When one writes satire, it’s sometimes hard to write something serious and have people realise that you’re actually just writing what you actually think, particularly if one is simply describing the political situation in countries where people like Scotty, Boris and Donald are leaders.
However, I felt that I should note the passing of Dave Graeber, the writer of two of my favourite non-fiction books, Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
Graeber was an anthropologist and, as such, took a slightly different tack on economics. He challenged the beliefs that many economists take for granted, such as the way in which trade and debt evolved. I noticed that his New York Times obituary described him as a “radical anthropologist” and I was left wondering if that was because of his approach to his discipline or because of his involvement in things like the Occupy movement.
Challenging economic orthodoxy can have its consequences and he didn’t have his contract renewed by Yale in 2005, so I wonder whether the champions of free speech demanding Peter Ridd’s sacking would have taken up his cause were it to be a recent event.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber made a strong case that debt was around long before what we traditionally think of as money and that cash and barter were uncommon until there needed to be a system to deal with those who may have proven to be untrustworthy or who were outside your normal world. You didn’t need to have cash or to barter with the local innkeeper, for example, because he could keep a tally and you would pay him in kind when you did your harvesting or slaughtered your livestock. Cash was only needed for trade with the stranger.
Money, he points out, is only as valuable as your faith in the king who issued the coin. A principle we’d do well to remember in these days when we’re constantly asked where the money would come from when talking about climate change, but “money” was quickly found which enabled executives to keep their bonuses thanks to JobKeeper. “Money” will also be miraculously found for tax cuts because we all know that the best way to fix a deficit is to reduce the amount of revenue you’ll receive. .
His assessment of the world of work in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is particularly apt as we hear more and more that today’s students will be in jobs that don’t exist yet. One has to question the need for them. Sure, the best form of welfare is a job and all that, but maybe we’d be better off employing people in areas that actually need more workers such as aged care, rather than creating jobs for the sake of it. (And yes, I know that not all new jobs will be unnecessary.)
Graeber argued that there were five types of soul-destroying jobs and acknowledged that not everyone doing these jobs would necessarily feel that they weren’t doing something significant. However, it’s worth remembering that when there’s a strike by garbage collectors, we can only go a few weeks before the situation becomes dire. When the banks in Ireland went on strike in the 70s, people managed for six months without the country grinding to a halt. He described the following types of “bullshit jobs”:
- flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g. door attendants
- goons, who oppose other goons hired by other companies, e.g. spin doctors
- duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g. people constantly repairing copper wire to enable the NBN to reach the building
- box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it isn’t, e.g., the surveys you constantly get about how the company did when nobody gets back to you if you tell them service was terrible.
- taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals[
Vale, Dave Graeber. The world needs more thinkers like you. Sadly, we have one less.
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