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<nettime> David Graeber: The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs
nettime's_loss_leader on Fri, 6 Sep 2013 06:05:46 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> David Graeber: The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs


The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs

   September 03, 2013

   Why, despite our technological capacities, are we not all working
   three- to four-hour days? asks David Graeber.

   In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century's end,
   technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Britain
   or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour working week.
   There's every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms,
   we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn't happen. Instead,
   technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make
   us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created
   that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people in the Western
   world spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly
   believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual
   damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across
   our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

   Why did Keynes's promised utopia - still being eagerly awaited in the
   1960s - never materialise? The standard line is he didn't predict the
   massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours
   and more toys and pleasures, we've collectively chosen the latter. This
   presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment's reflection shows it
   can't really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless
   variety of new jobs and industries since the 1920s, but very few have
   anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones
   or fancy sneakers.

   So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing
   employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture.
   Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as
   domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed
   dramatically. At the same time, ''professional, managerial, clerical,
   sales, and service workers'' tripled, growing ''from one-quarter to
   three-quarters of total employment''. In other words, productive jobs
   have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count
   industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and
   China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the
   world population as they used to be).

   But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free
   the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions
   and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the
   ''service'' sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including
   the creation of whole new industries such as financial services or
   telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as
   corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and
   public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those
   people whose job is to provide administrative, technical or security
   support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of
   ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza-delivery drivers)
   that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time
   working in all the other ones.

   These are what I propose to call ''bullshit jobs''.

   It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the
   sake of keeping us all working. And here lies the mystery. In
   capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in
   the old inefficient socialist states, such as the Soviet Union, where
   employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system
   made up as many jobs as it had to (this is why in Soviet department
   stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course,
   this is the sort of very problem that market competition is supposed to
   fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a
   profit-seeking business is going to do is shell out money to workers
   they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

   While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the lay-offs 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 organising or
   attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or
   downloading television series.

   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 its hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen
   when this even began to be approximated in the 1960s). 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.

   Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of
   administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came
   up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of
   individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task
   they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired
   because they were excellent cabinetmakers, and then discover they are
   expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Nor does the
   task really need to be done - at least, there's only a very limited
   number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow they all become so
   obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers
   might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair
   share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's
   endless piles of useless, badly cooked fish piling up all over the
   workshop and it's all that anyone really does.

   I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral
   dynamics of our own economy.


   Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate
   objections: ''Who are you to say what jobs are really 'necessary'?
   What's necessary anyway? You're an anthropology professor, what's the
   'need' for that?'' (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the
   existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social
   expenditure.) And, on one level, this is obviously true. There can be
   no objective measure of social value.

   I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a
   meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But
   what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are
   meaningless? Not long ago, I got back in touch with a school friend
   whom I hadn't seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that, in
   the interim, he had become first a poet, then the frontman in an indie
   rock band. I'd heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the
   singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant,
   innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the
   lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful
   albums, he'd lost his contract and, plagued with debts and a newborn
   daughter, ended up, as he put it, ''taking the default choice of so
   many directionless folk: law school''. Now he's a corporate lawyer
   working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that
   his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and,
   in his own estimation, should not really exist.

   There's a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with: what does
   it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited
   demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand
   for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1 per cent of the
   population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ''the
   market'' reflects what those people think is useful or important, not
   anyone else.) But even more it shows that most people in these jobs are
   ultimately aware of it. In fact, I'm unsure I've ever met a corporate
   lawyer who didn't think their job was bullshit. The same goes for
   almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of
   salaried professionals who, should you meet them at parties and admit
   that you do something that might be considered interesting (an
   anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their
   line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch
   into tirades about how pointless and stupid their jobs really are.

   This is a profound psychological violence. How can one even begin to
   speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not
   exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet
   it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured
   out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is
   directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful
   work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that,
   the more obviously one's work benefits other people, the less one is
   likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find,
   but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this
   entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about
   nurses, rubbish collectors or mechanics, it's obvious that, were they
   to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and
   catastrophic. A world without teachers or stevedores would soon be in
   trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians
   would clearly be a lesser place. It's not entirely clear how humanity
   would suffer were all private equity chief executives, lobbyists,
   public relations researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or
   legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly
   improve.) Yet, apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions
   (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

   Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the
   way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing
   populism. You can see it in Britain, when tabloids whip up resentment
   against transport workers for paralysing London during contract
   disputes: the very fact that the workers can paralyse London shows that
   their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what
   annoys people. It's even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had
   remarkable success mobilising resentment against schoolteachers or car
   workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or
   car industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their
   supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It's as if they are being told:
   ''But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real
   jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class
   pensions and healthcare?''

   If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining
   the power of finance capital, it's hard to see how they could have done
   a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and
   exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of
   the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are
   basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them
   identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class
   (managers, administrators, etc) - and particularly its financial
   avatars - but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against
   anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the
   system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century
   of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our
   technological capacities, we are not all working three to four-hour

   David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of
   Economics. This article first appeared in Strike! Magazine, a
   radical British quarterly that covers politics, philosophy and art. The
   article has subsequently struck a chord worldwide and we thank Strike!
   and Professor Graeber for allowing the Informant to republish it.

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