Zero-Hours Contracts: Work Discipline, Anomie and Organising

by Tom Gann on October 18, 2013

“The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or, in other words, contributes towards the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory makes no difference to the relation. The notion of a productive labourer therefore implies not merely a relation between the activity of work and its useful effect but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation with a historical origin that stamps the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization.” (Marx, Capital Volume I, p. 644).

A Cheap Holiday in Other People’s Misery

The analysis and reporting of zero-hours contracts has been notable for the poverty of policy prescriptions, an abstract moralism, condescension and a general failure to grasp the problem. These limitations are a direct consequence of excluding any role for the experiences of workers on zero-hours contracts from the analysis except as case studies to be fitted into an untheorised analytical framework. What has been absent is the opportunity for zero-hours contracted workers to reflect on their experiences within the totality of our experience of work. Instead, the difficulties of the zero-hours worker become the latest scandal to be assimilated to the liberal newspaper’s and their audience’s need to pity (and its, imagined, The Guardian certainly does not imagine zero-hours workers read it, audience). After food banks and cramped housing due to bedroom tax, zero-hours contracts are the latest cheap holiday in other people’s misery.

I have been on a zero-hours contract for seven years, punctuated by periods of unemployment, whilst teaching English as a Foreign Language in London. Compared to the majority of workers on zero-hours contracts my position has been privileged and has some atypical features. Nevertheless, I would argue my experience has been typical enough to allow for the reflection that most of the analysis of zero-contracts has lacked.

The other side of the lack of rigour is evident in the theoretical limitations of the analysis, which is marked particularly by the way in which Marx, particularly the analysis of the reserve army of labour, and the 19th century is invoked. Marx’s analysis plays no part in the logical construction of the argument, his name is merely borrowed to give a veneer of rigour and radicalism to a moralistic and poorly understood analysis and, as with the invocations of the 19th century, to tantalise readers with the unphilosophical astonishment that “the things we are experiencing in the 21st century are still possible” (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Concept of History”, VIII).

The superficiality of the recourse to Marx is further suggested by the ignoring of the passage in Capital in which Marx discusses work practices analogous to zero-hours contracts and resistance to their imposition (Capital Volume I, p. 686). The point of invoking Marx to address zero-hours contracts is not to astonish but to provide another way to situate zero-hours contracts within the totality of current work. This approach would follow that implied by Frederic Jameson in his recent Representing Capital, based on the insight that now, not only following Mandel’s argument that the destruction of intermediate classes of small producers, but following the Great Financial Crisis, that contemporary capitalism is structurally closer to the model of Capital than the capitalism of the 1860s (Mandel, “Introduction” to Capital, pp. 82-3). The analysis of zero-hours contracts would further suggest a modification of Jameson’s argument that Capital is a “book about unemployment” to argue Capital is, rather, a book about the porous frontier between employment and unemployment.

In this essay, drawing on the argument of Capital and my own experience of being a zero-hours worker, particularly of attempting to organise my colleagues, I want to present zero-hours contracts within the totality of the wider apparatus of work discipline of which they form a crucial part and from which they cannot be abstracted.

The Wage-Form

Marx’s analysis of the situation analogous to zero-hours contracts appears in the section of Capital on wages. (pp. 675-709) In the construction of Capital as a whole this part sits oddly, representing a return to the sphere of circulation, which Marx announced he was leaving behind at the end of Part Two (p. 280). With the wages chapters we are, again, dealing with the world of appearance, even fetishism, but a necessary appearance (p. 681). Marx writes, “In wage labour, on the contrary, even surplus-labour, or unpaid labour, appears as paid. In the one case, the property-relation conceals the labour of the slave for himself; in the other case the money-relation conceals the uncompensated labour of the wage labourer. We may therefore understand the decisive importance of the transformation of value and price of labour-power into the form of wages, or into the value and price of labour itself. All the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism’s illusions about freedom, all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as their basis the form of appearance discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible, and indeed presents the precise opposite of that relation” (p. 680). What is concealed then in the wage relation is exploitation- the relationship between paid and unpaid labour- Marx gives the example, “the value of 3 shillings, which represents the paid portion of the working day, i.e. 6 hours of labour, appears as the value or price of the whole working day of 12 hours, which thus includes 6 hours which have not been paid for. The wage-form thus extinguishes every trace of the division of the working day into necessary labour and surplus labour, into paid labour and unpaid labour” (p. 680).

This analysis of the wage form and what it obscures provides the basis for Marx’s subsequent analysis in the chapter on time-wages of a similar situation to zero-hours contracts. It is worth remembering that when Marx wroteCapital the predominant time-wage was a daily wage, the introduction of an hourly wage was resisted, for example in the London building workers strike of 1859-60 precisely because it allowed for zero-hours type conditions (p. 686). Marx explains “In previous chapters we saw the destructive consequences of over-work; here we find the sources of the sufferings that result to the labourer from his insufficient employment. If the hour’s wage is fixed in such a way that the capitalist does not bind himself to pay a day’s or a week’s wage, but only to pay wages for the hours during which he chooses to employ the labourer, he can employ him for a shorter time than that which is originally the basis of the calculation of the hour-wage, or the unit of measurement of the price of labour. Since this unit is determined by the ratio of the daily value of labour-power to the working-day of a given number of hours, it naturally loses all meaning as soon as the working-day ceases to contain a definite number of hours. The connection between the paid and the unpaid labour is destroyed. The capitalist can now wring from the labour a certain quantity of surplus-labour without allowing him the labour-time necessary for his own subsistence. He can annihilate all regularity of employment, and according to his own convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment, make the most enormous overwork alternate with relative or absolute cessation of work” (p. 686).

In the seven years I’ve been working on a zero-hours contract I have encountered all of these features, enormous overwork (teaching for 45 hours a week- with extra work planning lessons, marking and performing administrative tasks) alternating with absolute cessation of work (weeks where no teaching hours were available), lacking hours to subsist (periods where I was employed only to cover classes so had no income unless colleagues were sick), submission to the convenience of the employer (being called on to work long hours when groups of students arrived with one days notice as well as the sometimes less than a hour’s notice on cover work) and only being paid for hours worked leading to split shifts with no compensation.

Zero-Hours Contracts and Subsumption

In Representing Capital, Jameson argues, rightly, that Marx’s analyses of the production of the reserve army of labour, “seem to renew the actuality of Capital on a world scale…they designate a stage of “subsumption” in which the extra economic or the social no longer lies outside capital and economics but has been absorbed into it: so that being unemployed or without an economic function is no longer to be expelled from capitalism but to remain within it. Where everything has been subsumed under capitalism, there is no longer anything outside it; and the unemployed…are, as it were, employed by capitalism to be unemployed; they fulfil an economic function by way of their very non-functioning (even if they are not paid to be so)” (p. 71). The subsumption of the unemployed under capitalism is experienced even more strongly (and should be even more legible) by the zero-hours worker. Capitalism has the further advantage in that we are even more conveniently “ready for exploitation by capital in the interests of capital’s own valorization requirements” than the unemployed (Capital, p. 784).

Larry Elliott’s Guardian article made a brief reference to the reserve army of labour to analyse zero-hours contracts but it was superficial and not internal to the construction of the argument. Consequently, zero-hours contracts are presented as both a moral problem – an exploitative practice that is unrelated to exploitation in general, and as a pragmatic problem – low wages and insecurity reducing aggregate demand. What is missed is how “a surplus population of workers is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis” (Capital, p. 784). Further, to address systematically the experience and function of zero-hours workers it is necessary not merely to affirm the analogy with the reserve army but to demonstrate how a reserve army of labour is produced precisely in and for areas of the economy which are dominated by zero-hours workers.

Marx conceptualises the reserve army of labour as being produced in two ways. Firstly, through the changing composition of capital, a progressively lower proportion of capital is deployed to hire workers (variable capital) compared to the constant capital deployed on means of production (technology and raw materials) (Capital, p. 781). This happens through both centralisation of capital and productivity developments. Secondly, through “violent fluctuations and the temporary production of a surplus population, whether this takes the more striking form of the extrusion of workers already employed, or the less evident, but not less real, form of a greater difficulty in absorbing the additional working population through its customary outlets” (Capital, pp. 782-3).

In teaching and, indeed, many other jobs in which zero hours contracts predominate, the nature of the work makes productivity increases and the subsequent creation of a reserve army through technological developments limited so “capital [largely] continues to grow…on its existing technical basis” (p. 782). With affective labour (and most zero hours jobs involve, to a large degree affective labour), the point on the relationship between constant and variable capital is made precisely by Negri and Hardt (if we ignore the Pollyanna optimism that their argument ends in): “This labour is immaterial, even if it is corporeal and affective, in the sense that its products are intangible, a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement, or passion… Such affective production, exchange, and communication are generally associated with human contact, but that contact can be either actual or virtual, as it is in the entertainment industry… Brains and bodies still need others to produce value, but the others they need are not necessarily provided by capital and its capacities to orchestrate production” (Empire § 3.4). Teaching thus requires a form of human contact that, coupled with demands from students and the logistics of teaching language classes, means that however much the technical basis of the work is transformed, a teaching ratio beyond 15: 1 is almost impossible and a teacher must be present for a large part of the learning process (although this can be contracted to some extent). Indeed, technological developments to allow a virtual presence (teaching via Skype) tend to make the work more labour intensive as Skype is mainly used for private lessons.

Technology/ Taylorism in one Worker

This is not to minimise the role of technology in EFL teaching but to situate it properly.  Marx’s argument on the production of a reserve army of labour and the throwing of workers out of work through technological development, of course, applies to the economy as a whole but the easy move from occupation to occupation underpins its deployment. What technological developments allow in language teaching is an easier use of the reserve army, after recent graduates the most common entrants into EFL teaching are those made unemployed in other sectors of the economy.

My school has invested heavily in interactive white boards and, with them, interactive versions of text books. Coupled with pre-prepared lesson plans for many classes this investment allows some savings on the costs of labour and extends the potential reserve army. The combination of interactive software and pre-prepared lesson plans cuts down on the need for teachers to plan lessons. In my job and most other teaching jobs time planning and marking work is unpaid but the hourly rate is supposed to take account of this time. The demand that time is spent in school planning lessons has in some of my jobs been an important site of tension between management and teachers. Also computerised assessment, particularly tests to determine new students’ level of English, slightly cut down on teaching hours. Alongside slightly reducing teaching hours, the deployment of technology tends to deskill teaching. The pre-prepared lesson plans account for every last minute of the lesson and must be followed in their entirety even if the teacher feels they are inappropriate for the level or interests of the students (the computerized level test is not always accurate). The breaking apart of the teaching process into a series of discreet moments tends towards a kind of Taylorism in one worker which is substantially easier to oversee, deskilling not only the task of teaching but the observations by the Director of Studies. This Taylorism in one person with skill embodied in the IWB software and the lesson plan “confiscates every atom of freedom…in intellectual activity” (Capital, p. 548). The embodiment of skill outside of the worker in the technology allows the employment of inexperienced teachers; this is particularly significant at a school like mine which also offers teacher training. The £800 course provides a ready supply of potential teachers, serving in many ways as a trial period. The employment of inexperienced teachers, who earn around £3.50 less an hour than teachers with two or more years experience, allows the school to make significant savings despite the cost of the interactive whiteboards and the software. The software costs hundreds of pounds as opposed to about £80 for a copy of a textbook, the teachers’ book and (rent-seeking from publishers here) the class CDs, but employing an inexperienced teacher for a term saves over £600. The software can, of course, be reused in future terms.


The second factor in producing the reserve army is crisis or fluctuations in the economy, which again throw off workers. The current economic crisis contributes to a larger reserve army, which, as we have seen, due to the deskilling of EFL teaching, can be more readily deployed. Moreover, the nature of the seasonal nature of the work (at least three times as many students attend in July and August than in January or February) entails a surplus population of teachers for much of the year. Finally, here there are parallels with other areas of zero-hours work: care with government cuts, shopwork with the post-GFC collapse in consumer demand. The TEFL industry is itself in crisis, this is due both to the Eurozone crisis reducing spending power in those countries and cutting Italian and Spanish government programmes which fund students to study in the UK and new visa restrictions (absurd- Why would the government want foreigners spending large sums of money in Britain at no cost to the taxpayer? Why would the government want foreigners likely to be in positions of power and influence in their countries to have a good experience in Britain and, consequently, a positive impression of the country? Why, when so few British people speak a second language, would the government want the rest of the world to be able to do business in English?). These processes further create a reserve army of labour in EFL teaching, particularly outside the summer months, this army is slightly limited by emigration but remains often on zero hours contracts although offered insufficient work to sustain itself, “weigh[ing] down the active army of workers” (Capital, p. 792). It is the role of the reserve army of unemployed and, in particular, zero-hours workers in disciplining the EFL labour force that I want to discuss in the remainder of this piece.

Zero-Hours Contracts: Production of Surplus Value

In Part Five, “The Production of Absolute and Relative Surplus Value”, Marx discusses three ways in which capital can extract more surplus value: it can lengthen the working day, it can increase the intensity of labour or increase productivity through technological improvements (Capital, pp. 643-72). As we have seen, in EFL teaching as well as in many of the other jobs done by zero-hours workers improvements in productivity through technological developments are of limited (but not insignificant) importance. Therefore, capital’s desire to extract more surplus value in EFL teaching leads it to seek to intensify labour and lengthen the working day, or, to be more precise and more appropriate to the hourly wage form, lengthen the unpaid part of the working day.

As we have also seen, the hourly wage allow the capitalist to vary enormous overwork with cessation of work based on his “convenience, caprice, and the interest of the moment” (Capital, p.686). This power is intensified by the ability to exploit the conditions of zero-hours workers and the easily mobilised reserve army of labour. The flexibility for capital of zero-hours contracts allows it to ensure that no hours are paid which are not productive but it also subsumes the free time of the worker. Outside of the summer period, desperation for work means teachers will accept any hours, even if the hours are inconvenient, for example with a long (unpaid, of course) break between classes. This will include accepting hours at extremely short notice; I have abandoned plans to meet friends after being “asked” with ten minutes notice to teach a class. Even in the periods of “relative cessation of work”, hours are accepted not just in order to be paid but in competition with colleagues to prevent somebody else rising up the (unwritten) hierarchy of who gets offered hours first.

It is important to note both the impact that the alternation of over and under work and the lack of notice over hours has on family life and its disproportionate effect on women. My current boss manages this well but this decency is unique in my experience of EFL teaching. The demand to be constantly available for work and to change plans at short notice clearly undermines family life and makes mothers less attractive employees, this is true of all zero hours contracts and has been noted. Moreover, in EFL teaching the problems for mothers are more pronounced as the period in which the demand for work is highest coincides with the school holidays. The impact of zero hours contracts on families is further compounded by the difficulties that working variable hours presents in claiming Housing Benefit and Tax Credits.

It should be clear that in the allocation of hours school managers have considerable and essentially arbitrary disciplinary power. No school I have ever worked for has had a transparent system for the sharing out of work (both in terms of the quantity of hours and their timing) and in every school I have worked at there have been grumbles (these are almost never taken up with management) of favouritism and rumours (often true) that the teachers getting the best hours are sleeping with management.

The power that management has over the allocation of hours improves profitability largely by keeping costs down, of Marx’s three ways to increase the extraction of surplus value, intensity of labour is increased, a higher proportion of hours for which teachers are paid are dedicated to productive labour (i.e. labour that generates a profit) both because no hours are paid for when teachers are not working and administrative or induction costs are reduced. The disciplining of the labour force through zero hours contracts, however, is not limited to this, they also allow for a greater intensity of labour in other ways and to squeeze more unpaid labour out of workers.

Zero-hours contracts afford considerable power to management which is underpinned by their ability to supervise. A sharp analysis of work conditions in EFL teaching on notes how the proximity of management offices to the teachers’ preparation room undermines any privacy for teachers to talk to colleagues. In many language schools, including my current workplace, the Director of Studies’ “office”- such as it is- is in the teachers’ room. This makes behaviour whilst not being paid to work a factor in allocating hours, it also allows unpaid work to be squeezed from teachers during unpaid breaks as a factor in these hours being offered is a workers’ “attitude”.

In the section in Capital on the working day, Marx discusses capital’s ability to extract surplus value through “additional time…gained by a multiplication of small thefts” from break times and, foregrounding capital’s organisation of time as one of the bases of its profitability declares, “moments are the elements of profit” (p. 352). Marx argues this is well understood by workers and it is certainly well understood by teachers. In language schools, quite often, capital’s sectioning of time operates both against the students and staff. In one school, students paid for three hour lessons which were comprised of two hours forty minutes of teaching (the amount teachers were paid) and a twenty minute break. Management supervision means that a large amount of break times are devoted to talking to students, particularly if a cowardly manager does not wish to tell a student that they cannot change their class level and passes the buck to their teacher, marking work and, often, attending unpaid meetings. Notionally, almost all this work is “voluntary” but any teacher not doing it would rapidly lose hours. These multiplications of small thefts are also supported by a professional pride and care for the students. Teachers are usually keen to help with student problems but this simultaneously extends the extraction of absolute surplus value. Cutting away at breaks extends beyond unpaid help for students, as demands are frequently made that more experienced teachers help new teachers with induction or with advice on teaching, saving staff costs and management time.

The supervisory ability of management extends to supervising the structure of lessons themselves and this underpins the ability to hire inexperienced and cheap teachers., Wwith lessons substantially deskilled what is prized is the generation of affect- it is, of course, slightly less clear what is being produced in the teaching factory than in the sausage factory. At the school where I work the vast majority of teachers hired in the last year have been pleasant women straight off the training course. As well as hiring cheap teachers able to follow a lesson plan and generate affect (for various reasons, mostly arrogance and laziness, there are plenty of male teachers who are extremely poor but very few women teachers) there is a didactic value for current teachers, hiring newly qualified teachers emphasises to us that the school generates five to ten teachers a month who are hungry to take our jobs.

This threat is extended by the fact that most classrooms in most language schools have transparent windows, again noted in the libcom post, this allows “constant visual and audio surveillance” of teachers. As with Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, the point is not just actual surveillance but the internalised self-surveillance that results from the possibility that the Director of Studies or a more senior manager, perhaps showing round potential agents, may look in. Being caught using a phone in this situation (or, as has happened to me, with something odd written on board, or feeding students marmite) is one of the worst things that could happen. This power of surveillance, coupled with lesson plans which account for every minute of every interaction between teacher and class, considerably increase the intensity of work (in one job, I was told teachers had to be on their feet for the whole class). Whilst I have been teaching English, the intensity of labour has definitely increased, in my current job. We have to do progress tests for students every fortnight, previously, whilst supervising the students doing their tests, we had about two hours to catch up on marking or admin (i.e. to do this work whilst we were being paid rather than have it as extra unpaid work) or, instead, read the newspaper. Recently, however, student tutorials have been introduced which must be done whilst the students are being tested. These tutorials also generate further admin tasks and this paperwork further allows management to supervise and evaluate teachers’ performance.

Affective Labour, Surveillance, Anomie

Against Negri and Hardt’s optimism in Empire about affective labour in their argument “the instrumental action of economic production has been united with the communicative action of human relations; in this case, however, communication has not been impoverished, but production has been enriched to the level of complexity of human interaction”, carrying out affective labour under these conditions impacts severely on mental health. Firstly, as we have seen, with the work substantially deskilled and its quality judged almost entirely on the production of affect, it is, to a large extent, the teacher’s emotions and their manipulation that are being observed and supervised. In my last job, I was given no more hours (and it’s worth noting how easy zero hours contracts make it to dismiss staff without going through any proper procedure) after being observed teaching a class on structures to express regrets and being told that my attitude and examples were too negative (I was never told how one would teach a class on regrets without examples that were negative, the deskilling of teaching also deskills the work of observing and training teachers).

In capitalism in general and, in particular in late capitalism, the labour process is supervised in various oppressive ways; however, what is particular about surveillance when on a zero hours contract is the ease with which a worker can lose hours or even their job because of the surveillance process. This being constantly on guard, constantly self-monitoring one’s behaviour and emotions as well as the insecurity contributes to the depressive aspect of the work process. In newspaper columns on zero hours contracts the insecurity they produce has often been noted as has the difficulty in budgeting and planning for the future. However, it is necessary to show that these pernicious emotional consequences are far more deeply rooted in the labour process and the way in which zero hours contracts determine the experience of work.

The ideological background to the argument that zero hours contracts contribute to insecurity and the inability to budget should also be noted, it is ideological both in detaching the experience of temporality which produces insecurity from capitalism itself and ideological and moralistic in foregrounding the inability to be “moral” in a context where good budgeting is held to be at the heart of the ethical life.

The ideological background to the argument that zero hours contracts contribute to insecurity and the inability to budget should also be noted, it is ideological both in detaching the experience of temporality which produces insecurity from capitalism itself and ideological and moralistic in foregrounding the inability to be “moral” in a context where good budgeting is held to be at the heart of the ethical life. On both the right and large parts of the left, budgeting is treated as both an essential component of ethics and the inability (or unwillingness) to budget at the root of poverty. For Iain Duncan Smith, the position is clear, the poor are poor because of their lack of self-restraint and their consequent inability to budget. Therefore, extremely aggressive interventions are demanded to create moral and restrained subjectivities. This is, of course, disgusting nonsense, the poor are, by necessity, extremely good at budgeting, they could not live otherwise. Instead of challenging whether a life of anxious scrimping and saving is a desirable one, the mainstream left response to the centrality of budgeting, has been, simply, to agree that budgeting is morally central but that the poor are incapable of being moral, even down to being cognitively incapable of doing so. Large parts of the left accept, therefore, an extremely dubious set of assertions, that: poverty can only be caused by an absence of morality on the part of the poor, that the ethical life is a life of anxiety and budgeting, and that it is empirically true that the poor cannot budget. The left’s (extremely feeble) defence of the poor leads to policy prescriptions that are supposed to help the poor to be capable of morality, financial education is central to this. Into this framework, the argument that the instability of hours for zero-hours workers makes budgeting difficult fits neatly.

It is true, of course, that insecurity of hours does make it hard to budget. However, over a month this instability evens out to some extent, far more significant is the more basic fact that zero-hours workers are usually extremely badly paid and subject to far more general job insecurity. It is much more useful to treat the question of budgeting as standing in for a far wider inquiry into the anomie generated by contemporary capitalism of which zero-hours contracts are an integral part.

In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Boltanski and Chiapello address the production of anomie by late capitalism. Central here is the relationship between temporality and the individualism underpinned by constant self-surveillance and self-blaming for failure. Boltanski and Chiapello write of anomie, which is “not only as a mechanical result of the growth in job insecurity and poverty, but also as the mark of an elimination of the purchase that people can have on their social environment, with a consequent fading of their belief in the future as a vanishing point which can orientate action and thus retrospectively confer meaning on the present” (The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 421). Boltanski and Chiapello further note that the ruptures (sackings, failed projects…) with the future that are part of this anomie are experienced in an individualised way at the same time as being more and more dependent on chance and out of the control of the worker (“according to the capitalist’s convenience and caprice”), they write, “a rupture in relations, the interruption of a project, are liable to be experienced as a failure…The emphasis placed on the values of autonomy and self-fulfilment, give this failure a personal character. Those who experience such failures bear the whole burden. What is called into question is their ability to ‘fulfil themselves’ in accomplishing any task” (p. 422). These anomie generating features are constantly experienced in zero hours work. Furthermore, the tendency to judge and to remove workers based on aspects of their character tends to integrate the whole personality of the worker (rather than merely their ability to produce commodities) into the labour process and its judgement.

William Davies’s essay “The Political Economy of Unhappiness” provides a useful corrective to Hardt and Negri’s that can further deepen the analysis of the way in which zero hours contracts generate anomie. For Davies, “if ‘immaterial’ labour is now the hegemonic form of production, depression is the hegemonic form of incapacity…In an economy based in large part on services, enthusiasm, dynamism and optimism are vital workplace resources. The depressed employee is stricken by a chronic deflation of these psycho-economic capacities, which can lead him or her to feel economically useless and consequently more depressed” (p. 67). Taking Davies’s argument further backwards, there is an even more vicious circle here: the centrality of affective capacities, in a situation in which they are subject to constant surveillance from management and self-surveillance and the worker is subject to insecure conditions and tired and stressed by having constantly to maintain an attitude of cheerfulness, undermines the capacities themselves, leading then to the situation Davies describes. Furthermore, with the ease of replacing a “bad” teacher given zero hours contracts and the reserve army of labour there is no real motivation for management to invest time, money or effort in helping a depressed teacher. Davies summarises the contradiction around affective labour, focusing on advertising, insecurity, powerlessness. The causes of the contradiction, however, are much deeper than this and much more strongly rooted in the realm of production. As we have seen, Davies writes, “one contradiction of neo-liberalism is that it demands levels of enthusiasm, energy and hope whose conditions it destroys through insecurity, powerlessness and the valorization of unattainable ego ideals via advertising” (“The Political Economy of Unhappiness”, p. 69).

The Spirit of Capitalism and the Working Class Movement

An even weaker version of this contradiction has been offered by Larry Elliott’s and Deborah Orr’s critiques of zero-hours contracts. It is weaker because it is less rooted in the productive process and, even more significantly, presented from the perspective of capital (of zero hours contracts undermining “growth”), For Elliott, the contradiction is between the, often short-term, interest of the individual firm, and the, often longer-term, interest of the economy as a whole, “For the individual firm, cutting costs through zero-hours contracts may make perfect sense. Firms only employ labour when they need it, so that the cost of employing an additional worker is equivalent to the extra output produced. Lower wages equals higher profit, leading eventually to higher investment and an increase in employment. The issue is whether this equation works at an economy-wide level. The Keynesian doctrine is that driving down wages leads either to falling aggregate demand (leading to lower profits and pressure for even lower wages), a higher government bill for tax credits or increased individual debt”. Elliott is certainly correct that there is a contradiction here but by ignoring the productive process itself, focusing merely on wages, which are a necessary form of appearance within distribution, all the aspects of the contradiction, especially the contradiction in terms of temporality explain, cannot be articulated. Furthermore, Elliott’s Keynesian articulation of the contradiction makes a political understanding of its possible resolution impossible.

To address what is at stake here it pays (as it always does) to turn back to Capital, specifically Marx’s analysis of the Factory Acts. Marx writes the Factory Acts “curb the passion of capital for a limitless draining of labour-power, by forcibly limiting the working-day by state regulations, made by a state that is ruled by capitalist-and landlord. Apart from the working-class movement that daily grew more threatening, the limiting of factory labour was dictated by the same necessity which spread guano over the English fields. The same blind eagerness for plunder that in the one case exhausted the soil, had, in the other, torn up by the roots the living force of the nation” (p. 348). What is essential here is the role of the ever more threatening working-class movement which allowed (by forcing) capitalism partially and in a limited fashion to resolve the contradiction between the short-term profitability of individual firms and its long-term interests by forcibly setting (quite minor) limits on the draining of labour power for the majority (some industries were excluded from the Factory Acts) of capitalist firms, the working class movement served the long-term and general interest of capitalism against the short-term and particular interests of individual firms. This is not, of course, to posit a static, permanent and utopian resolution of contradictions. The reconciliation proceeds along the lines Marx describes for the exchange of commodities: developments (for our purposes the Factory Acts and the contradiction between capital’s general and particular interests) do “not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved” (Capital, p. 198). Furthermore, any weakness on the part of the working-class movement allows the contradiction to be resolved differently in a way more amenable to the immediate interests of individual capitalists. Strikingly, if we are considering Marx in relation to Boltanski and Chiapello, Marx also writes that, “nothing characterises the spirit of capital better than the history of the English Factory Acts from 1833 to 1864” (p. 390). As with The New Spirit of Capitalism, Marx’s claim suggests that the spirit of capitalism is always defined as capital’s concessions and co-options of working class resistance. Working class resistance is primary to defining capitalism historically.

The problem for capitalism (in general) is that zero-hours contracts operate- and this is part of their function- quite precisely to undermine the possibility of resistance to its furthering of particular, short-term interests. What Elliott and Orr ignore is that zero-hours contracts stop the working class from saving capitalism from itself. Elliott’s conclusion amounts to an idealist pleading: “zero-hours contracts are the response to tougher conditions facing firms as a result of the financial crisis. Reversing that trend will require more than legislation: it will mean tackling one of the root causes of that crisis: the imbalance of power in the labour market.” . Industrial action has been taken against zero-hours contracts, occasionally by zero-hours workers themselves (Curzon cinemas) but also, as in the Hovis strike, by workers not on zero-hours contracts against the employment of zero-hours workers (here there are parallels with the 1859-60 strike).

However, although the Hovis industrial action is perhaps more typical, industrial action by zero-hours workers against their contracts is extremely difficult and risky. The power management has over workers discussed above extends to a power that militates against worker organisation. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx writes, “this organisation of the proletarians into a class…is disrupted time and time again by competition amongst the workers themselves.” Zero-hours contracts lead to competition amongst the workers themselves in one workplace. In my experience, this mixture of insecurity discouraging any self-assertion from workers either individually or collectively and competition between workers that makes one workers’ loss of hours benefit another worker has often led to colleagues acting in a way that has undermined defence of conditions or challenging abusive behaviour. I nearly lost one job after being the only teacher who objected to the Director of Studies sexually harassing students and receptionists, I later did lose this job after making efforts to unionise colleagues against an illegal £2 an hour pay cut.  Even in my current job where we are much better organised, I know that some colleagues occasionally report what is discussed in teachers’ meetings back to management.

The Minimum Programme of Humanity

This is not, however, the only reason workers’ action against zero hours contracts is extremely difficult. Caffentzis’s argument that the most powerful sector of the working class, “is the one that works with capital of the highest organic composition, for such workers are at the highest technological level and a tremendous amount of constant capital is vulnerable to their immediate action”, suggests that those workers in zero-hours jobs, which, as we have seen tend to be relatively unautomated and with less constant capital vulnerable to immediate action, are less powerful. Furthermore, as well as encouraging competition and backstabbing between workers, the organisation of the production process in EFL teaching and many other jobs in which zero hours contracts are prevalent undermines the creation of friendly relations between colleagues that both make work more bearable and provide a basis for organising.

Brecht describes friendliness as an essential part of any Communist politics and as “the minimum programme of humanity”. Even more importantly, as Benjamin brings out in his commentary on “The Handbook for City Dwellers”, the friendliness even when accompanying harsh conditions, reveals that “social conditions confront man from the outside, as something alien to him”, friendliness reveals the non-identity of a person and their social conditions, it estranges those conditions (Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 64). Friendliness at work, complaining amongst colleagues, low level dodging of work, particularly through the extension of breaks and sharing ways to avoid being caught not doing admin tasks and gossiping about particularly odious students creates bonds and forms of knowledge that deny the totalizing effects of the discipline of capital. They also estrange (in the precise sense of making strange or denaturing) conditions of work by parodying and mocking them. In another commentary, this time on Brecht’s “Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao Te Ching On Lao Tzu’s Way into Exile”, Benjamin foregrounds the importance of friendliness (a friendliness linked to cunning) in Brecht’s Long Revolutionary politics. On the boy travelling with Lao Tze’s summary of the teacher’s discovery, “That yielding water in motion/ Gets the better in the end of granite and porphyry/ You get me: the hard thing gives way”, Benjamin notes the centrality of friendliness, “whoever wants to make the hard thing give way should miss no opportunity for friendliness” (Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 71, 74).

Unfortunately, in EFL teaching as well as many of the other jobs in which zero-hours contracts are prevalent, friendliness between colleagues is made difficult. Some of this is the effect of competition between staff for hours but there are other aspects. Firstly, the primary work relation is not with colleagues, in EFL teaching it is with students, in care work with the people being cared for, in shop or restaurant work with the customer, most zero-hours workers do not form part of a collective worker, further removing them from the power that is described by Caffentzis. Secondly, the supervision of relations between staff on breaks further undermines friendliness. In my current job a number of colleagues have been reprimanded for their “bad attitude” in moaning in break-time conversations with colleagues. This constant supervision of break time activities (even when neither the Director or Assistant Director of Studies is not in the teachers’ room there remains the risk of conversations being reported back to them by other colleagues) also undermines any possibility of more developed organisation or dealing with staff grievances against managers. As union rep I have had to discuss teachers’ complaints about management with them outside of the teachers’ room, often on the wall of an old people’s home or on a bench opposite a police station. Significantly, perhaps, the only job in which I have formed genuine friendships with any of my colleagues was in the job where management was based on a different site. The transience of staff in EFL teaching further undermines the possibility of forming friendships and organising. The difficulty in forming friendly relations with colleagues, as well as undermining the ground for any construction of solidarity further contributes to the depressing aspect (for Davies against Negri and Hardt) of affective labour.


However, despite these objectively disadvantageous conditions for workplace organising we have won some victories. Most significantly, although we are still negotiating the details, all teachers will be offered guaranteed hours contracts after having worked for the school for two months. We also secured pay for all the admin work that we do after threatening to work to rule and only do the one hour of admin a week which we were previously paid. There are various reasons why we have been able to do this and not all of them can be generalised to other EFL jobs let alone for other zero hours workers. One important factor has been that, as happens in a crisis situation, as other schools have disappeared, the school we work at has actually grown and needed to take on more teachers, this has slightly limited the pressure exerted by the reserve army of labour. Also, working in a large company and, it has to be admitted, having a generally decent boss, our immediate management is at least as concerned with the quality of the teaching, especially because better teaching means less work for management, as with the profitability of the company. Furthermore, the extremely contemptuous attitude of more senior management to teachers (we’re told repeatedly, teachers are only a small part of the school’s success) has alienated large numbers of staff.

On the other side, we have had a few teachers who are extremely committed to improve our collective situation which has helped organise other teachers. The more militant members of staff are also teachers who are better established and obviously good and committed teachers, which has afforded substantially more leeway. Also, we have been able to oppose arguments made by management, for example when it was argued that increased profitability was down to the school’s investment in technology, a version of Marx’s argument that “Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value” (Capital, p. 509). Organising has also required, however, a fair amount of soft authoritarianism and cunning to cover over antagonisms, particularly between teachers with and without childcare responsibilities.

There are, therefore, some possibilities of organisation and victories that can be won against the regime of zero hours contracts, these require attentiveness to the concrete situation workers find themselves in and the ability to exploit contradictions that present themselves. They also require, unfortunately, considerable luck. Whilst it is necessary to be aware of opportunities that present themselves and have the presence of mind to exploit them, for many zero-hours workplaces these opportunities will be absent. The absence of these opportunities for the majority of zero-hours workers means that ending zero-hours contracts will require government action, and this action needs to be far in excess of Labour’s pledge to “end the abuse of zero-hours contracts”. Labour’s pledge, focusing on “abuse” suggests, moralistically, that zero-hours contracts in themselves are not necessarily problematic and it repeats the ideological abstraction of “responsibility” (responsible capitalists, responsible workers, as if these existed within the same space) , which in the media discussion of zero-hours contracts excludes the experiences of workers.

Zero-hours contracts cannot be abstracted from the process of production in its totality. If they are, all that is left is moralising and inattentiveness to the political possibilities of resisting the work regime of which they form an important part. On the one hand zero-hours contracts are part of a specific strategy from capital of further weakening an already weak workers’ power situated within their ability to construct a reserve army of labour which is even easier to call upon and even more subsumed under the power of capital than the unemployed. On the other, zero hours contracts enable a far greater extraction of surplus value, particularly in jobs in which mechanisation and productivity increases can do little to improve profitability (although technology is absolutely central to deskilling and supervising work), through increasing the intensity of work and extending unpaid labour time.

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