The Human Cartel, Part 1: The Working-Ruling Class

Why do so many people in large bureaucratic organizations spend so much time doing meaningless paperwork that has no effect on anything? One possible answer, suggested by David Graeber, is that the ruling class needs to keep the masses busy. I would not reduce Graeber’s book to any one of his claims, but Graeber succinctly summarizes one of his big ideas in an interview:

The ruling class had a freak out about robots replacing all the workers. There was a general feeling that ‘My God, if it’s bad now with the hippies, imagine what it’ll be like if the entire working class becomes unemployed.’

I, too, believe that the looming threat of artificial intelligence is likely the primary variable that explains the impressive excesses of bureaucratic culture today, but the practical and ideological valence of Graeber’s thesis changes dramatically depending on your interpretation of the “ruling class.” Reading Graeber, one imagines that the ruling class would be epitomized by elite CEOs and wealthy politicians. The masses, in this mental model, are the larger bulk of folks whose unemployment would be a political threat to the stability of the status quo and the comfort of the rulers. But the exponential nature of income inequality dynamics since the 1980s have rendered the actual distribution of economic power far more confusing than this.

It’s fair to say there exists a ruling class, with a class interest in proliferating bureaucracy, but the picture changes dramatically when you realize that this is the faction of the ruling class that is now forced to work extremely hard to sustain a quality of life comparable to the median unionized steelworker of the American 1950s. In short, the bureaucratic ruling class — let’s say those in the 80th income percentile who are proximally responsible for introducing most of the bureaucratic red tape into various domains of life — are arguably in the ruling class but also, arguably, overworked & exploited workers struggling to sustain minimally decent human lives, even if they are much better off than the working poor. To drive this point home, I need to take a slightly personal detour.

I first became aware of the intuition-defying nature of exponential inequality dynamics when I first entered what social scientists might call the subjective middle class. In October 2013, when I accepted a tenure-track academic job offer, and even more so when it became permanent (i.e. the British version of tenure), my subjective belief and identity-experience was that I had entered the middle class. With a wife and no kids, and a stable professional, PhD-requiring job, my economic power increased dramatically relative to most of my peers in their late 20s, but it also seemed equally obvious that we had just snuck onto the bottom rung of the middle class — or so it felt. I had to spend most of my modest savings simply to move and get set up for the job, we both have student debt obligations, etc.

Eventually, I realized that I am at once poorer and richer than I thought. I am much poorer than what I thought the middle class meant, and I am also much richer in the relative income distribution than I thought. Of course, I represent only one anecdotal example of this dual misunderstanding. But given that I’m a social scientist, if my relatively disciplined intuitions are way off in some surprising way, I think we can safely infer that a good bunch of others are also walking around with a similarly confused mental picture.

I am poorer than I thought in the following ways. None of the following are complaints, which would be ridiculous — we are relatively well off, grateful for what we have, and have no complaints. They are just examples of empirical deviations short of what I thought a middle-class profession would give me. Despite living responsibly with no kids for 5 years, buying a house is still not in reach. We want to have kids but feel like we’d be really irresponsible to do so on our current finances. We only rarely go out to dinner and usually feel guilty when we do; we both sometimes decline social dinner invitations for feeling like we can’t afford it. We don’t own a car. We’ve had some fun little travels, but we’ve never been able to take any of the iconic kinds of vacations that I imagined to be the province of middle class professionals (e.g., a beach resort for a week, or some outdoorsy activity-based trip such as skiing, or any far-off continent for any amount of time at all). Call me stupid — and I realize now that I am — but I actually thought entering a middle-class profession would surely enable me to do all these things, at least once a year. To be fair, we are soon going to the mountains in northern Italy for a week but it feels somewhat financially irresponsible, and that’s with the cheapest Airbnb we could find. This is probably how the fake “middle class” life today ruins people: we feel like after working for 5 years with one of us making an 80th percentile income, surely we are entitled [sticks nose up] to one proper adult vacation somewhere beautiful for a week. But then our longer-term finances suffer, so I feel like I need to keep working this urban cosmopolitan job with a high cost of living, even though the whole gig dramatically over-demands and under-delivers relative to what I expected. The “middle class” equilibrium just feels like a big scam. We are lucky to be able to save at all (despite our currently negative net worth), and we are lucky that my career gives some status/security/prospects for the future. These are huge benefits no doubt; but the fact is I went to school way longer than most of my peers, and I now work longer hours than most of my peers, for nothing too materially impressive.

The real privileges we enjoy are mostly what we are not subjected to: humiliating and time-sucking welfare bureaucracies, interminable mate competition, and crippling status anxiety, not to mention mentally ill roommates and depressogenic “friends” we have no choice but to endure. Escape from these things is worth a lot, I must say, but it’s really hard to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of some terrible dog not barking.

As an aside, this is one reason why the idea of prayer has been making more sense to me lately. It’s a technology for correcting cognitive biases and making you more accurately happy for what you do — and don’t — have.

I am also richer than I thought, in the sense that my income puts me in a higher percentile than I would have guessed before I looked into it. Before I looked into it (only about 6 months ago), I figured my income would put me between the 50th and 60th percentile. “Quite blessed for sure, above average, but certainly not rich,” I might have said. Then I entered my numbers into a couple of different calculators online. They give different results depending on whether you look at pre-tax or post-tax, with or without dependents, etc. But they converged quite tightly to inform me that I am roughly in the 80th percentile in the United Kingdom. I’m rich, bitch! This was horrifying, not because I felt ashamed, but because I thought: If my life falls far short of what I thought basic middle class privileges would entail, and I’m objectively higher-up in the distribution than I thought, well then the overwhelming majority of people have absolutely no shot at even a low-level middle-class picture of life.

This then brings the deduction that the image many of us have in our minds, regarding basic middle-class security and comfort, is enjoyed only by an exceedingly small number of people at the top of the top. Some more established academics, especially if their partner is equally or better paid, enjoy this kind of life. Some academics, even in the social sciences and humanities, are in the infamous 1%, i.e. the 99th percentile.

Curiously, back at the time of Occupy around 2011, David Graeber coined the distinction between this villainous 1% and “the 99%” who are screwed by capitalism. It was a brilliantly successful piece of class warfare but now I’m tantelized by the delicious possibility that Graeber launched this meme from a position in the 1%. Not that I’d shame him for it — I admire him and his work — I’m just really curious now because my intuitions about the income distribution back then were, clearly, miscalibrated. The average income of a Professor at the LSE is about £85k a year (according to Indeed.co.uk), and as of 2016 this would round to about the 96th percentile. He could be above or below that average, but I digress…

In the next part of this series, I’ll discuss how the new cohort of American young-adult socialists fit into this equation.

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  1. Emma

    Graeber is definitely one percent. Debt book earned him something like half a million, and the publisher paid an advance for this BS jobs book was at least 1/4 million. That’s fine, but he’s a maoist so a bit annoying.

  2. Jojo

    You’re minted. You must be paying out of your eyeballs in rent and making needless purchases to not be able to save loads while eating at restaurants and going on holiday. People tend to adjust their spending with their income, so if you were struggling before then you’ll most likely be struggling even with more money.

    • jmrphy

      Yea rent is terrible in the south of the UK. We save fairly well, just not as much as I’d have thought we could. I agree about income, which is why I don’t actually want more money, I want a cheaper life I think.

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