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

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980). How easy is it to distinguish socially useful labour from activities which are pointless, parasitic, counterproductive, or downright violent?

Douglas Adams has a tale for us. Long ago, on a distant planet, it became generally recognized that there were quite a lot of bullshit jobs around. The planet's inhabitants devised a plan to get rid of these pointless jobs ... as well as the people who performed them.

Oddly enough, the plan involved a poet, who told a tale of the coming apocalypse. The people with the pointless jobs -- mostly management types, although also some telephone-sanitizers etc. -- were packed off to colonize a backwater planet. "We'll be right behind you," everybody else shouted into space, and of course they weren't. Ha ha ha! There was no apocalypse coming after all! ... or was there?

Anyway, can you guess which planet was colonized? That's right, prehistoric Earth. And yes, we humans are the descendants of the pointless jobs people. This is demonstrated not so much by shared genetics, so much as by shared attitudes and agendas. Witness our wise and noble ancestors, in the weeks after planetfall:
"[...] 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, by the way, see Kendrick LamarNalo Hopkinson, Clifford D. Simak, and Adam Roberts. The leaf currency is not the only (supposedly) impractical currency in Adams's 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. [...]"
However, 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.

But back to those bullshit jobs. As a postscript, it's worth pointing out that the civilization which rids itself of its superfluous workers ends up perishing from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone. The point of Adams's satire might be a slightly Burkeian one: OK, there is certainly a lot of labour 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?
  • How does a job alter the way you think and act in a non-professional context? How do "jobs" relate to "social types"?
  • How should we consider Adams's fable from the perspectives of various post-work theorists and activists?
  • Do you have a pointless job? (BBC)
(JLW)

Alcott, Louisa May. 'Transcendental Wild Oats'.

Louisa May Alcott, 'Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance' (1873).

Alcott's satire about a bungling 1840s Transcendental utopian community, and its extremely poor incentive design. It is inspired by the short-lived Fruitlands commune.
Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest. As none of the members of this particular community have ever recounted their experiences before, a few of them may not be amiss, since the interest in these attempts has never died out and Fruitlands was the most ideal of all these castles in Spain.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale

Here's a short review of Atwood's classic over at The Guardian (by Charlotte Newman), plus Margaret Atwood's entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.

And here's a snippet:
"Sorry, he said. This number's not valid.
  That's ridiculous, I said. it must be, I've got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.
  It's not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it's not valid.
  You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.
  He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again."
And:
She got up and went to the kitchen and poured us a couple of Scotches, and came back and sat down and I tried to tell her what had happened to me. When I'd finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?
  Yes, I said. I told her about that too.
  They've frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective's too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We're cut off. 
Compare Brett Scott, "The War on Cash." Here's a snippet from that:
The proclaimed Death of Cash is thus an episode in the broader drama that is the Death of Privacy, the death of breathing room, and the death of informal, non-measured, unaccounted-for behaviour. Every action you take must forever be attached to your digital persona, dragging with it a data trail extending back to the day you were born. We face creating an entire generation of people who do not know what it feels like to not be monitored.
Atwood's novel is remarkable for many reasons. From the perspective of economics, it's perhaps also worth recognising that although this dystopia is primarily a satire against patriarchy -- and perhaps against separatist feminism -- it is also a sex positive satire, and a liberal satire against theocracy and totalitarianism.

It also has an elusive and awkward relationship with socialism and communism.

At one point June [Offred] thinks of the slogan, "From each according to her abilities, to each according to his needs," which she believes might be from the Bible. Actually it's a corruption of Marx (where the pronouns are "he" and "his": in the gender neutral sense, to include everybody, but then again, maybe not really). There is another moment in the novel with a similarly curious relationship to leftist politics and economics. It alludes to Berlin's two types of freedom, negative and positive:
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
Classical liberals like Constant and perhaps Mill tend to be more interested in safeguarding negative freedom, "freedom from," whereas thinkers like Rousseau and Marx have a lot more time for positive freedom, "freedom to" (cf. Rousseau's infamous "forced to be free"). But Atwood does it the other way round: quite plausibly and gracefully, she has a spokesperson from this totalitarian society defend it in terms of "freedom from."

(JLW)