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Black Sky Thinking

Why Office-Based Juice Raves Can't Hide The Dark Truths Of Self-Employment
Kit Caless , January 24th, 2018 11:55

As the self-assessment tax return deadline looms, Kit Caless looks at the rise of co-working spaces and the increasingly blurred boundary between work and home

I'm sat in a co-working space, at my desk. I've been renting a desk here since mid 2017. It's alright, generally. Apart from the time when I came in and there was a morning rave in the downstairs area at 8:30am, with pounding trance and people drinking juices and smoothies. An odd office sight - a sober, ney cleansing, dance to get you ready for the day. Taking something that was subversive and dangerous and the complete opposite of work, and grinding it into a tool for getting you to work harder, faster, more productively.

Across the UK in this late January gloom, millions of people are, like me, doing their tax returns. Well, no that's wrong, more likely you're putting off doing your tax return until the very last minute, chastising yourselves for the amount of money spent in the pub and on food, realising the you hadn't quite earned as much as you thought. Such is the life of a freelancer. Such is the way of the self-employed. Maybe a morning rave would help, come to think of it.

In the process of forgetting my user ID for the 'Government Gateway', mashing calculator buttons and marvelling at how many Wetherspoon receipts I have saved, I've been thinking about the fact that I am, Kit Caless, a company. In this excellent episode of Thinking Allowed, BBC Radio 4's premier sociology programme ('premier' meaning, 'only') academic Ilana Gershon talks about how contemporary capitalism has allowed us to reimagine our identities as workers. Previously, the self was viewed as 'property'. When you took on employment, you rented yourself out to your employer for a fee (wage) and a given period of time (hours). At the end of the day you get yourself back. The boundary between 'work' and 'life' was pretty clear. In 21st Century capitalism we imagine ourselves as a 'business'. We think we are a bundle of skills, assets, qualities and experiences that has to be constantly managed (like a company). We believe need to continually grow, like a good business does. We understand employment contracts not as worker to company, but as business to business.

There are now almost five million self-employed people in the UK. Self-employment has been consistently rising over the last 15 years. It accounts for 15% of all employment, the highest ever recorded. This is marvellous for the government because they can claim that unemployment is going down, that the economy is employing more people and so on. Even better, the self-employed take less sick days and work longer hours. But they also have smaller pensions (if any at all), less protection and more stress. Self-employment has risen more quickly than its share of total hours worked, which highlights the rise of part time self-employment too - second jobs, side hustles, anything to help you get by. What fascinates and disturbs me is the kind of self-employment I experience, a kind of pseudo-liberated self-entrepreneurship that makes you feel like you're just an auto-exploiting, fully paid up member of capitalist machine. Couple this with the fact that a lot of self-employed people (in London at least) are working in the arts and you have the exploitation of an interesting subsect: those able to afford to be in the arts, but can't afford the space to work at home in their shrinking shared flat.

The apex of this system is the 'co-working' space. I have been working in co-working spaces since 2011, and five in total. In each of them, I've had a desk in a small open plan office alongside other freelancers and small business owners. I have also visited several of WeWorks locations and a place called Second Home.

Second Home is, on the face of it, just another co-working space. It's a little pretentious and believes its own hype, but most of the people I have met who work there ('members') seem to like it. Yet, it is a metaphor for the whole late capitalism gag. In Second Home there are no 'walls'. Every bit of office space is contained within curved Perspex windows, so you can see inside everyone's office space. This is not open plan, so much as 'observation plan'. And you can hear everything. People I have spoken to who work at Second Home have told me you can hear people being fired in different offices, you can hear raging arguments, crying, and even the collective stamping of feet from sales teams at tech companies geeing themselves up for the week's work. Second Home also has evening events (which are very well programmed it has to be said) open to the public and members alike. There is a performative element to the whole building: it is very aware of itself. Meeting rooms are named after 'great thinkers' like Karl Popper and Edward Glaeser. There is free yoga and meditation classes at lunch. Yet it is just a space where people go to work. The name Second Home is significant - it is blurring the boundaries between 'work' and 'life'. The office is open early and shuts late - you can work for as long as you want. The ambient orange lights give the whole place a 'living room' feel. It isn't so much self-employment as self-enjoyment... if what you happen to enjoy is working all hours of the day and night. This is Bill Gates's 'frictionless capitalism' dream incarnate. This is where people have blurred work and life so much that work is life, and the office is home. But! It has created a 'community'; granted, one that costs £350 a month to be part of, still. And even at that price, some members are so fiercely protective of Second Home they will comment on mass at the bottom of critical reports about their office like this excellent FT article.

WeWork is a slightly different beast. Less trendy than Second Home and seemingly everywhere, WeWork runs co-working spaces which, according to people I spoke to feel "isolating", "full of fucking hipsters" and have "no warmth". WeWork also offers very private offices. For example, it hosts a whole building in Greenwich Village entirely for IBM. WeWork is BIG business. There are WeWork offices all over London and America. The business is currently valued at $20billion, exceeded only by Uber and Air BnB. And as with all things Silicon Valley Start Up, it doesn't really own anything concrete. Uber doesn't own the cars the drivers drive, Air BnB doesn't own the properties you stay in. WeWork doesn't own office space. WeWork rents the real estate, refurbs the building, then rents out the office space to members. CEO Adam Neumann (who grew up on a Kibbutz) says, "Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than it is on a multiple of revenue." Such wonderful bunkum capitalist dreams are made of. Hotdeskers still have to pay a bare minimum of £200 a month to gain access to that spiritual realm. WeWork's fantasy is to rent office space to everyone and that future might not be far off. The head of People Per Hour, a self-employment recruitment website, predicts that by 2020, 50% of the UK workforce could be self-employed.

This is the end game of capital - to make you a machine, to blur the boundary between life and work so far that your identity is so keenly bound up in it that you can't conceive of yourself without working, all the while making you pay for the privilege of self-exploitation. The loneliness of self-employment is consistent with current free market ideologies of individualism and isolating workers from each other. When everyone is freelance it is much harder for workers to act collectively, demand higher pay from their clients, even take over the means of production, or achieve better security from government.

What's the solution? Perhaps radical ideas about our housing crisis might also be applied to office space. Though one thing to consider is that if you have to pay for office rent then why not get together with like-minded businesses, or people with similar attitudes to work and form a collective, then find a space yourselves and rent it for cheaper and feel like you actually have a stake in the place, rather than paying some big company the privilege to feel part of something that only really wants you for your money.