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The Platformization of Work and the Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism

Theory & ResearchAlgorithmic power over labour offers an excellent example of the institutional materiality of power and the state through techno-political mechanisms in authoritarian neoliberalism and accounts for the survival of neoliberalism as a dominant form of management in times of its ideological crisis. It is because of these characteristics that it can be said that the de-democratizing dynamics at the political level go hand in hand with de-autonomizing dynamics at the social and subjective level in the materiality of power in the new neoliberal phase

It has often been noted that after the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberalism entered a new historical phase characterized by the loss of the utopian dimensions that it had decades ago (Davies 2016). The utopias of more efficient democracies, more prosperous economies, and happier individuals become a technocratic set of practices based more on coercion than on consensus, on the invocation of necessity and urgency rather than on the promise of progress and well-being. 

However, the fact that neoliberal governmentality has lost its ideological charm does not mean that it has ceased to function as the dominant way of managing the economy, the state, and social life across the globe (Robles 2023; Saidel 2023). To make sense of this resilience of neoliberalism in the time of its ideological crisis, I would like to reflect on how to conceptualize this paradoxical historical moment by considering the transformations of the world of work in platform capitalism.

The Authoritarian Neoliberalism Research Agenda

As an attempt to define this openly reactionary face of the current phase of neoliberal governance, some authors — such as Ian Bruff or Cemal Burak Tansel — coined the concept of “authoritarian neoliberalism” (Bruff 2014; Tansel 2017). This concept aims to offer a Zeitdiagnose of neoliberalism’s crisis of legitimacy, as well as its resilience in the absence of emancipatory alternatives, through the analysis of the reconfigurations of capitalist statehood into “a less democratic entity through constitutional and legal changes that seek to insulate it from social and political conflicts” (Bruff 2014, 113).

In this approach, the authoritarian phase of neoliberalism refers to a series of de-democratizing institutional-political practices to ensure the survival of the neoliberal regime of accumulation in the face of its crisis of legitimacy, such as the centralization of state power in the executive branch, an increase in repressive and security forces, the regressive restructuring of distribution mechanisms, etc.

Undoubtedly, one of the notable advantages of the concept of “authoritarian neoliberalism” is that it avoids, on the one hand, the frequent fetishization of politics, which analyses the current authoritarian turn based on the profile of leaders, movements, or political forces, and, on the other hand, the fetishism of ideas, which attempts to understand the current transformations via analysis of theories and thinkers. In this way, the idea of authoritarian neoliberalism became a productive research agenda that called into question the threadbare discourse of the “crisis of democracy” (Bruff and Tansel 2019). 

Beyond its theoretical advantages, the perspective of this agenda often suggests a top-down analysis focused on regime types or legal-institutional mechanisms, in which not only class struggle and agents play a secondary role, but which also fails to specify the micro-political infrastructure and ideological soil on which these authoritarian transformations are produced and reproduced “from below” (Nehe and Robles 2023). The key question is then how to tackle the complexity of this new historical phase based on some transformations that have occurred beyond the institutional level, and without reducing it to its political emergency. 

For this purpose, I would like to offer some comments on the neoliberal transformations within the world of work in what is currently known as platform capitalism. I believe that the analysis of such phenomena can offer a perspective in which the connection between authoritarianism and neoliberalism is understood as a set of logics or dynamics constitutive of the mode of capitalist accumulation, beyond the dichotomies between liberal democracy and authoritarianism, and ideology and repression (Robles and Franco 2022). Thus, this perspective of authoritarian neoliberalism “from below” requires a complex idea of power capable of systematically connecting the political-state dimension with the reproduction of societal enclaves and subjective experience-making.

The Institutional Materiality of Power

In this line of thinking, Nicos Poulantzas tried to give an account of the complexity involved in the then-incipient consolidation of neoliberal governance in the late 1970s through the concept of the “institutional materiality of the state” (Poulantzas 2000). Concretely, what he wished to tackle was the multifaceted relationship between political domination and class exploitation within the conversion of capitalist statehood into what he called “authoritarian statism” as an index of a new phase in the capitalist mode of accumulation. This idea would later be taken up and extended by Stuart Hall to consider the ideological level and the making of a neoliberal common sense in the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism”. 

This line of analysis continues to be inspiring in terms of understanding the new authoritarian phase of neoliberalism, as it connects the level of political-state domination, the level of societal mechanisms of accumulation and exploitation, and the level of subjectivities and class struggles within the capitalist reproduction (Nehe and Robles 2022). In these lines, I would like to focus on just one of these aspects, the platformization of work. In this way, I will show that the transformations in the field of labour in digital capitalism are crucial for understanding the new authoritarian phase of neoliberalism since they are clear expressions of the strategies of capitalist rearrangement in a context of crisis and allow for observing the combination of new and old forms of exploitation and domination.

In short, these platforms can be broadly described as companies based on digital infrastructures (platforms) that operate by connecting, through algorithmic technologies, the demand for a service with its supply, and which must be understood as part of an extensive course of capitalist readaptation following the crisis of industrial capitalism that began in the 1970s (Srnicek 2016). These companies have grown exponentially around the globe in the last decade, feeding on the massive unemployment resulting from the periodic crises and, in the case of Latin America, the failure of the promises of the developmental model of absorbing workers into the formal labour market (Haidar and Keune 2021). 

This is particularly clear in what Nick Srnicek calls “lean platforms” (2016, 43–48), which operate through an outsourced model by offshoring workers, fixed capital, and the entire labour infrastructure to keep only the basic extractive minimum via software control. While this type of economy (whose paradigmatic model is Uber or the food delivery companies) is still small in terms of the employed workforce, it represents a larger trend built on the growth of unemployment and the digitization of life which accelerated after the 2008 crisis, and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Algorithmic Management of Work

As has already been outlined, these platforms constitute a response to the crisis of over-accumulation and the fall in the rate of profit that began in the 1970s, through the implementation of more economical forms of labour management. In other words, after that crisis there was an offensive by capital against labour, aiming to reduce labour costs and the participation of workers in the distribution of profits, opening up at the same time a process of financialization and increased investment in immaterial capital over physical capital, i.e. machines and installations (Schaupp 2021). 

The emergence of algorithms is an expression of this capitalist readaptation, but it is also a break with former modes of automation since algorithms make it possible to organize work without the need to invest in physical capital or develop complex technologies. They are a cheaper and relatively simple labour management technology that can be defined as a computational metric, whereby decisions are made automatically according to a given digital structure without costly supervision mechanisms (Jarrahi et al. 2021).

Especially after the 2008 crisis, the implementation of algorithmic management accelerated and became the model of rationalization, control, and exploitation of labour par excellence for post-growth capitalism, over and above the more costly and complex machine or robotic automation. At the same time, these companies made use of (de)regulation in multiple states to position themselves in an anonymous place of intermediation between supply and demand, which gave them their appearance of neutrality, i.e. of belonging neither to the sphere of production nor to that of consumption, in order to avoid the responsibilities associated with the figure of the employer. 

Platform economies are therefore at the heart of the new forms of capitalist value extraction based on the alliance between the figures of rentier capital and the consumer, to the detriment of the figure of the producer, i.e. an alliance between financial capital seeking quick profits and consumer citizens pursuing low-cost profits at the cost of intensified labour exploitation (Staab 2019). Although platformization has impacted workers’ feelings of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy in managing schedules and projects, at the same time this algorithmic power over labour operates through a series of strategies aimed at rendering invisible the criteria of labour control and management, as well as the flows between supply and demand. This is evident in the allocation of bonuses, the oscillation in the value of payments, inconsistencies in the distribution of orders, and even arbitrariness in the definition of suspensions all being anonymously attributed to the indecipherable calculability of software (Van Doorn 2017). 

This effectiveness of the platforms in placing their workers outside the social protection system and assimilating them into the figure of the self-employed entrepreneur is related not only to the active labour regulation in countries on the capitalist periphery but also to the characteristics of algorithmic management which, by depersonalizing the instance of management and control, fosters an impression of autonomy and flexibility that quickly becomes illusory (Del Bono 2019).

Algorithms as Class Struggle

This mode of algorithmic labour management provoked a set of power asymmetries in the relationship between capital and labour that can be seen for example in the complete separation of workers from decision-making over their tasks through the use of digital mechanisms whose functioning they are unaware of; the channelling of biases and discrimination towards workers through the customer rating system (without the company being responsible for it); the distancing of companies from the effects of their business decisions; and the obscuring of the instance of supervision and organization of work tasks through an apparently anonymous digital system (Kellogg et al. 2020). 

This “algorithmic management” must be understood as the result of the consolidation in the 1990s of a post-Fordist form of labour management that emphasized flexibilization and soft skills and was accompanied, in turn, by a set of state (de)regulations that promoted the outsourcing of production and the precarization of contract models (Neffa 1999). Algorithmic management and platform economies are therefore the result of a specific process of political transformations and institutional decisions, and not an inevitable consequence of technological development.

To sum up, algorithmic power over labour offers an excellent example of the institutional materiality of power and the state through techno-political mechanisms in authoritarian neoliberalism and accounts for the survival of neoliberalism as a dominant form of management in times of its ideological crisis. It is because of these characteristics that it can be said that the de-democratizing dynamics at the political level go hand in hand with de-autonomizing dynamics at the social and subjective level in the materiality of power in the new neoliberal phase. 

Constant surveillance, evaluation mechanisms, and unjustified suspensions, the anonymization of the relationship with the employer, algorithmic black box orders, etc. all reveal that the authoritarian face of neoliberalism also has its microphysical expression in the world of work, where ideologies of freedom, autonomy, and self-responsibility coexist with the opacity and arbitrariness of digital management. 

However, it should not be forgotten that these algorithmic mechanisms of control have generated individual and collective resistance, ranging from small forms of sabotage, workers’ own socialization of knowledge on how to evade algorithmic controls or obtain greater benefits from gamification techniques, and informal methods of organizing to protect against the vicissitudes of the street, to more complex forms of political self-organization, and digital cooperative and unionization strategies so as to be recognized as employees by the company (Diana Menéndez et al. 2023). 

These forms of resistance and counter-stabilities occur in a dialectical dynamic in which companies also learn and perfect the design of devices to increase the exploitation of workers and evade state regulations. These cases show that the digital control of working conditions is not a natural law, but a new space for class struggle, in which, through different tools of collective action and political experiences, riders acquire agential capacity, to articulate forms of resistance or also adaptation (Hidalgo Cordero and Salazar Daza 2020).



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