Years ago I met a fascinating American named Bill. I mainly remember two things about Bill. The first; when he joked that despite being an artist he would probably only find fame through pulling up a shotgun at McDonalds. I had recently purchased a tape recorder and was mock-interviewing him when he told the McDonalds joke. I forgot about it until I listened to it again in my room some days later and had the cover of Time Magazine in front of me, where the Columbine killers cited Tarantino as their inspiration and talked openly about how famous this would make them. This was just before the era of reality TV dawned on us and I certainly got the chills from the coincidence, but now I mostly marvel about those years when you still bought magazines, dictaphones had tapes in them and you still asked people for their e-mails in order to stay in touch rather than adding them on Facebook.

The other thing I remember about Bill was his e-mail address – paidmydues @ some long since defunct e-mail provider. It seemed too ordinary for such a colourful character – which made me realize that there was a lot more to this saying then I had first thought.

How do you pay your dues? Do you do it through army service or through general hardship?

Do you pay them by doing your bit for society, through hard work, by paying your taxes, by voting and protesting and being a proper citizen, partaking in democracy the best you can?

That was probably the general idea, and in exchange you should get proper time to live your life and chase your dreams, with the remote yet realistic possibility of making that dream your job.

But then things started to go south, albeit in the most subtle of ways. Hard work was equated with money and freedom with cash. And little by little hard work was paid less and less and freedom became a meaningless word.

All this means that we stopped paying our dues long ago and have been paying their dues instead for the longest time. You all know who they are; the politicians and businessmen who are rich enough and connected enough not to have to pay for what we pay for. You know, stuff like taxes and debts.

Bullshit Jobs – and bullshit in general

We’re paying their dues over and over again, not just by paying their taxes and still seeing the welfare system slowly crumble, because they have made sure that our taxpaying money goes elsewhere.

We’re also doing it through the man-power that it takes to cover their tracks. Think of all those people in the financial sector who have the job of hiding their money. Think of the seven assistants of the man who used to be Prime Minister, not to mention all the other PR people speaking for governments and big businesses. Almost six years ago the number of PR agents was equal to the number of journalists in Iceland – I’d be surprised if they don’t outnumber the journalists by now. Think of the nation’s oldest newspaper, bought by sea barons to spew propaganda in order to make sure they could still hoard every cent possible from the fishing industry, an industry that could easily support the entire nation. Think of the Prime Minister’s party, who used their power to buy up what used to be the most critical paper in the land last year. Think of the nation’s largest newspaper, the mouthpiece of big business, which has published several editorials justifying the use of tax havens.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some fine journalists working for those papers. But they have a hard time fighting the agenda that is being set by their owners and even their editors, time better spent covering the news. There are also some honest bankers and honest PR people who do useful things. But there are way too many of them – and way too many who are focused on hiding things, sweeping them under the carpet. They are symptoms of a society that downplays the value of artists and scholars and does it best to create multiple jobs that are at best useless, at worst harmful.

We could use this extra time to better all our lives, by making sure we work less and do so in more fulfilling jobs, leaving more time for hobbies and passions, family and friends. We could also help those in need; if we do away with all the bullshit we could easily do both.

Instead we end up with building contractors who tear down historical houses to build hotels or puffin stores, bureaucrats making everybody’s lives harder and advertising psychologists convincing us to buy stuff we don’t need.

David Graeber put it well in the article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” a few years back – I recommend you read it all, but it begins thus:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen.”

It didn’t happen because they didn’t want it to happen. They want us chained to our desks, rather than having too much free time to challenge the social order, to play and think and figure them out.

But little by little, we are figuring them out. And even if it seems like a utopia now such things can change very quickly when there is a general consensus. Now, for example, there is a general consensus in society that you can choose your gender – something that probably seemed outrageous to most a few decades ago. Yet it still seems outrageous to some that we can choose our jobs, we should simply apply for those jobs that the capitalists and the governments provide for us.

Yet that can be changed. First, we’ll have to topple the government. But this time, we must make sure we don’t stop there. We have to make fundamental changes to society – changes that make the average working man free of debt, long working hours and bullshit jobs. Changes that make this a real democracy, where the citizens have more power than just one x on a ballot poll every four years and are not too worn down by 40 hours droning in work to do so.

The technology for all of this is already in place – and we have the riches too, if we only distribute them more equally, and while the adjustment won’t be painless we’re more ready for it then we assume, if only given the chance.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

A much shorter version of the article appeared in The Reykjavík Grapevine on May 6th 2016.