Making work

by Carl Dyke

Among other things, the unfolding drama in Greece is a reminder that in the world today, and for quite some time past, there is not and has not been enough work for people to do. Rather than find some other way to organize and valorize human life, the response to this has been to make work.

In Greece, among many other places, this has taken the form of massive systems of neo-feudal governmental and quasi-governmental employment (farmers of government payments like the defense and health industries, for example), funded through various extractive and inventive strategies ranging from taxation to money printing to ‘public debt’. (Since the fiat currencies of the modern state are essentially circulating debt, there is no essential difference between these strategies except the levels of public confusion and therefore the pseudo-politics caused by each.)

Because countries like Greece are not big and scary enough to control their own narratives, this fabrication of life and value is commonly referred to there as ‘corruption’. In countries big and scary enough to control their own narratives like the United States and Germany, it is referred to as ‘the public sector’. But in all cases most of the work in question deploys the otherwise unemployed to provide each other, at each others’ expense, with ‘services’ the need for which is largely created by their availability.

Clearly this is not ‘gainful’ or ‘productive’ employment, except in the pragmatic and existential senses that life and value are created by it. As the story goes, truly productive employment only occurs in the ‘private sector’, where the work is driven by real market demand rather than corrupt and/or unproductive shenanigans.

Which brings me to landscaping.

versailles gardens

Landscaping might be described as an inherently unproductive modification of land. Farms are not landscaped, they are worked. Lawns without sheep are an ecological monstrosity, and ‘yards’ need only be cleared enough to keep pests and predators from immediate contact with the buildings. Unremarkable local plants do the trick just fine with minimal inputs of effort. Spare land may well become valuable through garden planting, or left fallow. Of course flowers that attract pollinators, fix nitrogen, and the like may add splashes of color and texture. Productive land has its own beauty, as do the lumpy bodies of productive people. Human / land interaction is traditionally labor and attention intensive. Ordinary folks lived like this for millenia.

And yet, in the United States alone landscaping is an $80 billion ‘industry’. Some of this of course is public and quasi-public landscaping like government lawns and highway medians, but most of it is private and therefore market driven. There is a robust demand for landscaping.

The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. Over 800,000 people are employed in just the direct provision of landscaping services such as “sod laying, mowing, trimming, planting, watering, fertilizing, digging, raking, sprinkler installation, and installation of mortarless segmental concrete masonry wall units,” over 15,000 in “death care services” alone. This does NOT include the production of landscaping supplies and equipment, agriculture of sod and ornamental plants, industry and academic study of same, fractions of transportation, water, and sewer infrastructure devoted to moving the stuff and the stuff’s inputs and outputs around, yard ‘waste’ removal, and so on. Taken all together, it would probably be safe to say that private demand for the inherently unproductive modification of land annually generates about a million jobs and about $100 billion dollars. Yay, markets!

As the husband and friend of artists I know that there are all sorts of ways to argue about the nature and value of beauty. As the (hopefully) soon-to-be owner of a farm originally set up for ornamental livestock (horses) that we hope gradually to convert to boutique farm-to-table production, I am aware that there are no clear lines between the production and productivity of aesthetic and alimentary experience. The other thing that folks did for millenia was eat gruel. And horseflesh.

1265 panorama

But this is my point. If we take an old-school approach to productive labor, there’s very little of that left to do after the machines get done. MOST of the work that people do now, especially in the developed world, is makework. My job certainly is, in a way that’s obvious enough to produce real strains at the point of sale, and incredibly vulnerable by the productivity standards that waves of businessy types periodically try to enforce on it. For education (employment: 8 million+) in anything that required real productivity, tech schools and apprenticeships, largely taught by mechanical reproduction, would surely do the trick. The rest is landscaping.

And therefore, makework had better be alright. As much as I’d like to get on my high horse about Greek (or Italian) ‘corruption’, there’s none of my life that doesn’t participate in the same dynamics. I try to pay off, maybe in ways public sector employees give up on or never learn, but given the spread of outcomes that’s not much more than noise in the signal. What does Germany think it’s doing that’s so much better than what the Greeks are doing? For the life of me, I can’t work that out.



10 Responses to “Making work”

  1. Haven’t followed up with you in a while, but it sounds like we could have a fun conversation about the future of work in a transhumanist context. It’s not just about mechanization of manual labour, anymore. Or about keeping people busy. It’s about our roles as humans and the followup to Graeber’s Debt. Nice!

    Given historical connections that German philosophers have claimed with Greek ones, there could be yet another angle on philosophy as “makework”. Maybe in another post?

    Hoping to hear more about the horsefarm. Horsemeat isn’t that common here in Canada, but it’s among my favourites, with lamb and goat. Makes me hungry just to think of a good tartare. Or barbecue.

  2. “boutique farm-to-table production” — that means pot, right?

  3. I detect an important ambiguity here. Some “makework” jobs, in, for example, education, the arts, and the culture industries are valuable. Others may fall into the category that David Graeber describes as “bullshit jobs,” imposing bureaucratic routines of no or negative value. These may soon be largely replaced by automation, since electrons move information more efficiently than paper-shuffling. The social worker or jailer may become an emotion-sensitive robot equipped with an implacable sense of what is required and enough EQ to respond to error in a helpful instead of punitive manner. Anyway, it might be better to begin with the notion, an adaptation of Marx, that real work is value creating, where value need not be confined to physical products.

  4. Ha! Yes, OK, taken in turn:

    Alex, that’s certainly the drift. As an aside, the problem with the ways those themes so often get handled, from my perspective, is that the imminent demise of capitalism looks a lot like the coming of the kingdom. So it may well be we’ll be playing out the transhumanisms in a consumerist mode (as in fact we already are) for much longer than generations of King Lears and Louis XIVs would like.

    JohnD, it’s a funny thing. When they hear about the farm my tennis friends all go straight to building a tennis court. My golf friends all go straight to putting in a driving range. My gourmand friends are all about the horse tartare, so now you would be …. 😉

    JohnM, I think you’re right, so then I wonder how you react to the landscaping example, which is officially $100 billion dollars worth of ‘valuable’. I certainly value the culture industries, and I can produce paragraphs of justification / marketing for them along the same lines as the one I quoted from the landscapers. But I’m trying not to be tribal, and therefore speaking here from a more Nietzschean transvaluation of values perspective. Or as Marx said, all needs beyond subsistence are social, so all of that work is getting made. I think we’d agree so far. So then, how would we decide that teaching didn’t fit the bureaucratic mechanization trajectory?

  5. Carl, to me both the landscaping example and teaching present similar problems. Both fields encompass a variety of activities, some of which may be automated, while some of which may not be. Landscaping includes both lawn mowing, an activity that a Rhoomba type robot will probably be able to accomplish within a few years, and garden design, the best examples of which are art in the truest sense. Teachingn includes both routine drill, perhaps best left to the robots, and providing models that inspire and sustain a desire to learn. Starting with the tasks to be accomplished may be more productive than starting with generic notions of either landscaping or teaching.

    Turning philosophical, I wonder if anyone else here as read Stanley Cavell’s _Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Democracy_. In this book Cavell describes two models for education. In one both students and teachers are climbing a mountain. There may be many paths to the top but all converge at the same peak and the teachers, higher up the slope, may feel justified in insisting that students, lower down, follow their paths to the top. In the other both teachers and students are travelers whose paths criss-cross an enormous plain. When they meet they may share what they have learned, but there is no guarantee that the teacher’s path even points in the same direction as the student’s. Personally, I suspect that effective education requires both approaches, first leading students up the hills of conventional knowledge, then joining them in wagon trains that set out across the plain.

  6. The Fourth of July has come and gone. Is this conversation now of merely historical interest?

  7. Yes well, I’m always tempted to just turn off my brain for the summer, and maybe that would always be best. But instead I engage in these flights of fancy.

    So continuing, what strikes me about the landscaping example is that they just confidently and indiscriminately assert that they are producing value.

    “The need to beautify commercial/residential property as a place for relaxation, entertainment or work, has long nourished the interest in landscaping. The worth added to the value of property by decorative structures, ponds, patios, and green-winding pathways too cannot be undermined. Keeping in view the growing popularity and importance of landscaping as an art, science, and commercial value proposition, it is of little surprise that landscaping services has now become one of the most important domains in the overall services industry.”

    We can certainly draw distinctions between the creative and mechanical dimensions of landscaping, just as we can with teaching. If that’s the conversation, I’m down with everything you say. But I’m interested at the moment in how the discourses of valorization map onto what I take to be facts about the world, which is that there are a whole lot of people and they have to arrange their living around discourses of valorization. It’s this loop that I take landscaping to be showing us. I think most teaching nowadays is both very bad and manifest-functionally unnecessary, which is how it ends up being ok that it’s very bad. The same could be said for landscaping. But millions of people are making a living doing these things that arguably, are either optional or actively pernicious.

    What would they do instead?

  8. Become unemployed or homeless, or alternatively find other, perhaps equally optional or actively pernicious, occupations. Are these the only alternatives? There is a puritanical tendency in several forms of social thought that suggests that anything optional is either not worth doing or shouldn’t be done at all; but it may not be a very good guide to thinking through what is going on that results in “most teaching nowadays is both very bad and manifest-functionally unnecessary.” Consider as an alternative George Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis.


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