Herald: The next talk is by David Graeber, and he’s an author, activist and anthro­pol­o­gist. And he will be speak­ing about his talk From Managerial Feudalism to the Revolt of the Caring Class”. Please give him a great round of applause and wel­come him to the stage. [applause]

David Graeber: Hello. Hi. It’s great to be here. I want­ed to talk—I’ve been in a very bad mood this last week, owing to the results of the elec­tion in the UK. And I’ve been think­ing very hard about what hap­pened, and how to main­tain hope.

I don’t usu­al­ly use visu­al aids but I actu­al­ly assem­bled them. And the thing— What I want to talk about a lit­tle bit is what seems to be hap­pen­ing in the world polit­i­cal­ly that we have results like what just hap­pened in the UK. And why there is nonethe­less rea­son for hope. Which I real­ly think there is. In a way, this is very much a blip. Probably the most— But there’s a strate­gic les­son to be learned, I think, speak­ing as some­one who’s been involved in attempts to trans­form the world…at least for the last twen­ty years since I was involved with the glob­al jus­tice move­ment. I think that there’s a real…lack of strate­gic under­stand­ing. That there’s a—vast shifts that’re hap­pen­ing in the world in terms of cen­tral class dynam­ics that the pop­ulist right is tak­ing advan­tage of, and the left is real­ly being caught flat-footed on. So, I want to make a case of what seems to be going wrong and what we could do about it.

First of all, in terms of despair­ing. I was very much at the point of despair­ing. So many peo­ple put so much work, that I know, into try­ing to turn around the sit­u­a­tion, there seemed to be a gen­uine pos­si­bil­i­ty of a broad social trans­for­ma­tion in England. And when we got the results, I mean…there was a kind of sense of shock.

But actu­al­ly, if you look at the break­down of the vote, for exam­ple, it does­n’t look too great for the right in the long run. Basically, the younger you are, the more deter­mined you are to kick the Tories out. The core— Actually I’ve nev­er seen num­bers quite like this. The elec­toral base of the right wing is almost exclu­sive­ly old. And the old­er you are, the more like­ly you are to vote con­ser­v­a­tive. Which is real­ly kind of amaz­ing. Because it means that the elec­toral base of the right is lit­er­al­ly dying off. A process which they’re actu­al­ly expe­dit­ing by defund­ing health­care in every way pos­si­ble. [laughs]

And nor­mal­ly you’d say, Oh yes, so what. As peo­ple get old­er, they become more con­ser­v­a­tive.” But there’s every rea­son to think that that’s not actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing this time around. Especially because tra­di­tion­al­ly, peo­ple who either had been apa­thet­ic or had vot­ed for the left who even­tu­al­ly end up vot­ing for the right do so at the point when they get a mort­gage, or when they get a sort of secure job with room for pro­mo­tion and there­fore feel they have a stake in the sys­tem.

Well, that’s pre­cise­ly what’s not hap­pen­ing to this new gen­er­a­tion. So if that’s the case, the right wing’s actu­al­ly in the long run in real trou­ble. And to show you just how remark­able the sit­u­a­tion is, some­one put togeth­er a elec­toral map of the UK, show­ing what it would look like if only peo­ple over sixty-five vot­ed, and what it would look like if only peo­ple under twenty-five vot­ed. Here’s the first one.

Blue is Tory. If only peo­ple over sixty-five vot­ed, I believe there would be four or five Labor MPs, but oth­er­wise entire­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. Now here’s the map if only peo­ple under twenty-five vot­ed.

There would be no Tory MPs at all. There might be a few Liberal Dems and Welsh can­di­dates, and Scottish ones.

And in fact this is a rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­na. Here’s…if you look at the diver­gence, you know, it real­ly is just the last few years it start­ed to look like that. So some­thing has hap­pened that like almost all young peo­ple com­ing in are vot­ing not just for the left but for the rad­i­cal left. I mean, Corbyn ran on a plat­form that just two or three years before would’ve been con­sid­ered com­plete­ly insane and you know, just falling off the polit­i­cal spec­trum alto­geth­er. Yet the vast major­i­ty of young peo­ple vot­ed for it.

The prob­lem is that in a sit­u­a­tion like this, the swing vot­ers are the sort of middle-aged peo­ple. And for some rea­son middle-aged peo­ple broke right. The ques­tion is why did that hap­pen? And I’ve been try­ing to fig­ure that out.

Now, in order to do so I think we need to real­ly think hard about what has been hap­pen­ing to social class rela­tions. And the con­clu­sion that I came to is that essen­tial­ly the left is apply­ing an out­dat­ed par­a­digm. You know, they’re still think­ing in terms of boss­es and work­ers and a kind of old-fashioned indus­tri­al sense. Where what’s real­ly going on is that for most peo­ple the key class oppo­si­tion is care­givers ver­sus man­agers. And essen­tial­ly, left­ist par­ties are try­ing to rep­re­sent both sides at the same time, but they’re real­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the lat­ter.

Now I’m going to go through some basic polit­i­cal econ­o­my stuff in way of back­ground. And this is a key sort of sta­tis­tic, which is the kind of thing we were look­ing at when we first start­ed talk­ing about the 99% and the 1% at the begin­ning of Occupy Wall Street. Essentially, until the mid-70s, there was a sort of understanding—between 1945 and 1975, say. There was an under­stand­ing that as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty increas­es, wages will go up, too. And they large­ly went up togeth­er. This only takes it from 1960, but it goes back to the 40s. More pro­duc­tiv­i­ty goes up; a cut of that went to the work­ers. Around 1975 or so it real­ly splits. And since then, if you see what’s going on here, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty keeps going up and up and up and up, where­as wages remain flat.

So the ques­tion is what hap­pens to all that mon­ey from the increased pro­duc­tiv­i­ty? Basically it goes to 1% of the pop­u­la­tion. And that’s what we were talk­ing about when we talked about the 1%. The oth­er point, which was key to the notion of the 99 and 1% when we devel­oped that, was that the 1% are also the peo­ple who make all the polit­i­cal cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. These sta­tis­tics are from America, which has an unusu­al­ly cor­rupt sys­tem. But pret­ty much all of them— Bribery is basi­cal­ly legal in America. But essen­tial­ly it’s the same peo­ple who are mak­ing all the cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions who have col­lect­ed all of the prof­its from increased pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, all the increased wealth. And essen­tial­ly they’re the peo­ple who man­aged to turn their wealth into pow­er and their pow­er back into wealth.

So, who are these peo­ple, and how does this relate to changes in the work­force? Well, the inter­est­ing thing that I dis­cov­ered when I start­ed look­ing into this is that the rhetoric we used to describe the changes in class struc­ture since the 70s is real­ly decep­tive. Because you know, since…really since the 80s, every­body’s been talk­ing about the ser­vice econ­o­my. We’re shift­ing from an indus­tri­al to a ser­vice econ­o­my.

And the image that peo­ple have is that you know, we’ve all gone from being fac­to­ry work­ers to serv­ing each oth­er lattes and press­ing each oth­er’s trousers and so forth. But actu­al­ly, if you look at the actu­al num­bers of peo­ple in retail, peo­ple who’re actu­al­ly serv­ing food… I don’t have a detailed break­down here. But they remain pret­ty much con­stant. And in fact I’ve seen fig­ures going back 150 years which show that it’s pret­ty much 15% of the pop­u­la­tion that does that sort of thing. It has been for you know, over a cen­tu­ry. It does­n’t real­ly change. It goes up and down a lit­tle bit. But basi­cal­ly, the amount of peo­ple who’re actu­al­ly pro­vid­ing services—haircuts, things like that—is pret­ty much the same as it’s always been.

What’s actu­al­ly hap­pened is that you’ve had a growth of two areas. One is pro­vid­ing, what I would call care­giv­ing work. And I would include edu­ca­tion and health. But basi­cal­ly tak­ing care of oth­er peo­ple in one way or anoth­er. In the sta­tis­tics you have to look at edu­ca­tion and health because they don’t real­ly have a cat­e­go­ry of care­giv­ing in eco­nom­ic sta­tis­tics.

On the oth­er hand you have admin­is­tra­tion. And the num­ber of peo­ple who’re doing cler­i­cal, admin­is­tra­tive, and super­vi­so­ry work has gone up enor­mous­ly. To some degree…according to some accounts, it’s gone up from maybe 20% of the pop­u­la­tion in say, UK or America in 1900, to 40, 50, 60%. I mean even a major­i­ty of work­ers.

Now, the inter­est­ing thing about that is that huge num­bers of those peo­ple seem to be con­vinced they real­ly aren’t doing any­thing. Essentially if their jobs did­n’t exist it would make no dif­fer­ence at all. It’s almost as if they were just mak­ing up jobs in offices to keep peo­ple busy. And this was the theme of my book I wrote on bull­shit jobs.

And just to describe the gen­e­sis of that book, essen­tial­ly I don’t actu­al­ly myself come from a pro­fes­sion­al back­ground. So, as a pro­fes­sor I con­stant­ly meet peo­ple. Sort of…spouses of my col­leagues, the sort of peo­ple you meet when you’re social­iz­ing with peo­ple with pro­fes­sion­al back­grounds. I keep run­ning into peo­ple at par­ties who work in offices and say­ing, Well—” You know I’m an anthro­pol­o­gist, right. I keep ask­ing, Well what do you actu­al­ly do? I mean, what does a per­son who is a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, you know, actu­al­ly do all day?”

And very often they will say, Well, not much.”

Or you ask people—you’ll say, I am an anthro­pol­o­gist, what do you do?” and they’ll say, Well, noth­ing real­ly.”

And you know, you think they’re just being mod­est, you know. So, you kind of inter­ro­gate them…a few drinks lat­er they admit that actu­al­ly they meant that lit­er­al­ly. They actu­al­ly do noth­ing all day. You know, they sit around and they adjust their Facebook pro­files. They play com­put­er games. Sometimes they’ll take a cou­ple calls a day. Sometimes they’ll take a cou­ple calls a week. Sometimes they’re just there in case some­thing goes wrong. Sometimes they just don’t do any­thing at all. And you ask, Well, does your super­vi­sor know this?” And they say, You know, I often won­der. I think they do.”

So I began to won­der, how many peo­ple are there like this? Is this some weird coin­ci­dence that I just hap­pen to run into peo­ple like this all the time? What sec­tion of the work­force is actu­al­ly doing noth­ing all day?

So I wrote a lit­tle arti­cle. I had a friend who was start­ing a rad­i­cal mag­a­zine, said, Can you write some­thing provoca­tive? You know, some­thing you’d nev­er be able to get pub­lished else­where?” So I wrote a lit­tle piece called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, where I sug­gest­ed that you know, back in the 30s, Keynes wrote this famous essay pre­dict­ing that by around now we would all be work­ing fifteen-hour weeks because automa­tion would like, get rid of most man­u­al labor. And if you look at the jobs that exist­ed in the 30s you know, that’s true.

So I said well maybe what’s hap­pened is the rea­son we’re not work­ing fifteen-hour weeks is they just made up bull­shit jobs, just to keep us all work­ing. And I wrote this piece you know, as kind of a joke, right?

Within a week, this thing had been trans­lat­ed into fif­teen dif­fer­ent lan­guages. It was cir­cu­lat­ing around the world. The serv­er kept crash­ing, it was get­ting mil­lions and mil­lions of hits. And I was like oh my god, you mean it’s true? And even­tu­al­ly some­one did a sur­vey. YouGov, I think. And they dis­cov­ered that of peo­ple in the UK, 37% agreed that if their job did­n’t exist, either it would make no dif­fer­ence what­so­ev­er or the world might be a slight­ly bet­ter place.

And I thought about that. Like, what must that do to the human soul? Can you imag­ine that? You know, wak­ing up every morn­ing and going to work think­ing that you’re doing absolute­ly noth­ing if. No won­der peo­ple are angry and depressed.

And I thought about it and you know, it explains a lot of social phe­nom­e­na that if peo­ple are just pre­tend­ing to work all day. And you know, it actu­al­ly real­ly touched me. And it’s strange because I come from a work­ing class back­ground myself, so you’d think that, you know, oh great, so lots of peo­ple are paid to do noth­ing all day and get good salaries. Like, my heart bleeds, you know?

But actu­al­ly if you think about it, it’s actu­al­ly a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. Because as some­one who has had a real job knows, the very very worst part of any real job is when you fin­ish the job but you have to keep work­ing because your boss’ll get mad, you know. You have to pre­tend to work because it’s some­body else’s time. It’s a very strange meta­phys­i­cal notion we have in our soci­ety, that some­one else can own your time. So since you’re on the clock, you have to keep work­ing or pre­tend to be. Make up some­thing to look busy.

Well appar­ent­ly, at least a third of peo­ple in our soci­ety, that’s all they do. Their entire job con­sists of just look­ing busy to make some­body else hap­py. That must be hor­ri­ble. That must…

And it made a lot of polit­i­cal sense. Why is it that peo­ple seem to resent teach­ers or auto work­ers? After the 2008 crash, the peo­ple who real­ly had to take a hit were teach­ers and auto work­ers. And there was a lot of peo­ple say­ing, Well, these guys are mak­ing twenty-five dol­lars an hour, you know?” Well yeah. That’s…they’re pro­vid­ing a use­ful service—they’re mak­ing cars. You’re American, you’re sup­posed to like cars. You know, cars is what makes you what you are if you’re American. How would they resent auto work­ers?

And I real­ized that it only makes sense if there’s huge pro­por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion who aren’t doing any­thing, and were total­ly mis­er­able, and are basi­cal­ly say­ing like, Yeah, but…you get to teach kids. You get to make stuff. You get to [make] cars. And then you want vaca­tions, too? That’s not fair,” you know? It’s almost as if the suf­fer­ing that you expe­ri­ence doing noth­ing all day is itself a sort of val­i­da­tion of…it’s like this kind of hair shirt that makes you—justifies your salary. And I tru­ly hear peo­ple say­ing this log­ic all the time, that well teach­ers you know, I mean, they get to teach kids. You don’t want peo­ple to pay em too much. You don’t want peo­ple who’re just inter­est­ed in mon­ey tak­ing care of our kids, do we?

Which is odd because you nev­er hear peo­ple say…you nev­er want greedy peo­ple, peo­ple who are just inter­est­ed in mon­ey tak­ing care of our mon­ey so there­fore you should­n’t pay bankers so much. Though you’d think that would be a more seri­ous prob­lem, right? Yeah, so there is this idea that if you’re doing some­thing that actu­al­ly serves a pur­pose, somehow…that should be enough. You should­n’t get a lot of mon­ey for it.

Alright. So, as a result of this, there is actu­al­ly an inverse relationship—that I don’t have actu­al num­bers for this—but there’s actu­al­ly an inverse rela­tion­ship, and I have seen eco­nom­ic con­fir­ma­tion of this, between how social­ly ben­e­fi­cial your work is—how obvi­ous­ly your work ben­e­fits oth­er people—and how much you get paid. And there’s a few excep­tions, like doc­tors, which every­body talks about. But gen­er­al­ly speak­ing the more use­ful your work the less they’ll pay you for it.

Now, this is obvi­ous­ly a big prob­lem already. But there’s every rea­son to believe that the prob­lem is actu­al­ly get­ting worse. And one of the fas­ci­nat­ing things I dis­cov­ered when I start­ed look­ing at the eco­nom­ic sta­tis­tics is that if you look at jobs that actu­al­ly are use­ful, and let’s again look at care­giv­ing. Remember the big growth in jobs over the last thir­ty years has been in two areas, which are sort of col­lapsed in the term ser­vice” but are real­ly actu­al­ly total­ly dif­fer­ent. One is the sort of admin­is­tra­tive, cler­i­cal, and super­vi­so­ry work. And the oth­er is the actu­al care­giv­ing labor, the work where you’re actu­al­ly help­ing peo­ple in some way. So, edu­ca­tion and health are the two areas which show up on the sta­tis­tics.

Okay, if you look at these sta­tis­tics you dis­cov­er that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in man­u­fac­tur­ing as we all know is going way up. Productivity in cer­tain oth­er areas—wholesale, busi­ness services—are going up. However pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in edu­ca­tion, health, and oth­er services—basically care­giv­ing in gen­er­al, inso­far as it shows up on the charts, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty’s actu­al­ly going down.

Well why is that? That’s real­ly inter­est­ing. We’ll talk in a moment about what pro­duc­tiv­i­ty actu­al­ly even means in this con­text. But here’s a sug­ges­tion as to why.

This is the growth of physi­cians on the bot­tom, ver­sus the growth of actu­al med­ical admin­is­tra­tors in the United States since 1970. It’s a fair­ly impressive-looking graph there. Basically, that sort of giant moun­tain there is what I called the bull­shit sec­tor. There’s absolute­ly no rea­son why you’d actu­al­ly need that many peo­ple to admin­is­ter doc­tors.

And actu­al­ly, the real effect of hav­ing all those peo­ple is to make the doc­tors and the nurs­es less effi­cient rather than more. Because—I know this per­fect­ly well from edu­ca­tion, because I’m a pro­fes­sor; that’s what I do for a liv­ing. The amount of actu­al admin­is­tra­tive paper­work you have to do actu­al­ly increas­es with the num­ber of admin­is­tra­tors. Over the last thir­ty to forty years…you know, some­thing sim­i­lar has happened—it isn’t quite as bad as this. But some­thing very sim­i­lar has hap­pened in America in uni­ver­si­ties, that the num­ber of pro­fes­sors has dou­bled but the num­ber of actu­al admin­is­tra­tors has gone up by 240, 300%. So…hold on, more than that, actu­al­ly. So, sud­den­ly you have like twice as many admin­is­tra­tors for pro­fes­sors as you had before.

Now, you would think that that would mean that pro­fes­sors have to do less admin­is­tra­tion because you have more admin­is­tra­tors. Exactly the oppo­site is the case. More and more of your time is tak­en up by admin­is­tra­tion.

Well, why is that? The major rea­son is because the way it works is, if you are hired as you know, exec­u­tive vice provost or assis­tant dean or some­thing like that, some big shot admin­is­tra­tive posi­tion at a British or American uni­ver­si­ty, well you want to feel like an exec­u­tive. And they give these guys these giant six-figure salaries. They treat them like they’re an exec­u­tive. So if you’re an exec­u­tive of course you have to have a minor army of flunkies, of assis­tants, to make your­self feel impor­tant.

The prob­lem is they give these guys five or six assis­tants, but then they fig­ure out what those five or six assis­tants are actu­al­ly going to do. Which usu­al­ly turns out to be…make up work for me, right. The pro­fes­sor. So sud­den­ly I have to do time allo­ca­tion stud­ies. Suddenly I have to do…you know, learn­ing out­come assess­ments, where I describe what the dif­fer­ence between the under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate sec­tion of the same course is going to be. Basically com­plete­ly point­less stuff that nobody had to do thir­ty years ago and made no dif­fer­ence at all, to jus­ti­fy the exis­tence of this kind of moun­tain of admin­is­tra­tors and just give them some­thing to do all day.

Now, the inter­est­ing result of that is that…and this is where this sort of stuff comes in. It’s actually…the num­bers are there, but it’s very, very dif­fi­cult to inter­pret. So I had to actu­al­ly get an econ­o­mist friend to sort of go through all this with me and con­firm that what I thought was hap­pen­ing was actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing. Essentially what’s going on is just as man­u­fac­tur­ing, dig­i­ti­za­tion is being employed to make it much more effi­cient. Productivity goes up, the num­ber of work­ers go down. The num­ber of pay­ment that they…you know, the wages are actu­al­ly going way up in man­u­fac­tur­ing. But it does­n’t real­ly make a dent in prof­its because there are so few work­ers.

So okay. That we kind of all know about. On the oth­er hand, in the car­ing sec­tor the exact oppo­site has hap­pened. Digitization is being used as an excuse to make low­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty so as to jus­ti­fy the exis­tence of this army of admin­is­tra­tors.

And if you think about it, you know, basi­cal­ly in order to trans­late a qual­i­ta­tive out­come into a form that a com­put­er can even under­stand, that requires a large amount of human labor. That’s why I have to do the learn­ing out­come stud­ies and the time allo­ca­tion stuff, right. But real­ly, ulti­mate­ly that’s to jus­ti­fy the exis­tence of this giant army of admin­is­tra­tors.

 Photo of a large group of men at a construction site labeled with various management job titles who seem to be mostly talking to each other, clustered around a single man actually doing work in some excavated earth labeled "bloke from Poland."

Now, as a result of that, you need to have actu­al­ly more peo­ple work­ing in those sec­tors to pro­duce the same out­come, because they’re becom­ing less and less pro­duc­tive. More and more of your time has to be spent… Oh, yes. This is what the aver­age com­pa­ny now looks like. More and more of your time ends up being spent sort of mak­ing the admin­is­tra­tors hap­py and giv­ing them an excuse for their exis­tence.

This is a break­down I saw in a report about American office work­ers, where they com­pared 2015 and 2016 and said you know, in 2015 only 46% of their time was spent actu­al­ly doing their job. That declined by 7% in one year, to 39%. That’s got to be some kind of sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly. Because if that were actu­al­ly true, in about a decade and a half, nobody will be doing any work at all. But it gives you an idea of what’s hap­pen­ing. So, if pro­duc­tiv­i­ty is going down these peo­ple are just sort of work­ing all the time to sat­is­fy the admin­is­tra­tors. So the cre­ation of bull­shit jobs essen­tial­ly cre­ates the bull­shi­ti­za­tion of real jobs. There’s both a squeeze on prof­its and wages. Because more and more mon­ey is going to pay the admin­is­tra­tors. And you need to hire more and more peo­ple.

So what do you get? Well, if you look around the world, where is labor action hap­pen­ing? Basically, you have teach­ers strikes all over America. You have pro­fes­sor strikes in the UK. You have care home work­ers, I believe, in France. They had nurs­ing home work­ers, first time ever on strike. Nurse’s strikes all over the world. Basically care­givers are at the sort of cut­ting edge of indus­tri­al action.

The prob­lem, of course, and this is the prob­lem for the left, is that the admin­is­tra­tors who are the basic class ene­my of the nurses—and I believe in New Zealand, the nurs­es wrote a very clear man­i­festo stat­ing this. They said you know, the prob­lem we have is that there’s all of these hos­pi­tal admin­is­tra­tors, these guys. Not only are they tak­ing all the mon­ey so we haven’t got a raise in twen­ty years. They give us so much paper­work we can’t take care of our patients. So that is the sort of class ene­my of what I call the car­ing class­es.

The prob­lem for the left is that often those guys are in the same union. And they’re cer­tain­ly in the same polit­i­cal par­ty. Tom Frank wrote a book called Listen, Liberal, where he doc­u­ment­ed what a lot of us had kind of had a sense of intu­itive­ly for some time. That what used to be left wing par­ties… Essentially the Clintonite Democrats, the Blairite Labor Party… You could talk about peo­ple like Macron, Trudeau. All of these guys, at essen­tial­ly the head of par­ties that used to be par­ties based in labor unions and the work­ing class­es, and by exten­sion the car­ing class­es as I call them. But have shift­ed to essen­tial­ly be the par­ties of the pro­fes­sion­al man­age­r­i­al class­es. So essen­tial­ly, they are the the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of that giant moun­tain of admin­is­tra­tors. That is their core base.

I even caught a quote from Obama where he pret­ty much admit­ted it, where he said you know, While peo­ple ask me why we don’t have a sin­gle pay­er health plan in America. Wouldn’t that be sim­pler? Wouldn’t that be more effi­cient?” And he said, You know, well…yeah, I guess it would. But that’s kind of the prob­lem. We have at the moment what is it two, three mil­lion peo­ple work­ing for Kaiser, Blue Cross, Blue Shield, all these insur­ance com­pa­nies. What are we going to do with those guys if we have an effi­cient sys­tem?”

So essen­tial­ly he admit­ted that it is inten­tion­al pol­i­cy to main­tain the mar­ke­ti­za­tion of health in America because it’s less effi­cient and allows them to main­tain a bunch of paper-pushers in offices doing com­plete­ly unnec­es­sary work, who are essen­tial­ly the core base of the Democratic Party. I mean those guys. They don’t real­ly care if they shut down auto plants, do they? In fact, they seem to take this glee. They say, Well you know, econ­o­my’s chang­ing, you just got­ta deal with it.” But the moment those guys in the offi­cers who’re doing noth­ing are threat­ened, the polit­i­cal par­ties leap into action and get all excit­ed.

Alright. So, if you look at what hap­pened in England, well it’s pret­ty clear that the con­ser­v­a­tives won because they maneu­vered the left into iden­ti­fy­ing itself with the pro­fes­sion­al man­age­r­i­al class­es. There is a split between the sort of labor union base—which is increas­ing­ly unions rep­re­sent­ing very mil­i­tant car­ers of one kind or anoth­er, and the pro­fes­sion­als, man­age­ri­als and the admin­is­tra­tors, both of whom are sup­pos­ed­ly rep­re­sent­ed by the same par­ty.

Now, Brexit was a per­fect issue to sort of make the bureau­crats and the admin­is­tra­tors and the pro­fes­sion­als into the class ene­my. Now, it’s very iron­ic. Because of course, in the long run the peo­ple who’re real­ly going to ben­e­fit from Brexit are pre­cise­ly lawyers, right. Because they got to rewrite every­thing in England.

However, this is not how it was rep­re­sent­ed. It was rep­re­sent­ed your ene­mies— Well I mean, there was an appeal to racism, obvi­ous­ly. But there was also an appeal, your ene­mies are these dis­tant bureau­crats who know noth­ing of your lives.

The key moment in terms—where essen­tial­ly the Tories man­aged to out­ma­neu­ver Labor and guar­an­teed their vic­to­ry was pre­cise­ly by forc­ing Labor into an alliance with all the peo­ple like the Liberal Democrats and the oth­er Remainers, who then used this incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed con­sti­tu­tion­al means to try to block Brexit from hap­pen­ing. And it was fun to watch at the time on TV. We were all trans­fixed. There were all these guys in wigs and strange peo­ple called Black Rod and you know…in odd cos­tumes, appeal­ing to all sorts of arcane rules from the 16th cen­tu­ry. And it was great dra­ma. You know, it was like cos­tume dra­ma come to life on tele­vi­sion.

But in effect… And you know, it seemed like Boris Johnson was just being con­stant­ly humil­i­at­ed. Everything he did did­n’t work. His plans col­lapsed. He lost every vote he tried. But in fact, what it end­ed up doing was it forced what was actu­al­ly a rad­i­cal par­ty which rep­re­sent­ed sort of angry youth in the UK into alliance with the pro­fes­sion­al man­age­ri­als who live by rules, and whose entire idea of democ­ra­cy is of a set of rules.

This is very clear in America. And again, you could see this in the bat­tle of Trump ver­sus Hillary Clinton. Clinton was essen­tial­ly accused of being cor­rupt because she would do things like you know, get hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for speech­es from invest­ment firms like Goldman Sachs, who obvi­ous­ly aren’t pay­ing politi­cians that kind of mon­ey unless they expect to get some kind of influ­ence out of it. And con­stant­ly Clinton’s defend­ers would say, Yes, but that was per­fect­ly legal. Everything she did was legal. Why are peo­ple get­ting so upset? She did­n’t break the law.”

And I think that if you want to under­stand class dynam­ics in a coun­try like England or America today, that phrase almost kind of gives the game away. Because peo­ple of the pro­fes­sion­al man­age­r­i­al class­es are prob­a­bly the only peo­ple alive who think that if you make bribery legal, that makes it okay. It’s all about form against con­tent. Democracy isn’t the pop­u­lar will, democ­ra­cy is a set of rules and reg­u­la­tions and if you fol­low the rules and reg­u­la­tions, well, you know, yeah that’s fine no mat­ter… And these guys, that kind of moun­tain of admin­is­tra­tors are the peo­ple who think that way. And they’ve become the base of par­ties— They are the elec­toral base of peo­ple like Clinton, peo­ple like Macron, peo­ple like Tony Blair had­n’t been. People like Obama.

And Corbyn was not at all like that. He’s this per­son who had been a com­plete rebel against his own par­ty for his entire life. But what they did, was they maneu­vered him into a posi­tion where there had been a Brexit vote which rep­re­sent­ed sub­stance, the pop­u­lar will. And he was forced into a sit­u­a­tion where he had to like ally with the peo­ple who were try­ing to block it through legal­is­tic reg­u­la­tion, essen­tial­ly by appeal to end­less arcane laws, thus iden­ti­fy­ing his class with the pro­fes­sion­al man­age­ri­als.

And a lot of my friends who actu­al­ly were out on doorsteps you know, they actu­al­ly seem to think of Boris Johnson as a reg­u­lar guy. I mean this guy, his actu­al name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. He is an aris­to­crat going back like 500 years. But they seemed to think he was a reg­u­lar guy, and Corbyn, who had­n’t even been to col­lege was sort of a mem­ber of the elite, based almost entire­ly on that.

And if you look at peo­ple like Trump, and peo­ple like Johnson, how do they man­age to pull off being pop­ulist in any sense? You know, they’re born to every con­ceiv­able type of priv­i­lege. Basically they do it by act­ing like the exact oppo­site of the annoy­ing bureau­crat­ic admin­is­tra­tor who is your kind of ene­my at work. That’s the game of images they’re play­ing. Johnson’s clear­ly total­ly fake. He fakes disorganization—he’s actu­al­ly a very orga­nized per­son accord­ing to peo­ple who actu­al­ly know him. But he’s devel­oped this per­sona of this guy’s all about con­tent over form. And he’s just sort of chaot­ic and dis­or­ga­nized. So they basi­cal­ly play the role of being anti-bureaucrats and they maneu­ver the oth­er side into being iden­ti­fied with admin­is­tra­tion, rules, and reg­u­la­tions, and those guys who basi­cal­ly dri­ve you crazy.

The ques­tion for the left then is how to break with that. So I have what is it, fif­teen min­utes in order to pro­pose how we can break with that? It strikes me that we need to kind of rip up the game and start over. We’re in anoth­er world eco­nom­i­cal­ly than we used to be. And per­haps the best way to do it is to think about…well when peo­ple say their jobs are bull­shit. You know, when that 37% of peo­ple who say, If my job did­n’t exist, prob­a­bly the world would be bet­ter off. I’m not actu­al­ly doing any­thing.” What do they actu­al­ly mean by that?

In almost every case what they say is, Well it does­n’t real­ly ben­e­fit any­one.” There is a prin­ci­ple that ulti­mate­ly work is mean­ing­ful if it helps peo­ple and improves oth­er peo­ple’s lives. Thus, car­ing labor in a sense has become the par­a­digm for all forms of labor. And this is very very inter­est­ing because I think that to a large degree, the left is real­ly stuck on a notion of pro­duc­tion rather than car­ing. And and the rea­son we have been out­ma­neu­vered in the past has been pre­cise­ly because of that.

I could talk about how this hap­pened. I think real­ly a lot of eco­nom­ics is real­ly the­o­log­i­cal; it’s the trans­po­si­tion of old reli­gious ideas about cre­ation, where human beings are sort of forced to… If you look at the sto­ry of Prometheus, the sto­ry of the Bible…you know, the human con­di­tion, our fall­en state, is one where God is a cre­ator, we tried to usurp his posi­tion, so God pun­ish­es us by say­ing, Okay, you can cre­ate your own lives but it’s going to be mis­er­able and painful.” So work is both is both pro­duc­tive, it’s cre­ative. But at the same time, it’s also sup­posed to be suf­fer­ing.

So we have an idea of work as pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. So I was actu­al­ly look­ing at these charts. They’re talk­ing about the dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of dif­fer­ent types of work. Now, I can see where the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of con­struc­tion comes in. But accord­ing to this, you could even mea­sure the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of real estate. The pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of agri­cul­ture, okay. Productivity of… I mean, every­thing is pro­duc­tion. What’s pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of real estate, that does­n’t make any sense. You’re not pro­duc­ing anything—it’s land, it sits there.

Our par­a­digm for val­ue is pro­duc­tion. But if you think about it, most work is not pro­duc­tive. Most work is actu­al­ly about main­tain­ing things, it’s about care. Whenever I talk to a Marxist the­o­rist, and they try to explain val­ue, which is…what they always like to do, they always take the exam­ple of a teacup. They’ll say like…usually they’re sit­ting there with a glass, a bot­tle, a cup. They say, Well, look at this bot­tle. You know, it takes a cer­tain amount of socially-necessary labor time to pro­duce this. Say it takes you know, this much time, this much resources.” They’re always talk­ing about pro­duc­tion of stuff.

But a teacup or a bot­tle, well you know, you pro­duce a cup once. You wash it like ten thou­sand times. Most work isn’t actu­al­ly about pro­duc­ing new things, it’s about main­tain­ing things. We have a warped notion—which really…it’s a very gen­dered, right? Real work is like male crafts­man bang­ing away, or some fac­to­ry work­er mak­ing a car or some­thing like that. It’s almost a par­a­digm for child­birth, right? Because labor is sup­posed to be…the word labor” is very inter­est­ing, right? Because in the Bible they curse Adam to work and they curse Eve to have pain in child­birth. But that’s called labor.” So there’s the idea that fac­to­ries are like these black box­es where you’re kind of push­ing stuff out like babies through a painful process that we don’t real­ly under­stand. And that’s what work main­ly con­sists of.

But actu­al­ly that’s not what work main­ly con­sists of. Most work actu­al­ly con­sists of tak­ing care of oth­er peo­ple. So I think that what we need to do is we need to start over. We need to first of all think about the work­ing class­es not as pro­duc­ers, but as car­ers. The work­ing class­es are basi­cal­ly peo­ple who take care of oth­er peo­ple. And always have been. Actually, psy­cho­log­i­cal stud­ies show this real­ly well. That the poor­er you are, the bet­ter you are at read­ing oth­er peo­ple’s emo­tions and under­stand­ing what they’re feel­ing? That’s because, you know, it’s actu­al­ly the job of peo­ple to take care of oth­ers. Rich peo­ple just don’t have to think about what oth­er peo­ple are think­ing or car—they don’t care, lit­er­al­ly.

And so I think we need to A, rede­fine the work­ing class­es as car­ing class­es. But sec­ond of all, we need to move away from a par­a­digm of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion as being what an econ­o­my is about. Because if we’re going to save the plan­et, we real­ly need to move away from pro­duc­tivism.

So I would pro­pose that we just rip up the dis­ci­pline of eco­nom­ics as it exists and start over. [applause] So this is my pro­pos­al in this regard. I think that we should take the ideas of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, throw them away, and sub­sti­tute for them the idea of care and free­dom. Think about it, you know. [applause] Thank you, yeah.

I mean, even if you’re mak­ing a bridge, right. You make a bridge becau—as fem­i­nists con­stant­ly point out—you know, you’re mak­ing a bridge because you care that peo­ple can get across the riv­er. You make a car because you care that peo­ple can get around. So even like pro­duc­tion is one sub­or­di­nate type of care. What we do is, you know, as human beings, is we take care of each oth­er.

But care is actually—and this is, I think, some­thing that we don’t often rec­og­nize, close­ly relat­ed to the notion of free­dom. Because nor­mal­ly care is defined as answer­ing to oth­er peo­ple’s needs. And cer­tain­ly that is an impor­tant ele­ment in it. But you know, it’s not just that. Like if you’re in a prison, right. They take care of the needs of the pris­on­ers. Usually, at least. To the point of giv­ing them basic food, cloth­ing, and med­ical care. But you can’t real­ly think of a prison as car­ing for pris­on­ers, right. Care is more than that. So why isn’t a prison a care­giv­ing insti­tu­tion, where­as some­thing else might be?

Well, if you think about care, what is the—kind of par­a­digm for a car­ing rela­tion’s a moth­er and a child, right. A moth­er takes care of a child, or a par­ent takes care of a child, so that that child can grow and be healthy and flour­ish. That’s true. But in an imme­di­ate lev­el, you take care of a child so the child can go and play. That’s what chil­dren actu­al­ly do when you’re tak­ing care of them. What is play? Play is like action done for its own sake. It’s in a way the very par­a­digm of free­dom. Because action done for its own sake is what free­dom real­ly con­sists of. Play and free­dom are ulti­mate­ly the same thing.

So, a production/consumption par­a­digm for what an econ­o­my is is a guar­an­tee for ulti­mate­ly destroy­ing the plan­et and each oth­er. I mean, even when you talk about degrowth you know, if you’re work­ing with­in that par­a­digm, you’re essen­tial­ly doomed. We need to break away from that par­a­digm entire­ly. Care and free­dom on the oth­er hand are things you can increase as much as you like with­out dam­ag­ing any­thing. So we need to think what are ways that we need to care for each oth­er that will make each oth­er more free? And who’re the peo­ple who are pro­vid­ing that care? And how can they be com­pen­sat­ed them­selves with greater free­dom? And to do that we need to like, actu­al­ly scrap almost all of the dis­ci­pline of eco­nom­ics as it cur­rent­ly exists.

We’re actu­al­ly just start­ing to think about this. Because eco­nom­ics as it cur­rent­ly exists is based on assump­tions of human nature that we now know to be wrong. There have been actu­al empir­i­cal tests of the basic sort of fun­da­men­tal assump­tions of the max­i­miz­ing indi­vid­ual that eco­nom­ic the­o­ry’s based on, and it turns out…you know, they’re not true. It tells you some­thing about the role of eco­nom­ics that this has had almost no effect on eco­nom­ic teach­ing what­so­ev­er. They don’t real­ly care that it’s not true.

But one of the things that we have dis­cov­ered, which is quite inter­est­ing, is that human beings have actu­al­ly a psy­cho­log­i­cal need to be cared for, but they have an even greater psy­cho­log­i­cal need to care for oth­ers, or to care for some­thing. If you don’t have that you basi­cal­ly fall apart. It’s why old peo­ple get dogs. We don’t just care for each oth­er because we need to main­tain each oth­er’s lives and free­doms, but our own very psy­cho­log­i­cal hap­pi­ness is based on being able to care for some­thing or some­one.

So, what would hap­pen to micro­eco­nom­ics if we start­ed from that? We’re doing actu­al­ly a work­shop tomor­row on the Museum of Care, which we’re going to imag­ine in Rojava, which is in north­east­ern Syria where there is a wom­en’s rev­o­lu­tion going on, as you might have heard. But it’s in places like that where they’re try­ing to com­plete­ly reimag­ine eco­nom­ics, the rela­tion of free­dom, aes­thet­ics, and val­ue. Because at the moment, the sys­tem of val­ue that we have is set up in such a way that this kind of trap that I’ve described, and the grad­ual bull­shi­ti­za­tion of employment…where essen­tial­ly pro­duc­tion work has become a val­ue unto itself in such a way that we’re lit­er­al­ly destroy­ing the plan­et. And in order to actu­al­ly reimag­ine a type of eco­nom­ics that would­n’t destroy the plan­et, we have to start all over again. So I’m going to end on that note. [applause]


Herald: David, thank you so much. I think it's very interesting to also have some political views now that we mix in all sorts of technology, and it goes very good in the theme of Congress.

Please, if anyone has any questions line up by the microphones and we'll go for that. Unfortunately in the beginning I forgot to mention that you can ask questions over the Internet through IRC, Mastodon, or Twitter. And remember to use the channel #borg, and we'll make sure that they get answered. So please, microphone number one.

Audience 1: When you observe the productivity in healthcare going down, do you have an explanation according to neoliberal thinking why hospitals—one with more administrators, one with less administrators—don't have a competition outcome that the hospital with less administrators wins?

David Graeber: [laughs] Yeah… Well, one of the fascinating things about the whole phenomena of bullshitization and bullshit jobs is that it's exactly what's not supposed to happen under a competitive system. But it's happened across the board, equally in private sector and public sector.

Audience 1: Why?

Graeber Um…that's a long story. But one reason seems to be that…and this is why I actually had managerial feudalism in the title, is that the system we have…alright—is essentially not capitalism as it is ordinarily described. The idea that you have a series of small competing firms is basically a fantasy. I mean you know, it's true of restaurants or something like that. But it's not true of these large institutions. And it's not clear that it really could be true of those large institutions. They just don't operate on that basis.

Essentially, increasingly profits aren't coming from either manufacturing or from commerce, but rather from redistribution of resources and rent; rent extraction. And when you have a rent extraction system, it much more resembles feudalism than capitalism as normally described. You want to distribute— You know, if you're taking a large amount of money and redistributing it, well you want to soak up as much of that as possible in the course of doing so. And that seems to be the way the economy increasingly works. I mean, if you look at anything from Hollywood to the healthcare industry, you know, what you've seen over the last thirty years is a creation of endless intermediary roles which sort of grab a piece of the pie as it's being distributed downwards.

I mean I could go into the whole mechanisms, but essentially, the political and the economic have become so intertwined that you can no longer make a distinction between the two. So you have a prob— And this is where you go back to that whole thing about the 1% and using political power to accumulate more wealth, using your wealth to create more political power. You have an engine of extraction whereby the spoils are increasingly distributed. We get these very very large bureaucratic organizations, and that's essentially how our economy works.

Herald: Great. thank you—

Graeber: I mean I could talk for an hour about the dynamics, but that's basically it. You know, you could call it capitalism if you like, but it doesn't in any way resemble capitalism the way that people like to imagine capitalism would work.

Herald: Great. Awesome. Questions from the Internet, please.

Audience 2 [Angel?]: How to best address this caregiver class, when the context of the proletariat is no longer given to awake their class consciousness?

Graeber How to address the caregiver when the proletariat is no longer what?

Herald: Please repeat the question.

Audience 2: How to best address the caregiver class when the context of the proletariat is no longer given to awake their class consciousness?

Graeber Given to awake?

Audience 2: I'm not sure what they're asking about.

Graeber: Yeah. I mean the question is how do you create a class consciousness for that class? Yeah, yeah. Well, that is the question. I mean, first of all you need to actually think about who your actual class enemy is. And I mean, I don't mean to be too blunt about it, but I mean the problem we have, why is it people are suspicious of the left? And people like Michael Albert were pointing this out years ago, that one reason that actual proletarians were very suspicious of traditional socialists in many cases is because their immediate enemy isn't actually you know, the capitalist who he rarely meets, but the annoying administrator upstairs. And you know, to a large extent, traditional socialism means giving that guy more power rather than less.

So I think we need to actually look at what's really going on in a hospital, in a school. And you know, I use hospitals and schools as examples, but they're actually very important ones, because people have shown that in most cities in America now, hospitals and schools are the two largest employers. Universities and hospitals. Essentially work has been reorganized around working on the bodies and minds of other people rather than producing objects. And the class relations in those institutions are not…you can't use traditional Marxist analysis. You need to actually reimagine what it would mean. Are we talking about the production of people? If so, what are the class dynamics involved in that? Is production the term at all? Probably not. Why not?

That's why I say we need to reconstitute the language in which we're using to describe this, because we're essentially using 19th century terminology to discuss 21st century problems. And both sides are doing that. The right wing is using like, neoclassical economics, which is basically Victorian. It's trying to solve problems that no longer exist. But the left is using a 19th century Marxist critique of that, which also doesn't apply. We just need new terms.

Herald: Thank you, I hope that answered the question from the Internet. Microphone number two, please.

Audience 3: So, the question is basically to what extent can technology help? And the subtext here is there's actually really lots of projects now whose function at some level is to automate management.And to the extent to which that can be molded into removing this class that you're talking about, or somehow making it too painful for them to exist. Some of these projects are companies but some of them are very independent things that have very sophomoric ideas but with tens of millions in funding.

Graeber: Yeah. Well that's the interesting thing, that people talk about it all the time. But this is where power comes in, right? I mean why is it that automation means that if I'm working for UPS, the delivery guy gets like Taylorized, and downsized, and super-efficient to the point where our life becomes a living hell, basically. But somehow the profits that come from that end up hiring like, dozens of flunkies who sit around in offices doing nothing all day.

One of the guys when I started gathering testimonies—I gathered several hundred testimonies of people with bullshit jobs or people who thought of themselves as having bullshit jobs. And one of the most telling was a guy who was an efficiency expert in a bank. And he estimated that 80% of people who worked in banks are unnecessary; either they do nothing or they could easily be automated away. And what he said was that it was his job to figure that out. But then he gradually realized that he had a bullshit job because every single time he proposed a plan to get rid of them…they'd be shot down. He'd never got a single one through. And the reason why is because if you're an executive in a large corporation, your prestige and power is directly proportional to how many people you have working under you. So no way are they going to get rid of flunkies. I mean, that's just gonna mean the better they are at it, the less important they'll become in the operation. So somebody always blocked it.

So this is a basic power question. You can come up with great technological ideas for eliminating people; people do all the time. But you know, who actually gets eliminated and who doesn't has everything to do with power.

Herald: Great. Thank you. And last question, please, from microphone number five.

Audience 4: Can we maybe have one question from a non-male person?

Graeber: Yeah. That'd be nice.

Herald: Non-male person.

Audience 4: Oh no, now that person's just left. Do you want to—

Herald: Sorry, I am not choosing questions based on stuff. We're kinda choosing all around the hall.

Audience 4: Okay, have [fun?].

Herald: Please, microphone number five.

Audience 5: Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I heard that you… I really like your description of a paradigm, or that people are stuck on production and consumption, and that you would like to change the paradigm to a paradigm towards more care and freedom, etc. And for me it kind of sounds a little vague. And that's why I myself think of basic income as a human right, as the actual mean to break with the current hegemonic, macroeconomic paradigm, so to speak. And I was interested in your… [crosstalk] …point of view on that, basic income.

Graeber: My view of that. Ah. Yeah. Well I actually totally support that. I think that one of the major objections that people have to universal basic income is essentially people don't trust people to come up with useful things to do with themselves. Either they think they'll be lazy, right, and won't do anything. Or they think if they do do something it'll be stupid. So we're going to have millions of people who're trying to create perpetual motion devices or becoming annoying street mimes or bad musicians or bad poets, or so forth and so on.

And I think it actually masks an incredible condescending elitism that a lot of people have, which is really the mindset of the professional managerial classes who think that they should be controlling people. Because okay, if you think about the fact that huge percentages, perhaps a third of people, already think that they're doing nothing all day and they're really miserable about it, I think that demonstrates quite clearly why that isn't true.

First of all, the idea that people if given a basic income won't work. Actually, there are lots of people who are paid basically to sit there all day and do nothing, and they're really unhappy. They'd much rather be working.

Second of all, if 30 to 40% of people already think that their jobs are completely pointless and useless, I mean, how bad could it be? It's like you know, even if everybody goes off and becomes bad poets, well at least they'll be a lot happier than they are now. And second of all, one or two of them might really be good poets. If just .001% of all the people on basic income who decide to become poets or musicians or invent crazy devices actually do become Miles Davis or Shakespeare, or actually do invent a perpetual motion device, well you know, you've got your money back right there, right?

Herald: Great. Thank you so much. Unfortunately that was all the questions that we had time to. If you have any more questions, please, I'm sure that David will just take a few minutes to answer them if you come up here.

Graeber: Oh yeah. I could spend the rest of my life doing this.

Herald: Thank you so much David Graeber for your talk. And please give him a great round of applause.


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