The office has become the defining workspace in late modernity. While administration and bureaucracy have been ubiquitous features of all forms of economic activity historically, the central position of the office as the coagulating core of such activity has become especially important in post-industrial landscapes and trade hubs that link an interconnected globe. Coagulation is more than just a metaphor here. The distinct feature of the modern economy is the extent of flows and processes that intersect and define socio-economic activity, from workplace relations to governing structures. The office complex acts as a solidifying feature both architecturally – as office space becomes the prime form of urban building and city administrations clamber to create vast expanses of office parks, skyscrapers and glass facades to house business activity – and economically – as commercial real estate is foundational for city taxation and central for employment growth in economies dominated by the service and administrative sectors.
Offices of course are nothing new. Nor are the associated pathologies and habits. However, their centrality and increasing autonomy are new. Offices as the hubs of administrative activity have always existed, but they have traditionally been outgrowths of other activities related to manufacturing, the organisation of trade (to help navigate tariffs, directives and assizes in fragmented internal and international markets) and government policy-making. With the transition in developed economies to service sector-dominance and the externalisation of manufacturing capacity to developing economies, trade and policy-making have gone from being organised to being assumed.
International trade and by extension globality are the norm. Slight deviations from this, as with bottlenecks developed through Trump’s tariffs on China, Brexit or coronavirus shutdowns produce significant aftershocks, from panic buying to supply-side inflation. Such global interconnectivity has changed the administrative nature of the office complex. Originally a collection of clerks used for recordkeeping and accounting that during the early 20th century became rationalised and Taylorised, office spaces are now creative hubs designated the tasks of designing policies and communication strategies that are niche and maintaining a central overview of the processes that make up modern supply chains and their logistical circuits.
The omnipresence of international trade and the dominance of customer service as the litmus test for modern economic activity contrast with the mass production era, where generic white goods were pushed off the production line at scale to integrate national markets and provide ready-available consumer goods. Administration in this instance was an adjunct of the factory and the conglomerate, there to help coordinate its various parts, limiting internal competition and securing market share. With established tariff regimes and capital controls, such tasks were commonplace for manufacturing corporations who could establish a share of control across a range of product lines.
However, external price shocks and internal labour strife made these conditions untenable (from the perspective of capital), with domestic manufacturing producing limits on the extent of surplus profits that were available and the production of generic mass goods limiting competition (instead producing national monopolies as in the American automobile industry). This also limited customer choice, and forced customers in countries like the USA or UK to accept substantive price hikes in a stagflationary environment. With the development of offshoring, labour legislation and privatisations that severely curtailed the power of trade unions in the manufacturing, seaport and extractive industries, a new customer-centric focus could be homed in on by businesses that increased competition within product lines and fragmented supply chains across an internationally connected set of trade hubs, processing zones and containerised transportation.
Globalisation of trade required “ecological changes to port cities and massive expansions of trucking and shipping spaces” and allowed “goods to be produced in any and every low-wage country, radically reducing the biggest cost a company faces: labor”. It also had the effect of autonomising the office complex as the central hub connecting these various processes. The office as a creative hub comes from its position as a policy-making entity within a company as its creates customer strategies which inform how and where its product lines are produced and shipped. The accelerated condition of “the acquisition and exploitation of time advantages” that global trade flows inhere requires their organisation by a coagulative entity which both records and controls these processes while also shaping and directing them. “The role of intellectual-property rights and intangibles—including data holdings—(allows) the giant US firms to squeeze tremendous profits from their supply chains by focusing on those aspects that have the highest margins”. In this position of intangible and abstract production sits the office space.
Offices as autonomous spaces reflect the autonomy of processes from their origins. The accelerated growth of “options” and means of self-actualisation that Rosa documents have become goals in their own right. “The heightening of the pace of life is as it were a natural consequence: because the faster one runs through the particular waypoints, episodes, or events, the more possibilities one can realize, acceleration represents the most promising, indeed the only strategy that will tend to bring together again the time of the world and the time of (one’s own) life”. In other words, processes of self-actualisation and increasing one’s options have become autonomous from a particular socio-economic grounding, instead becoming waypoints in their own right. Office spaces reflect this in their emphasis upon training and self-improvement. Such training has no end goal, as it can focus on a variety of things only vaguely related to their work. Customer policies are also reflective of this, as advertising and marketing focus on showing a product or service to enhance a customer’s life experience in the abstract, individualising a product without holding any necessary relevance to a particular individual’s life.
“Functional differentiation can in the first place be understood as a mechanism for increasing the speed of productive and developmental processes of all types because in each case points of view and constraints that are alien to the function or system are ‘switched off’ or disregarded: scientific discoveries, technical innovations, commercial products, etc., can progress at a much faster pace when they are disencumbered of ‘external’ expectations (for instance, of a religious or political nature or from the standpoint of any other respective system)”.
Office complexes further such functional differentiation, becoming self-referential systems which inculcate their own ideological and economic goals. On one side this is due to educational changes in developed countries, as University has become increasingly “necessary” to work in offices and many social science graduates have concentrated in managerial occupations as well as human resources, marketing and communications roles. This produces ideological pockets which grow from University education into workplaces, inculcating particular value structures that maintain profitability while extending forms of self-actualisation and ethical policies that reflect the learning from such education. On the other side, the customer focus of modern business is as much a psychological as commercial undertaking. Shaping customer expectations and the ideological presuppositions of office members concatenates into advertising protocols and messages that emphasise not just a product but a way of life and an ethical value. Thus modern companies emphasise EDI and sustainability, with these policies crafted by HR executives and office committees. Much of it is abstract yet reflective of ideological motivations independent of an overarching system.
The office is an ideological bunker that is therapeutic, creative and feminised. On the formal level, it runs processes and produces policies both for internal control and external communications. Its employment policies are complex, designed to induce equity and inclusivity in its hiring policies and promotion criteria. Informally, offices are increasingly run on gossip, innuendo and rumour. One’s position in an office is determined by reputation which concurrently encourages worldview homogeneity and expands the link between higher education and the promotional track. And this ideological bunker is not limited to being a corporate lackey. As the expansion of corporate EDI policies, ESG investment protocols and sustainability mantras shows, corporate power is exploitable by the office workforce, from forcing Google into reconsidering workplace policies around employee relations and investment decisions to making Disney executives become part of Florida’s education policy-making via their lobbying and communications strategies.
This expansiveness then begs the question, what is the office for? Untethered from its original functions and informed by financial flows such as commercial real estate value and urban tax rates and the logistical circuits of international supply chains, the functionally differentiated office complex is a producer of its own preservation. “While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets. The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them”.
Office hours are spent whiling away time, concentrating on abstract projects which further abstract goals and KPIs, or engaging in meetings to discuss these goals and their improvement. Crises have not stopped or destabilised this. Coronavirus showed the fragility of the economic model the office complex is based within. However, office culture simply metastasised into home working as workplace surveillance increased and life/work balance became an anachronism. The growing crises of agricultural productivity (with British farm productivity plateauing, incomes falling and inputs becoming scarcer, particularly nitrogen fertiliser and chips for farming equipment) and supply chain flows (which are increasingly disrupted by covid shutdowns and inflationary price increases) don’t appear to have dented this workplace structure.
A cognitive class of autonomous workers as described by Negri & Hardt is not producing the means to end managerial control, but instead extending an ideological format from educational circles to workplaces, and developing and maintaining an autonomy not along class lines but along organisational lines as the office becomes the enveloping techno-structure of the modern business corporation. If this cognitive class represents anything, it is a machination of capital coordinating new activities and entrenching old ones, producing normative values of surplus production and extraction. The autonomous office complex, like the logistical circuits and fragmented supply chains it grew from, is a producer of its own maintenance. The multitude is exploited and parasitised by these new forces. The growth of intellectual and human capital portends the fracturing of the subject itself as parts of a network to be rearranged, becoming flows that the coagulative organisation of the office can wield control over.
What crisis does show is the obfuscatory and self-referential nature of the office space. As supply chains buckle and break, the requirement for domestic manufacturing capacity, independent energy sources and a workforce trained for agricultural and goods production is increasingly necessary. The autonomous office complex, that rewards facile customer service and ideological concentration, will only retard such efforts. As crises burn brighter, the requirement for deinstitutionalisation and the routing of the office complex become paramount endeavours. There is no compromise with this system, only a radical remaking of the ideological and cultural map.
 Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration
 Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration
 Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration
 Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Assembly