One of the supposedly wonderful things to emerge from our extended pandemic lockdown has been the realization that a great deal of the work done in offices can be done at home. This flexibility has been greeted by many employers with open arms.
Mark Zuckerberg has indicated that he intends to transition more than half of his employees to permanent remote work and it’s no surprise that many businesses are wanting to take these “reforms” much further. The cost of maintaining real estate can now be liquidated for capital and this should lead us to question whether this familiar Silicon Valley rhetoric of “liberalization” and “progress” is concealing whose flexibility and convenience is really at stake.
Alain Badiou has argued that this discourse of 'modernization' often masks a “strict and servile definition of the possible” wherein 'reforms' “aim at making impossible what used to be practicable (for the largest number), and making profitable (for the dominant oligarchy) what did not used to be so”. For instance, the mass privatization of major industries and the castration of labor unions would have been unthinkable before the supposed ‘modernization’ of the 1970’s. This language can be used to make what seems now to be “impossible” very realistic and what now is eminently possible — somewhat consistent and stable work — seem eventually unrealistic. Is this the case when it comes to our post-Covid working arrangements?
Like all disastrous changes to our working lives, these new changes will inevitably be sold as a privilege, but it’s unlikely that workers will benefit from the increased productivity and profits they provide for their employers. 12% of US workers indicated that they did not like the idea of working full-time from home. As much as we pretend we hate spending most of our working lives with an arbitrary set of co-workers we may or may not like, it seems we unwittingly appreciate interacting with people in the flesh.
This observation echoes Guy Debord’s warning that "behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other". Our working lives have slowly become atomized over the past few decades and every ‘new’ choice or development conveniently happens to alienate workers from one another.
Of course, it’s in the material interests of an owning class to prevent workers from spending too much time with one another. This is evident in inconspicuous developments like the office cubicle but most presciently in casualized working arrangements. Shifts are chopped and changed at an employer’s whim so that workers don’t get too familiar with one another – a necessary precondition for mischief like effective unionization. Although it’s important not to idealize the Fordist world, it is equally important to acknowledge that the solidarity of shared shop floors, common factory projects or even shared office spaces helped ward off loneliness, alienation and isolation.
Another insidious possibility latent in the post-pandemic turn to remote work is the proliferation of surveillance technologies currently being introduced by employers. The pandemic has brought about a skyrocket in demand for software like InterGuard, Teramind, innerActiv and Hubstaff as bosses seek to monitor employees keystroke-by-keystroke or minute-by-minute.This technology allows employers to access productivity metrics displaying how many emails workers have sent or how many minutes they have spent away from their computer screens.The most disturbing aspect of this is that it takes place in one’s own home, a personal space that is meant to be immune from the colonization of work. Even the much-beloved Zoom included a feature that alerted hosts when employees navigated away from the app for over thirty seconds. The feature was discontinued after significant public outcry. It may be a bridge too far now, but in the future it may not be.
None of this is entirely new. Mark Fisher points out that “as soon as there is email, there are no longer working hours nor a workplace”. Fisher asks “what characterizes the present moment more than our anxious checking of our messages, which may bring opportunities or demands (often both at the same time)?” Short-term contracts and the slow elimination of permanent employment has left the wellbeing of workers in the hands of their employers’ unaccountable impulses. Consequently, how we respond to the opportunities or demands lying in those emails determines our status, which, “like the stock market is constantly under review, never finally resolved”. Gone are the days when I could sit at work constantly refreshing the Jacobin website.
Many employers will point to evidence that workers are more productive than ever working from home. However, it seems more likely that this is just another example of the tired neo-liberal promise to eliminate regulatory intervention or mediation which has always, in the end, been mythological. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher argues that the desire to measure unquantifiable labor has led to an auditing culture in which “layers of management and bureaucracy” aim at “massaging… representations” rather than the actual goals of work itself. The focus on “keystrokes” and time spent at a computer exacerbates the proliferation of symbols and simulacra of achievement rather than achievement itself.
It’s difficult to see how workers will be able to resist the imposition of this panopticon of invasive technology without a new suite of regulations. Unionization is already difficult in an atomized workplace, but workers interacting almost exclusively through the mediation of apps like Microsoft teams will find unionization almost impossible. Organizing and collectively bargaining to improve working conditions, or simply to protect privacy, will become far riskier.
Employers may prefer to avoid the costs associated with permanent office employees and transition to a model where a “reserve army” of precarious and insecure independent contractors compete for white collar work. Under the guise of flexibility, we could see a move towards the “uberization” of all forms of white collar work. For a long time, office spaces seemed like they were sealed off from the normalization of uncertainty and the constant state of low-level panic and generalized anxiety associated with precarious work. It seems closer now than ever.
Clearly, none of this is inevitable but we have to be aware that rushing into these changes could open up the possibility of working conditions we do not want or a complete erasure of the distinction between work and leisure. Flexibility on workers’ terms is desirable but a “flexible” model imposed upon a mass of disorganized employees without representation, without choice, and without security would be a catastrophic blow to the lives of working people.