BULLSHIT JOBS AND THE NEW FEUDALISTS
Have you ever felt like your job was a waste of time? If so, you are not alone. When Yougov asked people ‘does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?’, 37% replied that it did not and 13% were ‘unsure’. In other words, fifty percent of people polled either didn’t know whether their job was worthwhile or not, or were certain that it was not. If you are one of these people, chances are you have a ‘bullshit job’.
‘What is a bullshit job’?
It might be worth talking a bit about what the term ‘bullshit job’ means. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this is to consider its opposite. When it comes to employment, we usually assume that some need is first identified, and then some service is created to fill that gap in the market. An obvious way to tell if that service is necessary to society overall would be to observe the effect when it is removed- say, as a consequence of strike action. If society experiences a noticeable and negative effect, then it’s almost certain that the job was a valuable one.
On the other hand, if a job could disappear without almost anybody noticing (because its absence has either no effect or is actually beneficial) that would be a bullshit job.
Here’s one such example of such a job, taken from David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’:
“I worked as a museum guard for a major global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused more or less permanently. My job was to guard that empty room, ensuring no museum guests touch the…well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided, I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation, like books, phones etc. Since nobody was ever there, in practice I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours, waiting for the fire alarm to sound. If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it”.
Now, some points are worth going over at this stage. Firstly, a bullshit job is best thought of as one that makes no positive contribution to society overall (since it would hardly matter if the position did not exist) rather than one that is of no benefit to absolutely anyone. As we shall see, it could suit some people to employ somebody to stand or sit around wearing an impressive-looking uniform. It’s just that whatever function this serves really has little to do with capitalism as most people understand it.
Secondly, one can always invent a meaning for this job, just as philosophers have made up reasons why Sisyphus could find meaning in his pointless task of rolling that boulder up-hill in the sure and certain knowledge that it would roll back down again. But, really, all this does is to highlight what bullshit such jobs are. After all, where genuine jobs are concerned one need not wrack one’s brains making up justifications, because the need pre-exists the job.
So, with those points out of the way and with a definition of bullshit jobs to work with (‘employment of no positive significance to society overall’) we can return to the question ‘how come such jobs exist?’.
‘This cannot be!’
One reason, strangely enough, is because many people assume they cannot exist. The reason why is because the very idea of bullshit jobs seems to run contrary to how capitalism is meant to work. If one word could be used to sum up the workings of capitalism in the popular imagination, that word would probably be ‘efficiency’. Capitalism is imagined to be ruthless in its drive to cut costs and reduce waste. That being the case, it surely makes no sense for any business to make up pointless jobs.
At the same time, people have no problem believing stories of how socialist countries like the USSR made up pointless jobs like having several clerks sell a loaf of bread where only one was necessary, due to some top-down command to achieve full employment. After all, governments and bureaucracies are known for wasting public money.
It’s worth thinking about what happened in the Soviet example and what did not. No authority figure ever demanded that pointless jobs be invented. Instead, there was a general push to achieve full employment but not much diligence in ensuring such jobs met actual demands. Those lower down with targets to meet did what was necessary to tick boxes and meet their quotas.
Studies from Harvard Business School, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and others have shown that goals people set for themselves with the intention of gaining mastery are usually healthy, but when those goals are imposed on them by others- such as sales targets, standardized test scores and quarterly returns- such incentives, though intended to ensure peak performance, often produce the opposite. They can lead to efforts to game the system and look good without producing the underlying results the metric was supposed to be assessing. As Patrick Schiltz, a professor of law, put it:
“Your entire frame of reference will change [and the dozens of quick decisions you will make every day] will reflect a set of values that embodies not what is right or wrong but what is profitable, what you can get away with”.
Practical examples abound. Sears imposed a sales quota on its auto repair staff- who responded by overcharging customers and carrying out repairs that weren’t actually needed. Ford set the goal of producing a car by a particular date at a certain price that had to be at a certain weight, constraints that lead to safety checks being omitted and the dangerous Ford Pinto (a car that tended to explode if involved in a rear-end collision, due to the placement of its fuel tank) being sold to the public.
Perhaps most infamously, the way extrinsic motivation can cause people to focus on the short-term while discounting longer-term consequences contributed to the financial crisis of 2008, as buyers bought unaffordable homes, mortgage brokers chased commissions, Wall Street traders wanted new securities to sell, and politicians wanted people to spend, spend spend because that would keep the economy buoyant- at least while they were in office.
With all that in mind, it’s worth remembering the one thing that unites thinkers on the left and right sides of the political spectrum in Western thinking. Both agree that there should be more jobs. I don’t think I have seen a current-affairs debate where the call for ‘more jobs’ wasn’t made, and made often.
Whether you are a ‘lefty’ or a ‘right-winger’, you probably believe that there should be ‘more jobs’. You just disagree on how to go about creating them. For those on the left, the way to do it would be through strengthening workers’ rights, improving state education and maybe through workfare programs like Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’. For right-wingers, it’s achieved through deregulation and tax-breaks for business, the idea being that this will free up entrepreneurs and create more jobs.
But, in neither case does anyone insist that whatever jobs are created should be of benefit to society overall. Instead, it’s just usually assumed that of course they will be. This is roughly comparable to somebody being so convinced that burglary does not happen they take no precautions to protect themselves against theft. This just makes them more vulnerable to criminal activity.
If this analogy is to work, it has to be the case that we are wrong to assume modern markets actively work against bullshit jobs; that, actually, there are reasons why pointless jobs are being created. In that case, our assumption that such jobs can’t exist would work against the possibility of acting to prevent their proliferation.
In fact, such reasons do exist, and a major one is something called ‘Managerial Feudalism’. What is that? Well, that’s a topic we will tackle in the next instalment.
‘Bullshit jobs: A Theory’ by David Graeber
‘Why We Work’ by Barry Schwartzh
BULLSHIT JOBS AND THE NEW FEUDALISTS
Bullshit jobs are proliferating throughout the economy, and the reason why is partly due to something called ‘managerial feudalism’. In order to understand the role this plays in the creation of bullshit jobs, we need to look at the various positions people occupied in feudal societies. If you have ever watched a drama set in such times, you will no doubt have noticed how there is always an elite class of people who employ the services of a great many others. In some cases, their servants perform tasks that would be considered useful in today’s society, attending to such things as gardening, food preparation and household duties. But the nobility also seem to be surrounded by individuals who (despite the importance of their appearance, what with all the flashy uniforms they wear) don’t seem to be doing much of anything.
What are all these people for? Mostly, they are just there to make their superiors look, well, ‘superior’ . By being able to walk into a room surrounded by men in smart uniforms, nobles give off an air of gravitas. And the greater your entourage is, the more important you must be. At least, that’s the impression you hope to convey when you employ people to stand around making you look impressive.
The desire to place oneself above subordinates and to increase the numbers of those subordinates, thereby gaining a show of prestige, happens whenever society structures itself into a definite hierarchy with a minority that hold a ‘noble’ position within that structure. This is exactly what we find in large businesses, where the executive classes assume the role of the nobility. In order to understand why bullshit jobs exist, we need to look at how the condition of managerial feudalism came about.
Rise of the corporate nobility
Once upon a time, from around the mid-40s to the mid-70s, businesses ran what might be called ‘paternalistic’ models that worked in the interests of all stakeholders. The need to rebuild infrastructure following the war, a desire to provide security to those who had fought in it, the strength of unions, and governments following Keynesian economics, all worked to ensure that increases in productivity would bring about increases to worker compensation.
But, during the 80s and onwards, attitudes towards worker collectives and Keynesian economics changed and were instead seen as stifling entrepreneurs. This gave rise to more lean-and-mean economic practices. What really helped the rise of the lean-and-mean model in the 80s and 90s was certain federal and state regulatory changes, coupled with innovations from Wall Street. The federal and state regulatory changes brought about an environment in which corporate mergers and takeovers could flourish.
Meanwhile, Michael Milken, of investment house Drexel Burnham, created high-yield debt instruments known as ‘junk bonds’, which allowed for much riskier and aggressive corporate raids. This triggered an era of hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts and corporate bustups.
The people who most benefited from all this deregulation and financialisation were those at the executive level. Once upon a time, the CEO of a large corporation would have been the epitome of the cool, rational planner. He or she would have been trained in ‘management science’ and probably worked his or her way up within the ranks of the organisation so that, by the time they reached the top, the CEO had mastered every aspect of the business. Once there at the apex of the corporate pyramid this highly trained, rational specialist would have carried out the central belief of the college-educated middle-class, with its mandate of progress for all and not just the few.
But as the corporate world became more volatile toward the end of the 20th century, questions began to arise over whether such rationality and level-headedness was best for delivering the new goal of short-term boosts to shareholders’ profits. With the business world now seen as so tumultuous and complex as to “defy predictability and even rationality” (as an article in Fast Company put it) a new kind of CEO emerged, one driven more by intuition and gut-feeling. The new CEO was less of a manager with great experience obtained from working his way up the company hierarchy, and more of a flamboyant leader who had achieved celebrity status in the business world, and was hired on the basis of his showmanship, whether his prior role had anything to do with the new position or not. And they certainly prospered in their position, because the focus on improving the bottom line and rewarding celebrity CEOs saw executive pay soar to over three hundred times that of the typical worker.
It’s hard to exaggerate the difference between the old-style corporate boss and the new breed that arose around the late 20th century. As David Graeber pointed out, the old-fashioned leaders of industry identified much more with the workers in their own firms and it was not until the era of mergers, acquisitions and bustups that we get this fusion between the financial sector and the executive classes.
This marked change in attitudes was reflected in comments made by the Business Roundtable in the 1990s. At the start of the decade, Business Roundtable said of corporate responsibility that they “are chartered to serve both their shareholders and society as a whole”. But, seven years later, the message had changed to “the notion that the board must somehow balance the interests of other stakeholders fundamentally misconstrues the role of directors”. In other words, a corporation looks after its shareholders and the interests of other stakeholders-employees, customers, and society in general-are of far less importance.
Pointless White-Collar Jobs
Now, the term ‘lean and mean’ implies that capitalism had become more, well, ‘capitalist’, taking the axe to any unnecessary expenditure and therefore bringing about more streamlined operations run by more efficient employees. In other words, the exact opposite of conditions favourable to the growth of bullshit jobs. But, actually, the pressure to downsize was directed mostly at those near the bottom doing the blue-collar work of moving, fixing and maintaining things. They were subjected to ‘scientific management’ theories designed to dehumanise work and bring about robotic levels of efficiency, or were replaced by automation or lost their jobs when the firm took advantage of globalisation and moved abroad where more exploitable workers were available. This freed up lots of capital, and it is how that capital was used that is key to understanding how this so-called ‘lean-and-mean’ period brought about bullshit jobs. As Graeber said, “the same period that saw the most ruthless application of speed-ups and downsizing in the blue-collar sector also brought a rapid multiplication of meaningless managerial and administrative posts in almost all large firms. It’s as if businesses were endlessly trimming the fat on the shop floor and using the resulting savings to acquire even more unnecessary workers in the offices upstairs…The end result was that, just as Socialist regimes had created millions of dummy proletarian jobs, capitalist regimes somehow ended up presiding over the creation of millions of dummy white-collar jobs instead”.
“White Collar Sweatshop” by Jill Andresky Frazier
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber
“Smile Or Die” By Barbara Ehrenreich
BULLSHIT JOBS AND THE NEW FEUDALISTS.
The era of mergers and acquisitions which broke up admittedly bloated old corporations in order to bring about short-term boosts to shareholders resulted in the creation of a ‘noble class’ of executives, and subordinates whose only purpose was add to the prestige of those above them. One such employee was ‘Ophelia’, interviewed in Graeber’s book. “My current job title is Portfolio Coordinator, and everyone always asks what that means, or what it is I actually do? I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure it out….Most of the midlevel managers sit around and stare at a wall, seemingly bored to death and just trying to kill time doing pointless things (like that one guy who rearranges his backpack for a half hour every day). Obviously, there isn’t enough work to keep most of us occupied, but—in a weird logic that probably just makes them all feel more important about their own jobs—we are now recruiting another manager”.
This raises a couple of questions. How come the person ultimately in charge did nothing to prevent this flagrant waste of money? And how did an era of corporate bustups, mergers and acquisitions result in a proliferation of bullshit jobs?
Well, firstly one has to recognise a crucial difference between corporate raiders and the ‘robber barons’ they styled themselves on. The crucial difference is that people like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, whatever you think of their practices, actually built business empires. But corporate raiders like James Goldsmith and Al ‘Chainsaw’ Dunlap didn’t do much building. No, they just took advantage of deregulation and financial innovations like junk bonds to tear apart existing businesses, lay off thousands and gain short-term boosts to their shares. They were vultures. That’s not necessarily derogatory. Vultures play a necessary part in cleaning away carcasses. Arguably, the old corporate structure had become too bloated and inefficient and really the axe should have come down on it. What I am suggesting is that, while the raiders were good at profiteering from the death of the old corporate structure, they lacked the ability to prevent the rise of a new one just as liable to create bullshit jobs.
The Influence Of Positive Thought
We can perhaps understand why by combining ‘managerial feudalism’ and its nobles looking for shows of status and flunkies providing a visible manifestation of that superiority, with the phenomenon I talked about in the series ‘How Religion Caused The Great Recession’.
In that series, I explained how early settlers of the United States practiced ‘Calvinism’. The Calvinist religion saw much virtue in industrious labour and particularly in constant self-examination for any sinful thought. Such an outlook probably helped settlers survive in what was, after all, the ‘Wild West’.
But as the harsh environments were gradually tamed, the constant self-examination for sinful thought and its eradication through labour came to impose a hefty toll on those who became cut off from industrious work. Faced with people succumbing to the symptoms of neurasthenia, and with the medical establishment seemingly unable to cure such patients, people began to reject their forebears’ punitive religion. In the 1860s, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby met up with one Mary Baker Eddy, and together they launched the cultural phenomenon of positive thinking. Drawing on a variety of sources from transcendentalism to Hinduism, New Thought re-imagined God from the hostile deity of Calvinism to a positive and all-powerful spirit. And humanity was brought closer to God, too, thanks to a concept of Man as part of one universal, benevolent spirit. And if reality consisted of nothing but the perfect and positive spirit of God, how could there be such things as sin, disease, and other negative things? New Thought saw these as mere errors that humans could eradicate through “the boundless power of spirit”.
But although intended as an alternative to Calvinism, New Thought did not succeed in eradicating all the harmful aspects of that religion. As Barbara Ehrenreich explained in ‘Smile Or Die’, “it ended up preserving some of Calvinism’s more toxic features- a harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and the insistence on the constant exterior labour of self-examination”. The only difference was that while the Calvinist’s introspection was intended to eradicate sin, the practitioner of New Thought and its later incarnations of positive thinking was constantly monitoring the self for negativity. Anything other than positive thought was an error that had to be driven out of the mind.
So, from the 19th century onwards, a belief that the universe is fundamentally benevolent and that the power of positive thought could make wishes come true and prevent all negative things from happening, was simmering away in the American subconsciousness. When consumerism took hold in the 20th century, positive thinking would become increasingly imposed on anyone looking to get ahead in an increasingly materialistic world.
What all this has to do with the current topic, is that the cult of positive thinking that was begun with New Thought and amplified by 20th century consumer culture ended up having an effect on how businesses were run. Whereas, before the Great Depression, there had been campaigners speaking out against the excesses of the wealthy and the oppression imposed on the poor, the prosperity gospel that had begun in the 19th century and which was amplified by megachurches and TV evangelists responding to market signals from 20th century consumption culture, had a markedly different message: There was nothing amiss with a deeply unequal society. Anyone at all stood to become as wealthy as the top 1 percent. Just remain resolutely optimistic and all will be well.
But, unlike with the megachurches (which one could leave at any time) or television evangelists (which one could always just turn off) the books and seminars to be consumed at corporate events were often mandatory for any employee who wanted to keep his or her job. Workers were required to read books like Mike Hernacki’s ‘The Ultimate Secret to Getting Everything You Want’ or ‘The Secrets Of The Millionaire Mind’ by T. Harv Ecker, which encouraged practitioners of positive thinking to place their hands on their hearts and say out loud, “I love rich people! And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!”.
Remember, that Positive Thinking ideology considers any negativity to be a sin, and some of its gurus recommended removing negative people from one’s life. And in the world of corporate America-where, other than in clear-cut cases of racial, gender, or age-related discrimination, anyone can be fired for any reason or no reason at all-that was easy to do: terminate that negative person’s employment. Joel Osteen of Houston Lakewood church (described as “America’s most influential Christian” by Church Report magazine) told his followers, “employers prefer employees who are excited about working at their companies…God wants you to give it everything you’ve got. Be enthusiastic. Set an example”. And if you didn’t set an example and radiate unbridled optimism every second of the working day, you were made an example of. As banking expert Steve Eisman explained, “anybody who voiced negativity was thrown out”.
Such was the fate of Mike Gelband, who was in charge of Lehman Brothers’ real estate division. At the end of 2006 he grew increasingly anxious over the growing subprime mortgage bubble and advised “we have to rethink our business model”. For this unforgivable lapse into negativity, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld fired the miscreant.
A Bullshit Corporate Culture
So, the corporate culture had become one that was decidedly hostile to any bad news, such that even those in positions of high authority got the sack if they voiced any negativity. As for the lower ranks, whatever misgivings they had concerning the way things were had to be filtered through layer upon layer of management. If there’s already a culture of hiding negative reports on how business practices are shaping up, of putting a positive spin on everything, it’s not much of a step from there to not being entirely truthful about the usefulness of the people being hired. This is even more likely to happen if A) your status is defined by how many subordinates you have (and, therefore, to lose subordinates is to suffer diminished status) and B) if employees come to depend on the pretty generous salaries that often come with bullshit white-collar work, for example because their consumerist lifestyle has left them with substantial mortgages and credit card bills. If that’s the case, then it’s probably not a good idea to broadcast how unnecessary some jobs are.
The idea that those in ultimate authority might be prevented from knowing everything that’s going on in their business was encapsulated by a comment that one billionaire made to crisis manager Eric Dezenhall: “I’m the most lied to man in the world”.
It’s important to point out that the role of CEO is not itself bullshit. What is being argued instead is that some CEOs are effectively blind to all the bullshit happening in their firms. Why wouldn’t they be, when anyone bringing them bad news is liable to be sacked, when executives and middle-managers surround themselves with yes-men and flunkies, and when an obsession with increasing shareholder value is creating some decidedly dodgy business practices disguised through impenetrable economic jargon and management-speak? Such practices are well-suited to redirecting resources so as to create an elite minority with sufficient wealth and power to be deserving of the ‘nobility’ label, for creating elaborate hierarchies of flunkies who are just there to provide visible displays of their ‘superiors’ magnificence, and spindoctors pulling the wool over people’s eyes and preventing the truth from being revealed. Medieval feudalism had its priestly caste with their religious texts written in an obscure tongue with which to justify the divine right of kings and all that. Managerial Feudalism has the financial and banking sector and all the obscure language that comes with it, ceaselessly denouncing working classes whenever they demand living wages and justifying any money grab or show of status by the executive and managerial classes no matter how greedy and socially unjust.
It’s when we examine financialisation that we really understand how it can be that BS jobs exist. That’s a topic for next time.
“White Collar Sweatshop” by Jill Andresky Frazier
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber
“Smile Or Die” By Barbara Ehrenreich
BULLSHIT JOBS AND THE NEW FEUDALISTS
In what way does the world of finance help bring about bullshit jobs? Well, it partly has to do with the way jobs are categorised in the popular imagination. When we talk about major revolutions in working practice we speak of transitions from hunter-gathering, to farming, to manufacturing, to services. Such terms imply that at every stage people always transition to work that is of obvious benefit to society, involving as it does the creation of products that improve quality of life, or by offering services that meet some pressing need or just make life more pleasant.
What’s wrong with this belief is that it paints the wrong picture of what everyone in ‘services’ does. Contrary to what the term implies, not everyone in ‘services’ is helping their fellow human beings by clipping hedges, serving ice-cream and so on. No, there’s a fourth sector involved in work of a different kind, one economists call FIRE after Finance, Insurance and Real-Estate.
The kind of thing this sector is involved in is well illustrated by the goings-on that lead up to the 2008 crash. Banks’ profits once relied on the quality of the loans they extended. However, quite recently we have seen a switch toward ‘securitisation’, which in practice involves bundling multiple loans together and selling portions of those bundles to investors as Collateralized Debt Obligations or CDOs. Rather than earning interest as loans are repaid over time, when it comes to securitisation the banks’ profit is derived from fees for arranging the loans. As to the risk inherent in lending money, it’s the buyer of the CDO who takes on the risk, meaning that, as far as the bank is concerned, defaults are somebody else’s problem.
This caused a shift from lending that was quality-driven toward quantity-driven borrowing. Thanks to securitisation, banks could make loans with the knowledge that they could be sold off to someone else, the risk associated with such loans being their problem. What this meant was that banks were freed from the downside of defaults. And if conditions are in place to cause wild exuberance, borrowing is bound to spiral out of control.
Of course, that’s precisely what happened in the runup to the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. In the words of Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne, “math ‘quants’ took the giant pools of home loans now sitting on their employers’ balance sheets and repackaged them into highly complex, opaque, and difficult-to-value securities that were sold as safe bets. As more and more of these risky securities were purchased by pension funds, insurance firms, and other stewards of the global public’s savings, the quants’ securitisation machine demanded more loans, which in turn led to a massive expansion of dubious lending to low-income American households”.
Advertisements for banks really push the message that they are but humble servants helping customers protect and manage their money. And with talk of ‘markets’ and ‘products’, the financial ‘industry’ likewise presents itself as doing the traditional work of making useful stuff and providing much-needed services. If you believe the propaganda, the primary purpose of this sector is to help direct investments to those parts of commerce and industry that will raise prosperity, while earning an honest profit in the process.
But while this kind of thing does happen, it’s very misleading to portray the financial sector as being mostly concerned with such services. We can see this is so by looking at where the money goes. A piffling 0.8 percent of the £435 billion created by the UK government in quantitative easing (ie money printing) went to the real, productive economy. The rest went to the financial sector.
As David Graeber explained, what this sector actually does is as follows: “the overwhelming bulk of its profits comes from colluding with government to create, and then trade and manipulate, various forms of debt”. In other words, what the FIRE sector mostly does is create money from ‘nothing’. But, the thing is, there actually is no such thing as money from nothing. If somebody is making money out of thin air, somebody somewhere else is being lumbered with the cost. So, really, financialisation is the subordination of value-adding activity to the servicing of debt.
It is under such conditions, in which work is morphed into a political process of appropriating wealth and the repackaging and redistribution of debt, that the nature of BS jobs (which seems so bizarre from the traditional capitalist point-of-view) actually makes sense. From the perspective of the FIRE sector, the more inefficient and unnecessary chains of command there are, the more adept such organisations become at the art of rent-extraction, of soaking up resources before they get to claimants.
An example of such practices was provided by ‘Elliot’:
“I did a job for a little while working for one of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms. They had been contracted by a bank to provide compensation to customers that had been involved in the PPI scandal. The accountancy firm was paid by the case, and we were paid by the hour. As a result, they purposefully mis-trained and disorganised the staff so that jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong. The systems and practices were changed and modified all the time, to ensure no one could get used to the new practice and actually do the work correctly. This meant that cases had to be redone and contracts extended. The senior management had to be aware of this, but it was never explicitly stated. In looser moments, some of the management said things like “we make money from dealing with a leaky pipe-do you fix the pipe, or do you let the pipe keep leaking?’’’.
In order for such organisations to continue doing what they are doing, there has to be employees that work to prevent such dubious practices from becoming widely known. Faithful allies must be rewarded, whistleblowers punished. Those on the rise must show visible signs of success, surrounded by important-looking men who make their ‘superiors’ look special in office environments where one’s status is determined by how many underlings you command. Meanwhile, those flunky roles are themselves a handy means of distributing political favours, and since those in the lower ranks had best be distracted from the dodgy goings on, this incentivises the creation of an elaborate hierarchy of job positions, titles and honours. Let them occupy themselves squabbling over that.
So, ‘Managerial Feudalism’ is so-called because the FIRE sector (which in practice is spreading, which is why car commercials no longer tell you what it costs to buy the vehicle, only what APR representative you can expect if you take out a loan) has brought about conditions that resemble classic medieval feudalism, which was likewise primed to create hierarchies of nobles, flunkies, mystic castes quoting obscure texts, and downtrodden masses.
This is not without consequence. In the early 20th century, economists like Keynes were tracking progress in science, technology and management and predicting that, by the 21st century, our industries would be so productive we could drastically reduce the amount of time devoted to paid employment, investing the time gained in the pursuit of a more well-rounded existence. When you consider that 50 percent of jobs are either definitely bullshit or kind of vague regarding their value to society, you can see how people like Keynes were partly correct. Had we continued to focus on technical efficiency and productive capability we doubtlessly would have access to much more leisure and prosperity. But, instead, business, economics and politics combined in such a way as to create a new kind of feudalism that has imposed itself on top of capitalism.
Recapping what we have learned over this series, the old paternalistic corporate model came under attack during an era of bustups, mergers and acquisitions. The corporate raiders who lead this attack were different from their predecessors in that they identified much more with finance than the workers under their management. This, coupled with a cult of materialist positive thinking, gave rise to an executive class whose salary and bonus structure put them in a ‘noble’ position. It also gave rise to a corporate culture that was hostile to any bad news. This meant that, when the savings that were being made by bringing the axe down on those at the lower end of the corporate hierarchy only ended up being wasted by the hiring of more levels of management, there were few people who dared speak out against this practice. Moreover, keeping one’s mouth shut and hoping you, too, might be in line for a pointless but well-paid white collar job had become the sensible choice for those burdened with the high costs of an over-consumptive lifestyle. And that part of the ‘service’ sector which has little to do with providing services but is more concerned with colluding with government in order to repackage and sell ever-more complex forms of debt had every incentive to run things as inefficiently as possible, since those are the conditions in which rent-extraction can cream off more of other people’s money.
Such conditions encourage the existence of jobs that are more to do with appropriating rather than creating wealth, and with disguising the fact that this is happening. When your status is defined by how many underlings you have, this can encourage an increase in the levels of management. If other big businesses employ somebody to sit at a desk, your company must do likewise. Not because the person has anything useful to do, necessarily, but simply because it’s ‘what is done’. When you make your money from a ‘leaky pipe’ (ie some deficiency in the system) this can encourage ‘duct-taping’ jobs that merely manage the problem rather than deal with it. This is like employing somebody to replace the bucket rather than fix the leaking roof. Of course, in that overly-simplistic example the ruse would be easily spotted. But in the deliberately complex world of the FIRE sector there is more chance of doing things incompetently and getting away with it, because few can penetrate the jargon and management-speak and see the bullshit hiding behind it.
What this all means is that the ‘technological unemployment’ gap that Keynes predicted has been filled with jobs that, quite frankly, don’t need to exist. If you can’t imagine how that can happen under capitalism, well, your mistake is in assuming our current system is something that people like Adam Smith or Milton Friedman would recognise as ‘capitalist’. Bullshit jobs really shouldn’t exist in the kind of free market that people like Stefan Molyneux promote, but they can and do exist in the whatever market system dominates today.
“White Collar Sweatshop” by Jill Andresky Frazier
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” by David Graeber
“Smile Or Die” By Barbara Ehrenreich