The more your job helps people, the less you're paid (and vice-versa)

In this spectacular, long interview with Salon, David "Debt" Graeber builds on his bullshit jobs hypothesis and points out the horror of modern American work: if your job does some good, you are paid less; jobs that actively hurt people are paid more; and no one seems to want a world where no one has to work anymore. But have no fear: it ends on a high note: a proposed "revolt of the caring classes."

I’ve said this before, but I think one of the greatest ironies of history is how this all panned out when workers’ movements did manage to seize power. It was generally the classic anarchist constituencies—recently proletarianized peasants and craftsmen—who rose up and made the great revolutions, whether in Russia or China or for that matter Algeria or Spain—but they always ended up with regimes run by socialists who accepted that labor was a virtue in itself and the purpose of labor was to create a consumer utopia. Of course they were completely incapable of providing such a consumer utopia. But what social benefit did they actually provide? Well, the biggest one, the one no one talks about, was guaranteed employment and job security—the “iron rice bowl”, they called it in China, but it went by many names. You couldn’t really get fired from your job. As a result you didn’t really have to work very hard. So on paper they had eight- or nine-hour days but really everyone was working maybe four or five.

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like. You get up. You buy the paper. You go to work. You read the paper. Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath… If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day. But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it. They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue. They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided. Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline. “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?” It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.

That ambivalence in the heart of the worker’s movement remains. Growing up in a lefty, working class family, I felt it all the time. On the one hand, there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible. But it makes it very difficult to organize, as workers, against work...

...Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.

But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, “well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work” – by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite—that they didn’t get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I’m not sure exactly how it happened. But it’s becoming something of a trend. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there’s now an assumption that if there’s work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn’t have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing.

David Graeber: “Spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded” [Thomas Frank/Salon]

(via Super Punch)