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Why capitalism creates meaningless jobs

There are some out there who make tulle jobs just to keep us busy.

This article is machine translated by Google from Norwegian

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century, technology would have made such great strides that countries like the United Kingdom and the United States would have 15 hours of work week. There is every reason to believe that he was right. Technologically, this is completely possible. Still, it didn't happen. Instead, the technology has been designed to make everyone work even more. To achieve this, one has had to create jobs that are in fact meaningless. Lots of people, especially in Europe and North America, spend their entire professional lives doing the jobs they do inside and secretly don't think it needs to be done. This has profound moral and spiritual damage. It is a scar that runs across our collective soul. Still, hardly anyone talks about it.

Why did Keynes' predicted utopia – which was still long awaited in the 1960 century – never come true? The usual answer today is that he did not take into account the massive increase in consumption. Given the choice between fewer working hours and more things and pleasures, we have collectively chosen the latter. This is a beautiful moral sermon, but just a moment's thought tells us it can't be true. Yes, we have seen that a host of new jobs and businesses have been created since the beginning of the 2000 century – but very few of them have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones or Converse shoes.

So just what are these new jobs going on? A recent report comparing US employment between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (by the way, the report reflects the exact same situation in the UK). During the last century, the number of servants, industrial workers and agricultural workers decreased dramatically. At the same time, the number of academics, managers, salaried employees and workers in sales and service has tripled, from "one-quarter to three-quarters of all employed". In other words, productive jobs, just as predicted, have largely been automated away. (Even if you count industrial workers globally, including the working masses in India and China, these workers are far from the percentage of the world's population that they did before.)

But rather than leading to a massive reduction in working hours so that the world's people can grow their own projects, pleasures, visions and ideas, there has been a boom especially in the administrative sector, and this even more so than the service sector. This boom encompasses new industries such as investment funds and telephone sales, and the unprecedented expansion of sectors such as business law, administration of academic institutions and health enterprises, staffing services and pr. And these figures do not even show everyone working with administrative, technical and security support for these industries. Neither does the army of aid companies (dog cleaners, or people who make sure pizza can be delivered around the clock) that just exists because everyone else spends so much of their time working in all the other industries.

The more obvious it is that the work you do actually adds something to other people, the less you have to pay for it.

That's it I call "bullshit jobs". It's like someone out there inventing meaningless jobs to make sure everyone works. And right here lies the mystery: In capitalism this is exactly what it is not should happen. Well, then, in the old, inefficient socialist countries like the Soviet Union, where work was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system did as many jobs as it could (that's why three expeditors needed to sell one piece of meat in Soviet warehouses) . But of course, this is exactly the kind of problem the market competition is meant to solve. According to economic theory, at least the last thing a profit-seeking company will do is spend money on workers they don't need. Still, it happens, for some reason.

While large corporations can embark on reckless staffing, redundancies and streamlining always hit the class of people who actually create, transport, repair and maintain things. Using a kind of strange alchemy that no one can properly explain, it seems that the number of paid paper movers is always increasing, and more and more employees are finding that they – not unlike Soviet workers, by the way – are working 40 and maybe 50 hours of paperwork. In reality, they are effectively working for maybe 15 hours, just as Keynes predicted, as the rest of the time they organize or attend motivational seminars, update their Facebook profile or download TV shows.

Clearly, the answer is not financial; it is moral and political. The ruling class has found that a happy and productive population that has free time to spend as they please is deadly (think about what started to happen when you were near this in the 1960 century). Also, the feeling is that work has a moral value in itself, and that one does not deserve anything unless one is willing to submit to hard work discipline during most of their waking hours, which suits them very well.

Once I did pondering the seemingly endless increase of administrative positions within the British academy, it suddenly became clear to me what the hell must look like: a collection of individuals who spend most of their time doing tasks they do not like and are not very good at. Let's say they were initially hired because they were very good at sneaking cabinets, and then realizing that the intention is to fry fish. Still, the idea is that some of the workers are sneaking cabinets instead of frying fish, that they end up with fried fish all over the workshop. This is a fairly accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

I realize that Claims of this kind will meet objections: "What justifies you to say which jobs are really 'necessary'? And what does 'necessary' really mean? You're a professor of anthropology, is there a 'need' for that? "(And it's clear that many tabloid readers will look at my job as the very definition of wasted spending for society.) At one level, this is obvious. There is no objective measure of social benefit.

I would never say to anyone who is convinced that they are making a meaningful contribution to the world, that in reality they are not. But what about all those people who are convinced that their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago, I met an old classmate I hadn't seen since I was 12 years. To my surprise, I was told that he had first become a poet, then a front figure in an indie rock band. I had heard several of his songs on the radio with no idea that I actually knew the vocalist. He was obviously gifted and innovative, and his work undoubtedly brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Still – after releasing a couple of albums without much success, he lost his contract with the record label. With debt and a newborn daughter, he said, he ended up "making the classic choice that so many directionless people make: study law". He is now a business lawyer and works in a high-profile New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was clearly meaningless, that it didn't add anything to the world, and that in his opinion it shouldn't have existed at all.

There are many questions one can ask here. The first could be: What does it say about our society that it seems to create an extremely limited demand for talented poets and musicians, but a seemingly endless demand for business law specialists? (Answer: When one percent of the population controls most of the world's wealth, the so-called "market" reflects what de and no one else thinks it's useful or important.) But more than anything, it shows that most people who have these jobs are ultimately aware of it. I'm not sure if I've ever met a business lawyer who didn't think his own job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all of the new professions mentioned above. There is a whole group of high-education workers who, if you meet them in a company and admit that you are doing something that is considered interesting (such as anthropology), completely avoids talking about their own type of work. Give them some drinks, and they start tirades about how meaningless and stupid their job really is.

Here it is a profound psychological violence. How can one at all talk about dignity in the working life when one feels in secret that the job one has should not exist? How should this fact avoid being rooted for deep rage and bitterness? It is our society's genius that those who govern have hatched a method that ensures that this rage is directed at those who actually get to do meaningful work – as in the case of fish sticks. An example: In our society, it seems to be a general rule that the more obvious it is that the work you do actually adds something to other people, the less you are paid for it. As stated, it is difficult to find objective goals, but one way to get a clue is to ask: What would happen if this group simply disappeared? Say what you want about nurses, cleaning workers and mechanics – it's obvious that if they went up in smoke, the result would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers and dockworkers would also quickly get in trouble – and even a globe without science fiction writers and ska musicians would obviously have been a worse place. It is not as obvious how humanity would suffer if all the directors of investment funds, lobbyists, PR people, actuaries, namesmen and legal consultants disappeared at once. (Many suspect it would significantly improve the world.)

Even more perverse is the perception that this is the way it should be. This is one of the secret forces of right-wing populism. You can see it when the tabloid newspapers whip up aggression against subway workers to cripple London under wage and labor conditions: The very fact that these workers can cripple London shows that their work is actually necessary – but it seems to be just that annoys people. This is even more evident in the United States, where Republicans have had significant success in mobilizing anger against teachers and car workers (and not against school administrators and car industry executives, who are actually causing the problems) for their lavish wages and benefits. It's like saying to them, "But you get to teach kids! Or make cars! You have good jobs! And to top it all, do you have the stomach to claim middle-class pensions and health insurance? ”

If one were to design a working life that was perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it is difficult to see how one could have done better than this. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. What is left is shared between a terrorized society of the – generally shunned – unemployed, and a larger layer that is mainly paid for doing nothing in positions created to identify with the ruling class's perspectives and feelings – but at the same time a smoldering anger at anyone who has a job with a clear and undeniable social value.

Of course, the system has not been designed consciously. It is rather the result of almost a hundred years of trial and error. Nevertheless, this is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capabilities, we do not have a working day of 3 – 4 hours.

This article was first published on Strike Magazine
under the name "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs"

David Graeber
Graeber was Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. (died Sept 2020)

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