Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Bill Gates

Cursed Work

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 15, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/cursed-work

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

I have just finished reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. Graeber makes a distinction between “bullshit” jobs and “shit” jobs. I have done both in my time but in my old age have the privilege of not having to work at all.

Adelphi

Graeber defines a bullshit job as “jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, to really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.”

My most depressing job was in the luxurious environment of The Adelphi (an elegant art deco building just off The Strand in which much of David Suchet’s Poirot was filmed). I had a funny and congenial boss, friendly , witty colleagues and a glamorous St Lucian lady who took an interest in me and draped herself across my desk in fishnet stockings. In spite of all that I used to arrive at Charing Cross station every morning wondering if I should throw myself in front of a train. What was wrong with me?!

I regret that I do not have a photograph of the opulent lady in her fishnet stockings, but here is a picture of the opulent Adelphi instead.

 

David Graeber writes: “Once, while serving time in exile at a Siberian prison camp, Dostoyevsky developed the theory that the worst torture one could possibly devise would be to force someone to endlessly perform an obviously pointless task.”

The main problem at The Adelphi was that I knew, and all my colleagues knew, that overseeing staff training policy for Department of Social Security HQ was not a proper job for a grown man still possessed of most of his faculties . I was neither use nor ornament. There was nothing to do except draw up futile “memoranda of understanding” in which no-one was interested.  And to ogle Margaret in her fishnet stockings. The need for such MOUs had been created by the pointless fragmentation of public services through privatisation and outsourcing that was part of the voodoo philosophy of neoliberalism. I had been recommended for promotion a number of times and was usually able to make a good case to the interview board for the usefulness of the work I was doing at that particular time. I could not do that as overseer of DSS HQ training policy. That interview was a humiliating experience and a step on the way to the early retirement that liberated me.

Graeber writes: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Gloucester Royal Infirmary

One of the many shit jobs I did was hospital porter at Gloucester Royal Infirmary in 1969. The building had once been a brewery. It was built in 1755 from a design by Luke Singleton and was financed by gifts and legacies. The timbers were donated by King George II and came from the Forest of Dean. It was demolished in 1984. My duties including cleaning lavatories, scraping out the incinerator in which amputated limbs had been burnt, carrying patients up and down stairs when the lifts were being replaced, assisting at operations and postmortems, taking corpses to the morgue in the middle of the night by myself. On the whole, I enjoyed the job. I got invited to parties by doctors and nurses and was given a lot of leftover food before the pigswill man came to take it away. The main satisfaction was that it was a necessary job, and I could feel the direct satisfaction of the patients for my efforts. The hospital manager persuaded me to apply for an administrative job and was angry with me when I fluffed the interview. I sensed even then that he was trying to steer me into a bullshit job.

Stakhanovite

I lived and worked through that awful time in the 80s and 90s when you had to be a Stakhanovite and work all hours to the detriment of family and personal life.  One particular job I had involved travelling all over England staying in seedy hotels and missing meals, working long hours with little social contact. The awful nature of that life was eptomised by one incident. I was at home working on a report in the small hours of the morning. My bosses had given me a tight deadline which I was determined to meet. The phone rang. It was a nurse at Gloucester Royal Infirmary calling to tell me that my mother had died. I put the phone down and finished writing my report. When dawn broke, I set off for the station to go to Gloucester to make funeral arrangements. I stopped off at the office and placed the report on a boss’s desk. When I returned to the office about a week later after my mother’s funeral I was angered to discover that no-one had looked at my report.

My  first marriage broke up while I was doing that job. I cannot blame the job but it did not help. My boss at that time was a strange character who seemed to really like me on  a certain level. We were both working class lads from an Irish Catholic background who shared the same taste in music and politics. We often got on well socially but that did not stop him bullying me relentlessly and brutally when it suited him. He was very supportive when my wife left me. “Mikey Boy, it’s a good job your mother died, because this would have killed her.”

 

There was one good aspect to that job. We did not have mobile phones or iPads. We were not under constant surveillance. I recall downtimes when I could escape and wander around an art gallery and nobody knew where I was or what I was doing. Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming argue that work today exploits workers not only during their time in the workplace, but also but in their very lives: “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us.”

Passionate Overworkers

Miya Tokumitsu writes in Jacobin: “The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.” Journalist Sara Robinson traces this culture back first to the cold war defense industry and then to the tech industries in late twentieth-century California. By the 1980s, “passionate” overworkers like Steve Jobs became icons to the culture at large. We all had to try to be passionate overworkers but did not get the financial rewards of a Gates, Jobs, Bezos  or Zuckerberg.

We all know people who are tiresome in their constant boasting about how busy they are. As Tokumitsu puts it, “Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.” Kierkegaard was only thirty when he wrote this: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Less Pay for Useful Work

Health workers (other than doctors) seem to be thought of as people who should accept low pay because they get moral satisfaction from doing useful work. As Graeber writes: “There is a sense, it would seem, that an ethos of collective sacrifice for the common good should fall disproportionately on those who are already, by their choice of work, engaged in sacrifice for the common good. Or who simply have the gratification of knowing their work is productive and useful.” Lying politicians encourage the public to applaud NHS workers and then saddle them with what is effectively a pay cut.

Keynes

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advances in technology and automation would lead to a situation where people would have more leisure time and work a fifteen-hour week. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher destroyed manufacturing industry so that she could emasculate  the trade unions. The UK does not actually make much anymore; that task is left to China, Japan and South Korea. Productive jobs have, as Keynes predicted, been automated or outsourced. However, technology has been exploited to make everybody work harder.

Shirking

There is an old saying, “work is the curse of the drinking classes”. Graeber notes that the art of skiving has a long tradition in England “but proper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk. In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing”. The kind of people who complain about welfare benefit cheats generally assume that most people would be happy to be parasites and, like me, be paid to do nothing. I am certainly very comfortable with getting paid to do nothing but I am old and have served my time. . Graeber concedes that many are not cut out for a nine-to-five routine but, “Human beings certainly tend to rankle over what they consider excessive or degrading work; few may be inclined to work at the pace or intensity that ‘scientific managers’ have, since the 1920s, decided they should; people also have a particular aversion to being humiliated. But leave them to their own devices, and they almost invariably rankle even more at the prospect of having nothing useful to do.”

Precariat

I do feel somewhat guilty about my own current privileged position. It easy for me to revel in the fact that I do not need to work to earn a living. There are many today who are desperate to work and cannot do so because of the pandemic. I do my humble best to help out where I can. Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Automation has not made life pleasant for workers in Amazon’s warehouses. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance supervised digitally. Going to the toilet is seen as theft of company time. Workers are expected to produce more without expecting their productivity to be reflected in their pay or to expect any job security. The precariat has to endure the humiliation of demeaning work that does not enable them to secure a decent home or the welfare of their children, while the “risktakers” pile up obscene amounts of profit.

The idea of a post-work world has proved to be an elaborate con-trick. Collaborative human-friendly labour is part of what makes people feel they are valued and secure. The current order means fragmentation, passivity and political stagnation. The present order has brought us a distracted, demoralized culture of compliance. The global market, privatisation, the dominance of data-mining behemoths has reduced human workers to automatons staring into their smart phones.

The Art of Giving

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 15 2014

Last weekend, a woman from the village visited our home with her daughter. We shared some food and conversation and they left with a few items of food we had in the house. Later the woman said how happy the gifts had made the family. Although the family are fortunate in having a house and some land, their situation is not good. There is no regular income. The mother is a seamstress but the income from that is sporadic. The husband has mental problems. He does not encourage visitors to the house and sometimes locks the wife and daughter in the house and disappears. The daughter is epileptic, partially blind and there is some paralysis on one side. She is in her early twenties and the mother is in her fifties. Although we are not rich, we are able to make a difference to that family simply by paying for medication – only Rupees 1,500 per month – and pay the mother to do some sewing work for us. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO. We plan to use our medical contacts to find out if anything can be done about the daughter’s eyesight.

Making a Difference

I do not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. I write not to boast of my own saintliness but to give readers an idea of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving.

Last week, I challenged ethical philosopher Peter Singer’s idea of “making a difference”. Singer advocates regularly donating a percentage of one’s income to charitable institutions. He recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy.

Delusion

 

Bhikkhu Bodhi edited a small book of essays called Dāna – The Practice of Giving. In his introduction, he writes: “The goal of the path is the destruction of greed, hate and delusion, and the cultivation of generosity directly debilitates greed and hate, while facilitating the pliancy of mind that allows for the eradication of delusion”.

One would not be eradicating delusion if one merely set up a standing order to pay a percentage of one’s salary to an organisation without finding out how the money is used. The Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia wrote: “I know what I have given you but I do not know what you have received”.

Singer’s writing in The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of his usual subtlety of thought. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  If I forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body there is no guarantee that any benefit will result (except to the corporation’s employees). The most likely immediate result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a painless donation. Singer’s stated aim of eradicating extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from a bank account.


Corporate Humanitarianism

 

Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Today it is much worse. Humanitarianism has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

Personal Micro-Funding

I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. I have provided cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended, we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into other village houses. We have helped with cataract operations – these can be provided free but a small extra financial input can make the process more comfortable. On a trip to Colombo, we noticed along the route that a woman from whom we had bought fruit was distressed because a violent storm had wrecked her home and her business. We gave her money to replace roof sheets. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, somewhat off the beaten track not far from our home. We reinforced their community work by helping with their building work and arranged a water supply for them.

Ecumenical Community Projects

There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. He is very ecumenical and states “people are humans first”. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school and Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He is now in his late 80s. Over the years, he has initiated many community projects such as providing a water supply to village houses; organising a huge pit into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking; establishing computer classes for local children; various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale were organised with the local catholic priest.

When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. Our friend the high priest offered to buy the car as it would be helpful to take him to his diabetic clinic appointments and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge.  The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging, has put right many mechanical wrongs, spray-painted the car, and proudly added many little accoutrements. The mechanic says he cannot ask for payment because we made a gift of the car.   A local builder constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

This gift had beneficial consequences for us. When we first came to live in this area, we felt some hostility and suspicion. After giving the car, we were greeted with smiles everywhere.

 

The Gift Relationship

 

Richard Titmuss, British social researcher and teacher, published The Gift Relationship in 1970. He compared blood donations in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some bought and sold). Titmuss’ s conclusions concerned the quality of communities where people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood). Titmuss helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation.

Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by ’saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom, among Muslims, Hindus and Christians as well as Buddhists, to provide dānes (the Pali word for giving).

Giving It Large

Some cynics might believe that the main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance or the assuaging of guilt. Michael Milken boasts of his philanthropy and is lauded for it, but expresses little contrition for the fraud – back in the days when “greed is good” was the motto- that landed him in prison.

 

Andrew Carnegie warned successful men who failed to help others that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie knew how to make money and he knew how to use it effectively. By the time he died in 1919, he had given away over $350 million ($ 494,200,000,000 in 2014 money) and he had established charitable organisations that are still active nearly a century after his death. Modern day rich givers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have expressed a Carnegie-like wish to divest themselves of their wealth.

Greed and Giving

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures. Dāna is the very practical act of giving; caga is the generous attitude ingrained in the mind by the repeated practice of dāna. The word caga in Pali means giving up, abandonment; the selfish grip one has on one’s possessions is loosened by caga. When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!

Julie MacLusky

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