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As the world of work dissolves

One positive change in the default world that may come as a result of quarantine is the dissolution of the barrier between home and the workplace. Now that many people are working remotely all of the time, whereas before they would do so either as a luxury or a necessity or not at all, the fallacy of the distinction between work and home, labor and leisure, productivity and self-care, will become apparent.

The capitalist mode of commodified leisure existing to maximise alienated productivity depends on a workforce that buys into the idea that we are entitled to relaxation and fun only if we achieve someone else’s ends (whether we’ve internalized them as our own or not), and only in ways that make us better workers. Encapsulated vacation time, physical exercise, sex and art only within the limits of safety — all these exist to keep us just about satisfied, just numb enough to tolerate the existential state of late capitalism.

Home exists as a place to recharge so that we can go to work. Work exists so that we feel entitled to home, and all its soporific comforts.

Keeping these places physically and culturally separate, and making one contingent on the other, serves to reinforce this principle. But things are not the same as they once were. Now, not going into a workplace every day means not being subject to the same scrutiny of our lives and habits. This loosening of the bonds of workplace culture could open the door to a radical reassessment of why we do the things we do.

Why have we been delaying our happiness and gratification for the sake of optimal workplace performance? Or worse, why do we identify happiness as something that we will deserve only if we are willing to accept pain and boredom for the sake of efficiency? Sacrificing ourselves — or worse, trying to improve ourselves — for the sake of becoming more efficient workers will soon become as absurd a martyrdom as any tale from the hagiography of the Dark Ages.

Having more agency, more control over what we do with our time and energy, is hopefully something we won’t want to give up once lockdown is over. The idea of going back to business as usual should horrify people, to frighten them as much as the quarantine does.

We hope for a cultural shift that de-emphasizes workplace efficiency and prioritizes personal agency and opportunities to care for others and be together. We hope for a large-scale realization that the individualistic ethics of efficient productivity and personal merit are given to us by a system that fails — not just in times of crisis like now, but every day.

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