Tag Archives: 99%

David Graeber (1961-2020) on Bullshit Jobs


black and white headshot of David Graeber

Debbie says:

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.

I thought I’d remember him here by revisiting “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,  from 2013, which led to his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He opens:

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.

Not convinced? Keep reading.

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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Rolling Jubilee: Debt and Forgiveness

Debbie says:

Welcome to 2013! We hope you had sane holidays.

In our Thanksgiving post, Laurie and I mentioned Rolling Jubilee. We both wanted to give it a little more space of its own.

Jubilee comes from many faith traditions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A jubilee is an event in which all debts are cancelled and all those in bondage are set free. It worked in Biblical times and it can still work today. For example, a kind of jubilee happened in Iceland after the 2008 economic crisis: instead of bailing out their banks, Iceland canceled a percentage of mortgage debt. What these examples show is that debts are just a promise which can – and should – be renegotiated or cancelled when the circumstances warrant. Strike Debt believes that now is the time for a jubilee for the 99%.

As of the moment that I write this post, Rolling Jubilee has collected $533,133, with which it will be able to forgive at least $10,668,078 in medical debt, for random people around the U.S. (With its first purchase of debt, it came out just a little better than the anticipated five cents on the dollar, so the figure may be a little higher.)

The concept of Rolling Jubilee is simple. If you are a human being, you have to pay off your debt at $1 per $1, unless you negotiate it down with your creditor(s). If you are an arcane kind of corporation called a 501(c)(4),  you can purchase debt as a commodity. If it is old, difficult-to-collect debt, you can purchase it as low as 5 cents or so for each dollar of debt. The theory is that then you would collect it, and if you could collect more than 5% of what you purchased, you would come out even.

Rolling Jubilee, however, purchases that debt and forgives it. They chose medical debt because it is purchasable, and is the primary source of bankruptcy in America. They cannot control whose debt they purchase, and they (and I) see that as a feature, not a bug.

Random people who probably can never pay their debts–or those debts wouldn’t be in that pool that can be purchased so inexpensively–get letters like this one:

Original Creditor: xxxxxx
Patient ID: xxxxxx
Rolling Jubilee Acct : xxx
Original Balance: $xxx
Balance Due: $0.00

Dear Ms. Doe,

Season’s Greetings from Strike Debt!

We write with good news: the above referenced account has been purchased by The
Rolling Jubilee Fund, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. The Rolling Jubilee Fund is a project of Strike Debt. The mission of this project is to buy and abolish personal debt. We believe that no one should have to go into debt for the basic things in our lives, like healthcare, housing, and education.

You no longer owe the balance of this debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else…

Of course, this ten million dollars in debt reduction isn’t even a drop in the bucket of American medical debt, let alone American debt overall. Here’s what it is:

1) It’s a project of the people, by the people, and for the people.

2) It’s random and nonpartisan. Some of the people getting these letters are likely to be hard-core right-wing Republicans, who hate Occupy Wall Street and all its offspring. Nonetheless, OWS folks are forgiving their debt.

3) Its intended purpose is not primarily to forgive debt. In concert with a related organization called Strike Debt, the folks who founded and maintain Rolling Jubilee are hoping to shine a productive light on the role of debt in American life, and to give us all a variety of ways to fight back. Strike Debt has created an excellent resource, the Debt Resistor’s Manual (long .pdf at the link), which everyone should download and read. Strike Debt local organizations are cropping up all over the country; check one out near you.

In 2013 America, debt is largely a burden. Unpaid debts are largely a source of shame. (Many homeowners don’t fight foreclosure because of the shame involved in coming forward.) Rolling Jubilee and Strike Debt offer us another view: debt is largely a tool of the 1%. Unpaid and unpayable debt is often something that was done to you by the system, which has an interest in keeping you in debt.

The phrase we use for cancelling debt is “forgiving.” Corporations don’t forgive; people do. What’s more, people can force corporations to the bargaining table.

The only thing I want more than for this to be successful is to see America take part in the other aspect of jubilee: maybe all (well, 50% anyway) those in bondage can be set free.