Property / by Alex Williamson

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A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

David Graeber

i.

It was his second clerical job in the city. His first, at a lobbying group for the hospitality industry, had come about thanks to the benevolent action of one of his friends, who had taken pity on his precarious state and put him forward for a temp role in their office. When offered the job he happily accepted, that day graduating from bar staff to temporary office assistant, or receptionist. Although the pay was only marginally better, it gave him a foot in the door, and critically, enough money to survive in London for a little while longer.

After the role became permanent, he was given a pay rise and thereafter a promotion, both of which he parlayed that pay rise and promotion in the form of a new job at a property lobbying group, a role which came with what he perceived to be more prestige, and which, for a brief period, enabled him to keep pace with his upwardly mobile friends. In truth, his hungry years had long been superseded by days of comfort and conspicuous consumption. He still harboured writerly aspirations, and wrote poetry almost constantly, but by now the pressing urgency of his original focus had faded.

More recently, he had turned to photography as a means of representing the city which was slowly eating him alive. Like many in the city, he believed he would soon make the switch from administrative underling to artistic polymath, the online persona he had now assumed. It was just a matter of time. For the moment, he swallowed his principles like a cup of warm sick, knowing sooner or later they would come back up.

He had taken the job partly because he thought his parents would be impressed, that they would be satisfied that he got the job that justified the years of learning and lolling. His father was a builder, but his father renovated and converted, he didn’t bulldoze and construct. It meant he would be working on behalf of corporate entities the like of which he had contemplated with disdain at the university milk round. Nevertheless, the gulf between his pseudo-socialist refusenik self and his reluctant capitalist alter-ego was easily bridged.

The value of property across the country, but especially in the capital, was the product of centuries of conquest, acquisition and inheritance. Property ownership was a principle established by aristocratic birthright and serendipitous entitlement. Privately, he was discomfited by the countless city centres rendered soulless by anodyne and anonymous plazas of glass and steel built by the industry. Inherently dystopian developments gesturing towards a future envisaged by J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick. Architecturally-uniform constructions that equated hi-tech modernism with minimalist mediocrity. Shoe-box-sized dwellings in monolithic monuments to money, the cliff-faces of wealth one had to climb to live in their luxury penthouses. The gleaming towers designed and built to attract investors from overseas, and then left unoccupied, like deposit boxes in the sky, in the middle of a national housing crisis. And here he was about to service the fuckers.

The organisation claimed to represent an industry responsible for Places where people live, work and play. It was a bogus strapline, stolen off a TV advertisement for Mars from the Eighties. He could think of more appropriate alternatives. Places where people rot, slave and gnaw each others’ bones.

Philosophically-speaking, property was pretty much persona non grata within the lines of thought he favoured. It was Aristotle who remarked that democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are rulers, and John Locke, who sermonised, where there is no property, there is no injustice. Not forgetting Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels calling for the abolition of all private property in the Communist Manifesto. John Stuart Mill argued, more sagely, that landlords grow richer, as it were, in their sleep, without working, risking or economising, while in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had intoned, As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produces.

But it was upon reading The Thin Red Line, James Jones’s 1962 novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Second World War, that he found the best expression his scepticism about the value of acquisition and unfettered wealth. In Jones’ novel, one particular character, the abrasive First Sergeant Walsh, best expressed the pacifist sentiments of the narrative by reducing the imperial ambitions that had sparked a worldwide conflagration to a simple, embittered observation: Property. Its all about property.

 

ii.

The woman he had been recruited to replace had been with the organisation a long time and had acquired a formidable reputation. A force of nature, he was informed by all and sundry. Irreplaceable. Part of the furniture. Tough act to follow. She was reluctantly retiring, or had been encouraged to retire, it wasn’t entirely clear which. When he arrived for his first day, she was away from the office. On sick leave, he was informed. On the day of her return, she hurried into the office, a portly woman in her late sixties, very short and slightly hunchbacked, with cropped grey hair and round glasses. He could hear her heels thudding angrily into the carpet tiles.

He waited an hour or so before approaching her desk and introducing himself. She considered him the way a food critic might consider a pubic hair in her terrine. Witheringly. Under her gaze, he withered like a dehydrated hydrangea. I’m incredibly busy, I haven’t possibly got time to talk to you now, she said, in a voice that varied between husky and squeaky. So please go away. I will speak to you when I have time. Then she returned to her work. Clearly this was the formidability his new colleagues had spoken off. It was as if he had returned to his schooldays, for it had been some time since anyone had been so openly hostile to him. Most people waited until they knew him a little better.

In her final week, he asked her for a handover meeting and she looked at him as though he’d asked for her hand in marriage. She viewed such things as an unnecessary distraction to running her office, she informed him. For it was her office, and had been for some twenty-odd years. That, she continued, was why they needed two people, on double her salary to replace her. You, and the new office manager, she fumed. She rebuffed his questions and offered little in the way of assistance. When he asked her what members got in exchange for their membership she smiled sweetly and replied, Fuck all. She handed him several sheets of paper of varying size, all of which had been hastily scribbled on and were barely legible. Her handover notes. You’ll just have to make it up as you go along, I’m afraid. You seem like a bright boy, I’m sure you’ll work it out. That brought the meeting to a close.

iii.

When people asked him what he did for a living, or if family members enquired how the new job was going, he couldn’t bear to answer them. He had no faith in what the organisation did, or what he himself was doing. It bored him to talk about it, so he changed the subject and hoped no one would notice.

The only that bored him more than talking about his job was talking to his manager, a middle-aged former Northumbrian whose baldness and sinewy physique caused him to resemble a tortoise straining to shit, and who was about as dynamic as a defecating testudine. Essentially well-meaning but irritatingly ineffectual, he was the living embodiment of the Peter principle, and had landed on his feet in his role. Particularly given the hefty salary.

They hadn’t gelled particularly well in the interview. There was something in the man’s demeanour that irked him. Something about his digressive nature, his phrasing and mannerisms. A few months later, when he recounted in conversation how he had been surprised when he received the phone call offering the job, his line manager informed him that he had in fact been the second choice. The first choice had wanted more money, so they went with the cheaper option.

Things did not improve once his predecessor was out of the picture and he moved from his temporary position to her former desk, which was outside the office of his manager. He soon realised that his relocation meant that his manager could now call him into his office as a sounding-board for one of his many operational flights of fancy. Occasionally, when his manager was in a meeting with another luckless colleague, if a call came through on his direct line, his manager would ask him to pick it up, as if he was his de facto personal assistant. Initially he feigned ignorance of the switchboard system. Then, when his manager cottoned on to the ruse, he simply pretended to be making a call of his own.

Once he entered his manager’s office, he was subjected to an excruciating, near-vaudevillian routine. Once seated his manager would remove his glasses and rub his eyes with the heels of his hands, before looking at the desk, sighing deeply and staring balefully at him. After taking several seconds to collect his thoughts, his manager embarked upon a long, detailed and frequently digressive monologue in his soft north-eastern accent. Sometimes this concerned a whimsical observation about the operations of the office, sometimes he was treating him as a confidante about the inappropriate behaviour of a colleague, and on other occasions it concerned a specific request the chief executive had made. Whatever they discussed, it was almost always an issue which caused his manager no small amount of anguish, anguish which he had few qualms about passing on to him as his subordinate.

Whenever he was in his manager’s office, which in those first months was almost hourly, he found his eye being drawn to a postcard pinned on the wall which bore a famous quote by the author Douglas Adams. I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

At the close of one of his monologues, his manager would usually ask him for his thoughts. He thought it best not to say what was on his mind. Sometimes he would ask his manager what he himself thought, only to hear what had by now become a familiar phrase. I don’t know.

At lunchtime his manager crunched through a mass of raw stir fry veg topped with chilli sauce at his desk. Every day. For eight years. Perhaps he was a tortoise after all.

 

iv.

His manager had a puppyish affection for the chief executive, a steely former civil servant in the Margaret Thatcher mold, which expressed itself as an illimitable eagerness to please.

Polonius to her Gertrude, in the hands of a more benign Creator, one who loved a happy ending, theirs would have been a relationship swiftly consummated after a brief, intense courtship, rather than the protracted and cringe-inducing exchange of remarks about otherwise unremarkable behaviour of their feline life companions, their invisible significant others, their summer holidays in Greece and the Dolomites. Either that, or he would have been pinioned through an arras by a thrust sword by the end of the third act.

The chief executive had the air of a seasoned politico, one fond of helmets of platinum hair and power dressing, of hurried entrances and sweeping exits, of chewing the arm of her glasses when scrutinising something, or someone she deemed lesser in import than herself.

She had all the grace of a Gerald Scarfe caricature, with her sharp features and slender frame, her shoulders sloped like a hooded hawk on the glove. The stalwarts of the male-dominated industry treated her with a degree good grace, as she softened their poor image, while reminding many of them of their nanny.

As was common for many small not-for-profit organisations, her office was run through a system of discrete patronage, acute condescension and fiery belligerence. Frequently he felt as if he was being brought to heel for some misdemeanour or other. Once he took something he believed important to her desk, and she responded, with deathly disinterest, I don’t care. On another occasion, socialising after work, when he informed her that he liked poetry, she said, That’s a bit poofy isn’t it?

She had her favourites, those favoured few who could reliably expect to capture and hold her limited attention for long enough to successfully make their case for something and receive a response in the affirmative. Usually it was those whose areas of expertise dovetailed with her own.

This lent a determinedly feudalistic atmosphere to the organisation’s internal culture, one informed by the regal light of her apparent divinity. There were those who were invited to kiss the royal ring, and those who were not. Those who kissed the ring guaranteed safe passage in her kingdom. Those who didn’t were out in the cold.

He had no interest in kissing the ring. The only ring he wanted to kiss was his wife’s.

 

v.

His role, such as it was, was to oversee the organisation’s membership processes and organise their events. Two unwieldy jobs condensed into one role. He didn’t much care for either, and despite the best efforts of his predecessor, there was much that needed to be done. When he joined the organisation the database of members consisted of a poorly-maintained excel spreadsheet in the possession of the company secretary, and the scribbled sheets of his predecessor. Back of a fag packet stuff. The company secretary left not long after his predecessor, and her departure revealed a ledger-book of discrepancies between projected and actual income.

The organisation’s flagship events were tired, lacklustre and poorly-attended. However, this being a sector characterised by as entrenched a strain of conservatism as British politics itself, there was little appetite on the Board for making radical adjustments to them. Instead he was tasked with running the exact same events as his predecessor, only to do it better. Better venues, better speakers, better organisation. More delegates, more sponsors, more press coverage. And above all, more profit.

He had next to no experience of organising events. This had been the supreme blag of his application. And now it had come back to haunt him. There were conferences, dinners, seminars, monthly lunches and receptions to organise, and a score of colleagues grateful to him for replacing the woman they were terrified to approach for help in making their ideas for every kind of nebulous event become a reality. No longer.  

For seven years he ground out countless events too dull to describe in any great detail here. Dull gala dinners, dreary political conferences, pointless policy conferences, wearisome breakfast seminars, insufferable invitation-only receptions, tedious monthly lunches in the same venues, with the same speakers, the same sponsors, the same delegates, the same faces, the same airs and graces, the same bowing and scraping, same purpose: to protect property.

What bothered him most about events was that it reminded him how rapidly time had passed, and how little he had achieved at the organisation, and outside of it. It was something which, like Bartleby, he preferred not to do. He knew there were far worse jobs. A&E nurse. Care home assistant. Street sweeper. Personal assistant to the chief executive.

He had often wondered what it must be like to work in retail, where the logic of capitalism ushered in each season ahead of schedule, making Christmas come a little earlier each year and permanently leaving staff temporally and psychically discombobulated. It was just a matter of time. Looking ahead at the schedule of events for the next six months, he would silently hope he would be long gone by then, but when the event arrived and he found that he wasn’t, fell into funk of dejection and depression, like he was being swallowed up by a deep trench under the ocean.

 

vi.

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx described the estrangement (Entfremdung) of the self from what he termed its species-essence (Gattungwesen) through subjugation to the world of work. It is work as the physical expression of capitalism which denies the rational individual the right to think freely, to consider themselves autonomous beyond one’s economic productivity.

For Marx, the worker is a slave towards its object. They live to work and work to live. A double bind which alienates the worker from its mode of production. Those individuals who were not committed to maximising their economic productivity were regarded as morally dubious.

Capitalism begets atomisation. Social dislocation. Alienation. Failure.

Under neoliberalism the same rules applied. Everything that the organisation did was nebulous. Shaping policy. Restricting regulation. Affecting decisions. Publishing papers. Generating wealth for the already very wealthy. Men of property. Men of means. A female chief executive helped soften the tone. Everything that he did day to day was directed at ensuring the organisation had sufficient funds to fulfil this activity. Retaining members. Securing sponsors. Running a profit. In exchange the organisation provided him with sufficient funds to stay financially afloat in London. Monthly payslip. Pension contribution. Season ticket loan.

In the years he was at the organisation a crop of glass and steel edifices flowered throughout the city. Priapic constructions with quotidian names to make them seem more benign. The Cheesegrater. The Walkie Talkie. The Shard. The Heron. And nested among them, a host of smaller mix-use developments.

Investment opportunities. Deposit-boxes in the sky. Towers of London.

 

vii.

At times he felt as if he was the property of the organisation, as if his body was no longer his own but the chattel of the Board. The time that he lent to his employer in exchange for salary + benefits had been taken permanently on loan. Each day that he buzzed into the office and sat at his desk he was marking time, dreaming of some great escape, while his inbox steadily filled and deadlines loomed. While he was adept at pushing extra work away, his Bartleby-styled MO, from time to time he would lumber himself with a fruitless and frustrating project in order to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his superiors.

He was tormented by an article he read by the anthropologist David Graeber, which decried the proliferation of so-called bullshit jobs. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at, Graeber wrote. It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. He hated his bullshit job and the bullshit industry, but it was impossible to leave. The only thing he could hope for was an internal promotion, more money, or both.

The organisation’s personal appraisal system reinforced this feeling of time passing, while inculcating the sense that one should be using one’s time better, by performing more effectively, working harder for the same money.

At his first appraisal, his manager drew a pyramid labelled ‘PR’ and divided it into segments labelled ‘Events’, ‘Marketing’, ‘Media’, ‘Social Media’, ‘Website’, ‘Public Affairs’ and so on. Each section represented one member of the communications team, and his challenge, his manager informed him, was to acquire skills in each of those areas. By doing this, he would secure a promotion to the position at the head of the pyramid, a position at present occupied by himself. Without acquiring these skills, the likelihood of progression within the organisation was minimal. Progression also depended upon his manager retiring, which as his manager pointed out was not going to happen any time soon.

By the time of his last appraisal, he and his manager were no longer speaking.

 

vii

Already he hated it. With a burning passion. With a brimming heart. Without equivocation. Every fibre of his being was working overtime to essay his hate. If hate was strong enough a word.

He hated the awkward commute to Victoria, the early morning crush, the early evening rush, the shoving crowds, the packed carriages, the standing journeys, the failed trains. Always the fucking failed trains.

He hated the stifling open plan office, the uncomfortable chairs, the desk which was too small and the monitor which was too low, the strip lighting and air conditioning which, when it wasn’t blasting into the office fragments of carcinogenic black matter, failed to adequately regulate the office temperature and made his skin look greasy and jaundiced.

He hated the petty internal politics, the debilitating presenteeism, the competing strains of entitlement and disaffection, the perpetual genuflection to autocracy. The careerism. The jargonese. The seriousness.

In his first year at the organisation he started using cocaine regularly, and with the purpose of ridding himself of whatever blight the organisation had burned into his soul.

 

viii.

The verisimilitude of the names. Ion and Ian. Jonathan and James. Gareth and Ghislaine. Tom and Theo. Ghislaine and Gail. Kurt and Karen. Susan and Jane. Alex and Alice. Andrea and Andy. Andy and Andrew. Patrick and Patrick. Patrick and Peter. Peter and Paul. Michelle and Michael. Lizzie and Elizabeth. Matthew and Michelle. Liz and Louise. Benjamin and Beatrice. David and Dave. Cleo and Kamal. Rachel and Rachael.

So many. I did not know death had undone so many.

The bearish, curmudgeonly one. The raven-haired Rubenesque. The sharp man-about-town. The wild-haired would-be rock star. The God-fearing soul sister. The fashion entrepreneur. The ironman. The slicked-back Mod. The lanky Antipodean. The crestfallen Stephen Mangan. The misanthropic Chris Evans. The interchangeable intern. The multilingual lawyer. The softly-spoken Scot. The brassy barmaid. The Brummie blonde. The latex puppet. The PR guru. The boffin. The spiv. The devil. The tortoise. The hawk.

ix.

His colleagues were friendly, well-meaning people with bills to pay and families to feed. He empathised with them and could not bear to be around them.

Come Friday they some configuration of the office could be found cramped around some small table in a West End pub, poring over the foibles and failings of their colleagues. In Victoria this was The Stage Door, and after they relocated from Victoria to Haymarket, The Captain’s Cabin. Neither pub was there anymore, having been demolished in huge redevelopment projects. Nothing stood in the way of progress, or property. Not even alcohol. Certainly not nostalgia.

There was much fuel for their ire. Disparity between salaries was inconsistent, unsustainable and divisive. Those who had kissed the royal ring progressed rapidly and were paid handsomely. Everyone knew what everyone else earned because the finance manager had left a spreadsheet of salaries on the shared printer.

Nominal pay rises were usually delivered on the day of the staff’s Christmas party. As an act of seasonal benevolence, it still seemed almost deliberately designed to engender antipathy and resentment among the recipients, those who had worked, or perceived that that they had worked, harder than everyone else. Someone always threw their toys out of the pram and threatened to spoil the party.

One by one they were called into the manager’s office, to listen to his appraisal of how the organisation’s finances were holding up and how would impact upon salaries in the long term and why this might be reflected in a paltry sum on this occasion. His speech concluded, his manager would slide a sheet of paper, face-down, across the table. On the sheet of paper was a typed letter, a short screed penned by himself but signed by the chief executive, which detailed his pay rise. As he looked up from the letter his manager smiled thinly.

It was always possible to tell who was unhappy with their pay rise, and who was satisfied, by the length of time they spent in the office. Like a good Christian at Christmas, he was always grateful for what he received. He merely wanted recompense for the time he had served sitting at his desk, doing a job no one appeared to value, least of all himself.

 

x.

In his final year, he found it incapable to do his job anymore. He could not face one more day, let alone another yearly cycle.

By now his son was two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second. He was about to begin his doctorate. He was also using cocaine at almost every opportunity, including at the office. When he asked about the possibility of reducing his hours and was informed by the chief executive that it was possible if he continued to work full time, he decided it was easier to leave than argue his case.

After seven years at the organisation, after countless noncommittal requests for more responsibility and opportunities for development, after countless arguments with his manager and innumerable failed interviews at other organisations, and after feeling for some time as if he could no longer go on (you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on), he quit.

When he looked back on his time there, he saw only failure, a series of mistakes and fuck ups, conflicted ideals and strained relationships. When he tried to think of something positive to take from the experience, a thing to share with his children, something to savour in old age, to turn over in his mind with the amber warmth of satisfaction, he could think of nothing.

xi.

Towards the end of his tenure he was invited to a charity event at the viewing platform of The Shard, the large skyscraper near London Bridge, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano and built by Sellar Properties. For the past few years he had passed the site on his morning commute, watched the slow deconstruction of Southwark Towers, piece by piece rather than by controlled demolition to protect nearby Guy’s Hospital, and the excavation of tonnes of earth from the site abutting London Bridge railway station. Then the slender skyscraper began to rise, first as a huge concrete column surrounded by cranes, like parent sparrow attending to the errant cuckoo in their nest, before the flanks of pressurised steel and glass began to form the outer shell. Once completed, it looked as if a huge, silver obelisk had been driven into the centre of the city by some extra-terrestrial life form, and left there to mock humanity’s quaint obsession with the monumental.

From the viewing platform at The Shard, it was possible to look directly across at the cluster of smaller skyscrapers in the City of London. Mediocre edifices arranged haphazardly, as if by a child’s hand, dwarfing the baroque beauty of St Paul’s Cathedral. Each had been designed and built by men, so it was small wonder that they called to mind a dick contest. Another planning application had already been submitted for a new tower, this one bigger than The Shard, which would dwarf its compatriots in the city and make The Gherkin resemble little more than a cornichon. He circled the viewing platform with a notebook in hand, trying to find more appropriate words to delineate the visual effect of this proliferation of hubristic cenotaphs, but all he could come up with was, Bunch of fucking pricks. Eventually he gave up, and went back to the office to answer his emails.