What is the point of work?

The Flunky

NO, seriously, what is the point of work? It may sound like a frivolous question but the answer has serious consequences. Is work inherently valuable or is it valuable only for what it provides? What would life be like without certain jobs? Consider our current situation. It’s almost unimaginable what life would be like without frontline healthcare workers, carers, shop staff, teachers, refuse collectors, bus and delivery drivers. On the other hand we would barely notice the absence of PR executives, consultants, corporate lawyers and corporate tax advisers (OK, we would notice the absence of the last lot because corporations would probably be paying their fair share of tax!). The absurdity is, however, that the latter tend to get paid vastly more amounts of money than the former. Indeed, as David Graeber points out in his book Bullshit Jobs, the more socially valuable your job is the less you are likely to earn, while the less socially valuable your job is the more you are likely to earn.

According to Graeber there are five main types of bullshit jobs: 1 – Flunkies whose jobs exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important; 2 – Goons whose jobs have an aggressive element but who exist only because someone employs them; 3 – Duct Tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organisation; 4 – Box Tickers refers to employees who exist only or mainly to allow an organisation to claim that it is doing something that, in fact, it isn’t doing.

And, finally, 5 – Taskmasters, either those who’s job consists entirely of telling others what to do or to create more bullshit jobs.

The Taskmaster

The proliferation of pointless jobs, according to Graeber, is at least partly due to the protestant work ethic in which work is seen increasingly as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, regardless of how mind-numbingly pointless and tedious it is. Indeed, suffering this kind of tedium has ‘become a badge of economic citizenship’. Going deeper, Graeber argues that this attitude actually has its origins in a change in our sense of time, which involved a tectonic shift from the medieval time-set when ‘time is measured by actions’ and episodically related to seasonal work, to one in which, under capitalist forms of work, wage labourers sell their time. If you were lucky, under the medieval system you would be apprenticed to a Master during which time you would learn your craft over several years and try to save enough money to set yourself up as a Master and join the world of adulthood – although of course this route was not open to everyone and even then people could live in crushing poverty. But the point is that under capitalism, according to Graeber, even this route was shut off as workers were forced to sell their time and never allowed to achieve the status of adulthood.

Once time becomes the thing that is being sold, then it is a short step to having to kill time that someone is paying for whether or not it has any social worth. In addition to this process is layered the puritanical notion of work in which ‘dutiful submission even to meaningless work under another’s authority is a form of moral self-discipline’. But the situation is even worse because the feudalism that allowed the lord of the manor to siphon-off a large proportion of the peasant’s income and then distribute some of that to his retainers and flunkies in order to maintain his wealth and status, has now morphed into what Graeber calls ‘managerial feudalism’. In this system increasing wealth is extracted by managers to fund their lifestyles and hierarchies as ‘all the value created by actual productive workers in the lower quintile is extracted to those at the top’. So now the political aspects of the medieval world has manifested itself in late capitalism as politics and economics are barely distinguishable and our form of representative government is increasingly run by the super rich.

Graeber argues that ‘productive jobs have been automated away’ but ‘rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours’ we have seen the ballooning of pointless jobs up to and including the ‘creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations’. And then, of course, there are the lobbyists who help the whole charade to tick along.

Graeber has only been able to identify one solution to all this and that is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). “What Basic Income ultimately proposes is to detach livelihood from work,” he writes. He acknowledges that one of the main objections is ‘where is the money coming from?’ but as Graeber writes this objection stems from the fact that ‘we’ve all grown up with largely false assumptions about what money is, how it’s produced, what taxes are really for, and a host of other issues’. One of the other objections is that people would waste away their time if they didn’t have to work for a living to which Graeber replies: “What the phenomenon of bullshit jobs really brings home is the foolishness of such assumptions. No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless, but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 or 20 per cent. But already right now, 37 to 40 per cent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless.”

Whether or not Graeber’s argument ultimately holds water is a matter of deliberation but it is an important contribution to the debate that currently swirls around the notion of UBI and it is one that has gained more traction during the pandemic as we begin to see in sharp relief the workers who really matter in our society and the ones who don’t.

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1 Comment

  1. An artist once said, “You are entitled to the work, not the reward.” For example, van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, yet his work is priceless.
    My work gives me dignity. UBI tries to put a price on human dignity. It can’t be done (it’s not economically sustainable) and is foolhardy to try.


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