Like Graeber’s previous book Debt, this is a wide-ranging study of an economic phenomenon, this time the tendency for ‘late-stage’ capitalism to create ‘meaningless’ jobs, essentially devoid of useful content for the sake of earning a living. Along with that he examines attitudes about work etc. The book grew out of an essay in which he observed that economists in the mid-2oth century thought that technological advances would mean we ended up with a 15-hour work week, but if anything technology has created more work, more and more of it regarded as meaningless by those who do it.
The first quote I took down was just some general anti-capitalist ‘these guys are all sociopaths’ observation:
Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist most famous for having designed the ‘shock therapy’ reforms applied to the former Soviet Union…Sachs’s testimony is especially valuable because, as he kept emphasizing, many of these people were quite up front with him because they assumed (not entirely without reason) that he was on their side:
Look, I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis…And I am going to put it very bluntly: I regard the moral environment as pathological. [These people] have no responsibility to pay taxes; they have no responsibility to their clients; they have no responsibility to counterparties in transactions. They are tough, greedy, aggressive, and feel absolutely out of control in a quite literal sense, and they have gamed the system to a remarkable degree…the financial markets are the number one campaign contributors in the US system now…what it’s led to is this sense of impunity that is really stunning, and you feel it on the individual level now…I have waited for …five years now to see one figure on Wall Street speak in moral language. And I’ve have (sic) not seen it once.
So there you have it (13)
(of course this is part of a discussion about how at the top of the financial system these are not bullshit jobs (though I can think of another sense in which they are bullshit, but not in the sense of meaningless as Graeber uses it.)
I wasn’t sure how to do nesting quotations, so the block quotes below are offsetting someone that Graeber was quoting, and what’s in the block quotes is Graeber himself:
(Graeber quotes Patrick, a college student with a work study job at the Student Union:)
The very worst thing about the job was that it gave you so much time to think, because the work was so lacking in any intellectual demand. So I just thought so much about how bullshit my job was, how it could be done by a machine, how much I couldn’t wait for full communism, and just endlessly theorized the alternatives to a system where millions of human beings have to do that kind of work for their whole lives in order to survive. I couldn’t stop thinking about how miserable it made me.
This is what happens of course, when you first open the entire world of social and political possibility to a young mind by sending it to college and then tell it to stop thinking and tidy up already tidy shelves. (76-77)
This comes as no surprise:
The first historical evidence we have for the notion that certain categories of people really ought to be working at all times, even if there’s nothing to do, and that work needs to be made up to fill their time, even if there’s nothing that really needs doing, refers to people who are not free: prisoners and slaves, two categories that historically have largely overlapped (85)
What Graeber describes is part of the general ideological hegemony of capitalism, the right has really done well (as covered in several volumes I’ve read for this project.
Much of the confusion that surrounds debate about social issues in general can be traced back to the fact that people will regularly take these different explanations as alternatives rather than seeing them as factors that all operate at the same time. For example, people sometimes tell me that any attempt to explain bullshit jobs in political terms is wrongheaded; such jobs, they insist, exist because people need the money – as if this consideration had never occurred to me before. Looking at the subjective motives of those who take such jobs is then treated as an alternative to asking why so many people find themselves in a position where the only way they can get money is by taking such jobs to begin with.
It’s even worse on the cultural-political level. There has come to be a tacit understanding in polite circles that you can ascribe motives to people only when speaking about the individual level. Therefore any suggestion that powerful people ever do anything they don’t say they’re doing, or even do what the can be publicly observed to be doing for reasons other than what they say, is immediately denounced as a ‘paranoid conspiracy theory’ to be rejected instantly. Thus to suggest that some ‘law and order’ politicians or social service providers might not feel its in their best interest to do much about the underlying causes of homelessness, is treated as equivalent to saying homelessness itself exists only because of the machinations of a secret cabal. Or that the banking system is run by lizards. (154-5)
And the entrenchment of bullshit jobs, because god forbid we allocate resources in such a way that people can be truly productive, rather than performing senseless busywork just to earn sustenance via their paycheck, goes all the way to the top.
After quoting President Obama talking about how the insurance and paperwork that single-payer healthcare would eliminate would also eliminate jobs, Graeber notes :
He acknowledges that a socialized health system would be more efficient than the current market-based system, since it would reduce unnecessary paperwork and reduplication of effort by dozens of competing private firms. But he’s also saying it would be undesirable for that very reason. (157)
I would have said, ‘a pretext,’ rather than ‘the pretext,’ but no argument otherwise:
Managerialism has become the pretext for creating a new covert form of feudalism, where wealth and position are allocated not on economic but on political grounds – or rather, where every day it’s more difficult to tell the difference between what can be considered ‘economic’ and what is ‘political’ (181)
Well, at least we’ve done away with the ‘leisure class’ (haha, yeah right…)
There seems a broad consensus not so much even that work is good but that not working is very bad; that anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person, a scrounger, a skiver, a contemptible parasite unworthy of sympathy or public relief. Even more strikingly, the same values are now applied at the top…Nowadays [audiences] are more likely to be regaled with stories of heroic CEOs and their dawn-to-midnight workaholic schedules. (215-6)
Lee Atwater had something to say on this once, at least the first part of it:
In America, stereotypes of the lazy and undeserving poor have long been tied up in racism: generations of immigrants learned what it means to be a “hardworking American” by being taught to despise the imagined indiscipline of the descendants of slaves…Nowadays mainstream media is usually obliged to be more subtle…but most people do seem to accept the basic logic of the contemporary moralists: that society is besieged by those who want something for nothing, that the poor are largely poor because they lack the will and discipline to work, that only those who do or have worked harder than they’d like to at something they would rather not be doing, preferably under a harsh taskmaster, deserve respect and consideration from their fellow citizens. As a result, the sadomasochistic element in work described in Chapter 4….has actually become central to what validates work itself (242-3)
The right has assiduously cultivated the attitude in the above passage, along with the jealousy felt by white working people who’ve ‘followed the rules’ without complaining, only to see minorities (especially black, but also women, immigrants etc. get ahead of them through ‘special treatment,’ while those at the top have undertaken a massive transfer of wealth from the mass of Americans to those in the top 1 percent.
The Republicans have managed to turn most of the ire of working people towards Democrats, who coddle the various ‘out’ groups that used to be (justifiably) persecuted in the ‘good old days,’ but I still wonder how many Dems are in on the con.
The employed are encouraged to resent the poor and unemployed, who they are constantly told are scroungers and freeloaders. Those trapped in bullshit jobs resent workers who get to do real productive or beneficial labor, and those who do real productive or beneficial labor, under paid, degraded, and unappreciated, increasingly resent those who they see as monopolizing those few jobs where one can live well while doing something useful, high-minded or glamorous – who they refer to as ‘the liberal elite.’ All are united in their loathing for the political class, who they see (correctly) as corrupt, but the political class, in turn, finds these other forms of vacuous hatred extremely convenient, since they distract attention from themselves (247-8)
Later, Graeber asserts that underneath the ideology that claims to value greed and gain, there’s a realization that it’s all a smokescreen:
One thing it (ie value vs values) suggests about capitalism more generally, is that societies based on greed, even that say that human beings are inherently selfish and greedy and that attempt to valorize this sort of behavior, don’t really believe it, and secretly dangle out the right to behave altruistically as a reward for playing along. Only those who can prove their mettle at selfishness are afforded the right to be selfless….if you suffer and scheme and by doing so manage to accumulate enough economic value, then you are allowed to cash in and turn your millions into something unique, higher, intangible, or beautiful – that is, turn value into values. (255-6)
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read some version of the last sentence of this passage on Democratic websites…
It was exactly at the same time that these same parties self-consciously rejected any remaining elements of their old working-class constituencies, and instead became, as Tom Franks has so effectively demonstrated, the parties of the professional-managerial class…If (workers) protest too loudly, they will simply be told they have no choice but to accept bullshitization, because the only alternative is to surrender to the racist barbarians of the populist right. (268-9)
This last passage is from a chapter where he details the effects of bullshitization on the modern welfare state:
Any system of means testing, no matter how it’s framed, will necessarily mean at least 20 percent of those who legitimately qualify for benefits give up and don’t apply…The entire archipelago…bureaucrats who write the rules, the DWP, enforcement tribunals, advocates, and employees who work for the funding bodies that process applications for those NGOs that employ those advocates…are part of a single vast apparatus that exists to maintain the illusion that people are naturally lazy and don’t really want to work…even if society does have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t literally starve to death, it is necessary to make the process…as confusing, time-consuming, and humiliating as possible…Thousands of people are maintained on comfortable salaries in air-conditioned offices simply in order to ensure that poor people continue to feel bad about themselves. (273-4)