By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

Dude, Get a Real Job!: The Illusion of Value in Today’s Economy

As young college students, we are constantly reminded that our only true purpose in spending three or four years of our young, productive lives studying various fields of knowledge is simply to get a job. Though there still prevails among us a small coterie of brave souls who invest themselves in unpromising (at least financially) careers in the arts and sciences, most of us do not get the opportunity to devote ourselves to such interests. Instead, following the directives of our parents, teachers, and the market, we tend to pursue degrees that closely approximate our willingness to make money, earn salary, settle down, and, God willing, build a bayis ne’eman beyisroel (a faithful home among the Jewish people). Some of us may try to bridge the gap between profitable fields of study and self-fulfillment, but, as we all know, sometimes we’ve just got to work to survive. This theory of work and self-worth is deeply ingrained in our psyches. One can find such a persuasion in some halakhic discourse, but mostly it derives from what Max Weber categorized as the “Protestant Work Ethic.” This ethic, or value, strikes an average American (at least a privileged sort from the top of the pyramid) as self-evident, just like all the basic liberties laid out in the Bill of Rights of this country’s Constitution. We use this mode of thought as a way to ensure proper adherence to social custom, to keep the proletariat in check, and to reinforce the perennial ideal of the “American Dream.” If you’re dirt poor, according to most of America’s reasoning, you just haven’t worked hard enough to climb the ladder of American society.

Those who find lucrative, profitable positions in this economy presume to think of themselves as lucky. In fact, some are truly very lucky. CEOs and managers receive salaries that only the Rockefellers and the Carnegies could dream of, but even their underlings benefit from some of the pie. These jobs include accounting, financial services, management, marketing, computer programming, data management, IT, etc. They pay better than most other jobs, but they also demand a higher skill-set, more business and (usually) social acumen, and a sense of a dutiful work ethic. These higher-end service jobs are the contemporary manifestation of the American dream, and all who aspire to work in a clean, comfortable, stable environment dream to secure such an occupation.

But not all is as it seems.

Back in 2013, anthropologist David Graeber, a principal player in the Occupy Wall Street movement, penned a controversial essay in a relatively unknown magazine (Strike! Magazine) entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” In this critique of the socio-economic structure of mid-to-high paying jobs, he outlines his argument that most of these jobs are quite meaningless and do almost nothing to help mankind progress. He invokes Keynes’s Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren and chides society for not making room for the leisure expected, promised to us by Keynes on account of the automation of most of industry (e.g. manufacturing, mining, agricultural).

Graeber opens quoting a recent employment report, “over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’”

Naturally, fewer jobs and less stress should translate to fewer hassles and more time to concentrate on the real virtues of life: purpose and meaning, and the pursuit of truth and beauty in the arts and sciences. But that did not occur. Graeber bemoans that “rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, 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.”

Though Graeber admits the difficulty in determining the relative “value” of each job, he observes in people’s own regard for their jobs a lack of interest, purpose, and meaning. He does not call for a reintroduction of the terrible conditions and low pay of the industrial revolution factory wage labor, but he does see that in constructing a new, intangible commodity in the form of an office-job we have in a sense cut the laborer off from tangible purpose. When Thomas Jefferson romantically describes rural life and a connection to the land, he evokes a sense of belonging, and stability. Today, some people live their lives as Oompa-Loompas in this “world of pure imagination,” and Graeber observes that lots of them end up feeling unfulfilled and underutilized.

[caption id="attachment_6227" align="aligncenter" width="440"]‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill... and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’ (The Matrix) ‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill... and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’ (The Matrix)[/caption]

Additionally, he argues that this practice detrimentally affects the economy. Since no actual goods are being produced, economic productivity remains quite low. While some of this cost is offset by the profits accumulated from the overconsumption of goods (i.e. consumerism), and through the fact that by indirectly distributing wealth to more people the market gains fluidity (more people can buy things), the practice of paying workers for unnecessary labor is still incredibly wasteful and leaves Graeber convinced that the scheme mostly smells of a sociological mechanism by which a ruling class manipulates the working masses.

The Economist (8/21/13) unsurprisingly questions these conclusions. In a review of his essay, the writer claims that the jobs in question just reflect the loss of the tedious, horrendous jobs of industry that we have thankfully done away with. He sees it as just another step towards the utopian vision of Keynes’s world without work. He writes in the concluding paragraph that “there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all.” This statement does not answer in any way to Graeber’s critique. Graeber claims that the jobs are inherently unnecessary and unproductive, not just uncomfortable, and asks what justifies this colossal waste of human skill and energy. It seems that the reviewer has missed the point entirely!

In analyzing Graeber’s argument, I would like to more concisely define his criticism. When he looks at the world, he imagines that there exist objects that contain inherent value. When a worker helps to create a car, he generates value—he adds to the quality of life of some consumer who will buy his handiwork. In contrast, one’s preoccupation with bureaucratic processes does not benefit any consumer other than the one directly involved in the intricacies of the capitalistic maze. The value of some jobs, therefore, exists solely within the confines of the closed system of capitalism. In other words, they serve only to keep the present capitalistic economy from collapsing, a noble and altruistic purpose entirely devoted to the notions of free-market capitalism—less so to the hopes and dreams of humanity. I believe it bothers Graeber that capitalism has redefined for humanity what is valuable. To a philosopher or anthropologist (and I hope to you as well), it seems very difficult to entertain the possibility that financial modeling, big data, and the management of complex financial information confer actual benefit to society as a whole. This system of economy has decayed to the extent that it takes monumental financial and human costs in order to glean just marginal real progress and I urge you against succumbing to the charms of this ill-gotten worth.

The question that poses itself through all of this, however, relates to the origin of this ill of society. Why doesn't capitalism self-regulate as the many Warren Buffets and Donald Trumps have led us to believe? A devout Marxian may instinctively respond that capitalism itself was doomed to fail sooner or later, and while he may correctly identify the long-expected demise of capital, he would not easily explain the actual mechanism of how this disruption of society came about. Graeber, as an ardent socialist, correctly identifies the ruling classes as beneficiaries of such a corrupt system, but fails to highlight the underlying reasons for its development.

Simply, in Marxian terms, profits must fall away when labor becomes either cheap or unnecessary. Marx argued that most of the profit of capitalism derives from the owners’ exploitation of the laboring masses. When technology deems the masses expendable, only a monopoly, or collusion of sorts, can help the owners of capital maintain a sufficient margin of profit. Otherwise, competition will tend to force owners to sell their products at-value (manufacturing costs, including labor), precluding any prospect of big financial gains. This theory of stagnation did not originate with Marx (David Ricardo, John Malthus, and even Adam Smith foresaw economic stagnation at maximum economic reach), but most modern economists have ignored such warnings (except during recessions/depressions). John Hobson, a Victorian-era economic thinker, realized the severity of the problem. He argued that this stagnation, or fear of it, contributed to the unprecedented push toward imperial expansion that swept through all major powers in Europe during the latter half of the 20th century. In order to stave off the death of capitalism, owners invested abroad, acquiring both new markets and sources of cheap labor/production.

This practice still occurs today. I should note that some jobs contribute to systems of oppression, such as colonialism and predatory lending. While I don’t blame each individual for the collective immorality of their occupation, I don’t disregard completely their complicity in such nefarious business dealings. In its wake, colonialism has left world wars, mass inequalities, and domestic unrest, but owing to the West’s economic exploitation of the global economy, capitalism has survived.

But just barely. Simply, when opportunities for further growth have been exhausted, and new markets do not open on command, the economy will begin to stagnate. What we see today constitutes a defense mechanism of capitalism. When no real jobs exist, we must then manufacture them in order to maintain social order and market fluidity. It is an implosion of the system itself, and corresponds to the slow but inevitable stagnation that Marx and others warned of. The economy will continue its downward trend (though it still grows, the rate of its growth declines), and these jobs will increasingly become unsustainable. A burgeoning economy can maintain significant inequalities, as a steady source of national income can satisfy the basic needs of even those less fortunate (including through this process of paying salaries for “fake” jobs). When that stream thins out, though, the economy of the country must restructure, or risk social tension. Sadly, the market does not respond well to logic, or to morality. Jobs are being cut and wages are declining! How, you may ask? Well, apparently the top 1% have successfully manipulated the system to effectively siphon off the dwindling profits into their bank accounts. Thus, a diminishing profit margin accompanied by increasing greed, has transformed a vibrant economy into a disaster waiting to happen. Along with these largely economic conclusions, we must also analyze the sociological implications of such a disturbance.

As one of the earliest economists to analyze the sociological expression of work as it relates to unemployment, John Maynard Keynes caricatures this kind of mindless accumulation in a sarcastic analogy. In his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (which he published during the Great Depression), he writes: “If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez faire to dig the notes up again,… there need be no more unemployment and… the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is… the above would be better than nothing.” In Keynes’s vision, public funding serves the practical purpose of getting people off the streets. I find this utterly depressing and too conventional. In his world of ‘proper’ upbringing he valued order and structure over purpose and ideals. His solution does not inspire in us a feeling of purpose in our jobs, but rather reveals that sometimes work is but a game, an element of either governmental or private control. In this same way, private industry offers people jobs with little actual value (e.g. workers dig through the refuse of bureaucracy); they are fed, but none the better.

In perhaps one of the more inspiring, but depressing commentaries on the capitalist system, Joseph Schumpeter, an iconoclast Austrian economist, revives the sociological aspect in respect to the economy. In short, he posits that entrepreneurship, the creative ability, to innovate, drives most economic growth, especially after most natural resources (including population growth) reach their natural limits. But this entrepreneurship does not come cheap. It needs to be cultivated. Sociological and economic factors must combine to inspire new generations of inventors and investors to innovate and progress. Additionally, not all innovators grow out of the 1%, so improved social mobility allows for the efficient progression of society as a whole. However, in order to inspire those individuals, society needs to provide them with purpose. Robert Heilbroner in The Worldly Philosophers writes of Schumpeter’s claim that “it requires a faith—in its case, faith in the values and virtues of the civilization that capitalism produces and that in turn reproduces capitalism.” Thus, as people become more disenchanted with the system, their will to succeed and innovate gradually disappears.

In addition to economic stagnation Schumpeter warns of impending skepticism. He claims that “Capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values.” Hence, capitalism dooms itself not only economically, but sociologically as well!

We are all witnesses to the mighty power this critique of society has unleashed. Traditional values have been eroded in short time, but, curiously, the idea of private property remains strong. We stand on the brink of social warfare, but the underclass still cowers at the idea of being labeled “thieves.” I can only surmise as to why this has occurred: The masses have used up all their political resources. Unions have lost their sting as a result of automation, and the Calvinist work ethic has shamed those suffering into silence. Therefore, the masses today do not see any system as viable and a purposeless dread pervades all. Currently, their one true goal is not the reallocation of power and wealth, but the dissolution of society itself (both sociologically and structurally). This errant, misguided populism is particularly dangerous, but I spare them judgement: they are desperate, and the current political situation offers them no better options.

“You need not finish the job, however, do not idle from it.”

(Ethics of our Fathers 2:16)