The Corona pandemic triggered a systemic global crisis. Markets, socio-political institutions, and workplaces were upended by the evolving pathogen. While disruptions became the order of the day, the emerging arrangements are not a definitive break with the recent past. Pre-pandemic organizations and emerging practices are combined and mixed – through the use of information technologies (IT) – into new assemblages of production, work, distribution, and consumption. These evolving combinations accelerated expansion of predatory techno-cyber market arrangements emphasizing flexible forms of corporate control and deepened profit strategies. In brief, it’s old wine in new bottles.
The pre-pandemic market economy is marked by two emergent systemic trends; increased centralization in the corporate ownership of production and the geographical decentralization of work. The pandemic fast-tracked implosive centralization and explosive decentralization; fracturing the pre-existing urban landscapes of production, work, and consumption. The end result is a geographical and economic restructuring of the first order.
In New York City and the surrounding metropolitan region, the concentration and de-concentration is speeding up. Within the city and across the region, large and mid-size firms are geographically decentralizing employment via home-based tele-work and hybrid office employment patterns that combine new ways of working. These emerging work spaces, galvanized by information technologies (I.T.), are hollowing out densely clustered business districts. And as high-end and mid-level workers disperse from corporate business districts and to newly configured decentralized home-offices, suburban and exurban locals begin to take on new economic functions that diverge from the traditional non-urban corporate office campus. Businesses and forms of consumption previously associated with densely packed urban places reappear – in novel configurations – within these emerging locals. Geographical centralization/decentralization reinforce the hyper growth of corporate digital platforms such as Amazon and Federal Express which devastated small independent firms and accelerated the concentration of wealth.
The role of government is complicit in the emergence of these developments. The growth of cheap and accessible capital – via monetary policies that maintain low mortgage interest rates and expanded the volume of disposable capital – fed a market-based boom for suburban and exurban housing, as middle-class workers, in light of the pandemic, fled large urban places for more open, expansive, and congenial places. This malignant trend debilitated the dense urban economic ecology and reinforced long-standing processes of suburban racial and economic exclusion. Thus, accentuating the systemic economic and geographical gap between the have and have nots.
The emerging pandemic outcomes bring to mind Shakespeare’s somber metaphor regarding the “Winter of Our Discontent.” While the secular theology of I.T. has been packaged and marketed by corporate decision-makers as a pragmatic and innovative set of policies, in the short-and long-run they merely serve to reshuffle and reinforce pre-existing systemic inequalities. In effect, I.T. strategies are presented as techno panacea for addressing the growing urban labor shortages triggered by the “Great Resignation.” In this context, corporate automation of low-end service jobs irrupted as a strategy for resolving worker discontent and labor’s growing rejection of unsafe and exploitive work conditions. The so-called reserved army of the unemployed is being replaced by the imposition of digital technologies. In short, I.T. is fine-tuning corporate control of the workplace, undercutting employment prospects, diminishing working class incomes, debilitating aggregate market demand, and undermining urban solvency and resilience.
Clearly, responses to the pandemic have animated and deepened inequalities. Nonetheless, the viral crisis is merely a forerunner to the massive upheavals that climate change will eventually trigger. If the present is suggestive – if it is prologue – then it’s essential that we revaluate and reconsider how cyber technologies will be marshalled as cascading disruptions sweep through the economy and foster systemic inequalities. This will require a transformative political realignment. As things stand, it’s a tall but a necessary order.
Arturo-Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and the former chairperson of the “Newest New Yorker Committee” of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities