Thursday, April 3, 2008

Home is where the heart attack is ...

The Pathfinders column from the April 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is the year 2028. You have just put the kids to bed, and adjusted your ageing parents nightly feed tubes. It is 11.00 pm and you are still wearing the same dressing gown you got up in. You are tired out with looking after the whole family in one flat, and now it’s time to go to work.

You commute 12 metres to your office, where your first holographic design meeting is already underway. You hit the ‘attend’ button and a fresh-faced, sharp-suited, young male version of yourself appears at the meeting. You give your report and take your instructions.

This is not your ‘job’, because there are no ‘jobs’. This is just one of a dozen ‘projects’ you currently serve, each short-term contract found for you by the vast Scout employment network you subscribe to. As projects end, so others must be found, each the subject of heavy competitive bidding. Over years, your rates have been cut and cut. You are working at least 12 hours a day just to get by. You barely see another living soul, outside your family, from one month to the next. You are the most diversely and highly skilled worker the capitalist system has ever produced, and one of the most-overworked.

You are paid by results, so no boss ever needs to watch over you or check your attendance or punctuality. The meetings you attend are not even in real-time. This gives you the flexibility to be exhausted beyond anything a physical workplace would be allowed to tolerate. Soon you will not even need an office, because the office will be inside your head, as all humans will have microchip brain implants, wetware through which your brain can view the world directly and, more importantly, employers and the state can view your brain. The only thing worse than the isolation of your 21st century slavery is a ‘power down’, a sustained cyber-attack which takes out not only your ability to communicate with anyone at all, but your ability to earn and hence your ability to live. The threat of starvation is quite real.

All of this is being predicted now, but for ten years time, not twenty. Home-working is being hailed as the answer to traffic pollution, expensive office-space and heating, and the increasingly complex and fractured work timetables required both by businesses operating in a 24/7 internet environment, and by workers forced by shrinking health provision to take on the care of their elderly and infirm as well as their children (Guardian, March 14). A report produced by the Chartered Management Institute, a kind of employers’ think-tank, lists a number of imminent and desirable scenarios, including mass home-working, project-based multi-employment and aggressive self-marketing, extreme flexi-time, virtual holographic meetings, robot managers, home care of an ageing population, a blurring of ‘work’ and ‘home’, and, on a less gleeful note, the possibility of endemic cyber-warfare.

What’s interesting about this is the spin placed on it by the Institute, which emphasises the upskilling of workers together with their greater flexibility as if these are self-evidently in the interests of the workers themselves. The argument is that workers, being able to pick and choose from a huge, non-geographically based work menu, will be in a position to refuse ‘meaningless jobs’ and ‘will choose ethical careers and not the rat race.’ There is also a lot of reported guff about companies learning ‘to regard wisdom as a valuable resource. Some would try to nurture… rituals and storytelling, and listening to the accounts of long-term employees.’ Managers (not the robot ones, presumably) will be expected to show ‘a greater degree of emotional intelligence… so they can understand how people work and their likely reaction to change’.

In a pig’s eye. What will really happen, if we let it, is this: the global job-market will be matched by a global labour pool, all undercutting each other and desperately vying for ever shorter contracts on ever worse terms, while simultaneously taking on itself the cost of office space, power and heating, formerly borne by the employers, as well as health care for old workers or children, formerly borne by the state. Unionisation, a product of a time when workers physically met together to operate factories, will be made ever more difficult, rights will be eroded, heart attacks and other stress-related diseases due to poverty, long hours, deadlines, isolation and loneliness will rocket, as will antisocial behaviour, binge drinking, drug addiction, depression and suicide. All of this will be unseen and invisible to Health & Safety at Work inspectors, hidden away behind closed doors, the statistics uncollected, uncollated, and unreported. Employers will literally get away with murder.

Conditions for today’s workers in capitalism are not great, even in advanced capitalist countries and even where they are in work. But we can remember the time when we were told energy would be ‘too cheap to meter’ and automation would give us all a problem with how to fill our extensive leisure hours, so we know what such promises are worth. Never trust a capitalist who tells you the future is looking bright, because he doesn’t mean your future, he means his. Things are not so bad for workers that they couldn’t get worse, and extensive home-working, though it might save on car bills, will save employers and the state a fortune by passing costs on to the worker, and in the process creating a workforce ever more fragmented, alienated and easy to control. Looking ahead, ten or twenty years, if one can borrow H G Wells’ Time Machine, the future for workers could be bright, but not as a breed of pasty and enervated hi-tech Morlocks, beavering away in windowless cells to keep the pleasure-loving Eloi in luxury and indolence. For workers to really have a future, they have to stop being ‘workers’. And that means they have to start being socialists.

Paddy Shannon