Case in point: David Graeber, best-selling author of the book Debt: The First 5000 Years and a new work, Bulls**t Jobs, speaks at the Hay Festival in Wales in June. He highlighted research that showed that a large number of Britons believe the work they do is meaningless. Picture: HANS PIENAAR
Case in point: David Graeber, best-selling author of the book Debt: The First 5000 Years and a new work, Bulls**t Jobs, speaks at the Hay Festival in Wales in June. He highlighted research that showed that a large number of Britons believe the work they do is meaningless. Picture: HANS PIENAAR

When is capitalism going to end? The sighs over its resilience could be heard under the surface in Britain, where I spent the month of June. Its demise has been sought ever since the Great Recession, and even before, since 9/11.

A good cross-section of the debate was provided at the Hay Festival in Wales, the top literary fair among Britain’s 301 formal book festivals, which is now also being held in several other countries. The random range of material presented by authors with new books is a good way to discover which way the thinking on the ground is going.

It was telling that when Terry Eagleton, the stalwart Marxist, brought out a new book entitled Radical Sacrifice, the organisers asked him to rather talk again on a previous book, the best-selling Why Marx Was Right.

Eagleton is also known for his lifelong project to reconcile Marxism with Christianity. Marx’s statement that religion was the opium of the people had to be seen in context, he said. Marx rather meant that religion was all the poor of the 19th century had. As someone who had led an occasionally bohemian life, our Karl was no crusader against drugs. "And what’s wrong with a little opium?" Eagleton asked.

Graphic detail: Comedian Phill Jupitus, left, talks to Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson at the Hay Festival. Picture: HANS PIENAAR
Graphic detail: Comedian Phill Jupitus, left, talks to Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson at the Hay Festival. Picture: HANS PIENAAR

Bill Clinton’s electoral motto, "It’s the economy, stupid", was something Marx would not have agreed with. According to Eagleton, himself really a literary theorist, Marx’s academic ambition was to write a book about the French author Honoré de Balzac. "All this economic c**p," was what he said about his big slog through the archives of the British Museum.

However, Marx believed it was his responsibility to carry out his monumental work because the poverty in London was shocking, worsened by the fact that at the high point of human advancement workers toiled three times longer every day than their Neolithic forebears. That is still the case today.

Eagleton tried to debunk other myths about Marx. He was not against the middle classes; on the contrary, he described them as the most revolutionary group in history. Within 300 years they had changed the world and demolished the ancien regime. "Prince Charles was all that remained, and it is a mystery that they overlooked him when he has such big ears."

Nor was Marx enthusiastic about socialism — when it did not arise from the middle class.

When socialism is rooted in an environment of despair and want, it would merely engender a generalised scarcity of everything. He did not talk about SA, but it is in danger of becoming an example of fulfilled Marxian prophecy, to the extent that it has become, for the previously disadvantaged, a socialist state with unsustainable wage and social grant policies.

Marxism is also not about labour, Eagleton continued, but rather about leisure and the creation of more free time. That is surely what technological progress is supposed to provide: "One becomes a Marxist in the first place to annoy other people, like your mum and dad, and to avoid physical labour."

He believes every person has a deep-seated desire to leave a mark on the world, and the fact that it won’t happen can sometimes be a traumatic realisation. Yet there are numerous people who are content to do bulls**t jobs because it enables them to do more meaningful things in their free time.

Marx had a deep distrust of blueprint economics and would have rejected the Stalinism and Maoism that caused the failure of communism. Blueprints too easily become a fetish for politicians and simply serve as a means to enforce their will. Look no further than various South African presidents’ love of bullet points.

The country’s obsession with absolute equality would also have had Marx shaking his head. He rejected an arithmetical conception of equality, since space needed to be made for differences between individuals with varying levels of skill and motivation. But before you become a Marxist to campaign against BEE scores, he warned that inequality becomes dangerous when it reaches extremes, which surely is the case in SA.

It is hard to disagree after the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Marx-like if not Marxist study of global inequality. The other danger for Marx was that capital would conquer the world, and entrench inequality on a global scale. The German was right there, since today the 62 richest people own the same accumulation of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.

Eagleton’s talk acted as a resonator for many other talks on economic subjects. One such was anthropologist David Graeber’s presentation on Bulls**t Jobs, his new book that also deals with the failed promise of technology. Except that he didn’t quote Marx, but John Maynard Keynes, who famously foresaw an era of less and less work.

Graeber, the author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, had initially written only a short article about bulls**t jobs, those without meaning but that people do merely to avoid being jobless. It was translated into 15 languages, and when students pasted extracts on the walls of the London Underground he decided to make a proper project of it.

He conversed through social media with hundreds of people about their jobs. In the meantime a survey was done that found 37% of Britons believed their jobs were meaningless. Another 13% did not even know what they thought of their jobs.

The witty Graeber had the packed 800-seater tent bulge with laughter. He floated a rule: the more productive one is (cleaning streets, building walls), the less you’ll get paid. Higher-paid jobs usually consist of watching other higher-paid people doing equally meaningless jobs. Many of his Facebook interlocutors reported that their relatives believed they had important jobs because they wore suits to work, whereas they did nothing all day long.

Graeber coined the phrase "feudal lord syndrome". The aristocracy in medieval times justified their elevated positions as needed to protect their serfs — against other feudal lords. Today corporate lawyers do the same — they are needed to fight lawyers employed by rival corporations. "Get rid of corporate lawyers, and the world will be a better place," he said.

Graeber is now being consulted by the likes of the Bank of England, even though he is an anthropologist, which many see as a meaningless occupation itself. For a bulls**t job to be designated as such, the employee has to believe this is the case. He is very interested in the 6% of Britons who described their jobs as meaningless, but are happy to do them.

Asked whether bulls**t jobs had not been part of the human condition ever since the change from a hunter-gatherer economy into an agrarian one, Graeber said this was impossible to say.

A servant who had to keep a pharaoh cool with a fan made of feathers possibly believed his employer was a god, and he was therefore doing something of heavenly significance.

He believes every person has a deep-seated desire to leave a mark on the world, and the fact that it won’t happen can sometimes be a traumatic realisation. Yet there are numerous people who are content to do bulls**t jobs because it enables them to do more meaningful things in their free time.

A case in point is the gluttonous South African bureaucracy. As we have heard in testimony on Eskom, some cadres have no clue what they’re doing. But would they all believe their work to be useless? Many have to pay "black tax", and many people are dependent on them clinging to that job by hook or by crook.

Before one pronounces on the ethics of the ANC’s patronage system, one first has to evaluate the stability and basic maintenance of the poor that it brings about. That goes for other South African phenomena. The guard who does nothing all day long in the lobby may be the happiest person in the building.

Another easy candidate for a bulls**t job is that of economist. Take any position you want, and you’ll find an economist somewhere to back you. Radical thinkers like Kate Raworth are rebelling against an economics — Marx’s c**p — that is divorced from reality, unable to predict financial crises, explain growing inequality and clueless in accounting for hidden costs such as damage to the environment. They do not share Marx’s faith in the bourgeoisie: the Californian ideal of two cars, two kids and two toilets is impossible to achieve on a global scale with our finite natural resources.

Like Eagleton, Raworth was asked to repeat a previous talk on her 2017 bestseller Doughnut Economics. Using universally agreed standards, she believes a sustainable market economy is possible between the societal minimums needed to meet the global population’s needs, and the planetary limits in terms of resources. Beyond this doughnut lies planetary exhaustion, and in some areas that is where we already are. In the centre of the doughnut lie the shortfalls in terms of basic needs that make the world a volatile place of revolt, terror and war — shortfalls that are still much too large to ensure a safe future for all.

Raworth is charismatic, and all for entrepreneurship that builds a regenerative and redistributive economics.

She gave several examples from all over the world of economically viable projects that show we can stay within the bounds of the doughnut.

Another influential writer is Mariana Mazzucato, of University College London. In her new book, The Value of Everything, she excoriates the global financial industry. We need to rethink our ideas on value, and how financialisation has turned us away from value creation to value extraction. Taxpayers, she says, are being robbed when they invest in state innovation such as the internet, only for private companies to seize the intellectual property and use it to extract even more "tax" from them as consumers.

More conservative thinkers such as British MP Jesse Norman are reviewing the foundations of economists themselves, right to the first one given that title, Adam Smith, whose biography he has just published. Especially his deification as patron saint of neoliberalism is being challenged.

Like Marx, myths have distorted Smith’s tenets, such as his belief in the indispensable role of the state. When he wrote his famous words about the hidden hand of the market, it was in an attempt to protect the state, not free enterprise.

The economy cannot work, he believed, if large companies gain lucrative contracts in the public sector through nefarious means or through the social connections of their owners with public officials. They should contest for these contracts in the open, where that hidden hand will ensure efficiency and lower costs. Like Marx, he wasn’t an economist, but a philosopher working in a range of fields.

In SA he would have been on the side of the Competition Commission, not global conglomerates who object against even a sniff of state interference. One of his bêtes noires was "state capture", a phrase he coined. Sounds familiar.

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