Thursday, August 22, 2013

Our Jobs Are Mostly Bullshit

The always-excellent David Graeber hits another home run talking about something we’ve raised here many times before: that many of our jobs are totally unnecessary, or even socially harmful. That our excruciatingly long hours are more about proving to ourselves that our job is useful, or trying to impress the boss and get a promotion, than provide any sort of necessary good or service. He calls these bullshit jobs. And he cites them as the primary reason we're not all working less as was predicted by past economists:
There’s every reason to believe he [Keynes] was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, 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 Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.... 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 like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like 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 deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
This is a profound psychological violence here. 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 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, garbage 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 dock-workers would soon be in trouble...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 when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube 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 mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits.

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they 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 market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm 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 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.
On the Phenomena of Bullshit Jobs (Strike! Magazine)

Health care and education are two areas where we see this phenomenon in spades, and it’s no coincidence we’re paying through the nose in both of these areas. In higher ed, there seems to be one administrator for every teacher. In fact, I’ve seen numbers for the teacher/administrator ratio that are getting ever more ridiculous, something on the order of 5 to 1. These administrators man a desk all day long, and do ridiculous things like fill out forms and schedule meetings. They seem to spend their days coming up with new busy work to justify their position more than anything else.

The same goes for health care. Go into any office and you’ll see a front office full of people on computers filling out paperwork all day long rather than helping patients. I personally have seen rooms full of hospital administrators who do nothing but go to meetings all day and make “decisions.” There seem to be one of these characters for every five doctors or nurses. They never see a patient or cure a disease, yet they make enormous, princely salaries, and commute in from those bloated McMansions springing up in distant exurbs out by the freeway. They jump on all sorts of buzzwords to justify what they do: let’s get new “metrics” so we can implement “Toyota principles” or some nonsense like this. And this “decider” class tries to squeeze ever more value from the people actually doing front-line work, while they hit the links at 4:30. A lot of similar bloat is going on in government, too.

I’ve noticed that these bullshit jobs seem to be occupied primarily by women. I think that’s why female unemployment numbers are better than men’s. The exception is upper management echelons, which seems to be primarily men trading in on their golf-course social connections, but this is a smaller caste, and a bit harder to get admitted to. And another disturbing thing is that the "marketers" are pretty much running the show now. You know these people: toned, tanned and square-jawed, dressed impeccably all the time, outgoing, garrulous and charming; these people just schmooze all day long and collect enormous paychecks without knowing how to actually do anything but manipulate people. A disproportionate amount of these people are devotees of Ayn Rand and see themselves as superior for all their sporting junkets and flesh-pressing, while people with actual specialized training and knowledge are just handmaidens to their greatness. Where I work, architects are second-class citizens, marketers are kings and queens, and "getting work" is all that matters.

What I’m surprised he doesn’t point out is how this plays into the ‘makers’ versus ‘takers rhetoric successfully deployed by right-wing populism. In that view, the “takers” are usually people doing real and necessary jobs, while the “makers” are the professional lunch-eating class whose role is to "allocate capital." So the Wal-Mart worker who resorts to getting food stamps because they have been reduced to part-time to avoid getting benefits is a "taker," and the corporate media whips up anger against them by whining about the tax "burden" (which is extremely minimal for social insurance), and the debt that they have convinced us will bring about the end of the world. And people from both the left and the right eat it up.

Graeber argues that keeping peoples' noses the grindstone keeps them too busy to argue for a better deal. I'm inclined to agree; you saw this massive push for social change in the 1960's and 1970's which was the height of middle class prosperity in America. Today, with people working two jobs and under huge debt burdens, people are just trying to survive from day to day, and, sure enough, there is much less pushback. People are just too busy. The golden age of leisure was also the golden age of protest and experimentation. Add to that the fact that no one reads anymore, they just soak up whatever he said/she said nonsense is being put out by a media controlled entirely by corporations.

Yves Smith, however, disagrees, and has some intesting things to say: The Rise of Bullshit Jobs (Naked Capitalism):
First, if you look back historically, the idea that the lower classes needed to be kept busy for their own sake was presented in moralistic terms but was in fact ruthlessly economic. The whole point of making the peasants work instead of faff around and drink was to enable them to be exploited by the newly-emerging entrepreneurial class

In other words, a big part of the capitalist exercise is to find or create workers to exploit. Graeber has the story backwards. The moral fable (idleness is bad for the perp and putting him to work is thus a moral undertaking) was not, as Graeber suggests, because lazy people are proto-insurrectionists. It is that people who are self-sufficient and have time on their hands on top of that drove the early capitalists nuts. They were exploitable resources lying fallow, no different to them than a gold vein in the next hill that the numbnick farmer/owner was unwilling to mine because he liked the view and was perfectly content grazing sheep.

A second problem with Graeber’s discussion is the idea that leisure is a good thing given how we now have society ordered in America> (trust me, this statement is not as nutty as it seems when put that baldly).
Also: Bullshit jobs: why we're not all working 4h days (BoingBoing)

Previously: Useless Paper Pushers


  1. Hey, Happy Birthday! I kinda remember turning 40...
    I was sitting at my bullshit job today, whiling away the minutes by reading up what intelligent writers I can find on the internets. You are right there at the top of the list, by the way. So since I had a lot of spare time, I read down Yves Smith's column, and comments. I like her too, but I find it hard to look at her page layout for long. I think she misses the point on this one too. I'm not sure how I feel about David Graeber either, for that matter. I generally agree with him, and think he has some excellent ideas, but I am much more apt to align with a guy pushing a wheelbarrow full of mulch than with a well spoken theorist.
    Except that I spend an inordinate amount of time at my job. By which I mean about 40 hours a week. To do what would take maybe 10 hours, if I applied myself to it. I make working drawings and inventory lists for a small industrial manufacturer. We don't make military junk, but the industries we serve are doing what most industries are doing - striving to turn the whole world into something that can be sold to some consumer somewhere. And to maximize the near-term profit in so doing. Thus, my job is not evil, but not helping the big picture. I am a cog in Business As Usual. As I said the work that crosses my desk occupies well under half the time I spend at my job, but I am expected to be present anyway - I am paid by the hour, no matter what exactly I am doing in that hour. I have broached the idea of taking my small annual raise in the form of vacation time rather than cash, but I was told "No". I still don't believe that this adds up to some effort to subjugate me, I think it is simply a lack of imagination on the part of management. Companies are run a certain way, and that is how it is. Like a superstition. If you truly 'think outside the box' there is the danger that the illusion of progress, industry and profit might vanish. All of which makes it easy to support my (mild) money addiction, and keeps the hopelessly broken system rolling in whatever small way. So far.
    I will speak for myself, but I am confident that there are others like me who appreciate the work you do here. Telling it like it is in this weird, long Wile E. Coyote moment.

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