Those of us who followed the career of David Graeber were saddened to see his obituary pop up earlier this month. He died after a brief illness while on vacation in Venice. His wife, Nika Dubrovsky, tweeted “the best person in the world died today.”
I’m familiar with Graeber as a parent of the Occupy movement. He did not, as many have reported, invent “we are the 99%,” but he did first associate the 99% concept with the growing response to income inequality. His masterwork, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been pivotal to my thinking about economic justice.
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
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Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.
Like so many theories and thought experiments from the last ten years, much of this has become starker and more obvious since early 2020:
This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.
Can you hear the echo of “essential workers” in this? And don’t forget that the incomparable Nikole Hannah-Jones recommends calling them “sacrificial workers,” since as a society we are willing to put them in harm’s way every day so the rest of us can have not just what we need but what we want, or think we want, or think we are entitled to have.
To have lost Graeber’s mind, and his incisive drilling to the core of a problem, doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of his contributions; building on them is one way to move closer to a world where we can walk away from bullshit jobs and the psychological violence they engender.
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