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A Practical Utopian’s Guide To The Coming Collapse: David Graeber On "The Phenomenon Of Bull$hit Jobs

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Submitted by Mike Krieger via Liberty Blitzkrieg blog,

Graeber’s argument is similar to one he made in a 2013 article called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, in which he argued that, in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century technology would have advanced sufficiently that in countries such as the UK and the US we’d be on 15-hour weeks. “In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. 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.”

 

But what happened between the Apollo moon landing and now? Graeber’s theory is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was mounting fear about a society of hippie proles with too much time on their hands. “The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’ You never know how conscious it was but decisions were made about research priorities.” Consider, he suggests, medicine and the life sciences since the late 1960s. “Cancer? No, that’s still here.” Instead, the most dramatic breakthroughs have been with drugs such as Ritalin, Zoloft and Prozac – all of which, Graeber writes, are “tailor-made, one might say, so that these new professional demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally, crazy”

 

Graeber believes that since the 1970s there has been a shift from technologies based on realising alternative futures to investment technologies that favoured labour discipline and social control. Hence the internet. “The control is so ubiquitous that we don’t see it.” We don’t see, either, how the threat of violence underpins society, he claims. “The rarity with which the truncheons appear just helps to make violence harder to see,” he writes.

 

– From the Guardian article: David Graeber: ‘So Many People Spend Their Working Lives Doing Jobs They Think are Unnecessary’

Embarrassingly, it was only very recently that I became familiar with the writings of David Graeber, an author, anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics. I read a decent amount, and very few writers connect with me in the way Mr. Graeber does. Of course, I don’t agree with everything he says (if you ever find yourself in total agreement with someone else there’s a problem), but I promise he will make you think. That’s worth a lot in the propagandized and dumbed down culture we inhabit.

About a month ago, I read an extremely thought provoking excerpt from his 2013 book, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. The piece was titled, A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse, and I strongly suggest you read it.

Immediately after I read that, I  found him on Twitter and began following. Today, I came across a profile of him published by the Guardian, and I was once again reminded of how much I enjoy his thought process. So much so, that I decided to dedicate an entire post to him and encourage all of you to explore his work. Here are some excerpts from the Guardian article:

A few years ago David Graeber’s mother had a series of strokes. Social workers advised him that, in order to pay for the home care she needed, he should apply for Medicaid, the US government health insurance programme for people on low incomes. So he did, only to be sucked into a vortex of form filling and humiliation familiar to anyone who’s ever been embroiled in bureaucratic procedures.

 

At one point, the application was held up because someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles had put down his given name as “Daid”; at another, because someone at Verizon had spelled his surname “Grueber”. Graeber made matters worse by printing his name on the line clearly marked “signature” on one of the forms. Steeped in Kafka, Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Graeber was alive to all the hellish ironies of the situation but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. “We spend so much of our time filling in forms,” he says.

 

“The average American waits six months of her life waiting for the lights to change. If so, how many years of our life do we spend doing paperwork?”

 

The matter became academic, because Graeber’s mother died before she got Medicaid. But the form-filling ordeal stayed with him. “Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian existence, comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like?

 

Capitalism isn’t supposed to create meaningless positions. 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, somehow, it happens.”

This is a very important point. How does this happen? My answer is that our political and economic system is in fact a centrally planned oligarchy masquerading as a free market.

Graeber’s argument is similar to one he made in a 2013 article called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, in which he argued that, in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century technology would have advanced sufficiently that in countries such as the UK and the US we’d be on 15-hour weeks. “In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. 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.”

 

But what happened between the Apollo moon landing and now? Graeber’s theory is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was mounting fear about a society of hippie proles with too much time on their hands. “The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’ You never know how conscious it was but decisions were made about research priorities.” Consider, he suggests, medicine and the life sciences since the late 1960s. “Cancer? No, that’s still here.” Instead, the most dramatic breakthroughs have been with drugs such as Ritalin, Zoloft and Prozac – all of which, Graeber writes, are “tailor-made, one might say, so that these new professional demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally, crazy”

 

Graeber believes that since the 1970s there has been a shift from technologies based on realising alternative futures to investment technologies that favoured labour discipline and social control. Hence the internet. “The control is so ubiquitous that we don’t see it.” We don’t see, either, how the threat of violence underpins society, he claims. “The rarity with which the truncheons appear just helps to make violence harder to see,” he writes.

 

He quotes with approval the anarchist collective Crimethinc: “Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the nature of habit, law, custom or prejudice – and it’s up to you to create the situations.” Academia was, he muses, once a haven for oddballs – it was one of the reasons he went into it. “It was a place of refuge. Not any more. Now, if you can’t act a little like a professional executive, you can kiss goodbye to the idea of an academic career.”

 

Why is that so terrible? “It means we’re taking a very large percentage of the greatest creative talent in our society and telling them to go to hell … The eccentrics have been drummed out of all institutions.” Well, perhaps not all of them. “I am an offbeat person. I am one of those guys who wouldn’t be allowed in the academy these days.” Indeed, he claims to have been blackballed by the American academy and found refuge in Britain. In 2005, he went on a year’s sabbatical from Yale, “and did a lot of direct action and was in the media”. When he returned he was, he says, snubbed by colleagues and did not have his contract renewed. Why? Partly, he believes, because his countercultural activities were an embarrassment to Yale.

 

His publications include Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004), in which he laid out his vision of how society might be organised on less alienating lines, and Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009), a study of the global justice movement. In 2013, he wrote his most popularly political book yet, The Democracy Project. “I wanted it to be called ‘As if We Were Already Free’,” he tells me. “And the publishers laughed at me – a subjunctive in the title!” But it was Debt: The First 5,000 Years, published in 2011, that made him famous and has drawn praise from the likes of Thomas Piketty and Russell Brand. Financial Times journalist and fellow anthropologist Gillian Tett argued that the book was “not just thought-provoking but exceedingly timely”, not least, no doubt, because in it Graeber called for a biblical-style “jubilee”, meaning a wiping out of sovereign and consumer debts.

 

At the end of The Utopia of Rules, Graeber distinguishes between play and games – the former involving free?form creativity, the latter requiring participants to abide by rules. While there is pleasure in the latter (it is, to quote from the subtitle of the book, one of the secret joys of bureaucracy), it is the former that excites him as an antidote to our form?filling red-taped society.

 

He is suggesting that, instead of being rule-following economic drones of capitalism, we are essentially playful. The most basic level of being is play rather than economics, fun rather than rules, goofing around rather than filling in forms. Graeber himself certainly seems to be having more fun than seems proper for a respected professor.

David Graeber’s latest book was recently published and is titled, The Utopia of Rules.

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For related articles, see:

Ex-CIA Officer Claims that Open Source Revolution is About to Overthrow Global Oligarchy

Networks vs. Hierarchies: Which Will Win? Niall Furguson Weighs In.

The Comcast/Time Warner Merger and the War Between Centralization and Decentralization

 



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