Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Wisdom of David Graeber

I may just stop going to Salon ever because the ads being shoved down your throat are beyond obnoxious. In fact, I'm ready to leave the whole internet. But this interview with David Graeber is worth it: David Graeber explains why the more your job helps others, the less you get paid (Salon)

On the history of working less:
After the successful campaigns for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, people immediately started thinking, can we move this to seven, six, or less. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and author of “The Right to Be Lazy,” was already calling for something along those lines in 1883. I have a Wobbly T-shirt with a turn-of-the-century style design that says “join the IWW for a new dawn,” it has a sun rising over the rooftops, and on the sun is written, “four-day week, four-hour day.” I don’t know how old the image really is but I’m guessing it’s from the Teens or the ’20s. In the 1930s, a lot of labor unions did move their industries to a 35-hour week.

By the ‘60s, most people thought that robot factories, and ultimately, the elimination of all manual labor, was probably just a generation or two away. Everyone from the Situationists to the Yippies were saying “let the machines do all the work!” and objecting to the very principle of 9-to-5 labor. In the ‘70s, there were actually a series of now-forgotten wildcat strikes by auto workers and others, in Detroit, I think Turin, and other places, basically saying, “we’re just tired of working so much.

This sort of thing threw a lot of people in positions of power into a kind of moral panic. There were think-tanks set up to examine what to do—basically, how to maintain social control—in a society where more and more traditional forms of labor would soon be obsolete. A lot of the complaints you see in Alvin Toffler and similar figures in the early ‘70s—that rapid technological advance was throwing the social order into chaos—had to do with those anxieties: too much leisure had created the counter-culture and youth movements, what was going to happen when things got even more relaxed? It’s probably no coincidence that it was around that time that things began to turn around, both in the direction of technological research, away from automation and into information, medical, and military technologies (basically, technologies of social control), and also in the direction of market reforms that would send us back towards less secure employment, longer hours, greater work discipline.
On why are people working so much:
[T]he casual explanation is always consumerism. The idea is always that given the choice between four-hour days, and nine or ten-hour days with SUVs, iPhones and eight varieties of designer sushi, we all collectively decided free time wasn’t really worth it. This also ties into the “service economy” argument, that nobody wants to cook or clean or fix or even brew their own coffee any more, so all the new employment is in maintaining an infrastructure for people to just pop over to the food court, or Starbucks, on their way to or from work. So, sure, a lot of this is just taken as common sense if you do raise the issue to someone who doesn’t think about it very much. But it’s also obviously not much of an explanation.

First of all, only a very small proportion of the new jobs have anything to do with actually making consumer toys, and most of the ones that do are overseas. Yet even there, the total number of people involved in industrial production has declined. Second of all, even in the richest countries, it’s not clear if the number of service jobs has really increased as dramatically as we like to think.  If you look at the numbers between 1930 and 2000, well, there used to be huge numbers of domestic servants. Those numbers have collapsed. Third, you also see that’s what’s grown is not service jobs per se, but “service, administrative, and clerical” jobs, which have gone from roughly a quarter of all jobs in the ‘30s to maybe as much as three quarters today. But how do you explain an explosion of middle managers and paper-pushers by a desire for sushi and iPhones?

And then, finally, there’s the obvious question of cause and effect. Are people working so many hours because we’ve just somehow independently conceived this desire for lattes and Panini and dog-walkers and the like, or is it that people are grabbing food and coffee on the go and hiring people to walk their dogs because they’re all working so much?
On worker revolutions:
...It was generally the classic anarchist constituencies—recently proletarianized peasants and craftsmen—who rose up and made the great revolutions, whether in Russia or China or for that matter Algeria or Spain—but they always ended up with regimes run by socialists who accepted that labor was a virtue in itself and the purpose of labor was to create a consumer utopia. Of course they were completely incapable of providing such a consumer utopia. But what social benefit did they actually provide? Well, the biggest one, the one no one talks about, was guaranteed employment and job security—the “iron rice bowl”, they called it in China, but it went by many names. You couldn’t really get fired from your job. As a result you didn’t really have to work very hard. So on paper they had eight- or nine-hour days but really everyone was working maybe four or five.

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like. You get up. You buy the paper. You go to work. You read the paper. Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath… If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day. But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it. They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue. They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided. Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline. “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?” It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.
On Bullshit jobs:
When I talk about bullshit jobs, I mean, the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist. A lot of them are made-up middle management, you know, I’m the “East Coast strategic vision coordinator” for some big firm, which basically means you spend all your time at meetings or forming teams that then send reports to one another. Or someone who works in an industry that they feel doesn’t need to exist, like most of the corporate lawyers I know, or telemarketers, or lobbyists…. Just think of when you walk into a hospital, how half the employees never seem to do anything for sick people, but are just filling out insurance forms and sending information to each other. Some of that work obviously does need to be done, but for the most part, everyone working there knows what really needs to get done and that the remaining 90 percent of what they do is bullshit. And then think about the ancillary workers that support people doing the bullshit jobs: here’s an office where people basically translate German formatted paperwork into British formatted paperwork or some such, and there has to be a whole infrastructure of receptionists, janitors, security guards, computer maintenance people, which are kind of second-order bullshit jobs, they’re actually doing something, but they’re doing it to support people who are doing nothing.

I’m not here to tell anybody who thinks their job is valuable that they’re deluded. I’m just saying if people secretly believe their job doesn’t need to exist, they’re probably right. The arrogant ones are the ones who think they know better, who believe that there are workers out there so stupid they don’t understand the true meaning of what they do every day, don’t realize it really isn’t necessary, or think that workers who believe they’re in bullshit jobs have such an exaggerated sense of self-importance that they think they should be doing something else and therefore dismiss the importance of their own work as not good enough. I hear a lot of that. Those people are the arrogant ones.

I think the spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded and for what. There was this pall of mystification cast over everything pertaining to that sector—we were told, this is all so very complicated, you couldn’t possibly understand, it’s really very advanced science, you know, they are coming up with trading programs so complicated only astro-physicists can understand them, that sort of thing. We just had to take their word that, somehow, this was creating value in ways our simple little heads couldn’t possibly get around. Then after the crash we realized a lot of this stuff was not just scams, but pretty simple-minded scams, like taking bets you couldn’t possibly pay if you lost and just figuring the government would bail you out if you did. These guys weren’t creating value of any kind. They were making the world worse and getting paid insane amounts of money for it.

Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling  obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.

But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it.
Why the working class hates 'liberal coastal elites:'
What I ended up concluding is that working class people hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite—and mind you, they don’t like the economic elite very much. But they hate the cultural elite because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world. If you want a career pursuing any form of value other than monetary value—if you want to work in journalism, and pursue truth, or in the arts, and pursue beauty, or in some charity or international NGO or the UN, and pursue social justice—well, even assuming you can acquire the requisite degrees, for the first few years they won’t even pay you. So you’re supposed to live in New York or some other expensive city on no money for a few years after graduation. Who else can do that except children of the elite? So if you’re a fork-lift operator or even a florist, you know your kid is unlikely to ever become a CEO, but you also know there’s no way in a million years they’ll ever become drama critic for the New Yorker or an international human rights lawyer. The only way they could get paid a decent salary to do something noble, something that’s not just for the money, is to join the army. So saying “support the troops” is a way of saying “fuck you” to the cultural elite who think you’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging cavemen, but who also make sure your kid would never be able to join their club of rich do-gooders even if he or she was twice as smart as any of them.

So the right wing manipulates the resentment of the bulk of the working class from being able to dedicate their lives to anything purely noble or altruistic. But at the same time—and here’s the real evil genius of right-wing populism—they also manipulate the resentment of that portion of the middle classes trapped in bullshit jobs against the bulk of the working classes, who at least get to do productive work of obvious social benefit. Think about all the popular uproar about school teachers. There’s this endless campaign of vilification against teachers, who they say are overpaid, coddled, and are blamed for everything wrong with our education system. In fact, grade school teachers undergo really grueling conditions for much less money than they’d be paid if they’d gone into almost any other profession requiring the same level of education, and almost all the problems the right-wingers are referring to aren’t created by the teachers or teachers’ unions at all but by school administrators—the ones who are paid much more, and mostly have classic bullshit jobs that seem to multiply endlessly even as the teachers themselves are squeezed and downsized. So why does no one complain about those guys?”

It’s an imperfect strategy. The anti-intellectualism for instance works on many sections of the white working class, but it doesn’t work nearly so well on immigrants or African-Americans. The resentment against those who get to do meaningful labor exists alongside a resentment for having to do meaningless labor to begin with. It’s an unstable mix. But we have to recognize that in countries like the US, it’s been pretty effective.
BONUS: Check out some Bullshit Jobs here.


  1. I use firefox with adblock plus on salon. zero ads.

    1. I'll have to get that. The ads are getting so in-your-face and are being so sneaky that it's not even worth it to go anywhere these days. I knew that Dynamic HTML would be the death of the Web - it should never have been invented. Web pages these days are a postage-stamp size worth of content surrounded by the trashiest ads imaginable. It didn't used to be this way. Yet another thing ruined by capitalism.

  2. Once you remove people from the land and move them to urban spaces, they don't really have as much in the way of "means of production." By this, I mean they need a money-job to feed themselves, because they can't just grow a big garden or have some chickens on the side like a poor person can in a more remote area. I think that's a big part of the problem, as far as why there's so many of what you call "bullshit jobs." People need to eat, so that means either land or money-jobs.

    Also, from what I understand, one of the Number One things doctors hate about practicing medicine (according to a survey I read a while back) is the sheer amount of paperwork needed in order to get each statement right for the individual idiosyncrasies of each insurance company. Apparently it takes up hours and hours that could be better used for seeing and treating patients. Single-payer health insurance would help massively.

  3. Regarding "why are we working so much": Elizabeth Kolbert recently entertained the "rampant consumerism" argument, ( but what I don't understand is why I never hear the "fear-of-living-under-a-bridge when I'm old" argument - e.g. it's been inculcated in me to work as hard as I can to stuff money away in my 401k, else who will take care of me?. I certainly can't depend on Social Security (despite the fact that I've paid into it my whole working life, it's considered a frivolous "entitlement" that can never be probably budgeted and so must be cut). I'm also working hard to put something away for my daughter's education, because I'm terrified of her being reduced to debt peonage before she even starts her adult life. These are the rules of the game, right? If it were all as simple as giving up my iphone and starbucks, I would have chosen a 15-hour work week a long, long time ago....

  4. 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!


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