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Self-Sourcing: How Corporations Get Us to Work Without Pay!

Martha E. Gimenez teaches sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The expansion of the capitalist world economy, which accelerated after the fall of the socialist bloc, has produced everywhere drastic changes in the division of labor, occupational structure, and the quality and quantity of labor that is in demand. In the United States, public awareness about the causes of job losses (downsizing, capital flight, offshoring, and outsourcing) has vastly increased since it became widely known that these processes caused the loss not only of blue-collar but also of “middle-class” and “upper-middle-class” jobs; i.e., jobs requiring some degree of education and technical competence.

Politicians, academics, the media, and job seekers focus on downsizing, offshoring, and outsourcing as the main causes of unemployment and declining opportunities, even for college graduates. They neglect, however, the impact of self-sourcing, a term I apply to the complex and relatively unnoticed effects of the radical reorganization of our working and non-working time due to the widespread use of information technologies. In this essay, I will explore the significance of self-sourcing, which I define as the intensification of the process of transferring work from the sphere of production, where it is visible and paid, to the sphere of consumption, where it is invisible and unpaid. This process is not new and it is commonly understood as self-service. It is my contention that self-sourcing signals a qualitative change in the forces and the relations of production, consumption, and circulation, which merits theoretical and empirical investigation.

Self-sourcing is a relatively unnoticed basis for the growth of business profits even as average wages and salaries decline; it is an important contributor to unemployment and underemployment. Consump-tion increasingly requires the performance of tasks previously done by paid workers. Jobs are not disappearing just because of automation, downsizing, and outsourcing; they disappear because they are increasingly done without pay by millions of consumers while the people who previously held those low-paid service and clerical jobs find themselves unemployed and perhaps unemployable.

I first became interested in these issues when, in the mid-1980s, the university where I worked subsidized the faculty’s purchase of personal computers, a practice that still continues. As computers were quite expensive in those days, I wondered about the reasons for the university’s decision. True, computer use enhanced faculty productivity, as word processing accelerated the writing process. Computers were fun to use and quickly become addictive, the source of a new “trained incapacity” which made previous forms of writing seem clumsy and cumbersome.

More importantly, the use of computers changed the organization of intellectual production and the conditions for the reproduction of intellectual labor power. Computers created the need to use them and increased the ability of one person to do many things which, in “the old days,” would have been time consuming and would have required the labor of staff workers. Faculty members were not given paid time off to retool themselves; instead, they spent a great deal of their theoretically “free” time learning new skills and reproducing their labor power at higher and higher levels of competence. Through speedup, they increased their future productivity on a scale that would have been difficult to attain without having access to research funds, research assistants, and secretaries. It also became easier for faculty to use the computer for all the paper work associated with teaching (e.g., bibliographies, memos for students and colleagues, syllabi, letters, book requests, handouts for students, exams, etc.) than to type or write by hand a draft to be typed by department secretaries.

 In the last twenty-five years, computers have become smaller, ubiquitous, inexpensive, and far more efficient. Faculty have become their own typists, secretaries, research assistants, computer experts (to some extent), and webmasters; they hold virtual office hours, teach virtual courses, and increasingly incorporate information technologies in the classroom. The ease with which computers have become integrated in the processes of intellectual production and teaching masks the intermingling between professional and clerical work. The consumption of information technologies by faculty has long-term implications not only for their overall productivity but also for the employment of non-faculty personnel at the university. Faculty have taken on some of the work formerly done by research and teaching assistants, secretaries, typists, data analysts, work-study students, proofreaders, library employees, and others I may not have thought about.

The transfer of unpaid clerical labor to the faculty is irreversible, and its quantity varies with the relative power of individuals and departments. These two kinds of labor, unpaid clerical labor and paid professional labor, are inextricably combined and may not appear as separate domains in the consciousness of most faculty who simply enjoy their self-sufficiency and the ease with which work is done, without reflecting about the kind and quantity of work they do. These observations, which relate the use of computers to a process of speedup or intensification of professional labor via its combination with labor previously done by clerical workers and graduate students in various capacities, might be received with derision, as manifestations of elitism.

What is at issue, however, is not what is proper or improper work for somebody with a PhD, but the implications of these changes for the skills, wages, and employment of staff workers. Speedup for the faculty means that, though their job description does not openly state it, they are now expected to perform a variable quantity of unrecognized and unpaid computer-related clerical labor which expands their working day without expanding their paychecks. Faculty speedup, as well as the speedup inherent in most clerical jobs, also means long-term changes in the employment prospects for people who, given their levels of education and training, can only aspire to middle- and low-level clerical employment.

An examination of self-sourcing in the context of educational institutions is a good starting point for theorizing the nature of this phenomenon. It is, in some ways, an extension of the now familiar practices of self-service and do-it-yourself, and the uncritical acceptance of the work entailed in many instances of consumption. While these practices are not new, in creating the concept of self-sourcing I want to call attention to the qualitative changes in the amount of work required by consumption. Feminists have called attention to the ways capital benefits from women’s unpaid labor within and outside the household.1

Others have written about the increase in household production, where mostly male unpaid labor enters in the process of delivery and assembly of unfinished goods and materials used in building, remodeling, repairing, and so forth.2 But the development of online shopping for goods and services, and online self-management of finances, employment benefits, health insurance, etc. have taken self-service to a different plane. Cumbersome and maddening phone menus were an early stage in the process of replacing the paid labor of customer service employees with standardized information often irrelevant to the callers’ problems. Phone menus are still there but increasingly direct people to Web sites where they can find or do what they need by themselves, without the paid labor of someone guiding them through the process.

I still refuse to get an ATM card, because there are people, mostly working women, who need jobs at the bank; and it is only recently that I learned how to pump gas into my car because I thought the teenager who did it needed the job. Now the service station, recently purchased by BP, charges $2.50 for full-service. But these, as well as the salad bars and self-service supermarkets, are the earliest forms of a process of transformation in the consumption process which increasingly demands more unpaid work from the consumer while jobs quietly disappear. Supermarkets are now diminishing the number of cashiers while replacing them with self-checking machines.

Consumers now work not only as they select their groceries but as they bag and check them out, guided by a creepy mechanical voice that instructs them how to do it in alignment with the machine’s requirements. Self-service check-in machines are not just in the airports (where passengers, after purchasing tickets online, pay for and receive boarding passes from a machine), but in hotel lobbies (where they dispense room keys and can be used by customers to check themselves out), theater lobbies, the post office, and, increasingly, in most settings where consumers do what was previously done by paid workers. The last time I traveled by air, the airline employee wanted me (and other passengers as well) to print the baggage claim and attach it to the suitcase! We, the passengers, had no idea how to do it and we had to complain loudly until someone finally took care of our luggage.

The growth of self-service online transactions covering every conceivable consumer need, the use of self-service kiosks in large, big box stores, and the technological upgrading of self-service everywhere can be experienced as fun and self-empowering. The concept of self-sourcing, however, calls attention to the actual significance of these applications of information technologies; they not only restructure occupations through the blurring of job descriptions but displace paid labor with unpaid labor. The fact that this unpaid labor is, depending on the context, blended in with paid labor (as in the case of teachers), or of such short duration as to be practically invisible, just one more aspect of a pleasurable consumption experience, obscures its significance as a source of profits—corporations and businesses of all sizes save money when they cut labor costs by having the consumers’ unpaid labor replace the paid labor of retail clerks, cashiers, travel agents, hotel clerks, bank clerks, etc. While the unpaid labor time of each consumer is minimal, adding up the unpaid labor time of millions of consumers yields substantial cuts in labor costs for businesses, who see their profits grow through their appropriation of unpaid consumption labor.

It may be argued that the lost jobs, which are generally low-skill, low-paid jobs, should not be saved, and that automation opens up jobs with higher skills and better pay. Those better jobs, however, are usually beyond the skills of those who self-sourcing technology replaces and a large proportion is likely to be outsourced to countries where labor is cheaper. While the process of self-sourcing is irreversible, it should not be accepted uncritically. Self-sourcing is an important aspect of the “hollowing out” of the job market, which entails the creation of jobs at the top and the bottom of the occupational structure, while the jobs in the middle are increasingly outsourced, or self-sourced.

Consumers do not know that they are doing more than just consuming goods and services: they are working without pay, entering into relations of circulation and distribution independent of their will and outside their consciousness of themselves as free, self-empowered consumers. If the trend of the future is, as Scott Burns suggested, for consumers to do more of the producers’ work, it is important to raise awareness of the productive moment of consumption or “productive consumption.”3 While it might provide “middle-class” consumers with great satisfactions, it turns them into a vast reservoir of unpaid workers who contribute to capital accumulation while consciously reproducing themselves as consumers and objectively reproducing themselves as unpaid workers. At the same time large numbers of working-class people fall between the cracks of the system, condemned to menial, poorly paid jobs, permanent underemployment, or unemployment.

1. See, for example, Nona Glazer, “Servants to Capital,” Review of Radical Political Economics 16, no. 1 (1984): 61–87, and Martha E. Gimenez, “The Dialectics of Waged and Unwaged Work,” in Jane L. Collins and Martha Gimenez, eds., Work Without Wages (New York: State University of New York Press, 1990).
2. See, for example, Scott Burns, The Household Economy (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1977).
3. For an illuminating discussion of the dialectical relationship between production and consumption see Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 193–99.