A Regime of ‘Flexible Despotism’ Reigns Over Retail Work – Can It Last?

by Alex Wood

30 September 2020

Photo: Minette Rimando/ILO Flickr. Design: Bronte Dow.

Even before coronavirus wreaked havoc upon our high streets, the workers who are so essential to our post-industrial economy faced a scheduling nightmare. Flexibility is often held aloft as benefiting workers by enhancing their work-life balance, but when controlled by management and driven by business needs, it is instead experienced by workers as a source of precarity.

Workers’ hours can be changed at the drop of a hat – endangering their ability to make ends meet, throwing their child care provisions into disarray and disrupting their social lives. A 2016 survey found that 17% of US workers were rarely or never able to change their hours and only knew about their schedule one week or less in advance. Likewise, in 2015 a European survey found that 16% of workers experienced frequent changes to their hours at their employer’s demand, usually with little prior notice. In the UK that figure was 15%, equating to 5 million workers, while a 2017 survey found that 7% of employees felt very anxious that their working hours could change unexpectedly.

Precarious scheduling is especially problematic in retail where employers increasingly attempt to tightly match labour supply to customer footfall. A recent US study highlighted that 60% of workers surveyed at 80 of the largest retailers experienced variable schedules of some kind. My recent book Despotism On Demand: How Power Operates in the Flexible Workplace investigates the anguish retail workers experience as a result of this capricious environment. By interviewing supermarket workers in the US and UK and going undercover as a shelf-stacker at a London supermarket I witnessed first-hand the immense insecurity, anxiety, stress and financial hardship caused by precarious scheduling.

But what also became clear was how the flexible use of working time also generates new structures of power and domination in the workplace. As Brad, a Californian worker, explained: “I would compare it almost to feeling like a slave because your power to control your own life is taken from you; they are going to make you [work] whenever…they want.”

Not only does flexible scheduling result in general feelings of powerlessness, it also provides managers with a new specific discretionary mechanism for the arbitrary disciplining of workers not deemed flexible, productive, or obedient enough. As another Californian worker, Akira, explained: “You’re disciplined like a child; like you would punish your 12-year-old: ‘I’m going to take your hours, I’m gonna take your days because you spoke back.’”

This flexible discipline is used to punish workers. For perceived transgressions such as refusing overtime, not working hard enough or attending union-backed demonstrations, workers may be sanctioned with cuts to their hours or changes to their schedules. Indeed, while time may seem an uncontentious concept, throughout history it has been a major source of political contestation.

Struggle and the working day.

The historian E.P. Thompson famously highlighted that the working day has long been a site of conflict. Since the invention of the clock, struggles over the very definition of “working time” (and its distinction from, and relationship with, “free time”) have ensued. Karl Marx dedicated an entire chapter of Capital to “the working day” and the exploitation and resistance it entailed. However, when Marx was writing Capital, employers tended towards more simplistic forms of coercion rather than flexible discipline, such as the physical punishment of apprentices and children (who made up a large percentage of the workforce), fines, threats of dismissal, blacklists, and even the use of violence to suppress trade unions. With common land enclosed and no welfare state, workers were highly dependent on their employer. Meanwhile, the new mills and factories that were springing up shed workers of their traditional craft skills. These factors left workers highly vulnerable, placing them in a very weak position to resist exploitation.

In the early 20th century things began to change, with the development of modern giant corporations hailing the emergence of monopoly capitalism. These firms could use their dominance and scale to achieve higher rates of profit but were plagued by crises of overproduction due to the lack of effective demand caused by low-wages. At the same time, the development of assembly lines and continuous flow production enhanced the power of labour to undertake disruptive strikes. Firms, therefore, had an interest in offering labour concessions in order to avoid industrial conflict and to increase consumption and boost demand.

This tendency was cemented by the second world war, which saw states in core countries attempt to avoid disruption to their war efforts through the incorporation of trade unions within the regulation of the workplace. Consequently, a hegemonic compromise between capital and labour developed based upon the recognition of trade unions, collective bargaining, rational grievance and disciplinary processes, profit sharing, and employment security. By incorporating trade unions within the power structures of the firm and tying workers to their employers through rights, protections and profit sharing, firms were able legitimise exploitation and the managerial prerogative to direct and control employees.

However, these hegemonic regimes began to break down in the 1970s due to space-time compression resulting from revolutions in transportation, logistics, information and communication, which brought workers in the capitalist core into competition with more despotic production located in the periphery of the world market. The geographer David Harvey documents how firms centred upon flexible accumulation emerged from the ensuing 1970s crisis of profitability.At this point, working time became not only a mechanism of exploitation but also a means of domination.

It was the sociologist Jennifer Chun who first identified the emergence of a new workplace regime of “flexible despotism” in which capital utilised agency and temporary workers to manufacture insecurity amongst a core of permanent workers. While many workplaces still practise this form of flexible despotism (especially in countries such as Germany and Japan, where core workers maintain strong collective and legal protections), the statistics above suggest that a form of flexible despotism around time is likely to be particularly prevalent, especially in countries such as the UK and US and in sectors such as retail.

Despotism on demand.

Flexible working provides managers with a new source of arbitrary power over workers. I call this flexible discipline – whereby managers can discipline workers by altering their schedule to unusual times, or times that clash with childcare, social activities, education, or a second job. Alternatively, managers can cut worker’s hours and thus drastically reduce their income, or increase the instability and unpredictability of their schedule.

But while being a powerful source of control in retail workplaces, flexible despotism means it is almost impossible for workers to be certain whether their schedule is fluctuating due to their manager punishing them or because of the whims of the market. This makes it a highly flexible and subtle form of control, far more so than threats of dismissal that cannot be rescinded and are binary in nature. The insidious role of flexibility is also often misrecognised, due to workers having to beg managers on a daily basis for “schedule gifts”, meaning more hours and better schedules. As a Californian worker, Gabriella told me: “It’s just temporary fixes, but then the person feels so grateful that the manager has given them the hours. But next week you have to worry again.”

Pierre Bourdieu explains how gifts that cannot be repaid directly create an emotional debt. In the case of the workplaces I studied, this emotional debt bound workers to work hard for their manager through a sense of gratitude and obligation to repay them for their “kindness”. In this way, flexible despotism integrates workers into achieving managerial aims through personalised feelings of emotional debt. Under such a regime, employment is not experienced as simply the impersonal exchange of X money for Y labour but rather relationally as the need to repay what appears to be managers’ acts of compassion, caring and friendship.

The future of retail and the possibility for resistance.

The use of technology is a key component in the formation of workplace regimes. In the era of flexible despotism our everyday activities produce ever more digital traces that can be sucked up by technology companies to model our behaviour. As a result, retailers are continuously seeking to use this data to predict customer footfall. This means that the further fragmentation of working time and the utilisation of on-demand labour will be increasingly attractive to firms so as to match labour supply to demand in real-time.

The e-commerce revolution that has been heightened by the coronavirus crisis is also intensifying competition within the sector and accelerating the search for reduced costs via flexibility. Flexible despotism will therefore continue to offer retail firms opportunities for reducing labour costs while maintaining control through both flexible discipline and the misrecognition of schedule gifts. But unlike the hegemony of the past, where exploitation and domination were legitimised by firms through the incorporation of trade unions and the provision of security and benefits to workers, flexible despotism is not underpinned by stable institutions that ensure the active reproduction of this regime of control.

Flexible despotism is, therefore, inherently unstable and susceptible to breakdown, just as early market despotism spurred mass strikes and the formation of unions. When crises such as Covid-19 shatter misrecognition, control can falter and precarious scheduling itself can be transformed into a source of injustice that fuels worker organisation and resistance. This is something I witnessed happen at Walmart in the US. The instability of flexible despotism means that although great suffering is wrought by its regime, there does exist the possibility of overcoming it by building new forms of worker organisation that may transform the economy towards one in which working time is for the benefit of people, not profit.

Alex Wood is a lecturer in the sociology of work at the University of Birmingham and the author of Despotism On Demand: How Power Operates in the Flexible Workplace.

  • The Future of Work focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

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