Everyone an Overseer, Everyone a Captain Kirk
David Graeber recently wrote an article, gleaned largely from observations in The Reactionary Mind and elsewhere, about the definition of the middle class in America since the emergence of Reaganomics as a managerial class, populated largely by those who work bullshit jobs. The huge and nonsensical class of middle-managers and other overseers, made up in remarkably large part of people tasked with administrivia who got there just by getting old in a lower-wage position, is unique and outsized in the developed world, and arguably the driving reason why construction projects are so expensive in the United States compared to everywhere else – even high-wage, heavily-unionized countries like Spain and South Korea.
Graber’s money quote (no pun intended):
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly it’s financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.
I posted this to my Facebook page not terribly long ago and was met with reams of anecdata about how this ethic (I’m loath to call it a system) of management actually impedes productivity in addition to raising real labor costs. One example:
My boss at my old job quit three weeks after I did: he made the mistake of assuming that working your way up through the company meant something, and he came in one day to discover that upper management had produced three new levels of management through which he had to slog. His new-hired superior was a control freak who simply couldn’t handle the idea of her employees having any slack time whatsoever, so all of the department supervisors were given incessant amounts of busywork “metrics” to fill out all day long. When he realized that he was spending two days out of every week doing nothing but filling out metrics forms that were only there so this ditz could justify her raises, he decided that unemployment was better than continuing to sell his soul.
While I’m loath to describe this as any kind of conspiracy on the part of capital like Graeber might be insinuaing, it’s just as ideological as his words or anything else. This isn’t indicative of the nature of capital in a vacuum; it’s organized more efficiently in many other parts of the world, and makework happens everywhere across broad labor categories – broader, as a rule, than in the United States.
I do, however, think that the structure of make-work in the United States is highly ideological and designed, implicitly, to reinforce a certain puritanical complex about the moral nature of work vis-a-vis the moral value of workers, something that stems from the earliest attitudes of Anglo-American settlers. It’s based out of a quasi-religious fantasy about menial work; it certainly isn’t efficient or what I’d consider to be scientific management. And as nearly as I can tell this particular structural inefficiency is a uniquely American problem based in an American morality play; it certainly isn’t efficient or what I’d consider to be scientific management.
Obviously problematic cultures of management and bureaucracy are a global phenomenon, but as nearly as I can tell the plethora of layers of management in private organizations, used as a reward for non-unionized seniority, is a uniquely American problem. The fantasy that everyone gets to be management appears to be significantly more damaging to the U.S. economy than the notion that everyone should a living wage.
(Ironically, the anger that even writing the phrase “living wage” instills in some, consequently unleashing in them a torrent of fact-free non-evidentiary talking points about the value of work, reinforces in me the idea that this ethic is intended to reward and reinforce moral attitudes about the nature of work and seniority rather than meaningful evidence of economic performance itself.)