Stretched to the Limit: Resilience and Resistance to Flexible Capitalism

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Ortuzar, Jimena. “Stretched to the Limit: Resilience and Resistance to Flexible Capitalism.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021.

Jimena Ortuzar

“Overworked and underpaid” is a recurring theme in recent media coverage of the global pandemic as health care workers and care staff reach the point of burnout. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the growing precarity of work, this problem existed well before the present crisis. The death of a New York City Black-Car service driver in 2018 who took his own life in front of city hall drew international attention to the devastating effects of the ride-hailing industry on taxi drivers. After forty-four years of driving, he was now spending up to 120 hours a week working and only taking home half the pay he used to make (Bruder). The previous year, a journalist in Japan died from overwork after logging 159 hours of overtime in one month, her smartphone still clutched in her hands when she was found (Inoue and Specia). More recently, an investigation by The Guardian revealed that migrant workers in Qatar are being worked to death in searing temperatures, as the construction boom ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup hits its peak (Kelly et al.). These tragic stories, along with countless other accounts of illness, anxiety, and despair, suggest there are no boundaries to the demands of work today. That workers should spend their “life power” without a break has long been a capitalist fantasy — the interruption of labour being the limit that capital strives to overcome, as Marx duly observed (220). But how far can workers be stretched before they reach a breaking point? The problem of how to extract as much as possible from human labour before it can no longer produce, or needs to be replenished, is not new and was indeed a central concern of industrialized economies for much of the twentieth century. However, it is no longer just a problem of efficiency or endurance; it is also one of elasticity. Work in the present era of flexible capitalism demands that we stretch, adapt, and respond to flexible labour markets, devote our lives to work, and increasingly invest ourselves in it.

The regime of flexibility in post-industrial economies poses new challenges for the physical and mental limits of the body’s capacity to work. Livery drivers now have little choice but to cope with the erratic pace of “on-demand” work, service workers are asked to give genuine smiles for less-than-subsistence wages, and those of us in the business of producing knowledge plug away endlessly under the guise of self-fulfillment. We invest value production not only with energy but also with affect and subjectivity. Our capabilities to adapt and stretch now exist as a potential that capital is incited to rediscover. As David Harvey reminds us, discovering new ways in which the body can be put to work is part of the creative history of capitalism (104). The question “What can a body do?”, which has long been central to the study of the performing body for its progressive power, is for capital a biopolitical calculation towards work without limits. This more recent mode of capitalism is thus a flexible one that expands the place and time of work, potentially everywhere and all the time.

What, then, can a body do when life is increasingly reduced to work? The extent to which capital pushes the limits of the labouring body opens up possibilities for considering how workers survive within or push back against it. Understanding the particular elasticity of flexible capitalism may very well be the key to the means of resisting its power. In that spirit, this essay examines capitalist demands for flexibility, considering its effects on the bodies and subjectivities of workers as they adapt and respond to the changing pressures of waged labour. Labour is an elastic concept, both in terms of what counts as work and in terms of the human capacities that are harnessed for the production of surplus value (Brown 95). Since the late twentieth century, capital increasingly exploits labour outside the traditional workplace, most notably in the rise of knowledge and service economies. The latter is where the effects of flexible capitalism are most visible, where “overworked and underpaid” is the order of day. As such, the service-based economy is the focus of my analysis. I engage with two cases in the service sector that push the boundaries of work and lay bare capitalism’s expansion through everyday forms of consumption. The first is the enforced happiness of workers in the UK-based coffee and sandwich chain Pret a Manger. The company, known as a “food-on-the-go success story,” is notorious for its overly chirpy employees whose affective skills generate a fun and happy service experience. However, the promise of happiness is called into question when seen against the chain’s “regime of surveillance and assessment,” which involves managers, mystery shoppers, and even fellow workers monitoring employee behaviour (Myerscough). That workers are compelled to act with such fervor not only reveals the hidden work behind the smiles but also draws attention to the performativity of affective labour and its particular elasticity. The affective performance of enthusiasm contradicts the struggle to survive on minimum wage, a tension that bears heavily on the labouring body and its flexible capacities.

The second case I examine is the “on demand” work of food delivery cyclists and ride-hailing drivers, whose growing activism is demanding their labour be recognized as real work that deserves a living wage. I turn to this more recent form of work because it embodies the ways in which capital creates a dispensable workforce under the scheme of flexibility. Food delivery bike couriers under the banners of Foodora, Deliveroo, and Door Dash, among others, as well as Uber, Lyft, and Didi drivers, have become ubiquitous in cities around the globe. Though representative of only a portion of all gig workers, they are by far the most visible, and recently the most active, in the struggle against the precarization that flexibility brings about. While the nature of this flex work and its relations of production is the subject of much debate among scholars,[1] the collective resistance of its workers comes largely unexpected given the atomized, diffused, and dispersed character of gig labour (Tassinari and Maccarrone, “Riders” 36).[2] This emerging labour movement is seeing new tactics of mobilization with the potential to overcome the individuated and fragmented effects of flexibility on the space and time of work that hinder socialization and solidarity.

While these forms of labour are clearly different in terms of what the jobs entail, their modes of exploitation both involve the appropriation of something other than the work of selling sandwiches or making deliveries: affect in the case of the Pret employee who is called to perform, and time in the case of the rider/driver who depends on the platform app. Both play different roles in a feminized workforce characterized by labour that caters to the needs of others, and both reveal how the body performs under the stress of capitalism and within the temporality of its mode of production. Taken together these cases show how workers are stretched and overstretched through the constitutive and normalizing effects of flexibility and performativity, and how their responses both sustain and resist flexible capitalism.

Mapping the New Labour Market, Locating the Flexible Worker

The restructuring of labour in post-Fordist, neoliberal, advanced capitalism is marked by the collapse of boundaries between work and life. Here, both old and new forms of labour coexist even as traditional occupations are assumed to be disappearing and scholars talk about a post-work world on the horizon.[3] What is currently disappearing, however, is not work, but the conditions of employment that guaranteed workers’ wages, benefits, hours of work, and job security. Capital no longer seeks a social contract, relying instead on a provisional one that guarantees nothing but the possibility of work — often poorly remunerated and unstable (Adkins and Dever 1). This contingency is redefining the labour market and becoming the norm, while the characteristics that defined the primary job sector of the Fordist era — unionized workers, a “jobs for life” ethos, bureaucratic hierarchies, socially routinized work cultures, and negotiated benefit packages — now seem increasingly outdated (Peck and Theodore 748). The ideal workers of this economy are independent contractors and entrepreneurs who invest in their own human capital, often at great risk and cost (Adkins and Dever 2). Alongside the entrepreneurs, however, are extreme manifestations of such contingent contracting such as the revival of migrant day labour and the recent rise of “just-in-time” work that intensify the precarious conditions of life under capitalism.

The transformation of work is characterized by the real subsumption of labour in which the whole of life is absorbed by capital, as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and other theorists of the post-Operaismo / autonomia school have argued (Hardt and Negri 365). The work of these Italian autonomist Marxists, inspired by the anti-capitalist struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s, was crucial in recognizing the emergence of “a more extended and immaterial labouring body” (Staples 120) — one that we now better understand as the socialized worker whose communicative, cognitive, and affective capacities are incorporated by capital as the basis of productive social cooperation in the post-Fordist economy. However, these qualities have been definitive features of women’s reproductive labour long before the immaterial turn, and Marxist-feminists have long recognized their necessity and value in the process of capital accumulation. Their analyses in the 1970s expanded the concept of labour in order to account for all the unwaged labour that contributes to value production but that remains hidden within the institution of the family, privatized in the sphere of reproduction. Consigned to the care and household labour needed to reproduce and sustain daily life, women were the flexible workers of the Fordist period. Their endless work of reproduction that maintains the machinery of capital through the continued renewal of labour power is certainly a labour without limits.

The paradox is that the rise of immaterial/affective forms of labour has not changed how gendered labour is viewed or valued. The recalibration of the relations between capital and labour is a highly uneven process and the fact that all workers are now expected to invest aspects of their lives as potential assets, regardless of their circumstances, does not level the playing field among workers. On the contrary, the cognitive capacities linked to the creative industries, for instance, garner high value and appeal while those associated with service work remain invisible and devalued. [4] What is important to note in this transition to a knowledge- and service-based economy is the extent to which identity is bound up with work. While the fraught division between material and immaterial work has been waning for some time, many jobs still require workers to put their social and intellectual needs aside in order to sell their labour power. But, as we will see shortly, the imperative to invest the self through personalized performance is becoming the norm even for low-wage standardized jobs that are far from the ideal post-Fordist creative worker. As Sven Lütticken observes, from the creative industries to the service sector, the performative is “colonizing” labour (Lütticken 194). To get a job and be able to keep it, workers are compelled to put their unique personal qualities into it, which turns both performer and performance into commodities (194).

Performing a Pret Perfect World in Precarious Times

What is most striking about the “performative imperative” (Lütticken 193) is how central a commodity it has become under late capitalism, especially in the service industry. It calls for a worker who is committed rather than merely compliant. There is perhaps no better example than the enforced happiness of workers in the chain Pret a Manger. Like many companies in the service sector, Pret a Manger hires people for their personalities. But the right personality here is not just about ensuring friendly, courteous service — the kind of prescribed demeanour and customer service script we might expect from low-wage service and retail positions (Ritzer 102); for Pret a Manger it means passionate individuals ready to put that passion to work (Wareham interview by Moore).[5] The “Pret Perfect” worker “has presence” and the ability to create a sense of fun and happiness for customers, or what the chain calls “Pret Buzz” (Myerscough). In addition to these talents, the company has a list of forbidden behaviours. For instance, it is forbidden to “agree blandly with others”; only agreeing cheerfully with others would presumably create the required energy or “buzz.” A worker who “is here just for the money” or “is complacent about the business” is not tolerated. To put it differently, employees are not there to simply sell sandwiches for minimum wage unless they pour their souls into it.[6]

The Pret experience is no ordinary “service with a smile.” Pret employees are relentlessly cheerful and often delirious with happiness. They hand out free coffees to lucky customers (a marketing scheme aptly called the “Joy of Pret” initiative). Perhaps better than a free coffee is the fleeting experience of feeling loved and desired. Journalists have described with bemusement the glow of baristas working behind the counters who “love-bomb” their customers. Timothy Noah, for instance, reflects on his encounter with a beaming employee. After seeing her light up for each and every person in line he finally understood that “radiance was her job” (Noah). That this particularly radiant worker was a woman should not be overlooked. The service economy has long relied on the affective labour of women as well as on their physical appearance and sexual appeal. Service work remains a feminized form of labour regardless of who performs the work, and as it continues to grow in response to consumer patterns, it increasingly falls on the shoulders of a migrant workforce.[7] The stakes for performing such radiance are thus higher for workers in more precarious circumstances.

What kind of labour is involved in the production of radiance for the pleasure and satisfaction of customers? In order to offer smiles, moods, and feelings for sale and command, workers in the service industry contort the outward expression of their emotions. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild identified this skill as “deep acting” in her groundbreaking study of “pink collar” service (38). The affective labour that service work entails “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others” (7). Because it is normally feminized, such management of feeling is not generally valued as labour despite its role in sustaining social relations (Weeks, “Life” 240). Its immaterial product is the well-being of others, and yet, such work carries a human cost for those who perform it. The work of managing affect for social effect “calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honour as deep and integral to our individuality” (Hochschild 7). As such, it has constitutive effects on the worker, which, Hochschild warns, leads to cynicism, self-alienation, or burn out (136). Hence, it is not just the effort of the worker that is concealed in the production of radiance or happiness but also its effect on the worker. Both are beyond measure because workers vary in their resilience to such work.

The overly affective display of workers at Pret a Manger has led some writers to view the chain with suspicion and ask whether Pret employees are as happy as they appear (Moore; Myerscough; Noah; Rawlinson). To be sure, there is no shortage of critics that see insincerity beneath the glow and the buzz. Managers at Pret a Manger insist on the authenticity of Pret happiness — after all, isn’t that why they hire happy people? What Hochschild’s analysis makes clear, however, is that simply having the right personality is not enough; there is a particular labour at work in the selling of it. When part of what is sold in the service market is affective performance, “seeming to ‘love the job’ becomes part of the job; and actually trying to love it, and to enjoy the customers, helps the worker in this effort” (Hochschild 6). In other words, such labour involves a particular process of subjectification. And while this is not new, what journalists seem to find newly disturbing is the extent to which the affective life of the worker is commodified in the service of the market.

The pressure to perform happiness as a condition of employment is perhaps best captured by the expression “perform — or else,” which Jon McKenzie borrowed from the field of performance management to explore the connection between different paradigms of performance present across seemingly disconnected spheres: organizational theory, technological development, and more recently, government, finance, and the environment. While the rationality and uniformity of Taylorism[8] has been replaced by a demand on the workers’ creative and affective capacities, it is a demand that often leads to yet another form of conformity, as the examples of the “Pret Perfect” employee clearly demonstrate. Pret employees are expected to engage in “chivvying, cajoling, competing, high-fiving,” and “calling out the coffee”; should their performances “lack sparkle,” they will not be considered Pret material (Myerscough). In these cases, the “else” in “perform — or else” is clearly to be out of a job. Indeed, new recruits are put to the test immediately by having the staff vote on whether a candidate stays or goes. Once hired, employees are incentivized to maintain their chirpiness by means of the dreaded mystery shopper who visits the shops every week to assess their performance. If successful, the whole team receives a bonus. Given the low wages of the job, Pret employees count on these bonuses to supplement their earnings. All the more reason to perform — or else lose out on pay.

As we have seen in this case, service work not only demands affective performances from workers; it also requires conformity through specific repertoires of behaviours that forcefully subject workers’ personalities to constant surveillance and scrutiny. This is becoming apparent in other sectors of the service industry that also rely on the skilled affective performances of its workforce. Vail Resorts, for instance, prescribes joy for its employees and rewards them daily for doing “whatever it takes to have fun and entertain the guest” (Barsade and O’Neill). Similarly, “front of house” bar workers are expected to produce the right “vibe” through their capacity to mobilize and perform the self as a subject of enjoyment and consumption (Farrugia et al. 280). The work of creating the right affective experience has also moved to on-demand services such as Uber, which rely on customer rating systems that require drivers to maintain near perfect reviews (or risk being deactivated from the app). Producing and sharing affects according to the needs of each passenger is key to achieving such perfect reviews (Rosenblat and Stark 3775-3776). The performative imperative in these examples reveals an increasing pressure to perform affectivity in service work while the services become more and more like performances. It further shows that performativity has a powerful normalizing effect in the ongoing transformation of labour. In the case of Pret a Manger, the prescribed behaviours ensure the proper expression and display of affect, while this in turn serves to socialize customers regarding the proper and expected performance of the workers. In this way, happiness for consumption becomes normalized in and through the repeated performative practice of the “Pret Perfect” workforce.

The normalizing effect of performativity here intersects with the normalizing ethic of work centered on the morality and dignity of waged labour that serves to rationalize our culture of overwork. However, when labour is gendered, undervalued, and underpaid, and carried out by “economy’s bottommost rung,” the morality and dignity of work is called into question. The demand to perform under conditions of duress can instead be considered demoralizing, as journalist and editor Paul Myerscough suggests in his essay on the “Pret buzz.” Myerscough draws our attention to the task of “having to sustain the tension between the performance of relentless enthusiasm at work and the experience of straitened material circumstances outside of it” (Myerscough ). How do workers maintain such happiness in the workplace when barely surviving outside of it? The Pret worker whose immaterial labour is harnessed by capital has an all-too-material problem of making ends meet.

This tension is key to understanding the elastic flexibility of work in the service economy. The elastic worker has the capacity to stretch and “keep it together,” especially if her livelihood depends on it. Once again, it is a capacity associated with women’s work in the private sphere (a point I elaborate on below). The problem is that this tension puts additional stress on the worker. In having to perform perpetually in the service of others, she is asked to give too much of her affective life for consumption, and with too little in return. What is at issue, then, is not only the value of her performance as a form of labour but, more importantly, the fact that it has little effect in easing her economic insecurity. It is no surprise, then, that Pret workers have made several unsuccessful attempts to unionize — their main demand: a living wage.

That service work remains a feminized form of labour points to another form of tension at play in the flexible economy. As the labour in the service sector is increasingly devalued through the regime of flexibility, its affective aspects are often overvalued as a labour of love. Like reproductive work, feminized labour is expected to be done out of love rather than financial reward, hence the reason it remains undervalued and underpaid. Underlying the Pret a Manger strategy of hiring happy people, then, is capital’s gratuitous exploitation of the social dimensions of production. In the case of gig workers, as we will see shortly, love and happiness are replaced by freedom and fun as the desirable commodities that flex work purportedly guarantees. This flexible mode of capitalism turns out to be incredibly elastic, stretching workers in multiple directions and producing new conditions of possibility for its expansion. Indeed, platforms like Uber and DoorDash, among others, arrived under the banner of ‘disruptors,’ a reminder that capital too is inventive and adaptive, always moving forward towards the creation of new markets.

From “On Demand” Work to the Work of Making Demands

While Pret a Manger is presently on survival mode as a result of store closures due to COVID-19, food delivery platforms are thriving. (Pret has now signed up for all the major apps.) Dispatched by algorithms in cities around the globe, food delivery bike couriers speed along streets and zigzag through traffic, their brightly-coloured insulated packs on their backs now so familiar. Their growing presence, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, is beginning to make visible the labour behind the smartphone apps that seem to magically satisfy our needs at the touch of a button (one of the many food delivery apps is called “Seamless,” a name that conveniently captures the way labour is obscured when we interact with the app). Like other workers in the gig economy, the delivery rider’s specific labour to capital relation happens through the app — the platform that mediates the worker’s supply in response to consumer demand and acts as a kind of “shadow employer” (Friedman 177). This curious reversal of shadow labour displaces the relationship to the employer. In fact, these companies claim they are not employers at all, but simply the software linking producers and consumers, a move that, for workers, further obscures the source of their exploitation.

In this platform economy, workers are typically considered independent contractors who are free to offer their services elsewhere. Companies insist that workers have the flexibility to fit these microjobs around other commitments (presumably other sources of income). Foodora claimed its platform provided people an opportunity to cycle around the city while making some extra cash (Tassinari and Maccarrone, “Mobilisation” 355). Passing work as leisure clearly ignores the alarming rates of unemployment in many parts of the world, which suggest participation in the gig economy is more than just a pastime; with lack of better options, many people survive on flex work. In response to protests against wage theft by food delivery riders last year, a spokeswoman for Foodora reiterated: “There are no guarantees in terms of hourly wage, they have the freedom to work when and where they want, as much as they want” (Zhou). Flexibility touted as freedom overlooks the fact that without a living wage people are forced to work as much as they possibly can and still have no guarantee of economic security.

The overvaluation of work as leisure or freedom serves to justify the culture of overwork, much like reframing labour as play or creative freedom in tech work means working long hours and donating free labour (King 294). Such freedom “is often at the cost of self-exploitation and of being flexible to the point of dispensability” (294). Sam Riches, a former food delivery bike courier in Toronto, explains that the work is far from a leisurely ride around the city: “I feel this job in my body. My neck cracks, my shoulders pop, my ankles creak. Some nights, I ride until my legs turn numb and the wind whips tears in my eyes and the world becomes fuzzy at the edges” (Riches). Sam’s experience as a food delivery cyclist alerts us to its effects on the body — how much the body can be stretched, and by whom, since flexible capitalism deflects the responsibility away from the employer and onto the individual doing the work as a self-employed contractor — the entrepreneur who takes on all the risk. The task of pushing the limit of the labouring body now rests on the worker. When the road becomes blurry, Sam explains: “I have a choice, I can keep riding or I can stop” (Riches). This is the so-called freedom invoked by companies like Foodora, a conception of freedom that clearly ignores powers of domination, as Wendy Brown points out in her study of neoliberal reason and governance. Here, exchange is replaced by competition as the basis of the market (Brown 65). Taxi and Uber drivers compete for customers and crowdworkers bid against one another to perform microtasks on platforms like Upwork and TaskRabbit. For these workers, separated in time and space, the possibility of organized resistance becomes more difficult.

Scholar-activist Trebor Scholz argues that work in the twenty-first century has become more dense, more intense, pointing to Amazon’s extreme practice of tracking its warehouse workers via scanners to report minutes and seconds of inactivity. Time, he suggests, is becoming more central as an instrument of oppression (Scholz ). Scheduling software allows a new level of control for flexible schedules, which can be adjusted in real time according to demand. Sociologist Alex Wood calls this “flexible despotism,” a new regime of regulation and inequality over time (2). The struggle over time is at the heart of labour struggles, which historically unfolds in the fight over the length of the working day. As Stephanie Luce puts it, “time is political” (Luce), and this is especially true for the new order of flexible work. Flexible scheduling largely depends on who controls the schedule, which usually means countless workers at the mercy of their employers. Those working with platform apps may have more control over their time, but this flexibility turns out to be encumbering when cloud workers are glued to their devices all day trying to catch higher paying tasks and food delivery riders spend time waiting outside restaurants, waiting in alleys, and waiting in traffic.[9] Because platforms buy bits of time from workers, much of the time in-between gigs is given over to waiting time. Waiting extends the working day but paradoxically makes the workers unproductive in their capacity to earn more pay.

However, it was precisely waiting — the time of the worker that the platform exploits but for which it does not account, much less pay — that was productive for building worker solidarity and organized resistance. A wave of protests and strikes in Europe by Deliveroo, Foodora, and Uber Eats workers who congregate near restaurants while waiting for food orders has reconfigured the time and space of flex work to find a collective voice. This mobilization, led by grassroots rider collectives since 2016, has spread as far as Hong Kong and Australia (Mok; Zhou). Emerging first in London and Turin, these protests involved moving around the city with bikes, flags, flying pickets, and flyers inviting restaurant owners and the public in general to boycott the companies. Meanwhile, protesters targeted the companies’ social media pages through an online campaign (Tassinari and Maccarrone, “Riders” 43). Most important, riders unlogged from the app en masse to impede the company from fulfilling its orders. Similarly, Uber drivers at Boston Logan International Airport known to congregate at a common parking lot waged a strike against Uber’s algorithm in 2016 by faking a driver shortage at the airport. In yet another action, Uber Eats riders summoned workers to a strike by creating new accounts on the app and placing orders to be delivered to the picket line. As riders arrived at the protest with their orders, they were hailed into the collective action by their fellow workers who chanted “Log out, log out!” (Shenker). Riders and drivers are not just occupying the streets; they are also “occupying the system” (Shenker). In other words, they are taking back some of the control by using the platform in ways other than intended.

These kinds of tactics, as Arianna Tassinari and Vincenzo Maccarrone observe, fall outside the traditional repertoire of union mobilization (48). If the platform, rather than the workplace, is now the locus of economic power, mobilization on multiple fronts is crucial. Of particular importance is the time and space that the app does not account for — the time in which the workers wait and the transient places where they gather (like the parking lot or the door outside the restaurant), which in turn create the kinds of opportunities that have proven to be effective in organizing opportunities where workers hear from each other and talk about the conditions they are facing. Equally important for political engagement is the visibility of the struggle. As Lorenzo Zamponi argues, “the riders’ visibility and recognizability allows many precarious workers, whose mechanisms of exploitation and subordination are far less visible, to identify with them. While it doubtless has its own peculiarities, the fight waged by the riders comes to represent many different workers’ struggles in an era of precarity and digitalization” (Zamponi). And while the odds are certainly against contingent workers, Wood assures us that key to any action is the belief that there is chance of success (qtd. in Osborne and Butler). Even small victories, like Deliveroo workers in Britain who were able to ward off the new pay terms, can inspire others to engage in collective action.

On-demand workers might thus be more inclined to engage in making demands on the terms of such work. The collective practice of demanding, as Kathi Weeks argues, “has its own epistemological and ontological productivity” (“Work” 131). Making demands can provoke political agency even if those making them do not achieve their goals. The demand has a performative function, which is to realize the potential for an act through the process of its enunciation. This is not to say everything can be accomplished through speech acts, as Judith Butler cautions, but by starting to articulate the goals envisioned, the possibility for what is not yet there emerges as something that is worth striving for. Making political demands has performative effects that, as Weeks elaborates, “serve to produce the modes of critical consciousness that they seem merely to presuppose, to elicit the political desires that they appear simply to reflect, and to mobilize and organize the collective agency of which they might seem only to be an artifact” (225). For the flex workers whose time and movement are structured by the platform, the act of making demands collectively can develop new political subjectivities.

Re-imagining Resilience and Resistance in the Future of Work

The uprise of gig workers against flexible capitalism is proving effective for some workers — for instance, Foodora delivery riders in Toronto recently won the right to unionize.[10] But what of those workers displaced by the gig economy such as the Black-Car driver described at the outset of this essay? His suicide is part of a recent wave of New York City driver suicides, which suggests that the labouring body stretched beyond its limits can reach a snapping point. Cab drivers responded by organizing over twenty protests in front of city hall and vigils for their fellow workers who had taken their own lives (Owliaei). The result was legislation for a vehicle cap and pay floor on Uber and Lyft — a major victory for cab drivers facing the effects of a deregulated market: bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, and even heart attacks. Whether the fight against flexibilization comes from flex workers or those displaced by them, it raises a new question: how far can workers that resist new forms of exploitation be stretched before they break? It becomes a question of resilience that we might rethink by considering its importance for both organized resistance and the current market. Resilience, coping well under conditions of great stress and change, bouncing right back from failure, is according to HR management experts, the most important human capital employees can develop today (Pedersen 331-332). If market forces and exploitative labour practices are building a more resilient worker, then arguably they are also potentially building a more resilient opponent — one that can be stretched further to sustain the emerging political movement against flexibility and precarity. It points to an important contradiction in capitalist development: “The accumulation of capital, central to the expanded reproduction of the economic system, at the same time undermines the process of reproduction of the capitalist order through the creation of a large, potentially class-conscious body of wage workers” (Bowles and Gintis 78). While flex workers are clearly human capital for the market or the state, what the concept of human capital cannot account for, much less predict, is the body’s potential to act beyond the production of value, or more specifically, its potential to resist or refuse work. In line with autonomous Marxist thought, then, we can consider today’s flex workers not only as capital’s victims but also as its antagonists.

For these workers, the struggle against flexible capitalism begins with the ability to recognize the character and the range of work obscured in the capital to labour relation of the service and gig economy. The cases of Pret a Manger and on-demand riders and drivers show how work is reframed as happy, fun, and liberating through the discourses and practices of flexibility even as workers are subjected to new forms of regulation and control and increasingly exposed to the risks and uncertainty of flexible markets. In this economy of resourceful individuals a growing number of baristas, delivery riders, and ride-hailing drivers bend, contort, and adapt to the needs, and to the time, of others. Their ability to stretch — to endlessly put their minds, bodies, and souls in the service of consumers — does little to improve the precarious conditions that underpaid work reproduces. Yet, this elasticity is key to survival in the flexible economy and, as we have seen in the collective actions of delivery riders, central to resistance against it: a form of “flexibility from below” (Dyer-Witherford). What is crucial to identify in this tension between survival and resistance is the possibility of agency among workers in terms of how, and how far, they can be stretched. The rise of a new labour movement in the gig economy suggests that workers may yet have a say in how much they are willing to adapt. Most importantly, they are demanding recognition as employees whose labour is real work, not just a pastime done for fun. Indeed, as Marxist feminists argued in the 1970s, recognizing invisible labour as work is “the first step in the refusal to do it;” it opens up the possibility of negotiating the terms and the quantity of that work (Federici 2-5). If, as Vivek Chibber reminds us, labour struggle is historically the only effective means of confronting capital (Chibber), then much is at stake for workers in how work is being restructured and redefined, both in terms of what is considered work as well as its meaning and value. With the recent onset of a global pandemic and its consequences of rising unemployment, resilience and resistance to flexible capitalism become all the more urgent, not least because many of the tech companies now thriving on the underpaid labour of precarious workers are precisely those that are stretching workers to the limit.

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  1. For instance, the distinctive traits of working through digital platforms (Gandini), the definition of employment and the shift of economic risk to workers (Friedman), the infrastructures of connectivity, evaluation, and surveillance in platform labour (Van Doorn), as well as the new control regimes of these platforms (Veen et al.)

  2. On the rise of collective action among gig workers see Chen, Lehdonvirta, Waters and Woodcock, and Wood, et al.

  3. Post-work theorists challenge the culture of work and its ideological stronghold over life, advocating instead for the abolition (or a radical reduction) of work and the extension of free time through automation and other means such as a universal basic income. For recent accounts of this “future without work,” see Fleming, Frayne, Graeber, Hester, and Srnicek.

  4. Perceptions about the kinds of workers seen as naturally inclined to perform undesirable occupations are often marked by racial hierarchies rooted in deeply ingrained stereotypes about entire populations. See, for instance, Geraldine Pratt’s study of domestic workers in Vancouver, which describes a racialized hierarchy between European and Filipina nannies in placement agencies. Whereas European nannies are viewed as professionals hired to take care of children, Filipina nannies tend to be seen as servants whose workload “naturally” includes more household tasks (1997). Likewise, David Karjanen’s research in the United States shows that managers in the service sector vilify black male workers and prefer Mexican migrant men who they see as manageable, obedient, and hardworking (2008).

  5. The Pret a Manger motto: “You cant hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be passionate. So we hire passionate people and teach them to make sandwiches.” (

  6. For a full list of the seventeen banned behaviours, see Rawlinson.

  7. See International Labor Organization report on global estimates on migrant workers.

  8. This management system, first developed by Frederick W. Taylor in the late nineteenth century, aimed to increase efficiency in the production cycle by breaking down and dividing tasks into routinized actions.

  9. In addition, workers can be deemed not sufficiently productive by the algorithm and have their work reduced, or worse, become “deactivated” (Wood 3).

  10. Shortly after this, Fodora announced it was pulling out of the Canadian market. While the company blamed the pandemic for its exit, it is likely that the prospect of unionized workers had something to do with its decision.