The worldwide quarantine and self-isolation have given us an unprecedented opportunity to observe how the capitalist system and attitudes towards labor are gradually changing.
The global economy has entered a new reality, with many workers staying at home, and work itself is taking new forms. Investigating the ideas of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, researcher and Strelka Institute alumna Sveta Gorlatova explores how the pandemic is changing the nature of labor, why the eight-hour day will not work in the future, and which groups become the most vulnerable during crises.
The nonsense of working rituals
The pandemic has proven that a lot of companies around the world are in fact able to reorganize their processes to allow for remote work. Meanwhile, the employers that demand their workers come into the office are perceived as socially irresponsible. Under current circumstances, remote work has become an obligatory and often challenging measure that requires radical change in daily routines. Numerous experts have written pieces sharing their tips for remote work. The more these kinds of articles appear, the more there are doubts that every company's employees will be able to successfully and happily adjust to their new work-from-home realities. Recommendations include basic information which is well known to people who have already been working remotely for a while. However, some workers feel confused when faced with working from home for the first time ever. These texts are typically aimed at being encouraging, providing proof that successfully working from home is possible. Nevertheless, they reveal painful aspects of labor and meaningless working rituals. Instead of rethinking the situation, these articles teach us to follow working routines as if we were still in the office. The main motivation behind these texts is employers’ concerns about loss of efficiency—even though no one ever questioned the efficiency of every single worker when they were attending offices. In fact, the idleness of employees is not the root of anxiety; such anxiety is caused by discovering gaps in productivity. Remote work shows that the time needed to complete daily employee tasks can be much less than eight hours.
Instead of sticking to our usual work routines, today we have a great opportunity to modify them. We should take advantage of this moment in time, using it for walking, playing sports, reading, napping, and taking longer-than-usual lunch breaks. We won’t lose our productivity by doing those things, but we will diversify our workdays and make task implementation less stressful. There is no pressure on employees to sit at their desks from 9am to 6pm. The belief that remote workers still need to work eight hours a day to be productive during quarantine is nonsense.
Even though remote workers are expected to maintain the same level of productivity from home, they are still provided with more opportunities for free time. In addition, they are no longer wasting time commuting to and from the office. The neoliberal system believes that free time equates to idleness and must be spent in a productive way. In truth, leisure—just like labor—is an essential right. However, only labor becomes an essential part of our personality, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams wrote in their book Inventing the Future:
Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Work becomes the main source of self-realization, and social importance is determined by a person’s success in their career. This is all incorporated in work ethic which, as Srnicek and Williams say, we must overcome in order to build a post-work society. The authors understand the level of complexity to achieve this goal, because work ethic is part of the culture imposed on us by neoliberalism. It is a difficult task to demolish stereotypes about the demonization of the unemployed, the glorification of labor, and the suffering that often accompanies labor. Still, work ethic partly loses its meaning when a person begins working from home. And this is one of the reasons why during the pandemic many people are struggling with remote work. No one keeps an eye on employees at home and many employees don’t know how to prove their productivity if no one is watching. This can lead to an irrational desire for workers to demonstrate ways in which they are not being lazy. People begin to overwork, trying to finish their weekly tasks in 24 hours. They feel increased anxiety and stress which otherwise could have been avoided. On the contrary, it is better to use this time for revisiting priorities, including physical and mental self-care. It is time for people to give themselves space to understand what defines their personalities when they are not working.
On precarity of labor
The reorganization of working processes from office to home has been one of the less painful forms of self-isolation. The pandemic has revealed the weakest areas in the resource distribution system and hit the most vulnerable groups the hardest. The second form of self-isolation is unpaid leave, another one is cutting wages, and the last is being laid off. Despite the fact that some countries are taking real measures to support their citizens and businesses during the quarantine, people from almost every professional sphere are being let go from their jobs all over the world. The same news that hit the Met Orchestra and Chorus in March, when they were released from their jobs, has become a horrifying reality for employees in all sectors.
As American philosopher Judith Butler says, the virus has made us equal in the sense that we are all in equal danger of being contaminated or losing a loved one. However, remote work is a privilege which is not accessible for those who cannot afford self-isolation. Doctors, couriers, policemen, cashiers—people whose financial situations rely on whether they turn up to work or not—are exposed to daily risks of catching the virus. The capitalist system doesn’t leave them with a choice. All efforts of companies and governments to initiate social policies are not enough. For example, Uber guarantees its drivers compensation ranging from $400 to $1,700 for two weeks if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been ordered by a medical professional to self-quarantine. Amazon is also offering two-week paid leave for its workers who are diagnosed or quarantined. But after that runs out, they either risk their health or risk their job.
A more positive example has been seen in the sex industry in Bangladesh, a country where prostitution is legal. One of the nation’s biggest brothels was closed until April 15 due to the quarantine, and the government is providing sex workers with monetary compensation and food. In some countries where prostitution remains illegal, the public is rallying for the support of sex workers. In New York, a crowdfunding platform has been created to support local sex workers, with more than $131,000 already collected.
Meanwhile, there’s a group which, in a sense, was always self-isolated—freelancers and those working project to project. Due to the pandemic, many projects were canceled or frozen, leading to a loss of jobs for many self-employed people around the world. This reality has especially affected professionals working in the culture sector. Workers in that field are now focused on financially surviving, and are trying to stay active by producing online content. Despite the fact that many national and independent cultural institutions are expanding their efforts to stay afloat, many online cultural initiatives are voluntary. There is also no sustainable system which could support people working in areas where income depends on the number of orders, customers, or projects. The national politics of most states do not prioritize the financial security of citizens—many of whom cannot even afford basic medical service.
All of the above facts show that any kind of labor within the capitalist system and neoliberal ideology is precarious. During any crisis, people are in danger of being left without means of living, and very often they have no alternative income. The existing economic system works against the majority; therefore we need to reorganize it and reimagine ideological settings. In the book Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have established ideas that are becoming more and more relevant today, especially in a moment when economic growth is on pause for an uncertain period of time. Many processes have been suspended, but instead of panicking and demanding that everything go back to normal, we should use this time for reflection.
Future (without) work
Perhaps necessitated self-isolation has made some people rethink their working experience for the first time and reach the point of no return, which sounds something like: “Why am I working?” Existential obstacles become part of the new reality, provoking a search for sense and the nonsense of the existing economic system. Perhaps, this period will be a step to admitting that the social importance of a person lies beyond employment. As the authors of the book wrote: “People must endure through work before they can receive wages, they must prove their worthiness before the eyes of capital.”
How will the pandemic change the way we work? The idea of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams about planetary-scale automation becomes more realistic if we consider that nowadays “last mile no-touch delivery” is in high demand. Some innovations in this direction are already being implemented—for example, drones and delivery robots in China. In the future, if the labor of couriers is replaced by machines, then the risk of contamination will be lower in the case of another pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the implementation of new technologies which exclude humans from the process. Automated economics is one of the demands for post-work society since technological development contributes to human emancipation from hard labor. As the authors wrote, the amount of necessary labor will be decreased. Consequently, the process of automation promotes unemployment—and in the context of Nick Srnicek’s and Alex Williams’ statements, unemployment is our common goal. The means of living in a post-work society are not wages, but a universal basic income (UBI).
Recently, a petition was launched in Canada asking the government for basic income—not only during the quarantine period, and not only for people who lost their jobs but for everyone and unconditionally. The situation which workers are facing during the pandemic is not a single case of injustice, but systemic oppression from capitalism. This oppression affects both marginalized groups and full-time workers from any sphere. That is why basic income has to be sufficient and universal, as the authors write in their book. It should always be part of the welfare state, and not only during a crisis. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams believe that after the implementation of a UBI, labor will become a matter of free choice and the economic dependence on work will disappear. This means that in a future pandemic, there will be fewer people who have to choose between health and income, and self-isolation will indeed become an equal opportunity.
In a recent interview, Nick Srnicek said that the book Inventing the Future is not about how to escape from a job, but how to gain more free time. This could be possible if the working week was shorter. Therefore, if everyone agrees that productive labor fits into a period of less than eight hours, then the amount of working hours can decrease without financial or production loss. As a result, people will have more leisure time which they can dedicate to themselves, to building communities, to engaging with culture and politics. At first sight, it sounds like a radical change of essential order, but in truth, it is a logical action. The shortening of the working day happened throughout the entire twentieth century. The last push for shorter working hours was done after World War II, when the 40-hour workweek was established.
Neoliberal economics is provoking constant anxiety which especially develops during a crisis. Everything that is happening today is reflected in one Instagram post which features writing on a wall in Hong Kong: “We can’t return to normal, because the normal that we had was precisely the problem.” We can’t go back to our workspaces when the outbreak will be over and pretend that nothing has happened. This experience of precarity will be with us forever. The pandemic has shown that capitalism in these conditions has its limits, and it cannot keep pace anymore. Paradoxically, the current situation has connected many people despite their differences. In this sense, humanity has a chance to rethink the economic system together and to develop a universal will to change it. And to make this happen, we might want to seriously consider the future envisioned by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.
Cover image: Robert McCall. Courtesy of the artist