The Modern Job as “Hyper-Fetishism of Paperwork”

There’s likely nothing good at the top either.

One of Office Space’s biggest strengths as a movie is that it doesn’t hold back on showing how much corporate bureaucrats love paperwork. Whether it’s the memo for the TPS reports, the TPS reports themselves or the infinite usages of the copy machine, the workplace has been saturated with dead trees for a long time now.

This is a point that David Graeber makes in a very stereotypical VICE interview.

I say “stereotypical” because the interview is filled with short questions, declarative statements and ample use of the word “fuck” and various other swear words. I swear, it’s like one of the biggest attractions for VICE writers is the fact that they can say the word fuck every once in a while and get paid for it.

Anyways, it remains to be a solid interview but mostly because Graeber is so great at taking inane statements or very simple (or downright leading/softball) questions and coming up with great responses.

For example:

What’s a “made-to-work job”?

Between 1910 and 2000, clerical administrative work has gone through the roof—it’s something insane like 25 percent to 75 percent of total employment. Bureaucrats, middle management, and pen pushers—these people have nothing to do. When John Maynard Keynes predicted the 15-hour working week back in the 1930s, he didn’t really perceive that people would spend 15 hours a week working and a subsequent 35 bunking off.

Like people in the office secretly watching Netflix while their boss is outside having a smoke.

We’ve got a system that nobody likes and everybody thinks sucks. Nobody ever said that they were excited about filling out a form, and yet, somehow, it grows and grows and people spend more and more time doing it. People in power want people working, even if they’re not doing anything. The Federal Reserve says, “How do we create more jobs?” and not “How do we create more jobs that actually do something?” They don’t care.

That sounds like hell.

Hell is this place where loads of people spend all their time doing something they don’t like doing, that doesn’t need to be done, while being obsessed with the idea that somebody else is getting away with doing less admin than they are. But that’s reality.

I don’t mean to belabor (ha) a point here, but the interviewer seems to mix this sense of bedazzlement with everything Graeber says but somehow sound really snobbish about it at the same time. Or like he’s trying a little too hard to be hip with the kids by referencing Netflix but can’t quite keep up so he uses phrases like “having a smoke”.

Luckily, Graeber is gracious enough to roll with the punches (or he just doesn’t see it as an issue and I’m being overly-critical, which could it be?) and displays a dizzying array of punch in a short sentence or two.

The common phrasing of “working for people you hate, in a job you don’t want to have, for a company you have no investment with”  and similar phrasing apply here just as well. Here though Graeber makes it a bit more active by referring to the production process more particularly, rather than the individual’s personal feelings.

Instead, he contextualizes it within the realm of co-workers, production and a sense of unhealthy boredom with life and situates that within an analogy for Hell.

And all in the span of a sentence!

Now that’s efficiency.

Surely there’s some value to be gained from work?

Society tells you that labor makes you a better person, that you’re not a proper adult unless you’re slaving in a job you hate. And that anybody who doesn’t do that is a deadbeat and a rotten scrounger.

Uh oh.

What jobs ultimately now come down to is a hyper-fetishism of paperwork. We trick ourselves into thinking the value comes from the money and not the work that got you there. For a Marxist, this is the oldest trick in the book.

Okay, “Uh oh.” as a response? Really? I…am gonna let it go… deep breath

Anyways, I feel like this phrase, “hyper-fetishism of paperwork” is a perfect encapsulation of the ways the bureaucracy that we might often referring to within governments also applies to corporations as well. It’s tied into the ways that large firms are able to externalize their costs because of the coercive elements of the state. The fines that the state imposes on smaller businesses and the violence that is threatened to back all of it up is particularly relevant here.

I will admit a bit of bemusement that during the interview Graeber says that being a teacher is “useful work” when he is a teacher himself. That’s like me saying that writing is a useful job and will never go out of style…all the while that is where most of my money is coming from. (That’s not actually the case, by the way, just an example)

I’m not accusing Graeber of lying or being disingenuous, but I think it’s a bit too convenient to presume that any of our jobs are going to last if society becomes automated and decentralized enough. I mean, sure, teachers are always going to be around but they become less and less necessary as our tools for learning grow.

Even right now a lot of the most prestigious schools are offering free classes and courses online. People are sharing their textbooks with each other online to help save costs. Online programs like Coursera, Code Academy and much more all offer educational material for free and in a very easy to access format to boot!

I think it’s quite possible that as time goes on colleges will become less and less necessary and thus Graeber (and others like him) would need to teach within new institutions and models. Ones that are much more peer orientated, decentralized and horizontal than the institutions we see now.

But then again, I would say that given I’m a college dropout..

Christ. Can we blame the banks?

In the 1970s, the top layer of corporate bureaucracies switched sides. They gave up their allegiance to the workers for profit-making.

A bank executive will always defer a shit rule by saying, “It’s government regulation.” But if you investigate how that regulation gets written, you’ll discover that the banks actually write it.

They make up rules they know we can’t follow and then tell us it’s our fault when we break them. In 2009, JP Morgan Chase announced that something like 87 percent of their profits came from fees and penalties.

People breaking bureaucracy and being fined for it?

Precisely. The entire system is designed to fuck you. That’s the basis of JP Morgan Chase, the largest company in America. The US is a really bureaucratic society that just doesn’t want to admit it.

This is an interesting set of points that for me invokes the relation between banks and governments. The fact that banks have historically lobbied for the regulations that liberals claim makes us so free and safe from private tyranny. Often times those same regulations were in part crafted by leaders of industry so that they could organize them as much as possible.

This way, the hoops they’d have to go through would be intimately known to them. They’d know the costs and the things that would have to do so that they could continue to operate. It proved to be a big advantage for many companies and still is today for those who can take advantage of lobbying within the government as Graeber points out.

Lastly…okay, I just want to be a nerd for a second and defend superheroes, excuse me please…

But if you’re at the top of the bureaucratic tree, those rules don’t apply.

Bureaucracy provides an illusion of fairness. Everyone is equal before the law, but the problem is it never works like that. But to advance in a bureaucratic system the one thing you CANNOT do is point out all the ways the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. You have to pretend it’s a meritocracy.

In your book you talk about the latest Batman movie. Why?

In a cartoon, comic world, anyone who is imaginative is a danger. This is the ultimate message of the superhero genre. The only characters in superhero flicks that are really imaginative are the bad guys, because they’ve got a vision.

But that’s why people like them.

Superheroes are the most unimaginative creatures, ever. Bruce Wayne can do anything, but chooses to round up gangsters. He could create cities out of mountains or solve world hunger.

Okay, so I just want to disagree in the strongest terms possible with the idea that “Superheroes are the most unimaginative creates, ever.”

First off using one of the most popular superheroes to speak for superheroes as a whole seems patently unfair to me. You wouldn’t claim that Marxism is boring just being Karl Marx isn’t very good at writing, right? That would be dismissing so many other things who have called themselves Marxists who have had interesting things to say and said them better.

I agree that Batman can be tiring but it isn’t really because he chooses to beat up gangsters, the Joker or do anything besides being much of a useful superhero. It’s because he thinks he’s a good person and he really isn’t. Batman is a sort of revenge on Gotham city that Bruce invokes every night for the death of his parents. His idea of justice is beating up a lot of people who are too poor to make it otherwise or clearly need some sort of mental help, not a blow to the head.

Sadly, the only thing Batman understands is brute force, torture and having lots of money for things. Oh, and enlisting children in his one-man army to “save” Gotham just so they can repeatedly die and then come back.


Anyways, if David Graeber thinks superheroes are unimaginative I encourage him to read classics like Watchmen, Swamp Thing or newer ones like Scarlet (by Brian Michael Bendis), Hawkeye (Matt Fraction’s run), Astonishing X-Men (the Joss Whedon run) and like…do I need to go on? ‘Cause I am abso-fucking-lutely prepared to give my favorite comic book recommendations to David Graeber. Not that I think that would be really cool or anything…

…I mean…I’m not that much of a nerd…

Anyways, this kind of statement that superheroes are “boring” and “unimaginative” often draws from the bottom of the barrel (or in this case, the shiniest and most visible part of it). And in doing so it also ignores all of the other gems that have been buried underneath. There are so many independent comics out there and Image has been putting out a lot of great material lately and so has Marvel with comics like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Howard the Duck and Ms. Marvel.

Seriously though, I’ll give more comic book recommendations if you want them, David.

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Until next time, True Believers…in Slacking!


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