Capitalism’s structural waste
One reason why we continue to work comparatively long hours, despite the labour-saving potential of modern technology, is the proliferation of many paid jobs that essentially contribute nothing whatsoever to our material well-being. They are, nevertheless, required simply to keep the money-based market economy ticking over on its own terms.
David Graeber in his 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs defines these loosely as jobs that, if you were to scrap them completely tomorrow, it would hardly make any discernible difference to the real world or to our standard of living. He noted in an interview that there is a certain delicious irony in the fact that while a Soviet-style system has often been held up by mainstream economists as grossly inefficient because of all those make-believe jobs it created to maintain the pretence of full employment, in a so-called free-market economy that is supposed to root out such inefficiencies, exactly the same thing has been happening.
In that book, Graeber invents a rather amusing and colourful lexicon of terms to describe the different categories of jobs he has in mind. These jobs are everywhere and multiplying like wayward bacterial spores in a Petri dish. There are ‘flunkies’, paid to hang around, like doormen or receptionists, simply to make their superiors feel important; ‘goons’ to harm or deceive others for some nefarious commercial interest like the ubiquitous lobbyists or telemarketers; ‘duct tapers’ to temporarily fix jobs that would be better, and more efficiently, fixed permanently; ‘box tickers’ that go through the motions of doing paperwork that appears important but is decidedly not; and, last but not least, ‘taskmasters’ who are either completely superfluous in the guise of superiors telling you what needs to be done when you already know what needs to be done or are otherwise known as ‘bullshit generators’ whose job it is to create yet more bullshit jobs and so keep themselves employed in their own bullshit jobs.
A great many of these bullshit jobs fall within the services or tertiary sector. This sector now comprises the great bulk of the workforce at least in the more economically developed countries and as stated, its growth has been linked to the concept of deindustrialisation. Some workers in the services sector – like nurses or teachers – of course, perform socially useful tasks but many others clearly do not.
The ‘tertiarisation’ of the economy strongly associated with the growth of such socially useless industries as commerce, finance and retailing is an expression of the evolving (and expanding) systemic needs of capitalism itself. However, tertiarisation in itself does not capture the full extent of capitalism´s structural waste since many apparently useful jobs in the secondary or manufacturing sector (and, by extension, the primary sector) have to do with providing products or physical infrastructure that are then used for socially useless purposes within the services sector itself.
These jobs don’t actually make us ‘better off’ in real terms. They don’t result in more socially useful wealth being produced and distributed around. However, the fact that more and more of us are doing them means that more and more of us are, in effect, dependent on economic transfers from the steadily shrinking part of the economy concerned with producing socially useful wealth to maintain what might be called our ‘real standard of living’.
Money is the mechanism by which these economic transfers are effected, but money is also the reason why they are needed in the first place. Bank employees shuffling around bits of paper called money (although these days this is largely digitalised) can’t live on the stuff. They have to exchange it for ‘real’ stuff – like pairs of shoes, takeaway pizzas, or a Toyota to drive to work.
This is equally true whether you possess a wad of cash or an electronic wallet of bitcoins. In both instances what we are talking about is just a symbolic claim to wealth, not wealth itself. Indeed, for all the current hullabaloo over the latter – the cryptocurrency of choice of money launderers and shady operators everywhere – society as a whole is not one jot better off. On the contrary, according to data supplied by the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency, bitcoin ‘mining’ consumes around the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019 (tinyurl.com/3yk9w3zw).
What an astounding waste of energy! And to achieve precisely what? Nothing except to boost some individuals’ symbolic claim to wealth at the expense of others. For that is all that it can ever logically amount to when you think about it. In themselves, bitcoins – or fiat money, for that matter – are completely worthless. How long would Robinson Crusoe survive on his island if that was all he had to live on?
Actually, the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ acid test is not a bad starting point for determining what we mean by a real ‘human need’ as opposed to a fake. We don’t ‘need’ money. What we need in this society is only (some of) the things money can buy – though a lot of other things our money can also buy we don’t really need at all either – what the counter-cultural philosopher Herbert Marcuse called ’false needs’ in his 1964 book, One Dimensional Man. These are systematically and subconsciously instilled in us as a way of better integrating us into a capitalist ‘consumer society’ that is then able to more efficiently repress and control us by manufacturing our consent, manipulating our inner desires, and generally soliciting our compliance with its core values.
Of course, banking or cryptocurrency transactions and the like are only a tiny visible tip of a veritable iceberg of structural waste that we are talking about. With fewer and fewer people involved in producing shoes, pizzas and cars and more and more people engaged in ‘socially useless’ (but capitalistically indispensable) work within the economy, it is not surprising that society’s overall workload has not diminished but increased. More and more people are employed today than ever before but, at the same time, more and more of these are engaged in work that contributes absolutely nothing to our material well-being. Consequently, from the standpoint of meeting our needs, we are in effect, as a society, having to run faster and faster just to stand still. That is, to maintain our real “standard of living”.
Indeed, this is the core argument that runs through Ken Smith’s thought-provoking book, Free is Cheaper (1988). According to him, capitalism or the ‘market economy’, from small beginnings at the end of the Middle Ages, has come to dominate life in every corner of the world. However, it has brought with it increasingly unacceptable costs:
‘The crime industry, war preparation, bureaucracy, the ”sales effort”, these and other non-productive activities absorb the efforts of nine-tenths of the working population and are growing faster than productivity itself’.
On the basis of evidence supplied by commentators such as Thorold Rogers (Six Centuries of Work and Wages, 1884) and Sir William Beveridge et al (Prices and Wages in England from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century, 1939), Smith came up with some quite startling conclusions. For instance: ‘it takes longer today for a carpenter or a bricklayer to earn the price of a pound of meat or a house brick than it did five centuries ago’. What accounts for this, he argued, is the ever-increasing on-costs – or transactional costs – imposed by the market system itself.
Smith arrived at a figure of 90 percent of the working population being engaged in one or other form of socially useless activity (from the standpoint of meeting human needs) by carrying out a fairly comprehensive sectoral analysis of the British economy as it was back then in the 1980s. A roughly similar figure has been reached by other commentators such as Buckminster Fuller.
That figure of 90 percent is probably on the high side. Most people who have looked into the matter would put the figure at, conservatively speaking, roughly half the working population or perhaps a bit more.
Much depends, of course, on how stringently you want to define ‘socially useless activity’. A luxury good, for instance, might be considered ‘socially useless’. Yet it is undeniable that ‘consuming’ it can afford us pleasure. The problem arises when the production of luxury goods reaches a scale that jeopardises the satisfaction of our more mundane and pressing basic needs by diverting resources and labour away from the latter to the former. So the question of opportunity costs – how much of a given resource should you devote to producing this particular product at the expense of producing more of some other product – needs to be factored into the equation. Additionally, there is the question of how you define a luxury good. Some goods that were once considered a luxury – like a car or a refrigerator – have over time come to be considered a necessity.
Nevertheless, the basic thrust of Smith’s argument is unquestionably on the right track. Even setting aside the example of the production of luxury goods, there is a very large number of occupations that can be unequivocally and categorically classed as ‘socially useless’ and, therefore, wasteful of society’s human and material resources. In fact, the full extent of capitalism’s ‘structural waste’ is truly massive, all-pervading, and steadily growing. However, it will remain completely invisible to the naked eye, so to speak, as long as the viewer adopts a standpoint that simply takes this money-based capitalist system for granted.
To really appreciate the enormity of this iceberg of structural waste, you have, as it were, to step outside of that standpoint, or way of looking at the world, and adopt instead, a standpoint external to the system itself. You have to imaginatively presuppose a hypothetical society in which money itself, as an institution, has completely ceased to exist.
Needless to say, in such a society a great many of the jobs bound up with the existence of money today – or what that existence entails –would likewise cease to exist. They would simply serve no purpose.