A few weeks ago I was contacted by an ex-colleague who was looking for a new job. Her reason? The company she is currently working for are requiring staff to come back to the office three days a week. This has been happening across the IT and broader office-based industries for some time. Now that the corona “pandemic” is officially over, the justification for working-from-home has also disappeared.
Way back at the start of the “pandemic”, there were the calls for a new normal. Those calls invariably came from the salary class. The salary class, of course, were the ones working from home while the working class were either furloughed or, if they were deemed essential, required to show up to work as normal. If ever there was a case of class discrimination, it was that.
But we don’t talk about class anymore and a big part of the reason is that the political parties who used to represent the working class sold their souls to neoliberal economics back in the 80s. It might seem hard to believe now, but once upon a time there used to be an actual two-party system in most western nations. The left wing represented the interests of the workers while the right wing represented the interests of capital and small business. The result was a public discourse that revolved around real issues related to the real differing interests of workers and capital.
One of the more useful concepts from the left side of politics back in those days was one which can help shed light on the issue now facing office workers who are being dragged back to the office kicking and screaming: shadow work.
Shadow work is the unpaid work you have to do in order to carry out paid work. A classic example is commuting. A worker is not paid to commute to their place of employment. They are only paid from the time they arrive til the time they leave. Commuting is the unpaid work you need to do in order carry out the paid work of your job. It’s shadow work.
The phrase shadow work has a nice Jungian ring to it. To use terminology I’ve become very fond of in the last year, paid work is exoteric. It is officially recognised. It appears on your pay slip and in your bank account. Shadow work is esoteric; secret. It’s the work that has been pushed into the individual and collective unconscious.
Back when there was a real left wing party that represented the interests of the workers, the question of shadow work was a real issue that was up for negotiation in pay disputes and the wider public discourse. Now that we don’t have any real left wing parties left, shadow work itself has been relegated to the shadows. That’s a big problem because shadow work has been on the rise in the last few decades.
Here in Melbourne and other Australian cities, population growth has outstripped infrastructure capacity during that time. Australian governments have inverted the old saw – build it and they will come – to something like let them come and then build it (based on the money they bring).
The result has been a steady decline in the quality of all forms of commuting (with the exception of cycling). Commuting now takes longer and is more stressful. Because commuting belongs to the domain of shadow work, a reduction in the quality of commuting increases the burden of that work. That burden is borne silently by employees.
Prior to corona, the commuting problem here in Melbourne had been getting ridiculous. The system was well beyond capacity and people would regularly show up late to work complaining that they simply couldn’t get on a train or tram. If you were lucky enough to get on, you were squeezed in like a sardine.
What happened with the corona lockdowns was that the pressure was released. That was what was behind the strange feeling of exhilaration that came from the salary class during the lockdowns. All of a sudden, the burden of shadow work had been lifted from their shoulders.
That burden is not insignificant. For most office employees, their commute here in Melbourne would be somewhere between 5-10 hours per week. If you consider that the total work time is usually 37.5 hours per week, shadow work makes up a large percentage of overall work done and that percentage had increased in the years before corona.
None of this was recognised by employers, government or the public discourse. It was pushed into the shadows just like many other real economic issues. Psychically speaking, it then becomes part of the esoteric. In Jungian terms, it is the shadow esoteric. The more shadow work, the more negative psychic energy builds up and looks for an outlet.
It’s tempting to say that all this is just politicians trying to avoid accountability. But there is another dynamic to this which has also been building for a number of decades. Modern politics increasingly operates in the psychic domain. The manipulation of psychic energy is increasingly done by governments to achieve political goals.
Cynical politicians throughout the ages have always used religion to help them govern. But at least religion is exoteric and out in the open. The manipulation of esoteric psychic energy by both corporate and government interests in recent decades is itself esoteric; hidden.
The result is a shadow government – aka the deep state. This shadow government has arguably more power than the exoteric government which it nominally serves. It has that power precisely because there is so much free-floating psychic energy looking for something, anything, to latch onto.
This has created a positive feedback loop. Politicians get elected by manipulating psychic energy. The decisions they make increasingly unleash more psychic energy which gives them more power to manipulate the public.
Positive feedback loops are inherently unstable. Eventually something breaks. At the rate we are going, we are headed for a collective psychic breakdown on a mass scale. Corona was one of the first psychic earthquakes but it almost certainly won’t be the last.