We should celebrate the ‘work from home’ phenomenon

We will have Wednesday on a Thursday this week, given my detailed analysis of Australia’s inflation data release yesterday. So today I write less here to write more elsewhere and finish with some of the greatest guitar playing you might ever hope to hear. My topic today is the issue of the ‘work from home’ phenomenon, which is one of the better things Covid has produced. I explain why. But I also realise a lot of commentators view the phenomenon negatively. Some on the Left allege it just means the ‘woke’ class have abandoned the low-paid workers to Covid, while those on the Right are aghast because they realise that, at least, some workers have more ‘control’ over their working lives. My view is that we should celebrate the fact that some workers are happier. I don’t accept the argument from the ‘Left’ commentators that every worker should be miserable if every worker cannot be happier.

The so-called ‘two-class state’

I discussed the issue of capitalist control of the labour process in these blog posts:

1. The labour market is not like the market for bananas (August 17, 2012).

2. If you can have full employment killing Germans … (October 28, 2013).

3. Capitalists shooting their own feet – destroy trust and layer management (September 30, 2015).

Radical economists in the late 1960s and 1970s introduced us to the idea of labour market segmentation and how labour market structure, job hierarchies, wage incentive systems and more are used by the employers (as agents of capital) to maintain control over the workforce and extract as much surplus value (and hopefully profits) as they can.

This literature, which influenced the work I did for my Master of Economics Thesis, challenged much of the extant neoclassical (mainstream) literature which had claimed that factory production and later organisational changes within firms were technology-driven and therefore more efficient.

Instead, careful research showed that the mainstream approach could not be supported given the evidence.

The radicals also eschewed the progressive idea that solving poverty was just about eliminating bad, low pay jobs, an idea which had currency in that era.

They showed that the bad jobs were functional in terms of the class struggle within capitalism and gave the firms a buffer which allowed them to cope with fluctuating demand for their products.

It also allowed them to maintain a relatively stable, high paid segment (primary labour market) which served management and was kept docile via hierarchical incentives etc.

Capital used labour market structure to control the extraction of surplus value as the first stage of profit realisation.

The shift from the cottage-based, ‘putting out’ system into the factory system was not because the capitalists had innovated with new technology.

Rather it was a move to ensure the workers were all under the ‘same roof’ using existing cottage technologies in order that the bosses could control the work process more easily and avoid workers not working long enough or skipping town with the working capital that had been provided to the cottages.

The history of labour process organisation is the history of different evolutions of this control function.

The capitalist class had to introduce a control function because they couldn’t trust the workforce to work hard and long enough to generate the surplus production that was the source of capital accumulation and maintenance of the capitalist hegemony

Why is control necessary? The answer is to be found in the observation that the objectives of workers and firms are rarely – substantively – the same.

Marx considered the relations between those who sell labour power (the workers) and those who buy it (the capitalists) to be fundamentally “antagonistic” or adversarial.

We might summarise this basic conflict by assuming that workers will typically desire to be paid more for working less and capitalists want to pay the least for the most flow of labour services.

We could frame this tension in more complex ways and, indeed, Marx and his followers have done that. But for our purposes that basic conflict still pervades labour markets in modern monetary economies and has to be understood.

This is not to say that business firms do not provide good working conditions and seek to reward their workers in many different ways. The point is rather that they do that without jeopardising their control function or their capacity as purchasers of labour power.

Capitalist firms are always struggling to secure surplus value from their workforces and hope that this value converts to profit when goods and services are sold.

The exercise of control in the workplace must elicit workers’ cooperation in the production process but at the same time aims to extract as much from the workers as is possible and pay them the least for it. in other words, the social relations of capitalist production contradictory.

There are several dimensions to this perspective of the labour process, which I cover in the blog posts cited above.

But today I want to focus on a more recent situation that has arisen during the Covid pandemic – the ‘work from home’ phenomenon.

I have seen some rabid attacks on this phenomenon from those who claim to be on the ‘Left’ side of the philosophical and political debate.

All sorts of insulting terminology is used to vilify ‘white collar’ workers who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – the so-called ‘woke’ class.

Apparently, the ‘woke class’ has conspired with governments to feather their nests (by working from home) and protecting themselves from the virus while abandoning the true working class of low-paid workers to keep delivering them food and other goodies, while being exposed on the front line to Covid and the illness and death that it brings.

I find that conception of what has happened rather odd when it comes from commentators who claim to represent the interests of the working class.

There was an article in the Melbourne Age this week – Working-from-home comforts create new class divide (July 25, 2022) – which was written by a conservative councillor in the Melbourne City Council with a background in law.

So not the Leftist ‘woke’ angle I referred to above, but rather one representing small businesses in the Central Business District who run cafes and other shops that service the office workers in the city.

As an elected local government councillor, the author is clearly trying to curry favour with this conservative constituency to get votes at the next council elections.

It is true though that the ‘work from home’ phenomenon has clearly damaged these petty capitalist businesses.

If the offices are empty then the queues to get lunchtime sandwiches at the city shops are short!

But while the narrative presented in that article is from a conservative, free market type, it is substantially the same as that coming from the Leftist woke accusers.

The author claims that Covid has meant “we are not all in this together” because the decision by governments to allow some workers to work from home has created:

… a permanent two-class state made up of those whose jobs can be done by Zoom and those whose can’t.

The author implies also that public money is being wasted allowing public servants to work from home because their productivity cannot be accurately assessed despite workers telling surveys they are now much happier.

The author also tries the usual equity argument, which is the one that the Leftists focus on:

There’s another reason however why we should be worried about making this a permanent feature of middle-class life.

And that’s because it is an arrangement that is not available to the vast majority of workers and never will be.

Since the dawn of the industrial age the rhythm of physically going to work was something that tied together blue and white-collar workers …

But going forward it seems there will be a select class of people who work from home and another class of people who will make and deliver things to them so that they can.

The evidence is that about 25 per cent of workers can actually work from home and that cohort usually holds tertiary qualifications.

The author is affronted by that:

It is remarkable then how few people, including those on the left of politics, are troubled by permanently creating a society where some have the luxury of working from home when most never will …

Let them eat Zoom won’t put food on the table of most casuals though.

Well, a few on the Left of politics have joined her in being affronted.

But I am on the Left of politics and I celebrate the work from home phenomenon.

It is now acknowledged that the ‘work from home’ phenomenon is here to stay despite the best attempts by employers to demand their workers return to the offices.

The state governments are clearly scared of the occupational health and safety implications of forcing workers into workplaces where Covid can spread more easily given the rising infection and death rates.

Workers are also reluctant to return to their old work habits because they fear getting Covid.

But as time has passed the reason for the preference from workers for ‘work from home’ arrangements is clear.

Workers enjoy more flexibility in their time management.

They can balance non-work responsibilities more easily.

The gender divide of work and non-work responsibilities has become more blurred and males, who can work from home, are under more pressure to take on responsibilities that society had previously considered female roles.

Workers feel better having a smaller carbon footprint – not commuting for hours in cars.

Workers can reduce their costs – they can wear ‘trackies’ all day and only put on shirt and tie for Zoom meetings (not giving away any secrets here).

And all the rest of it.

But relevant to the way this blog post began – and the reason the bosses are livid that the governments will not force workers back to the office – is because the control aspect of the labour process has changed.

Capital has now less control over the daily lives of their workers.

They hate that.

Workers now have more discretion.

More flexibility over their time use.

And more.

So it has taken Covid to break some of the control machinations deployed by capital to keep their workforces under the thumb.

We should celebrate that as workers.

As an academic, I am part of the working class.

The so-called professional occupations have always enjoyed better conditions and pay than the so-called blue collar occupations, which have been further damaged by the rise of the casualised gig economy.

Segmented labour markets have always been operating.

So the ‘professional’ workers have always had it better.

But they have also been subjected to control mechanisms by capital which make their lives less fulfilling etc.

For a Leftist to turn around and accuse these professional workers of all manner of awfulness just because they have been able to wrest some control back from capital as a response to the pandemic seems rather odd to me.

It seems to think that the professional occupations are not part of the class struggle as workers.

I am and I always have been part of that struggle.

I fully understand that the pandemic has had uneven consequences for workers across the occupational structure.

Leftists should not interpret that as an attempt by professional workers to abandon their peers in the occupations that have not been able to ‘work from home’.

Rather, we all should be pressuring governments to ensure that no workers loses income because of Covid.

Let’s pressure governments to regulate that no workers who is exposed to unacceptable health risks so that bosses have to ensure their workplaces are as safe as we can make them.

Bosses should be forced to introduce acceptable ventilation systems, provide masks, maintain social distancing where possible, and all the other things that health care professionals advise to minimise the exposure to Covid.

We could structure the working day into segments for those who cannot work from home – to ensure there are less people on the ‘floor’ at any one time.

Some of these remedies would attenuate some of the ‘control’ mechanisms that capital has in place, which would further benefit those workers who by the nature of their jobs had to go into the workplace.

For those who can ‘work from home’ let’s celebrate the modicum of freedom that has brought them.

Music – Grant Green

This is what I have been listening to while working this morning.

Here is – Grant Green – playing the classic – ‘Round about Midnight – which was first released on his – Blue Note label release – Green Street – in January 1961, before I even really knew what Jazz was.

He isn’t a player who would appear on many lists of the most famous jazz guitarists but he is close to the top of my list.

He recorded a massive number of tracks as a session player for Blue Note during the 1960s.

He was initially heavily influenced by none other than Charlie Christian.

He was in the hardbop tradition while at Blue Note, but later branched out in the early 1970s and started paving the way for what we now call Acid Jazz.

Grant Green died at the very young age of 43 in 1979.

Released on: 1961-01-01

Appearing on this track with Grant Green were:

1. Dave Bailey – drums.

2. Ben Tucker – Double Bass.

The song was composed by – Thelonious Monk.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2022 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Headline in the UK Financial Times this morning

    “Lloyds beats forecasts as rates rise”

    “The bank has reported a higher than expected quarterly profit and raised full-year guidance on the back of rising interest rates”

    Now who predicted that I wonder…

  2. I quit my job because of it.

    Novelty at first and great that you didn’t have to sit on an old, cold and wet bus or train first thing in the morning. Dealing with the rush hours on the way back. After 2 years of it, I was using red lipstick to write redrum on the bathroom mirror.

    The lucky ones are the people who enjoy what they do for a living. Everyone else might as well be in the matrix. Office, home doesn’t matter, if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, it is one big struggle that affects other parts of your life.

    I’ve had 2 jobs that I loved doing and 20 years went by in a flash. Rest of my working life, time went backwards, as all I did was lock at a my watch. When you talk to people who are just about to retire their biggest fear is they don’t know how they are going to fill their day. Give it a year and they’ll be telling you there is not enough hours in the day.

    3 day week is the sweet spot. I don’t know why the human race is in such a hurry and at full tilt all the time. Put everyone on a 3 day week. Humans will still get to where they are going so why the rush. It will just take a little bit longer that’s all. A 3 day week would be one giant health spa for humanity.

    Education camps condition everybody for 40 hours. There’s no reason for it, apart from greed and profits for those who set up the education camps in the first place. I’ve yet to listen to a decent arguement why 40 hours is better than a 3 day week. All I hear is complete BS written on a flip chart that reflects a pie chart that is always in a race to be first.

  3. Education camps condition that you work 40 hours to be able to afford a box. In that box you have an alarm that tells you when you have to be awake and when you have to be asleep. Technology within the box repeats 24/7 for the rest of your existence what you can have if you work 40 hours a week. How you should think and live. It is so profound you can now even talk to the technology just so it can reassure you Just in case you are having second thoughts.

    By the time the education camps have churned you through the grinder and you come out of the other side. Thanks, marvellous, great, super, love it, wonderful, of course, yes, Just point me in the right direction, I’ll sign up on the dotted line, What’s next, when’s the next conditioning test to test how dumb I’ve become, University to specialise in groupthink, no problem.

    It’s so powerful we willingly push our children through the same grinder. Don’t even tell them the truth and lie to our own children. As we help them into their own box. Extraordinary behaviour when you think about it. Might of been better to have given our children the heads up instead of asking how they are feeling every time we meet up for dinner. We know how they are feeling we have been through the grinder ourselves.

    You never see a “sit down and tell them the truth about work ” chapter in those how to bring up a child books. Might actually have helped the trade unions and society and humanity as a whole if they did. It’s all about being the best and first at everything. From farting to singing to destroying the planet.

    Just change the 40 to a 24. Get rid of any technology that is designed to tell you how to think. Get out of the box. Crime rates would plummet, NHS would be a different place entirely and rural areas that have always had a rough time of it would be booming. Just by changing a number from 40 to 24.

    Wherever humanity was heading we would get there. At a walking pace instead of using high speed rail. What’s the rush ? Probably need to fix climate change first. If we had walked instead of using high speed rail we wouldn’t be in this predicament. Instead of pushing our children through the grinder and we had all pushed for a 3 day week instead. Things might be oh, so different.

  4. Well, one reason to be against it is that not everyone can have the right conditions for productive work at home, or that physically socializing at work hours is a mental need for others. But that’s not really against it, just more notches on the flexibility scale.
    But there is a bit of a serious one, depending on where you live and what the law allows, that undermines Bill’s argument: digital monitoring by a virtual panopticon, including situations where the boss believes he has nothing better to do than watch camera life-feeds seeing if people look busy. Better stay in the office, then, not that the cameras will be back to off.
    Still not really an irrefutable reason to not doing it at all. I’ve found it mostly comes down to mistaking the left for centrist parties who avoided protecting or helping “essential workers” and small businesses in any sufficient way. But how they leapt back to supporting TINA until the revolution spontaneously appears, I can’t fathom.

  5. Oh well, it looks like we’re living in another transitional era, and with less cheap energy in the forecast it would appear that the value of labor is going up, and the ability of anyone to opt out of working on a job site with others is set to diminish, if we all want to eat that is.
    No point framing our thoughts around the way’s we have worked in the industrial and post industrial ages, because those patterns of activity can’t really exist in the world we’re heading into. Whatever it will become It doesn’t seem likely that we can just electrify our way into any kind of functional replica of past way’s of doing civilization, the energy required to sustain the infrastructure for that won’t be there without the discovery of versatile new sources of abundant, clean energy.

  6. I would not work from home for any employer other than myself.
    Home life for me needs to be completely disconnected from work life.

  7. Prof. Mitchell,
    Sadly a few weeks ago the very great Malagasy guitarist Dedake died aged 53.
    I appreciate that Tsapiky is a different genre to your own music preferences, but nevertheless you may enjoy the following:
    Meiza feat Dedake – Manekiteky 2017 – youtube v=JfKX9kvEtrs
    Dedake – Manekiteky 2009 – v=5R-PnWS_srQ
    Dedake – Moralamba – v=OEMIEhZSxFg
    Another great Tsaspiky guitarist is Damily:
    Damily – Hazo Latsakandoha – v=IHzh5YCCiCs

  8. @Derek, I too loved going to work but was made redundant at 57. But then I lived only a couple of miles away and could go home for lunch to see my doggie (not husband, who was usually at the pub until he lost his fight with cancer at the same time as I lost my job). I now love ‘working’ from home but still miss having colleagues, mostly younger men – lots of fun.
    However, I want to pick up on Bill’s recommendation “Let’s pressure governments to regulate that no workers who is exposed to unacceptable health risk…”.
    I’m particularly concerned about nightwork. I’ve been employing a cleaner for the last year, as I hate regular housework. She was someone I had known for many years and all went well until she took on a carework supervisor job for 3 nights a week (3 nights on, 3 nights off). Very quickly she got ill and became unreliable as a cleaner.
    The last job my husband had was permanent nightwork (4 nights a week) which lasted just over a year before he was made redundant again – involved exposure to some nasty chemicals. From then his mental and physical condition went rapidly downhill. There is lots of research to show that nightwork is dangerous to health.
    I think that people should only be allowed to work for 4 hours at night, so there’s the possibility of some decent sleep, and should be paid at least ‘double-time’.

  9. Dear Kingsley Lewis (at 2022/07/29 at 9:36 pm)

    Yes, Dedake was a great guitar player.

    best wishes

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