The coronavirus pandemic has absolutely blown apart many myths long perpetuated by a capitalist system very much in full influence of the media – but it has also brought to the forefront the concept of “bullshit jobs,” in contrast to work with social impact.
One of the things we explored in our 2015 guerrilla documentary Return to Doncatraz was the deliberately false narrative of the Conservative government that “austerity” was an unavoidable burden shared by a country “all in it together.” The financial sector they had already deregulated in the 1980s – and that New Labour refused to re-regulate once in power – massively contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, at a time when the Conservatives were actually finding themselves having to agree to continue New Labour’s public spending levels. The note left behind by the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury to his successor, stating “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money” – made infamous by the media – was in fact a wonderful gift to the incoming Con/Dem coalition government, as they were able to abandon the aforementioned public spending plans and portray New Labour as a recklessly overspending party in power, rather than caught up in a global economic crisis that saw a £1.5 trillion bank bail-out here in Britain while investment bank Goldman Sachs openly admitted to defrauding investors during the financial crisis that saw many of their high profile personnel make profits of billions of dollars from “betting” on a collapse in the subprime market and shorting mortgage-related securities, and Goldman Sachs bonuses were equal to the combined earnings of the world’s 224,000,000 poorest people.
But the false narrative continued: “there’s no money left” because New Labour had “maxed out the credit card.” The long, drawn-out period of Labour without a leader, and thus without a vision never mind a counter-narrative, only further created a vacuum filled by stories in the press and Tory politicians talking about a cash-strapped country needing to “balance the books” and harking back to Margaret Thatcher’s absurd analogies of corner shop accountancy. Meanwhile, the financial sector that had already helped cause the financial crisis continued casino capitalism business as usual, and the very rich only saw their wealth actually increase – all the while community centres were closed down, libraries were forced to rely on voluntary labour, and the NHS was opened up to privatisation (with £15 billion of NHS contracts handed to private companies). A hedge fund firm called TCI Fund Management did just fine too, and one of its partners, former Goldman Sachs analyst Rishi Sunak, set up a brand-new hedge fund company, Theleme Partners, alongside Patrick Degorce – who was ordered to repay around £8 million in tax after he’d been found to have used a tax avoidance scheme.
As Labour leader, Ed Miliband was a departure from New Labour and Blairism, but we were both in attendance at the “March for the Alternative” where he was speaking before a crowd to a chorus of boos, as funnily enough he wasn’t actually presenting all that much of an alternative, even as he was juxtaposed with property-damaging protesters in split-screen TV coverage the same day – yes, the corporate media were going to attack him anyway, but he had failed to mobilise those marching for a genuine alternative, and Labour weren’t well prepared to present one.
Our film’s attempt to raise awareness of the Tory lies over the economy and the danger they posed to our society, made one last try, and received over 3,000 views in just mere days before the election (more views than its prequel enjoyed in its 7 years online at the time), but it wasn’t enough. Ed’s talk about a “squeezed middle” rather than the actual browbeating of working class people suddenly being forced to rely on food banks to feed their families simply wasn’t tough enough, and the Conservatives retained power, this time with a majority, promising to end austerity with each election, then continuing it anyway with the next smokescreen diversion tactic (see: Brexit).
As the Conservatives switched from David Cameron to Theresa May, the passing of the torch meant also the perpetuation of the same old narrative: born out of a note declaring “there is no money,” to Cameron’s absurd false claims that “we’re all in this together,” so it came to be that Theresa May reminded her suffering citizens that “there is no magic money tree.” Sure, there was money for bankers and their bonuses, and there was always money for war machines – but such spending came to a screeching halt when faced with the calls for spending on community programmes or emergency services.
Without a strong and clear counter-argument prepared from Labour in opposition, the Conservatives masterfully applied “disaster capitalism” and exploited the financial crisis in order to not help the poor and the vulnerable, but instead ensure that the rich would retain and even increase their wealth, made on the backs of workers whose rights were eroded under Margaret Thatcher, ripe for exploitation. “The government isn’t the only one redistributing wealth. The financial sector does it too, but without a democratic mandate,” Rutger Bregman pointed out in his book Utopia for Realists. “The bottom line is that wealth can be concentrated somewhere, but that doesn’t also mean that’s where it’s being created. This is just as true for your former feudal landowner as it is for the current CEO of Goldman Sachs. The only difference is that bankers sometimes have a momentary lapse and imagine themselves the great creators of all this wealth. The lord who was proud to live off his peasants’ labour suffered no such delusions.”
We both moved on from Return to Doncatraz and worked on our own community initiatives such as AFC Unity and FreeTech Project, as well as this very website in the hopes of being able to freelance for like-minded groups and non-profits to apply our experience, skills and knowledge in contributing to work with social impact, and eke out an existence at the same time.
On this site – alongside our social media channels – we’ve emphasised over and over again that society doesn’t have to work this way, and that in fact there’s an overwhelming argument, with the rise of automation, to reconsider what types of working roles in society are actually needed and what are those anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” As we cited in the About section of this website, “For every pound earned by advertising executives, they destroy an equivalent of £7 in the form of stress, overconsumption, pollution, and debt. Conversely, each pound paid to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability.”
Graeber’s work has highlighted how bureaucratic workplaces over-managed and drowning in paperwork are counter-productive – literally: as we mentioned in our last post here, when work is required less, yet the system is hell-bent on us working more, bullshit jobs are inevitably on the rise, with the number of management jobs in the developed world having grown significantly, yet studies show that countries with more managers are less productive. Graeber has even linked the cultural backlash to management culture to the emergence of Brexit, in the absence of any other bold and radical proposals from Labour until Jeremy Corbyn came along, only to then be scuppered by the management class in his own party.
The idea that some work helps us while other work actually harms us, and that some jobs simply aren’t needed for a good society to function – as computer programmes and robots take on many tasks – led to us repeatedly raising the issue of how the system is designed, and whether an unconditional, universal basic income can possibly be far away, as jobs disappear and yet incomes vanish along with them, posing a threat to our very concept of a decent society where every person can live a dignified life.
The development of the latest global crisis – this time the coronavirus pandemic – has now not only finally destroyed the idea of government investment as anything other than an ideological choice, but also brought into popular dialogue discussions about a universal basic income and even concepts such as mutual aid, previously almost unheard of, and now seemingly talked about on almost every social media timeline and group chat.
With a lockdown on social gatherings and the daily work routine as we knew it, our streets are being mostly occupied by essential workers from travelling doctors to firefighters to trash collectors to parcel delivery workers. The managers are being sent to work from home – and they can. Many of them are doing bullshit jobs. Unbelievably, the same Tory politicians and billionaire press that perpetuated those lies about public spending are suddenly praising the raising of hundreds of billions of pounds to deal with the coronavirus crisis and its impact on the economy: yes, the Magic Money Tree™. It existed all along. Funny, eh?
It’s almost incredible to believe that a Chancellor of the Exchequer from a privileged background, who is so irrevocably linked to the financial sector that so perfectly represents greed (and bullshit jobs) is the one being tasked with managing the British economy through the coronavirus crisis – yes, none other than Rishi Sunak, the former “Head Boy” of Winchester College, Goldman Sachs analyst, and dodgy hedge fund guy married to Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire Nagavara Ramarao Narayana Murthy. (Again, Murthy didn’t make billions through his own hard work – it’s impossible for one man to earn a billion – he of course did it on the backs of nearly a quarter of a million workers.)
Apart from the stalling government approach we cited in our last entry here, already putting so many lives at risk with their initial Social Darwinist ideology (largely still in place given the lack of support for health care), the Conservatives have now decided to stagger their responses to this crisis – either, we can only assume, through sheer incompetence or, even more likely, via a strategic attempt to lower expectations as low as possible so that people anticipate the worst, only to then offer an additional albeit bare minimum of support with each daily announcement – which is what they’ve done, by ensuring first and foremost that the rich remain rich and that their property owning base are taken care of. Take, for example, the keen announcement of support for homeowners and landlords by suspending mortgage payments, even while the tenants were still expected to pay rent to the landlords; later on, it was announced there would be “rent relief” for tenants too (hurrah!): of just 30% (oh…shit).
But the billionaire press still cherry-pick from the announcements and run headlines about these measures as though they’re generous gifts from the gods, and commentators celebrate Rishi Sunak as a future Prime Minister, showing that disaster capitalists reinvent themselves and always capitalise on a crisis. The gullible few of us fawn over another corporate career politician pumping money in when they’d already spent ten years taking billions of pounds out and then even scoffing at Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans in last December’s election (remember that?).
In our case, almost all of our community work has been swept away by coronavirus – gone, ka-put. We experience bouts of despair and depression as we consider the grim prospects of filing for bankruptcy and possibly even hitting the streets and asking family or friends for shelter. After all, as self-employed people, we’re now expected to live off measly sick pay and then still pay 70% of our rent, and 100% of our bills. In short, we’re f***ed. And many more people are – in far worse ways than us. Rishi Sunak, in case you were wondering, isn’t one of them.
The implementation of a universal basic income alongside rent freezes would have demonstrated that everyone would be taken care of, starting with those at the “bottom” first. They haven’t done that. We hope they do, but we’re not holding our breaths. Even if they did do this, we’re still dealing with a Conservative government that will be hell-bent to at the very least go back in time to how things were before the coronavirus: yes, eroding workers’ rights, cutting council budgets, and privatising the NHS.
So what are we going to do about it? Protest? March in the streets? We can’t. How about vote them out? Oh, we can’t do that either – they only just gained power, so we’re largely stuck with them. Even local elections are being postponed. Democracy itself is in crisis. And when capitalism is in crisis, it reverts to authoritarianism. We need mass non-compliance: rent refusal and debt refusal, but all together. That’s tough to organise in this climate too.
But still, this is an opportunity. At some point, if us folks survive long enough, we’ll come out the other end of the tunnel, and we won’t have forgotten. We will have seen a glimpse of a world where we don’t need bullshit jobs, where money is no object, when in fact, heck, even money itself is being called into question with the emergence of mutual aid. We’ve seen it. We’ll remember it. And we’ll set about creating it. Promise.