Calling all flunkies, goons, duct tapers and box tickers
Welcome to the wearying world of bullshit jobs
In a renowned 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted the lot of mankind a hundred years hence, and suggested that by 2030 we’d be working about three hours a day; we’d be wealthy enough to enjoy pursuits that had no real monetary value. Like reading tons of crime novels.Obviously that hasn’t happened, and is very unlikely to do so in the next 12 years. But how come?
David Graeber, an American academic and one of the leading lights in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, has a possible answer, and it forms the basis of his provocative and at times hilarious polemic, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Allen Lane). The book will only be released next week, but it is already an Amazon bestseller.
Graeber’s theory is that we’re not having those drastically shortened working days and are, in fact, working longer hours than ever before because of the huge rise in bullshit jobs: work that is pernicious and pointless, although we pretend otherwise.
Three-quarters of all jobs across the developed world, he states, are now in services or admin, jobs that don’t add anything to society. One immediately thinks of our hugely overstaffed parastatals but, as Graeber argues, these jobs are not in the public sector, but in the private, a capitalist environment now plagued by “managerial feudalism”, and he’s identified various categories of those who do them:
There are flunkies (human resources specialists, receptionists, personal assistants); goons (public relations specialists, corporate lawyers, call centre workers, lobbyists, marketing experts); duct tapers (computer programmers, technical types who maintain chronically faulty software); box tickers (journalists who work for in-house magazines, target supervisors, performance management officers); and taskmasters (middle managers, strategic leadership types, non-executive university deans, assistant localisation managers.)Critics do point out that, contrary to Graeber’s suggestion that work is unleashing “profound psychological violence” upon humanity, regular workplace surveys indicate that most people are, in fact, quite happy with their jobs. What is attractive about his book, though, is the case he makes for universal basic income.
“This would allow people to quit their bullshit jobs,” Emma Duncan suggested, writing in The Times of London. “I think it’s the best way of dealing with the revolution that artificial intelligence is going to cause. Right-wingers see it as a way of minimising government interference in people’s affairs. Anything that unites anarchists, the centre and the right must be worth trying — or complete nonsense.”
Following the recent historic summit in Seoul, Pyongyang’s Kim Jon-un is no longer regarded as something of a clown in South Korea, a porky tyrant who killed his way to the top by ordering the assassinations of several family members, among others. Suddenly, he is now a pragmatic moderniser and a global player.Thankfully, we have DB John’s forthcoming Star of the North (Harvill Secker), which has been hailed as one of the year’s best thrillers, to remind us of the true nature of North Korean diplomacy.
The plot’s fairly straightforward: a young American woman disappears without trace from a beach on a South Korean island. Years later, the CIA recruits her twin sister in a bid to uncover the truth and she goes undercover in the world’s most frightening country.
In an interview with The Times of London’s May Crime Club newsletter, John detailed how North Korean “warrior diplomats”, as Kim had labelled them, had in recent years used their embassies to smuggle contraband, such as hashish and heroin.“Today,” he said, “addicts all over Asia are getting high on crystal meth smuggled out of North Korea. So much about this country is stranger than fiction — but diplomats smuggling crystal meth? Even for a thriller writer this strains the limits of credulity.
“My novel Star of the North features a young North Korean diplomat. He (they’re invariably male) has studied hard at college to become fluent in languages and pass the diplomatic corps exam. What on earth goes through his mind when he’s ordered to smuggle crystal and deal it to foreign crime organisations? Naivety, loyalty, fear and disillusionment no doubt play a part. They are human after all. It was the dilemma I explored in a character in my novel. I’ve never met a North Korean diplomat. My experience of a North Korean customs officer was a sad affair. The officer at Pyongyang told me he was confiscating my paracetamol. Painkillers are impossible to obtain there. I pictured his elderly mother at home, and said: ‘Sure’.”
In order to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and boost its democratic credentials ahead of elections there in 2013, Azerbaijan’s government launched an iPhone app that enabled citizens to monitor vote tallies as ballot counting took place. Thus, crowed the regime led by President Ilham Aliyev, this technology would allow voters to watch the results in real time.Those who tried out the app ahead of the elections were rather surprised, however, that it gave the results the day before the polls opened. “In other words,” political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas write in their extraordinary work, How to Rig an Election (Yale University Press), “anyone with the app could see who had won, who had lost, and by how much, before any ballots had even been cast. When journalists asked how the government had managed this act of political time travel, the authorities back-pedalled, claiming that these were results from a previous election. However, this explanation did not stand up to closer scrutiny: the candidates listed were those contesting the current poll …”Azerbaijan is but one of several countries examined in this timely and eye-opening attempt to unravel a great political paradox of our times: there are now more elections than ever before — and yet the world is becoming less democratic.
Based on their firsthand experiences as election watchers and hundreds of interviews with presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, election officials and conspirators, Cheeseman and Klaas document instances of election rigging from Argentina to Zimbabwe, including notable examples from Brazil, India, Nigeria, Russia and the US –touching on the 2016 election.
They make the point that rigged elections are now the norm because they fail to topple dictators and despots, and in many cases elections actively help them retain their grip on power.
“This,” they write, “is because reintroducing elections typically enables embattled governments to secure access to valuable economic resources like foreign aid, while reinvigorating the ruling party and — in many cases — dividing the opposition. Consequently, a number of authoritarian regimes that appeared to be in their death throes have, with the help of the ballot box, proved able not only to win consecutive elections, but also to re-establish their political dominance.”Thus, if tyrants cannot lose at the polls, they can have their cake and eat it too — and boost resources and legitimacy while retaining a grip on power. There are, Cheeseman and Klaas suggest, six ways to rig elections, and it’s worthwhile bearing them in mind as we gear up for the 2019 polls:
Gerrymandering: in which voting district boundaries are distorted, so that opposition parties can end up with fewer seats even if they receive more votes.
Vote buying: the direct purchase of citizens’ support through cash gifts or, as is so often the case in our neck of the woods, a fried chicken happy meal.
Repression: preventing opposition candidates from campaigning, denying them access to the media, and intimidating their supporters.
Hacking the election: using digital tools to manipulate debate over issues or the result, which is what Russia attempted to do in the US in 2016.
Stuffing the ballot box: old faithful, a tried and tested method.
Playing the international community: the bamboozling of foreign observers and bribing of monitors to ignore various malpractices.
Interestingly, the authors do not consider “election promises to generate support”, no matter how unrealistic, as a form of rigging even though such promises do confer an advantage to incumbents who typically have far greater access to resources than opposition parties. Ruling parties also have the ability to launch advantageous government programmes as part of their election campaigns. It is probably best, then, to take the position that, where there are elections, there are frauds and cheats who wish to cause us great harm.THE BOTTOM LINE
“Why be a second-class Norwegian when you can be a first-class Muslim?” — Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad, translated by Sean Kinsella (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).