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Knowledge Workers, Teleworkers and Plumbers: Labour in the Global Information Economy

Dr Christopher May

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


Life for many professionals of all kinds became more anxious, for now they had to compete in a global labour market. While companies through intellectual property law had managed to secure monopoly privileges in the new capital of abstract objects, the monopoly power of organised labour, whether professional or otherwise, had been largely destroyed (Drahos 1995: 216).

[From a fictionalised history of Information Feudalism in the Information Society set in 2015]

The myth of neo-liberalism is that it is a policy to free capital from the shackles of government interference so it can compete more nimbly in global markets; the fact is that it is a strategy to liberate capital from the restraints put on it by the labour movement and social regulation (Walker 1999: 276).


In this paper I examine the role of labour in the new information economy. Consideration of labour issues has been largely absent (or simplistic) in much of the literature which surrounds this ‘new economy’. However, though the relations between labour and capital remain similar in the global information economy, which is to say the information economy is still a form of capitalism patterned by property rights (as indicated by the centrality of intellectual property rights), I argue their spatial relations and methods of control are shifting. In the global information economy though the skilled/un-skilled distinction may still be important a further distinction, between proximity and migratory tasks will impact on the ability of workers to secure well paid employment. Furthermore, information and communication technologies have covertly shifted the balance of control in the workforce, enhancing the power of capital. Therefore, though the global system is still patterned by capitalism, in the global information economy the division of labour is shifting with profound implications for labour as yet not fully appreciated.

Much has been written about the emergence of a global information economy where the most developed economies are no longer primarily concerned with the manipulation of material inputs to produce wealth. It is often asserted that continuing economic advance and expansion will be predicated on information and knowledge, implicitly leaving material production to those states (or regions) whose economies are still based on the ‘old industries’. This has led Danny Quah to suggest for the rich states at least, ‘the term "industrialised countries" no longer carries any resonance: now, no advanced and growing country is dependent on production industries’ (Quah 1998: 55). In itself the periodisation of such a shift remains contested, opinions range from the (technological determinist) position that the information economy has only been made possible by the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and therefore represents a new era of economic organisation, to the converse (often Marxian) position which suggests the information revolution has not only been a long time coming, but also merely represents the intensification (or universalisation) of capitalism. In this latter view, though there have been some profound shifts in the way the global economy is organised, and the sorts of good or services produced, as well as the actual practices of work, none of these changes herald a post-capitalist mode of economic organisation.

That said, the move from an economy which is concerned with industrial production to one that is largely is involved with the delivery of services of one sort or another, forms a recurring motif in the discussion of the information economy, whether it is regarded as capitalist or post-capitalist. Elsewhere I have argued that the appearance of this shift can be partly accounted for by moves from a firm-specific and often geographically limited technical division of labour to a more fragmented spatial division of labour (May 1998). Therefore, while certain information or knowledge tasks may have been previously undertaken within manufacturing enterprises themselves (from advertising and design, to security), the expansion of ‘outsourcing’ and contracted labour has led to whole new industries emerging from particular industrial functions, as well as a formal shrinking of permanent workforces in the industrial sector. Tasks which used to be included within the employment (and economic) statistics of the manufacturing sector are now re-coded as services, or in the cases of contract labour as new firms (despite in many cases merely be self-employed ex-permanent-workers). However, this is not the same as a major change in society; the same tasks (albeit perhaps more specialised) are still undertaken, though their immediate statistical location has shifted. The presumptions about the information economy and the knowledge industries on which many writers rely to claim a major transformation therefore significantly misunderstand the character of knowledge or information capitalism.

Furthermore, commentators frequently disregard the central importance of the continued reproduction of property relations as intellectual property relations. The continuance of property rights as the foundation on which capitalism is based suggests that while we may be entering a different period of capitalism, the global economy can hardly be said to be leaving capitalistic economic organisation behind. There is a continuity between the need for capitalism to make material resources property and the need to make information or knowledge resources property. Indeed, as Karl Polanyi suggested the idea that labour, land and money might be commodities required a ‘commodity fiction’ during the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. Without such a fiction capitalism could not have developed in the way it has (Polanyi 1944 [1957]: 72ff). Polanyi argued that the rendering of things not originally produced for sale as commodities required their reconceptualisation and thus their fictionalisation as property. A story needed to be told about these resources which was not necessarily linked to their real existence but rather narrated a propensity to be organised through markets. To have a market in knowledge a commodity fiction is again required. It is this same fictionalisation, and thus a similar capitalist process, which has made the protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs) of great importance in the information economy. The continuing of importance of questions regarding ownership (of property) indicates the relationship between capital and labour should remain at the centre of the analysis of capitalism.

Nevertheless the claim that in some manner the information economy has made class relations redundant has been useful in the attempt to present a capital driven transformation of the global economy as both inevitable and ‘natural’, thus absolving capital of blame for the problems this transformation has inflicted on labour. While accepting that capitalism has widened itself geographically (usually discussed under the rubric of globalisation) I follow Ellen Wood in maintaining that capitalism has also deepened its penetration into previously non-commodified social relations. The notion of universalisation rather then transformation flows from her emphasis on

the logic of capitalism, not some particular technology or labour process but the logic of specific social property relations. There certainly have been constant technological changes and changes in marketing strategies. But these changes do not constitute a major epochal shift in capitalism’s laws of motion (Wood 1997: 550).

Thus, Wood makes clear the distinction between the forms of production under capitalism (the technologies or processes) and the continuing character of the relations of production. So though the techniques and technologies that are being utilised have changed, the ownership of the key resources has not. Given the widespread denial of the continuing importance of thinking about labour’s relation to capital in the ‘new economy’, below I work through some of the central issues for this relationship in the new global information economy.

The global information economy is frequently misunderstood (either wilfully or through myopia), and the problem of labour has become submerged beneath technological triumphalism on the one hand, or subject to limited policy prescriptions which make assumptions about the trajectory of the global division of labour which are far from robust on the other. First, I briefly examine the appearance (or absence) of labour in some (broadly representative) recent discussions of the information society. I then outline some developments in the international division of labour which have been brought about through the utilisation of ICTs in one way or another. This leads me to examine the issues of proximity and the control of labour within an information economy. Thus I conclude that while work itself is undergoing large scale changes which will require a concerted response this is currently largely absent or subject to restriction.

Labour in discussions of the information economy

The so called ‘information revolution’, which is generally taken to represent the technological character of the contemporary period, has produced a considerable amount of literature and comment. In a few cases there is an historical sensitivity to the importance of information for capitalism generally, perhaps best typified by the work of James Beniger (1986). Beniger recognises the importance of the manipulation of information for the management of industrial organisation and production, focusing on the increasing ability of technology to allow the control of processes. At the centre of this control revolution was the ability of instantaneous feedback allowing adjustment and an enhancement of material usage. This had an impact on labour, not least of all by changing the practices of work, by requiring both more skill in adjusting processes, but also the capture of tacit knowledge through formalisation and subsequent automation. Furthermore Beniger makes explicit the links between such control systems and the rise of the information society (which was gathering speed while he was writing in the mid 1980s). However, with this exception, and noting Manual Castells’ recent work’s grounding in an appreciation of a longer history of the information age (Castells 1996), most discussions of the emerging global information society and its political economy (which here I shall refer to as the global information economy) seem to have regarded the current changes as revolutionary and without precedent: the deployment of ICTs has changed so much as to be regarded as a major disjuncture with the past.

While recognising that there may be some who will not benefit from the information revolution (in his example a 50-year old steel-worker, chosen no doubt as emblematic of the rust belt), Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital suggests that the revolution itself is irreversible: ‘Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be stopped’ (Negroponte 1995: 229). While allowing that this revolution is producing changes in employment practices, for Negroponte labour (though he does not use this term) needs to adapt, there is no alternative. The real divisions of the information age are generational, between those who are and are not ‘digital’, not economic or class-based. The paradigmatic knowledge worker in Negroponte’s world is Michael Crichton, who can dispense with intermediaries to reach his audience directly (Negroponte 1995: 94). In the ‘after words’ section Negroponte finally briefly mentions the possible effects on labour of ‘being digital’. Thus, as

people in white collar industries are displaced by automation, they will increasingly work for themselves. Concurrently, companies will outsource more and more and hire employees like subcontractors... By the year 2020, the largest employer in the developed world will be the "self". Is this good? You bet (Negroponte 1995: 237).
This free market of contractors will skewer the labour market even more in favour of capital, though Negroponte would never suggest such a thing (indeed he would assume the opposite). While this may be good for capital, it is hardly an unalloyed good for labour. Indeed, Negroponte echoes an earlier phase of writings on the post-industrial or information society where there was a complete rejection of any sort of class-based account of work.

It would seem more likely that it is in the interests of those working as contractors (without employee benefits) in an information society that some form of social organisation (not least of all the continuance of the welfare state) would be useful. However as Boris Frankel suggests in his survey of ‘post-industrial utopians’ writing before the mid 1980s, there is a paradox in the treatment of labour in these writings:

Either the private sector grows, continues to shed labour, continues to pollute and continues to destroy traditional industrial and craft bases at national and local level, or the public sector grows. If the growth in public sectors is mainly confined to areas which assist in the accumulation of private capital, then there will be little chance of achieving many of the egalitarian or environmental objectives desired by the post-industrial theorists. But if political forces manage to achieve public sector growth in badly needed social welfare services and other goods and services which put people before profits, then these improvements will not only threaten private profitability, but erode labour discipline and motivation. This is because the desirable objectives of full-employment, guaranteed incomes, booming cultural and educational opportunities, will all provide social alternatives to working as alienated serfs in traditional industries or new zombies feeding health-hazardous computer and video terminals (Frankel 1987: 44).
This tension is the result of a trend in accounts of the information society which is still evident today. An information society which emerges within a system of capitalist economic organisation will continue to be organised in this way unless capitalism is itself overthrown, something far from the minds of most ‘mainstream’ commentaries on the rise of post-industrial/information society. And though most of Frankel’s post-industrial utopians ‘are opponents of the Protestant work ethic and the amount of time which wage labour takes up of an individual’s life’ (Frankel 1987: 74), their solutions such as guaranteed minimum income schemes contradict the economic systems which have produced the move to post-industrialism in the first place. If the expansion of the state into the market seemed unlikely in the mid-1980s, it remains so today.

Furthermore, the ‘Californian ideology’ which underlies much writing regarding the information economy regards labour as radically individualised, which is to say the workforce of the information economy is not regarded as a collectivity but rather as fragmented individual contractors: ‘existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals’ (Barbrook and Cameron 1996: 53). Thus, in the view of Don Tapscott the information economy will produce sufficient new jobs even while it is destroying previous forms of employment, but this will only happen if the ‘problems’ of over-regulation and non-market solutions are overcome as they have been in the United States (Tapscott 1996: 291). Labour is the passive object of technical change, its world is changed by technology which has effects which must be coped with. But Tapscott suggests this is a move in a direction that is of some benefit to labour:

In the old economy... the worker was alienated from the means of production that were owned and controlled by someone else. In the new economy, fulfilment can be achieved through work and the means of production shifts to the brain of the producer (Tapscott 1996: 48).
This standard assumption of the wonderful world of knowledge work fails to account for the actual working conditions and relations of the information economy (as I discuss below) and assumes that all knowledge work will be similar to that which Tapscott himself no doubt enjoys. However, this is unlikely to be the case. Tapscott’s discussion of the new economy is predicated on the profound changes which technology brings but is almost completely blind to the socio-economic relations that pattern work. Though he recognises some of the problems of the new economy, Tapscott regards the inherent non-hierarchical character of ICTs (or as he terms it networked intelligence) as indicating a promise for the future of a less stratified society. Like so many commentators, Tapscott is convinced that new technologies will dissolve and change the social relations of the economies in which they appear.

In her influential treatment of the impact of ICTs on the organisation of work (Zuboff 1988), Shoshana Zuboff suggests that managerial authority and knowledge are likely to be in tension. These new technologies would reduce the possibility and relevance of hierarchy and engender new, open and more co-operative ways of working. Thus, more recently Esther Dyson has suggested that ICTs will remake the balance between labour and capital inasmuch as it will put the balance of power into the hands of the ‘creatives’, who will be able to utilise the freedom to contract in the labour market to ensure their own satisfactory reward and level of working (Dyson 1997: 55-77). However it is less clear this represents an unalloyed advantage for labour. Like Charles Leadbeater (1999), and others, Dyson presumes that most (if not all) work in the information economy will essentially be similar to the work undertaken by these ‘creatives’. However, as Manual Castells has made central to his analysis of the information society, this reduction of hierarchical power has been balanced by a move to contract, termed and casualised labour relations. Thus while hierarchy vis-à-vis knowledge in the organisation has been reduced, power and authority have been reimposed through the terms of employment typical of knowledge work. Insecure employment is reconceptualised as an opportunity for individuals to bargain to wrest the maximum reward from their employers through individual contracts.

At least Dyson recognises that this might not be amenable to everyone, indeed many may prefer the more secure stable working conditions of the post-war period. Even the bastion of neo-liberal capitalist invective recently noted that resolving the tension between capital’s desire for flexibility and labour’s for security in the new information economy ‘looks like being one of the great social, political and economic challenges of the next few decades’ (Economist 2000: 115). And if many commentators assert the ‘new economy’ is service driven, they show little appreciation of the diverse character of services. Services range from the knowledge workers to cleaners, but Leadbeater’s (1999) view of services, for instance is one of empowered knowledge working individuals, not the still Taylorised ranks of the service class. And, in his description of the new knowledge-work as post-Taylorist, he fails to recognise the extensive methods of control embodied within ICT mediated knowledge workforce, to which I return below.

Additionally, while he claims capitalism has been superseded, again not an uncommon presumption in the information society/information economy literature, nothing in Leadbeater’s account reveals how his characterisation of a ‘post-capitalist economy’ might be supported (May 2000b). Indeed, with the continuity of employment relations (Leadbeater’s workers are still employed by or contracted to companies), his stress on market relations, the embrace of international finance and emphasis on the private sector, this is not so much post-capitalism as contemporary capitalism intensified. Thus, Peter Drucker sees the expansion of knowledge (and information) as a basic economic resource leading to a division between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘managers’ (Drucker 1993: 8/9), but, unlike Leadbeater he recognises a continuity with previous capitalist institutions, though he suggests ‘looks are deceptive’. While the,

world economy will remain a market economy and retain the market institutions, its every substance has been radically changed. If it is still ‘capitalist’ it is now dominated by ‘information capitalism’... there is less and less return on the traditional resources: labour, land and (money) capital. The main producers of wealth have become information and knowledge (Drucker 1993: 181-183).
The emergence of this new resource has transformed the nature of capitalism in Drucker’s (and others’) view. Though it still revolves around markets and profit, economic organisation has been fundamentally changed.

But this transformation has not disrupted the social relations of capitalism, only the resources it values and the uses to which they are put. Indeed, ownership of this resource remains a key issue. For instance, as John Kay points out in his advice to managers seeking the ‘Foundations of Corporate Success’,

if the company is to add value, it needs to create organisational knowledge from the skills of its members. This is achieved when the combined skills of two experts increases the value of each. The problems the organisation faces are, first, those of securing the exchange of knowledge and, secondly, those of preventing that knowledge, and the rewards associated with it, being captured by one or both of the individuals concerned (Kay 1993: 73 emphasis added).

This exploitation of the production of knowledge and the prevention of capture by the employee is not something that might typify post-capitalism, rather it represents a continuity with the social relations (between labour and capital) of modern capitalism.

As the information society has become to some extent normalised, there has been some return to a critical stance based (at least partly) on this recognition of some continuity with past periods of capitalism. Indeed the argument that technological innovation in the form of ICTs would transform society in a beneficial manner has become less plausible as ICTs have become more widespread and the socio-economic relations of work have remained largely unchanged or worsened. Thus, George Spencer argues human beings will increasingly become irrelevant to the processes of production of goods and delivery of services. The class of individuals unable to be part of society because they lack any saleable skills will expand because the IT revolution unlike earlier technological development ‘will not create a demand for new forms of labour, for it will perform an increasing proportion of all activities itself’ (Spencer 1996: 75). Given the profit motive, no organisation will retain human labour once cheap and quick computing can duplicate the task. The enhancement of control will render the system more efficient, though immiserising large segments of the population. Whereas other incidents of technological unemployment have been largely self-correcting, information technology precludes this process repeating itself (Spencer 1996: 62). Information and communication technologies automate jobs at a faster rate than new jobs can emerge

This leads van den Besselaar to conclude that the standard information society policy of education and support for new technological provision

which expands on the belief that the ICT revolution will generate new employment, is based on false hopes and an incorrect understanding of the dynamics of technological and economic development (van den Besselaar 1997: 390).
Based on an assessment of the balance between rationalisation or substitution effects (when jobs or sectors are replaced by new information technologies) and the increase in demand for labour that new technologies produce, van den Besselaar concludes, like Spencer, that there has been and will continue to be a decline in the labour demand in the developed economies. This is to say, the information economy destroys more jobs than it creates where all other things remain equal. Therefore, to combat this he suggests the radical reduction of working time to spread the decreasing work out among the available workforce. I will return to the issue of policy prescriptions for the information economy’s emergent problems below. Here, I want to stress his argument that unlike previous employment replacing technologies, ICTs are transforming work at such a rate that not only is there a lag in employment, many of the sorts of jobs that retraining (or education) might enable elements of labour to switch to are also being transformed by this technological shift. Thus, while certain segments of the workforce may be able to retain well-paid and broadly satisfactory employment, there are growing segments of labour that are reduced to contingency work (contracted rather than secure) and are under-employed (part-time, seasonal, temporary employment).

But, despite these critical analyses, at the centre of many invocations of the ‘new economy’ is an ambivalence towards the plight of labour. Much of the writing on the information economy has seemed to regard labour’s problems either as transitional or indeed has failed to recognise them at all. Thus the problem has been shifted back to labour itself, the problems of unemployment (like employment itself) have been individualised: an absence of work is blamed on a low skilled work-force which needs to ‘raise its game’. Thus, in his seminal work on the rise of the ‘symbolic analyst’, the future knowledge workers, Robert Reich emphasised that income equality was ‘closely related to the level of education’ (Reich 1991: 205). And therefore, his recommendations for the alleviation of poverty revolve around the improvement of individual capabilities: job-training programmes; child-care to enable single-mothers more time to train; remedial education for the functionally illiterate; and an earlier start to education for the poor (i.e. intensive pre-school programmes) (Reich 1999: 249). As is clearly indicated here, the blame for unemployment, though in Reich’s case including a recognition of the changing structures of the global employment market, is firmly placed on the individual. Structural impediments need to be dealt with at the individual level, the notion that the technological and economic structure of the information economy itself might be the problem is regarded as an issue not worth considering, after all if such technological changes are inevitable (as so much of the information economy and society literature assumes) then shifting its socio-economic development path is regarded as impossible.

Much of the information economy commentary is technological determinist and therefore allows no space for the social shaping of technology. By doing so it fails to recognise that ICTs have been developed in a particular social system (that of capitalism) and do not represent neutral characteristics but rather represent a technological manifestation of the system in which they have emerged. It is hardly surprising that the impact on labour seems to have been downplayed by much of the comment on the global information economy given capital’s role in pushing the information economy forward. And where cyberspace has been seen as a new forum for collective action in information society, or a space for the renewal, and construction of communities, the notion that labour might be one of these collectivities is frequently absent (Smith and Kollock 1999; Turkle 1996). If collectivities in cyberspace are issue based, the one issue which does not seem to be recognised is class-based organisation into labour, unions or work-oriented groups. And where inequalities have been recognised these are much more frequently regarded as issues concerning the ‘info-rich’ and the ‘info-poor’ rather than concerned with the possible disparities in benefit which flow to capital and labour.

A ‘New’ International Division of Labour?

If much of the commentary on the information economy see labour’s problems as of their own making and thus solvable through individualised action, an alternative approach would locate the relationship between capital and labour in the information economy in a global perspective, which is to say within the structure of globalised capitalism. Furthermore such an approach might be sceptical of claims that ICTs have so changed the working of the global economy that previous analyses are rendered redundant. The changing relationship between labour and capital while reflecting shifting possibilities for the organisation of economic activity, does not necessarily change the overall character of this relationship. There is still a division between those who own the valuable resources on which the information economy is dependent and those who merely own their ability to labour in such an economy. This continuing division of ownership is (re)produced through the mechanism of IPRs (May 1998). Though, in the first instance, knowledge work would seem to enhance the reward and rights of the individual (as knowledge creator), the capital requirements for the profitable use (or exploitation) of knowledge in the information economy while changing the appearance of economic organisation have had much less effect on the relationship between capital and labour. Partly through the use of employment contracts, partly through the use of the intellectual property law, knowledge workers are still largely dependent on capital to ‘make the most of’ their intellectual resources (May 2000a). However, this is not to suggest that everything remains unaltered.

The rise of the global information economy has furthered significant and relatively recent shifts in the international division of labour. During the second half of the twentieth century the international division of labour in manufacturing became wider and more developed primarily through the ease (and lowered cost) of international transport. This was advantageous both for the movement of part-finished and finished products around the world, and also allowed for easier oversight by ‘jet-setting’ managers keen to oversee the geographically diverse nodes of their operations. As Adrian Wood and others have argued this new division of labour has had considerable effects on the work-forces in both the developed and under-developed countries involved. Wood summarises the background of his detailed discussion of the effects on North-South trade in the following terms:

Expansion of trade has linked the labour markets of developed countries (the North) more closely with those of developing countries (the South). This greater economic intimacy has had large benefits, raising average living standards in the North and accelerating development in the South. But it has hurt unskilled workers in the North, reducing their wages and pushing them out of jobs (Wood 1994: 1).
and points out that
optimists are right to emphasise the efficiency gains from trade with the South, but they greatly underestimate the adverse side-effects of this trade on income inequality in the North. The pessimists are right that there is a large and enduring distributional problem, but they are wrong about its nature: it is not that capital gains and labour loses, but that skilled labour gains and unskilled labour loses (Wood 1994: 4).
This echoes Robert Reich’s (1991) argument that the ‘symbolic analysts’ will gain at the expense of other sectors of the employed population of developed states. But if the information economy is taken into account Wood’s conclusion (based on the manufacturing sector) that the division of benefit is only changing between the skilled and unskilled labour, rather than between labour and capital, becomes less clear cut.

Though the increasing advantage of skilled over un-skilled labour is also true for the information economy, there is also an increasing division between the benefits that flow to capital and those that flow to labour. As Wood notes, for manufacturing this has been enhanced through the relative decline in shipping costs and the GATT’s (and now the WTO’s) efforts to lower barriers to international trade. Manufacturing is in relative decline in the developed states due to geographical shifts in the global technical division of labour. And while statistics are unreliable it is likely that over one third of world trade is such intra-firm trade (Dicken 1998: 43). Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of manufacturing now takes place elsewhere leaving much of the developed states’ work-forces the stark choice between unemployment or service work (of one sort or another). But, in an information economy it is not only manufacturing work that might be taken ‘off-shore’.

The possibility of task migration has made it increasingly possible that knowledge jobs previously regarded as ‘safe’ will come under pressure from ‘e-lancers’ based abroad, or in low-cost-of-living areas of the domestic economy. As I have noted elsewhere (May 2000c), electronically mediated task migration will increasingly open up the knowledge/information sector to similar sorts of competition which are already widely evident in manufacturing. Indeed, the jobs which have been regarded as the next stage of rich states’ job development strategies may already be subject to the sort of global job competition which makes their continued location in the developed and rich states questionable at the very least. While the transfer of low-skill manufacturing is reliant on large investments in physical plant and may also be dependent on the continuity of cheap commercial transportation, knowledge work is much less so. A manufacturing plant in a new location requires physical infrastructure, roads (as well as sea- or airports), reliable and constant commercial quality power supply, plant of some description and the acceptance of a time element to supply. Knowledge tasks, mediated through electronic networks require little of this specialist preparation, nor any necessary delays in supply.

This means that the supposition that service sectors are relatively un-traded, which is to say provision seldom takes place across borders, may not be very robust. Tasks which are based on the manipulation of information, or the application of specific knowledge to problems, need not necessarily be located near to the point of delivery. Already ‘back-room’ activities have proved remarkably internationally mobile, and some states (perhaps most notably some of the Caribbean islands) have made such provision a significant aspect of the development policies. Furthermore, where intellectual developmental potential is required (in software engineering, or architecture) there is little reason to assume that the developed states monopolise the ‘best minds’. Indeed, in software, India is already proving to be a voracious international competitor while in other areas of knowledge work more and more manipulative tasks are being handled ‘off-shore’ to reduce the relative labour costs of provision. These shifts while clearly not well developed are accelerating as the ability to move information around the global political economy safely has been enhanced. Here the accession to the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPs) under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has had a significant impact. As IPRs are becoming more robust in more and more jurisdictions so the risks of information leakage and loss of control of data have been reduced. This has enhanced the already developing flows of data and knowledge services around the global information economy.

This leads me to suggest while in the past the division between skilled and un-skilled labour has been profoundly important for examining the impact of globalisation on labour, in the emerging information economy a different distinction may come to be as important. This is the division between tasks that depend on proximity for their enactment and those which can be carried out at a distance. This will not replace the continuing distinction between skilled and unskilled but will further redefine the sorts of employment that will be available in various areas of the global political economy. This additional distinction is not new, but technological developments have expanded the elements of the workforce who might be effected by the political economy of proximity issues. The mapping of proximity/mobile tasks onto the low/high skill distinction can be rendered as a two by two matrix:

  skilled laboour unskilled labour
Proximity tasks a b
Mobile tasks c d

As I briefly outlined above, most previous analyses of the information economy have assumed that all knowledge work would appear in box a). Furthermore, in the main the jobs that appear in box d), which is to say jobs which were (or could be ) ‘exported’ were likely to be old-fashioned manufacturing jobs. The jobs that appear in box b), those that we might term un-skilled services (those jobs that require personal contact but perhaps little skill) were largely ignored, while suggestion that there might be jobs located in box c) was seldom recognised. Even where the problem of the expansion of box b), and the precarious character of typical employment of this type is recognised (Reich 1991: 215-219; 245), the political ‘solutions’ suggested are in themselves either against the prevailing consensus (changing taxation and welfare regimes to support these workers) or throw the problem back to the workers concerned (opportunities for education). Therefore, my argument is the content of box a) is much smaller than might be thought, and currently most job creation is appearing in box b). Furthermore, as ICTs become more powerful and more prevalent globally, box c) will start to reach the proportions of box d) in policy importance leaving developed economies some difficult problems to contend with, unless there is a major shift in the policy approaches typical of neo-liberalism.

The number and character of tasks that are at least potentially tradable, or open to international competition for labour location is being progressively widened by the continuing development of ICTs. The global division of labour in the information economy is likely to approach that which has for some time been evident in the materialised economy of manufacturing. The impact of this division will be two dimensional, much as it has in the material economy. On one side will be the actual relocation of work tasks away from the high-wage centres of the global economy. This may represent a regional move, or a further move outside the developed economies altogether. Secondly, and perhaps more invidiously, the threat of task relocation is a useful method for capital to cap or even decrease the share labour receives from economic activity. The threat of relocation is becoming as plausible as it has been for some time in the manufacturing sector. But, and this should be stressed, the use of the threat (implied or explicit) does not automatically mean that such jobs will migrate, but rather that even in the information economy, capital will be able to destabalise labour’s claims through the narrative of globalised labour markets and task migration. In many case migration has or will take place, but elsewhere such possibilities will be enough to allow capital to derive the majority of the benefit it might have gained through relocation without the attendant costs of actually resorting to task migration.

The continuing importance of the division of labour

The newly emerging global division of labour in the information economy has profound effects on labour markets and the relationship between capital and labour. The graduated division between skilled and un-skilled labour has been joined by the increasingly crucial distinction between migrational and proximity labour. Thus, in the global economy (whether informational, material or a combination or where both elements interact) the importance of proximity will be enhanced for some tasks while eroded for others. The threat (and reality) of task migration will effect the basis for valuing employment across more and more sectors of domestic labour markets. But even before such effects are taken into account the information economy has a rather unattractive under-belly which garners considerably less attention than the shiny clean world of knowledge work. Beneath the knowledge networks in Silicon Valley (the exemplary information economy region) is a service economy built on cheap (and often illegal) immigrant labour to provide non-knowledge services the knowledge entrepreneurs need (from cleaning to construction) (Barbrook and Cameron 1996; Hayes 1989). Additionally most manufacturing work which remains in the valley is based on short term contracting and casualised labour (Naughton 1999). Though not seasonal, labour turnover and insecurity is not unlike that of the farm-workers down the Californian coast. For these workers the knowledge economy looks little different to previous modes of economic organisation. It is these effects of the knowledge economy that I am concerned to raise in this paper: not everyone can be a highly rewarded knowledge worker, so in an information economy, what happens to the other elements of labour? This returns the division of labour to the centre of a political economy of the global information economy.

Before going any further, it will be useful to recall that the labour process (from which the division of labour springs),

exhibits two characteristic phenomena. First the labourer works under the control of the capitalist to whom his labour belongs...Secondly, the product is the property of the capitalist and not that of the labourer, its immediate producer... The labour process is a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things that have become his property. The product of this process belongs, therefore to him... (Marx 1887 [1974]: 180).
Marx crucially determined that the division of labour also required a division between those who owned property in the means of production (whatever they might be) and those who laboured on these means as workers (and who were paid accordingly). The distinction is one between the owners of property and the owners of labour. Despite everything else that may be happening in the wake of the information ‘revolution’, this central characteristic of capitalism remains unchanged. It may be obscured by a return to contract working as Negroponte suggests above, but the relationship between contractor and purchaser of the service would have been familiar to Marx. In the information economy even if knowledge creators are themselves individuals, the ownership of the bulk of valuable knowledge resources remains with capital.

In the information age, as in previous periods of capitalism, the owners of property purchase further inputs (such as labour) to produce the product which they bring to market. Furthermore, as Marx argued, since

the production and the circulation of commodities are the general pre-requisites of the capitalist mode of production, division of labour in manufacturing demands, that division of labour in society at large should previously have attained a certain degree of development. Inversely, the former division reacts upon and develops and multiplies the latter. Simultaneously, with the differentiation of the instruments of labour, the industries that produce these instruments, become more and more differentiated. If the manufacturing system seize[s] upon an industry, which, previously, was carried on in connection with others, either as a chief or a subordinate industry, and by one producer, these industries immediately separate their connection, and become independent. If it seize[s] upon a particular stage in the production of a commodity, the other stages of its production become converted into so many independent industries (Marx 1887 [1974]: 333/334 footnote deleted).
Thus, as has happened with outsourcing and the move to contracted networks and away from conglomeration, in the information economy the division of labour has rendered more and more aspects of economic organisation as separate businesses or industries and services. Through the commodification of knowledge and information much that might have previously been embedded within skilled processes, or as tacit knowledge, has been rendered as sub-sectors of industries and thus amenable to capitalistic organisation and accumulation strategies.

In a particularly prescient section of White Collar, C. Wright Mills discusses the post-war emergence of what he terms the ‘personality market’. Once goods and services have to a large extent become standardised, the personality of the sales-person is a major element in their success or failure on behalf of their employer. Mills suggested that as a result the personality of the salesperson became commodified because it produced value for the employer and could therefore be regarded as part of the contracted labour purchased in the work relationship (Mills 1953: 182-188). This type of commodification has continued, most notably through the increased incidence of service work. But importantly it is a continuation of a trend that predates the emergence of a mature (and ‘revolutionary’) information economy. In such an economy, labour sees more and more of its ‘own’ resources commodified and made subject to exchange and therefore alienation (and ownership).

This fragmentation of the division of labour in the information economy, with more and more tasks subject to specialised organisation, has also through the valorisation of information, continued a trend which has seen capital attempt (usually successfully) to control important knowledge and information about the production/service process. And

it should not be forgotten that for capitalism this gigantic technological mutation is still ‘a special method for manufacturing surplus value’ and for maintaining new forms of the division between those endowed with knowledge of general policy - whether of an individual undertaking or of the sovereign state - and those who are only informed about particular items, i.e. the former unskilled workers or the new ‘specialists’ (Lojkne 1986: 126/7 emphasis in original).
But, given the characteristic processes of the information economy, such information needs to be available to diverse elements of the work-force. However, the control of information by capital is maintained through the institutionalisation and legitimisation of an expansive set of intellectual property rights. From trade secrets, ‘inevitable disclosure’ and knowledge transfer restrictions in labour contracts, to commodification through the notion of ‘trade relatedness’ and expansive patent applications (see May 2000a: chapters four and five) capital endeavours to own the knowledge that might be used by labour.

Indeed, as Harry Braverman pointed out the principles of scientific management revolve around the capture of information about and important to the productive process:

if the first principle is the gathering and development of knowledge of labour processes, and the second is the concentration of this knowledge as the exclusive province of management - together with its essential converse, the absence of such knowledge among the workers - then the third is the use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labour process and its mode of execution (Braverman 1974: 119, emphasis in original).
This would initially suggest that there is an increasing absence of useful knowledge in the work force. In Braverman’s factory there is a move to deskilling and the capture of knowledge by capital. Though there has been an extensive literature which has critically engaged with Braverman’s analysis of the extent of deskilling (for instance: Aronowitz and DiFazio 1996; Elger 1979; Knights and Willmott 1990), I want to emphasise the other aspect of his conclusions regarding scientific management. Management is concerned to control and develop a monopoly over the knowledge of the functioning of the productive process, and by doing so is able to govern the division of labour. Thus while knowledge (or skills) may still reside with (and be used by) labour it is becoming less clear that there is any independent ability to control the dissemination of such knowledge and its use away from the immediate employment relationship.

This is why it is vital to appreciate intellectual property’s role in the information economy, similar to the need to understand the importance of property relations in the history of material capitalism. Like material property relations, intellectual property relations render output alienable and therefore exchangeable in markets. Equally, the emergence of particular divisions of labour is not the natural act of benign history, rather it is the result of the power and control of capital over the processes of economic endeavour through the institution of (intellectual) property. As Dietrich Rueschemeyer argues, while very

different power constellations rule the division of labour of manual workers, office employees with routine jobs and professionals.... it is power constellations that shape the position of different knowledge experts in society, their immediate work situation, the development of specialisation in their work, their relations to other occupations and the institutional protection of varied prerogatives...

The varied, though usually advantageous, positions of the professions in the division of labour at large are largely due to the ways in which different expert occupations succeeded in utilising and exploiting their advantages of knowledge and collective organisation (Rueschemeyer 1986: 139).

However, as with any skill, the advantage gained is not fixed or unchallenged. The power over the value and prestige of these new knowledge-based occupations no more lies with the professions than it lay with the nineteenth century weavers. The drive to divide labour into its constituted tasks is driven by capital’s need to produce more efficiently, and it is capital’s view of ‘efficiency’ that will determine the particular division of labour at any specific point in time. Thus, to be explicit it is not technical efficiency itself that drives forward and structures the division of labour, rather it is the interests which are able to define ‘efficiency’ in particular ways who produce and shift the division of labour (Rueschemeyer 1986: 181). The ability to define how efficiency is recognised is in itself the ability to control how the division of labour responds to the imperatives of the market.

Thus, it is important to recognise that companies wish to define the knowledge of important workers, not as the workers’ skills and abilities, but as the trade secrets (or intellectual property) of the employer, through the use of employment contracts with intellectual property provisions. The skills of the worker (widely drawn to include the personality in Mill’s example of salespeople) are subject to commodification. In the information economy this commodification has engendered the detachment (through the fragmentation of the technical division of labour) of knowledge-based tasks from their immediate delivery in a wide spectrum of cases. Thus, where knowledge or informational tasks have been automated or at least segmented as part of the information economy’s division of labour, so the issue of where such tasks should take place has become an issue of cost and efficiency for capital. In the manufacturing sector the fragmentation of the division of labour has allowed the movement of certain types of tasks to lower wage sites, and this is also becoming a factor in many areas of the information economy. It is this development that has added the proximity/migratory division to the conventional high/low skilled labour division in domestic economies labour markets.

Proximity, surveillance and the information economy

The proximity/migratory division suggests that those jobs that require proximity for the completion of their tasks will be those which will remain non-tradable in the global economy. Thus, in terms of the matrix above jobs that fall into the boxes labelled a) and b) will be unlikely to be subject to wage and location competition. Those tasks which fall into boxes c) and d) will be subject to the global labour market. This is not necessarily to claim that such jobs will no longer exist within the developed states’ economies, only that such jobs will be subject to pressure from capital suggesting that the global labour market allows for the possibility of these jobs to be relocated. Where this does not lead to actual relocation, the threat of relocation will be (and has been) used to limit demands by labour for increased wages or better conditions. As I pointed out above, policy makers in the developed states seemed to have assumed that tasks that fall into boxes a) and c) are relatively safe from global competition (indeed tasks located in c) represent in this view the possibility of developed states provision to under-developed states). Policy seems to be predicated on the assumption that the problem lies with workers who might once have worked in employment included in box d) but need to be retrained to be able to work at tasks in a) and c). However, what has actually happened is that there has been an evident expansion in the sorts of jobs that are covered by box b) which is to say unskilled jobs which are reliant on proximity.

In a not-un-representative view, this leads Christopher Freeman to suggest that for the developed states, continued international competitiveness will rely on two main sectors:

1.high-skill, internationally competitive industries and services based increasingly on ICTs;
2.a second-tier ‘sheltered’ non-traded sector, also using ICTs, which needs to provide community and personal services on a sufficient scale to absorb many of the currently unemployed and the unskilled and low-skill part-time and full-time workers (Freeman 1996:

This two dimensional effect which the information economy is having on labour is not entirely unexpected. Ten years ago Joseph Pelton, a former director of strategic policy for INTELSAT writing in The Futurist warned of the

creation of a new type of global worker, called the ‘electronic immigrant’.This new worker will telecommute to work over great distances... People in the relatively cheaper labour markets - such as Jamaica, Barbados, the Philippines, India and China - will be recruited and trained to perform a variety of services that can be performed remotely, such as computer programming, word processing, inventory control and management, or telephone sales (Pelton 1989: 12).
This would he had little doubt lead to technological unemployment in the developed states, but also might lead to ‘telecolonies’ of exploited and dependent information workers. Though at pains to suggest the positive possibilities that the emergence of a global communications network might bring, Pelton explicitly allows that this is not a foregone conclusion but rather depends on the way the technologies are used. In the interim period, technological developments have accelerated such transferral processes but has also seen a growth in the jobs I have allocated to box b), jobs needing proximity but perhaps not skill.

This expansion of low-skill proximity reliant jobs is also likely to be the result of technological advances: both the first and the second industrial revolutions represented the expansion of leisure time over work time, and the information society is reproducing this dynamic. But, unless gardening, plumbing, hairdressing and other proximity based personal services for the elite are to be the future of generalised labour in the developed states, the way in which society distributes its income needs to be rethought vis-à-vis the value put on certain sorts of work. This has led both Jeremy Rifkin (1995) and Diane Coyle (1997) from opposed ideological directions to argue for the value and rise of the third sector (the social economy). And while this may have an appeal on the basis of labour intensity and the need for proximity (from child minding and local social work to issue-based action groups), these activities still require a level of communal disposable income to pay for them, if they are to produce stable employment and reasonable rewards for those undertaking them. But a shrinking well paid elite can only purchase and use a finite amount of personal services (and ‘political’ activities) however lavish their life style. As Will Hutton pointed out,

Edwardian England employed millions of maids; millennial England employs millions of child-minders and personal-fitness trainers. The insecurity and dependency on the rich faced by both is no less real... Income inequality is not a fact of nature produced by the weightless economy; there is a power struggle to capture added value which cannot be wished away (Hutton 1998).
The retention of employment may be at the cost of income equality, indeed there may be a direct trade off. The service tasks where employment growth is still plausible are those which are non-tradable (which is to say they rely on proximity). Thus, the rise of what many in America regard as ‘McJobs’ as well as the expansion of a black economy of cleaners, builders and others working in the ‘shadow economy’ is fundamentally part of the information economy, not something it will replace.

Developed states will continue to have some advantages in high-skilled knowledge tasks, which is to say that although these tasks have moved from box a) to box c) in the matrix above, the developed states will retain their competitiveness and supply such services as they are able throughout the global information economy. Though there is an interesting question about the implicit assumption of the intellectual superiority of developed state economies’ workers on which continued competitiveness in the first sector relies (which might also reveal the continuing influence of notions of the product cycle and serial development), I will not pursue that issue here. Rather, I want to think about the proximity related tasks, those in box b) in a globalised information economy and the sorts of labour relations that boxes a) and c) might encompass. I leave box d) aside as there has been no shortage of writing and analysis of low-skill jobs leaving the developed states through the actions of global trade and multinational corporations.

Thus, I suggest there are two tensions in the information economy’s impact on the relations between capital and labour:

The information economy has enhanced the ability of capital to control labour, firstly through the shift of the proximity/migratory division it has open up more aspects of the domestic labour market to global competition (as well as crucially enhancing the replacability of individual workers), and secondly ICTs have enabled employers to control the informational worker more effectively than was possible in the past. I now turn to look at the sorts of jobs and tasks that make up the lower-skill proximity dependent sector and then I shall look at some of the problems in so-called knowledge work.

In the early 1990s Robert Reich recognised one of the central problems for political intervention in the information economy. As the well-being of an particular domestic economy ‘grows more dependent than ever on the fortunate fifth [the knowledge workers], the fortunate fifth is becoming less and less dependent on them’ (Reich 1991: 250). In the global information economy, while there is a widening elite who are benefiting from the shifts which I have been discussing, the problems of the excluded (and partially excluded) are of little concern to them. Indeed, by virtue of the ‘Californian ideology’ these problems are thrown back on the individual rather than perceived as structural problems which might warrant some form of public or state intervention. Thus, though the information economy provides some highly paid and highly skilled work, this is by no means the only sort of work that it engenders, despite the general myopia regarding its other effects. Furthermore, the information economy produces (or reinforces) a global division of labour, retaining high-skill, high-value tasks at the centre in what might be increasingly characterised as service economies, while allowing for the geographic dispersal of lower-skill, manual production tasks to area, regions and states which have labour costs advantages. However, here I will leave aside the global division of labour issue, and concentrate on the aspects of the information economy manifest in the most developed states (in this case most clearly the United States, Britain and to some extent Australia). As Manual Castells concludes: left to themselves the forces of unfettered competition in the information paradigm will push employment and social structure towards dualisation’ (Castells 1996: 264). This will leave the two areas for job expansion identified by Freeman above.

One of the aspects of knowledge workers, which has received considerable attention, is the hours worked and therefore the little time available for non-work activities. This squeeze on leisure and non-work time has reinforced capitalism’s commodification of activities previously socially delivered. As two-earner knowledge working families find their rewards expanding as their time outside work contracts (and this is especially the case in Britain and America, by many accounts the paradigmatic information economy and its nearest imitator, respectively) then they need a expanding staff to support their social needs. Thus, the army of nannies, gardeners and other staff who will carry out tasks previously provided by the family itself outside the market. In one sense this is a return to an earlier period when status was conferred by the domestics one employed. But while in the past members of the family chose not to do tasks and had hired help do them, time constraints have forced the hand of this segment of the knowledge workers. As social time available has contracted so the number of things it makes sense to pay someone to do, rather than do them yourself, expands. And, it is not merely physical needs that are attended to. Given the information society’s focus on the individual as agent of their own success, the desire (and at least perceived economic need) for self-improvement has led to a massive increase in the provision of leisure and health activities which might be broadly termed ‘improving’ - from counselling to psychotherapy, from gyms and health clubs to tai-chi and meditation.

All of these activities, as well as the maintenance of the physical assets of family life (house, car, home-based equipment from washing machines to computers) require workers to carry them out, unless the time of the knowledge worker is to be further constrained. And it is these tasks, linked to the information economy by the further fragmentation of the division of labour that can hardly be said to be well paid or secure jobs in nay meaningful way. While personal services may offer the pleasure of inter-personal involvement, and here the high-end psycho-social services are perhaps exemplary, they also produce the commodification of the worker’s personality, as C.Wright Mills noted in the case of sales work. Indeed, where this is linked to contract or casual employment, there is no employer to act as a buffer between the client and the service provider. Presented as the empowerment of self-employment, it seems more likely to be the terror of contingent labour relying on the whimsy of the well paid or wealthy: hardly a recipe for security and a stable social existence, nor necessarily anything new. But this is not to say it is all bad news. There is starting to be a proximity-related revaluing of some service employment at least. Ed Crooks suggests that:

Cooking, for example, has become a desirable career choice. Ten years ago, catering was close to the bottom of the pile in terms of pay, prestige, conditions and prospects. But in London at least, this is no longer true. Restaurant chains such as Chez Gerard offer training programmes and career development. Young cooks can with a bit of effort, get to £30,000 a year quite quickly... Gardening, too, is rising rapidly up the popularity charts. Colleges offer courses for people wanting to train as gardeners (Crooks 1998).
And the numbers earning their living from related activities (from garden design to plant supply) is still growing. Thus, as these services become increasingly demanded so their employment prospects may expand. On one hand this suggests some new jobs and employment, but not everyone can become a star cook, and perhaps more importantly not all such jobs have equal possibilities for high wage levels, without a major reformulation of the way in which society values service labour. This may happen, indeed we may be witnessing the first steps towards a revaluing, but currently such developments are hardly conclusive in or out of information related work.

Furthermore, not all knowledge work is the highly-skilled, project organised intellectually rewarding sorts of activities often presented as paradigmatic of the information economy. On one hand, a large proportion (possibly up to 80 percent) of ‘white collar’ informational work is ‘relatively routine transformation of information from one form into another - from an invoice into a payment, and so on’ (Ducatel and Millard 1996: 124). And while some of this sort of work is becoming increasingly automated it is likely that within the information economy there will remain a lot of relatively dull information manipulations to be carried out. But, on the other hand, new ICTs have enhanced surveillance opportunities and through such over-sight, control of the workforce, even for high-level information and knowledge work. While accepting that information work is variable and not by any means all well paid or even interesting, it is the issue of surveillance and control that again reveals the continuity between modern capitalism of the twentieth century and the information economy of the new millennium.

The state as well as the private sector has utilised ICTs to enhance its ability to monitor and therefor control its knowledge workers. Thus, adjudication officers at the government’s Employment Service in Britain, have their work monitored. The computer system monitors: the time each officer logs on and off the system; the number of decisions made in any particular time period by any particular individual; the rates at which decisions are made; and whether output targets are being met. Furthermore ‘each member of staff has to record what they have been doing when not logged onto the system’ (TUC 1998: 52). That these records influence promotion, pay and other managerial decisions should be no surprise. But as the TUC report stresses:

invasive monitoring of this sort creates a stressful and uncertain atmosphere for employees to work in, and can have serious implications for privacy... it is anyway very doubtful how far such measures give a useful picture of an individual’s work, as the measures are quantitative rather than qualitative and incapable of taking into account why a particular course of action has been followed (TUC 1998: 53).
And, it is not infrequent for employers, whose monitoring of employee’s Internet activity, either the sorts of sites visited or the time taken to ‘surf the net’, to use such information as the basis of either disciplinary action or even in extreme cases the sacking of employees, without any necessary relationship to how well such individuals might have been doing their job (Hall 1999). For the employer, time on the premises is their time not the employees, as has always been the case.

But, it is important that I do not give the impression that it is only the old-fashioned bureaucratic mentality of public service that engenders such practices, it is more an issue of prevailing methods of work organisation in an ICT equipped work environment. Michael Ford, for instance discusses the practices of British Telecom (as revealed by a court case) in some detail and concludes that the

workers were constantly visible and continuously monitored by a combination of hierarchical human observation, modern computerised technology and internal office design, all backed up by pay incentives, a degree of self-monitoring and a rhetoric of paternalism to ensure sustained high levels of work. The Victorian overseer seems positively lax in comparison (Ford 1998: 5).

The key issue here is that ICTs enhanced surveillance ability is deployed within a workplace in which management is always concerned to control and oversee its workforce. But, the

performance and behaviour of many workers is the object of a surveillance whose intensity, efficiency and extent would have been unimaginable in the recent past. Often assisted by technical developments and reinforced by a process of de-skilling which makes Taylorism look positively benign in comparison, this surveillance can come close to eliminating worker autonomy, both individual and collective, at work - something which Taylorism never achieved (Ford 1998: 9).
This enhancement of surveillance ability has been the result of the extensive deployment of ICTs as Ford makes clear throughout his report.

Recorded usage of the technology enables the employer’s representatives (managers or supervisors) to monitor workers much more closely (in the sense of work rates and time away from their machine) with the advantage of little direct physical oversight. Thought the panoptican has become an overworked metaphor for the ‘new’ capitalism here it seem appropriate. Again, this was hardly an unexpected benefit to capital form the deployment of ICTs. Indeed as Shoshana Zuboff (1988) and others have pointed out, part of the rationale for the informationalisation of the workplace was the need to control workers undertaking specialised but essentially non-visible tasks. But as Zuboff notes, there is also an enhanced ability of workers to demonstrate through management information or data sources that it was not them to blame when problems rise, the location of mistakes can be more easily ascertained, which may make victimisation over some issues more unlikely (Zuboff 1988: 342ff). Thus, there is a potential in the use of ICTs to diminish the danger of arbitrary management and scapegoating. But, Zuboff still expected that the deployment of ICTs would

alter many of the classic contingencies of the superior-subordinate relationship, providing certain information about subordinates’ behaviour while eliminating the necessity of face-to-face engagement. They can transmit the presence of the omniscient observer and so induce compliance without the messy conflict-prone exertions of reciprocal relations (Zuboff 1988: 323).
Thus the awareness of oversight encourages self-monitoring and control; labour has nowhere to hide and workers must presume that they may be being monitored at any time.

Though there can be little doubt that management requires some level of oversight to ensure work is be carried out, to aid the recognition of remedial training needs and also to fulfil legal obligations (most often centred on health and safety issues), perhaps the most interesting issue in an information economy (given the claims made for its character) is the relationship between surveillance intensity and worker autonomy.

Implicit in autonomy is the potential to challenge existing methods of workplace organisation at a fundamental level, by undermining management’s interest in co-ordination, control and the acquisition of knowledge about its workforce. Worker autonomy and management control are locked in an inevitable combat, so that gains in one are invariably losses to the other (Ford 1998: 17).
And it is here that ICTs and the presentation of the information society/information economy are so important. The use of ICTs in the workplace is presented as freeing the worker to network, to mobilise diverse informational working patterns and in the case of telework, to spatially shift their work place, but at the same time the technology enables a much more developed mode of oversight by the employer.

Another mode of surveillance also enables employers to know about the non-work activities of employees. As Mills’ notion of the commodification of personality suggests, non-work activities might be regarded by employers to have an impact on the ability of the employee to ‘do the job’. Life style issues might shape the inter-personal relationship between employee and client and thus are seen by management at least as suitable and legitimate areas for their concern and interest. Thus, increasingly firms through drugs testing (mandatory of voluntary) and information gathering vet candidates or employees to gauge their suitability for such interactions (Gillies 1999; Hilpern 2000). Thus as André Gorz recently pointed out, these new informationalised service workers are

no longer governed by the labour law which meant that the worker belonged first to society and only secondarily to the company. The customers or companies for which they provide their services can treat them unequally, depending on whether or not they like a service worker’s attitude or personality... in this way wage-labour is losing the emancipatory function of freeing workers from the relations of subjection which prevailed in traditional society (Gorz 1999: 52).
While the possibilities of the ‘dignity of labour’ and the potential for individual emancipation are themselves problematic (requiring a specific view of the value of ‘work’ to the individual), Gorz is right to suggest that work is once again becoming a service that is provided to a master (employer) rather than being represented by the physical output of the labouring day. In the delivery of service the inequality of judger (master/employer) and judged (worker/service provider) is rendered at once more open, yet also more demeaning . It is more open because the subjective (even whimsical) decisions on which we decide whether we like or loathe each other suddenly carry much more weight now that the continuance of paid employment can be ‘legitimately’ linked to personality traits. It is more demeaning as the powerful can make all sorts of demands about life-style and personal conduct that at least in the industrial age where not regarded as overly important. In this, as Gorz argues, we seem to be returning to a pre-industrial age of feudalism and vassalage.


The information economy represents a major restructuring of the spatial relations between capital and labour, though as I have argued above this does not indicate that their productive relations are necessarily altered in any significant manner. The major shift which the information economy seems to have engendered is an increase in the mobility of labour’s tasks (even if physical mobility remains more limited). In the phase of globalisation which reached its apogee just before the First World War capital and labour enjoyed broadly similar possibilities for physical mobility. While capital could move around in a similar way to which it does today, labour was also able to migrate around the international system with considerable freedom. In the more recent phase of globalisation, while capital has further enhanced its mobility, labour on the other hand has found the migrational options considerably limited through the enaction of immigration policies throughout the international system. Though some mobility remains this is constricted and often risky or even life-threatening.

However, at least in the realm of knowledge tasks, a form of mobility is reasserting itself, based not on the physical migration of labour, but on its ability to deliver tasks at distance, facilitated by ICTs and increasingly globalised electronic networks. As these networks stretch into new areas, so new pockets of knowledge adept workers will enter a global market for their skills and intellect. This changing global market for labour will rearrange domestic labour markets in both developed and developing states. But, such migratory potential has emerged to serve capital more than it will benefit the new entrants to the global labour market. Information capitalism stresses task mobility to enhance its bargaining power over labour, it stresses the paradigm of knowledge work to transfer the costs of adjustment to individual workers, it marginalises low-skill proximity work to depress its value and it practices widespread surveillance to discipline labour when the potential of ICTs opens avenues for various forms of resistance. If this is the case, does this represent a final triumph of capital over labour?

One strand of resistance that could be mobilised in the information economy might draw its sustenance from an ‘autonomist Marxism’ which stresses that ‘far from being a passive object of capitalist designs, the worker is the active subject of production, the well-spring of the skills, innovation and co-operation on which capital must draw’ (Witheford 1994: 89). This means that we need to think of the ‘workers’ not as a group of individuals (a class) who are defined by the practices of their labour, which is to say the working class is not defined by their manual labour. Rather, as I noted at the beginning of this paper the workers (labour) are those who for all intents and purposes (leaving aside home ownership as possible capital holding) are both free to contract and free from ownership of capital. Their freedom to contract allows them to enter the labour market, their freedom from capital, and thus stored wealth on which to live, requires them to enter the market. Thus, the working class in the information economy may believe themselves to be safely working with capital and thus some-how different from their historic class, but with contract labour, insecurity and contingent work spreading further and further up the status scale of employment, they may well be becoming disabused of this notion.

For autonomist Marxism the contradictions of capitalism continue within an information economy, and this is most obvious where

by informating production, capital seems to augment its powers of control. But it simultaneously stimulates creative capacities which remain autonomous from its command, and constantly threaten to over spill into rivulets irrelevant to, or even subversive of, profit (Witheford 1994: 102).

This is revealed by the continuing hysteria around piracy on the Internet, as well as the ‘danger’ of hacker activities (Kehoe 2000), the attempts to commodify electronic networks despite extensive resistance to payment for access, and the manner in which electronic networks have been used, not least of all by Reclaim the Streets (Dodson 1999), to organise distinctly anti-capitalist activities. In this sense the continuing development of ICTs while allowing capital to individualise labour and to attempt to constrain labour’s ability to organise formally also works to provide a new communication across divisions in the information economy. As new alliances are constructed on the basis of particular issues and sites of resistance, so it may also be the case that a new perception of what it is to be an information-based working class is.

At least potentially therefore, the working class in the information economy can come (and indeed may already be starting) to recognise itself as a community, at the moment often carried along within different issue-based communities. These workers have

advanced needs - needs not only for wages, but for leisure, health, education, community and environment. Stimulated by capital’s own requirements for a productive workforce and buoyant consumption, the assertion of these demands conflicts with its equal imperative to reduce labour costs by driving down direct incomes and the social wage (Witheford 1994: 97).
And indeed it is these very sites, the environment, health and time for leisure that are subjects of intense dispute in the information society. The increasing demands for linkage within issue-based politics, the expansion of communicative possibilities should allow for a increasingly widespread recognition of the commonalties of labour (and its interests) against globalised capital. Additionally, there are many Internet sites suggesting ways that ICTs can be used to sabotage work, offering tales of the conduct of managers and generally acting as forums for networked workers to share their experiences (McClellan 1999). Again, this suggests that there is potentially a site in which a labour identity might re-emerge Or is this perhaps too optimistic? Autonomist Marxism certainly identifies the possibility of resistance, but it is the workers themselves who have to decide that resistance is both worthwhile and the way of obtaining what they may value: the possibility of resistance ‘acts as a virus in the circuits of the information society, interrupting its programmed screens with messages about possibilities of which its rulers would prefer we remain uninformed’ (Witheford 1994: 114). Thus the potentials can be highlighted but the information society’s working class must do it for themselves, as in some areas of politics they increasingly are.

The information society/information economy despite claims to the contrary is not technologically determined. Indeed, as with capitalism in general there is a central contradiction in the development of the information society. On one side it represents the ability to commodify and enclose knowledge as property. This enclosing dynamic is however as noted above joined by a communicative of disclosing dynamic that enables sites of resistance and divergent communications (May 1999). But these dynamics take place in a social milieu constructed historically through social, political and economic relations and this milieu continues to be the subject of (potential) political struggle. Thus, labour can act in the face of capital by not accepting that the logic of its current predicament requires acquiescence to the extreme and individualised demands of capital. Therefore, if as I have argued above, there are considerable elements of labour that are employed in proximity reliant tasks, then

wage rates are not strictly determined by international competition or rates of technical change, and they can be raised by gaining back what was lost during the era of neo-liberalism. The situation cries out for labour organising and a labour movement on the scale of the 1930s. Working people sorely need the protection and the wage gains that unionisation makes possible. They need the voice of the unions and workers in politics... Yet many trade unionists are afraid to organise in the current environment. They fear that labour organising, higher wages and better working conditions threaten competitiveness and permanence of industry, and will cost workers their jobs. This fear is based on myths about economics and economic geography which are very widely shared, but which are largely untrue (Walker 1999: 281).
Though Richard Walker is explicitly concerned with America in the above passage, a similar invocation for Europe is no less apposite. And as such, one model for workers organisation may be to revisit the mutual society type of organisation widespread in the nineteenth century. Amy Dean of the AFL-CIO, reports The Economist, suggests that
as firms become more nimble, workers will have to look elsewhere for things that make life secure, from training to medical benefits. In the 19th century some craft unions proved so good at providing these that they controlled the supply of workers: when people wanted a carpenter they went to the union. In some areas of the new economy, notably Hollywood, unions are starting to play this role again; Ms Dean would like to see this become the norm (The Economist 1999).
However, there are other paths that organisation could take. Perhaps a more radical unionism, predicated on moving unions towards more internal accountability and democracy is possible (Moody 1997). In this case, developed states’ workers would be following the model of social-movement unionism which has been developed outside the rich states (in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere).

The key issue is here is that the information economy’s impact on labour is hardly unprecedented, and is amenable to types of resistance that have been successful in the past. The supposition that the class struggle is over is ridiculous if the issue of the ownership of knowledge resources is the focus of analysis; the suggestion that we have moved beyond capitalism is rendered non-sensical if we look at the division of ownership and the conditions of workers throughout the information economy, and finally the idea that there is no alternative (that resistance is pointless) is belied both by actual resistance and the myopia and self interest of those claiming this to be the case. Labour in the information economy needs to organise itself to regain the lost ground of the late twentieth century, and while this struggle may be difficult and require new methods, it is not impossible nor without massive potential benefits to those outside the charmed circle of knowledge capital.


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  skilled laboour unskilled labour
Proximity tasks a) skilled tasks requiring proximity for delivery: e.g. knowledge-workers - lawyers, architects b) unskilled tasks requiring proximity for delivery: e.g. in-person services - hair-dressers, plumbers
Mobile tasks c) skilled tasks deliverable at a distance: e.g. back-room tasks - invoicing, records d) unskilled tasks deliverable at a distance: e.g. labour-intensive manufacturing