The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for a lot of changes in our society and economy. One of the most striking in the lives of many middle class workers is the advent of working from home. Rather like 3D films, it’s a technology that has long been available, and was supposed to revolutionise work ages ago. The term for it — “telecommuting” — sounds hopelessly clunky, and conjures images of an ’80s film reel of big hair and copy machines with a voiceover explaining how we would have a fully holographic office by the year 2000. Although email, mobile phones and video-conferencing transformed the modern office, there was no great exodus from the workplace. Remote communication caused work to interrupt home life, but employers preferred to keep workers where they could be “managed” and monitored to maintain productivity.
That experiment failed — with a vast number of studies demonstrating that white-collar employees only spend a fraction of their daily hours working — but with few motives on either management or employee side to cut hours or work remotely. Office workers rightly believed that their job security and future raises and promotions relied on the appearance of diligence, and by building relationships with others in the office. The lower costs in terms of both transport and office space have always been outweighed by a workplace culture that rewards performative effort and loyalty to the group.
Covid changed all that, finally emptying out offices and forcing many firms to adapt to remote working. Everyone seems to believe that remote working is here to stay. Whatever its drawbacks (and we’ve all experienced them on zoom calls) it works well enough that cost-cutting firms will see it as a viable model, at least for substantial portions of their employees.
In a context of artificial abundance, natural appetites lead people to destruction
Without the pressure of bosses and colleagues pacing behind you as you work, many have been discovering just how little time their job actually requires. Some might see this as society going soft. After all most workers used to be in factories not offices, and many would work solidly for ten hours or more, not the leisurely 9 to 5 with time for idle web browsing. If we go back further we find something interesting: time spent labouring starts dropping off prior to the industrial revolution. In subsistence farming, the majority occupation for most human beings since the invention of agriculture, there’s a shocking amount of time off. Yes, there are times such as harvest where very long and intense labour is required, and yes, these were not easy lives. But work was shaped by necessity, not the profit motive. This is the difference.
In the 1930s the economist Keynes predicted that we would move in time towards a 15 hour working week: as labour became more productive, more leisure time would be freed up. It’s a nice idea, and as our framework for labour changes again, it beckons seductively. But we need to think carefully about just what we mean by work, and by value.
One reason that peasants didn’t work long hours every day is the brute reality of calories. Subsistence farming was not always efficient, and famine was common. In the winter months, and times of food shortage, you would try to move and eat as little as you could — it’s a basic instinct. Peasants were often taxed through their labour and had obligations to build and maintain roads and bridges, as well as other improvements such as canals and irrigation systems. Much of what we call civilisation has been an exercise in liberating productive labour for tasks that go beyond the struggle to survive. Craftsmen produce things of both great practical benefit and tremendous beauty. Musicians, dancers and actors entertain us. Architects and stonemasons construct grand and lovely buildings. Thinkers and writers deepen our understanding of the human condition.
The Greeks understood this division well: there was the oikos — the household — which gives us our modern “economy”. This was a sphere of necessity, for production and reproduction, which sustained the polis — meaning city — and the higher collective purposes of the political community. There was labour one did out of necessity, to maintain your and your neighbour’s existence, and there was labour dedicated to religious or political ends, something that today we would think of as vocation. The Greeks also grasped the potential confusion of the two concepts, with the attendant risks. The exchange of goods, of surpluses of labour and commodities, was inescapably necessary, but the logic of commerce threatened to corrupt political life into the accumulation of power, wealth and luxury.
Plato identified the chief villain in this political drama as the figure of the sophist — a figure who is hard to translate into modern terms, but was essentially a person who sold speeches. Acting as something like a speechwriter, a lawyer, a tutor and a spin-doctor, sophists would lend their rhetorical skills to whoever could pay. The sophist effectively debases the rational and ethical concepts he plays with to serve the ends of material self-interest. The polis was, for the ancient Greeks, founded on mutual material co-operation; human communities exist to aid survival. From that origin, higher ends are revealed: ideals of justice, goodness, aesthetics, piety and compassion. Crucially this form of community, and the labour associated with it, is defined and limited by the demands of necessity. At the mercy of natural forces, labour takes on a rhythm and an order dictated by the seasons, one that works in harmony with the human psyche, producing what the Greeks considered natural virtues of temperance, prudence, courage and justice.
As societies become more complex and start to free themselves of the bounds of necessity, all that changes. The appetites and urges that cause people in an environment bounded by natural restraints and obstacles to prosper and survive, lead them to destruction in a context of artificial abundance. Although this more obviously applies to modern consumption, it equally applies to the other end of the equation, modern work. What we fail to realise about the subsistence farmer or herdsman, is that he is enjoying neither work nor leisure in our terms, but rather is doing what is needful at all times, whether that’s ploughing a field, feeding his body, or for that matter sustaining his soul.
Modern work and modern leisure are designed to keep you grinding away, never satisfied, never still, never finished
In the modern world we are constantly pushed to excessive appetites, not only through artificial overabundance, but also artificial shortage. Whilst material goods are abundant, our time is segregated and rationed by work. The vast world of costless entertainment and activity represented by the free association of communities, friends and families is compressed and taxed both by the time demands of work and the mounting costs of homes, transportation, food and even public space. The worlds of work and leisure alike make unlimited demands and encourage unlimited desires.
Working from home may represent a step towards putting work back in its bounds, allowing us to contribute to the national economy whilst taking care of children, being a part of our local communities and developing ourselves in any number of ways. But we are naïve if we think it answers the fundamental problems: working remotely can easily mean never leaving work, and feeling a constant sense of anxiety — you always could be working on the next task in a spare moment.
It’s easy to convince yourself in such contexts that it’s the duty of the individual to impose limits on their work and their time, their appetites and anxieties. We fail to see both what is missing, and what is poisonously present. As to the latter, modern work and modern leisure are designed to keep you grinding away, never satisfied, never still, never finished, because they are all subject to the capitalist profit imperative of limitless expansion. What we lack is the contrary forms of work and leisure, those that traditionally existed and still persist in many areas. The village dance or a football match of an evening did not (and do not) make anyone any real money; they exist to serve the needs of the people engaged in them. They are limited by tradition and practicalities, but most of all their limits arise from the co-operation of the group. The informally organised non-commercial pastimes of small communities naturally engage the participants in the common good, opening up further relationships and opportunities. The more you get involved, the more you get out of it, the more you perpetuate traditions and pastimes. The logic of free association is not so different from the practical wisdom of local economies.
In both our working and non-working lives, we must find ways to free ourselves of the logic of endless production and consumption, and look instead to the economies of maintenance, repair, craft, vocation and service. Attendant to these must be a recovery of our leisure time as political, as having a point, a meaning. Moments of technological and social change, such as the one we are currently experiencing, represent windows of opportunity where we can choose to do things differently. We have to seize this moment to assert the human scale, the primacy of caring and sharing over consumption and production, or we risk an even greater monopolisation of our lives and time with the demands of the self-perpetuating machine of profit.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe