So do you think someone is just making up pointless jobs to keep us working? One of the phrases on the posters suggested that.
Obviously it's not like people are sitting around in a room saying, you know, "Let's think up pointless jobs!" but it is true that people who talk about economic policy talk about creating employment but never talk about whether that employment is meaningful or not.
This completely contradicts what should happen in a capitalist system. You know, we're used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an economy where they had an ideology of full employment and they had to make up jobs for people that were completely unnecessary and pointless; you'd go to a cashier and one gives you a ticket and another does something else and another something else – they were constantly making up these pointless jobs. It's understandable that this would happen in an economy that is based on the principle of work as a value unto itself and full employment and so forth and so on. But in a capitalist society, paying somebody to do nothing is the very last thing you'd expect a firm to do, but in fact they do and often you can observe it.
In a lot of the responses I got on blogs, people would talk about how they had figured out a way to automate 90 percent of their job or whatever, and they'd say, "I showed it to my supervisor and they said, 'Don't do that! If you do that, I'll need three workers instead of eight workers and I'll be much less significant within the corporation.'" The corporate bureaucracy is not that different to what happened in the old Soviet system.
Why do you think many people are unemployed and actually wish they had any job – even a bullshit job – to do?
I think one thing that's really significant is an ideological shift, away from the idea that work is valuable in that it produces stuff. It's kind of self-evident that, in the 19th century, work was important to produce the world around us.
But over the course of the 20th century there's been a huge effort to re-imagine the world; it's the imagination of these great entrepreneurial geniuses that create all these things – workers are just robots, working in the factories, doing what they're told, extensions of the minds of these quite great people. It seems there has been an increased emphasis on work as of pure value unto itself.
You say bullshit jobs do moral and spiritual damage. How come?
There's this idea that work is discipline – you can't become a mature, responsible, self-contained, proper person without basically working more than you want to at things you don't really like. The more unpleasant work is, the more moralising it is. And that logic has become stronger and stronger and stronger, so anybody who doesn't work you can revile as a parasite.Activists Plastered the Tube with Posters Telling People Their Jobs Are Bullshit (Vice)
But we have this weird thing now where even people who enjoy their work are viewed a bit suspiciously. We have this weird situation where the more obviously your work contributes to the world, the less they pay you, with a few exceptions like surgeons, airline pilots, things like that. But for the most part the people who get paid the most are people who it is entirely unclear what they contribute to the world at all. Meanwhile people like say, a nurse – the people who, if they disappeared, the world would immediately be in trouble – those guys get the least.
How does that happen? I think one of the reasons is passive morality – that, like, work is valuable because you don't wanna be doing it and there's no meaning or value in it at all. It's really hard to get a company to pay people to do something when they have any reason to do so other than the money. So even if it's like transformation work or artistic work – anything that's in any way fun – they say, "Is there some way we can get people to do this for free?"
I remember being very struck by Dostoyevsky, who was in a Russian prison camp, and he said if you really want to destroy someone psychologically, much worse than through physical torture, just make up a completely meaningless form of work. You know, have them take water from some giant vat and then move it back to the first vat again. Have them do that all day and before long even the most hardened criminal will be utterly despairing of life, because there's nothing more horrible than devoting one's life to something completely meaningless. I mean, you know, sure, there will be some freeloaders, but we've got more freeloaders right now.
By coincidence, I received this comment from an anonymous reader just last week:
I'll admit that I feel resentment against those who do some of the "meaningful" work that Graeber describes although arguably I am now doing "meaningful" work at a university so maybe I should accept my lot. I will say that coming out of law school and grad school I assumed that I could find work in the NGO world only to find out that indeed most of the really good jobs including those working directly with the poor and working class were held by Ivy league types from very, by my standards, wealthy families. In fact I nosed my way into some of these cliques only to find that I really did dislike these people even though they were ostensibly doing good work they were very elitist and openly hostile to outsiders. In addition no experience not stamped with certain types of approval, e.g. Ivy league institutions or certain NGOs and governmental organizations, was simply overlooked or even held against you. Many of these do-gooders considered themselves socialists and there were even a few commies in the mix but actual experience with left politics that was not electoral in nature or that wasn't clearly didn't embrace up front a on-violent ethic that would make Gandhi seem dangerous made you persona non grata unless or course you had lots of other marks of class distinction and your experience was wholly in the past. Some NGOs especially those dealing with the UN and international issues explicitly recruit only from Ivies. There's a whole class of fake leftists who facilitate these sort of cultural experiences for leftists who want to experience the thrill of being anti establishment but go on, never the less, to good careers. I'll name one Angela Davis. Happy New Year!This is a phenomena I've described before: opportunity hoarding. The good and meaningful jobs are taken by the upper class, and they put all sort of impenetrable barriers to make sure those of us without means do not have access to them. There is the soaring cost for college - which is a feature, not a bug of American society (unlike Europe). Then there are the unpaid internships in the most expensive cities in the world. Then there are costly licenses and certifications which ordinary people cannot afford. Then there are jobs that pay too little to live unless you have another source of income like a trust fund (as Graeber describes above).
The end result is that the supposed wonderful jobs our economy is producing are taken by the elites, and the rest of us end up stocking shelves, working the deep fryer or in the Amazon warehouse. And then the poor are lumped together by the moniker "unskilled labor" and told their situation is due to their laziness and lack of social skills. I've seen this personally in architecture - it deliberately puts up as many barriers as possible (e.g. more school than anything except doctors and lawyers doing essentially pointless busywork) to prevent people of modest means from pursuing a career in the field because a lot of people find it theoretically appealing . And maybe it is if you're a graduate of Yale, Harvard or Columbia and get to build award-wining houses for wealthy friends of your wealthy parents.
I had my own bullshit job interview last week on the coldest day of the year, which made me have to drive in this awful weather (fortunately not too far). And I'm sitting in this conference room in my uncomfortable suit across from the typical four pasty dull white suburban males talking about how their kids' school is called off due to the cold and inside I'm thinking WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE? I do not belong here. I do not have a wife and a house and 2.5 kids and an SUV. What the fuck am I doing with my life? Do I really want another cubicle job with tight budgets, tight deadlines, angry clients headaches and high stress? DO I really want to sell the minutes of my life to another bidder, one who will probably eliminate what little vacation I do have. And I certainly don't want to continue throwing my life away in this lonely frozen hellhole that I currently live live in. I am filled with disgust and revulsion and fall into a deep depression. But what other options do I have besides throwing myself off a bridge, which is looking better and better. Surely there is more to life than this?
So anyway, that my job story. Some might find this essay relevant"
Authoritarians of the left, libertarians of the right, objectivists, conservatives and even liberals and progressives fixated on “jobs” and “rehabilitation” of the socioeconomically dysfunctional give the answer “no; ” sometimes directly (as in the case of the Stalinist and the American conservative) and other times through actions, policies, and preferences (as in the case of elements of the “occupation” movement distancing themselves from “homeless bums,” “drug users,” and “ex-cons”).People as Livestock: The Cult of Fundamentalist Materialism and the Cheapening Life (Op-Ed News)
Most of all, those with the power to set wages, prices, working conditions and societal expectation for those who have nothing left but their time and “docile bodies”*(Foucault) to sell, control and trade in human lives as commodities. While most of the supposedly civilized world frowns on chattel slavery (although a good bit of it goes on, especially in the sex trade, where prosecution of traffickers is the exception rather than the rule), the legal technicality of ownership is superfluous to the trade in human lives, time, labor, and in Reichian terms orgones.
What do Stalinism, objectivism, authoritarian capitalism, and global corporatism all have in common ? They are in my opinion fundamentalist-materialist cults that value the inanimate over the living, the concrete over the abstract and have effectively reduced the vast majority of the human race to livestock, or wild beasts to be hunted down, captured, contained, broken, or in the alternative, simply slaughtered and destroyed.
The message remains the same though, as it has been throughout history: “Obey or suffer.” Individual disobedience or even mere failure to “produce” in spite of the individual’s best efforts will result in stigmatization, marginalization, a degrading dependency on the state and, as state support for the economically disengaged is cut back and removed, starvation, homelessness and imprisonment; even the fact of homelessness is defined as a criminal offense by more local jurisdictions with each passing year.
The fact is that life is cheap; the idealistic visions of humanitarians are swept aside by those advocates of “austerity” and “tough choices,” whose calculations in service of usury on a global scale will determine the level of human suffering in each nation up to and including death by starvation, disease, and the inevitable outcome of manufactured scarcity, war.
The blurry and dim imagery of the concretes of suffering fades from vision in the glare of the deadly abstractions; political ideologies, religions, money that does not exist anywhere other than in the record keeping of the money lenders remains in clear focus. The conclusion returns stark, glaring and obvious: human life is a commodity, the value of which is consistently decreasing. The devaluation of an individual human life to a unit of production and consumption, which therefore can be discarded if determined to have no economic value, is all that is required for the machinery of mass exterminations and genocide to be set in motion.
As for meaningful jobs, 29-year-old St. Louis Rams center Jason Brown left NFL and $37 million contract to become farmer in order to feed the hungry (Daily Kos)