Feeling like work after the pandemic...
Feeling like work after the pandemic... ferrantraite/gettyimages.com

A few days ago, Bloomberg posted this story: "Employees Are Quitting Instead of Giving Up Working From Home."

Though much of the evidence for this development is still in the woods of the anecdotal, a survey has found that 39% of the people working from home during the pandemic "would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work." This is a figure with world-historical significance. It shows that we are in the midst of a shift into another order of work, at least as far as white-collar jobs are concerned. A good grasp of this shift will not be obtained, however, if the temporal distinction between the work before and after the pandemic is missed.

Indeed, this is the key finding of the COVID-19 Mobility Survey conducted by the University of Washington and the Puget Sound Regional Council:

A study by the University of Washington that sampled hundreds of people in the Puget Sound region last year revealed people working from home felt more productive without a commute, with fewer interruptions from co-workers, found that the time increased by the sharp reduction in spatial expenditure (or commutes) resulted, among workers, in a sense of greater productivity.

What has the post-pandemic worker realized? "I have more time because I am not commuting."

All of this brings up an issue that was at the forefront of the labor movement until the 1970s: the working hours.

Between the factory regime of the Victorian moment and the Great Society program of the American moment, the hours of work had in fact been declining. The reasons for this line of historical development were, however, not straightforward and also contradictory.

On one side, you had capitalists making greater and greater investments in labor-saving technologies because of increasing labor militancy and rising wages that claimed more and more of their culturally determined profits (or socially necessary labor time). On the other hand, you had labor demanding more free time—and free time in a capitalist society is nowhere close to cheap. You must pay a lot to be free—those sleeping in RVs or in tents around Seattle are rawly aware of this fact.

If workers are to remain in a system with expensive freedom, this can only mean working less for the same or higher wages. The labor march in this direction only came to an end in the 1970s. In that decade, the working week hit the limit of 40 hours and, in the US, has remained there ever since. Why?

The main reason is the rise of neoliberalism, which is often considered an economic project, when in fact it was nothing more than class one. Neoliberalism was comprised of governing principles whose final purpose was to check worker militancy, which, as the American historian Thomas J. Sugrue explained in his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, did not end with the start of the Long American Boom in 1947. Neoliberalism reaffirmed the class character of capitalism by reinstating expensive free time.

Support The Stranger

The pandemic made clear to many that the working hours and productivity were not linked by nature but by culture (that is, socially necessary labor time). The issue then was not economic growth as some kind of organic conatus but the perpetuation of a class system that made life expensive for class-based purposes.

As the economy reopens, we will see more people checking out of the system because new tools for cutting the costs of free time were developed during the pandemic, and because the roots of the neoliberal class project has run out of steam (the roots of Bidenomics).

For an explanation of the first, I recommend reading my post, "What a Year of Lockdown Tells Us About the Nature of Human Time;" and for the second, Cédric Durand's post, "1979 in Reverse."