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A Lesson From the Middle East About Useless Jobs

Many jobs is our so-called capitalist economy aren’t worth much:

What’s going on? Surprisingly, one of the more convincing explanations comes from an anthropologist who has looked beyond narrow economic reasoning to examine the actual social or psychological functions served by many of the jobs in today’s service and knowledge economy. David Graeber of the London School of Economics argues in a recent book that the prevailing myths about the efficiency of capitalism blind us to the fact that much of economic reality is shaped by jockeying for power and status and serves no economic function at all.

There may be a more reasonable explanation.

This reminds me of something I heard at a political dinner many years ago.  It was during Bush’s Iraq War and a friend and I were talking about the Middle East.  His observation was that the difference between the U.S. and the Middle East was that we earned money to get power and there they got power to get money.

Difference?  Or perhaps we’re adopting the Middle Eastern way, a fear I’ve expressed to my Middle Eastern friends.  I think there are two things driving this, and they (as usual) are interrelated.

The first is the centralisation of power due to both the centralisation of wealth and of political authority with an expanding government.  All the Middle Eastern powers of old, going back to Egypt and Babylon and going to the Ottomans (and neo-Ottomans,) Iran and Saudi Arabia, are autocratic in form, function or both.  With power those at the top can “organise” things to make the wealth flow their way, and we see that in abundance here these days.

The second is the growth of endemic (pandemic?) careerism in our society.  I discussed this phenomenon in my piece When the Sheep Have Anthrax: A Reflection on the Politics of the Middle East and won’t belabour the point.

Given what we’ve seen in the Middle East, I doubt adopting this idea is an improvement for us, and the inefficiencies it builds into the system is one evidence that we’re not moving forward the way we should.


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