Must there be an inverse correlation?
In this Sunday's Tom Frank piece at Salon, he interviews David Graeber, one of the "organizers" [those are ironic air quotes] of Occupy Wall street, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years and a piece last summer entitled "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs." I think the interview raises more question than it answers, but I thought this particular exchange was woth excerpting and discussing if anyone is inclined:
[Frank] I wonder about the political ramifications of this. You’re talking about a situation that obviously requires labor unions, but it could also go the other way. I am reminded of a passage in your book, “The Democracy Project,” where you attribute the well-known working-class enmity against the “liberal elite” to the fact that the liberal elite have good jobs, rewarding jobs, jobs that by definition lots of average people will never be able to get. I wonder if you could expand on that.
[Graeber] Well, here we go back to the question of unpaid internships again. Some years ago I wrote a piece for Harpers called “Army of Altruists” where I tried to grapple with the power of right-wing populism, especially with the way that “we hate the liberal elite” and “support the troops” seemed to have a very similar, deep resonance, even to be a way of saying the same thing. What I ended up concluding is that working class people hate the cultural elite more than they do the economic elite—and mind you, they don’t like the economic elite very much. But they hate the cultural elite because they see them as a group of people who have grabbed all the jobs where one gets paid to do good in the world. If you want a career pursuing any form of value other than monetary value—if you want to work in journalism, and pursue truth, or in the arts, and pursue beauty, or in some charity or international NGO or the UN, and pursue social justice—well, even assuming you can acquire the requisite degrees, for the first few years they won’t even pay you. So you’re supposed to live in New York or some other expensive city on no money for a few years after graduation. Who else can do that except children of the elite? So if you’re a fork-lift operator or even a florist, you know your kid is unlikely to ever become a CEO, but you also know there’s no way in a million years they’ll ever become drama critic for the New Yorker or an international human rights lawyer. The only way they could get paid a decent salary to do something noble, something that’s not just for the money, is to join the army. So saying “support the troops” is a way of saying “fuck you” to the cultural elite who think you’re a bunch of knuckle-dragging cavemen, but who also make sure your kid would never be able to join their club of rich do-gooders even if he or she was twice as smart as any of them.
So the right wing manipulates the resentment of the bulk of the working class from being able to dedicate their lives to anything purely noble or altruistic. But at the same time—and here’s the real evil genius of right-wing populism—they also manipulate the resentment of that portion of the middle classes trapped in bullshit jobs against the bulk of the working classes, who at least get to do productive work of obvious social benefit. Think about all the popular uproar about school teachers. There’s this endless campaign of vilification against teachers, who they say are overpaid, coddled, and are blamed for everything wrong with our education system. In fact, grade school teachers undergo really grueling conditions for much less money than they’d be paid if they’d gone into almost any other profession requiring the same level of education, and almost all the problems the right-wingers are referring to aren’t created by the teachers or teachers’ unions at all but by school administrators—the ones who are paid much more, and mostly have classic bullshit jobs that seem to multiply endlessly even as the teachers themselves are squeezed and downsized. So why does no one complain about those guys? Actually I saw something telling written by a right-wing activist on some blog—he said, well the funny thing is, when we first started our school reform campaigns, we tried to focus on the administrators. But it didn’t take. Then we shifted to the teachers and suddenly the whole thing exploded. It’s hard to explain that in any other way than to say: a lot of people resent the teachers for having genuine, meaningful jobs. You get to shape young lives. You get to make a real difference for other people. And the logic seems to be: shouldn’t that be enough for them? They want that, and middle-class salaries, and job security, and vacations, and benefits, too? You even see that with auto workers. “But you get to make cars! That’s a real job! And you also want $30 an hour?”
It’s an imperfect strategy. The anti-intellectualism for instance works on many sections of the white working class, but it doesn’t work nearly so well on immigrants or African-Americans. The resentment against those who get to do meaningful labor exists alongside a resentment for having to do meaningless labor to begin with. It’s an unstable mix. But we have to recognize that in countries like the US, it’s been pretty effective.
[Frank] What can be done about all this?
[Graeber] Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”
But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better.
I'm not sure if this holds up under closer scrutiny. It seems hyperbolic, but perhaps in the service of an unnoticed truth. I think Graeber is pointing to something real, but I'm not sure if his explanation of it makes sense. But I don't have a ready alternative explanation.
This aspect of right-wing populism he ponts to makes sense, but how do you account for the phenomenon of 'bullshit jobs'? Bullshit jobs don't make economic sense--why pay people big salaries to do nothing? So what kind of sense do they make? Is it all about cooptation--nobody's a worker anymore--everybody's a manager--in the service of social control? Maybe, but I find it hard to believe because the bottom line is too important for these big corporations to care much about being in the social control business.