There are two stubborn odours in every knowledge workplace of the present. The first comes from the kitchenette; microwaved puttanesca from last June. The second comes from your armpits. Or, at least, it did from mine. Every time “change” was ordered from upstairs, I knew what to expect: no change, preceded by a week of meetings about how to have better meetings, with a guest appearance by a Maverick in a TEDx cap.
The Maverick was a “change consultant”. He was paid to uphold the delusion that we, the marketing department for a financial services company (yes, I’m going to hell), were making change. He said, “think outside outside the box”. He mentioned diversity and neuroscience several times, and is the chief reason I am unable to watch Todd Sampson on TV. I try not to think about him, and that peppy nightmare of a job.
But there are many Mavericks, working hard to deliver the message of change while ensuring the reality of stasis.
In a popular article this week, The New York Times offers “End of Apartheid in South Africa? Not in Economic Terms“. Let’s leave aside that US is yet to deliver on the promise of equality made to its new black citizens in 1865, and ask: when will this paper stop writing about inequality as a glitch constituted by prejudice alone, instead of a rising problem felt by citizens of all nations not named China?
Probably when they stop printing the columns of Paul Krugman, which use a form of modelling called dynamic stochastic general equilibrium (DSGE). I can’t pretend to understand anything with a name that long, but apparently it allows an economist to believe that the disaster of 2007-’08 really didn’t have much to do with big banks. In other words, it was a few naughty shadow banks who tanked the economy; a few racist people responsible for poverty.
Krugman and his paper are wont to say that individual actors need to change. These neoclassical presumptions — people are imbalanced, never an economy now ruled by lenders shown to deliver growth only to themselves — means that nothing changes.
Maverick gave us standing desks, reputed to be the “change” that would prevent our early death. (This claim is baseless. Standing desks, however, made me briefly consider the benefits of early death.) The only real change required from us was to look as though we had changed.
The anthropologist David Graeber would have called what I was doing then a “bullshit job”. Which is to say, I produced almost nothing. Graeber attributes this Western rise in pointless work to the neoliberal turn. We outsourced productive work to the nations we had made dependent on our lending, so we wrote unproductive copy for the finance sector. Which would have ruled despotically without us.
Clerical, administrative and managerial roles have trebled in the West since our parents downed tools, and handed them to the workers of the Global South. Now, many of us have jobs so useless, even the robots don’t want them.
Krugman does a bullshit job. Christine Lagarde does, too. She came over all Maverick this month and insisted things had to change. She said tackling inequality was a priority; she said that people should be paid more and governments should spend on their people! (The Guardian considers this radical.) Meantime, the IMF commends Macron for his reductions to spending, and makes worker dismissal a breeze.
The first fortnight in my bullshit job was spent with an online form confirming that I had “read and understood this workplace policy”. No one understood the workplace policy, least of all the bullshitters on the third floor doomed to regularly update it.
We are the “knowledge class”, and we start so many compassionate hashtags because we have nothing else to do. We do not teach children, tend the sick or reassure a customer that, yes, that dress is very flattering. Instead, we make bullshit at standing desks.
We delude ourselves that we are making something — “a difference” — by urging you to “end the stigma” about the depressive illness those with bullshit jobs suffer. So many of our jobs feel so Soviet, our online declarations read like empty slogans. A lot like Krugman and Lagarde.
Graeber says such work is useless, and in the sense that it produces nothing more tangible than a prescription drug dependency, he is correct. But I did have the sense of a function. It was to appear as though things were changing, while ensuring they kept absolutely still.