If society has learnt one lesson about work from the Coronavirus, it is that the jobs many of us perform are less vital than those of others. Ever since the fallout of the 2007-08 economic crisis, the traditional relationship between work and livelihoods has faced increased scrutiny. Such critiques—broadly labeled “post-work”—have been steadily wading into public awareness, making a case against the prevailing employment-centrism of capitalist society. Perhaps the most prominent critic was the late David Graeber. In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he ventured that through increased productive capacity achieved since the mid-twentieth century as much as 40% of the jobs held in the U.S. are simply—to use a now-familiar term—non-essential.
Reckoning with the complexity of contemporary work presents difficult questions. Just how much work could society do without, and what types? And if such a surfeit of work actually exists, why exactly does work elude so many people? Bullshit Jobs identified a deep-seated problem in work-centric society, but despite advancing the issue, its answers to these questions cast no knock-out blows. Longstanding assumptions about how economies function within society still hold sway in media coverage and political debate. If, as those on the post-work margins hope, 2020 is to be a wakeup call for work-centered society, there is a need to prove that existing ideas about growth are outdated.
The rise of ‘bullshit’ jobs
To understand where so-called ‘bullshit’ jobs came from, we can look back to the Reaganite and Thatcherite eighties, when immaterial forms of work began their rise to prominence in the world’s wealthier countries. Through the much-heralded rise of the “information economy” and the (less-lauded) shift to service and retail work between 1979 and 2019, the share of the U.S. workforce in “goods producing” work (i.e. mining, manufacturing), agriculture, transportation and utilities dropped from 34.5% to 19%. As Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show, the highest-growth employment categories—the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) and non-governmental service sectors— together with wholesale and retail work now occupy 46.9% of the U.S. workforce.
The reality is startling: an increasing portion of the tasks the American workforce has come to perform over the past four decades now contributes little, if anything, to the reproduction of the bases of common life. In an attempt to explain how this could have happened, Graeber rightly pointed to the so-called “productivity paradox.” By conventional measures, productivity in the U.S. had more than doubled between 1979 and 2018, while hourly wages rose only 9 percent in same period, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis data. In spite of the supposed beneficence of market innovation, the paradox has persisted in the U.S. and elsewhere, puzzling economists and business leaders all the while.
Most ‘post-work’ accounts offer a simple, if inconvenient, answer to this puzzle. Parallel to the decoupling of productivity from wages, a sizeable portion of work has become largely automated. Meanwhile, instead of pursuing a continued reduction of the workweek from the 40-hour standard (a victory of the early 20th century labor movements), new forms of work have been created. Obscured by the near-constant pace of technological change and disguised as economic dynamism, ‘superfluous labor’ crept into the picture.
These new forms of work, Graeber argued, are less efficient than its defenders imply. However, we lack adequate language and recognized rubrics to evaluate the various social benefits of different forms of work. Graeber’s analysis of Bullshit Jobs therefore needs further development.
Revising the post-war history of work
Marxist-influenced “post-work” analysis has rightly pointed to the wage-productivity gap of the past four decades, asking where the surplus actually went. Agriculture, after all, once occupying the majority of all work, now accounts for just 2% of jobs in the U.K. and 1.5% in the U.S. A similar effect, as Aaron Bastani writes in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, has reshaped post-war manufacturing—a fact which globalization has only obscured. Relative manufacturing output in the U.S. has actually increased since the 1970s, even as the labor required has fallen dramatically:
“Between 1997 and 2005 that trend [in productivity] only continued to accelerate with US manufacturing output increasing by another 60 per cent while almost 4 million more jobs in the sector disappeared…a major rise in productivity allowed industry to produce more with less.”
These dynamics are not limited to the “developed” world, with “the share of workers actually employed in manufacture…declining for almost two decades at the global level.” Charting the staggering rise of industrial automation worldwide, Bastani reports that the deployment of industrial robots grew from around 1,000 in 1970 to the explosive figure of 1.8 million by 2016. And between 1983 and 2003, “information technology and robotics allowed the US steel industry to increase output from 75 to 125 million tonnes while the number of workers declined from 289,000 to 74,000…”
These unrealized productivity gains present since the 1970s indict neoliberal orthodoxy. As Bastani warns, we cannot expect to stumble into techno-utopia without a more resolute politics—if it were true, post-industrial societies should likely be far closer to that vision than most of us realize. So-called “labor-saving” technologies will not, on their own, produce any promised reduction of work required by society at large to meet their needs—an insight now over 150 years old, attributable to Karl Marx himself.
Accumulating Competitive Practices
In Capital, Marx noted how the innovations of the early industrial revolution failed to yield an enduring market advantage even for business owners. In effect, they served only to speed up work processes as they proliferate via market competition. As one competitor’s advantage prompts industry-wide catch-up, standards of necessary labor-time are universalized, and driven down. “This extra surplus-value vanishes”, Marx wrote, “as soon as the new method of production is generalized”. And furthermore, “if a quantity of commodities remains unsold… [t]he effect is the same as if each individual…had expended more labor-time on his particular product than was socially-necessary.” In such instances the “vanished” value is waste: labor and resources spent on unusable commodities.
Today, “innovation” is upheld as one of capitalism’s essential virtues. But having extracted value from productivity-enhancing machines and processes for decades, capitalist innovation has now migrated into a range of practices totally extraneous to production. By the same process of competition, new industries and non-productive corporate practices are spun off and become normalized. Socially valuable work is displaced, with Bullshit jobs as the result.
A whole range of competitive practices—marketing and advertising, consulting, endless product variation—now only increase the socially necessary labor-time required for goods to be distributed and consumed. With an increasing portion of society’s total labor and resources increasingly trapped in bloated corporate competition, the supposed benefits of market competition are being outweighed by the value lost to them. Constrained by full-employment policies, market forces act exactly as expected. With ruthless efficiency, new opportunities are found for the extraction of surplus value to serve shareholders and CEOs. Real value “vanishes” within the elaborate array of mutually-exhaustive corporate practices— just as Marx described. John Maynard Keynes predicted an eventual 15-hour workweek, but this absurd regime of bullshit make-work is something he never fathomed.
The notion that ever-increasing job growth is always socially beneficial is not only ridiculous, but, in the context of climate change and global pandemics, dangerous. Until we can see beyond the employment paradigm, rallying cries on both sides of the Atlantic to “build back better” will ring hollow, offering only a return to the inefficient, unequal status quo.