Thursday 28 May 2020

Capitalism and the Death of the Office

Famously, Karl Marx didn't have a lot to say about the future. He certainly plotted trends and made perceptive forecasts, but what the new society would look like was left blank - a matter for the generations to come to determine. Yet someone with his literary sensibility could not avoid the odd flourish, and one of his most famous addressed what might pass as working life in a world after capitalism:
For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. (Private Property and Communism, The German Ideology)
This is work but not as we know it, of labour reimagined as pleasurable activity or, to be more accurate, work divorced from necessity. By necessity we mean economic compulsion, the brute reality of having to sell our time to work under the direction of someone else to buy the means of life. While there will always be work in the sense of productive activity, it does not have to assume exploitative forms nor be organised by tyrannies of unaccountable power. It can be different, but that requires a necessity of its own - an economic life beyond capitalism.

This is why material pumped out by sundry capitalists and managerial cadres about the workplace of the future is so interesting. Not just because they summarise contemporary trends, but because of their contortions around and erasure of exploitation and power. Even when their account is sprinkled with empowerment and messages that might, in isolation, be considered progressive.

A recent example of this comes from the tablet of Brianne Kimmel, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist by way of The Graun. Her article boldly announces the obsolescence of the office and the coming of a world that is more communal and, crucially, more productive. The coronavirus crisis has certainly compressed about a decade's worth of trends into an incredibly short space of time - for instance, teaching at our place and the rest of its administrative work moved online pretty seamlessly because, like most other organisations, digital mediation was already embedded in the culture. And thanks to the likes of Zoom and, in our case, Microsoft Teams the never ending rounds of meetings made the jump too - for good and ill. With bosses across the world noting the same thing without an appreciable drop in productivity, they're eyeing up their estates for big cuts.

In her reflection on the death of the office, Kimmel reads more like a critical sociologist of work than an investor. She argues the attachment to the workplace cannot simply be replaced by an online toolkit, the problem is work culture itself. I'm listening. She says the attachment to work as the source of our identities, the expectation we sacrifice so much for it, and move to be near it is toxic (or "degenerative" as she puts it). And how one is perceived by co-workers depends not on the quality of what is done but their visibility in the office - what they refer to in the US as face time. But much of it is an illusion, a simulacra of work. How much office time is spent looking at stuff on the internet that isn't work?

Face time is also the axis around this workplace oppression can turn. It upholds certain expectations about appearance and attitudes based on them, which can slide easily into racism and sexual harassment. One of the advantages of going digital is these standards change. The Teams meeting with its webcam windows of varying quality is a great leveller. Therefore, if work is proceeding without the face time culture then surely the office should become an optional place of work, allowing the rest of us more time for what really matters. As she puts it, "A world where the office is obsolete is more positive, more communal and more productive. It’s one that reconnects us with our neighbours nearby and grounds us in personal principles rather than professional achievements."

Welcome aboard the the struggle to end struggles, comrade venture capitalists? Not quite. Kimmel's critique reaches into the tradition of what Ralph Fevre calls sentimental individualism, a tradition complementary with but often opposed to cognitive, or rational choice/economic individualism whose credo informs the propagation of neoliberal selfhood. Why then is she and the strata of capital Kimmel is from happy to see the upending of traditional patterns of work? It's about the class interest, stupid.

The death of the office is accelerating the disarticulation problem Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri identified in their Empire trilogy. That is throughout the history of capitalism, the production of surplus value and, therefore, profits has depended not just on the compulsion of economic necessity but of bringing workers to a place of production where their labour can be supervised and directed by the owner of capital and/or their representatives. The emergence of immaterial labour and its becoming increasingly dominant erodes traditional management practices because, for one, the basic force of immaterial production is the knowledge and social aptitudes congealed in human brains. It doesn't own it, which means it becomes increasingly difficult for capital to control it. Hence practices like face time, performance reviews, laborious inductions, and the vast scale of social (subjectivity) engineering workplaces and our societies more generally engage in.

But Kimmel and friends want to blow all that up. Where do they come into things? The vectors of their profit making course through circuits of exploitation that doesn't hold back but facilitates new avenues of social production. Consider her own position as a so-called "angel investor", someone who will invest in the kinds of projects few others are prepared to touch. They stump up the capital and, in return, usually take a stake in the nascent start up. So far, so standard. However, the sorts of businesses Kimmel finds attractive - as you can see from her website - are tech and the social media adjacent. And they, in turn, run according to rentier models. They provide the space, bits of infrastructure, and new ways of analysing data and make their money - sometimes at quite a remove - from the users who flow through the applications, websites, and social media platforms they service. And this, in turn, is dependent on advertising. Therefore, the more people abandon the traditional office and move online, the larger the market to provide tools to make that experience easier, and the more time for casual browsing - face time is replaced by internet time, and the greater the overall trove of data capture from both for fine grained advertising. The content we provide then, the very stuff of our lives is mined and chopped up. We get to use their services for "free", and in return they harvest huge agglomerations of data for massive profits. The escape from the office means the axis of exploitation shifts. The digital imprint of our soul stuff is up for rummaging.

This emergent form of capitalism, variously described as platform or cognitive capitalism has accelerated during the coronavirus crisis, and what might emerge at the end is a formally freer, less overtly exploitative, and more convivial capitalism, but capitalism nevertheless with its rich and poor, its old and new configurations of alienation, and the same crap repackaged. The social media giants grow larger, the dependence of the social on the digital as essential infrastructure grows, and the economic power and reach of the tech savvy bourgeoisie, to borrow one of their favourite phrases, scales up. The end of the office is certainly a revolution of sorts, but falls far short of a real leap to freedom.


Graham said...

Much office work comprises of "bullshit jobs" - sending emails to one another and producing endless KPI reports on the labour of those doing actual labour.
The current crisis has shown the difference between critical workers doing real work and those "working from home".
The death of the office is likely to expose the unproductive nature of much office work.

Anonymous said...

Another good morning read- thanks for all the good articles over the years -and, best lock down reads.

Jamie Potter said...

Thank you for articulating some criticism to the push for more homeworking. I also share some anxieties around it, such as the cramped living conditions that many of us endure, the blurring of the lines between home/work, as seen in reports that people are now working additional hours from home, not to mention a sense that working from home further divides us from our colleagues, which must have some impact on workplace organising? (I'm not sure on that last point). I totally appreciate how it can be positive: I used to work from home a day a week when I had an awful, awful long distance commute and it helped, somewhat, with my sanity, while my partner has *had* to work from home to look after her daughter, but the general leap towards it being something excellent feels somewhat short sighted.