Economics

Pondering Our Remote-Work Future

(Chansom Pantip/Getty)
Will it bring us together and revive local communities ─ or drive us apart and exacerbate class divisions?

Earlier in the year, I had planned to move to New York City. National Review hired me a few months ago and the main office is in Manhattan. With everything that’s happened in the meantime, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m about 3,171 miles away from where I hoped to be right now and there’s a good chance I’ll be working from the north coast of Ireland until the end of this year at the earliest. The various lockdowns and travel restrictions enacted by civil magistrates across the globe have left many of us with little choice other than to work away from the workplace. Consequently, one of the likely lasting consequences of this pandemic is that companies learn a profitable lesson about the redundancy of having physical office space when most of their services can be provided by employees working remotely. The spread of remote work across the economy will undoubtedly be curtailed once all this is over but it’ll probably never return to pre-pandemic levels, and it’s difficult to predict what effect this will have on the social cohesion of the country.

You’ll notice that I mentioned social cohesion rather than economic capital. The latter won’t really suffer from this development. The extinction of office space would only enhance economic efficiency, after all, and if there are to be any challenges or casualties, they’ll be in the realms of mental health and interpersonal relationships. Place and location, for what it’s worth, tend to be chronically underrated factors in most analyses of human behavior. The ramifications of the mass separation of employment and geography from one another for the first time in human history are simply unknowable for the time being. Still, it’s worth speculating about them all the same.

On the one hand, there’ll be tremendous opportunities to improve upon our existing social arrangements if this phenomenon becomes as widespread and normative as I expect. Since the Industrial Revolution, capital has tended to concentrate in certain small, geographic centers, and human beings have followed in tow (hence the staggering level of mass migration from the countryside into cities during the 19th century). If technology severs the relationship between place and profit, then for the first time in centuries, people can begin to make decisions about where they want to live that aren’t based on employment prospects. This could, in turn, lead to the formation of sustained, long-term, voluntary communities that are not subject to disintegration or upheaval at the (invisible) hand of market forces. If conservative Catholics, or Orthodox Jews, or environmentalists, or New York Yankees fans are no longer necessarily separated by the different places where they work across the country, what is to stop these respective communities from deciding to live together in neighborhoods, towns, and cities formed by different commitments from those of the marketplace? The notion that every adult on the street might work for a different company in a different state but go to the same church around the corner at the end of the week seems like a thoroughly healthy and American idea.

We are not the first ones to wrestle with this kind of change. On January 2, 1822, Pierre-Paul Royer-Collard, one of the great unsung statesmen of European history, gave a speech called “On The Liberty of the Press” in which he discussed the profound change that comes upon a society when the relationship between power and place has been fundamentally altered. Royer-Collard, himself a liberal and a democrat in the best sense of both of those words, was addressing the collapse of the regional aristocracy during the French Revolution and the concomitant loss of the check they had provided against the centralizing ambitions of the national government. Discussing “that crowd of domestic institutions and independent magistracies which [the old society] carried within it[self],” he laments the fact that

not one of them has survived. The revolution has left only individuals standing. It has dissolved even the (so to speak) physical association of the commune. This is a spectacle without precedent! Before now one had seen only in philosophers’ books a nation so decomposed and reduced to its ultimate constituents.

From an atomized society has emerged centralization.  There is no need to look elsewhere for its origin. . . . Indeed, where there are only individuals, all business which is not theirs is necessarily public business, the business of the state. Where there are no independent magistrates, there are only agents of central power. That is how we have become an administered people, under the hand of irresponsible civil servants, themselves centralized in the power of which they are agents.

The draining of power from localities — not formal power but effective, material power that cannot be legislated away — is one of the great untold stories of modernity. What’s more, the centralizing impulse of the modern state has not accomplished this on its own. The market also separates people into individuals to maximize efficiency and profit with no regard for community whatsoever. If more money can be made at cheaper cost somewhere else, profit is prioritized over place every time, and capital continues its endless, elusive dance around the globe, keeping the world spinning on its axis. This evisceration of home and hearth by dollars and cents is one of the criticisms that theocratic reactionaries have made of the reigning liberal-democratic world order. These problems, however, are far more likely to be addressed successfully by technological advances than by the violent prescriptions of thinkers who, taken together, resemble nothing so much as the love-children of Pope Boniface VIII and Benito Mussolini. For example, if the next iteration of technological capitalism does indeed lead to a great divorce between place and profit, then local communities will no longer be ceaselessly undermined by the restless flight of capital from one place to the next. The sinister conspiracy between the state and the market against the town square will not so much be solved as it will be out of date. You only need to ask yourself where you would live if you could work from anywhere and a parade of considerations will soon march through your mind that have heretofore been sacrificed to one extent or another on the altar of economics. If I were a betting man not saddled with student loans (zero for two on that count, I’m afraid), I’d wager that the revival of “that crowd of domestic institutions” so indispensable to our flourishing together will be shaped much more by technological innovation than by President Tucker Carlson or President Joe Biden or anyone who thinks they can address these issues effectively using the apparatus of organized violence in Washington.

That’s the rosy scenario. There is, of course, another way this could all go. It has to be remembered that the separation of place and profit I’ve discussed above will likely be limited for some time to those working in the information economy. The millions of Americans who don’t work in this sector will still be left in much the same place as they were before, both literally and figuratively. The great danger, then, is the potential for more and more class estrangement in the United States, as those with geographic freedom and those whose work remains rooted in the place where they live grow more and more unable to identify with one another as their class interests diverge. I confess this is a somewhat personal issue for me. Having been born and raised in Belfast, I developed an unusual affection for American history, politics, and pop culture at a very early age and have been emotionally invested in the fortunes of the United States to an altogether bizarre degree for someone from my background. As a result, I am now myself participating in the international permeation of people, capital, and remote employment that I’ve discussed above. Being 3,000 miles away from my workplace hasn’t really affected my ability to fulfill my professional duties at all. But it has affected other parts of life that usually orbit around the world of work, such as heading out for drinks at the end of the day or chatting with colleagues over coffee or at lunch. These are the things a fully remote economy would rob people of — the weaving together of our lives with our coworkers’ lives until the economic ties that originally brought us together become vestigial, secondary to the bonds of affection that have developed between friends. The workplace itself is ultimately a community, which makes the disentanglement of economic concerns and class consciousness from social solidarity a positively bedeviling task. When push comes to shove, people may just decide, given every option, that they want to live around the people they work with. There is, consequently, every chance that the technological development of the economy will magnify class divisions just as it diminishes the geographic constraints on employment. What comes after that? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

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