Mass unemployment, bullshit jobs, and ‘essential’ work

When Covid-19 hit the neoliberal west, a contradiction presented itself. For decades, shiny-pocketed conservatives had been slashing unemployment benefits while telling ordinary folks to tighten their belts in times of hardship. But when Covid happened, they suddenly did something out of character. Not only Australia and New Zealand, but Canada, the US and the UK all boosted the dole. It was the first time since the invention of the welfare state that governments had paid workers – the ones who didn’t lose their jobs, that is – to stay away from their places of work. However, this wasn’t the case for all workers. Some had to continue working at hospitals and factories, and others had to drive them there, and others still had to look after their children. It was suddenly decided that there were the industries that were essential, and others that weren’t. In the latter, millions were confined to their homes, confronted with this redefinition of labour and the question it posed: if their jobs weren’t essential, what purpose did they really serve?

It was as if the newly minted category of ‘essential’ work had semantically made redundant all those who had defined their identities, and indeed their lives, on what they did for a living. Almost overnight, work became either essential and of need, or else non-essential and of want. Oddly, neoliberal leaders were most determined to preserve the latter, even when it was at the expense of the former. And even when it meant shelling out public money and risking charges of hypocrisy.

Before, capitalists had propounded a work ethic that regarded all industries as equally important in advancing toward the most basic aim of capital: to grow. A system where governments doled money out New Deal-style was as unthinkable as a baseballer delivering a volleyball spike. Yet, after Covid, these most unlikely suspects had inadvertently provided an answer to Mark Fisher’s famous question: yes, the capitalists said; there was an alternative to capitalism. But of course, they would have sooner had given us free money than letting us have it.

One thing hadn’t changed about the neoliberal work ethic, it still relied heavily on rhetoric: Scott Morrison’s government employed the slogan ‘team Australia’, and similarly, in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern used ‘team of 5 million’. The old celebration of the individual workhorse was transposed onto the new ‘team’ of horses that pulled the carriage of capitalism along. In the long run, it didn’t matter whether it was essential workers or real estate agents who did the pulling, as long as the wheels kept moving.

In his final book, Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber rails against the ‘flunkies’, ‘goons’, ‘duct-tapers’, ‘box-tickers’ and ‘task-makers’. In other words, the jobs that are created as ends in themselves, often to the detriment of the worker’s sanity. These represent, to Graeber, the fulfillment of Dostoevsky’s lamentation that the ‘most terrible punishment [is work that is] completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning’. Rather than having any usefulness to society or the individual worker, they serve only the expansion of capital.

Bullshit jobs have a flow-on effect in that they created a need for lower-paid work to support them, such as domestic work (paid and unpaid), childcare (paid and unpaid), and task freelancing (paid and unpaid). Many of these sectors have grown in direct relation to the number of hours that workers were away from home, their time split between multiple jobs. Straight from the witch’s cauldron of neoliberalism, work has become the potion that, once swallowed, overtakes the entire worker’s being. It is no surprise, then, that these workers – poorly paid but no less essential, occupying a tense existential space with low pay in fragile industries – were among those hit the hardest by the economic fallout of Covid-19.

These were not the workers who benefited from the neoliberal public spending bailouts. Most welfare spending went to businesses to ensure that workers stayed employed while they were trapped at home. But in many cases, businesses simply took the money and fired their workers anyway, or else cut their wages. (This writer had to abandon his home and belongings and leave Australia in under a week because his employer decided he wasn’t worth paying for.) In other words, those industries which stood to benefit from the preservation of the neoliberal system were incentivised to maintain their allegiances. The Covid-19 social spending programs weren’t the Keynesian about-turns they might have appeared to some. They were a bribe. All the while, single mothers, the disabled and various groups of people labelled as ‘unemployed’ were not the object of this newfound ‘compassion’.

Plenty more were to join the rising tally of the disadvantaged. Casual workers in Australia who had jumped from precarious job to precarious job, as is common in areas like hospitality, found themselves ineligible for Covid-19 benefits if they had worked for their bosses for less than a year. As for the working poor in ‘essential industries’, their workplaces went from dangerous, stressful, and unrewarding, to all those things and a potential contamination zone.

’16 sturdy New Zealanders hitched to a set of chain harrows, after the style of Volga boatmen [during the Great Depression]’. Image from WB Sutch’s The Quest for Security (1966).

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that before the year 2000 ‘technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week’. His prediction was not revolutionary, nor was he the first to imagine this. In Keynes’ time, radical unionists had been calling for similar reductions of the working week for generations; others had been calling for the abolition of work entirely.

Of course, machines do exist that could replace jobs; only, they are better suited to the jobs that fall outside of what we now call ‘essential’. In the 2019 book Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani describes bio-technologies that can artificially ‘grow’ fake meat, factories where cars are assembled automatically, and call centres that are becoming overrun with robotic voice technology. Even while capitalists create new, useless, and meaningless work in which humans are toiling for less and less reward, they are simultaneously threatening these workers with replacement by cost-effective robots.

The current semantic division of essential and non-essential work has inadvertently reminded workers what kind of work is socially necessary, and more often than not, these are jobs that are resistant to automation. Neoliberals might fawn over essential workers now, but spent the last several decades targeting them through privatisation, deregulation, and slashing wages. The reason these jobs couldn’t ultimately be abolished is that society relies on this work, which will always give essential workers a degree of leverage.

And ‘essential work’ will soon need more workers than ever. Not only for the preservation of individual lives in a pandemic, but for the preservation of life on our planet. Capitalism has wrought irreparable damage upon the environment and its ecosystems, and the repair of natural and human environments will require a dramatic expansion of labour. To pick just one area, in the coming decades rising sea levels are expected to affect at least 800 million people. Suffice to say, we can’t yet build dikes, dams and seawalls, nor rebuild cities, using machines.

Even if capitalists were to surprise us by taking on radical defensive measures against climate change, their reliance on human labour would not automatically mean better wages and conditions for essential workers. That would only come about through collective demands, itself the product of a collective awareness of alienation. Luckily, the new category of ‘essential’ work, strategically designed by capitalists to suture up capitalism in crisis, has inadvertently provided space for such consciousness to form.

By keeping the work that is necessary for human wellbeing, by expanding the work that is necessary for human happiness, and by abolishing the work that serves neither purpose, we would be making the most strategic move of all: protecting the vitality of the planet. But redefining work on such terms would be more than a merely defensive exercise. It would open the way to a further expansion of the imagination, leading to philosophy, happiness, and self-fulfillment. This was what Marx meant when he spoke of ‘that realm of freedom which begins when the realm of necessity is left behind.’ It’s a cause to work for.


Image: Barge haulers on the Volga, by Ilya Repin (1870-1873)

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Michael McClelland is a writer living in Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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  1. A great read and introduction to a discussion that we have to have! The power of the collective is the force we need in order to deal with the future – with an eye on survival of the natural world and humans as an inextricable part of that

  2. The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) may pay joblessness advantages to a specialist who is isolated by a wellbeing official or clinical expert, or who leaves work because of a sensible danger of contamination or to really focus on a relative.

  3. Great read Michael. It points to this careful predicament we are in – one whether the very nature of our existence in an economy is under threat and the very existence of our economy in the world is under threat (speaking long term that is, about climate change). To find the answers to either of these, we need to straddle the lines between the two. Workers can’t be free on a dying planet and a healthy planet is not as valuable to us humans if we are enslaved to others. So, we need to solve both problems.

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