What does C.W. Wiley, writing for the American Mind, see in government enforced lockdowns, mass unemployment, stimulus checks and corporate bailouts? An opportunity for people to take responsibility for themselves. Confined to our homes, we can rediscover the ancient or classical economy and fire up our forges and bend metal in our backyards, surrounded by the children we are not having in suburban and urban neighborhoods with high turnover and low trust. We will return to an ownership society as the latest semi-contrived crisis accelerates corporate consolidation and control of markets. According to Wiley, republican virtue will flourish when people live and work in the same place. The only thing separating us from the rock-solid values of 18th century America is the drive to the office.
If people were such virtuous republicans when they worked from home before, then how and why did they cram themselves into cities and suburbs, separate their work spaces from their living conditions, and allow a small representative government to bloat beyond all proportion? According to your average conservative, it has something to do with bad ideas or destructive values, maybe individualism or the rhetoric of selfishness. Or it is Marx’s fault, or the socialists and the collectivists who crawled up from hell one random day and decided to infiltrate institutions and impose their will on the low-density yeoman class spread throughout rural America.
What is the difference between revolutionary war America and the present? You could stab your eyeballs out and puncture your eardrums, you could dunk yourself in a deprivation chamber and mumble about how it was the magically appearing Marxists who corrupted a nation of independent farmers, or you could use your sense organs to understand the world around you. Society has undergone tremendous material changes over the last two hundred and fifty years. The values, ideas and the dominant rhetorical trends of today reflect far-ranging shifts in economic, population and social structures. Our ideas about socialism and dependence on government do not cause population growth, urbanization or corporate consolidation, but rather emerge as adaptations to underlying material conditions. Physical communities have been disordered not by Marxist philosophy, but by economic growth, corporate consolidation, technological advancement, urban planning and the large-scale application of scientific management techniques.
Revolutionary America had a population of 2.5 million people. The current population of America is 328 million. The difference of 326 million people is no difference at all to a particular kind of conservative whose head is stuck in the 1770’s. For such a conservative, population size and density have no effect on social behavior or political order, so we can pass over material factors and write about the good old days when farmers worked from home and had control over their lives. We can write about a militarized police state corralling a mass multicultural population like a herd of cattle as if America stood at the dawn of a new era of independence.
Certainly ownership, but for whom and of what? It is not the socialists in your public schools, or the rare homesteader with a homemade septic tank, it is the global corporate and financial elite, the oligarchs, the executives at the head of consolidated media, agriculture, tech, energy and defense industries who own the land, the resources and the means of production and the channels of dissemination. These people are not Americans in the same sense as a middle-class factory worker or farmer in the Midwest, or even the swelling immigrant servant classes; they have no allegiance to a territory or people, they care nothing for preserving or honoring history; they are beholden to their own interests and everything they do serves to protect or expand their political and economic power and their physical holdings.
I am not sure if Wiley has noticed, but most people live in cities and suburbs, in dense, noisy, alienating and stressful social conditions that encourage atomizing and addictive consumerist behavior. Most people do not own land or equipment or live in organically bound and historically continuous communities. The modern home is a prison cell, a storage shed, a battery charging station, it is where people sleep fitfully in a haze of blue lights and streetlamps, where honking horns and rumbling engines drown out the earthly sounds of night and day, where tired, disconnected individuals and small families huddle in suburbanized bunkers and eat takeout food in front of hyperstimulating electronic devices.
Working from home in the present, under the current urban and suburban settlement dynamics, will not bring about a revitalization of republican virtue or ownership, it will rather reinforce isolation and dependence on mass-scale corporate consumerism. People without roots, without shared histories and cultures, stacked on top of each other or sprawled out in suburbs, will not rediscover a spirit of community or classical civic participation when their movement and economic activity is restricted by a conjoined corporate and government behemoth basing its authority on sham science and brute force, a pure monopoly of violence under the pretense of scientific expertise.
More people staying at home amounts to more widespread abandonment of public and social life. People would rather work from home because they resent commutes and crowds, because of anxiety arising from constant contact with inscrutable strangers, but the comforts of home are more like the padded walls of a sanitorium than the cohesion of an organic community ordered by shared values. We are not about to see a flourishing of cobblers and horseshoe makers and spirited public gathering, but rather increasing reliance on virtual and masturbatory forms of stimulation and diversion. No open-air forums, only internet message boards and social media platforms which exhaust empathy while bolstering the illusion of connection and comradery.
The average man, a rootless consumer, deculturated and androgynized, lives in a streaming society of transient pleasures and palliatives, with little hope for meaningful ownership of land, means of production or even means of diversion or storytelling. Even his myths are industrialized and commodified, rented and disposable, equally appealing to any individual reduced to an interchangeable economic unit without ethnic or geographic allegiance or loyalty to traditional values. Technological society cuts people off from land and fundamental relationships and then sends them to work in cities. As industry develops and populations grow and immigration levels rise, groups fracture, religion wanes, communities fall apart, families shrink, fertility plummets and perpetually nervous and fearful individuals become reliant on a complex and fragile infrastructure and opaque bureaucratic organizations to deliver goods and entertainment. Therapy and science are not so much replacements of religion as they are tools of self-soothing in the absence of emotionally and socially fortifying belief structures and ritual chains.
Sure, the Founding Fathers were not talking about toothbrushes when they talked about ownership. But what they had in mind has little relevance to a mass society of transnational corporate consumerism, scientific management, ethnic conflict and population churn. Working from home in the late 18th century might have meant cultivating a field, churning butter or repairing the buckle on your shoe under the loving guidance of older generations, surrounded by relatives and neighbors, but in our time, it means an intensification of the streaming society, of endless renting and moving and junking, of forgetting and fleeing and neighborhood turnover, of isolation and constant consumption as a strategy for surviving overcrowded urban spaces and socially draining competition. It means more part-time, precarious labor without health insurance or retirement benefits, more immigration and mental illness, more medication and misguided attempts at psychic and spiritual amelioration, greater dependency on government services and expert intervention and continued expansion of corporate power.
What is there to own for millions of people inhabiting twenty or thirty miles of land? What is there to own when huge tracts of land are owned by a small number of giant agribusinesses subsidized by a government that raises taxes on stagnant wages? What will people produce when they lack access to equipment and training, when resources and funding are withheld or invested in global military policing, refinement of invasive surveillance and control technology, innovation of electronic trinkets and buying political influence?
Is it the socialists who have the power to bring in immigrants, offshore factories, downsize workforces and cut labor costs? Are they running the meat packing, energy, tech and agriculture industries? I suppose in some irrelevant sense some of them might be socialists, or profess belief in socialist policies, but at this scale of economic activity, it does not matter. The debate between socialism and capitalism is arid, academic and obsolete. The size of populations and the scale of economic operations has outgrown the vision of the founding fathers. Human behavior has radically changed as a result of physical disruptions to the social ecosystem. The human body does not even have the same hormonal profile as it did in the 18th century, why would anyone expect people today to return to republican virtue because they can fill out spreadsheets in their sweatpants?
Work from home is not autonomous work, it is not small businesses woven into a neighborhood fabric of face to face economic exchanges. It is remote work, owned by giant organizations, suffocated by distant directives. It is slapping on a heavier and longer set of shackles in Plato’s cave, it is fascination with shadows on the wall. The greater physical separation of those in the same socioeconomic class will only decrease the potential for labor organization and political resistance to an oppressive oligarchic and technocratic elite.
The private sector is not the realm of freedom, not when the managerial and executive class running the transnational corporations can buy legislation and install their cronies in regulatory agencies. Big businesses want you working from home because the technology of control has evolved beyond the need to confine bodies in offices. They can keep their eye on you in your isolated refueling pod and save themselves money on overhead and justify further job cuts, and they will not give that money back to you or spend it on pro-American, small manufacturing or small farmer policies and initiatives. In effect, by working from home you are paying for their office space, but this new arrangement will be sold to you as a bargain because you can fart loudly and eat snack cakes without disgusting your coworkers.
Sometimes the study of history blinds us to life in the present. More important than respect for historical figures and ideas is the will to maintain living links to past and future generations. We live in a world right now where several US cities have a larger population than the total population of America at the time of the Revolutionary War, where many people do not know anything about their family history and have no desire to reproduce. Netflix and onlyfans would give George Washington an aneurysm. Clamoring for Bernie Sanders is not the fulfillment of a Marxist plot unfolding in a social, economic and environmental vacuum, it is a distress signal of an economically redundant mass population in destabilized social settings. To work from home without restructuring urban and suburban settlements, without establishing the physical foundations and economic systems to support organic and cohesive communities, is to cede more ground to the government corporate nexus which keeps us in a state of dependency, isolation and immaturity, passive and sedentary, enthralled by those streaming shadows.
Corona virus is far from the only novel phenomenon of our era. Getting back to ancient economics will require a bit more than telework. A society of remote work is a society that has been disowned.