David Graeber on the Value of Work | YouTube

Short animated video by David Graeber, economist with a wry and witty anarchistic inclination. I think he’s really onto something, here, in terms of analyzing a certain shift that a lot people seem to be having, in our perception of work. For example, how people seem more aware that their jobs don’t really have value and how more and more people are looking to do work that matters and/or that benefits humanity and/or has some greater meaning.

It certainly isn’t the first time that workers have felt disgruntled with work and/or disenchanted by corporate bullshit. The potential, though, now, is that people seem to be connecting their underwhelming experience of work with the bigger picture and with politics. For example, A lot of the folks who got active with Occupy, a few years back, were from “caring occupations,” which caused Graeber to view Occupy as a sort of revolt of the caring class. So, could this shift toward more meaningful work completely change how we structure society, poltically and economically?

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

11 thoughts on “David Graeber on the Value of Work | YouTube”

    1. I’m not sure what Graeber’s position is on that question, but given his anarchistic bend my guess would be that he would favor something more along the lines of shared work with everyone working fewer hours, e.g., let the machines do as much of the work as possible and what is left would be a ten or fifteen hour work week for everyone. Chomsky holds that position, or something like it, as I recall. If recon that Graeber would probably favor a basic universal income or something like it.

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  1. Very interesting. I used to be in one of the caring professions- I was an occupational therapist for twenty years- but got burned out from the work (it was in mental health) and the pressures of management responsibilities and being in a private health care enviŕonment. What to do on my return to UK? I have wondered if something like house cleaning or kitchen prep (as I used to do as a teenager, early twenties) would be rewarding as it’s tangible and valuable and kind of straightforward- clean a house, feed people. Or maybe just sign up to agencies so work is temporary and avoid getting sucked into the politics and taking it all too seriously! We’ve met a lot of people out here who have seen the light, sold up and gone traveling. Some have been on the road for four years, using Workaway to volunteer for bed and board, it’s been inspiring. All the best.

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  2. Gallup periodically surveys employee engagement in their jobs — here’s <a href=https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspxthe latest summary. In brief, 66% of U.S. workers are either “not engaged” — indifferent to the work, doing the minimum, ready to move on at a moment’s notice — or “actively disengaged” — having “miserable work experiences.” Only 34% of workers are “engaged” — enthusiastic and committed to their jobs — but that’s the highest level since at least 2000 when Gallup started tracking it.

    Then there’s the worker productivity data, which measures the cost of workers’ time relative to the market value of the work they produce. According to <a href=https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/this historical summary, productivity has gone up 77% since 1973, which suggests that work is increasingly worthwhile to the employers and their investors. In contrast, worker hourly pay has gone up only 12% during that time span. The gap between productivity and pay = profits, which is why the gap between the wealthiest 1% and everyone else has gone up so much during that same interval.

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    1. The typical capitalist rebuttal is to shame the workers. If workers were more motivated and had more ambition, then the capitalist system would work better, i.e., the workers themselves would be positioned to climb the ladder of success. The deeper you go into this line of reasoning, the more Ayn Rand’s ideology will start to appeal: the reason there are so few motivated workers is because most people suck. The 1% are actually the great ones, the uber-mensch, the superior class, the achievers — they are the makers and the rest of us are the takers. This seems to represent the (so-called) “libertarian” crowd in the U.S., at least from my experience and from my research.

      But maybe the system just needs adjusted? Other capitalists acknowledge the numbers and suggest that workers be given a greater slice of the pie…but how to do that? I guess that’s where Keynes comes in: you’ve gotta tweak capitalism with government intervention so as to prevent the 1% from taking more and more and more until workers are reduced to what amounts to slaves or serfs. Capitalism is still the best game in town but needs to be controlled….It seemed to work in the post-War period, where America was both capitalist and also distributed wealth more equally. But this period was also fairly unique, economically, in that the U.S. was in a position to dominate the global economy, so that basically whatever shit they made would get sold internationally to continents in Europe and Asia, decimated by the War. Without this competitive advantage, Keynesian theory seems to be impotent to stop runaway inequality.


    2. As for shaming the workers, that’s why the increasing worker productivity data provide an effective counter-argument. Workers are generating increasingly more revenue for their companies, but aren’t getting proportionally more in pay, hence job dissatisfaction. The investors are the takers.

      Keynesian stimulus programs — lower taxes, lower interest rates, more money supply — have worked great in recent years: corporate quarterly profits have reached record highs for years now. But the companies have used those profits to jack up stock prices, making the investors wealthier, rather than paying the workers more, which would increase spending power and demand. The top income taxes used to be a lot higher: 91% in 1945, the year FDR died; 70% in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s last year in office; now it’s 37%. When taxes are higher, capitalists have the incentive to reinvest profits in the company, growing the economy and distributing the wealth more equitably. Now, when taxes are low, the incentive is to take the profits as income, causing the economy to stagnate and for wealth to accumulate at the top of the pyramid.

      I agree that economic growth rates aren’t likely to reach post-WW2 levels anymore in the US. But when the growth rate is 2% while investment return rate is 6%, that’s an additional 4% per year accumulating in the investors’ pockets that could have been used either to increase wages or to reduce prices, boosting growth.

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  3. Our most recent experience with the caring professions came when trying to usher my father through the final stages of his Alzheimer’s. The hourly price of home care was more than twice what the workers were being paid. Was corporate earning the money through training, management, quality control, etc.? Not as far as I could tell. Most of the workers had very little training. Many had young children, so if their kids got sick they’d have to stay home to take care of them, and corporate wasn’t particularly good at finding replacements in a timely manner. Often they were so tired from juggling parenting and multiple shit jobs that they’d doze off while on duty, which wouldn’t have been so bad if my father hadn’t been prone to wandering off, peeing in the corners, falling down, etc. I doubt those home care workers got a whole lot of satisfaction from their jobs. It was easy to blame the workers on the front line because that’s where the caring needed to be done, but clearly it was corporate return on investment that dictated their intolerable working conditions.

    The nursing home had more infrastructure and better trained care workers, but they were understaffed, such that they’d herd the demented denizens together in group rooms just so they could keep an eye on them all. Because my father was prone to wandering off from the group, the resident nurse insisted that he be put on a medication to keep him subdued, otherwise they’d have kicked him out as uncooperative and unmanageable. What then? The next nursing home is going to do the same thing. The price of nursing home care is very high, and it’s not covered by Medicare. Not until the person’s own funds are exhausted from paying the bills does he qualify for Medicaid, which not all facilities accept as payment because the reimbursement rates are lower. Again, it’s easy to blame the staff, but most of the blame falls on the corporate investors, who can jack up prices and keep wages low because most people — old people with Alzheimer’s or other debilitating chronic conditions, family members, workers — have no viable options.

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    1. The aging population has also exhausted its usefulness and economic productivity, so a capitalist economy has no more use for them. That’s sort of part of the motivation to work as much as Americans work (and to do so for less compensation than what most other workers make in developed nations that have more robust social safety nets): in America if you don’t work hard enough to save for your “Golden Years” then you’re screwed in old age, and the workers trying to take care of you are just trying to get by and maybe put a little something aside for their retirement so they don’t wind up SOL in old age.

      In fairness, though, it isn’t just capitalism. Regardess of a nation’s economic system, it’s easy to not take care of the so-called “unproductive” folks: the aging, the disabled, veterans with PTSD, and all those unable to give back to society by way of labor. It takes intentionality and collective compassion — it takes devoting resources.

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  4. The kids in the generation coming up are concerned about choosing meaningful occupations. I help them explore careers until they find somethingvthey know they will enjoy. To their way of thinking- the money they would make is only valuable if it enables them to do more good. They are also very excited about volunteering for charity groups like food pantries , playing with children in daycare, helping children read in school, going on missions trips, collecting coats and shoes for people who need them, and cleaning yards for elderly and handicapped people. (Those are just a few things “my” kids do.) I don’t agree with having too few working hours. When people are bored, It’s a negative. I Don’t like to see people overworked either, but that is frequently their choice. I am optimistic that this new generation will make changes in a non-violent way. They have some horrible examples of adults who rip each other apart fighting for power, so their form of rebellion may be to ignore them and slowly and rationally take over with a more caring response to our problems and a desire to work together for good. I love what I’m seeing in teens today and I pray for them to succeed.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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