Hegel and Netflix

Alex Taek-Gwang Lee

May 26, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic was not a crisis of capitalism. Instead, it compounded problems within the present regime of accumulation. The precarious status of essential workers, regardless of their living condition, has worsened. In contrast, unrestricted capitalist accumulation in valorizing the market above everything else has been more efficient and has exacerbated social inequality. These contradictory consequences of the pandemic situation prove that the nature of capitalism does not need workers for its completion. The pandemic serves as not so much the end of capitalism but as another moment to sustain its paradox. Digital platforms play a central role in inaugurating the possible future of a workerless capitalism—from workplace technologies to Netflix.

What is being observed at the moment is the traumatic experience of capitalist restructuring. Some critics take the concept of the “shock doctrine” to explain how capitalism survives through the disastrous process. Naomi Klein’s theory of the shock doctrine, her critique of the Chicago School, assumes that “the human cost of shock therapy” is tactically designed to control the working class.[1] The ground of the shock doctrine is undoubtedly the human’s psychical realm and essentially requires production’s social relations. However, the current prevalence of disaster capitalism seems to achieve its culmination by erasing the working class’ presence. This does not mean the removal of workers but the modification of work as such.

This transformation dramatically evolves into the idea of mechanical management based on surveillance technology in this pandemic. In other words, the mechanization of work, the perversion of Taylorism, reconstructs the labor force’s fundamentals and drives each worker to be a part of the mechanism. The financial bull market on technology investment precipitates this shift further and reformulates the distribution of labor. I would call this inversion of capitalism the very essence of “pure capitalism,” i.e., the “free” economic system that encourages individuals’ voluntary competition to produce and trade without government intervention. It is not easy to determine where administrative interference could engage the system if the workers have no human management. “My Boss Is Not Human”(我的领导不是人), an article recently published in Caijing, a Chinese economic magazine, demonstrates how this mechanical surveillance reorganizes the workplace.[2]

According to the report, many Chinese enterprises have adopted artificial intelligence for more efficient and standardized management. The new system works with more than 20 surveillance cameras all over the workplaces and records every worker’s behaviors and activities. An electronic roll call at the entrance is necessary to identify each person and monitor the group. This algorithmic scrutiny, the mechanical transformation of all human actions into data, totalizes the whole process of work like a single machine. The monitoring camera transcribes workers’ performance per second, and the central operating system checks up its efficiency. Each component is designed as a prescribed processing time by the algorithm, and the Intelligent Task Distribution System will recognize and facilitate the due sequels of the worker’s actions. The electronic time attendance system refines the check-in procedures previously set at the company gate. Workers must swipe their cards if they leave the workplace. If they are absent at their seats for more than 15 minutes, the recorded data will be submitted to the central operating system, and the sum of the salary will be automatically deducted at the end of the month.

My point concerning this Chinese version of Taylor’s scientific management does not lie in the fact that Orwell’s imagination of Big Brother has come to be realized, but rather the aim of the administration is to modify the human behaviors for the algorithmic mechanism. There is no such a thing as Big Brother but there is a technological stupidity that seeks to control workers by simplifying their actions.

Any digressive and unpredicted move is discouraged by these processes. However, the workers follow the rules, not because the system tightly governs them but because the norm of the new scientific management, i.e., the command of the mechanical surveillance, forces them to obey the axioms of the mechanism. Therefore, the algorithmic organization of the workplace is not a crucial factor in new forms of management. The problem is that there must be an invisible decision-maker behind the automatic system in solving any accidental and unpredictable outcome, even though the algorithmic mechanism operates without the presence of the human boss in the venue. The void of the surveillance, i.e., the subjective articulation, is always already included in the mechanism and preserves the locus of resistance. The way we passively respond to these new algorithms can oddly be illustrated through our experiences of watching Netflix.