REVIEW COORDINATOR: Andrea Walsh
In Praise of Industry
Post-industrial society has produced a working culture in which work is estranged not because it follows the patterns of industrialization, but because it has lost the ideal of the industrial. According to David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), many jobs in post-industrial societies are meaningless: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers. One attempts to compensate the loss of a meaningful working life through an increased use of social media. Had the intention really been to create a knowledge society, one would have revised industrial methods and made them efficient in terms of values and usefulness. A vague idea of efficiency has been taken over from the industrial period, but it has been deprived of meaning because there is no production. We are busy as if we are still living in an industrial society though in reality we arenâ€™t.
Alain Touraine (1969) defined the post-industrial society as a society in which the service sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector. Sociologists like Ulrich Beck (1992) and Anthony Giddens (1990) found that we are heading straightforward towards this new type of society or that the developed part of the world lives already in it. The shift from the industrial to the post-industrial has advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages is the reduction of industrial pollution. It has also been said that in post-industrial societies, knowledge will become the most valued resource and the most valued form of capital. More than in the classic industrial society, the production of ideas will become the main way to grow the economy. Post-industrial societies invest in creativity culture, and they appreciate the work of professionals like scientists and designers.
Among the disadvantages there is an intensification of social exclusion, which Daniel Bell pointed out already in 1973 in his The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society. In recent years, another problem, which I want to address here, has moved to the foreground. The post-industrial society has produced a neoliberal working culture in which work is estranged (“entfremdet” in Marxist terms) not because it follows the patterns of industrialization, but because it has lost the ideal of the industrial. Since it is not bound to produce anything, much work in post-industrial societies has become inefficient, narcissistic, and superfluous. I am talking about the “bullshit jobs” that anthropologist David Graeber describes in his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018). Many jobs in post-industrial societies are meaningless. Graeber analyzes the work of HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, and many others. A poll in the Netherlands shows that 40% believe their jobs to be meaningless (p. 5). In post-industrial societies we do not work less but more because increasingly pointless tasks are invented: “Technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless” (p. xvi). Bullshit jobs are mainly white-collar jobs. The blue-collar sector has been minimized and more unnecessary workers have been acquired upstairs. Daniel Bell’s positive image of the post-industrial world crumbles away. White-collar workers engage in endless sequences of box-ticking rituals revolving around monthly “target figures.” They spend their time handling meaningless numbers supposed to give the illusion of control. The post-industrial system has created a working world of mindless hyperactivity (evaluations, quantitative measuring, control, standardization) that are, most of the time, enforced by neoliberal administrators.
We are industrious in the post-industrial society, but is it the right kind of industriousness? We had thought that, once the industrial period is left behind, all problems of the industrial period will be left behind, too. But obviously this is not the case. We reproduce the industrial world’s major problems and make the situation even worse by depriving society of its industrial, productive ground. Work is more meaningless and entfremdet than it has ever been before. Neoliberal administrators maintain a working culture that keeps us busy as if we are still living in an industrial society though in reality we aren’t. Services can be multiplied as long as service providers buy services from other service providers. Services can also be outsourced to agencies who will buy services from other agencies. The logical consequence is an increase of bullshit jobs. Neither goods nor knowledge are produced. This kind of working culture would have been inacceptable for earlier capitalists.
Another recent book bearing the word “bullshit” in the title is Mendelson’s Social Media is Bullshit (2012). Social media and post-industrial society are closely linked. The post-industrial society is an information society and the processing of information, no matter if useful or not, has become an occupation for almost everybody, from the media company to the Facebook sharer. Social media thrive particularly well in post-industrial societies because post-industrial workers have time to spend chatting on the internet in a way that their Fordist ancestors could not even have dreamt of. Bullshit jobs and bullshit media are connected through a vicious circle. One attempts to compensate the loss of a meaningful working life through an increased use of social media. But the “meaning” found in social media activities is just as unreal as the “meaning” propagated by bullshit jobs. Both bullshit jobs and social media, with their instant feel of recognition and gratification, speculate with an “as if” but provide no meaningful purposes in work or in life.
Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt turned the word “bullshit” into an official philosophical term in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit” (later to be published as a short best-selling book). Frankfurt defines bullshit as the deceptive misrepresentation of reality that remains different from lying because, contrary to the liar, the “bullshitter” does not try to deceive (p. 6-7). The bullshitter is “bluffing but not lying, bullshit is not false, but merely fake and phony” (p. 47). In bullshit jobs, the “doing as if” creates a new type of Entfremdung. Neoliberal administrators as well as the internet with its narcissistic social media, attempt to establish an alternative reality that is not false, but merely fake and phony. For Frankfurt, bullshit always has a “whiff of self-satisfaction and self-complacency.” The post-industrial administrator claims to have overcome the industrial world to reach a better, post-industrial world. The standardization and evaluation methods she preaches are meant to be humanitarian and supposed to guarantee social equality. Already Christopher Lasch pointed out that “school, business corporations, courts of law, and authorities conceal their power behind a façade of benevolence” (Lasch 181). The problem is that there is not much substance behind the façade.
Is the post-industrial society a knowledge society? Had the intention really been to create a knowledge society, one would have revised industrial methods and made them efficient in terms of values and usefulness. Without values and usefulness the idea of “knowledge” is meaningless. The post-industrial society produces nothing, and especially not knowledge. The “knowledge” it produces has been impersonalized and turned into information that is manufactured in the worst possible industrial fashion, and is subsequently sold as a service. Because services buy services, the quantity of (useless) information will soon become overwhelming. The post-industrial society has adopted the worst elements from the industrial period though still priding itself on having overcome the archaic working patterns of the industry. The only thing that has really been overcome is the idea of efficiency. By “overcoming” the industrial age in an oblique fashion, post-industrial society has deprived itself of the most basic ideal of the industrial, which is the production of something valuable, useful, and real.
Originally, post-Fordism implies that with the development of sophisticated technology much of the monotonous and routine labor of Fordist production will become obsolete. The contrary is the case. The dumbing mechanization of Fordism continues in bullshit jobs and is replicated in the mindless handling of smartphones. Which problems from the industrial age have actually been fixed? Pollution has been reduced, but inequality is on the rise, and the conditions of industries like the food industry have become even worse.
The Busy-Bee Syndrome
Bullshit jobs and social media keep us busy but prevent us from producing. A vague idea of efficiency has been taken over from the industrial period, but it has been deprived of meaning because there is no production. It tends to be reissued in the form of “excellence.” It is also very likely that there is a political program behind it. While the industrial period was the time of revolts, populations occupied with busywork and social media have less time to revolt. The result is the busy-bee syndrome of pseudo-productivity prevalent in all kinds of white-collar professions. Nineteenth century workers found their work meaningless and entfremdet, but at least they were producing something. The post-industrial economy has not reformed industrial production in order to install more meaning and to make it less entfremdet. Jacques Ellul said that one should not characterize a society by what it is not but by the fundamental values it has established (2008: 174-175). The post-industrial society has never done this apart from referring to vague ideas of knowledge (increase of information) and excellence (being “the best” in whatever area it is).
The industrial society is often seen as an intermediate phase between the agrarian society and the post-industrial society. The idea stems from Jean Fourastié, the great optimist of technology, who invented the Three-Sector Model. Ecological romanticism holds that the deficiencies of the post-industrial world can best be solved by looking for inspirations in sector number 1: in the agrarian society. Nobody looks for virtues in the industrial society. The industrial society has been entirely discredited. Industry stands for pollution, mechanization, low quality mass production, and inequality. An entire industrial world (the Soviet Union) collapsed. The flight into a brand new utopian post-industrial world seems to be the most logical choice. And if we manage to import some elements from the pre-industrial period, maybe we will have a reasonably good life? However, there are a few valuable virtues that the industry can offer, first of all productivity, efficiency, and the ideal of collective work. But the post-industrial society abandoned those virtues. On top of this, the errors of the industrial society have not been fixed because one believed to have left this era for good. The mistakes will be repeated on another level. In this sense the post-industrial is the continuation of the industrial. Instead of improving the industrial society by learning from its mistakes, we introduce random virtues from the pre-industrial period, such as ecological ideas and alternative businesses.
Looking closer, an improved industrial society would look very much like what many people think an ideal post-industrial society should look like but never did. Saint-Simon, the French philosopher of the early nineteenth century, coined the term “industrialism” as an industrial mode of production delivering economic and political superiority (Catéchisme des industriels, 1824). The new industrial mode was supposed to replace the non-productive class (the aristocracy). Saint-Simon’s vision is as optimistic as Daniel Bell’s later descriptions of the post-industrial society. It is therefore ironic that Graeber puts forward “managerial feudalism” as the most fundamental pattern of the new service sector jobs because these jobs are not due to economic needs but to the employers’ need of underlings. On top of this, the managerial feudalism is mixed with what Lasch has called “managerial narcissism” and creates an absurd working culture of pseudo-industriousness. We end up with the worst elements of the industrial and the pre-industrial periods.
Ulrich Beck. The Risk-Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage, 1992.
Daniel Bell. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York:
Basic Books, 1973.
Jacques Ellul. Ellul par lui-même. Paris: Gallimard, 2008.
Jean Fourastié. Le Grand Espoir du xxe siècle, Paris: PUF, 1949.
Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Anthony Giddens. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.
David Graeber. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.
J.B. Mendelson. Social Media is Bullshit. New York: Earth’s Temporary Solutions, 2012.
Saint-Simon. Catéchisme des industriels. Paris: Sétier, 1824.
Alain Touraine. La société post-industrielle. Naissance d’une société. Paris: Denoël, 1969.