How Liberal Centrism Kills Us

Why can’t we just get along, right?

On a previous version of this thread I had articles regarding liberal articles that are heavily critical on modern day capitalism. My takeaway was this: They’re well-meaning but lack political backbone in their solutions. For instance the “solution” to work isn’t to make it involve more play, to let workers get a couple dollars or to devolve a mild amount of autonomy is enough to fix the core problems with our current system.

Making workplaces “open”, making them have shorter hours, more breaks, fewer meetings, more time to cry and be yourself, none of that is cutting at the roots. Getting to the heart of what makes work so awful is capitalism itself as well as the governments that encourage it.

Unfortunately, for all of Jeffery Pfeffer’s solid analysis of the problems work creates for the workers, he doesn’t get this either. And so he becomes another case of liberal centrism and how that kills us, by short-circuiting our imaginations and convincing us only minor tweaks are possible, necessary and worth trying for. That’s a huge limitation to put on all of us and it’s one that robs the liberal vision of having any sort of political punch to it.

All of my previous articles on this subject are on the Internet Archive, so let’s start here instead:

Work harms employees in two fundamental ways. In the US, employment status and your employer determine your access to health-care … Second, employers affect the stress-inducing conditions of work: work-family conflict, long work hours, absence of control over one’s work environment, and economic insecurity.

It’s worth noting that Pfeffer is a “…A giant of business scholarship” and “…teaches one of Stanford’s most popular courses, on office politics and power.” So this kind of analysis is likely the pinnacle of the Educated Liberal who has some Serious Criticisms about how our system currently operates. Except both of the “fundamental ways” in which work harms workers is, while technically correct (the best kind!) is ultimately not actually getting at the fundamentals.

Because while lack of health care and workplace stress due to bosses are important facets of why work sucks, these are symptoms of a larger issue. These might be some of the biggest symptoms, I’d be willing to concede that much. But ultimately they are not the cause of the problem so much as they stem from the problem(s), that being capitalism, the state, hierarchy, etc.

Even if capitalism somehow self-regulated itself into a more caring and gentler version of itself you’d still have unjust power dynamics that lead to toxic relationships and unequal pay and decision making mechanics within a corporation. Which is, in of itself, an entity that is historically prone to corruption, greed and using violence against workers when they dissent.

So OK, disentangle the current apparatus from healthcare (without completely changing the system somehow) and make bosses a little nicer so employees don’t have to get addicted to alcohol or pills to deal with their jobs. What then? That leaves so many workplace based issues and issues that intersect with work very much untouched in the process. But that’s precisely the point for liberals who’d rather us make some “major” tweaks and then call it a day.

All of this said, it’s hard to disagree with Pfeffer says:

Companies do not act on the basis of the best evidence. They merge even though much research shows that mergers destroy value. They use forced-curve ranking systems for performance reviews even though extensive evidence documents the harmful effects. There is no reason to believe they would behave any differently with respect to their human capital.

Exactly! If companies don’t care about what studies show concerning the thing they constantly go on about (stocks, money, investors, etc.) then why would they care about the things they don’t constantly talk about (their workers, safety standards, autonomy etc.). There’s so many more press conferences about how a company is monetarily doing as opposed to how well they’re treating their workers and how they think they can improve on this in the future.

You can always treat people better and can always improve yourselves. But there’s only so many ways you can disappoint your shareholders for the millionth time. And all of this should go to show that the issues with this system go much deeper than just healthcare and basic humanity shown (or not shown) by bosses towards workers, but for Pfeffer it just doesn’t click.

Here’s another frustrating (but slightly valid) take, this time on AI:

Although governments might act to mitigate these adverse impacts through extensive job retraining programs and income maintenance efforts, most governments already face large budget deficits and an ageing population.

Moreover, states in the US and the government in Britain have been reducing their expenditures on higher education for decades. Thus, I see little reason to believe that state action will mitigate the disruptive effects of AI.

Well yeah, when governments are largely owned and operated by the rich and so is automated machinery, it makes sense it’s not going to go well for anyone else. Workers are likely going to see massive layoffs (and have in some cases)  and the reason they are is because they have very little say over what their workplace conditions look like in the first place. Never mind the kinds of conditions that may eventually replace them.

Then again, Pfeffer’s analysis here is slightly simplistic. Yes, it is likely many workers may lose their jobs but this also happened to farmers and the agriculture industry. Many of those people found jobs in other industries just the same. That doesn’t mean it’s the same exact situation (automation impacts many more industries than just agriculture for one thing) but that there’s at least some precedent for us to not be gloom and doom about it. There’s some reason for speculative positivity, especially if workers gain more power and bosses gain less.

But OK, what’s Pfeffer’s (lackluster liberal) solution?

We can—and should—measure the dimensions of work environments, including work hours, that we know affect health. Measurement would be the single most important thing we could do, particularly if we highlighted those workplaces doing the best—and the worst—on the various measures.

Ah, of course, legibility.

No one has ever thought to make corporations simply self-report their own statistics in order for them to be property regulated and then sorted out, right?

This is the kind of lackluster conclusion that is all but inevitable to most liberal analysis. Because the foundational analysis lacks any sort of political backbone, the conclusion shows it at its weakest point possible. That’s why it’s always the point I harp on the most, well, usually.

But this time, I think the “solution” speaks for itself.


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Doing What You Actually Love is a Privilege Under Capitalism

Source: http://www.janellequibuyen.com/about/

Remember when you were a kid? You could watch TV shows you enjoyed, go outside with your friends and play games. You still had to go to school and, sure, you didn’t get a huge say over what dinner was most nights, but most of your activities were your own. Obviously some kids grow up with controlling parents but for me anyways, childhood was a very self-directed and involved many activities like video games, TV and movies that I enjoyed and wanted to do.

These days it’s much harder to make time  for the hobbies I love. I’d love to speedrun Kingdom Hearts 2 more, write my novella more and spend more time on my backlog of video games. But all of these things are hard to do because of work. That one thing you likely didn’t do as a kid growing up (unless someone got around child labor laws) and you were better for it.

But now many of us have to balance our work commitments and our “life” commitments. It’s telling that the term “work-life balance” contrasts work with life. Hanging out with your friends, reading a book, playing video games, writing, meditating, going for a peaceful walk in a forest, these are all things that are part of living. But sitting in a chair for nearly 8 hours and having to live at the beck and call of others is decidedly not living. So what do people do about this misery?

Well, some of them quit their full-time jobs to pursue their passion.

But Janelle Quibuyen counsels otherwise:

Quitting your job to pursue your passion is bullshit. This messaging is only beneficial for privileged people and very dangerous for working class people.

The statement alone reeks of privilege. It confirms you had a full-time job to begin with. It confirms you had time to develop a passion (that you can capitalize off of, enough to meet your cost of living). It confirms you had the option to pursue something different because you feel like it. There are more challenges to being self-employed than just mental perseverance and grit.

We are predatorily luring working class people into an entrepreneur lifestyle as the answer to living a meaningful life and making loads of money.

It’s the new American Dream.

And like George Carlin said, “It’s called the American Dream because you gotta be asleep to believe in it.” And this period of sleep is more like a nightmare for those less privileged.

Here’s a fun fact about me: I’ve never held down a full-time job.

Never.

I’ve worked part-time from 20-30 hours in a week before with the most being in the upper 20s and maybe lower 30s but that was a rarity for me. I’ve never been able to hold down a full-time job because I don’t have that amount of executive functioning to spare. Nor would I even want to at any of the jobs (mostly retail) I’ve worked in the past 10 years or so.

So I have never been able to just quit my “full-time job” since I’ve never had one. That does bring me the advantage of having more time to work on my own hobbies. I’ve been able to make time for school (to the detriment of this site and my writing) but it always feels like a part of my work takes me away from the life I’d rather be living. Sure, my job is pretty chill and pays OK, but I could sit at a chair for hours listening to D&D podcasts in my own house and get paid for it.

And so this statement of “just do what you love, quit your full-time job” hurts folks like me. The people who are too disabled or otherwise not able to find full-time work. And even when it doesn’t harm those folks it can still make people feel ashamed that they’d rather not pour 40 hours into their week for a hobby they’d rather spend 5 hours on a week. Doing something that long can (though not always) burn you out and make you resent what you used to love.

Quibuyen goes on to say:

I am privileged to not have any student loans to repay. … I am privileged to have paid off most of my credit card debt while I was working full-time. I am privileged to be in a relationship with a partner that was working full-time. That I had a partner who I could live with. I quit my job because I was dealing with a family emergency with long-term responsibilities I had to wrap my head around.

I quit my job because I had the privilege to do so.

This is an important article because it not only speaks to the privileges you would need to say something like this but to also do it. I’m glad Quibuyen wrote this article as it’s an important one and it gets to the heart of their own privilege in being able to do what they did. A privilege they admit and are able to come to terms with in this piece. And using that newfound peace they were able to write this great article exposing another superficial myth about work.

This myth surrounding do what you love crucially revolves around the concept of live being different than what it is in reality. In reality, love isn’t a immutable thing, it changes, ebbs and flows with the passage of time and can go away just as easily as it entered. I’ve loved and lost many things in my life and to be able to try (for example) and take speedrunning as a profession seems disastrous to me. The amount of pressure I’d have to put myself under to make that work and the amount of money I’d have to invest just to maybe have it become too frustrating or have my love fade over time? That’s an investment that is much to risky these days.

That said, Quibuyen is wrong to say that “You have no one to blame but yourself if things go awry.” we can also blame the economic systems we live under and feel very little control over. We can take a look at how we got to a culture that constantly admonishes working class folks for not being rich enough to simply do what they love. And we can work to abolish the systems of power that keep in place the privileged above everyone else while they admonish those below them.

As Quibuyen says, “I’m not saying working class people can’t be successful entrepreneurs.”

And neither am I. I agree with them that although the ideal of everyone doing what they love sounds ideal, under current conditions it just isn’t realistic and that’s one of capitalism’s biggest failings when it comes to the topic of work. While we all put in massive efforts everyday we are being rewarded for less than we need to cover basic costs, for people we don’t like, inside of corporations we may not ethically agree with while working far too many hours under people who are overly-demeaning if not downright cruel and abusive towards us.

I guess what I’m really saying is: More Saturday Morning TV Cartoons, Less Capitalism.


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Ableism and The Rise of Disability Worker Inspiration Porn

Liz Kessler

It’s as if I’ve gone from an absurdly cold day to a near-perfect day (which I discovered in my Earth Science course is about 63 degrees). The last article I responded to and reviewed was nigh-dreadful but this one is almost perfect. There’s a few minor nitpicks I have but overall this is probably one of the better articles I’ve shared on here in some time.

Liz Kessler has an excellent post about why productivity is not the answer: unpacking the hierarchy of disability advocacy. I was tempted to title this a few different things including why productivity is never the answer but honestly I enjoy being productive as a general rule, I just don’t like it when I’m under the thumb of someone else. (That’s gotta be a huge thumb, right?)

Koestler’s article is smart, incisive and well-written and I mostly have positive things to say about it. Some of the article only has tangential relation to anti-work rhetoric but other passages are dead on, which you might expect given the fantastic title, so let’s get to it!

…I get tired of seeing media making a big deal out of the idea of people with disabilities doing normal things … Inclusive hiring practices shouldn’t be news.

But secondly, because it represents a form of disability activism that is inherently problematic and oppressive. The strategy of Amy Wright — the able-bodied founder of the coffee shop — is essentially to say “look, these people can work, therefore they have value!”

This is something that has frustrated me as well. Whenever I see visibly disabled people at stores there is a sense of discomfort for me. I think this is internalized ableism on my part as an autistic person who “passes” pretty well as neurotypical these days. But it also comes down to how they’re treated. Are they just props to the store? How much are they included in the activities of the store if they were able to have a social event right now?

Do they put the disabled person in front of the photo and leave it at that? Or is that person actively given support structures and assistance from their fellow workers and (even I don’t want them to exist) their managers? There’s a lot of nice sounding rhetoric around disabled folks in the workplace, including the kind of inspiration porn that Kessler is calling attention to here.

It gets so exhausting to see capitalists “cheering” for the disabled people…but only when they produce with their disabled bodies. Kessler is right to point out that the supposed “value” these news stories have isn’t heartwarming at all, in fact it’s just another sign of a dystopian world we live in. One where differences are only celebrated when they benefit those at top and not necessarily the people who themselves are working and trying to live their best lives.

But as Kessler adds:

To be clear, I’m not opposed to disabled people being in the workforce.

I am a disabled person who works for pay, and I know that the reality is that for many people with disabilities, discrimination in the workforce (and in education) is what stands between them and having agency over their lives.

Without waged work, disabled people are usually dependent … for survival. Usually that means limited access to financial resources. Even when one’s family has resources to spare, not “contributing” to the household frequently means not being able to make all of one’s own decisions.

There is an exciting element for people who are disabled and are now able to pay for things they want. There is social power and capital and being able to say that you hold a job and help pay for your own finances. It can be a good self-esteem boost, a way to make friends, an easy way to meet people and experience new things. But these things can just as easily turn on them.

You can start to think you aren’t really disabled because you have a job and worry about how other disabled people are suffering and how you get to thrive. How is that right? Or if you are visibly or notably disabled in some way you may be harassed by customers or even worse, a co-worker or boss. Ableism doesn’t magically go away once you get a job and can even intensify with you becoming more “integrated” into what society says is an important facet of our lives.

And that sucks! Jobs should be empowering for people and make them feel safe, rewarded and be a great place to socialize and learn more about their local community. Instead, it can become a festering hotspot of ableism and inspiration porn, sponsored by capitalism, of course. That doesn’t mean, as Kessler points out, that when disabled folks get jobs it doesn’t matter. But that, instead, we should be suspicious of narratives that say this is (even in part) what gives those folks their meaning, their value. You are not your productivity and especially in service of capital!

(This is not even to mention the fact that in this form of attention, often the disabled people are treated as having little agency, while the able-bodied person is treated as a hero because they believe in something basic like inclusive hiring practices. This is particularly obvious in the CNN coverage of Bitty and Beau’s)

Oh heck this. This is another part that frustrates me and something I alluded to earlier. Sometimes the store owner hires a disabled person for show, puts them on some pictures and calls it a day on being an ally. But heads up folks! That’s not being an ally to disabled folks! Being an ally is a consistent practice and doesn’t end once you do the bare minimum.

To be honest, your responsibility to others only starts there and has much further to go before disabled folks (or any marginalized group) should take your words seriously. Actions matter too and they arguably matter a heck of a lot more than some rhetoric about how “employable” you feel disabled folks can be. Well that’s great but what about how creative? What about how caring or intelligent? What about their beauty or their grace? There’s so much to any individual and reducing them down to how much money they can make for capitalism is Not It.

And then Kessler begins to get to one of the biggest problems with this rhetoric:

This message erases the fact that many disabled people cannot work at all. Are those people valuable? Are they worth supporting? When mainstream discourse about disability is completely focused on value based on employability, the implication is that people who are “unproductive” are not valuable and not worth our time, resources or inclusion in society.

I’m fortunate that I can maintain a part-time job but even aside from philosophical issues with work I just could not do a full time job. My part-time job, as easy as it can be at times, still burns me out and leaves me in a bad mood. And that has been especially true as of late because I’ve been working overnight shifts and it’s been killing my sleep schedule. I’ve been struggling with sleep the past week off and on and having to take occasional naps, not always by choice!

And I’m also lucky that my workplace isn’t particular transphobic or just that some folks don’t know or don’t care. It’s not a particularly great thing to be misgendered but I don’t have the energy to constantly correct people when living is hard enough some days. And yet my transgender identity doesn’t become less valid because I don’t always self-advocate. And the same goes for disabled folks who can’t always work or some who can’t work at all.

This rhetoric is so dangerous because it implies that our value comes from working and that without work we are somehow less than what we would be otherwise. If we aren’t producing commodities for the economy and making the ruling class happy, are we really living?

Yes! A thousand times yes! We can be painting, sewing, knitting, making music, playing video games, going for walks, learning, studying, loving each other, talking our feelings out, watching movies, reading books, meditating, sleeping, living our lives to the fullest!

As Marx said:

[A communist] society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Your value doesn’t need to be solely determined by your main activity in life. The person fishing has as much value as they did the day before, even if they do not catch a single fish. Providing for their family may be important but not catching anything does not make them a failure as a human being. Maybe it speaks poorly of their fishing skills, but that’s a separate matter.

For disabled people being defined by what they can do is inherently abelist. It discriminates against people because of their abilities, their muscle strength and diminishes any value that people can show when they take care of themselves or aren’t working in any traditional sense.

And ableism doesn’t just harm disabled folks, though that’s the most important part, it also diminishes anyone who doesn’t work. Folks who are old, folks who can’t work because they need to take care of a family member, people who are sick themselves, etc. And it makes those same groups of people feel badly about themselves, as if they aren’t real people.

This is similar for how transphobia can harm gender non-conforming lesbians who are so butch they can pass for men at times. It’s similar to how racism and sexism does not just harm the people it is directed at, systematic racism and sexism means that the system is wrong and the problems are therefore widespread and can harm many, not just those intentionally targeted.

Here’s another excellent point by Kessler:

Autistics and their allies have succeeded in putting forward a narrative that there are many benefits to being autistic that make autistics particularly valuable to employers.

While there is value in understanding autism, some go even further and argue that because of these benefits, autism is therefore should not be considered a disability but only a “difference” (when in fact it is both a difference and a disability). This argument effectively throws other disabled people under the bus. It says, “disabled people are scary, but we’re not disabled.”

I used to also be guilty of this issue myself. Not necessarily the employment part but the issue of thinking that calling disability a “difference” somehow helps. No, it just hides and malforms the people  who I thought I was protecting by changing my language. I myself am not sure if I am disabled or not, but regardless I am autistic and I know that for a fact. If that makes me disabled in some way (especially neurologically) then so be it, there’s no shame in it. And there’s no pride in it just because capitalism could profit from my Linux brain when most are running Windows.

Kessler sums up what it’s all about well:

Instead of arguing that we are more valuable because we can work, we should be arguing that all humans, including disabled humans, are valuable regardless of whether they can work or not. Instead of arguing that things like ADHD, autism or deafness are not disabilities, we should be arguing that disability is not something to be afraid of but simply a part of human diversity that needs to be considered.

I could keep quoting this excellent article or y’all could just go read it, so just do that.


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ACAB

Graeber on the “Gigantic Embarrassment” of Work (RSA Replay)

Source

Lost to the archives are my previous discussions of Graeber or mentions of him at any rate. I don’t recall how many times I’ve talked about Graeber’s infamous article concerning bullshit jobs, but I know I never did any review of the article. But hey, this covers that!

Back in 2018 (approximately a million years ago), Graeber gave an interesting talk based on his then recent book with the RSA (which apparently stands for the Royal Society of Arts?) that I’ve had on my Youtube for a long time now. I’ve decided to get around to taking a look at it, now that I don’t have school and my part-time job is easier than ever thanks(?) to COVID-19.

For starters, it’s a decent lecture though it doesn’t tell anti-work advocates anything they don’t already know. It’s definitely more of a 101 lecture than something anti-capitalist anarchists (like myself or Graeber) would go out of their way to see. But then, that’s the point. It’s a very 101 talk because his audience is a crowd that conceivably flinches at “anarchist” and thinks terrorist.

The talk is split into three sections: A brief lecture section (20 minutes or so), a briefer dialogue section with the host (15 minutes) and the longest section, a Q&A fills out the rest. I took notes on all three of these sections and here’s a list of things that stood out to me:

  1. Graeber looks really haggard, I don’t mean this as an insult; I hope he was getting rest!
  2. Graeber talks a bit too much about how successful he is (especially with Debt)
  3. He loves to envision capitalists with “minions” like a Saturday morning cartoon show
  4. His solutions (UBI) are unpersuasive or vague and his methodology is suspect
  5. He’s certain no one believes in the myths of capitalism, despite them still being parroted
  6. His idea of “everything meaningful as an extension of care-ethic” is an interesting theory
  7. Sadly doesn’t address his own professions BS quality despite doing so in the essay
  8. Not a lot of discussion concerning automation (“robots have already taken our jobs!”)
  9. Has good anti-authoritarian instincts when it comes to the 4-day workweek
  10. Almost no discussion about gender roles in BS jobs, only when a question is asked.

I know a lot of that seems negative, but this is overall a good talk. It’s just unfortunate that Graeber’s biggest issue here is that his methods of talking about the phenomenon of BS jobs is either his Twitter page, an email group or a drunken rant he had done at parties for 10 years. I’m not saying anecdotal evidence is meaningless or that survey can’t be helpful, nor am I suggesting that he is wrong about the existence of BS jobs, just that I wish his methods had more rigor.

Graeber’s an intelligent anthropologist and I’ve read him on anarchism several times to usually pleasing results, but he only seemed to be at his best when he talked less about the symptoms (BS jobs) then the central issue (state-capitalism). Or when he was asked about the 4-Day weekend and noted that surveilling people’s activities would be incredibly costly, difficult and may not even work for his own profession. He’s paid monthly to work “all the time” as he says.

So Graeber admits he’s “suspicious” of calls for the 4-Day workweek, even though he thinks it would help. This is, roughly, where I stand as well and it was such a relief to finally hear and see someone else talk about it. Although, inconsistently and disappointingly he held no such worries for the Universal Basic Income (UBI) even though I’d think they’d equally apply?

I suspect that is because he spoke to a great cultural change (paraphrasing) that we’d need to go under in order for such a policy to happen in the first place. My question is that if we’ve already caused such a cultural shift that UBI becomes palatable then why shouldn’t we aim higher? There’s also another excellent question raised by the host: What about short-term strategies?

UBI may be a decent strategy for the long-term but as Graeber points out it is currently undesirable by politicians despite it gaining more steam in the past 5 years. We’ve seen that especially with US presidential candidates such as Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders. Social democratic ideologies have, in general, become more popular which has lead to the rise of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) gaining momentum. As well, we have publications like Jacobin that have also been steadily increasing in viewership over the years.

Nevertheless anarchism should never be a slightly radicalized social democratic stance. This was (and is) the problem with anarchists like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Colin Ward and others like them. They think of anarchism as a process for improving the state not as abolishing it and replacing its institutions and services with community-based ones.

Now, I understand I’m painting in broad strokes here and I certainly respect the thinkers I’ve just mentioned (Ward’s Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction and Chomsky’s definition of anarchism are both influential) but I think this strain of anarchism doesn’t get enough criticism.

I’m not saying we don’t focus on the short-term benefits such as UBI, 4-Day Workweek, $15 minimum wage, etc. But what I am saying is we need to look carefully at these policy proposals that depend on the ruling class suddenly turning around after hundreds of years (and much more) of oppressing others and suddenly treating us kindly. Yes, there have been some wins such as the unionist victories in the 1930s in the US but those were notoriously reformist and ended up weakening the unionist movement in the US in the long-haul. Even the IWW isn’t near where it used to be and neither are most other unions that fought for worker’s rights back then.

As the title suggest, one of the best parts of this talk is at the beginning when Graeber mentions that work is a kind of “embarrassment”. Everyone implicitly recognizes what they’re doing is BS but no one has a solution. Or if they do, it’s often discounted as “communism” or as Graeber said “it’s us or North Korea!” Any solution to our current problems would only make it worse, so why bother? Or it’s just an excuse for bad and lazy (let’s be honest: it’s the same in capitalism) people to get out of their debts, which, of course, Graeber wrote a whole book on and has responses to.

As for BS Jobs themselves, I have an interesting mix because I take care of living beings (dogs) but 90% of the time I’m doing nothing these days. And even before COVID, I still had hours and hours where I was on my phone or playing video games or doing something else. These days it’s just hilarious how much of my job is just sitting around and looking at screens. The pretense is someone needs to be there in case the place burned down (why would it?) and more crucially because the dogs need their bowls refilled and to be taken out once in a while (more sensible).

But in essence, most of my job feels like BS. Like, it’s amazing to me I get paid to just sit and read , play video games, watch wrestling videos on Youtube or whatever I want, really. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. I technically have a list of responsibility but due to COVID no one cares and even before that, so few people want to do overnight shifts that they often can’t make mountains out of molehills when much of the cleaning asked for is minor. The major cleaning to the facility happens throughout the day so even when we were busier there were periods of hours where, as an evening worker or an overnight one, I had hours where I did nothing or even napped.

Another interesting aspect of this lecture/dialogue is that Graeber briefly mentions how we sacrificed our leisure time for our commodity time. Instead of having more time with our friends or families we are spending more time with our smartphones. It’s worth asking: Can we have both? Is it possible to have a life full of commodity-based pleasures and enjoy bountiful time with our loved ones? Graeber doesn’t provide any answers to this question (nor does he even ask it) but I think if we abolished state-capitalism we could certainly get much closer.

Maybe Graeber believes that as well, I don’t know for sure. In any case, the benefits of technology can be dispersed and widespread instead of concentrated into the hands of the rich and powerful.

So, why do BS jobs exist?

Graeber has some answers:

  1. Making up jobs to suit those in power
  2. To keep people off the street (despite abandoned homes)
  3. The poor must pay their debts and the rich must provide them those opportunities
  4. If you don’t want to work you’re a bad person!
  5. Much easier to believe you think you’re doing something and aren’t.
  6. If you’re a manager you need 5-6 flunkies/minions or you’re not important
  7. Duck tapers: People who apologize for the lack of solutions
  8. Box Tickets: Efficiency designers who aren’t listened to
  9. Goons: PR, Marketing, Telemarketer(!)
  10. Taskmasters: Supervising people who don’t need it (Middle-Managers)

In addition, many of these industries (as Graeber points out) feed off themselves and the people Graeber heard from admitted this to him. From corporate lawyers, people within the financial industry Graeber concludes in this discussion that even if half of the current jobs were eliminated it likely would not impact anything materially.

Perhaps we are seeing this currently with the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of the job currently are “essential” ones that are (at least in my profession) an extension of the care-ethic, as Graeber puts it. Providing dogs care as well as other essential services like getting food to people reliably, nurses and hospitals are all extensions of the care-ethic, as Graeber would say.

On the other hand, society has never seemed so chaotic and disorganized. There’s a discomfort in the air wherever I go. I either have this gnawing feeling that there are too few people outside or making noise (e.g. a ghost town) or way too many and this isn’t safe and oh Glob I should really be home and not Here. I fluctuate between these two gnawing feelings but then, to his credit, Graeber didn’t have a pandemic in mind when he wanted corporate lawyers gone.

But what is the opposite of corporate lawyers? For Graeber it seems to be nurses, teachers (which he himself is one), tube workers (more on that in a second) and people whose jobs bear some actual value for the society around them. But what does that value look like and how is it best harnessed within a given society? Graeber doesn’t give us much besides the care-ethic I’ve now mentioned a few times, which I think is interesting but may not be enough on its own.

The discussion about tube workers was interesting. For those non-UK natives/folks unaware of the UK term the “tube” means subways tunnels for us Americans. Why would these folks be so tied to the care-ethic if the trains can mostly run themselves at this point and most folks know where they are going? Well, some people don’t for starters (hi, it’s me!), plus sometimes women are harassed by drunk men, sometimes people lose their laptops or even their children. So yeah, you could definitely argue (as some tube workers did on Twitter) that they’re very much essential.

BS jobs plague our lives, Graeber is no doubt right about that, but his evidence for that needs a bit more rigor for someone who says he’s more of an anthropologist than an anarchist on his Twitter bio. There’s also the curious incidents of people loving their job they know is a lie. Graeber reasons this could be because they’re just glad to be away from home (bad home life/hate their families) and within Graeber’s survey it was a measly 6% at any rate.

But for most of us, we’re all too aware of the bullshit we’ve got to endure within our jobs. The anti-work movement is forever benefited from Graeber’s insightful essay. Maybe we should let more academics publish their drunken rants from parties they’ve been crafting for 10 years?

The world might be a better place for it.


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John Oliver from Last Week Tonight on Automation

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h1ooyyFkF0

John Oliver has been a (somewhat) compelling individual when it comes to the news for a while now. He’s lost much of his charm for me throughout the years as I find his jokes do more to hurt his message than help and I also find the Daily Show style presentation outdated. Nevertheless there’s no denying he can be (at least at times) funny and insightful. Sometimes he even uses his platform on a given topic to give money tthat does good work or otherwise brings attention to folks who he thinks could use the attention (for better or worse).

This video on automation recorded in the first half of 2019 is another video I’ve had on my Watch Later list for a while now. I was never making it a priority to get around to since I always had more compelling articles to analyze, movies to watch, chapters of books to review, etc. But now that I’ve finally watched it I can tell you that my time away from the video didn’t end up mattering much.

The best part of this video is also its worst: It’s a very 101 video on automation; what it is and why it both is and isn’t as scary as pundits try to make it. I already knew a lot of this information and in fact seeing David Autor I was reminded of John Danaher’s excellent articles addressing Autor on automation, all three of which you can find here.

That being said, given I’ve restarted the site and I don’t have any posts (technically) on automation, this may make a solid general introduction for folks reading this site!

Oliver starts the program making the point that kids are often asked about what kind of job they want when they grow up. This is part of our culture’s obsession with work and having it be crucial to our sense of identity. If you don’t know what you want to be adults might look at you disapprovingly or perhaps remind you that you’re still young (so why ask?) and you may figure it out later! If both of these responses seem unhelpful to you that’s probably because the whole conversation is unhelpful for all involved. You are asking a child what they want to do with their lives. By some estimates, that part of our brains aren’t fully developed till our mid-twenties!

This doesn’t mean we can’t ask kids tough questions or that kids cannot take responsibility for their actions, but that we need to give kids more autonomy to figure that out for themselves.

At any rate, Oliver notes that many folks believe that automation is a “huge part” of job loss in the US especially. But the reality is much more complicated than that with only some jobs actually being taken away from workers. Oliver uses an example that I believe Autor uses as well, the rise of the ATM and the feared decline of the bank teller. Back in the 80s when ATMs were becoming popular, many bank tellers feared the loss of their jobs. But instead of losing their jobs, their jobs simply changed to involve other operations within a bank.

In addition, even when it is true that jobs are being lost, Oliver smartly points out that this can at times be a good thing. Don’t we want less loggers falling out of trees and hurting themselves? Wouldn’t we want industries where workplace injuries are currently rampant to trend downwards so more people wouldn’t get hurt? It’s an intuitive reason to automate for sure.

But automation can also be done for more capitalistic reasons such as profits and the rate of production within a given company. There’s a trend amongst CEOs praising the rise of automation because it’ll allow them to fire more workers and increase the pay for those left over or, better yet, keep it the same and increase profits and production for the whole company.

As Oliver notes, who controls the rise of automation is also very important and right now we have some no-so-intelligent leadership in the White House. But even if we did we still live under capitalism, a point Oliver, of course, doesn’t mention given his liberal tendencies. This economic reality means that automation is ultimately being done to better serve capital, not labor!

There’s also a study that was thrown around a few years ago about 50% or more jobs being automated, but as usual it was a study taken out of context by news sources. What the study was actually documenting was whether jobs fell into the high risk category, which is different from an all-but-guaranteed-automation. And again, even when automation does happen there is the complimentary effect which Autor and Danaher have discussed in the links above, check it out.

On top of that there are jobs that may exist in 50 years or so that we could never imagine. Oliver uses the example of how agriculture has shrunk to a shadow of its former selves. America used to be dominated by independent and small-scale farmers but overtime due to mechanical automation and improvements, the huge size of agriculture became less and less necessary.

Many feared what would happen to the farmers and their equipment but many just found jobs in the city. And now we have many jobs that those people could never have imagined such as coders, Youtubers, Uber drivers and much more. That said, the transition is not always easy from one industry to another. Oliver points out that older truckers are not going to suddenly start coding, despite the threat of losing their jobs thanks to machine learning and self-driving cars.

So what do we do about them?

Oliver mentions tax increases, federal funding for retaining for those who lose their jobs and teaching the young a different strategy. Instead of, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You can instead ask them, “What five things do you want to do when you grow up?” which seems much more reasonable given many people don’t have careers in 2020, just a series of jobs.

Whatever the end result of automation Oliver is surely right that it isn’t going to stop anytime soon and that we all need to be better prepared for it and educated about it. Maybe in the process of bettering our strategies surrounding automation, we can also challenge capitalism?


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