I was introduced to anthropologist David Graeber’s 2013 magazine feature “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” today. It’s an excellent example of academic writing cutting to the chase (philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt did a similar thing with his pamphlet “On Bullshit“), and gets at the core mystery of the post-industrial world. Wasn’t industrialization and automation supposed to make our lives easier, and give us more spare time? Graeber points out that a four-hour workday is totally feasible, but the reasons that so many administrative jobs have grown to replace manufacturing is social control.
As he concludes:
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.
His example of the London transit strike reminded me of the BART strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2013. People of all economic stratums despised the BART workers for striking, and some of that may have stemmed from a sense of powerlessness that some usual riders have. Many people commuting in the Bay have these administrative or service jobs, many non-unionized and without tangible function. BART workers can shut down a transit system, their labor has great power. An increasing portion of people don’t have that efficacy. The end result, as Graeber says, are the ‘bullshit jobs’ workers turning against the remaining non-bullshit jobs workers- sparing the elite the trouble. Divide and conquer. Historically racism was used to pit working-class populations against one another, now this split in job function is the newest flavor.
Soviet economy has always been lampooned for its inefficiency, but it’s clear that 21st century capitalism has much in common when it comes to redundancy and busywork. I would forward that because capitalism has created great inequality and is by its nature unfair, any society with time to have an honest audit of the economic system would ditch capitalism and replace it with something else. So though many people have been replaced by machines and there is not a value-added reason for many jobs, keeping people busy prevents organization, reform, and if needed, revolution. Bullshit jobs are a self-defense mechanism, because those that benefit from capitalism value above all the maintenance of the economic system.