When it Comes to Job Numbers, “Don’t Believe the Hype!”

Source

I remember getting into Public Enemy when I was in high school. That’s because of the wonderful band Rage Against The Machine, who themselves were inspired by Public Enemy. So the transition from one band to another makes a ton of sense for my teenage self.

Anyways, that’s the reference.

And here’s the article that I’ll be talking about today. It’s a bit out of date, it’s from 2018, but hey, things aren’t any better right now! So let’s just pretend we’re living in a good(?) year!

In a healthy economy in which one job can provide for a family and meet basic living expenses, a 3.7 percent unemployment rate would certainly be fantastic economic news. As ABC News reported, the unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in 49 years. September’s unemployment rate is just two-tenths of a point higher than the 3.5 percent unemployment rate recorded in 1969, when the American auto industry was at its peak.

But of course the kicker is: These unemployment rates don’t care how people are employed, just that they are employed. It’s a value that these kinds of studies (and the media itself) don’t account for because it doesn’t really matter to the GDP how you’re producing value. As long as you are producing it, that’s the important thing! Working a shitty job you hate just so you can make the rent? Well, feel grateful you have a job, come on! What about all those other homeless people?

This toxic mentality makes it hard for folks to feel like they’ve deserved much of anything in their life or that they shouldn’t be getting more jobs/work. What about monetizing your passions and making that your part-time job? Not to mention doing that in addition to the full-time job you should so clearly feel thankful for. How many people don’t have full-time jobs? Come on!

Again, this is a terrible framing and it makes it so much easier for people who are in fact hard working to feel lazy or crummy about their lives and efforts. When unemployment statistics ignore these cultural norms that have been built up over centuries, they end up being more than useless, they end up being actively harmful. It lures people into a false sense of security about the economy, when the reality is that there are so many problems here:

For example, while the federal minimum wage remains a paltry $7.25/hour, the minimum wage would actually be $16/hour today had it risen at the same rate as the cost of living from 1968 to 2018, according to Andrew Pacitti, an assistant professor of economics at Siena College.

In late May, the United Way’s ALICE Project (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) project found that approximately 43 percent of the U.S. population — or 51 million American households — are unable to afford basic necessities like housing, food, healthcare, transportation, communications, and child care with their current monthly income. And last year, 44 percent of Americans say they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense — say, an emergency room visit or a broken alternator — without having to borrow from someone or sell their possessions.

These are just two major issues to think about when consulting these kinds of “positive” reports. What about those who are employed with toxic bosses? Those who are employed in jobs they actively hate or make them feel bad? Jobs folks don’t feel passionate about or wish they could quit but they can’t afford to? What if some people have one okay job and two other jobs they absolutely hate? All of these situations and more are possible in such a blind report.

I’m in a fortunate situation where I’m able to get by on a part-time job because I live with three other people. But this really shouldn’t be a “fortunate” position because I only do that by minimizing expenses and going to food banks as much as possible before COVID happened. I am only able to sustain this lifestyle because, frankly, I’m a cheapskate and I don’t like buying a lot of things unless I really need it or it’s a video game I really want (or book). Other than that I usually (hypothetically) ask friends and family members to help me with streaming services or find My Own Way of getting media that I can’t find on Youtube.

I’m doing pretty well but my situation isn’t really that great at the same time.

Sure, I don’t need multiple jobs but that’s only because I live with 3 other people in the same apartment. It can get crowded, smelly and unpleasant when you’ve got 4 people in one place in the Summer! Not only that but it’s tough to have your own sense of space when you’re living with roommates. Which is a necessity in today’s economy given the statistics cited above. But not everyone wants roommates and that means they have to find more jobs or strike a deal with a landlord, find somewhere super cheap, one really good and stable job, etc.

In other words, the economy tells us we must go to huge lengths just to find some sense of stability and independence from others. Not that living with others can’t be great! My roommates (including my partner) are generally pretty great folks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d like to live with a couple less people at this point and am ready to explore other living situations. But that’s just not a realistic option under today’s economy. But hey, who cares right?

People have jobs!

Hooray!

Question Mark?

Economists have, in the recent past, cast doubt on glowing jobs numbers given the harsh reality millions of struggling Americans face when attempting to reconcile stangant wages with rising costs of living. In August of 2017, macroeconomic consultant Komal Sri-Kumar penned an op-ed for Business Insider cautioning Americans to withhold their optimism about a July 2017 jobs report that showed the unemployment rate had hit a 16-year low.

Sri-Kumar argued that even though the economy had technically recovered, the “recovery” applied almost exclusively to investors, rather than typical wage earners.

And this is the other big caveat to studies like this. Although it’s true that employment has gone down, who does this benefit exactly? It benefits those at top to the detriment of those at the bottom, no surprise there! So not only is this study harmful because it glorifies toxic cultural norms surrounding work but it also glorifies sacrificing our well-being for those at the top.

But hey, at least we’re all employed, right?


If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!

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.


If you enjoyed this article please remember Black Lives Matter and donate.

There are many places to donate, so pick your favorite!

There’s More to Life than Work Scares (Monsters Inc Review)

Look into the face of pure evil, AKA bureaucracy.

I had not seen Monsters Inc since it came out in 2001(?!) and I was only 10 (as my partner helpfully reminded me). I don’t remember much about watching it, just that I know I did watch it at some point and enjoyed it. I think was a young kid I was so enamored with the concept that the fact that the execution is maybe middle of the road didn’t bother me so much.

I was, after all, 10.

Now, nearly 20 years later I’m looking back at Monsters Inc in a very different world. Does this Pixar film do much of anything in the way of critiquing work? Are there any serious takeaways we can get from this movie? I decided to do the horrible task of re-watching this Pixar classic and discovered that, yeah, there’s some work-critical ideas here. The movie doesn’t take them nearly as far as they should, but then I didn’t expect them to.

If you’re young or otherwise never saw Monsters Inc, here’s the general idea: Monsters exist (woah) and they power their world through the screams of children. They hide in your closet (duh) and then come out, scare you and then disappear into their own world. It’s interesting that this movie had to balance between scary and not too scary since it’s a Pixar film. I only found one monster in the movie scary looking or intimidating but I’m also 28 at this point.

The conceit of the film is that the monsters aren’t able to scare kids as well anymore. Kids just don’t scare as easy (no reason is given for why, it’s just treated as a basic fact) and it’s up to Sully and Mike (our protagonists) to help keep the factory running. Eventually shenanigans ensue and an evil plot is revealed that affects everyone within Monsters Inc and outside of it.

I can’t say this film got me too emotional (except at the very end) or that I felt invested in the plot. I cared more about the setting and the concept than the individual plot beats. As for work-critical themes there’s definitely some poking fun at bureaucracy, there’s a whole lot of paperwork in this film, which is partly how the movie indirectly gets most of its plot if you think about it.

There’s also the themes of bad bosses, overly competitive workplaces causing strife inside and outside the organization. Monsters Inc notably has a “scareboard” that all of the monsters compete on to see who is producing the most amount of screams from the most amount of children. Sully is currently ahead of everyone else but as anyone who has played Kingdom Hearts 3 will know, Sully has some competition and it’s not of the friendly variety.

One thing about the movie that isn’t heavily explicit but implied is that the workers have to produce screams or else. Or else what? Well, it doesn’t seem like anyone had money (at least that I remember) so it’s tied more to their existence itself. If they run out of screams then the energy crisis (definitely not timely at all!) will only get worse. But the overall message of the movie isn’t “this is cruel and unfair” just that getting the energy through screams is unfair.

Therefore it’s not the foundation that is suspect but rather the process that’s supported by the foundation, a fairly liberal read on systemic oppression, but there it is.

And while the movie touts an alternative paradigm for these screams it never tries to find an alternative paradigm to the work itself. Nor does it take from its obvious plot convenience surrounding the proposed alternative to shorten how often people need to work. We see that things are a lot easier by the end of the film but we don’t get much in the way of knowing concretely if this has made everyone get more leisure time or not.

At the beginning of the film Sully is consumed with his job. All he does is go to bed after work so he can get up early, exercise for his scares in the day and make his boss happy. Mike tells him when he’s about to go on a date that there’s more to life than scaring. But for Sully this is akin to sacrilege, how can all of his efforts be worth less than going out to restaurants?

The movie doesn’t focus too heavily on Sully’s workaholic nature but it’s at least explicitly stated from Sully’s own best friend that he cares too much about work. Therefore the movie at least acknowledges explicitly that there’s a limit to how much you should be doing. Eventually you need to get outside, take a break and enjoy yourself. But when that eventually reaches its breaking point is left up to question and never furthered as a theme.

In addition, once a possibility for more “ethically sourced” (as I’ll call it) energy is revealed and the evil plot is foiled by our heroes, Sully and Mike seem to find great purpose in their work again. The answer seems to be: Just build your work on more ethically sourced actions and that will resolve any systemic problems you might have with your job!

But of course, that’s not how it works in the real world. We have corporations who talk about their “ethically sourced” materials all of the time but getting that still requires intensive labor, often from immigrants or desperate people who are paid much less than they’re worth.

Ultimately the bad guys aren’t just foiled by Mike and Sully but also another organization that proves it can work against the interests of the corporation. I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove, but generally regulatory agencies are notoriously bad at doing their job when it comes to big corporations. Often because those same regulatory boards are staffed with CEOs from the same corporation or bought off by them, either way.

I know some of this analysis of Monsters Inc may seem ridiculous to some. “It’s a kids movie!” But kids pick up on themes too and movies that are made for kids often appeal (or attempt to appeal) to adults as well. There are real messages Pixar was trying to communicate with Monsters Inc, though I don’t think they were particularly impressive when it came to the topic of work.

Great movie though!


If you enjoyed this consider donating to Black Lives Matters.

Barro Is Wrong: You Should Not Bring Any Part of Yourself to Google

Source: https://www.businessinsider.com/google-employees-work-life-balance-2014-3

A few years ago James Damore was fired from Google for harboring sexist attitudes and declaring in a memo harmful statements concerning the supposed biological differences between men and women. Damore also spoke on the limits of his speech under Google and that the company was responsible for “reverse discrimination” in an effort to curb discrimination itself. Needless to say this brought controversy to Google and a huge social media firestorm started because of Damore’s memo and Google’s response. Was Google in their right to fire Damore? Was Damore making any solid points even though he was clearly a sexist asshole? (Yes and no, respectively)

There are many other possible questions to the possibility of “echo chambers” a phrase that right-wing folks like to use concerning the left a lot. But of course, when leftists oust others because of serious ideological disputes or particular actions then the left is “cannibalizing itself” so ya know, you can’t win either way. But anyways, Damore isn’t the focus of this article, just the backdrop.

Specifically for this article by Josh Barro on Business Insider which sounds promising from the get-go: Google is wrong: You should not ‘bring your whole self to work’. Unfortunately, this is an article I judged by its title alone. Note to self: At least give something (especially an article from Business Insider) at least a cursory glance before adding it to my Abolish Work to-do list.

Then again, having wholly negative articles on this site isn’t such a bad thing. I can’t be positive all the time and sometimes it’s good to rip into an article as I’ve done in the past.

Here is one such article.

When I first read the title I was like, “Ooh! Someone finally understands that work shouldn’t be all there is to your life! And from Business Insider? Wow! Plus hating on Google is pretty cool.”

But then reading the article, well…

But in Damore’s defense, his employer did tell him to bring his whole self to work – and as The Wall Street Journal reported this week, he was hardly the only Googler bringing his politics to work.

Don’t these people have work to do? Maybe they’d be able to better focus on their jobs if they left more of themselves at home.

As a side note: Business Insider makes me have to type these words since it limits how much I can copy or paste per passage. It also forbids me from accessing its site without Ad Blocker (though I got around this via an alternative link) so basically: Heck you and your business model/site.

More to the point though this is not the angle I thought this article was going to take. I thought that Barro was going to tackle how all-encompassing Google asks their employees to behave when under their contracts. I figured this article would attack the notion of work-life balance that Google sees as an impediment to its employees productivity. And I reasoned that although no hardcore anti-work sentiments would arise from this article it’d at least be nice to see.

Nope!

Instead, this article is clamoring for people to leave their politics (you know, those pesky principles of theirs) back at home. Union concerns got you down? Leave it at home! Worried about  discrimination? Back at your house! Thinking about how your boss has been behaving around you lately? Keep it where you live! Basically, ignore issues of power, of disparities in influence, of organizational mechanics within the gigantic corporation you work for. You know, one of the biggest corporations globally and one that literally invented an alternative verb for “search”.

How are you supposed to leave their ideologies at the door when corporations are defined by people with certain worldviews? The people who build corporations are the rich executives making a killing off an economic system that, itself, makes a killing. These people are not agnostic rational individuals who are merely acting for their own self-interest or for the benefit of their employees. They also have very particular principles and ways of implementing them within the larger economy. And these principles and actions affect people materially; doesn’t that matter?

But, that has to be pushed aside because politics is too “bitter, distracting and ever-present” according to Barro. Well, yes, I do actually feel a bit bitter and distracted when (for example) the ever-present threat of transphobia is all around me and makes me nervous to present how I would like to in the workplace or go into a particular bathroom or just be myself. Of course politics are ever-present because they have always been ever-present.

What is so different about now?

The answer is, of course, social media. Politics are just more obvious but that doesn’t mean they weren’t always there before. We had newspapers, political TV shows, magazines that were political, unions in much earlier decades of America, etc. It’s just much harder to ignore that politics is involved with almost every aspect of our lives and that it shouldn’t be ignored. Especially if you are working for a gigantic corporation that is notoriously anti-union!

One [of the two incompatible impulses in society today] is an increased sense that political views are central to personal morality – if you have the wrong ideas like Damore, then you’re a bad person, or at least a person one should not have to interact with.

The second impulse is because politics are so important, it must be discussed everywhere. And because everything is at least somewhat political in some way, we must interrogate the politics of everything so we can fix the structural injustices that exist in society everywhere.

Uh…yeah?

The idea that men are women are so biologically different that women should be treated a certain way as opposed to men is literally sexism and that is a bad thing?

Treating women differently than men for arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with their own behaviors is harmful because it dissuades women from taking part or being more active in their lives. It makes them blame themselves for the sexist actions of men (like Damore) and harms their self-esteem. Of course, some women won’t be harmed by it because they’re numb to this kind of sexism (this isn’t good either by the way) or because they themselves have internalized misogyny, but that doesn’t stop it from harming some which is, you know, bad.

And yes, sometimes that means you have to cut off dialogue with folks who are actively harmful to you, unreasonable or you know it won’t go anywhere positive or productive. I thought America was all about freedom of association? Isn’t knowing when to cut and run a good thing for conversations? Wouldn’t you rather political conversation be made up of folks who know their worth, their boundaries and how to best enforce them when it comes to conversations? I know that’s the kind of world I want and hopefully it’s the world we’re steadily getting closer to.

Lastly, interrogating the politics of everything so we can solve the structural injustices within society sounds awesome. Sign me up! In what universe does that strike someone as bad?

Combine the two impulses and it becomes impossible … [to] do business together

If someone is making you uncomfortable you have no obligation to stick around them. If they are making many people uncomfortable those people don’t have to let that person stick around in their community if they’d rather them go elsewhere. Exclusion is actually just as important as inclusion in certain cases where the discomfort isn’t just discomfort but stems from a real sense of injustice and harm that is being done to the community (intentionally or not).

When you find out your co-worker keeps talking badly about Muslims in your office and about how bad immigration hurts “Our Great Country” and it bothers you, you should speak up about that! You shouldn’t just let racists be racists, you should actively curate your space so its safer for people from all backgrounds. And to be clear, I’m not saying “of all backgrounds” in a neutral way. Being “racist” for your background isn’t a neutral position, it’s an actively negative one.

At work, agreeing to disagree should be especially easy, because we can just agree to not talk about a lot of the not-especially-work-related matters that divide us.

But no, this isn’t easy at all. There are some jobs where this is impossible for example if you are involved in a political campaign. But even your typical manufacturing job, factory job or retail and food service jobs, you have issues of power and politics abound. Issues of who gets paid what and why, issues of how you relate to your co-workers and your boss. There are issues of where your building is located (e.g. is it disability accessible? accessible to the poor? does it cater to underprivileged communities?) and how you best serve your customers and make them feel safe.

And that sense of safety for both customers and co-workers (ideally there shouldn’t be bosses, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic) means tackling our different visions of the world. It means confronting issues of pay, of benefits (especially health insurance) and the disparities between workers and bosses. It means having those tough conversations, not burying our heads in the sand. The fact of the matter is that we can’t ignore politics in our day to day lives and in trying to do so, we only assert that apolitical attitudes are the best political method for progress.

Much as they wish otherwise, liberals are not going to be able to reeducate the entire working force into having the right, woke ideas, and banish those who resist.

I’m not even a liberal and I think this is a terrible take. Sometimes you do need to remove people from your community to make it safer and to help allow others to get better work done. That doesn’t mean you ex-communicate anyone. I agree things like “cancel culture” can always find the wrong targets but there are also plenty of good targets that haven’t nearly been affected enough by this “banishment” (Chris Brown is a great example).

There are better ways forward than just “cancelling” people but when they’ve been given multiple chances (as I know from experience) and show little to no growth, sometimes the best thing to do is build your community without them involved in it. It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly and I think transformative and restorative justice are often superior, but it should be an option.

And, well, here’s the kicker:

It starts with talking less and smiling more.

Okay, Kilgrave.


If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!

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.


If you enjoyed this article, consider supporting me on Patreon!