Adams, Douglas. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). Long ago, some distant planet realizes that quite a lot of people are wasting their time in what anthropologist David Graeber might call bullshit jobs.

A plan is devised to get rid not only of these pointless jobs, but also the people who do them. A poet spins some apocalyptic yarns, and the bullshit jobs people -- mostly management types, although some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- are packed off to colonize a backwater planet. This planet, it turns out, is the prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are their descendants, as demonstrated not so much by shared DNA, but by shared attitudes and agendas:
"[...] Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich."
      Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
     "But we have also," continued the management consultant, "run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability [...] we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and ... er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."
For other money trees, see Kendrick LamarNalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts. The leaf currency is not the only (supposedly) impractical currency in the novel:
"[...] Its exchange rate of eight Ningis to one Pu is simple enough, but since a Ningi is a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles long each side, no one has ever collected enough to own one Pu. Ningis are not negotiable currency, because the Galactibanks refuse to deal in fiddling small change. [...]"
Actually, a credit theory of money might say there's nothing wrong with the Ningi/Pu system. Owning a Ningi wouldn't have to involve re-locating a physical object: a record in a ledger of who owns what should be enough. That way, I don't need to actually carry it around with me; in the words of A.A. Milne, "Wherever I am, there's always Pu / There's always Pu and me." Compare the famous stone money of Yap.

It is also worth pointing out that the civilization which rids itself of the superfluous workers ends up perishing from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone. The point of the satire might be: there is certainly a lot of labour done which is superfluous or a hindrance to human happiness and flourishing ... but figuring out exactly what labour that is is a difficult and risky business. (Perhaps the Bullshit Work Inspector can help?)

Talking points:
  • How does the proposal to get rid of bullshit jobs differ from the kind of ruthless, supposedly efficiency-driven restructuring that is sometimes proposed by management consultants?
  • How might pointless jobs be defined, identified, and removed?
  • Why might getting rid of the people feel easier than getting rid of the roles?
  • Is there a slightly genocidal edge to jokes about getting rid of an economically parasitic stratum of society?
  • Do you have a pointless job? (BBC)
(JLW)