From Steve Jobs to Bullshit Jobs: Scattered Thoughts on the Politics of the Productive

At one point during Capital, Marx writes that ‘[t]o be a productive worker is…not a piece of luck, but a misfortune’. Today, popularisers of a postmodern Marx revolt against this misfortune with an assault on work in the name of a post-work society. But, in perceiving Marx’s misfortune as that of work rather than that of being productive- i.e. having one’s work organised in line with rule of value- they leave the capitalist logic to which work is bent intact, and thus the state of things they seek to overturn untouched.

Along these lines, this blog gives some scattered thoughts charting appearances of the productive in the debate on the possibility of a post-work society. It suggests that where Marx wrote of the ‘misfortune’ of being a ‘productive worker’, the contemporary critical imaginary of a world without work focuses on only one part of this formulation, seeking an escape from the status of ‘worker’ without a strategy for addressing the criteria of productiveness to which the worker’s status as such is subject. Work is open to question, but at the expense of questioning the wider circumstances that make it what it is in capitalist society: the rule of value whereby productive activity is structured by certain concrete social relations and produces certain abstract social forms in commodities exchanged by means of money.

In so doing I chart some rough outlines of how certain philosophical and political antecedents and possibilities chime with aspects of the current critique of work and proposals for a post-work prospectus, and how none reckon with productivity and productiveness as we find them in capitalist society- nor, crucially, the likely impacts of automation when depended upon to bring change without a programme of widespread, state-supported class-struggle to accomplish its aims- a consideration typically lacking in all such utopian vistas.

 

Productivity ninjas and post-work dreamers

In their appeals to a future of automated worklessness, popularisers of the post-work prospectus present a virtuous circle. The introduction and expansion of new technology towards automation, encouraged and supported by the state, results in an increase in productivity which provides an opportunity to free labour from production. The ‘freed’ labourers are then supported from a UBI paid out of the fiscal resources created by automation. But, mistaking a totalising crisis of social reproduction for a world of post-work opportunity, rapidly proliferating postcapitalist utopias see a way out of the present only through an escape from work. Although few, if any, of its proponents would appear to endorse the claim that post-work is also post-capitalism, the two are associated to such an extent that the struggle against work precludes a full appreciation of what it would take to overcome capitalism.

The situation whereby we cannot live except through selling our labour-power characterises capitalist society and, in its purported negation, any truly ‘postcapitalist’ society to come. Money, commodities and value, under the constrained social basis of consumption implied in the conditions of social reproduction specific to capitalism, arbitrate our access to the means of living. The criterion of postcapitalism is how far it breaks with this, and not with work alone. Humans produce in all societies. What is specific about capitalism are the social relations that undergird this productive activity and the forms it subsequently takes. Capitalist work produces and is produced by economic forms that mediate relations with the means of life. Postcapitalism can only be realised through addressing these dimensions together. However, current proposals of an automated economy producing a post-work society supported by the basic income might propose a break with work, but do not get to grips with what it would take to break with capitalism.

In eliding the form in favour of the content of work, the post-work prospectus chimes in with resonances past and present that on first sight seem quite opposed, but unite around a common thread of a fetishization of productiveness masquerading under the banner of a restructuring of work, without recognising what conditions and circumscribes this productiveness. Specifically, I’ll go on to suggest, we see this today in the mindful mindlessness of Silicon Valley cod-spiritualists. Advocates of a post-work society base their appeals on the idea there is a better use of our time, and so remain beholden to the frame of reference of the world as it is, where a finitude of time and a reliance on work to live requires us to structure our time based on what is most productive. This idea of ‘productiveness’ is not eternal, but completely internal to the logic of the very capitalist society they seek to escape. There is no other way to think about it than the one we have to hand, and yet the post-work prospectus poses the better use of it as a decisive break with the present. In this, it trades in the German Ideology for a facsimile of the Californian Ideology espoused by Silicon Valley ‘productivity ninjas’, carving out a life that allows the maximum productive use of our time. The shoes-off, shorts-on Steve Jobses and Peter Thiels of this world are the hegemons of contemporary capitalism, and this hegemony extends leftwards aswell as right. Thiel’s support for the basic income and so-called ‘technological singularity’ says it all: the equally expectant projects of a post-work society and a Zen-addled Silicon Valley lifestyle coincide.

This could be dismissed as a mere conceptual mess were its conclusions not so dangerous. These consequences are often unintended. ‘More Arthur C. Clarke than Karl Marx,’ as Jon Cruddas puts it, adherents are admirably concerned with the movement from work to leisure. The basic income, for instance, rests on a logic of providing more space for those activities considered more worthwhile. This is a mentality exemplified, albeit worded through an auspiciously ‘anti-work’ standpoint, in David Graeber’s much-hyped ‘bullshit jobs’ diatribe. This says: not all jobs are bullshit- just some. Implicit in the notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ is the assumption that, say, the academic who writes the critique has a less bullshit job than the holder of the administrative role the academic dismisses as ‘bullshit’, an assumption that crops up repeatedly in rhetorical assaults on the bloated bureaucracy of the contemporary university. Implying that the academic has a greater claim to exist than the administrator, such assaults propose to eliminate the administration, presumably resulting in the wastage of currently employed workers with fairly decent pensions, rather than address the deeper and more impermeable societal processes of rationalisation by which this administration is necessary at all. This elision weakens the resources of this kind of rhetoric’s intended critique of the work society, falling into a valorisation of certain kinds of work that is not oppositional to that society but immanent to it. It also reifies certain forms of work as sufficient unto themselves, as if the productive activity can be divorced from the sizeable infrastructure of capitalist organisation that supports it and still, somehow, survive intact. The concept ‘job’ makes sense only in its social context within this infrastructure. The non-bullshit job is non-bullshit precisely because it is supported by the very same bullshit jobs from which it is conceptually distinguished. There is a dialectic of bullshit and non-bullshit, in which we all find ourselves, the tenured critic of work included. To say otherwise is to potentiate a politics geared not only towards confrontation with bullshit jobs, but the ‘unproductive’ people who do them too.

The desire to optimize one’s time and that of others is not the only shared territory between Silicon Valley visions of the good life and the post-work prospectus. While postcapitalist utopians hang on the prospect of workless states fueled by free money, the start-up solipsists vomit great commensurable bodies of data about their every move through rapidly proliferating technologies capable of capturing some quantification of their selves. In this, they each indulge what Evgeny Morozov characterises as a tech-driven ‘solutionism’, solving problems that don’t exist only so as to create new ones that do. These solutions, whether free money or big data, are just so many ways of outsourcing the contradictions that confront them in their search for new concrete ways of living to new abstractions. This is similar to how contemporary populists and fascists flock to the pure abstraction of a national people united by the happenstance of blood and soil- a manqué concrete subject assailed by outside abstract forces- as a way of avoiding difficult political decisions about who should get what. This last, too, establishes a division between communities of the productive and unproductive. One possible monstrous shape to be assumed in future by this unholy trinity of the productive- post-work radicals, Silicon Steves and tinpot populists- may be ascertained in the new hipster fascism of the alt-right. Take, for instance, so-called ‘right accelerationism’. Recently at the centre of a storm around their scandalous reception in the London artworld, they seek not only the technological singularity chased by the post-work seminar circuit and the Silicon gurus, but a racial singularity with it. There is enough formal overlap to make one wonder how far these resonances will travel if clear theoretical and political firewalls are not quickly established.

 

Self-quantification and class struggle

There are routes through the basic income that rest less on a disavowed productivism that purports to escape work on the basis of a vilification of unproductive ‘bullshit jobs’. One such possible standpoint is that of Marxist-feminist scholar Kathi Weeks. Rather than a reward, recompense or redistributive measure based upon the creation of value, Weeks suggests a different basis. This is that the basic income and the lifestyle of greater freedom that it engenders should be viewed as a right. Conceiving it otherwise, as ‘payment for our participation in the production of value above and beyond what wages can measure and reward’, may offer a politically expedient argument from a strategic perspective. However, this perspective serves to draw upon and reinforce ‘productivist mandates’ that gauge entitlement based on contribution. Against such ‘productivist mandates’, Weeks poses an alternative. Here, what is supported (rather than remunerated) is the better organisation of life instead of work. The principle of ‘life’ at the heart of this approach may include productive activity but, importantly, is not reducible to it, neither for the sake of higher returns and profits. This principle invites a wealth of possibilities for the use of one’s time as desired. It is not predicated on the use of one’s time to generate some great immeasurable plenitude of cooperatively-produced value. It is upon this last implicit expectation that postoperaist exponents like Hardt and Negri, and their modern followers like Paul Mason, offer their projections of a possible basic income. Basing the provision of a basic income on the remuneration of production establishes an ongoing conditionality that offers no break with the status quo. Weeks’s presentation of the basic income as a right indicates a potential way out. In this sense, it is not up to the workers to responsibly contribute ‘productively’ to ‘the community’. The channelling of activities into new forms of work- a redirection of supply- resonates with the perspective of basic income as a ‘directional demand’ towards a new world in which the tasks of social reproduction can be more equally shared.

But the model of a basic income as it appears in the hands of many of those proposing it today- not all of whom are as sophisticated as Weeks- has the potential to see these hopes die hard. At its worst, it would fulfil the programme of right populisms and totalitarianisms through time by liquidating class conflict in production and moving the moment of struggle to the relationship of the individual with the totalising power of the state. In this respect, as Cruddas puts it, the basic income makes possible the self-destruction of the left and of the labour movement. Perhaps there is something potentially more emancipatory in the productivity mantras of the Silicon Valley seekers. Were he alive today, Max Weber would surely find much of interest in how their godless Protestant ethic, dutifully recording how time is spent so as to use it better in a secularised search for salvation, quantifies the unquantified and makes it measurable. But, in one sense, this measurement makes possible struggle over the extent of what is measured. This harks back to the debate between advocates of Wages for Housework with the apparently more radical demand for a basic income. The Marxist-feminist advocates of the former desired it for the reason that it brought women’s work in the home within the sphere of waged labour, bringing it under the forms of measure that allowed male workers elsewhere in the economy to negotiate and strike in pursuit of higher wages and better working conditions.

The ceaseless self-quantification of the productivity ninja, meanwhile, holds out the possibility that workers could harness new means of measuring their efficiency and increasing their time on the job to achieve the opposite: measurement in the name of less and better work, not more and worse. Where work can be quantified, it can also be contested, and its gains better redistributed through wage and productivity bargains struck with employers. In this respect at least, the Silicon Valley dream offers more to workers than their self-announced liberators in the nouveau-Marxist postcapitalist left. Where the networked tech-savants obsess over how to make their time and that of others most productive, policymakers in developed economies today confront a similar issue but on a national scale. Persistently low productivity is a major problem and barrier to growth. But working harder and more efficiently, whether by escaping bullshit jobs or emulating Steve Jobs, offers no route to this kind of productivity. What is needed is the means to endow workers with an emboldened hand in struggle. The productivity increases presupposed in the unfolding of the post-work society flow from this and not before it. Far from the apparently more radical post-work prospectus, it may be, then, its safer Silicon Valley equivalent that offers the better road forward in a world with few other options. Where one productive utopia- a post-work society- promises, in the name of radical change, only to falsely resolve class struggle with free money- another- the way of the productivity ninja- cares little for radical change but does, unwittingly, keep open the possibility of class struggle through the greater means it generates for the measurement and recording of working hours as a focus for industrial dispute. It is only through this circuitous route that either conceptualisation of the future truly comes to terms with the crucial question of productivity confronting capitalist economies in the contemporary age, which is at once a question of class struggle.

 

New boss worse than the old boss

Some question whether automation will actually result in technological employment on which the post-work prospectus is presupposed, and to which the prescription of a basic income is proposed the answer. Over the 20th and 21st century, machines have disciplined workers as much as liberated them. Recently, apocalyptic projections have issued from economists. Some suggest a 47% decline in jobs as a result of technological unemployment. But the methodology of these accounts is contested. For instance, others suggest a less dramatic 9% decline across OECD economies. This might be taken to relate to the persistently low productivity experienced by Western economies- a problem particularly acute in the UK. In light of this uncertainty, and the erosion of some of the ways of addressing it implicit in the utopian vistas offered, it seems there are two scenarios variously haunting or exciting the imaginaries of those occupied on this terrain. In one, automation frees, from the bottom up, the lowest paid, most precarious workers from bullshit jobs, their wages replaced by a basic income paid from the taxes of the benevolent class of intellectuals and technicians who remain in work, in which will surely sit the Silicon Valley set and the selfsame academics and journalists who currently sell this vista to the left. They would function something like the philanthropists German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk places at the centre of his controversial reimagining of the welfare state along the principles of Bataille’s ‘general economy’, in which the majority exist in a state of supported worklessness whilst a rich minority produce and profit for the better good.[1]

Indeed, the basic income rests on precisely such a social basis surviving the transition to a post-work society, proposing slender other means to finance the provision of free money such as a radical restructuring of property relations or sovereign wealth funds, for instance. We are led to assume the persistence of the traditional system of tax and spend on which welfare states have typically depended. Sloterdijk somewhat sarcastically suggests that the enslavement, through a combination of philanthropy and taxation, of a small core group of wealthy workers would be one possible solution to the crisis of social democracy in an age of declining resources and consent with which to enact progressive policies for social change. A reliance on the well-wishing hard-working rich is, on this count, the logical conclusion of social democracy’s search for a new social basis in the absence of any of the certainties of life and labour on which it once rested.

In a political climate defined by the fomented distaste of imaginary peoples for imaginary unproductive, leeching elites, this enslavement is surely the perfect settlement for a new coalition of the productive- post-work dreamers, Silicon schemers, and deal-making, skyrise-building populists- however much it would expose the contradictoriness of political appeals to productivity. In the dreams of the former, those who enjoy non-bullshit jobs would slave in favour of the masses newly liberated from their bullshit equivalents, and, as Sloterdijk suggests, gain pleasure not through profit alone but from the space missions, vertical gardens and driverless highways established in their name, a twenty-first century update on the libraries and institutes erected in the name of Victorian industrialists. Perhaps it is precisely this sense of imminent saviourhood that so attracts this vista’s proponents, their professions gifted by an irreducible human creativity resistant to the automation awaiting the menial masses.

However, another, equally appealing, scenario confronts the prophets of perfectly productive post-work society. Those with non-bullshit jobs are presented with the prospect that it is they who will be automated first, a reward paid to the most productive. Their enthusiasm for time spent more wisely, supported by the provision of a basic income for those expelled from production by machines, may after all say more about their anxiety about their own imminent demise than that of others. Today robots and algorithms write conference abstracts, file sports reports and check legal copy. Perhaps this is why the overwhelming portion of the support for the post-work, postcapitalist scenario of automated worklessness resounds from those working in the media, academia and cognate fields. The kinds of things they like doing promise some continuity from paid employment to free activity. The prize, should these hegemonic actors apply pressure in the right parts of the public psyche and political process, is emancipation from the compulsion to labour with retention of all the cultural and social benefits their previous non-bullshit working lives conferred, lording it up whilst others labour to serve.

In this second scenario, then, one section of society is liberated immediately and swiftly from non-bullshit jobs, whilst another section sit frozen in aspic, as automation sets in through stages each successively more drawn-out than that previous, a new society inaugurated to which the remaining service workers find themselves as indispensable as they were to the last, lest the newly liberated post-labourers spoil their free time with unproductive tasks of social reproduction, but with no attendant increase in bargaining power in line with their necessity.

By not reckoning with the contradictory outcomes the topsy-turvy, inside-out totality of capitalist social relations will surely deliver us in due course, the coalition of the productive seem all set to seal the future up for themselves either way. But those getting paid for so-called ‘bullshit’ jobs smell something’s up. Perhaps this is why, on the one occasion where people were directly given a choice to vote in a plebiscite on the basic income, in Switzerland two years ago, they turned it down, not to mention the many minor political platforms in which it plays a part that voting publics have rejected before and since- the latest and most significant being the lacklustre campaign of Benoit Hamon in France, its appeal to young voters crafted around the false promise of the automated-basic income-workfree future detailed here. Speaking only to itself and not to others, the groundswell of informed opinion behind such ideas has some way to go before it can convincingly connect with those whose jobs it brands ‘bullshit’, no matter how bullshit the reality of those jobs may be. The question is begged: What about if we’re better off in bullshit jobs after all? Having a job you chafe against affords autonomy and distance a job you love does not. In a bullshit job, you can have a hangover on the firm’s time and not your own. The non-bullshit job, for which satisfaction is enough alone to reward us, runs the risk of rounding off any rough edges of revolt and recruits our heart and soul to work alongside our hands and heads. Moreover, twinned with the basic income, this future vista of fulfilled activity remains perilous insofar as it changes the social relation under which we get paid from one based around the wage to a direct relationship of power between citizen and state, in the process liquidating the legal forms through which class struggle today stands the best chance of succeeding.

 

[1] This is sketched in Sloterdijk, P., 2012. Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. New York: Columbia University Press. For a summary see Zizek, S., 2010. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, pp. 236-40