Friday, April 26, 2019

Book Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was around the age of fourteen, my mother’s younger brother said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. That his labor had brought him everything that I saw around him. But just when I thought he was about to continue on with some soliloquy on the value of work, he followed it up with, “...and it was terrible. Don’t ever be like me. Find some way not to have to have a real job.”
At the time I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, and at the time I was also too solipsistic to even care, but now that I’m older I realize just exactly what he was talking about. He was talking about bullshit jobs.
But what my uncle failed to recognize, and to paraphrase Michael Robbins, is that all jobs are bullshit jobs. Even if you’re a public defender or work for Médecins Sans Frontières, insofar as your labor is determined by a system of abstract compulsion, insofar, that is, as it exists within capitalism, it’s bullshit. And everyone knows it.
This is Graeber’s latest book, which follows his much circulated essay written, in 2013, that called out such bullshit occupations. His main argument is that in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour work week. Yet we seem to be busier today than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while the box-tickers and bean-counters keep multiplying. Some jobs, he thinks, are structurally extraneous: if all lobbyists or corporate lawyers on the planet disappeared en masse, not even their clients would miss them. Others are pointless in more opaque ways.
Since at least the Great Depression, we’ve been hearing warnings that automation was, or was about to, throw millions of people out of work. Keynes at the time even coined the term “technological unemployment,” and many assumed the mass unemployment of the 1930s was a sure sign of things to come and while this might make it seem such claims have always been somewhat alarmist, what this book suggests is that the opposite was the case. They were entirely accurate. Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up. But if one eliminates bullshit jobs from the picture, and the real jobs that only exist to support them, one could say that the catastrophe predicted in the 1930s really did happen. Upward of 50 percent to 60 percent of the population was, in fact, thrown out of work.
What’s interesting to me about all this, is that this is precisely the outcome we shouldn’t expect in a capitalist system. A free market ought to eliminate inefficient, unnecessary jobs, and yet the reverse has happened. We’ve got all these jobs that really shouldn’t exist but somehow do, and maybe it’s as simple as people needing something to do, so we keep inventing bullshit jobs to keep them busy.
So what the hell happened? Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need? In an age that supremely prizes capitalist efficiency, the proliferation of pointless jobs is a puzzle. Since bullshit jobs make no economic sense, Graeber argues, their function must be political. A population kept busy with make-work is less likely to revolt. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.
As a general rule, we are often taught that people want something for nothing, which makes it easy to shame poor people and denigrate the welfare system, because everyone is lazy at heart and just wants to mooch off of other people. But the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of the middle-management positions Graeber talks about. We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.
All of this leads to a realization that Graeber circles but never articulates, which is that bullshit employment has come to serve in places like the U.S. and Britain as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole, one attuned specially to a large, credentialed middle class. Under a different social model, a young woman unable to find a spot in the workforce might have collected a government check. Now, instead, she can acquire a bullshit job at, say, a health-care company, spend half of every morning compiling useless reports, and use the rest of her desk time to play computer solitaire or shop for camping equipment online. It’s not, perhaps, a life well-lived. But it’s not the terror of penury, either. But it is about power and who has it.
This is the same critique Marx made in the 19th century. Marx said we have this perverse and unjust system, which is propped up by perverse and unjust values, but the system persists because the people suffering the most are mad at the wrong people. Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. You see this in Europe, and America, with austerity programs after any financial crash. There is all this talk about tightening belts, except for the people who actually caused the crash. They still get their bonuses, but the ambulance drivers and the nurses and the teachers have all got to sacrifice. The logic is insane, and it always falls on the people who are most vulnerable, who do the hard and necessary jobs to help sustain the economy. Those in the largely pointless jobs secretly resent teachers or even auto workers, who actually get to do something useful, and feel it’s outrageous when they demand nice salaries and health care and paid vacations too. Working class people who get to do mostly useful things, resent the liberal elite who grabbed all the useful or beneficial work which actually does pay well and treats you with dignity and respect.
As a result we are now faced with the choice between doing useful and important work like taking care of children but being effectively told that the gratification of helping others should be its own reward, and it’s up to us to figure out how to pay our own bills, or accepting pointless and degrading work that destroys our mind and body for no particular reason, other than a widespread feeling that if one does not engage in labor that destroys the mind and body, whether or not there is a reason to be doing it, one does not deserve to live. It’s just as Buckminster Fuller said, “We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.” Which makes this book fundamentally about the yearning for human freedom and dissects, with great analysis, the subtle distinction between power and domination in hierarchical corporate structures.
Like so many other commentators, Graeber mentions a universal basic income (UBI) as a potential solution to the problems he lays out. But he is suspicious of the very challenge to produce a solution: the question “Well, what would you do about it?” is often used to silence criticism of the status quo. In an age when the myth of capitalist efficiency legitimates corporate managerialism, pointing out the bullshit is a job in and of itself.
There is however, something clearly, and inarguably, very wrong with the organization of our society. I think most people know it instinctively but fail to articulate it properly most of the time. And it is here that Graeber explores what is perhaps his true subject: the unnecessary compulsion of wage labor.
Almost everybody spends the majority of their life living in a totalitarian system. It’s called having a job. When you have a job you’re under total control of the masters of that enterprise. They determine what you wear, when you go to the bathroom, what you do, even while at home. As Noam Chomsky lamented in a recent interview, “The very idea of a wage contract is selling yourself into servitude. These are private governments. They’re actually more totalitarian than governments are. And you’re choice is between either starving or selling yourself to a tyranny.”
A society based on the production of value is by definition unfree, since we don’t really have a choice about whether to participate in it. In a free society, your time and labor would be your own. You really want to defeat fascism? Then get rid of the workplace. Get rid of the 9 to 5.
People will still naively claim however, that you need real world experience in the workplace. That it teaches you self-discipline. What they really mean is that you need to learn how to follow orders. Work ethic is really just coded speech meaning obedience.
For more and more people work seems to serve no purpose, and the ultimate “meaning” of most jobs is meaninglessness itself. The next time you leave for work, pay attention to the bustling throng. What are they doing? Where are they going? Focus on one of them. Perhaps he goes to an office where the same things are done today as were done yesterday, and where the same things will be done tomorrow as are done today. Perhaps he enjoys doing these things, perhaps not. He does them anyway because he has a home and family, and must raise his children. Why? So that in a few years they can do much the same things as him, and produce children of their own who do the same things as them. They will then be the ones worrying about reports and presentations and discussions.
Now here’s the rub. Perhaps he organizes his life around this job. Perhaps he worries about it, enough even to kill him at an early age. But, from the outside, the significance of this man’s daily actions lie only in the fact that they will produce others who can perform the same actions, and the significance of these others’ actions is that they will produce yet others who can perform the same actions. And this is the same as saying that they have no significance.
From the outside, each person’s life is like one of Sisyphus’s journeys to the summit, and each day of it is like one of his steps on this journey. The difference is only this. Sisyphus himself returns to push the boulder up again. We leave this to our children.
So I guess the question then becomes, is your job one that makes the world a better place? If the answer is anything other than yes, it’s bullshit, and part of a system who’s only purpose is that of keeping you under control. It’s time we realized that there is nothing honorable about work and that the bullshit that destroys us is the bullshit that endures.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Dick Jokes, Beer, and the Agony of Youth

The saddest scene in movie history has to occur towards the end of Superbad, when Seth takes one last plaintive look back at the receding Evan, before stepping off the escalator and into an uncertain future, both beginning their separate lives. 
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off we find a similar moment when Matthew Broderick acknowledges that he and Cameron probably won’t stay in touch or remain friends, and that he and Sloane might not last too much longer either. For Seth and Evan, they may or they may not, but it’s not for the film to say. That’s life.
For Seth and Evan, the future is something that’s more than either of them can process, and so they don’t. As they slack through their waning days of high school, they discuss which porn sites they’ll subscribe to, gay-bash each other as only dumb young men are want to do, get drunk in their parents’ basements, and aggressively avoid any real conversations about how they’re going to separate colleges in a few months’ time. Neither wants to consider what this could mean for their friendship going forward, so instead Seth drools over Evan’s mom, and Evan mocks Seth’s Belushi-esque blustering about his untapped sexual prowess, and both of them attempt to negotiate their long-standing crushes, who could disappear out of the realm of possible consummation before long. All of this strife arrives while they’re still dealing with pointless classes run by checked-out teachers and obnoxious classmates, and most of all their incorrigibly dorky third wheel, Fogell.
Superbad is a movie about sexual desperation, but only for those who refuse to take it seriously. By the end it’s also a movie about platonic love between two friends and the unsettling truth that not all friendships make it. It deftly balances vulgarity and sincerity while also placing its protagonists in excessive situations, morphing into an authentic take on friendship that deals realistically with the fragile nature of male relationships coupled with the overarching awkwardness of high school.
Superbad served to inform an entire generation of young men that mutual affection didn’t necessarily have to be followed with “Homo!” as it usually was in real life. Instead we see Seth and Evan’s off-the-cuff homophobia give way to a genuine sort of love, even beyond the “bromance” half-posturing indicative of the time. They truly cared for each other, sincerely. The only other movie that even comes close to this same level of sentiment, would have to be Disney’s, The Fox and the Hound.
Copper and Tod have a wonderful time together, playing hide and seek, swimming, and exploring their world together. But the most telling scene in the movie occurs during an exchange between Big Mama and the young Tod, who happily announces to Big Mama that Copper is his best friend.
Young Tod: “And we'll keep on being friends forever. Right, Big Mama?”
Big Mama: “Darling, forever is a long, long time, and time has a way of changing things.” It sure as hell does.
Tod ended up being wrong about the strength of his friendship with Copper. Much like Seth. But why couldn’t they remain friends forever? Because the world wouldn’t allow them to be and because too much has happened between them and because life just doesn’t always have a happy ending.
Twelve years on, and Superbad is still important, and still hits me just as hard in spite of the fact that I find it funnier now than I ever did back in 2007. Like most of Apatow's work, the film does have a fable-like moral: our friendships are what maintain order and intimacy amidst the overwhelming chaos and fear that often invades our relationships. But the whole overarching point of the movie is that Seth and Evan are soulmates and that one of the hardest parts of growing up is knowing that it might not stay that way forever.
Superbad remains one of the only movies to ever honestly capture that one fleeting moment right before friendship turns to something else. Suggesting that the one great romance of our youth will always, and forever, be our best friend.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Book Review: Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America

Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America by Daniel J. Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have neither the patience, nor the political fixation really, to view C-SPAN on any regular sort of basis, but I am a frequent viewer of their cultural programming, in particular BOOKTV, television for serious readers, which they generally air on CSPAN2 during the weekend. It was here that I was first introduced to Daniel J. Flynn, as I watched him give a talk to George Washington University’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, one night while I was drunk.
Don’t ask me why I was drunk. I was simply in the habit at the time of drinking late into the night and watching pre-recorded lectures I had saved to the DVR. I don’t why I enjoyed this practice as much as I did or why I had to be drinking when I did it, but I did find it extremely pleasurable and I learned a great deal because of it. You might also say that, because of this peculiar habit, I represent Flynn’s target audience to a tee.
In this thin volume, Flynn tells of an era that, if not exactly prelapsarian, was a time at least when a fair number of regular, walking-around Americans showed interest in the intellectual traditions of the West, and how a small number of artists and thinkers, many from working-class backgrounds, aspired to bring high culture to the Everyman.
In the book Flynn chronicles the stories of six such intellectuals. Will and Ariel Durant, the husband-and-wife team who were the distillers of Western civilization, and who’s books made the best-seller lists for decades, Mortimer Adler, the manic philosopher who put the best of what has been written and said into the hands of ordinary men through his Great Books project, Milton Friedman, who is perhaps the twentieth-century’s most influential economist, Eric Hoffer, the “Stevedore Socrates” of San Francisco who remains as refreshingly counter-cultural today as he was in his own time, and finally Ray Bradbury, the seemingly tireless fiction writer whose truth-telling tales of dystopia and fantasy intelligent readers have never found tiresome. These blue-collar intellectuals all spoke to the educated laymen without also talking down to them and in the process, uplifted the masses and rescued ideas from the academic ghetto.
Twentieth-century America was actually a time that witnessed a democratization of education that has been unparalleled anywhere in human history. Aided by cheap printing, technological innovations in communications, and a wider dissemination of wealth, strivers bettered themselves through the G.I. Bill and adult continuing education programs; National
Educational Television and university-of-the-air style radio programs; Little Blue Books, the Book-of-the-Month Club, the advent of paperbacks, and broad “outline” books; popular middlebrow magazines such as Saturday Review and The New Yorker, and social outlets such as community book clubs, museums, Andrew Carnegie-funded libraries, and the Great Books programs.
Such sins were not easily forgiven however, as blue-collar intellectuals proved to be as unsettling to the intellectual elites as the nouveau rich had been to old money. Worse still, they replicated their numbers through evangelization. The elite dismissed the democratization of knowledge and wisdom as an invasion of their turf by undesirables. Rather than welcoming the massive attempt at intellectual uplift, elite intellectuals heaped scorn upon it. “The Great Books Movement, for better or worse, offered education minus the middleman. It is no wonder the middleman objected so vociferously,” writes Flynn. In response, established intellectuals began to adopt a vocabulary to demarcate intellectual class---“lowbrow,” “middlebrow,” “highbrow”---with “middlebrow” becoming a slur akin to “bourgeois” in the Marxian vernacular. Which was a direct attempt to marginalize popular culture in favor of high culture. Postmodernism however, more readily perceived the advantages of the middlebrow cultural-position that, while aware of high culture, was also able to balance aesthetic claims with the claims of the everyday world. Which is also part of what forms Flynn’s rather astute premise for the book.
But what’s really exceptional about each of these thinkers, to me at least, is that they all shared one common denominator, they were people who gained much of their education on their own, through books.
Ray Bradbury, the poet of the pulps, for example, didn’t study creative writing or literature at a top university. He was unable to afford college. He grew up in extreme poverty, having to share his parents pull out couch along with his brother, even into adulthood. Instead he went to the library three days a week, later proudly claiming the Los Angeles Public Library as his alma mater. The wannabe author read and wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Immersing himself in books made him an intellectual; doing so at the public library made him a blue-collar intellectual. Bradbury valued an education over a degree.
Which makes this book about far more than a few blue-collar intellectuals. It’s really about the value of an education. A real education, not just the attainment of some degree, which is essentially a paper note of recognition that you attended a particular school at a particular with your name printed in calligraphy. “We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed,” lamented W. A. Pannapacker, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Much of our K-12 schooling now involves educating to a standardized test, superficial learning that does to the mind what Botox, steroids, and plastic surgery do to the body. Our current educational system has a tendency to simply reduce education to mechanical skills, all the while undermining creativity and independence. Anyone who doesn’t fit into this mold is cast aside. The status quo has no use for them. This type of education is also predominant in colleges where we have a system that only allows for professional training that prepares cogs to fit into the economy rather than liberally educated citizens who will be ready for the responsibilities of freedom. People are instead pushed into diploma mills, which is really a sort of University of Phoenix model of education. Institutions that shun broad knowledge graduate shallow people with narrow interests.
So part of the question is, how do we disable an educational system that is uniformizing people across the socioeconomic spectrum in order to remind ourselves that the hotel maid who makes up our bed may in fact be an amateur painter? The accountant who does our taxes may well have a screenplay that he works on after the midnight hour? I think what is less clear, to many people, is just how much talent and creativity exists through all walks of life. Which is why books like this one is so important, because there is more genius in the working-class than anyone cares to notice. Blue-collar intellectuals have ideas that are vibrant, rooted in the everyday lives of real people. They are in a word, pragmatic. Which harkens back to something Eric Hoffer, once said, “America is the working man’s country.”
I ended up identifying with each of these thinkers in very different and yet profound ways, and I believe that the average reader will also. This is a book for anyone who believes that a life of the mind is best lived while living life in the real world, rather than chasing rainbows down rabbit holes.
However, the lack of blue-collar intellectuals today does much, I think, to explain the suffering of both the economy and blue-collar workers themselves. We are surrounded today by passive and meaningless entertainments that not only debases but detaches us from the great ideas and our common heritage. The real threat to the life of the mind today, as I see it, comes not from the people who burn or ban books, but so often, from the people who refuse to read them. To loosely paraphrase working-class heroes Archie and Edith Bunker, Mister we could really use a man like Milton Friedman again.