During the darkest depths of the pandemic, as businesses laid off millions of people and refrigerator trucks idled outside hospitals, one segment of the workforce enjoyed a degree of freedom and autonomy not seen in at least a century. With offices closed, the “laptop class” of knowledge workers was forced—or freed—to phone it in from home. At first, we (I am a member of this tribe) languished, doom-scrolling Twitter and streaming episodes of Tiger King. But then a funny thing happened. Without a boss looming over our shoulders, we were given an unprecedented amount of control over our own schedules. Many of us avoided hours-long commutes, as well. And in that extra time, amid enormous suffering and upheaval, occurred a curious flourishing. We baked bread. We learned to knit. We video-chatted with friends we’d never have thought to reach out to in normal times. We tended our gardens, botanical and spiritual alike.
Working from home lifted burdens we didn’t know we carried. Implicit in office life is a degree of power and control—not only do the bosses buy our services, they also buy our physical presence. Decoupling those things unlocked liberty not seen in any office worker’s lifetime; managers were forced to communicate precisely what they wanted from their employees, rather than just keep them around for incidental productivity—or, as Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, put it, “spontaneous idea generation.”
The change in physical terrain—from a space controlled by the boss to the sanctuary of one’s own home—might seem minor, a matter of personal convenience, but it speaks to societal forces that reach deep into American history. In the Revolutionary Era, founders like Thomas Jefferson feared, more than almost anything else, industrialization and the rise of wage labor. When independent farmers left their homes to toil in factories under the watchful eye of a boss, their fates—and their votes—became yoked to their industrialist masters, Jefferson believed. They lost their independence as citizens as well as workers. To Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and others, the yeoman farmer was the ideal citizen who set his own schedule and was beholden to no one. With a little suspension of disbelief, one could imagine the darkest days of 2020 as a time machine transporting knowledge workers back to their freehold farms. There, we tended our intellectual crops at our leisure, reviving a model of work long forgotten. We discovered we liked it.
Now, the Man wants to take it all away. A steady drumbeat of CEO voices is calling for a return to the office, where white-collar workers will allegedly be more productive—and more easily surveilled. Steven Rattner, who manages Michael Bloomberg’s $8 billion personal investment fund, summed up the anxiety of the ownership class in a New York Times op-ed: “Has America gone soft?” In his piece, Rattner briefly acknowledges that many Americans may no longer value the economic incentives of constant toil over the prospect of a less productive, but more leisurely, existence. But he warns that, while we rest, the Chinese are working 72-hour weeks, and that “less output … eventually means a lower standard of living (or a less quickly rising one).” But his assumption—that working from home equals less productivity—is far from an established fact. Yes, some people are using their extra time to play video games. Others, however, are using their freedom to work harder and more efficiently, sending Slack messages in the doctor’s waiting room and folding laundry while answering calls. Besides, what was the “standard of living” that we strove for all those years—having more stuff? Could there, perhaps, exist collective goods other than the wealth we generate for our bosses? It doesn’t matter; for Rattner and his billionaire friends, the one measurable good to be observed in a worker is how much they produce.
That the laptop class can even have this debate reflects a privilege not shared by service workers, who during the pandemic suffered through layoffs, workplace outbreaks, and rudeness and violence from customers. Still, the struggles of taxi drivers and restaurant waiters are like those of knowledge workers in kind, if not degree. What the average working person lacks, from baristas to mechanics to salespeople to journalists, is economic agency. Economic agency moves hand in hand with political power, and when great swaths of people are denied those things for too long, republics crumble.
Much ink has been spilled on the post-pandemic future of work, but little of it has addressed the civic underpinnings of the debate. Some, like Rattner, seem eager to herd us back into our cubicles, with little change to underlying socioeconomic arrangements. Other, more conciliatory, commentators note that more leisure time can improve productivity. Still others chide the marketplace for treating leisure as a “productivity hack” rather than a good in itself. This is closer, but it still misses why the discussion matters to everyone, and not just to whichever class of worker is demanding better treatment.
The debate is about more than greedy bosses and fed-up workers; it’s about democracy’s foundations. An intellectual lineage stretching back to ancient Greece argues that self-governing societies need independent, well-informed, and civically engaged citizens to survive. And to build those people up, societies must give them two things: economic autonomy and leisure time—not vacant hours spent staring at TikTok, but edifying leisure, time spent volunteering, reading, learning a new skill, or raising children. The Greeks called that scholê, the root of our modern-day “school.” Work, in the sense of income-gaining labor, they defined negatively: ascholia, “not-leisure.” Scholê brought societies together by making individual happiness a matter of collective welfare. Building the ideal citizen was everyone’s concern.
Though now largely discarded, this ethos, often known as “civic republicanism,” has informed many of America’s greatest economic and political debates, from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the creation of child labor laws and the modern workweek.
Today, great masses are staging a mute protest against the status quo of labor. But they lack the language to frame their objections as something more than selfish, if well-grounded, complaints about their own welfare. By tracing the history of civic republicanism, we see how an issue as apparently quotidian and personal as remote work is, in fact, a matter of democratic importance. Give us the liberty to work unshowered and in underwear, or give us death.
It was tradition in ancient Athens to bury the city’s fallen soldiers together, just as they had fought. Mourning the dead was collective as well; once a year during wartime, the living gathered to hear a funeral oration reminding them of their shared values. In 431 BC, Athens was ending its first year of war against Sparta for hegemony of the Hellenic world. This duel pitted competing visions of government against each other: egalitarian democracy and militarized autocracy. That year’s speech would need to do many hard things—mourn the dead, explain what the living were fighting for, and steel its listeners for another year of loss.
Thankfully, the speaker was Pericles. The foremost orator and statesman of his time began his eulogy by extolling Athens’s greatness. But he placed the source of that greatness in the citizens themselves. Not only did Athenians enjoy the fruits of democracy—its “regular games and sacrifices” and “many relaxations from toils”—they were the democracy. Their virtues were Athens’s virtues, their faults its faults. “To sum up,” Pericles said,
I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state.
A democratic society, Pericles was saying, reflects its citizens’ personal qualities, which must be cultivated for the good of all through industry and free time well spent. The Greeks, like many other ancient civilizations, thrived on slave labor. And women had few rights. But what made democratic city-states like Athens unique was that even the humblest male citizens were encouraged to take part in public activities separate from their daily labor, be those theater, athletic games, or government. Indeed, one of Pericles’s greatest innovations was a system of per diem pay for public service that ensured even the poorest citizen could afford to take time off from his toils. Standing, perhaps, among gravestones in the Kerameikos cemetery—we know the speech only through Thucydides—Pericles said of his fellow Athenians, “We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character, and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy.”
Pericles died of the plague less than two years later, and Athens lost the Peloponnesian War. But its democracy eventually recovered, and just a few decades after Pericles’s speech, another link in the intellectual chain arrived. Aristotle was born in the latter days of Spartan tyranny and mentored Alexander the Great, another conquering warlord. Nevertheless, his thinking on self-improvement and individual autonomy would become essential to the success of democratic societies throughout history. “There remains to be discussed the question,” Aristotle says in Politics, “whether the happiness of the individual is the same as that of the state, or different. Here again, there can be no doubt—no one denies that they are the same.”
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle laid out what happiness was, charting the path to eudaimonia—the “good life.” It wasn’t just a matter of feeling good or having nice things; it was, the philosopher said, “virtuous activity in accordance with reason.” The word virtue had two faces: virtue in the sense of excellence—striving to be one’s best—but also service to others. Sacrifice for one’s family, neighbors, and country was essential to the good life.
Over the next 2,000 years, political philosophers picked up these ideas and shaped them to their times, forming a lineage that carries us directly to the founding of the United States: Polybius, a Greek who connected the Roman republic’s rise with its civic traditions; the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, plebeians who pursued agricultural reforms meant to establish the average citizen as an independent yeoman farmer; Donato Giannotti, a chronicler of class politics in Renaissance mercantile republics; James Harrington, of 17th-century England, who believed that republics flourish when a robust middle class attains both economic and political power; Montesquieu, theorist of the separation of powers as a backstop to civic virtue; and John Locke, model of the American Founders, who disagreed with Aristotle on many things, but not with his idea that the legitimacy and stability of government are bound inextricably with human happiness.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness
Thomas Jefferson’s words, which reverberate throughout American history, are themselves an echo. Just a few decades before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, parts of Jefferson’s immortal phrase appeared in Locke, who wrote that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness” and that the interests of the state are “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body.” Both Jefferson and Locke lived in dialogue with the civic republican lineage, including with Aristotle, whom they in turns admired and criticized. And both shared the Aristotelian understanding that happiness is, as per the Nicomachean Ethics, “the end to which our actions are directed.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson had a specific idea of the “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” that he believed we are entitled to pursue. Time and again, the Virginian tobacco planter preached the virtues of the “yeoman farmer”—the self-sufficient man whose leadership in the miniature society of the home prepared him to participate in political decision-making. “The small land holders are the most precious part of a state,” Jefferson proclaimed. Meanwhile, like the Greeks, Jefferson, a slaveholder, reveled in a vision of equality but could only envision extending those privileges to a select few.
The aristocratic Jefferson had one idea of the good life. Another influential model for American work and leisure—the self-made man—was Ben Franklin. The tenth son of a Boston tallow chandler, Franklin ran away to Philadelphia at 17 with only a few shillings to his name. Somehow, he maneuvered his way into the proprietorship of a printing house and, by 23, was editor and publisher of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. As a young man on the rise, he cultivated an image of extreme industry and frugality. As he writes in his Autobiography: “I drest plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, & gave no Scandal.”
Published after Franklin’s death in 1790, the Autobiography was a best seller that influenced generations of strivers. But the tale was incomplete—it covered mostly his rise. At 42, Franklin sold his printing business and pronounced himself a “Man of Leisure,” a designation that didn’t mean idleness. On the contrary, he filled his now-open life with meaningful pursuits: invention, scientific inquiry, social clubs, and international diplomacy. He founded the University of Pennsylvania and some of the first subscription libraries. Unlike Jefferson, Franklin gave up slaveholding to become a full-throated abolitionist, and was a proponent of humility compared to the Virginian’s Old World noblesse oblige. As John Paul Rollert noted in The Atlantic, Franklin’s ethos of hard work and productive leisure—the early retirement, the thrift and restraint—held sway for a long time but lately has been abandoned. Now, to those raised on Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, it looks almost quaint. What entrepreneur today, Rollert asked, would walk away “at the height of his earnings potential”?
Debates over the civic consequences of economic arrangements shaped the country’s development throughout the first half of the 19th century. Alexander Hamilton’s vision of political economy, with a strong federal government and an increasingly industrialized society, would clash repeatedly with Jefferson’s agrarian utopianism. Even as the advantage swayed back and forth between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians, both sides saw their arguments as being not only about the running of the economy but also about the health of the budding democracy.
In this era, there’s perhaps no more powerful negative example of civic republican values than the southern plantation system, where masters forbade reading and limited social gatherings to ensure that slaves were too isolated and uneducated to break free. As Frederick Douglass said in 1894, “Education … means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republicans in Congress attempted to cement former slaves’ freedom by providing them with 40 acres of land and a mule taken from the plantations. (An override of Andrew Johnson’s veto failed by only a few votes.) After the federal government abandoned Reconstruction and withdrew its troops from the South, white supremacists struck at Black citizens’ economic and political agency in tandem, forcing them into sharecropping while restricting their access to the polls.
Civic republicans split during the Gilded Age. Some deployed the ideals of economic autonomy to protect the sovereignty of corporations; others saw the emergence of robber barons and grueling factory conditions as a new threat to freedom. Many of the latter joined organizations like the Knights of Labor, whose demands followed the twin prongs of civic virtue: economic independence and edifying leisure. The Knights fought for greater autonomy and a voice for workers within companies (even if they couldn’t return them to their freehold farms), while also establishing reading rooms and education centers where workers could better themselves in their free time. In the 1880s, 700,000 Knights and their allies braved hunger and hired thugs to strike for the modern workday, chanting, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.” Populist leaders like William Jennings Bryan picked up on those demands. In his 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech, Bryan argued that workers and their bosses ought to have equal economic agency:
The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world.
As labor organizations fought the street battles and Populists waged political campaigns, Progressives like Louis Brandeis carried the same ideals to the marble halls of government. Before he was elevated to the Supreme Court, where he served from 1916 to 1939, the first Jewish justice was, among other things, a crusading labor lawyer. In the infamous Lochner decision of 1905, the Court struck down a New York law limiting bakers’ hours to 60 a week, arguing that states could not interfere with freedom of contract. Three years later, Brandeis persuaded the Court to limit the workday for women in factories and laundries—a narrow victory, but an important precedent.
Brandeis’s conception of leisure was all-encompassing, both Franklinian and Jeffersonian. His clerks became accustomed to leaving notes at his office door at ungodly hours and watching the slips of paper silently be withdrawn underneath; meanwhile, he preached the value of free time well spent and threw himself with equal vigor into philanthropy, Zionist activism, and recreation. “I can do 12 months’ work in 11 months, but not 12,” he once said.
On the nation’s birthday in 1915, Brandeis gave a speech in Boston that asked how, in an age of immigration and nativism, one should define what is quintessentially American. He might have stolen his answer straight from Pericles’s mouth: “What are the American ideals? They are the development of the individual for his own and the common good.”
And how should one develop the individual? “The worker must … have leisure,” Brandeis said. “But leisure does not imply idleness. It means ability to work not less, but more—ability to work at some thing besides breadwinning … Leisure, so defined, is an essential of successful democracy.”
It wasn’t enough that a citizen has the opportunity to improve himself, Brandeis added: “He must be free. Men are not free if dependent industrially upon the arbitrary will of another. Industrial liberty on the part of the worker cannot, therefore, exist if there be overweening industrial power.” On that power, he said, “some curb must be placed.”
It’s hard, Brandeis was saying, to start and maintain a small business when monopolists have the market cornered. And it’s hard to pass laws restricting work hours and child labor when monopoly corporations have undue influence over the machinery of government. Progressive reformers like Woodrow Wilson eventually curbed corporate power by enforcing and strengthening antitrust laws. But the Supreme Court blocked their efforts to limit working hours and ban child labor.
Two decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt took up those causes. “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy,” he proclaimed in 1937, “can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.” The following year, he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the justices, cowed by his court-packing threats and by changing public opinion, let the law stand.
At the same time, FDR’s Justice Department cranked up antitrust enforcement—efforts that continued under four subsequent administrations. With the size and market power of corporations in check, entrepreneurship flourished. America enjoyed a decades-long period of broad prosperity and growing leisure the likes of which it had not seen in a century. Other federal interventions, like the introduction of the 30-year fixed mortgage, helped create a modern version of American yeomanry: the suburban homeowner, with his well-trimmed yard and white picket fence. Again, economic independence moved in concert with political stability, though midcentury efforts to include those left out of the bargain—especially Black Americans—would provide leverage to tear it apart.
Now we are again in a Gilded Age, but one without the language that Brandeis and his allies used to break the control of monopolist overlords. Over the past 40 years, Americans have been encouraged to separate politics from economics, the latter supposedly being the domain of experts better suited to the higher-order calculations that keep the great machine humming and the profits trickling down to all. As a result, the average person has been unable to protest the nation’s growing inequality—at least, not in a way that feels true to America’s shared values. (You want the average worker to have a baseline amount of vacation time and parental leave? What are we, France?)
After the pandemic, the discontent with work runs so deep that some are ready to throw the arrangement out altogether. Recently in Harper’s, Erik Baker linked this disillusionment to the 20th-century rise (and recent decline) of the “entrepreneurial work ethic”—the idea that Americans ought to find their passion and pour themselves into it because “when you do what you love, you won’t work a day in your life.” One might think of it as a reversal of the ancient ethic of scholê-ascholia: You depend on your work, rather than your leisure time, for personal fulfillment. The trouble is that, in present-day economic conditions, the outcome of your strivings (and how much you’re paid for them, and for how long) is in someone else’s hands. The most likely result of this dilemma, Baker concludes, is that Americans will simply give up and reject the entrepreneurial work ethic “in favor of a more cold-blooded understanding of work as a simple exchange of drudgery for money.”
Does it have to be that way? A crisis that, from one angle, might evoke cynicism or despair could, from another, present an opportunity. Instead of just giving up on work, now could be the time to revive an ancient, and foundationally American, understanding of how our toil, complemented by leisure, creates civic virtue. Fighting for remote work can be a first step in advancing those wider goals.
But there are lessons to be learned from the last Gilded Age, when efforts to restore workers’ autonomy and give them edifying leisure time were crushed, one after another, by monopolist oligarchs. Right now, a tight labor market provides workers leverage to demand work from home. Current economic conditions, which have spurred an outflux of white-collar workers from big, expensive cities, can also help to build a national labor market that gives more options to workers and less power to big employers based in a few desirable cities like San Francisco or New York.
The current worker-friendly market won’t last forever, however. Both pillars of the civic republican tradition—economic agency and free time well spent—can be upheld over the long term only by curbing the market power of the large corporations that would take it away. That’s one reason why the Biden administration’s aggressive new antitrust efforts, which are popular even with some Republicans, are so important. Opening consolidated markets will lead to more competing firms that employees can play off against each other to get better pay and benefits, including the right to work from home. And, perhaps counterintuitively, anti-monopoly action can also improve American leisure. Thanks to massive, predatory corporations, much of our free time is spent swirling in the vortex of social media algorithms calibrated to hypnotize and enrage us, rather than teach us something new or inspire us to contribute to our communities. Part of envisioning America’s civic future is thinking about ways to encourage technology that rebuilds community rather than atomizing it.
At first glance, it might seem morally obtuse to worry about comparatively affluent Americans fighting to retain a “lifestyle” benefit when others can barely pay their rent. But the changes needed to win the right to work from home will benefit everyone. That’s because reducing the economic power of monopolies will also lessen their inordinate political power. And that will make it easier to pass laws that help less advantaged workers—for instance, requiring corporations to provide health insurance and paid vacations to truck drivers, office cleaners, and others they employ as independent contractors.
Now that employees have tasted the benefits of remote work, the law of loss aversion suggests that they will be loath to give up those freedoms. The next step is to remind them that this is not just a fight over narrow personal concerns but also over the health of democracy.