Tue, 07 Aug 2018 14:36:01 +0200
Is your job pointless? Do you feel that your position could be eliminated and everything would continue on just fine? Maybe, you think, society would even be a little better off if your job never existed?
If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then take solace. You are not alone. As much as half the work that the working population engages in every day could be considered pointless, says David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
According to Graeber, the same free market policies that have made life and work more difficult for so many working people over the past few decades have simultaneously produced more highly paid managers, telemarketers, insurance company bureaucrats, lawyers and lobbyists who do nothing useful all day. Labor journalist Chris Brooks interviewed David Graeber to learn how so many pointless jobs came to exist and what it means for labor activists.
Well it’s fairly straightforward: shit jobs are just bad jobs. Ones you’d never want to have. Back-breaking, underpaid, unappreciated, people who are treated without dignity and respect… The thing is for the most part, shit jobs aren’t bullshit, in the sense of pointless, nonsensical, because actually they usually involve doing something that genuinely needs to be done: driving people around, building things, taking care of people, cleaning up after them…
Bullshit jobs are most often paid quite well, involve nice benefit packages, you’re treated like you’re important and actually are doing something that needs to be done — but in fact, you know you’re not. So in that way they’re typically opposites.
Well pretty much all of them — that’s kind of the whole point. Bullshit jobs are ones where the person doing them secretly believes that if the job (or even sometimes the entire industry) were to disappear, it would make no difference — or perhaps, as in the case of say telemarketers, lobbyists, or many corporate law firms, the world would be a better place.
And that’s not all: think of all the people doing real work in support of bullshit jobs, cleaning their office buildings, doing security or pest control for them, looking after the psychological and social damage done to human beings by people all working too hard on nothing. I’m sure we could easily eliminate half the work we’re doing and that would have major positive effects on everything from art and culture to climate change.
To be honest I’m not sure how new a thing it really is. The point wasn’t so much about productivity, in the economic sense, as social benefit. If someone is cleaning, or nursing, or cooking or driving a bus, you know exactly what they’re doing and why it’s important. This is not at all so clear for a brand manager or financial consultant. There was always something of an inverse relation between the usefulness of a given form of labor, and compensation. There are a few well-known exceptions like doctors or pilots but generally it holds true.
What’s happened has been less a change in the pattern, as a vast inflation of the number of useless and relatively well-paid jobs. We deceptively refer to the rise of the service economy here, but most actual service jobs are useful and low paid — I’m talking about waitresses, uber drivers, barbers and the like — and their overall numbers haven’t changed at all. What’s really increased are the number of clerical, administrative and managerial jobs, which seem to have tripled as an overall proportion of workers over the last century or so. That’s where the pointless jobs come in.
Well that’s definitely true if you’re talking about Amazon or UPS or Wallmart. I guess you could argue that the supervisory jobs that cause the speedups aren’t really bullshit, because they are doing something, if something not very nice. In manufacturing robots really have caused mass gains in productivity in most sectors, meaning that workers are downsized — though the few that remain are paid better than workers in most sectors overall.
Nonetheless in all those areas there’s the same tendency to add useless levels of managers between the boss, or the money people, and the actual workers, and to a large extent their “supervision” doesn’t speed up anything but actually slows it down. This becomes the more true, the more one moves toward the caring sector — education, health, social services of one sort or another. There the creation of meaningless administrative jobs and the concomitant bullshitization of real work — forcing nurses, doctors, teachers, professors to fill out endless forms all day — (I say concomitant because a lot of that, while justified by digitization, is really just there to give the useless administrators something to do), has the effect of massively lowering productivity.
This is what statistics actually show — productivity in industry skyrocketing, and with it, profits, but productivity in say health and education declining, therefore, prices going up, and profits being maintained largely by squeezing wages. Which in turn explains why you have teachers, nurses, even doctors and professors on strike in so many parts of the world.
Well when I was in college they taught me that capitalism means that there are capitalists, who own productive resources, like say factories, and they hire people to make stuff and then sell it. So they can’t pay their workers so much they don’t make a profit, but they have to pay them at least enough that they can afford to buy the stuff the factory produces. Feudalism in contrast is when you just take your profits directly, by charging rent, fees and dues, turning people in debt peons, or otherwise shaking them down.
Well, nowadays the vast majority of corporate profits don’t come from making or selling things but from “finance”, which is a euphemism for other peoples’ debts — charging rents and fees and interest and whatnot. It’s feudalism in the classic definition, “direct juro-political extraction” as they sometimes put it.
This also means the role of government is very different: in classic capitalism it just protects your property and maybe polices the labor force so they don’t get too difficult, but in financial capitalism, you’re extracting your profits through the legal system, so the rules and regulations are absolutely crucial, you basically need the government to back you up as you shake people down for their debts.
Yes, exactly. Amusingly enough both libertarians and Marxists tend to attack me on these grounds, and the reason is that both are still basically operating with a conception of capitalism as it existed in maybe the 1860s — lots of little competing firms making and selling stuff. Sure, that’s still true if you’re talking about, say, owner-operated restaurants, and I’d agree that such restaurants tend not to hire people they don’t really need.
But if you’re talking about the large firms that dominate the economy nowadays, they operate by an entirely different logic. If profits are extracted through fees, rents and creating and enforcing debts, if the state is intimately involved in surplus extraction, well, the difference between the economic and political sphere tends to dissolve. Buying political loyalty for your extractive schemes is itself an economic good.
When I suggested that one reason bullshit jobs endure is that they are politically convenient for a lot of powerful people, of course, lots of people accused me of being a paranoid conspiracy theorist — even though what I was really writing, I thought, was more an anti-conspiracy theory, why is it that powerful people don’t get together and try to do something about the situation.
The Obama quote felt like a smoking gun in that regard — basically he said “well everyone says single payer health care would be so much more efficient, sure, maybe it would, but think about it, we have millions of people working in jobs in all these competing private health firms because of all that redundancy and inefficiency. What are we going to do with those people?” So he admitted the free market was less efficient, in health at least, and that’s precisely why he preferred it — it maintained bullshit jobs.
Now, it’s interesting you never hear politicians talk that way about blue collar jobs — there it’s always the law of the market to eliminate as many as possible, or cut their salaries, and if they suffer, well, there’s nothing you can really do. For example, Obama didn’t seem to have nearly such concern about the auto workers who got laid off or had to give huge pay sacrifices after the bailout of the industry. So some jobs matter more than others.
In the case of Obama, it’s pretty clear why: as Tom Frank recently noted, the Democratic Party made a strategic decision starting in the ‘80s to basically drop the working class as their core constituency and take up the professional managerial classes instead. That’s now their base. But of course that’s exactly the area the bullshit jobs are concentrated.
Well, they used to talk about featherbedding, insisting on hiring unnecessary workers, and then of course any bureaucracy will tend to accumulate a certain number of bullshit positions. But what I was mainly talking about was simply the constant demand for “more jobs” as the solution to all social problems.
It’s always the one thing you can demand that no one can object to your demanding, as you’re not asking for a freebie, you’re asking to be allowed to earn your keep. Even Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington was billed as a march for “Jobs and Freedom” — because if you have union support, the demand for jobs has to be in there. And paradoxically if people are working independently, as freelancers, or even in coops, well, they’re not in unions are they?
Ever since the ’60s there has been one strain of radicalism that sees unions as part of the problem for this reason. But I think we need to think about the question in broader terms: how labor unions which once used to campaign for less work, less hours, have essentially come to accept the weird trade off between puritanism and hedonism on which consumer capitalism is based — that work should be “hard” (hence good people are “hard-working people”) and that the aim of work is material prosperity, that we need to suffer to earn our right to consumer toys.
We have this obsession with the idea of “production” and “productivity” (which in turn has to “grow”, hence, “growth”) — which I really think is theological in its origins. God created the universe. Humans are cursed to have to imitate God by creating their own food and clothing, etc., in pain and misery. So we think of work primarily as productive, making things — each sector is defined by its “productivity’, even real estate! — when in fact, even a moment’s reflection should show that most work isn’t making anything, it’s cleaning and polishing, and watching and tending to, helping and nurturing and fixing and otherwise taking care of things.
You make a cup once. You wash it a thousand times. This is what most working class work has always been too, there were always more nannies and bootblacks and gardeners and chimneysweeps and sex workers and dustmen and scullery maids and so on than factory workers.
And yes, even transit workers, who might seem to have nothing to do now that the ticket booths have been automated, are really there in case children get lost, or someone’s sick, or to talk down some drunk guy who’s bothering people… (Here the problem is the public has been so conditioned to think like petty bourgeois bosses they can’t accept that there’s no reason for people who are just there in case there’s a problem to be sitting around playing cards all day, so they’re expected to pretend to be working all the time anyway.) Yet we leave this out of our theories of value which are all about “productivity”.
I suggest the reverse, as feminist economists have suggested, we could think of even factory work as an extension of caring labor, because you only want to make cars or pave highways because you care that people can get to where they’re going. Certainly something like this underlies the sense people have that their work has “social value” — or even more, that it doesn’t have any social value if they have bullshit jobs.
But it’s very important I think to begin to reconsider how we think about the value of our work, and these things will become ever more important as automation makes caring labor more important — not just because, as I’ve already pointed out, it is having the paradoxical effect of causing those sectors to be less efficient, so there are more and more people have to work in those sectors to achieve the same effects, and not even because as a result these are the zones of real conflict, but especially because these are the areas we would not want to automate. We wouldn’t want a robot talking down drunks or comforting lost children. We need to see the value in the sort of labor we would only really want humans to do.
I like to talk about “the revolt of the caring classes.” The working classes have always been the caring classes — not just because they do almost all of the caring labor, but also because, perhaps partly as a result, they actually are more empathetic than the rich. Psychological studies show this, by the way. The richer you are, the less competent you are at even understanding other people’s feelings. So trying to reimagine work — not as a value or end in itself, but as the material extension of caring — is a good start.
Actually I’d even propose we replace “production” and “consumption” with “caring” and “freedom” — caring is any action ultimately directed towards maintaining or increasing another person, or other people’s freedom, just as mothers take care of children not just so they are healthy and grow and thrive, but most immediately, so they can play, which is the ultimate expression of freedom.
That’s all long-term stuff though. In the more immediate sense, I think we need to figure out how to oppose the dominance of the professional-managerial, not just in existing left organizations — though in many cases, like the US Democratic Party, I don’t even know if they should be called left — and thus, to effectively oppose bullshitization.
Right now nurses in New Zealand are on strike and one of their major issues is exactly that: on the one hand, their real wages have been declining, but on the other, they also find they are spending so much time filling out forms they can’t take care of their patients. It’s over 50 percent for many nurses.
The two problems are linked because of course all the money that would have otherwise been going to keep their wages up, are instead being diverted to hiring new and useless administrators who then burden them with even more bullshit to justify their own existence. But often, those administrators are represented by the same parties, even sometimes in the same unions.
How do we come up with a practical program to fight this sort of thing? I think that’s an extremely important strategic question.
Mon, 06 Aug 2018 22:02:10 +0200
The Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 was one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience the UK has ever witnessed. It was an action that paved the way for our right to roam on mountain and moorland. Without it, we may not have been able to have full access to the countryside and the green open spaces we now have.
Set in the Peak District, this short film tells the heroic story of the trespassers and the change they brought about in getting us access, that eventually lead to the creation of the national parks we have nationwide. It is a film that celebrates their achievements and sets an example of how mass participation can bring about change for good. For this was a fight not only about access but about class. The wealthy landowners and the state against working-class men and women who simply wanted an escape on the weekends.
The film a great example of effective protest for today’s world.
Wed, 18 Jul 2018 23:02:41 +0200
Delighted to report that the editorial board of @PrincetonUPress just approved the complete manuscript of my book, which is now officially forthcoming. Just need to make some minor revisions and then we’ll go into production on Feb 15!
Thu, 05 Jul 2018 22:07:52 +0200
The Birdcage revolves around the austerity measures in Greece, a few days after the historic Greek referendum of July 2015. Ten leading thinkers in democratic politics, including the philosopher Srecko Horvat, the documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, ROAR Magazine editor Jerome Roos, and writer and professor Jodi Dean take turns in a room, minutes away from the Greek parliament and the teargas of Syntagma Square, in answering the question: “How do economics affect politics today and what consequences does this have for the future of democracy?”
Tue, 29 May 2018 04:17:20 +0200
May 29, 1968. Fires are still smouldering on the streets of Paris. The Quartier Latin is no longer cordoned off by barricades, but the French economy is paralyzed: hundreds of factories have been occupied and nearly ten million workers — two-thirds of the national workforce — are on strike. At a particularly militant meeting of the national student union two days earlier, attended by some 50,000 people, speaker after speaker had rejected any attempt at compromise and demanded the overthrow of the government. For a brief moment, and for the first and only time in postwar history, an advanced capitalist country finds itself poised on the precipice of revolution. That’s when the news comes in.
Charles de Gaulle has gone missing.
Shockwaves ripple through French society. The president was said to be retreating to his countryside residence at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, possibly to mull over his resignation speech—but his helicopter never arrived at its official destination. The government, acephalous and unaware of the head-of-state’s whereabouts, is in disarray. “He has fled the country!” Prime Minister Georges Pompidou exclaims in disbelief, as key ministers and their aides hastily begin to hatch their own escape plans—openly wondering how far they will be able to get by car if fuel reserves are overrun by revolutionaries.
That evening, it emerges that De Gaulle—in what he later dismisses as a “momentary lapse”—had secretly travelled to the French military base at Baden-Baden to meet General Massu, commander of the French occupation forces in West-Germany, to assure himself of the army’s support. The next day, the president appears on national radio to address the French people. In four minutes, he makes short shrift of any rumors of his impending resignation, dissolving the national assembly and calling fresh parliamentary elections instead. Within hours, hundreds of thousands of bourgeois counter-protesters take to the Champs Élisées; weeks later the Gaullists win the parliamentary elections by a landslide. The revolution is defeated at the ballot box.
Nevertheless, the aftershocks of May ‘68 continue to reverberate for decades, unleashing a profound transformation in the economic structure, cultural values and social relations of Western society—especially in the domains of civil rights, women’s rights, ecological awareness and multiculturalism. Today, there is no doubt that we still live under the long shadow cast by 1968, as both late capitalism and contemporary social struggles continue to be shaped in important ways by its ambivalent legacy.
To grasp the lasting significance of May ’68 for our times, we have to place the French revolt in its proper world-historical context. In a way, the événements de mai were merely one of the most visible and most spectacular expressions of a broader cycle of struggles unfolding across the globe—stretching all the way back to the anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam and including the Cuban Revolution, the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the antiwar demonstrations and student revolts from Berkeley to Berlin, the Hungarian and Czechoslovak opposition to Moscow, and the student protests in Mexico City. The events in France arguably marked the high point of this wave of popular revolt, which some have called “The Long 1968” and which the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein famously referred to as a “world revolution.”
What made this Long ‘68 so significant was precisely the fact that it occurred at the inflection point between two historical eras, arriving at the tail-end of the trente glorieuses of industrial capitalism—the thirty years of unbridled economic expansion in the wake of World War II—and just before the dawn of our contemporary post-industrial era of globalized and financialized capitalism, whose contours only began to emerge following the crisis of 1973, eventually giving rise to a new era of capitalist development characterized by the rapid ascent of neoliberalism and the reassertion of bourgeois power worldwide.
Crucially, the prevailing forms of struggle were profoundly shaped by this historical conjuncture. On the one hand, the Long 1968 constituted the last great outbreak of industrial proletarian revolt in the West. Of course there was to be plenty of worker militancy in subsequent decades, but the widespread mobilizations of May ’68 were never again to be rivalled in their volume or resolve. On the other hand, the revolt also marked the birth of what the French sociologist Alain Touraine—who taught at Nanterre in May ‘68—would later come to call the nouveaux mouvements sociaux.
While the former, the classical labor movement, was principally motivated by material and economic concerns, like higher wages and better working conditions, Touraine and his colleagues saw in the new social movements a novel set of “post-material” concerns surrounding issues of identity, civil rights and individual self-realization. It was precisely from the confluence of the two that the revolts of 1968 derived their unique character, expressed in the simultaneous mobilization of radicalized middle-class students and a rebellious industrial working class. At the same time, however, it was precisely the inability of these diverse social forces to bridge their contrasting interests and worldviews that ultimately left the revolt vulnerable to cooptation.
The French revolt of May ‘68 was nipped in the bud by a combination of right-wing counter-mobilization, crass electoralism on the part of the Communist Party, and the government’s material concessions to the working class. By the early 1970s, however, it was clear that Western capitalism generally remained mired in a profound crisis; one that was both structural and ideological in nature, expressing itself in the form of economic stagnation and towering inflation on the one hand, and a profound lack of legitimation on the other. In short, powerful social movements, trade unions and left-wing parties were making redistributive demands on the democratic system that political leaders simply could not fulfill within the confines of a stagnant capitalist economy.
It was in this context that ideological hardliners within the academic, corporate and political establishment launched their definitive counter-offensive. It began, of course, with Pinochet’s US-backed coup d’état in Chile in 1973, which overthrew Allende’s democratic socialist government—undoubtedly the left’s most successful electoral experiment during the Long 1968. From there the backlash soon spread to the capitalist heartland. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a report, The Crisis of Democracy, which infamously claimed that the West’s stagnant economies, conflict-ridden societies and paralyzed political systems suffered from an “excess of democracy,” and that only an assault on social rights and the organized power of labor could restore the vitality of capitalist democracies.
Under Thatcher and Reagan, the UK and US soon answered the call. Meanwhile, Mitterand’s volte-face in the early 1980s—from his pursuit of a socialist experiment inspired in part by Allende’s, to a full-fledged embrace of free-market principles—lauded the end of the Long 1968 in France. By the mid-1980s, the neoliberal counterrevolution was in full swing across large swathes of the globe, thanks in no small part to the Structural Adjustment Programs that were actively imposed on the developing countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during the international debt crisis.
In the Western world, the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s achieved two crucial political objectives: it successfully smashed the organized power of labor—not shunting the use of force in its assault on the unions—while at the same time successfully coopting some of the more individualistic and hedonistic lifestyle elements of the ’68 generation. A shallow commitment to “identity politics” and “ecological consciousness” was partly integrated into a technocratic conceptualization of politics that effectively reduced the purpose of liberal democracy to the stable management of the capitalist economy.
At the same time, the neoliberal counterrevolution also pursued three fixes for the economic crisis that had plagued the OECD countries throughout the 1970s. First, the “technological fix” of containerization and information and communication technology enabled a vast expansion of international trade and finance. Second, a “spatial fix” opened national borders to the free flow of capital, enabling the offshoring of industrial production to the East. Third, a “financial fix” deregulated credit markets to unleash the power of finance over households, firms and governments—making available future resources, in the form of cheap credit, to paper over stagnant wages, falling profits and limited tax revenues. In the process, capitalism’s structural crisis and legitimation problems were temporarily resolved at the expense of popular power, leading to a vast build-up of debt, inequality and popular frustrations within the system.
By the early 1990s, the collapse of state-communism and the Soviet Union confined Marxism and class struggle to the dustbin of history—henceforth, we were to live in an interconnected and peaceful world at “the end of history” instead, one in which “free markets” would reign supreme and the only battles that remained to be fought would be between a culturally conservative center-right and a culturally progressive center-left, over purely “post-material” issues like abortion, gay marriage and what to do about the hole in the ozone layer. This was to become the heyday of the Third Way, in which social-democratic and left-liberal exponents of soixante-huitardist values like Clinton and Blair embraced the prevalent dogma of market liberalization to become the uncontested figureheads of a now thoroughly depoliticized ’68 generation.
The dream lasted for about a decade—until the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s neoconservative Project for an American Century. Neoliberalism had always depended on a strong state to “make society fit for the free market,” but the newfound obsession with national security radicalized this reliance on state authority. Through the War on Terror, global trade and financial markets now came to be embedded in a draconian project of border security, mass surveillance and foreign intervention. As the Western world turned on Muslim populations at home and abroad, even the diluted and fully coopted cultural spirit of ’68 came under sustained attack from the xenophobic far-right, which ironically began to wield some of its gains—like women’s rights—as a club with which to beat the Muslim neighbor and dismantle the multicultural open society of the post-’68 era.
But it was really only with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, exactly 10 years ago this fall, that the neoliberal illusions of a democratic and capitalist end of history were properly shattered. In a remarkable turn of events, the decade since the start of the global financial crisis was to be characterized by Marx’s revenge: as is now plain for everyone to see, and as even establishment publications like The Economist were compelled to recognize on the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth earlier in May, capitalism remains subject to potentially catastrophic periodic crises, to rampant inequality, to widespread alienation—and, from time to time, even to violent revolutionary upheaval.
All of this became acutely evident in 2011, when popular revolts—driven in large part by socio-economic concerns resulting from high youth unemployment and skyrocketing food and energy prices—broke out across the Arab world, unseating dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and spreading like a wildfire through North Africa and the Middle East. Soon the “spirit of Tahrir” crossed the Mediterranean, as millions of Spaniards and Greeks—inspired by the Egyptian Revolution—occupied their own city squares in protest against the austerity measures imposed by European lenders and the IMF. Several months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement briefly took the world by storm, and in the next years uprisings in countries like Turkey and Brazil showed that rapidly growing emerging markets were not immune to social unrest either.
After 2011, it became clear that in today’s globalized and financialized world, class struggle is alive and well—even if its forms have changed in a number of important ways as a result of the transformations of capitalism and work over the past four decades. Contemporary class struggles still fundamentally revolve against the opposition between those who own capital and those who have to sell their labor power in order to survive, but they no longer take place exclusively at the point of production (they arguably never did, but this was nevertheless long the privileged site of struggle for the dominant Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist traditions). Today’s struggles also crucially unfold in the relationship between debtors and creditors; between tenants and landlords; between taxpayers and state financiers. The field of action, in short, has become significantly greater and much more complex to navigate.
Moreover, as activists involved in the women’s movement, in refugee and migrant movements, and in the movement for black lives have convincingly argued in recent years, contemporary forms of class struggle should also not be seen in isolation from the concurrent struggles against patriarchy, border imperialism or white privilege and white supremacy. While the latter exist as relatively autonomous structures and logics of domination, they are nevertheless profoundly intertwined with—and ultimately inseparable from—the capitalist social relations of our time.
A key insight emerging from this new cycle of struggles, then, is one that was already present among some of the most radical elements of the Long ’68—namely the realization that dynamics of class struggle and the logic of identity politics cannot be simplistically opposed as alternatives. To be successful, both forms of struggle need to be waged together, at the same time, while allowing for the self-determination and relative autonomy of those groups that continue to suffer multiple layers of oppression. In short, the political objective of the anti-capitalist struggle cannot be limited to a narrowly construed form of socio-economic equality, nor can emancipatory claims be limited to the liberal domain of “equal rights.” The revolutionary politics of the twenty-first century will be for collective liberation from intersecting systems of domination.
Today, we find ourselves at yet another inflection point: between an old world that is dying and a new one that cannot yet be born—with all kinds of morbid symptoms arising from the breach. It is now apparent that the credit-fuelled neoliberal counterrevolution to the Long 1968 is rapidly running out of steam. After the crash of 2008, only an unprecedented wave of bank bailouts and money creation by the world’s leading governments and central banks could provide the capitalist system with a lease of life. Now, the last-remaining legitimacy of the neoliberal establishment is evaporating like mist in the morning sun, as signs of an impending general crisis emerge all around it.
The prevailing mood in today’s social movements is therefore very different from that of ’68. It is certainly not one of untrammelled optimism about the power of the imagination, nor does it make any illusions about the existence of a beach beneath the cobblestones. Rather, our historical moment appears to be characterized by an unprecedented sense of urgency. With the rise of the far-right and the existential threats posed by climate change and ecological destruction, this generation knows that it cannot afford for its struggles to succumb to nostalgia or be coopted and defused in the same way as the spirit of ’68. In the face of a potentially dystopian future, the left still retains a small window of opportunity to begin to turn the tables—but only if it can learn to move beyond some of the ambivalent legacies it has inherited. As a slogan that appeared on a city wall in Athens in 2008 put it: “Fuck May ’68. Fight now.”