David Graeber’s much needed discussion of “Bullshit Jobs”

by Jehu

There are interesting inversions in the results of labor theory, which, I think, most Marxists often do not grasp. For instance., labor theory suggests once wage labor emerges it already carries the seed of the principle “From each work_stress2according to his ability, to each according to his need”. The complete detachment of labor from satisfaction of needs begins with detachment of the labor of the worker from the surplus product of her labor. If this is true, once wage labor emerges communism is the inevitable result of the development of the mode of production itself. By that I mean the realization of communism is nothing more than the culmination of the process whereby the worker is increasingly stripped of the product of her labor.

It is an odd inversion that the very process we struggle against is itself the process that must eventually lead to communism. This produces two other contradictory results: First, the working class in its struggle to prevent the fall in wages actually accelerates this fall. Second, the struggle against a fall in wages itself appears as an attempt to exit the process leading to communism. It appears as an attempt to avoid, as Noyes puts it, ‘Acceleration into the abyss’. Noyes uses the idea of an out of control train barreling toward a disaster to suggest the proletarian revolution functions as a brake. If the insane development of the productive forces is not stopped somehow, the result must be a social catastrophe and this catastrophe would not simply be one for mankind, but for all life on the planet. Noys argument is profoundly regressive, a reactionary attitude on par with trying to restore the old regime; he doesn’t grasp is that political revolution was itself precisely an attempt to accelerate the development of the productive forces. If his argument is correct the political revolution would have the paradoxical effect not of applying the brakes to process, but of accelerating the catastrophe.

What then is this catastrophe? The abolition of labor itself, of course. No matter what the aim of the bourgeois epoch as it appears in bourgeois consciousness, their actions lead directly to this result — the development of the productive forces is nothing more than a process whereby an ever greater proportion of social labor is rendered superfluous to the worker herself. The worker can, therefore, put an end to this surplus labor without suffering a loss of her material standard of living. The catastrophe predicted by Noys is, therefore, nothing more than the catastrophe vaguely sensed by the bourgeois class that it is abolishing its own premise, labor.

The bourgeois consciousness is characterized by the fact that its conscious aim leads directly to a result it never intended. The conflict between the intended and actual result of the bourgeois class is expressed not just over the long historical turn of the epoch, but in each and every crisis. Marxists tend to think Capital is about exploitation, when it is actually about the progressive abolition of labor via this exploitation. The process whereby labor is progressively abolished by capital can be accomplished directly and with few of the present defects if the working class made this abolition its own conscious aim, but, in practice, this aim appears nowhere in the demands of the working class, nor as its conscious aim. Neither class has as its aim the abolition of labor: the bourgeoisie seeks only to render labor superfluous to the laborer — i.e., profit; the proletariat seeks only to ensure that its wages never fall below a certain necessary level. The progressive abolition of labor is the necessary result of the conflict between the two classes, but the aim of neither.

In this conflict the aim of abolition of labor itself can only appear as the conscious aim of the proletariat. It is, therefore, the only class of the two in modern society that is capable of a fully authentic consciousness, a consciousness expressed in an aim where the aim is identical with its result. And this consciousness is, by definition, not the consciousness of a class, but a communist consciousness, a consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution in the mode of production. The question of the proletariat acquiring an authentic consciousness hinges on the possibility of setting as its aim the abolition of labor; it cannot be done on their behalf, nor by measures that approximate this aim in the struggle over wages. No increase in wages can ever put an end to labor.

The perversity (obscenity) of the struggle for “full employment” is that it aims not for abolition of labor but its expansion. Given that capital has its direct aim to render the labor of the worker superfluous to her, the struggle for full employment is a pipe-dream, but even beyond this obscenity, the advocates of full employment cannot explain how the struggle for it leads to authentic consciousness. Rather, it formulates as a demand of the working class precisely the opposite: the demand to remain wage slaves — the demand for full employment is a bourgeois demand in that it sets the aim to increase labor while rendering it superfluous to the worker. Labor is increased only insofar as it is superfluous to the mass of society.

Bullshit Jobs

I think this is the basis for evaluating David Graeber’s recent article in Strike Magazine, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“. Graeber argues,

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week.”

However, he notes,

“[I]t didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”

This has been accomplished, as Graeber shows, by generating jobs that we all secretly suspect produce nothing of value. There is a joke that goes with this suspicion:

“My brother thinks he is a chicken. We would tell him the truth, but we need the eggs.”

To an extent, the superfluous character of our labor as individuals cannot be admitted because, superfluous or not, it pays the rent. The inversion that takes place within the capitalist mode of production — that for both classes the abolition of labor appears as a catastrophe — is determined by two separate forces: First, that for the bourgeois class it really is a disaster, since the premise of capital is labor. Second, that for the proletariat, labor is the basis for its access to the means of life — a situation that, however only appearing to be true, is proven, so long a capitalist relations of production exists, by unemployment.

We have not yet figured out a way to show why what is absolutely true for the bourgeois class is not at all true for the proletariat.

Graeber asks the question,

“Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise?”

His answer is interesting:

“It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

This, Graeber rightly explains is not what is supposed to happen under the capitalist mode of production

“But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ.”

“Still,” he explains, “somehow, it happens.” Even as capitals frantically reduce the number of workers who make things, they hire ever larger number of workers who produce nothing. “Through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain”, capitalist labor is coming to resemble labor in the late Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, from the late fifties on, Soviet scholars noted the tendency of enterprises to “hoard” labor power, i.e., maintain labor forces well beyond what was required to fulfill the central plan. Alongside this labor power hoarding, rationing of consumer necessities was said to rampant. This gave rise to a joke, circulated in the Western media, “They pretend to pay us, while we pretend to work.”

About the same time, Marxists in the West began to notice the accumulation of superfluous labor not unlike the Soviet Union — this was fact, for instance noted in Baran’s and Sweezy’s, “Monopoly Capital”. Graeber is actually very late to this argument, but he brings the necessary restatement of the problem not as “underutilization of labor” but as “bullshit jobs”, jobs that produce nothing. He, therefore, changes the debate from the bastardization of labor theory by Baran and Sweezy to a revolutionary perspective — a perspective that calls into question the necessity for labor itself.

Interesting enough, Graeber locates the source of superfluous labor in moral and political causes, not in the economic forces of the mode of production and the economic policies of the fascist itself.

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger … And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.”

With regards to the second explanation, we can, as Graeber does, ignore it, since such an argument only justifies an aim already arrived at. This leaves us with Graeber’s first argument: The ruling class fears free time in the hands of the mass of society — the implication being that free time for the mass of society leads to social unrest on the scale not seen since the 1960’s. This reason is not credible and only serves to weaken his argument.

If, however, we begin with the assumption that excessively long hours of labor is now and has always been the aim of capital, we can find ample historical evidence of this argument from the mouths of capitalists themselves. We don’t have to invent a reason, since the reason has already been provided time and again by capitalists and their ideological defenders. For instance, in 2009, when the worst of the crisis occurred, Larry Summer’s was asked why the administration did not simply reduce  hour of labor. He stated,

“The primary objective of our policy is having more work done, more product produced and more people earning more  income. It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.”

So, contrary to Graeber’s speculation, we know exactly why we spend so much time doing unnecessary labor on bullshit jobs. In Summers’ quote it’s clear the ruling class does not fear free time for the working class, it is determined there should be no free time; that we should spend every waking moment possible engaged in labor that produces nothing of value for us — if we should ever experience free time, this free time should only take the form of unemployment, hunger and want.

From this point of view, it is simply incredible that Graeber states,

“There can be no objective measure of social value. I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not.”

The question itself is astonishing coming from Graeber: You cannot put a gun to someone’s head, in the form of unemployment, starvation and want, and then ask them if their job has social value. Seriously, what the fuck is up with that? Is this question being asked of the worker in a vacuum? The very idea that the social value of labor can be freely discussed when time away from labor only appears in the form of unemployment is outrageous. This is not a discussion that can be held with 50 percent youth unemployment in Greece, Spain, Portugal or Harlem.

Even if we ignore the question of economic value, the social (moral) value of labor can only be the value it has for the very physical existence of the worker. If labor were not tied in any way to the physical existence of the worker who performed it, then and only then can the individual properly assess the value she puts on her activity. In other words, the determination of the social value of labor to the individual is only possible with the complete abolition of wage labor. The “profound psychological violence here” is not that one feels the labor one performs is superfluous, but that despite the obvious unproductiveness of almost all labor at present one must perform it to survive.

And we as communists should argue for nothing less than the complete abolition of all wage labor — not as an eventual aim, but now and at this very moment, when capital is in the throes of a crisis it has not experienced in 30 years..

I think Graeber opens up the most important argument that can be held by activists at this time and I hope his piece is just the beginning of the discussion that is long overdue — a discussion the Left has needed since 1971.

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