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Anent the Phenomenon o Bulls**t Jobs: A Wark Threap

I the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predictit that, by the century’s end, technology wad be advanced eneuch that kintras like Britain or the Unitit States wad hae achieved a fifteen-oor wark week. The’r ivery raison tae trew he wis richt. In terms o technology, we ar brawly capable o this. But it didna happen. Insteid, technology haes been marshalt, gin onything, tae airt oot weys o makkin us aa wirk mair. For tae win at this, jobs hiv haed tae be creatit at’s, less or mair, pyntless. Thrangs o fowk, in Europe an North Americae in partícular, spend the hale o their wirkin lifes daein tasks they in hidlins dinna really believe need tae be duin. The moral an spiritual skaith at comes frae this situation is profoond. It is a scaur athort oor collective saul. But maist naebody speaks aboot it.

Hou is it that Keynes’ hecht utopie — at fowk wis aye gleg waitin on i the saxties — niver cam aboot? The staundart line the day is that he didna spae the muckle accress in consumerism. Fowk wis gien the chyce atween fewer oors an mair toys an pleisurs, an fowk haes collective-like waled the latter. This is fairly a bonnie story, but gin ye think aboot it for a mínit, ye’ll suin realise it canna really be true. Ay, we hae seen a fouth o new jobs an industries bein creatit sin the twinties, but gey few haes ocht adae wi the production an distribution o sushi, iPhones, or fantoush trainers.

Thrangs o fowk, in Europe an North Americae in partícular, spend the hale o their wirkin lifes daein tasks they saicretly believe dinna really need tae be duin

Sae juist what is thir new jobs? A recent report comparin employment i the US atween 1910 an 2000 gies us a clear pictur (an, I note, ane echoed aamaist exact i the UK). Ower the coorse o the last century, the nummer o wirkers employed as hamelt servands, in industry, an i the ferm sector, haes foondert clyte. At the ilk time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, an service workers’ tripelt, growin ‘frae ae-quarter tae three-quarters o total employment.’ In ither wirds, productive jobs haes, juist as predictit, been maistly automatit awa. (E’en gin ye coont industrial wirkers atour the warld, includin the trauchlin masses in Indie an China, siccan wirkers is no yet near sae big a percentage o the warld population as they uised tae be.)

But insteid o allouin a muckle tak-doun o wirkin oors tae lowse the warld’s population sae they can pursue their ain projects, pleisurs, visions, an ideas, we hae seen the balloonin o no e’en sae muckle the ‘service’ sector as the administrative sector, up til an includin the creation o hale new industries like financial services or telemercatin, or the unprecedentit raxin oot o sectors like corporate law, academic an health administration, human resources, an public relations. An thir nummers daesna e’en reflect aa thae fowk at’s job it is tae provide administrative, technical, or security uphaud for thir industries, or for that maiter the hale feck o ancillary industries (dug-washers, aa-nicht pizza delivery) at is juist there cause aabody else is spendin sae muckle o their time wirkin in aa the ither anes.

Thir is what I propone tae caa ‘bullshit jobs.’

It’s as gin someane wis oot there makkin up pyntless jobs juist for tae keep us aa wirkin. An it is here whaur the mystery bides. In caipitalism, this is exactly what isna supposed tae happen. Ay, i the auld inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, whaur employment wis considert baith a richt an a saucrit duty, the sýstem made up as mony jobs as they haed tae. (This is hou in Soviet depairtment stores it teuk three clarks tae sell a piece o meat.) But, o coorse, this is the kind o problem mercat competition should can sort, na? Gaun by economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seekin firm is gaun tae dae is gie oot siller tae wirkers it daesna really need tae employ. Somehou, tho, it happens yet.

As corporations gae aboot their fell dounsizin, it’s aye the case that the layaffs an speed-ups faas on yon cless o fowk at is actually makkin, muivin, mendin an uphaudin things. Throu some orra alchemy naebody can quite redd oot, the nummer o salaried paper-pushers aye seems tae growe, an mair an mair employees finnds theirsels — no unalike Soviet wirkers actually — pittin in forty- or e’en fifty-oors a week on paper, but in effect wirkin fifteen oors juist like Keynes spaed, sin the lave o their time is spent reddin or gaun tae motivational seminars, updatin their Facebook profiles or dounlaidin TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isna economic: it’s moral an political. The rulin cless haes figurt oot that a happy an productive population wi free time on their haunds is a mortal danger. (Think o what stertit tae happen whan this begoud tae kythe, e’en juist a bittie, i the saxties.) An, on the ither haund, the feelin that wark is a moral vailue in itsel, an that onybody no willin tae juist pit their heid doun an wirk theirsels sair for maist o their waukin oors desers naething, is by-ordinar haundy for them.

It’s aye the case that layaffs an speed-ups faas on yon cless o fowk at is actually makkin, muivin, mendin an uphaudin things. Throu some orra alchemy naebody can quite redd oot, the nummer o salaried paper-pushers aye seems tae growe

Ance, whan thinkin on the appearantly endless growthe o administrative responsibilities in British academic depairtments, I cam up wi ae possible vision o hell. Hell is a menyie o fowk at is spendin the bouk o their time wirkin on a task they dinna like an arna aa that guid at. Say they war hired cause they war braw caibinet makars, an syne discover they ar expectit tae spend a muckle feck o their time fryin fish. Nor daes the task really need tae be duin — at least, the’r only a gey limitit nummer o fish at’s needin fryin. Yet somehou, they aa become sae scunnert at the thocht that some o their co-wirkers micht be spendin mair time makkin caibinets, an no daein their fair skare o the fish-fryin responsibilities, that afore lang the’r endless rickles o uissless, badly keukit fish pilin up aa ower the warkshop, an it’s aa that onybody really daes.

I think this actually descrives gey weel the moral dynamics o wir ain economy.

Nou, I ken fine ony siclike airgument is gaun tae be met wi objections quick-like: ‘Wha ar you tae say what jobs is really ‘necessar’? What’s necessar onygate? Ye’r a anthropology professor; what’s the ‘need’ for thon?’ (An, deed, a guid wheen o tabloid readers wad tak the existence o my job as the verra definition o wastefu social ootlay.) An on ae level, this is obviously true. There can be nae objective meisur o social vailue.

Illustration o a screichin ape seatit at a dask
Illustration by John Riordan

I wadna presume tae tell a body at is richt shuir they ar makkin a meaninfu contribution tae the warld that, really, they arna. But what aboot thae fowk at’s theirsels convinced their jobs is meaninless? No lang syne, I got back in titch wi a scuil freend at I haedna seen sin I wis 12. I wis mazed tae discover that, i the meantime, he haed become first a poyet, syne the front man in a indie rock band. I’d heard some o his sangs on the radio an haed nae idea the sangster wis someane I actually kent. He wis obviously gleg, innovative, an his wark haed nae dout brichtent an bettert the lifes o fowk aa ower the warld. Nanetheless, efter a couple o unsuccessfu albums, he’d tint his contract, an, plagued wi debts an a newborn dochter, endit up, as he pit it, ‘takkin the defaut chyce o sae mony airtless fowk: law scuil.’ Nou he’s a corporate lawyer wirkin in a weel-forrit New York firm. He wis the first tae admit at his job wis haley meaninless, contributit nocht tae the warld, an, by his ain reckonin, shouldna really exist.

The’r a hantle questions a body could speir here, stertin wi: what daes it say aboot wir society that it seems tae generate a sair limitit demand for talentit poyet-muisicians, but a appearently mairchless demand for speicialists in corporate law? (Answer: gin 1 per cent o the population hauds in maist o the disposable walth, what we caa ‘the mercat’ reflects what they think is uissfu or important; no onybody else.) But e’en mair, it shaws that maist fowk in pyntless jobs is, at the hinder end, awaur o it. In fact, I’m no shuir I’v iver met a corporate lawyer at didna think their job wis bullshit. Same wi aamaist aa the new industries mentiont abuin. The’r a hale cless o salaried professionals at, gin ye war tae meet them at perties an admit that ye dae something at micht be considert interestin (an anthropologist, for example), winna want tae discuss their line o wark ava. Efter twa-three swallaes, houiver, they’ll breinge intil a screed aboot hou pyntless an stupit their job really is.

Yon is a profoond psychological violence. Hou can ye e’en stert tae speak o mense in labour whan ye saicretly feel your job shouldna exist? It shuirly canna help but gar fowk feel a byous sense o rage an resentment. Aye an on, it’s the gate oor society haes taen that the high heid anes haes figurt oot hou, as i the case o the fish-fryers, tae mak siccar that rage is airtit precisely agin them at actually daes get tae dae meaninfu wark. For instance: in wir society, there seems tae be a general rule that, the mair obvious is it that your wark benefits ither fowk, the less ye’r likely tae be peyed for it. Again, an objective meisure is a sair fecht tae finnd, but ae easy wey tae get a sense is tae speir: what wad happen gin this hale cless o fowk wis tae juist couk? Say what ye like aboot nurses, binmen, or mechanics; it’s obvious that gin they war tae vainish on a suddenty, the results wad be immediate an catastrophic. A warld withoot dominies or dock-wirkers wad suin be in trouble, an we’d e’en be mair the waur withoot fowk like science fiction scrievers or ska muisicians. It’s no juist quite clear hou humanity wad suffer gin aa private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR fowk, actuaries, telemercaters, bailies or legal consultants war tae vainish siclike. (Mony jalouse it micht weel impruive a guid bit.) Apairt frae a haundfu of kenspeckle exceptions (doctors), the rule hauds surprisingly weel.

In wir society, there seems tae be a general rule at, the mair obvious is it that your wark benefits ither fowk, the less ye’r likely tae be peyed for it

E’en mair contrair, there seems tae be a braid sense that this is the wey things should be. This is ane o the quate strenths o richt-wing populism. Ye can see it whan tabloids steers up ill-feelin agin tube wirkers for bringin Lunnon til a staundstill ower contract tuilyies: the verra fact that tube wirkers can paralyse Lunnon shaws that their wark is actually necessar, but this seems tae be the verra thing at fashes fowk. It’s e’en clearer i the US, whaur Republicans haes haen rare success at garrin fowk resent scuil teachers or car-makars (an no, significant-like, the scuil administrators or car industry managers at actually causes the problems) for their jaloused brosie wages an benefits. It’s as gin they ar bein telt ‘But ye get tae learn bairns! Or mak caurs! Ye get tae hae real jobs! An on tap o that, ye hae the bress craig tae expect middle-cless pensions an health care an aa?’

Ye couldna design a wark regime mair better suitit tae uphaudin the pouer o finance caipital gin ye tried. Real, productive wirkers is aye sair hauden doun an exploitit. The lave is dividit atween a terrorised boorach o the universally reviled unemployed an a muckler feck at is less or mair peyed tae dae nocht, in positions designt tae mak them identify wi the ootleuks an laits o the rulin cless (managers, administrators etc.) — an in partícular its financial avatars — but, at the ilk time, gar fowk tak a scunner at onybody at their wark haes clear social vailue. Nae dout, naebody gaed aboot ettlin tae design this sýstem deliberate-like. It kythed efter aamaist a century o trial an error. But it is the ae explanation for hou, maugre wir technological capacities, we arna aa wirkin three- tae fower-oor days.

This essay wis originally setten furth i the August 2013 outgie o STRIKE! magazine. It’s been pitten ower intae Scots for Mak Forrit by Jamie Smith.

Scots-til-English glossar

accress increase; adae to do; airtless directionless; athort across; aye an on yet, nevertheless; bouk bulk; brosie bloated; contrair perverse; couk disappear; fell ruthless; foondert clyte collapsed dramatically; gleg keenly (adv) and smart, brilliant (adj); hamelt servands domestic servants; hecht promised, forecast; kythe become manifest; kythed emerged; laits sensibilities, habits; lave rest, remainder; mairchless infinite; mense dignity; menyie a group; orra strange; ootlay expenditure; ootleuks perspectives; propone propose; quate secret; rare remarkable; reddin preparing, organising; screed tirade; spae foretell; trew believe; weel-forrit prominent