The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession

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Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The bullshit economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that ended up being a runaway success. By the time his full-length book Bullshit Jobs (2018) came out, a poll had already been conducted that a substantial portion of people in developed countries believed their work had no societal value at all. And though bullshit jobs have in media discourse focused on the bureaucracy and public sector, many people from the private sector reported useless levels of middle management, creation of reports nobody actually reads, and people who exist to duct-tape together something that doesn’t work but could probably be fixed if that was the actual goal, rather than maintaining the status quo.

The spread of COVID-19, which has now enveloped many developed countries, who, with huge amounts of international air travel and centralized urban societies and health systems, were always going to be the first to be slammed by a pandemic. Italy is the post child of how bad things are now, with Spain currently outpacing them in terms of the rate of increase in death rate. The United States is in waves reaching and going beyond the saturation point of its gutted hospitals. According to World Bank data, the US has, per 1,000 people, about a third the hospital beds it had in the 1960s:

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Source: Trading Economics

The de-development of the US, wherein infrastructure is either destroyed deliberately (see, the auto industry buying and dismantling extensive and cheap electric streetcar systems in many cities) or through general neglect in the neoliberal era. The decrease in hospital beds, however, is astonishing not only for how much it digs into American Exceptionalism narratives, but also how it falls consistently even prior to the usual starting point of American neoliberalism in the Reagan era.

It is abundantly clear that the US will have the highest total deaths of any country, by an order of magnitude or more. The President wants to already roll back very inconsistent containment methods by Easter, in order to “restart the economy”. My state has still not adopted shelter-in-place, despite Boston being a major city with a large amount of imported cases and community transmission. It seems clear they will never receive federal assistance in going beyond current containment measures, let alone the medical supplies they need through the use of the Defense Production Act. The government, as most neoliberal governments in American and Western history, is basing their crisis response on handshake deals with large companies and promises of no-strings-attached bailout money.

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.

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It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What does the future hold? The idea that the economy can be “restarted” while every hospital is flooded with sick and dying people, and people on the frontlines in healthcare and essential goods production get sick, is insane. There will be a recession, as long as the current range of workable proposals in Congress are where the imagination stops. The stock indexes, which were swollen from deregulation that made once-illegal stock buybacks driving share prices far beyond what assets and earnings a company actually has in meatspace. Bailout money without regulation will go to buybacks, which is just another version of bonuses given out by AIG and Goldman Sachs after the 2008 bailouts. But real-world growth, unemployment, etc. will spiral upwards. A contraction of over 20% of GDP is now being predicted this coming quarter, with Great Depression-levels of unemployment.

A select few elites will benefit, although largely being old men, they will be vulnerable to COVID-19 just like everyone else. A New England Journal of Medicine article on the inevitability of rationing PPE and medical care notes that wealth should not be a factor in testing and treatment, though it inevitably will be to some point. But nothing prevents the wealthy from having severe cases and dying, even if medical care was available. This is not Ebola, it is not confined to the developing (or “developing” but really gutted) countries. And the frontline employees who prepare your food and serve you don’t have paid sick leave and will transmit COVID-19 to others no matter what your bank account balance is.

Donald Trump: populist? fascist? Neither.

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Jan-Werner Mueller has written an excellent editorial for Al Jazeera America, entitled “Trump is a far right populist, not a fascist.” I like this analysis because it goes into a few distinct and important areas when talking about politics, especially to an American audience. Essentially, it’s an attempt to counter the easy ‘fascist’ descriptor with something more rooted in history and ideology.

While the term ‘populist’ has a progressive connotation in the United States, in Europe is applied to race-baiting demagogues like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. Populism itself is not an ideology. It’s an approach to politics, relying on relating to the struggles of the common people and rallying them towards a goal. This goal can be anything- Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both be considered populists in their anti-establishment stance. In the late 19th century, the People’s Party gained traction by stirring up farmers to oppose urban finance capital that exploited them. All the variation in populism comes from who the villain is. For the Trump campaign, Latinos were the initial target. Now it’s expanded to Muslims, both groups being linked by their ‘foreignness’. Trump appeals to poor whites, the same who have been behind the spike in popularity of far-right groups like the National Front, along with Golden Dawn in Greece and the Danish People’s Party.

As with populism itself, “people’s party” reflects tactics rather than ideology.

But calling the Trump campaign populist is problematic. On the surface level, his rhetoric fits the bill. Yet the entire structure of the campaign is different. American populism grew at the grassroots level- it was a bunch of broke common people up against a small clique of bankers and politicians that created this inequity in the first place. Zach Carter is right to deem him a ‘plutocrat populist.’ I don’t think of Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long when Trump floats into conversation. I think of Charles Foster Kane, a man who has profited from exploitation and claims that as experience for office.

His campaign apparatus has been slow in becoming anything other than a planning team for rallies. In populist fashion he stirs up his followers, but their zeal doesn’t carry. Big turnout, yes, but a noncommittal base. There has been no effort to change this; for a front-running campaign there is no systemic gathering of data and follow-up. What makes supporters of populist parties and figures distinct is their commitment above and beyond the normal politics of voting. In America, they battled the banks over monetary policy, and many fought and died in labor actions against mining and timber interests. Far-right supporters in Europe often engage in street protests and sometimes open conflict with political opponents. Despite the left and right selling very different ideas of what a just society is, and who is keeping it unjust, populism creates rabid followers. I don’t recognize what we call populism at anything beyond a surface level.

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Located here (http://virallysuppressed.com/2014/04/04/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-equality-how-the-far-right-co-opted-american-populism/)

Even with mass support, this is still a Trump vanity campaign. His political shifts haven’t been justified by new experiences or ideas. Right-wing rhetoric is just the easiest way to get noticed- especially in a Republican Party that lacks high-caliber figures that could steal the spotlight. Thus just like ‘populist,’ the label ‘fascist’ also falters beyond a surface basis. Yes, in Italy and Germany there was physical violence between true believers and the opposition. Xenophobia was strong then and continues to be. Be that as it may, fascist ideology was complex and sophisticated, and those that crafted it were serious about everything they said and did. Trump’s politics are scattershot and shallow- the xenophobia is present, but it’s not directed in any way.

I don’t get the feeling that if he was elected, the fascist-seeming aspects of his stump speeches would be formalized and put into law. Some people advocate extreme ideology because they believe mainstream politics has failed and radical measures must be taken to reforge society. Others use it to gain attention and power, because they are no different in mindset than the discredited mainstream. Trump seems to be the latter.

So I take a third option on who Donald Trump is in this election cycle. His campaign isn’t the work of common people at all, and while his nominally populist outlook draws big crowds, it hasn’t created the warriors for the cause. While Trump rallies do often resemble fascism, or something just as odious, there isn’t any ideas about the role of the state and the nation. Trump is a consummate opportunist who taps into the energy of an alienated white working class, but not for any larger purpose. Populists, then and now, used these tactics to further a particular cause. Movements were populist and then something else. He is just one shade of the fallout from gridlock and corruption in the mainstream. Hollow demagogues have the same opportunity to harness popular anger as everyone else.