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

BulllshitJObs

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:

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 1.46.26 AM
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.

DilbertBullshitJobs

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.

Are We (Finally) in Late Neoliberalism?

The current wave of protests against austerity and imperialism indicate that we are at (another) crisis point in the roughly half-century since neoliberalism replaced Keynesian economics as the basis of contemporary capitalism.

It’s fitting that Chile, beginning with mass evasion of increased subway fares, and continuing to general strikes and a complete shutdown of the national infrastructure, is part of this wave. Neoliberalism, in its doctrinaire form, began in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as a dictator. The uprising in Haiti also connects to a longer historical process, as the Haitian people have been subject to imperialist efforts by major European powers (France historically, the United States now) to make them economically subservient and to overthrow or frustrate any attempt to build a political movement that is against austerity and foreign interference.

From Late English to Late Neoliberalism

Years ago, I wrote a post on this site about the evolution of the English language, and how future linguists will define the current moment. The feeling I had is that since Old English and Middle English both have fairly set beginning and end dates, that whatever form of the language we’re speaking today (usually dubbed “Modern English“) will eventually be given some historical marker, for the contemporary must eventually become the historical. This will be especially interesting given how English has become a highly diverse, global language since the beginning of Modern English, with English in different countries evolving at different rates, in different directions.

This general concept of evolution and the resulting terminology we use applies to capitalism, and neoliberalism more specifically. The term “late capitalism” (The Atlantic wrote about the term in 2017) is now used frequently, though I don’t run into it in academic literature as I do in podcasts and social media. The term usually refers to absurd products and business practices that seem unsustainable, thus giving a general feeling that capitalism is beginning to hollow out and collapse on itself. The saga of WeWork, which was once valued at $47 billion USD, despite losing huge amounts of money and having an obviously untenable business plan, fits into this. At some point I will write a more detailed, economics-focused post on the various players in the contemporary capitalist landscape, as we are likely on the edge of another Great Recession. WeWork fits into this landscape in being a venture capitalist-backed mirage, somewhere between the juggernaut companies that have enough cash on hand to survive even a terrible economic collapse, and the companies engaging in the same speculation that caused the 2007-2008 crisis, who will either be bailed out with public money and no accountability, or perhaps face some kind of takeover and structural change, depending on who wins the 2020 election.

I’ll quote a Jacobin interview with David Harvey to talk about what neoliberalism has meant in the context of post-war history:

I’ve always treated neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.

In many respects the project was a counterrevolutionary project. It would nip in the bud what, at that time, were revolutionary movements in much of the developing world — Mozambique, Angola, China etc. — but also a rising tide of communist influences in countries like Italy and France and, to a lesser degree, the threat of a revival of that in Spain

. . .

There were very few crises between 1945 and 1973; there were some serious moments but no major crises. The turn to neoliberal politics occurred in the midst of a crisis in the 1970s, and the whole system has been a series of crises ever since. And of course crises produce the conditions of future crises.

In 1982–85 there was a debt crisis in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and basically all the developing countries including Poland. In 1987–88 there was a big crisis in US savings and loan institutions. There was a wide crisis in Sweden in 1990, and all the banks had to be nationalized.

Then of course we have Indonesia and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, then the crisis moves to Russia, then to Brazil, and it hits Argentina in 2001–2.

And there were problems in the United States in 2001 which they got through by taking money out of the stock market and pouring it into the housing market. In 2007–8 the US housing market imploded, so you got a crisis here.

Neoliberalism is characterized by the hollowing out of the state, the mass privatization of state assets, and the commodification of all things such that everything that’s not in the market begins to look and act like it. If we concieve of society as existing in three parts- the state, the market, and a civil society that exists externally of both, like this:

shows-a-conventional-Venn-diagram-depiction-of-the-spheres-of-civil-society-interacting

 

In a neoliberalized society, the market expands at the expense of the other two sectors, and the state and civil society begin to have more market-influenced aspects. In civil society, we see the rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which combines market forces with state surveillance. In the government, we see the rise of business metrics and corporate jargon that define and shape state action.

Is There A “Late Neoliberalism”?

So as Harvey says, neoliberalism has led to a series of interlocked, perhaps escalating crises all over the world. In the era of managed, Keynesian capitalism, central banks and governments were paying keen attention to growth metrics and financial speculation, so matters could only get so out of hand before actions was taken- bubbles were popped early or prevented entirely through regulation of speculative investments, slowdowns were countered with state investment. Since the state has become irrelevant in terms of financial regulation- instead being the muscle of the market to force compliance- the neoliberal era is a set of austerity reforms, a crisis related to these reforms, and further reforms in response. The thing is, none of these reforms actually solve anything- they just create further chaos that can be exploited. As Tony Weis states in a 2004 paper about how neoliberal reforms have destroyed the Jamaican agriculture industry, neoliberal action is not logical action, though contemporary economists attempt to depict themselves as following rigorous mathematical and logical precepts.

The question is whether there can be a crisis, a revolutionary reaction, so large that it overwhelms the neoliberal state. There are several directions this can take. One is the rise of far-right populism in the United States and parts of Europe, which use the gutting of the welfare state by neoliberal reforms and places the blames on various Others, stating that removing the undesirable parts of society will allow an era of abundance as existed in a (perhaps mythical) past.

Another is electoral anti-austerity movements. This includes the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, the Corbyn era of the Labour party, political parties that grew out of anti-austerity protests like Unidos Podemos in Spain and Solidarity-People Before Profit in Ireland. With the recent coup in Bolivia, and the releasing of Lula in Brazil, in addition to mass movements in Chile and Ecuador, the electoral and non-electoral responses to austerity and far-right reactionaries in Latin America are mixed together. This is not new- social democratic and democratic socialist politicians and parties have used social movements to help press for redistributive policies while in power, and against austerity when out of power.

Is neoliberalism in crisis? Yes, it always is somewhere in the world, and that’s pretty much the point. Is the crisis deep enough to lead to a new society? Well, here’s a bunch of Chileans with a banner reading “Chile will be the tomb of neoliberalism”, so they definitely think so:

ChileNeoliberalism

The remnant of the state in places like Chile, which is an oversized military and police force with some other things of much less importance, has to contain mass protests and general strikes while having very little to offer people to placate them. This is not the era of the New Deal, where programs were created in large part to stave off radicals who were making inroads in the working class. The neoliberal state has nothing but the stick, or as Loïc Wacquant calls it, the “iron fist” of the penal state. This polarizes people and totalizes the conflict. If the security forces blink, then it can be over- like the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia at the dawn of the millennium. When a nationwide protest rocked the capital, the police and military decided to stand aside. And with that, the people, not the US and its enormous military, overthrew Slobodan Milošević. The federal buildings were seized, and the dictatorship melted away.

Perhaps it is happening again.

BulldozerRevolution
Belgrade, 5 October 2000

 

 

 

Brexit: more hate crimes, and the same austerity

The spike in hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom is not surprising. It also shows how democratic structures can be used to propel intolerance. Psychologically, the 52%-48% vote for leaving the European Union is giving people the feeling that their actions are sanctioned and justified. This is an issue with majoritarianism- there are too many Remain voters for their camp to treat the referendum as the final say. But the majority requirement allows a radical policy shift despite many key parts of the country rejecting Leave- often by a larger margin than the overall vote.

A halal butcher firebombed by a white arsonist after the UK’s Brexit vote. 

Since the late-90s Labour administration, the UK has become an increasingly federal system. The devolved parliaments and self-government creates a serious legitimacy crisis. In concrete terms, I think a vote that fundamentally changes the domestic and foreign policy of the whole country should have to win a majority in each of the components of the UK- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Only the first two voted Leave; Scotland has the biggest gap of the four- Remain won by 24 points. To use an American example, a constitutional amendment (per Article V of the Constitution) requires 2/3 of the national legislature, followed by 3/4ths of the states to ratify. States are given equal weight in this case, so even though California has almost one hundred times the people of Wyoming, the interest of the latter matter just as much.

 

Austerity cuts
Credit: Chappatte in “NZZ am Sonntag” (Zurich)

It says something that despite immense conflict and terrible austerity, Greece never left the Eurozone, let alone the EU. They saw the worst that the EU has to offer- its stern demand for failed economic models, and the great financial power it has on struggling member states. The United Kingdom had the privilege of high status, with major benefits of membership. Such perks are now becoming clear in their likely absence going forward. Leave could have been motivated by a good reason- austerity. Instead the campaign was more about those gosh-darned immigrants and their problems.

The bizarre thing is that the vote is actually a vote against austerity in disguise. The core of working-class areas voting Leave is a result of deindustrialization and unending Tory cuts to services and housing. The one force that has actually been in favor of real solutions is Jeremy Corbyn. His reward is a coup against his leadership- despite Labour voters supporting Remain more than the Conservative party that called for the vote. It’s a convenient excuse, and it remains to be seen whether short of ballot-stuffing the right wing can actually win a leadership election. That’s because grassroots activists and regular working people see in Corbyn what they actually want- not the bullshit about the UK’s standing in the EU.

Much like after the general election, I see nothing but meaningless word salad from the mainstream opposition. Any person with the slightest insight could see that Labour lost in 2015 just like it did this week- it failed to provide an alternative to austerity. It says something about neoliberalism (which even the IMF is now admitting doesn’t work as advertised), that a party based on working people didn’t think to talk about schools, housing, food, legal aid, investment, job training, etc. To the casual voter, Labour’s plans have devolved to a semantic difference while talking about everything the Conservatives want to talk about- debt, spending, and the deficit. The first rule of politics is offer voters something they want. That the party leader who wants to do that is voted out by his colleagues after a year is absurd. A genuine component of the SNP’s pitch for an independent Scotland is that an inept, corporate Labour is never going to defeat Tory rule. Their anti-austerity chops, though not amazing, are enough that they may very well get something the party wants- independence- by offering voters all the obvious things regular working people want.

And that’s a hell of a better strategy to win a referendum than whatever happened this week.

The crushing consensus on austerity

The news of a third bailout deal for Greece has been a dagger in the heart of many on the left- not only in the country itself but all over, including in America. Facing an incredibly powerful, entrenched economic system, success against banking interests elsewhere are an important morale booster. The joy of SYRIZA winning the January election has been completely wiped clean. Its campaign promise of ending “blackmail” and “humiliation of the Greek people” are proven hollow. The only successful response to the financial crisis in Europe was the decisions of Iceland to nationalize banks, forgive debt, and strict capital controls. Other countries in Europe recovered quickly, yes, but creditor countries like Germany with strong control of the financial institutions that dictate monetary and fiscal policy are different from countries like Spain and Greece drowning in debt.

The path of Iceland seems similar to what has been proposed by SYRIZA’s Left Platform. What will become of the Left Platform? It seems that they are likely on the way out- many were rebelling at a previous, less harsh austerity package put before Parliament. For the past few years I have been impressed at the degree of left-wing unity within the party, with social democrats existing in the same structure as hard-left Maoists and eco-socialists. However, the last few months have shown that the largest component, the Prime Minister’s more moderate group, has carried the day and negotiated something similar to what center-left Pasok has. It serves as a warning to all attempts to construct a popular front- socialist unity is key to creating legitimate political alternatives, but if the party itself has a very fundamental divide, the radicals may end up providing political support for something they would never have tolerated if it has come from the usual sources.

Shining like ten thousand suns is the truth about SYRIZA: it is unable to have a coherent, substantively different alternative about austerity. In a country like Greece where austerity is the driving force of all social and economic issues- from poverty to the rise of far-right politics- there is no policy position more important.

Beyond Greece, radical politics in other countries like Spain are dealt a terrible blow. The Podemos party along with the socialist left were looking to be the “Spanish Syriza“. It is jarring to see that phrase turn toxic so quickly. Seven years into the debt crisis and there has still not been a major country in Europe that has developed a plan for liberation. The technocrats in the European Central Bank and the IMF carry the day, having never truly been challenged.

There will be more chances, of course, because austerity will drag this crisis out for many, many years to come. These zombie banks in debtor countries that are being eternally propped up with borrowed money, allowing finance to be valued above people.

Neoliberalism has been one of the most destructive ideologies in the past century. While the club is mostly just fascism and Stalinism, neoliberal policies by the IMF completely destroyed countries in Africa and Latin America. Note that when Greece missed its payment to the IMF a few weeks ago, the phrase was that Greece was the first developed country to default. Developing countries have default dozens of times, some like Argentina have do so often that it becomes predictable. The sun rises in the east, the Pope is still Catholic, and Argentina is underwater financially again. What has been different about neoliberalism from fascism is a sense that fascism could be (and has) been defeated- both in war and through regular politics. Because of the sorta-factual, academic veil that exists with neoliberalism, the narrative has always been it is an inevitable progression of human civilization. Phrased that way it is a capitalist clone of the Marxist theory of history, which is similarly rigid and presented as science.

A reason I joined a socialist organization is that there are now real attempts to go on the offensive and dispute the seeming inevitability of globalization, a race to the bottom, and stark inequality. The move for a $15/hr minimum wage all over the United States is a very rare thing indeed: business interests, large corporations, conservative politicians and everyone else who made a huge fuss about it didn’t win. They won some caveats, but they lost the biggest battle. It was an offensive campaign by workers and regular people.

SYRIZA did not find their own offensive campaign against austerity. A group within their own party had a plan, but the economics of the banks and their political allies won out over resistance.

It is a sad day for Greece, but it is not the end. If the people do not end austerity, austerity will end them.