Looking Forwards, Going Backwards
October 8, 2017 § 6 Comments
Once my Australian friend Nick began his new job in corporate, he started talking in jargon. Like, all the time. Midway through coffee a little while ago, his phone rang: ‘Okay, okay. Okay. I’m going to run the numbers in the hope that we can move the needle. Going forward, let’s take this offline.’ Nick was moving through a vague world of ‘actionables,’ ‘synergizing’ with his co-workers, and ‘jockeying for position’ with new clients for ‘outcome-specific goals.’ Asking for some sort of translation for this businessspeak was doubly confusing: most of the time, Nick answered questions about business jargon with more jargon. It’s not the inexplicability of the jargon per se, it’s that the closer you look at what a worker like Nick does for eight hours a day, five days a week, you see that the jargon more often than not comes to constitute the work itself. Organizing work and talking about work is the work.
In 2013, the activist and anthropologist David Graeber defined predicaments like the above as offshoots of the ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs.’ Writing in Strike Magazine, Graeber maintained that the decline across the twentieth century in jobs in industry and manufacturing occurred simultaneously with a massive increase in the administrative sector. Since the end of the second world war, we have seen ‘the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing,’ along with ‘the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.’ For Graeber, these jobs doubled back on themselves in an administrative loop. They existed for no reason besides validating themselves as valuable work.
Graeber’s article touched a nerve, and had as its implicit backdrop other cultural critiques of humdrum office life. Around the time of the millennium, social satires like Office Space and The Office began to appear on the cultural scene. There is a peculiar cultural fascination with the sheer inexplicability of corporate life. Beyond the tired jargon and acronyms, corporate situations were funny because the daily lives of office workers didn’t make much sense. Or, more accurately, it made sense to those countless souls working in offices already, who saw an image of their lives reflected back at them; for the rest of us, office life was simply perplexing, and therefore ripe for satire. Watching The Office, the viewer is drawn in by how the characters fill out the time of the day: congregating around the water cooler for a few minutes, playing jokes on each other, circulating emails that seem to contain little of value. Against a color palette of monotonous, endless grey, the denizens of The Office, in any logical universe, could seemingly complete their work much faster than the time for which they are legally contracted. A friend of my wife’s who works for a large accounting firm admitted that she could easily complete her fulltime job in one to two days a week. The trick then is to figure out ways to pad out the work until the clock runs down. As in The Office, the work of employees is narrowed to consultations, checking emails, and organizing meetings—essentially vague tasks made oddly legible in a world of increasing efficiency and key performance indicators. What was most significant is that the world of offices often only makes sense in reference to itself: emails are about setting up meetings, meetings refer back to past consultations, and consultations lead to more emails.
Is this what the great utopian thinkers of yesteryear dreamed of for the future? I’m not referring to the bleak dystopias of the twentieth century, but those optimistic utopias of the Victorians. In Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), Edward Bellamy constructed a futuristic utopia where all citizens enter an ‘industrial army’ at twenty-one, performing only useful labor for their working lives before retiring at the age of forty-five. After that point, people are free to pursue art, science, music, painting, or anything else that engages their interests. Against current preoccupations to limit the working day or the working week, Bellamy limited the working life. In Bellamy’s Boston of the early twenty-first century, labor is centered around the production of material things, the economy is centrally planned, and ‘service-industry’ jobs are almost non-existent. What’s more, as everyone has the same income, social distinctions have evaporated. Obviously, the year 2000 looked a little bit differently to what Bellamy imagined; if anything, the Y2K sensation made us wonder if our machine overlords could even get us to the new millennium in one piece.
The point here is not to lambast Bellamy for failing to predict that automation would most certainly not set us free, but to recalibrate our diagnoses of modern life with the aid of these sometimes-quaint utopias of the future. While Graeber doesn’t refer to the nineteenth-century utopians, his examination of bullshit jobs nicely pinpoints the inexplicability of corporate work. ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour [sic] when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?’ Graeber asks. Such jobs don’t exist in Bellamy’s Boston of the future. In contrast to Looking Backward, ‘work’ in corporate environments is more about managing the expectations of your superiors, understanding the internal dynamics of the office, and figuring out the business lingo that produces this bizarre world. If Bellamy’s protagonist in the year 2000 looked back at the late nineteenth-century, then it seems rather apt that we do the same in our current moment. But rather than critiquing the social ills of the Victorians, Looking Backwards can give us some indicators of what a future might look like sans bullshit jobs.
David Graeber. ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.’ Strike Magazine. August 17, 2013.
Edward Bellamy. Looking Backward 2000-1887. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.