How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!

Reference:

Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.

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The Lie We Live

25 03 2015

This great video questions our freedom, the education system, corporations, money, the American capitalist system, the US government, world collapse, the environment, climate change, genetically modified food, and our treatment of animals….

“They gave us money, and in exchange we gave them the Earth”

Enjoy, and share widely……..





Limits to growth on ‘Mainstream Media’

14 02 2015

KerrynBeach photo ed

Dr Kerryn Higgs

I know not everyone would consider the ABC ‘Mainstream Media’, but all the same, the subject of Limits to growth and that evil Club of Rome crowd appearing there feels like some sort of breakthrough…..  you can listen to the podcast at the above link, or read the transcript below if you prefer……

Australian writer Dr Kerryn Higgs (a Tasmanian no less…) has written a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth On A Finite Planet, in which she examines how society’s commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limit of growth, calling them bogus predictions of imminent doom.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Growth or no growth? You may have heard Dick Smith on Breakfast a couple of weeks ago saying that unlimited growth is impossible and we must do something else. But what? There is, of course, a way of improving what we do more efficiently and stopping waste. Peter Newman from Perth gave an example on Late Night Live late last year: If we used trains instead of trucks for freight, it would halve the costs and save many, many lives. We don’t do it because we always do what we’ve always done. Kerryn Higgs, who’s with the University of Tasmania, has just brought out a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, published by MIT Press and she has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome.

Kerryn Higgs: I came across The Limits to Growth quite by accident in 1972, just when it was published. It was commissioned by the Club of Rome and written by a team of researchers at MIT, led by Donella and Dennis Meadows. The book changed the way I thought about Nature, people, history, everything. It persuaded me that physics matters, and that the idea of ever-expanding economic growth is a delusion. Up to then, I was a mainstream humanities person, history being my main discipline, and writing my passion. I did grow up in the countryside and loved the natural world, but I had no real intuition of an impending environmental crisis. And here was this little book suggesting that if we carried on with our exponential expansion, our system would collapse at some point in the middle of the 21st century.

Although galloping economic growth already seemed normal to most younger people living in the developed world in 1972, the growth that took off after WW2 was not normal. It is absolutely unprecedented in all of history. Nothing like it has ever occurred before: large and rapidly growing populations, accelerating industrialisation, expanding production of every kind. All new. The Meadows team found that we could avoid collapse if we slowed down the physical expansion of the economy. But this would mean two very difficult changes— slowing human population growth and slowing the entire cycle of physical production from material extraction through to the disposal of waste. The book was persuasive to me and I expected its message to have an impact on human affairs. But as the years rolled by, it seemed there was very little—and then, even less. In fact, I gradually became aware that most people thought “the Club of Rome got it wrong” and scorned the book as an ignorant tract from “doomsters”, an especially common view among economists. I want to point out, though, that recent research from Melbourne University’s Graham Turner, shows that the Meadows team did not get it wrong. Their projections for what would happen if we carried on business as usual tally almost exactly with what has actually occurred in the 40 years since 1972.

But while scientists from Rachel Carson onwards sounded alarm about numerous problems associated with growth, this was not the case in our govern­ments, bureaucracies, and in public debate, where economic growth was gradually being entrenched as the central objective of collective human effort. This really puzzled me.

How come the Club of Rome got such a terrible press?

How did scientists lose credibility? When I was young, science was almost a god. A few decades later, scientists were being flippantly brushed aside.

How did economists displace scientists as the crucial policy advisers and the architects of public debate, setting the criteria for policy decisions?

How did economic growth become accepted as the only solution to virtually all social problems—unemployment, debt and even the environmental damage growth was causing?

And how did ever-increasing income and consumption become the meaning of life, at least for us in the rich world? It was not the meaning of life when I was young.

Answering these questions took me back through human history. A few developments were especially decisive.

Around 1900, the modern corporation emerged. Over just a decade or two, many of the current transnationals came into being in the US (with names like Coca Cola, Alcoa and DuPont). International Harvester amalgamated 85% of US farm machinery into one corporation in just a few years. Adam Smith’s free enterprise economy was being transformed into something very different. A process of perpetual consolidation followed and by now, frighteningly few corporations control the majority of world trade and revenue, giving them colossal power. The new corporations of the early 20th century banded together into industry associations and business councils like the immensely influential US Chamber of Commerce, which was formed out of local chambers from across the country in 1912. These organisations exploited the newly emerging Public Relations industry, launching a barrage of private enterprise propaganda, uninterrupted for more than a century, and still very healthy today. Peabody coal, for example, recently signed up one of the world’s PR giants, Burson-Marsteller, for a PR campaign to convince leaders that coal is the solution to poverty.

Back in 1910 universal suffrage threatened the customary dominance of the business classes, and PR was an excellent solution. If workers were going to vote, they’d need the right advice. No-one expressed it better than Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who is credited with founding the PR industry. Bernays was candid:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the… masses is an important element in democratic society (he wrote). Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism … constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

PR became an essential tool for business to consolidate its power right through the century, culminating in the 1970s project to “litter the world with free market think tanks”. By 2013, there were nearly 7,000 of these, all over the world; the vast majority were conservative, free market advocates, many on the libertarian fringe, and financed by big business. They cultivate a studied appearance of independence, though one think tank vice-president came clean. “There is no such thing as a disinterested think tanker,” he said. “Somebody always builds the tank, and it’s usually not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.” Funding think tanks is always about “shaping and reshaping the climate of public opinion”.

Nonetheless, the claim to independence has been so successful that most think tanks have tax-free charity status and their staff constantly feature in the media as if they were independent and peer-reviewed experts.

Another decisive development was the “bigger pie” strategy. Straight after World War 2, governments took on a new role of fostering growth. The emphasis increasingly fell on baking a bigger pie, so the slices could get bigger but the pie would not have to be divided up any more equitably. Growth could function as an alternative to fairness. Thorny problems like world poverty were designated growth problems and leaders in the decolonising world often embraced a growth-oriented version of development, a version that rarely helped their poor majorities. Growth allowed the privileged to maintain and even extend their opulence, while professing to be saving the world from poverty. It’s frequently claimed that growth is lifting millions out of poverty. But, apart from China, this is not really the case. China has indeed decreased the numbers of its extreme poor, though this has been achieved with disastrous environmental decline and increasing inequality.

Meanwhile, progress is patchy elsewhere. After 70 years of economic growth, with the world economy now 8 to 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, there are still 2 and a half billion people living on less than $2 a day, more than a third of the people on earth, and about the same number as in 1981. Growth has not been shared. Underlying the popularity of growth, there’s a great clash of values between mainstream economics and the physical sciences.

Economists see the human economy as the primary system—odd when you consider that the planet’s been here for about 4.6 billion years, and life for something like 3.8 billion.  The human era is less than a whisker on this timescale, but for economists Nature is just the extractive sector of their primary system, the economy. For scientists and ecological economists, the primary system is the planet – and it’s self-evidently finite. The human economy with its immense material extraction and vast waste, exists entirely within the earth system. Self-evident as these boundaries might seem, they remain invisible or contested in mainstream economics and are of little concern to politicians or citizens in most countries. Hardly a news bulletin goes by without stories of growth expected, growth threatened, or growth achieved. Growth is the watchword of both major parties here and around the world and remains the accepted solution to poverty, pollution and debt.

And yet, however necessary growth is to our current economic arrangements, and however desirable from the point of view of our expectations of material well-being and comfort, it’s hardly a practical aim if it’s based on a misperception of reality.

While we assume that a high and increasing level of material consumption is normal and desirable, we ignore the peculiarity of our times and the encroaching threats to us and our planet.

We are well into dangerous territory in three areas:

Firstly, species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than the background rate.

Secondly, the nitrogen cycle is completely disrupted. In nature, nitrogen is largely inert in our atmosphere. Today, mainly through making fertiliser, nitrogen is flooding through our rivers, groundwater and continental shelves, fuelling algal blooms that lead to dead zones and fish kills.

And thirdly we are on the way to a very hot planet. Unless we change rapidly in the extremely near future, we risk an increase of 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. So far, an increase of less than 1 degree is melting the West Antarctic icesheet, glaciers nearly everywhere and even the massive Greenland icecap.

Meanwhile, the rate of carbon dioxide and methane emissions continues to rise. In fact, right through the decade it took to write my book, I was staggered as these emissions defied all protocols and agreements, and rose faster and faster every year, setting a new record in 2013. Four degrees may be a bridge too far, and yet our culture is cheerfully crossing it.

I started out as a student of human history and ended up studying the intersection between human history and natural history. Humans have had local effects for thousands of years but on a global scale, the collision is new. Humans were a flea on the face of the earth for most of our history and it’s probably true to say this is the very first time one species—ours—has taken over the entire planetary system for its own sole use. In human-focused terms, this may seem perfectly reasonable. In planetary terms, it’s weird and completely impractical.

While our best agricultural land, last remnants of white box woodland and the Great Barrier Reef are put at risk for the extraction of gas and coal, which we should aim to stop burning anyway if we want a liveable world, it seems that only citizen revolt is left to counter it.

Let’s hope we succeed.

The ground of our being is at stake.

Robyn Williams: Kerryn Higgs. She’s with the University of Tasmania and her book, published by MIT Press, is called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. Kerryn has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome. Next week I shall introduce the proud Professor who’s just moved into that crumpled brown paper bag designed by Frank Gehry for the University of Technology, Sydney: Roy Green on innovation in Australia and what’s not right.  





The Coming Climate Revolt?

24 09 2014

Chris Hedges, well known Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was part of a panel on the Saturday before the 300,000+ march in New York at which the discussion titled “The Climate Crisis: Which Way Out?” occurred…  The other panelists were Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Kshama Sawant and Sen. Bernie Sanders. The event was taped, and some of what was said can be heard here:

“We have undergone a transformation during the last few decades—what John Ralston Saul calls a corporate coup d’état in slow motion. We are no longer a capitalist democracy endowed with a functioning liberal class that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible” writes Hedges at TruthDig.

We are governed, rather, by a species of corporate totalitarianism, or what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin describes as “inverted totalitarianism.” By this Wolin means a system where corporate power, while it purports to pay fealty to electoral politics, the Constitution, the three branches of government and a free press, along with the iconography and language of American patriotism, has in fact seized all the important levers of power to render the citizen impotent.

The old liberal class, the safety valve that addressed grievances and injustices in times of economic or political distress, has been neutered. There are self-identified liberals, including Barack Obama, who continue to speak in the old language of liberalism but serve corporate power.

Chris Hedges further states during the above mentioned panel discussion:

I think everybody on the panel supports them, including the Flood Wall Street event that I know Naomi and I will be at on Monday morning. We have to understand that the corporate state, including the Democratic elite, will react the way all calcified states react. They will use the security and surveillance apparatus, they will use military police forces and, under Section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act, the military itself, to violently shut down dissent by force. We saw it in Occupy, the legal and organizational mechanisms that are now in place to, with the flip of a switch, put this nation instantly under martial law. And when acts of mass civil disobedience begin on Monday, including with Flood Wall Street, and later Occupy the UN, I am almost certain that the face of the corporate state, as it did during the Occupy movement, will reveal itself. If the response of the corporate state is repression rather than reform, then our strategy and our tactics must be different. We will have to cease appealing to the system. We will have to view the state, including the Democratic establishment, as antagonistic to genuine reform, and we will have to speak in the language of overthrow and revolution.

Are the gloves finally coming off?  Will people revolt against the corporatacrocy?

I also found it interesting that whilst the panelists’ hears are all the right place, they still live in the ignorance of what the future holds.  Naomi Klein, whom I mostly admire, don’t get me wrong, spouts “how are we supposed to respond to a crisis that requires that we invest massively in the public sphere, when all we hear is that we have to cut back, when we need to invest massively in public transit? So we know what to do, but we are locked within an ideological system that tells us that we can’t.”  She wants austerity to end…….  Hello?  Austerity is the only thing the future holds.

McKibben says…..

“what really comes next for climate justice is an awful lot of pain and suffering for an awful lot of people. We’ve already raised the temperature one degree Celsius. We’re going to go to two degrees Celsius almost no matter what we do, it looks like. And on current trajectory, we’re going to raise the temperature of the planet four or five degrees Celsius, eight or nine degrees Fahrenheit, before this century is out. And if that happens, if we allow anything like that to happen, then we will have created not just the greatest crisis in human civilization–we may already be there–but the most profoundly unjust thing that has ever happened on this planet. The people who will suffer, are already suffering most and hardest, are those who did the least to cause this problem.”

But I wonder if he realises just what sort of pain is coming.  I doubt that he thinks a whole lot of people will end up starving and without solar panels to keep their lights on and the beer cold.  We certainly live in interesting times….





Where Are The Gas Wells? Queensland, Australia

30 04 2014

csg22This is scary as…….  worse, NONE of this gas is even produced for OUR consumption, it’s all headed overseas for profit, and even the profits aren’t staying here?  There’s NOTHING in it for us except destruction of our future on a grand scale….. and it MUST STOP.

Share widely please…..  the rest of Australia needs to wake up!





Capitalism IS the Crisis….

26 04 2014

I heard this film mentioned by Derrick Jensen at the end of that podcast I mentioned in Why we are still screwed….. Thorium or no Thorium!

It’s a bit long at one hour forty minutes – why is it doco producers seem to think their films can’t be as good if they’re edited shorter?  Anyhow, I still think it’s compulsory viewing….  especially for Australians who can have the advantage of seeing where Canada’s Harper government took its people.  Remember, we are just a couple of years behind, and Abbott could easily be Harper’s clone.





On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs – David Graeber

26 12 2013

 

Found this article while looking for something else, and I thought, this fits right in with my attitude towards the BS “jobs jobs jobs” mantra we are constantly fed, so I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.  Enjoy….

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, 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. 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.unemployment-job-search1

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). 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.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

jobcartoonBut 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. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, 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.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. 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). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.iGod

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend whom I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, 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. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? 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, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

From Strike Mag