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Bridges to Nowhere: David Greber on Useful and Useless Work


Fragment of the book “Delusional work”

What is “real” and “fake” labor? Is working as a clerk at a large investment bank much different from working in a clown’s nose warehouse? The American anthropologist and activist of the anarchist movement David Greber is looking for answers to these and other non-obvious questions in the pages of his book “Crazy Work”, one of the chapters of which is being published by “Gorky”.

David Greber. Crazy work. A treatise on the dissemination of meaningless labor. M .: Ad Marginem Press, 2020. Translated from English by Armen Aramyan and Konstantin Mitroshenkov

When someone calls their work pointless or useless, they always rely on some implied theory of value – the idea of ​​what is worthwhile and what is not. It is extremely difficult, however, to figure out what this theory is in each case, let alone to propose a reliable system of measurement that would allow one to say that X’s work is more valuable or useful to society than Y’s work.

Economists measure value in terms of what they call “utility,” that is, how much a good or service helps to satisfy wants or needs. Many apply a similar principle to their work. Am I doing any good to society? Sometimes the answer is obvious. The bridge builder sees it as a worthwhile task if he anticipates that the bridge will be useful for those who wish to cross the river. If workers are building a bridge that hardly anyone else will use, then they are more likely to come to the conclusion that they are doing crazy work. This is the case with the famous “bridges to nowhere”, the construction of which is sometimes sponsored by local politicians in the United States to attract federal money to their districts.

Yet there is an obvious problem with the concept of utility. When we call something useful, we just mean that it allows something else to be obtained. If you’re buying a dress, part of the dress’s utility is that it protects you from the elements and also ensures that you are not breaking laws that prohibit walking on the street naked. However, most of its usefulness depends on how well it suits you or cheers you up. So why does one dress succeed and the other not? Economists usually say that this is a matter of taste and therefore outside their purview. But if you take a few steps back, then ultimately any utility turns into this kind of subjective problem, even if it is about something relatively simple, like a bridge. Yes, a bridge can make it easier for people to travel from one bank to another, but why do they want to overcome this path? Visit an elderly relative? Go bowling? Even if they just go to the grocery store. No one buys food simply to maintain their physical health: people also express their personal taste, support a national or family tradition, prepare for a drink with friends or for a religious holiday. We cannot discuss such things using the language of “needs”. Throughout most of human history (and this is still true for much of the world today), the poor have incurred huge debts to local moneylenders because they believe they need to borrow money in order to arrange a normal funeral for parents or a wedding for children. Did they have such a “need”? Obviously, they strongly believe that yes. And since there is no scientific definition of what “human needs” really are (other than the body’s minimum need for calories and nutrition, as well as several other physical factors), such questions will always be subjective. To a large extent, needs are just other people’s expectations. If you don’t arrange a normal wedding for your daughter, it will be a shame for the family.

Most economists have come to the conclusion that it is pointless to judge what people should want; it is advisable to simply accept as fact that they want something, and judge how effectively (“rationally”) they satisfy their desires. Most workers seem to agree with this. As I noted, people who thought their work was meaningless almost never said something like, “I take selfie sticks. Selfie sticks are dumb. People shouldn’t buy stupid things like selfie sticks “or” Who needs a two hundred dollar pair of socks? ” Even a couple of exceptions were indicative. For example, take the story of Dietrich, who worked for a company that sold party supplies (mainly to local churches):

Dietrich: For several years I have worked in the warehouse of a gift shop. I can only say that it was complete and absolute nonsense. What true degradation is, you will only learn after spending most of your work time wandering between boxes of clown noses, sneeze powders, plastic champagne glasses, cardboard figures of basketball players, and other useless trinkets and trivia. Most of the time, we just sat in the backyard of the warehouse, doing almost nothing and thinking about the absolute uselessness of what we are doing. This continued year after year as the business became more and more unprofitable.

Not only that, our paychecks were bright red and had clown noses on them. It amused all the bankers very much – as if their own work was much more meaningful!

One can speculate for a long time about why Dietrich found these particular goods so offensive. (What’s wrong with fooling around a bit?) I suspect the reason is that it wasn’t Dietrich himself who came to the realization that he was working for suppliers of one-day junk. After all, these goods have always been considered one-day trash, these are anti-useful things, made only to end up in the trash, this is a mockery of “real” objects and “real” values ​​(even money was comic). Moreover, trinkets do not at all reject “real” values ​​in the name of something concrete; they have no real challenge to what they claim to laugh at. Thus, we can say that this is not even a real mockery: it is a mockery of a mock, reduced to something so devoid of any subversive content that even the most boring and boring members of society happily accept it “for the sake of children.”

Few things are more depressing than forced hilarity. However, stories like the one Dietrich told are rare.

When workers assess the social value of their work, in most cases they, with some variation, take the same position as Tom, the special effects artist: “I find it useful to work that satisfies a pre-existing need or creates a product or service about which people didn’t think and which somehow improves their lives. ” This is fundamentally different from the “beauty job” that Tom does: he has to manipulate images of celebrities to make viewers feel unattractive, and then sell them a drug that doesn’t really help. Telephone salespeople sometimes expressed similar concerns, but again, for the most part, they were simply engaged in fraudulent activities. There is no need to go back to a complex social value theory to explain what is wrong with persuading retirees to buy subscriptions that they cannot afford to magazines that they will not read. Few condemned the tastes and preferences of customers; it seemed to them that the very aggressiveness and dishonesty of their actions were proof that they were offering items of no value.

Other objections draw on a much older tradition of social criticism. Take Rupert, a bank employee, who argued, “Obviously, the entire sector is not adding any value, and therefore this is all nonsense,” since the financial sector simply “appropriates labor through usury.” The labor theory of value to which he refers has its roots at least in the European Middle Ages. It proceeds from the assumption that the true value of a commodity is determined by the labor expended in its production. So when we give money in exchange for a loaf of bread, we are actually paying for the human effort that went into growing wheat, baking bread, packing and delivering the loaves. If some loaves of bread are more expensive than others, it is either because it takes more labor to produce and transport them, or because we believe that the quality of some of these types of work is higher (more skills, skill, effort are required), than in the case of other loaves, and therefore we are willing to pay more for the final product. Likewise, if you are fraudulent and rob other people of their fortune (which Rupert believes he did when he worked for an international investment bank), then you are indeed stealing the real, productive labor that went into creating that fortune.

Of course, for a long time, such arguments have been used to criticize the order of things in which some people can be said to live off the efforts of others. But the very existence of delusional work creates certain problems for any labor theory of value. Indeed, saying that all value is determined by the labor expended is obviously not the same as saying that any labor produces value. Rupert believed that most of the bank’s employees were not bums at all; on the contrary, he believed that most of them worked quite hard. The only thing is that all their work, in his opinion, was to find clever ways to appropriate the fruits of real work that other people are doing. But then we are again faced with the question of how to distinguish “real” labor, which creates value, from its opposite. If a haircut is a valuable service, then why isn’t providing portfolio advice?

However, Rupert’s sensations were not unusual. It may be unusual that he formulated them using the labor theory of value, but it is clear that he expressed the embarrassment experienced by many workers in the financial and related fields. It is likely that he was forced to turn to such theories due to the fact that the prevailing economic doctrine simply did not give him much choice. The prevailing opinion among modern economists is that since value is ultimately subjective, such feelings are simply impossible to confirm. Therefore, everyone should refrain from judgment and act on the basis that if there is a demand for a given product or service (including financial services), then it is obvious that they have value for someone, and this is all that is needed know. As we have seen, up to a point, most workers agree in principle with economists — at least when it comes to the tastes and preferences of the masses. But when it comes to their own work, experience often clearly contradicts the notion that the market can always be trusted in such matters. After all, there is also a demand for labor, and if the market were always right, then someone who makes forty thousand dollars for playing computer games all day and gossiping with old friends on WhatsApp would have to admit that the services he provides to the company by playing on the computer and gossiping are indeed worth forty thousand dollars. This is clearly not the case. Thus, the markets cannot always be right. It follows from this that if the market could so spoil the area with which the employee is best familiar, then he moreover cannot simply obediently assume that the market can be trusted in assessing the true value of goods and services in those areas about which he does not have first-hand information.

Anyone who does delusional work, or knows the people who do it, knows that the market is not an impeccable arbiter of value. The problem is that there is no such arbiter at all. Questions of value always cause some difficulty. Most people would agree that some companies might as well not exist at all, but this position is based more on some kind of intuition than on a clearly articulated idea. If we try to articulate what the case looks like from the point of view of prevailing, unspoken common sense, then I would assume that most people seem to take a position that combines the views of Tom and Rupert. According to this position, if a product or service meets demand or otherwise improves people’s lives, then they can be considered truly valuable; if they serve to create demand, by making people feel fat and ugly, or by driving them into debt and then charging interest, then they cannot be considered valuable. Sounds reasonable enough. But this still does not answer the question of what it means to “improve people’s lives” – and everything else certainly depends on this.


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