by Richard King
‘If you want a vision of the future,' O'Brien tells a broken Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.'
Alternatively, you might consider this scenario, from the comedy sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Sound on BBC Radio 4 …
The time is about thirty years in the future; the place, the UK, where the actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley has just become a ‘benign dictator'. As her first act of office Lumley has instituted something called the ‘Old Lady Job Justification Hearings', a sort of soft Inquisition before which representatives of various occupations are obliged to appear in order to justify their existence – to prove they have ‘a proper job'. The hearings are run by elderly ladies, whose questions, though always sweetly expressed, are as kryptonite to the Man of Steel. (To a cosmetic surgeon: ‘Oh! A doctor, you say? That's lovely dear! So you make sick people feel better do you?') By the end of each session, the interviewee is reduced to a self-loathing mess, while the old ladies, not wanting to compound their distress, are all apologetic consolation – English tea and sympathy: ‘Don't worry, dear. Have another biscuit. Have you ever considered opening a little shop?'
Okay, it lacks the dystopian power of Orwell's post-atomic vision; but it's not without its interest …
Mitchell and Webb get one thing right, I think: the question of what constitutes meaningful work is about to become, if it hasn't already become, an inescapable modern theme. In capitalist democracies in particular high unemployment, wage stagnation and the expansion of the so-called ‘precariat' – the class of workers with low job security, low wages and no access to savings: the working poor, more or less – give an urgent edge to a more general feeling that the world of work is not as it should be, that it exists in spite of our wants and needs and not in order to facilitate them.
People want better pay, obviously; but they also want better work to do, and if the global debt crisis of 2008 sent shockwaves through ‘the job market' it also set off a deep debate about the fairness and logic of the system in general – a system in which profits are privatized and corporate losses socialized and in which the real money is made rather than earned. According to statistics from the Conference Board, a New York-based non-profit research group, a far greater percentage of Americans are currently dissatisfied with their jobs than was the case in 1987 (when the CB began its polling on the question). Could it be that this dissatisfaction relates not just to weakened job security and other practical pressures of life but also to a vaguer feeling that the work we are obliged to do in order to live is meaningless?
Certainly David Graeber would say so. In 2013 the anthropologist and Occupy veteran published an essay called ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs' which caused a minor splash in the media. His argument was that capitalist economies are as likely to generate pointless bureaucracy as state-run or planned economies; they are full, in other words, of the kind of jobs that people wouldn't do if they didn't have to and that we wouldn't miss if they didn't exist. Since such jobs involve the kind of waste that capitalism is supposed to eliminate, the question is why they exist at all. Graeber's answer is that the system needs them. It needs them because it needs people to work, not for economic reasons, but for ‘moral and political ones'. As he puts it: ‘The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.'
This is slightly overstated: the ‘ruling class' is not an actor in that sense, and many of the bullshit jobs Graeber identifies – corporate lawyer in particular – make perfect sense within the system we have. (It's the system that necessitates the job that's bullshit, not the other way around.) But Graeber is surely right to identify the bullshit job as a source of anxiety, and right too to trace the phenomenon to the enlargement of what he calls ‘the administrative sector' – the expanding class of professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers. In the US, he notes, this sector increased threefold between 1910 and 2000. A hundred years ago it accounted for a quarter of all jobs. Now it accounts for three quarters.
This sector has expanded as other sectors have contracted. Jobs requiring physical labor have either moved East or been automated, with the result that the majority of Western workers now work within the service economy. But here's where it gets interesting: for in the next 20 years yet another wave of automation/robotization is expected to make many jobs redundant – and not just physical jobs but service ones too. The Kiva robots in Amazon's warehouses – squat orange units with the ability to read barcodes and transport whole book-stacks from place to place – are just one sign of the world to come: a world in which robots are almost certain to take jobs in telemarketing, insurance and accountancy and very likely to snaffle quite a few others in hospitality, construction, medicine and transport, and many, many other fields. And while economists are split on what this will mean for employment figures overall, the argument that it will exacerbate inequality – that it will force yet more workers into the precariat – is increasingly hard to resist. Your bullshit job, if you're ‘lucky' enough to have one, could be about to get shittier.
This is not just a crisis for labor, however. It is also, potentially, a crisis for capital. Robots will lower the cost of doing business, but they will do so at the expense of workers' wages, which means that there will be less money around to be spent on the goods and services produced. You don't need to be a Marxist to see that this ‘crisis of realization' could violently disrupt the capitalist system itself.
Capitalism has other problems too. According to the British economist Paul Mason, the rise of information technology presents capitalism with a major challenge: the challenge of how to make money out of it. In his recent book Postcapitalism he argues that because information is social the advances in it will be social too. Mason foresees a situation in which the new technology, combined with widespread automation, could bring a world of abundant wealth and minimal work within humankind's reach. Information wants to be free, as the techno-activists like to say, and our modern machines allow it to be so: open-collaboration tools such as Mozilla and Wikipedia are only the most conspicuous signs of a more general trend towards reproducibility, where people can simply take and share. The problem for capitalism is that taking and sharing doesn't butter any parsnips, let alone polish any Porches; and so it is driven back onto rent-seeking models, attempting to capture intellectual property in a way that restricts public access to it. So: you work your badly-paid job in order to scrape together enough cash to buy stuff that costs almost nothing to produce …Welcome, one and all, to the bullshit economy!
Given these epochal changes, how should the modern left think about technology and the relationship of technology to work? Should it see it as a threat, as textile workers did in the early nineteenth century? Or should it see it as an opportunity – an opportunity to liberate ourselves from (paid) work, and indeed to liberate the very idea of work from the parody of it presented by modern capitalism?
To ask the question is to answer it. The long-term goal must be to explain and exploit the emerging contradictions of the new economy with a view to taking control of it. Campaigns for jobs and better pay and benefits are essential in the short term; but whatever the fate of shovel-ready programs such as Bernie Sanders' ‘Rebuild America Act', they cannot be the model for the future. The brute fact of the new technology is driving us in a different direction.
In some ways, indeed, the traditional liberal attitude to work does the capitalists' job for them. The idea that there is a right to paid work and that that work is itself a source of dignity is mapped into what Graeber calls the ‘moral dynamics' of our economy; people without work are made to feel inadequate or deficient in some fundamental way. But work is no more reducible to paid work than enterprise is to making money. The parents who volunteer their time to help out at the local school; the movie buff updating her blog; the oldster tinkering in his shed – all of these people are engaged in work in the sense of physical or mental activity directed to a particular end; and it's a fair bet that all of them are a lot more fulfilled in this work than they are (or were) in their jobs. ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one's job should not exist?' asks Graeber in his essay. It's a good question. Surely our aim should be to create a society in which work is an existential pleasure, not just an economic imperative.
In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the year 2000 workers in countries such as the US and the UK would be working a 15-hour week – such was the potential of technology. He had good reason to be confident about this; in the 50 or so years before he made his prediction the length of the working week had shortened dramatically. But not only has it barely come down since, we are now plugged into to our (bullshit) jobs in a way Keynes could not have foreseen: at the digital beck and call of the boss. How did this situation arise? And how can we break out of it? These are the questions we'll have to ask if we don't want to find ourselves arraigned before the sweet old dears at the JJH.
* * *
Richard King's website is The Bloody Crossroads.