In a posthumous essay David Graeber opens:
“At some point in the next few months, the crisis will be declared over, and we will be able to return to our “nonessential” jobs. For many, this will be like waking from a dream. The media and political classes will definitely encourage us to think of it this way. This is what happened after the 2008 financial crash. There was a brief moment of questioning. (What is “finance,” anyway? Isn’t it just other people’s debts? What is money? Is it just debt, too? What’s debt? Isn’t it just a promise? If money and debt are just a collection of promises we make to each other, then couldn’t we just as easily make different ones?) The window was almost instantly shut by those insisting we shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work, or at least start looking for it. Last time, most of us fell for it. This time, it is critical that we do not.”
I urge you to complete the essay, which goes on to conclude that instead of going back to sleep after the pandemic woke us up, we should “create an “economy” that lets us actually take care of the people who are taking care of us.” I want to add a critical observation, required to avoid what actually happened after the 2008 financial crash. I will use Graeber’s analogy of people going back to sleep after momentarily being awakened to reality after the 2008 financial crash. However, I add a key additional observation.
Using the analogy, I am arguing that the majority of people did not go back to sleep, after the 2008 financial crash. Instead of going back to sleep, a large portion of people embraced the premises of the dream they had awoken from but whilst awake and honest to themselves about the delusion. They then entered into a confected struggle with those who went back to sleep. Therefore, we cannot just argue for people not to go back to sleep. We must also avoid living in a waking nightmare like we have been increasingly doing since post-2008. Although Sleepy Joe promises Americans otherwise.
I am going to use B*tcoin and schooling to illustrate my point, and why living nightmares are as worthy of attention as going back to sleep.
In 2009, immediately after the 2008 financial crash, B*tcoin was launched. It fed off the antiestablishmentarianism that grew out of the crash. I have followed it keenly since, having presented at the official B*tcoin 2012 conference, only to be forced off stage midway through. I had been presenting a brief history of currency and debt. Essentially a summary of Graeber’s book on debt, and then highlighting lessons that could be learnt by B*tcoin enthusiasts to realize their liberatory claims. Rather than heading on course, as B*tcoin has done, to become a living nightmare for most unsuspecting people and a way to keep more jostlty elements of the petit bourgeoisie satiated.
The premise of B*tcoin was that central banks were in control of ‘money’, so why not get rid of them and have a decentralized currency. Unfortunately, those leading the charge were not interested in navigating how this might play out in reality. They just fanatically repeated their mantra that they had found the golden key to break the establishment. They would not go back to sleep in the grip of central banks. They used their half-arsed wokeness and techno-whizz-bang-pop newness to gain unprecedented media attention.
Here was a story that journalists could report to appeal to post-2008 anti-establishmentarian sentiments. One that also sounded cool, hip and radical. As I noted on that stage, the one I was pushed off of back in 2012, B*tcoin’s value is significantly dependent on the amount of hype there exists about it. This has now belatedly been admitted by none other than the director of what has come to replace a central bank for B*tcoin: Coinbase and the shadowy B*tcoin Foundation.
My belief in this was deepened when I was contacted by an idealistic young journalist for the up and coming Bitcoin Magazine. He had heard the part of the talk I had managed to give in 2012 and was interested in critical thinking. However, after sharing the draft of my talk with his managing editor he was forced to kill off the article about my presentation by that managing editor. The reasoning: it contained elements critical of B*tcoin and the Milton Friedman mythology it is based on.
In sum, the mainstream media, populated by people who had gone back to sleep after the 2008 crash, but saw a need to report on something a bit edgy, had bought into the trash peddled by B*tcoin fanatics. In doing so they had been used like drugged up mules to deliver B*tcoin’s message far and wide and keep its hype going.
Without going into it too much, in practice B*tcoin is simply a reservoir for money laundering. More importantly it’s a failure because it did not deliver on its promise i.e. it is now an established currency traded on Wall Street. Its story is not really any different from many other ventures that thrived off of the idea of being cool and edgy and helping push the sharing economy. Think of Uber, Airbnb, and many others. They all sell you the idea of removing middle men only to become the one big middle man.
At a microscopic scale it even directly stung Graeber when he supported a cool and hip new journal in Social Anthropology that sold itself as part of the sharing economy (open-access etc). However, as Graeber later discovered it was actually built on the backs of precarious often unpaid students treated like shit by their fanatical boss. Another living nightmare that was sold to us as the wake-up call.
The additional trick with all of these is that they pretend to be free or cheap to the user and not place any expense on the non-user. In fact they are all very expensive and we all pay for them. Whether the air pollution created to power bitcoin, the material and social damage caused by platform unicorns or the large and unaccounted fees your university paid to that journal. These are just the tip of the ice-berg that these nightmares constitute.
Which brings me to our current pandemic. Graeber identifies the consequent lockdowns as highlighting essential jobs like nurses versus bullshit jobs like most managers. He urges that after the pandemic we don’t accept that it is “entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it…” or having to do jobs that “exist only for [their] own sake, or to make rich people feel good about themselves, or to make poor people feel bad about themselves”.
I agree, but if 2008 is anything to go by I think many people know this already and agree to. However, what was (like B*tcoin) and will now be pushed again by the mass media, courtiers, and those with the power to fill our attention, are pretend radical ideas that sound edgy and cool. But, like B*tcoin, we the people don’t have time to make sense of these technobabble-whizz-pop bangs, and take them at face value.
I want to take schooling in England as an example directly related to the pandemic, to explain what I mean and what will happen after the pandemic. If we agree to stay wake but “create[ing] an “economy” that lets us actually take care of the people who are taking care of us” can happen. But my point is it won’t if we get enthralled by technobabble presented to us as radical. If we get enthralled then and we will instead end up creating both a living nightmare and an opposition to it that simply wants to go back to sleep.
Right now many children are not attending school in person in England due to the lockdown. Digital learning options have been introduced for many children. At the same time, due to this turn for help to tech heads (to help setup digital environments), whole armies of digital entrepreneurs are flooding educators meetings and inboxes (and crucially the politicians and local councils who organise their budgets). They are pushing their technical solutions for how to deliver super low cost standardised schooling across the internet to all kids. Their thought leader, Bill Gates, has already been test running post-teacher digital-centric schooling in some US states, having effectively bought out organizations like the Khan Academy to do so.
After the pandemic, going back to sleep in schooling would mean sending children back to school. After the pandemic, the edgy nightmare that will compete with this will be online schooling for all. The consequent hybrid of the two will be further stratification of teachers and less of them. And those left will increasingly do more bullshit and less caring for children. Some teachers will become well paid managers that sit in the occasional zoom meeting, have their personal mindfulness coach, whilst living in their grand houses. Some teachers will retire with disgust. And the teachers that are left will simply become gig economy children handlers.
These last teachers will spend their time making sure children are signing up online and doing their standard assessments, whilst doing lots of marking in standardised ways, sending countless emails, attending countless pointless meetings, digital trainings. And most of their time spent with students will be focussed on helping students navigate an arcane platform and assessment criteria rather than caring for them and helping them explore life. The children of rich people, well that’s a different matter entirely.
In any case, before we reach this hybrid, teachers unions, one of the last collections of unions with any collective power whatsoever in this country (even if they are often hamstrung by centralised elected bureaucrats), will fight and fight hard, as they should, but they will fight for the wrong thing entirely.
They will fight to go back to normal schooling. Normal schooling in England is dogshit. Don’t ask me, ask most of the children who go to school. Ask the child psychologists. Ask the endless queue of teachers leaving the profession because they can’t stomach it anymore. It forces caring people that become teachers to treat beautiful young people like the primitive cavemen we believe are our mythological ancestors. And what do you do with primitive little minds. You sit them down and get them to train to be able to pass IQ tests. All day every day to show how stupid they are until they cotton on to the fact that all the IQ test is asking you to do is conform to its way of wanting you to see the world. Do that, you pass and well done you can now join the queue to do a bullshit job. A job mainly involving making sure everyone sticks to their school training and doesn’t break any rules. But don’t think about this. Think about the new emoji you can use to communicate with others on your screen. If you can’t do any of that see a therapist or be excluded. Remember you are the problem if you can’t fit.
And all of this will be more likely because there is no ‘after the pandemic’. Not at least until we address the conditions that will keep creating new pandemics over the coming decades.
That is why staying awake is not a simple matter of not going back to sleep. Yes, we must not buy back into the sleepy normal, but we must also not buy into the gizmodic edgy stories that promise to do away with the old, only to leave us living in a nightmare fighting to go back to the world where we were asleep.
This is a free written train of thought, written in direct response to Graeber’s article. I have not added my sources, but I thought it worth putting down this raw first version before editting it and finding it an appropriate home.