Working from home

IF THE TRANSITION TO mature industrial society entailed a severe restructuring of working habits—new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively—how far is this related to changes in the inward notation of time?

Asked E.P. Thompson in the extremely famous journal article Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, and his answer (to spoil a half-century old social history argument) was 'quite a bit, and also Methodism'. Of course he was interested, in a very Sixties way, with the prospect of a future with much more leisure time, and would have been surprised and disgusted at this terrible future, in which bosses want working-from-home employees to install spyware Bundy clocks on their personal computers, in case any worker should try to cheat the clock looking at recipes or Ask Metafilter on company time. So should we be, and it should be our communal hope that loathsome over-the-shoulder Gradgrindery is abolished.

That our culture of work urges us to be more productive and not let a little thing like pandemic isolation stop the workflow, as the bodies pile up, should point out to anyone that something is very, very wrong with our system.

This moment of massive traumatic social change is upon us. Those of us who don't work in Health have little to do with our hands but the work we had (or didn't have), and we can't turn back time: all we can do is try to be aware of the alterations to our experiences of work, who have had our routines severely affected. Most of all, when we are presented with yet another Thinkpiece advising on How To Be Productive At Home or some such Shit, reject it utterly as the Puritan inheritance—as E.P. Thompson said, consuming time with 'restless urgency'—that it is. I can think of a number of variations of how white-collar workers deal with the question of time discipline. They are all bad.

First, the interior self-discipline of the white-collar clerk, for whom a routine is the key marker of self-identity. Commute, coffee, arrive, lunch, timesheet, go home. You will notice that most of the advice given to newly Working From Home people aims to replicate the structures of commuter labour, between bed and home-office. It's pretty civilised, except when it isn't, like when your boss wants to bill your domestic hours and know how often you visit your own toilet, or when it forms the framework of a greater hypocrisy. Think of Michael Douglas as D-FENS in Falling Down, who without bourgeois pillars of a family and a desk reverts in a morning to the bloody, hateful, brute state of nature (or was the whole society hateful all along)? What horrors of working life are you being asked to bring home and set up on the dining table?

Second, the Zen time-discipline of the prisoner, for whom today is exactly like yesterday, tomorrow will be exactly like today, the day after tomorrow too far to think about, freedom at once imminent and unimaginable, and the sentence itself a defined stretch of who cares? I once had the experience of being in prison described to me as 'not so bad, if you keep your mouth shut, mind your own business, and never think about time'. Michel Foucault could not have put clock-watching more tritely.

Third, the American boot-strapping individualist ethos that treats the self as a factor of production in its own right, for whom all the trappings of motivated self-organisation (from to-do lists, to filing systems, to Pomodoro sprints, to yoga breaks, to attitude, all the way to psychoanalysis) as elements of a completely commodified and marketed identity. Like in Orwell's cold war parable, the animals looked from person to brand, from brand to person, and they ceased to distinguish between them. If your identity is so consumed with your saleable self I pity you.

Fourth, the time indiscipline of the student or the casual academic. Everyone knows the actual time and pay structures are a joke, so the casual tutor, with reason, treats them with elevated contempt, and aims instead to do a good job. This is how otherwise highly intelligent and self-aware people end up working forty hour weeks for four hours' pay, and feel bad for it. Don't be like this, or ask others to be.

Obviously this is not exhaustive and is not a Mao-like list of Errors Of Liberalism. There will be future time-disciplines and we can only hope that they are better. We can only home they are more human, and with fewer timesheets.

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