative. Even the most malfeasant industrialist would struggle to accomplish this. Yet for those working within the platform economy, completing many small digital tasks for often anonymised companies in exchange for subsistence level piece wages, the disappearance of an ‘employer’ along with promised wages is not as fantastic. It simply requires the corporation to delete their account on the platform within which a worker was hired.

The exploitation faced by these platform workers cannot be dismissed – Jones gives the number at around 20 million globally, particularly within the Global South in Latin America or South-East Asia. Yet platform exploitation also cannot be integrated easily into the orthodox Marxist schema of the labour process, which from Marx’s Capital to later studies by Harry Braverman, Michael Burawoy and other writers has made geo-spatial assumptions about production allowed by typical factory regimes. In these, regardless of specific management styles, production is based around an in-person cooperative workforce which platform capitalism lacks entirely.

Work without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism is a short book that aims to bridge this disconnect by placing a discussion of the specifics of platform labour in the broader context of work and labour since the beginning of capitalism. Part of what is striking about Jones’ account of platform labour is how new technologies and a digitisation of the labour process drag the working class back to the past instead of ushering in a brighter future, as spokespeople for Silicon Valley often attempt to claim. This hyper-exploitation of platform workers, Jones argues, is what allows the digital economy to keep functioning and growing.

He likens the working experience within platform capitalism to the ‘grizzly spectacles of survival one might find on the streets of Victorian England’ (44). For example, the introduction of piece rates for work that is usually waged or even salaried when conducted ‘offline’ pushes workers to ‘merciless levels of intensity’ similar to the despotic factories that Marx wrote about in Capital. Unlike the Victorian factory, however, Jones is quick to point out that this exploitative new piecework system affects ‘precariat and professional alike’ (47), both can become deskilled and precarised. Pre-digital conceptions about social stratification and division of labour increasingly are dissolving, subordinated beneath the dispassionate algorithm.

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and platform magnate, uses the term ‘humans as a service’ (55) to describe the role of platform workers on his ‘crowdwork’ site, Mechanical Turk. On this site, named after a sham chess-playing machine from the late eighteenth century that really concealed a person within it, platform workers perform small tasks for various third-party requesters which computers and artificial intelligence are unable to do themselves. These requesters could range from social media companies to militaries – and often, workers are unable to find out exactly for whom they may work. Jones notes a ‘typical day’ (Ibid.) for these workers can be quite varied, perhaps translating a passage of text, transcribing an audio clip, helping an algorithm identify bicycles, writing product descriptions for e-commerce, before finishing with flagging offensive content. These sites create a ‘hybrid machine/human computing arrangement’ (31) where workers become component parts of computation processes. Just like how the original Mechanical Turk concealed human labour beneath a mechanical exterior, Bezos’ site and its competitors which Jones discusses hide human labour behind algorithms, platforms, and websites.

In Jones’ view, this hybridity is likely to be the main result of the increasing digitisation of work and society, not the full automation that some – whether advocates or detractors – foresee. To understand the implications of this, one must realise that the assumption many of us hold about the platform economy, that it is mostly composed of the people that drive us into town on a Friday night or deliver us fast food the next morning when we cannot bear to get up, is largely incorrect. While these workers cannot be left out of the discussion, the majority of platform work internationally is on crowdwork sites like Mechanical Turk or Clickworker.

These sites, unlike platforms such as Uber or Deliveroo, have a significant impact on the international division of labour. Somebody in Auckland must hail a taxi driven by an Aucklander, just as drivers in Prague can only work within Prague, or Manila, and so on. Yet crowdwork has no similar limitation. Alongside those in the USA, significant numbers of platform workers can be found in Eastern Europe, in India, in the Philippines, wherever a relative surplus population with access to a computer exists. In Jones’ view, this relative surplus population is the primary social stratum targeted for platform work.  It is a group for whom the pitches of Bezos and similar proponents of platform labour – You can work from anywhere! Be your own boss! – seem particularly attractive. Whether the alternative is a dead-end job at Walmart or informal employment in Kolkata, the seemingly middle-class position of platform work has an attraction that many blue-collar jobs do not.

Yet this formal independence offered by platform work obscures a deeper exploitation. As Jones explains, the rise of platform work has seen labour ‘not only proletarianized, but by default informalized, parcelled into badly paid, erratic piecework and torn from the regulatory frameworks that legislate pay and rights’ (37). Marx used the concept of the ‘double freedom’ when discussing the proletariat: a worker is free to sell his labour to whichever buyer they may choose, but a worker is also free of any other commodity to sell. Far from creating a new middle class of platform workers, sites exploit this freedom inherent to the working class in capitalism to push deregulation and lower rates of pay.

In Jones’ view, even the claims that platform work allows to you ‘be your own boss’ are ultimately false. While you are free to choose your own working hours, the badly paid piecework system ensures that workers who rely on the platform economy work for as much of the week as possible. Similarly, the line manager of traditional employment is replaced not with a self-managed socialism, but with the cold algorithms that allow platform capitalism to operate. Yet behind these algorithms lie even more platform workers. For example, Uber needs to verify drivers’ identities just as a taxi manager would. Facial recognition algorithms struggle to be perfectly accurate as somebody could have grown a beard, changed their haircut, or – particularly at present – be wearing a facemask. Platform capitalism solves this issue in its usual way, with platform workers.

Jones discusses how Uber automatically sends small, discrete supervisory tasks to workers on crowdwork platforms like Appen. Someone who accepts this task may be given thirty seconds to compare a current picture of the driver with their supplied ID photo. If the worker confirms the match, the driver is allowed to clock on. If they reject the match, the driver is suspended. In this way, the worker temporarily becomes a manager for a taxi service in exchange for a small piece rate. Then, under a minute later, they may need to identify which picture contains a traffic cone. Such is the fickle life of a platform worker.

Of particular interest to many readers will be the final chapter, which asks the question of whether ‘the growing mass of informal workers, day labourers and “microentrepreneurs”’ (81) has, given such a distributed and impersonal system, the agency to build a strong workers’ movement in the 21st century. In some regards, there are reasons to be optimistic. Platform workers are increasingly important to modern capitalism. Jones notes that if all platform work ceased, alongside smaller consequences like the collapse of content moderation on social media, ‘AI projects would sink as venture capital stagnates [and] algorithms would make unwanted decisions and dangerous mistakes’ (82). Yet unlike even the most despotic of factory regimes, platform workers are monitored continuously by the platforms themselves. If the algorithms that allow the platforms to operate detect a behaviour deemed against the terms of service or other rules, accounts can be automatically and permanently locked out. Whole workforces can be dismissed and replaced within seconds.

Online organisational efforts have been relatively non-antagonistic, focused on platform workers supporting each other through fundraisers, discussion forums, and tools to review employers. Jones sees face-to-face as being the best medium to build a platform workers’ movement. Yet attempts to organise these workers offline also face challenges. He describes how platform work ‘often takes place in slums, camps, prisons, and occupied territories, places where unions fail to reach and organising ranges from dangerous to criminal’ (84). It is not in these places but in Brighton, Newcastle, and other cities across the UK where platform workers have been most successful at organising offline.

Jones also sets out his predictions for the forms in which this workers’ movement may take, which he expects will be ‘spearheaded by the wageless as opposed to the waged’ (94) as anti-precarity sentiments dominate its growth. He outlines several strategies that this movement could take forward, from organising a ‘digital blockade’ (92) to impede the circulation of data that drives the platform economy to the creation of wageless centres to support platform workers and other members of the precariat. The chapter finishes by providing some long-term, ‘utopian’ (102) demands such as Universal Basic Services and a democratised economy which could act as rallying calls for this wageless movement.

What is perhaps most strikingly absent from Jones’ discussion are reform and regulation drives led by mainstream trade unions and labour ministers. Jurisdictions from the European Union to the People’s Republic of China have recently launched comprehensive attempts at regulating the platform economy and extending labour rights into these new areas of work with the support of groups such as the European Trade Union Confederation and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Like any labour code, it will neither emancipate platform workers, nor expropriate platform magnates like Jeff Bezos. Yet to what extent can regulation support platform workers’ struggles, or at the very least, offer some respite? This question is left unanswered.

This final chapter of Jones’ book, ‘Wageless Struggles’, is a particularly engaging read and will likely be of political interest to many who read from the Verso catalogue. By bringing the subjective potential of platform workers to resist exploitation into focus, Jones provides readers interested in Left politics and a 21st century workers’ movement with several ideas to develop both these areas without relying on the status quo of the Labour Party, the TUC, and similar organisations. For many on the British Left, or those in countries such as New Zealand where an anti-capitalist bent has been absent for many decades within the labour movement, this radicalism and lack of focus on reform may be a welcome breath of fresh air.

Work without the Worker offers a well-written and engaging tour through the largely empirical literature into these new forms of work which draws in various theorists from Karl Marx – a given within this field of research – to others such as Ernst Bloch, Franz Fanon, and André Gorz. The result is a short book that nevertheless manages to be a stimulating and learned read that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of readers interested in what is still an under-theorised field. After reading Jones’ book, it is difficult to look at computers, or those who promote them as our collective salvation, the same way as before.

24 March 2022


This review is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Katjo Buissink is a postgraduate student of sociology at the University of Waikato, researching class conflict and worker self-organisation in restaurants and food service. They can be found on Twitter @proletarikat.



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