Like almost all of the 1.5 million instructors at colleges and universities in the United States, I’ve been teaching online for weeks. I don’t much like it. I love leading classroom discussions and hate grading. Online teaching means none of the former and a whole lot of the latter.
Even so, it’s not so bad. Despite working in increasingly corporatized universities, where most instructors are adjuncts or work under contingent full-time contracts with no meaningful job security, people who teach for a living at the post-secondary level are among the most autonomous non-managerial employees in America. I have wide latitude to set my own schedule and decide many of the details about how I carry out my job on a day-to-day basis. If anything, that freedom is enhanced by staying at home.
The vast majority of US workers are a lot less lucky. As socialists have always pointed out, workplaces are sites of tyranny. Since most people have trouble finding the starter capital to build a business of their own, and the majority of small businesses quickly go under, the average person has no realistic choice but to go to work for someone else. As Karl Marx said, workers are “doubly free” — free to sell their labor to an employer, and free to starve if they decline to do so.
Libertarians and other defenders of the economic status quo like to portray capitalist employment as a completely voluntary market transaction between freely contracting agents, but most workers have very little bargaining power as individuals. It’s a lot easier for most bosses to replace one worker than it is for most workers to replace their source of livelihood.
This power imbalance is reflected in everything from the tens of millions of workers who are compelled to sign noncompete clauses that stop them from switching jobs without learning entirely different skills to the autocratic tactics of companies like Amazon, which uses high-tech surveillance to make sure packages are processed at a breakneck speed — and that workers don’t linger so much as a minute too long in the bathroom.
The coronavirus has forced workers who can only do their jobs at specific physical locations to accept a grim choice: risk losing their employment (and usually their health insurance), or risk their lives by going to work.
But what about the comparatively lucky ones who can work from home with no loss of income? That sounds like it should be a recipe for increased freedom — perhaps even one where workers and employers freely contract with one another like a couple of premodern farmers haggling about how many eggs to trade for a quart of fresh milk. The employer provides an income; the employee, in turn, completes her tasks in whatever way she pleases.
But this is the real world, not the fever dreams of libertarians. Employers, intent on maintaining their workplace authority, are turning to Orwellian technological means to block employees from gaining even an iota of autonomy. Software makers such as InterGuard, Time Doctor, Teramind, VeriClock, innerActiv, ActivTrak, and Hubstaff have seen increased demand since the beginning of the pandemic. Each provides minute-by-minute, keystroke-by-keystroke monitoring as workers complete tasks in what should be the privacy of their own homes. Each also provides bosses with “productivity metrics,” including how often a worker is sending emails.
For some companies, even on-camera Zoom meetings haven’t been enough surveillance. They took advantage of the software’s “attention tracking” feature, which allowed bosses to see when a participant had navigated away from the meeting for more than thirty seconds. After widespread outcry about the feature — which could be turned on without workers’ knowledge — Zoom discontinued it earlier this month.
Still, businesses have plenty of autocratic tricks up their sleeves. And the effect of all these measures is to make employees feel, if anything, more closely monitored than they would in a physical workplace. “Jane,” an anonymous source quoted by Vox’s Recode and an employee of a company that spies on her with the ominously named TeamViewer software, reports that she can barely “stand up and stretch” without worrying that TeamViewer will log her out for being idle or that her boss will send a “check-in email.”
Alison Green of the website Ask a Manager says she’s heard from multiple people that their employers have asked them to stay logged in to a video conference call the entire workday day so that they’re constantly on camera. Axos Financial sent an email to its employees warning that not only were their keystrokes being logged but a random screenshot would be captured every ten minutes to ensure they’re on task.
The CEO of Axos, Gregory Garrabrants, is one of the highest-paid bank CEOs in America. Asked whether Garrabrants would be subject to the same kind of surveillance as he worked from home, Axos spokesman Gregory Frost declined to comment. Anyone with half a brain knows the answer. Rules like that aren’t for people like Garrabrants. They’re for the “doubly free” workers under the boss’s all-seeing eye.