Technology’s Promised Land

Why aren’t we all working 3-4 hour days?  This is what Lord Keynes predicted back in the 1930s as a result of technological progress.

With the 70s, came expressions of the need to educate the working classes for leisure.

But, instead, we’re working harder than ever. What went wrong?

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s),” writes David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the LSE, in Strike!

That’s in tune with my memories of the 60s when, as students we would say ‘never get married, never get a salaried job, never buy a house – because that’s how the capitalist system gets you’.

With students like these, the ruling classes in the 60s must have been appalled at the prospect of non-controllable populations.

Well they’ve remedied that. The workless are demonised as chavs. Strikers, even in an obviously just cause, are railed against in the media. And, strangely, the really worthwhile jobs are badly paid.

“In our society,” writes Graeber, “there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.  Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that, were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble.”

On the other hand how dispensable, and highly paid, some other workers are. “It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer,” says Graeber,  “were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to vanish.”

The promised land of leisure-filled lives has, said Graeber, been replaced by  the creation of bullshit jobs. Instead of being marshalled to make life happier, technology has been marshalled to figure out ways to make us all work more.

“In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless,” says Graeber, “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

Tags: David Graeber, Lord Keynes, technological progress

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11 Comments

  1. AnotherDavid
    May 14, 2014 12:55

    Cracking rant.
    A month down under, he will, but will probably want a real beer when he gets home!

  2. david manners
    May 13, 2014 17:40

    Wow, The Baron, that was magnificent. Have a great time down-under.

  3. The Baron
    May 13, 2014 15:59

    Oh oh! My number 1 button-push topic! (Actually, there’s several share 1st place.)

    “In our society,” writes Graeber, “there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it… “were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to vanish.”

    I’ve been saying this for ages too. I christened it my “desert island test” – I’m sure someone, somehwere probably beat me to that title long ago though. Concept: you’re stuck on a desert island for years with 20 other people – what professions/trades/skills do you want them to be.

    I’ll bet you no-one (apart from others of the same ilk with the same overblown sense of their importance) votes to be stranded with lawers, bean counters, PR gurus, hedge-fund managers, “digital social media evangelising thought-leaders” etc. You’d want to be stranded with medics, engineers, farmers, builders, etc. Yet the former group get all the fortune and glory in society.

    Linkedin seems to be the new barometer of the rise of the professional bullshit artists with chapter-length, self-aggrandizing titles like “digital social media groupthink evangelist, psychomarketing guru and thought leader, CEO of (insert own name here) international business change consultants, mentor/leader/teacher (there’s always got to be one of those “I’m superior with key know-how you must seek” qualifier), visionary…”. These people generally produce nothing but horseshit and somehow get paid millions for doing it by armies of gullible business wannabes who aspire to standing atop the same mountain of horeshit that wouldn’t cause the end of civilization if it all vanished tomorrow.

    Currently the “influential thought-leaders” are writing star-billed puff-pieces advertising Starbucks while the masses ooohhh and ahhhh (“Awesome post!”) their deeply profound statements like…

    “No-one needs an office! Results-driven, problem solvers like us all cluster in Starbucks to share the synergy love!” (Ok… try that no-office-use-Stabucks-instead-groundbreaker next time you need a prostate exam…)

    “The smartphone is the new desk for the 21st century over-achiever…” (where’s the drawer for storing my pencils and where do I put my coffee and pictures my wee girl drew for me?)

    All utter trivial bilge and yet somehow this mince is promoted as the new aspiration for thrusting young things…

    We’re all doomed!

    The Baron
    (last rant for 1 month while I soak up some sun in Aus and NZ)

  4. david manners
    May 13, 2014 08:59

    Well DontAgree, in terms of hard physical labour I’m sure you’re right, but today we’ve got these call centre jobs and Amazon jobs which seem pretty tough because they’re constantly monitored by technology and there’s trainee bankers working themselves to death and Apple iThing assemblers suiciding. Somehow a long way from Keynes’ expectation.

  5. DontAgree
    May 13, 2014 06:27

    May I contend that “But, instead, we’re working harder than ever.” is a gross exaggeration … ask the farmers from around the 1900s … or the shipyard workers from around 1930s, etc. But indeed compared to the 1970s it is quite possible that we are working harder (more hours) now all thanks to remote login from home and ‘vacation’.

  6. david manners
    May 12, 2014 16:23

    Yes indeed, AnotherDavid, trouble is the pols are too thick-skinned for it to have any effect.

  7. AnotherDavid
    May 12, 2014 16:11

    Everybody should read what Douglas Adams wrote, especially about political leaders!

  8. david manners
    May 12, 2014 15:58

    Aaaaaaaaaagh, you’re right AnotherDavid, being wiped out by telephone-transmitted disease would be an undignified end for humanity.

  9. david manners
    May 12, 2014 15:31

    Spot on DB, better car, bigger house, larger share portfolio – the prizes of competitive consumerism keep people on the treadmill – but do they enhance standard of living? If they’re accompanied by stress and anxiety they can diminish it.

  10. AnotherDavid
    May 12, 2014 15:27

    To your list of dispensable groups should be added “Telephone sanitisers”, but be warned, how did we end up here?

  11. DB
    May 12, 2014 14:56

    It is competitive consumerism. I could work an 18-20 hour week and still maintain a standard of living better than that enjoyed by my parents back in the 1970s (and I have done this in the past).

    Most people seem to want a standard of living better than the 1970s, though.

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