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


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.


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.

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.

Americans and Occupy: Don’t make it about you

Three years ago, I was standing in front of the City Hall in San Jose. We only had five tents set up (police and city government were preventing a larger encampment) but we were here. Occupy San Jose.

An almost-stranger and I were talking. You met dozens of people, yet learned their deep-set moral principles instead of their names. Who this man was I have no idea, even his appearance has been forgotten. What he said has always stuck with me. It helps illustrate a problem American activists may have, and one that is detrimental to the global social justice movement.

News was coming about developments in the Chilean students’ resistance movement. Their work was inspiring. My conversation companion said “I’m so glad that they’ve been inspired by Occupy Wall Street.”

A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011. (Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)
A march by Chilean students. August 5, 2011.
(Maxi Failla/AFP/Getty Images)

*record stop* Woh. We have a major problem here. Chile’s movement predated the occupation in New York, dating to around May 2011. Occupy in America started in mid-September, by then mass protests had already happened all over Chile.

To be sure, I do not blame this man for his ignorance. Few non-activists paid attention to what was happening down in South America, and Occupy brought many people in with no prior political awareness. This thought provides a learning opportunity. America (and Americans by extension) are used to running the world. This doesn’t just apply to foreign policy and government action, but is also the case with popular culture. Much of the world mimics or consumes whole American music, film, and fashion. Beyond the economic lies the political and social structure at the lowest levels of the population. If you take your lessons from the largest institutions, you might think that the activists of the United States start all social movements, and invent all new methods of protest.

Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.
Hong Kong occupiers stop a police vehicle. By Felix Wong.

Occupy certainly propagated the model of resistance more than Chile did, or for that matter the Spanish indignados movement. In fact, Occupy Central in Hong Kong was wildly successful in the first wave of occupations, and that experience has helped lay the foundation for the current mass action.

So America is a grand stage where ideas gain currency. As the first organizers of Occupy San Jose stated plainly to those at our first meeting, the general assembly structure was stolen wholesale from the campaign in Spain. That is the key- to acknowledge the forebears, and avoid being American chauvinists. The Civil Rights Movement had many unique features, but it owed a massive debt to the decades of struggle in India. If Americans claim that all social movement strategy and tactics are native to the country, they risk alienating the larger world community. We must be aware of the past, incorporate past successes, and avoid past failures. In action, steps must be taken to avoid American stereotypes.

Occupy was incredibly important. But it was not born of nothing, and its influences are valuable sources of strength and wisdom.