Ask yourself this morning: Is my job a load of billshut?

The conspiracy view that the ruling class devised pointless work for the masses may be off the mark, but so is Keynes' forecast of 15-hour week

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 3:09am

London School of Economics professor David Graeber caused something of a stir last month with an article in Britain's Strike! magazine whose title I shall render euphemistically as "On the phenomenon of billshut jobs".

Strike! proclaims itself a publication of the radical left, dealing in "politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition".

Yet although Graeber's article was peppered with language that could have come from a 1970s revolutionary socialist tract, with references to "the ruling classes" and denunciations of the "profound psychological violence" done to workers by their jobs, there wasn't much either radical or especially left wing about his highly entertaining polemic.

There was, however, a great deal that rang true.

No doubt we have all wondered what HR managers contribute to the world

Graeber set out to solve a puzzle. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the 20th century advances in technology would allow us all to work for just 15 hours a week. Why, wondered the LSE professor, has this prediction so signally failed to come true.

Graeber's answer is that although in developed economies industrial, agricultural and domestic occupations have indeed been automated largely out of existence, they have been replaced by vast numbers of unproductive white-collar jobs that keep millions busy achieving nothing at all.

He decries the ballooning of whole sectors like telemarketing, corporate law, health administration, public relations and human resources.

These are the billshut jobs. "It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working," he writes. "What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear?"

It might sound a novel idea, but Graeber is not the first person to wonder this. As long ago as 1980, the late science fiction satirist Douglas Adams imagined a planet which divided its population into three.

The first group were "the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists … the achievers". The second were "the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things". And the third consisted of everyone else: the unproductive middle consisting of "TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants".

This useless third of the population was packed into a giant spaceship and blasted off on a one-way trip into the blue, while "the other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full rich and happy lives".

Graeber doesn't propose anything so drastic. Instead he asks why it is the developed economies of Europe and North America have got themselves into this ludicrous situation.

This is where he loses the plot. No doubt we have all wondered what it is that human resource managers contribute to the world, and on our darker days it's likely many of us have asked whether our own jobs are really worthwhile.

Few of us, however, can have concluded that it is all a sinister conspiracy designed to keep us in subjugation.

That's what Graeber thinks. He blames the 1 per cent. "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger."

As a result, they have invented all these unproductive jobs to keep us occupied, like hamsters on a wheel. This is nonsense. The proliferation of billshut jobs is not evidence of a conspiracy, but merely Parkinson's Law in operation.

As the great Cyril Northcote Parkinson explained in 1955: "A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure … The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent."

In other words, bang goes any hope of achieving Keynes' 15-hour week.