Did someone say they're just bullshit jobs?
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.Thomas Frank interviews David Graeber, writer of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years and one of the fomenters of Occupy Wall Street, about how (and if it's possible) to turn this topsy-turvy world of meaningful/less work upside down.
. . . 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.
Today productivity continues to increase, but Americans work more hours per week than they used to, not fewer. Also, more than workers in other countries.
. . . The U.S., even under the New Deal, was always a lot stingier than most wealthy countries when it comes to time off: whether it’s maternity or paternity leave, or vacations and the like. But since the ‘70s, things have definitely been getting worse.
Do economists have an explanation for this combination of greater productivity with increased work hours? What is it and what do you think of it?
Curiously, economists don’t tend to find much interest in such questions — really fundamental things about values, for instance, or broader political or social questions about what people’s lives are actually like. They rarely have much to say about them if left to their own devices. It’s only when some non-economist begins proposing social or political explanations for the rise of apparently meaningless administrative and managerial positions, that they jump in and say “No, no, we could have explained that perfectly well in economic terms,” and make something up.
After my piece came out, for instance, The Economist rushed out a response just a day or two later. It was an incredibly weakly argued piece, full of obvious logical fallacies. But the main thrust of it was: well, there might be far less people involved in producing, transporting, and maintaining products than there used to be, but it makes sense that we have three times as many administrators because globalization has meant that the process of doing so is now much more complicated. You have computers where the circuitry is designed in California, produced in China, assembled in Saipan, put in boxes in some prison in Nevada, shipped through Amazon overnight to God-knows-where…
It sounds convincing enough until you really think about it. But then you realize: If that’s so, why has the same thing happened in universities? Because you have exactly the same endless accretion of layer on layer of administrative jobs there, too. Has the process of teaching become three times more complicated than it was in the 1930s? And if not, why did the same thing happen? So most of the economic explanations make no sense.
. . . we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal — that we work more and more for more and more stuff — is rotten from the get-go.
. . . 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.
. . . It used to be that Americans mostly subscribed to a rough-and-ready version of the labor theory of value. Everything we see around us that we consider beautiful, useful, or important was made that way by people who sank their physical and mental efforts into creating and maintaining it. Work is valuable insofar as it creates these things that people like and need. Since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an enormous effort on the part of the people running this country to turn that around: to convince everyone that value really comes from the minds and visions of entrepreneurs, and that ordinary working people are just mindless robots who bring those visions to reality.
But at the same time, they’ve had to validate work on some level, so they’ve simultaneously been telling us: work is a value in itself. It creates discipline, maturity, or some such, and anyone who doesn’t work most of the time at something they don’t enjoy is a bad person, lazy, dangerous, parasitical. So work is valuable whether or not it produces anything of value. So we have this peculiar switch.
As anyone who’s ever had a 9-to-5 job knows, the thing everyone hates the most is having to look busy, even once you’ve finished a job, just to make the boss happy, because it’s “his time” and you have no business lounging around even if there’s nothing you really need to be doing. Now it’s almost as if that kind of business is the most valued form of work, because it’s pure work, work unpolluted by any possible sort of gratification, even that gratification that comes out of knowing you’re actually doing something. And every time there’s some kind of crisis, it intensifies. We’re told, oh no! We’re all going to have to work harder.
. . . 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? Actually I saw something telling written by a right-wing activist on some blog — he said, well the funny thing is, when we first started our school reform campaigns, we tried to focus on the administrators. But it didn’t take. Then we shifted to the teachers and suddenly the whole thing exploded. It’s hard to explain that in any other way than to say: a lot of people resent the teachers for having genuine, meaningful jobs.
. . . I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better.
I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen.
A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people. I think we saw the first stirrings of that kind of movement during Occupy. I remember being particularly struck with the “We are the 99%” web page — this was a page where people who supported the movement, but were mostly too busy to actually take part in the occupations or assemblies, could contribute by posting pictures of themselves holding up signs where they’d written out their life situation.
Demographically it was very telling. Maybe 80% of them were women. And even those who were men were mostly in caring professions: health care, social services, education. And the complaints were surprisingly uniform: basically they were all saying, “I want to do something with my life that actually benefits others; but if I go into a line of work where I care for other people, they pay me so little, and they put so much in debt, that I can’t even take care of my own family! This is ridiculous!”
Call it the revolt of the caring classes. Because, after all, the working classes have always been the caring classes really. I say this as a person of working class background myself. Not only are almost all actual caregivers (not to mention caretakers!) working class, but people of such backgrounds always tend to see themselves as the sort of people who actively care about their neighbors and communities, and value such social commitments far beyond material advantage. It’s just our obsession with certain very specific forms of rather macho male labor—factory workers, truck-drivers, that sort of thing — which then becomes the paradigm of all labor in our imaginations; that blinds us to the fact that the bulk of working class people have always been engaged in caring labor of one sort or another.
So I think we need to start by redefining labor itself, maybe, start with classic “women’s work,” nurturing children, looking after things, as the paradigm for labor itself and then it will be much harder to be confused about what’s really valuable and what isn’t. As I say, we’re already seeing the first stirrings of this sort of thing. It’s both a political and a moral transformation and think it’s the only way we can overcome the system that puts so many of us in bullshit jobs.