The Useless Class


It was Harold Wilson, former Prime Minster of Britain, who famously observed that a week is a long time in politics. Speaking as he was back in 1960s Britain, it might have been, especially as nothing was open on a Sunday and it always rained.

In these fraught times of constitutional strain and democratic agitation it is easy to forget that Wilson was a true man-of-the people, long before the disaffected, white working and middle-classes seemingly rebelled against elites. Similar in character, one might argue, or as we are inexplicably reminded, to one president-elect of the Disunited States of America, anti-elitist “I am your voice” Donald Trump.  

Our trans-Atlantic downtrodden billionaire brickie aside, we can be certain that Wilson was one of us (well, one of you) because he smoked a pipe. A symbol of lower-working class affinity (the rich would smoke cigars and rest the feet on servants) supported conclusively by the fact my two great uncles, Sid and Reg, names later to be synonymous with numerous Carry On films, both smoked a pipe profusely.

Nowadays, of course, if a politician wished to express solidarity with the oppressed left behind through the aid of an oral prop, he or she would only need to be seen supping from a can of energy drink. I shall mention this to Austria’s current Chancellor Christian Kern when I next see him, given his wobbly popularity in the on-going ascendance of the populist Freedom Party and its devious little wizards as they rebel against the establishment (i.e. themselves). A few pictures of Kern downing a can of Red Bull will surely, wings akimbo, see his approval ratings soar.

We will return to politics a little later but first some essential red-tape. Yes, I have had a date with the Meldeamt (more or the less the local council office) to update my Meldezettel (residence document). Seemingly, I was still registered in another address – the Nebenwohnsitz (second place of residence) – a hangover from when I was in the process of moving a few years back an event which also included the time-honoured Viennese tradition of being ripped off by the removal company (see Deppensteuer ad infinitum).

As I had a meeting more or less downtown, I decided to head for the Meldeamt on the Wipplingerstrasse located in the old town hall, also home to the first district museum and the archive for the Austrian Resistance. The chance to view some baroque bling notwithstanding, I choose the first district for expediency. Much has been written about the Viennese approach to “paperwork” and bureaucracy, its degree (extensive) and speed (glacial). Yet I can honestly tell you that it isn’t really that harrowing (unless you have a child and try to register the newborn using your British academic title which doesn’t exist). Like everywhere you just have to have the right form, correct signature and the precise accent-free language. In fact Vienna and Austria is well advanced in the processing of most of this stuff online. But for this you need something called the Bürgerkarte (translated by Google as a loyalty card for McDonalds) which acts as an electronic signature.

Now I am no technological Luddite and I embrace the potential of some gadgets and all manner of high-tech tomfoolery, but due to an indolence I cannot explain, I have still not yet got round to organising this essential piece of kit. That said, pushing everything online is one less opportunity to practise your spoken German. Moreover, it reduces your exposure to social capital which leads to alienation, depression and populism which in turn manifests itself in the extraction from the EU, the election of madmen and visceral nationalistic fervour which can only end badly. But I am no masochist and so a trip to the first district, I deduce, will also minimise my possible waiting time as almost no one lives there. In other words, the Meldeamt would likely to be empty and – this is the cunning part – schnell.

After arriving at Stephansplatz and cutting through the backstreets housing amongst other things a shop selling English Antiques (the façade disappointedly free from anti-Brexit graffiti), I arrive, select my desired service from a touch-screen, pluck my ticket and wait exactly forty-seven seconds before my number is buzzed. Now I am used to dealing with the notorious Viennese civil servant and thus offer these three pieces of advice:

  1. Never attempt to make a joke.
  2. Always be prepared for an unexpected form which you must fill in uncomplainingly and with good grace. Complaining about this is futile because you will be met with the Viennese shrug denoting (“It’s no use fucking whinging to me, pal”).
  3. Never tell them you have already spoken to someone on the phone and cannot now understand why the information you received is slightly but – and this is the decisive point – critically different from the information you are now receiving (see point 2 about the futility of raising an objection).

Five minutes later, bemoaning the efficiency and ease of the Viennese bureaucratic merry-go-round, I am out the door clutching my most valuable of Austrian documentation. In doing so, I still have two hours until my meeting. In the number one city such fortuity is the bedfellow of the idle so I resign myself to leisure, meaning I will have to go and have a coffee, sit in a comfy chair, assemble a clutch of newspapers and luxuriate in the relative silence of the classic café.

I cross the street and head off up Tuchlaben noticing with some confusion that Café Markusplatz has disappeared. Instead it has been replaced by a Fetzengeschäft (an expensive fashion boutique). Later I am informed that it was sold last year which is a reminder that I should be idle more often. Providentially, I am only a few paces away from Café Korb a favourite of Tafelspitz (restaurant and bar guide) in the “Szene” section. Korb is still a classic coffee shop so do not be confused by the allusion to the fashionable although it is adjacent to another more modern establishment favoured by the so-called “Schickimicki” (semi-wealthy twats). Along with Fabios around the corner (posh, expensive, populated by the elite and FPÖ politicians) these three Lokalen comprise the locally termed “golden triangle” and will become my headquarters when I lead my globalist revolution.

Visiting your average Viennese café early in the morning is the perfect time of day to appreciate their enduring charms. They are usually quiet and free from tourists. Yet even today, Café Korb, on a Thursday before nine, is deathly. But I couldn’t ask for more or would if I was truly Viennese complaining as I did so. The stillness shuts out the noise in my head and so grabbing some real papers, I find a plush seat, sit down – sinking to my hips – and order a Melange, the only word I can enunciate in German without an accent.

I open The Krönen Zeitung, Austria’s premier tabloid, and flick through noting that a hairdresser on the Wienerbergstrasse in the twelfth district has been murdered. That must have been some bad cut and rinse. Another story getting a lot of traction is the news of the city debt. Currently standing at 5 billion and set to rise another 500 million by the end of 2017, I can think of no other example which so sweetly confirms the age old adage that if you owe the bank a thousand Euro then you have a problem, but if you owe them five billion, then the bank better start shredding documents and booking tickets to Panama City.

But how did we get in this state especially when the city is supposedly booming? According to city Finance Chief Renate Brauner it is a conflation of three key factors: firstly, the increased cost of social provision due to integration. Secondly, the growth of people (125 thousand or so since 2011) and the pressure on budgets this entails. And, thirdly, some piss-poor housekeeping and some bad currency speculations (come on, we’ve all been there).

Inextricably linked to this is the on-going debate about the extent and cost of something called “Mindessicherung” a monetary term which may be translated as a “minimum level of security” paid to the unemployed and predicted to reach 1.7 billion in 2017 according to the city. In truth, it is what it is. The seeds of a universal minimal income paid to the unemployable. As historian Yuval Harari’s writes in his ruminations about the “useless class” in his book Homo Deus, the follow-up to Sapiens:

“Some economists predict that sooner or later, unenhanced humans will be completely useless. While robots and 3D printers replace workers in manual jobs such as manufacturing shirts, highly intelligent algorithms will do the same to white-collar occupations. Bank clerks and travel agents, who a short time ago were completely secure form automation, have become endangered species. How many travel agents do we need when we can use our smartphone to buy tickets from an algorithm?”

It is a sobering thought especially as every profession (I am looking at you TEFL teachers) will not escape the algorithmic onslaught according to Harari. This means it might, in his words, be the most important question in twenty-first century economics. Namely what to do with all these redundant conscious people once we have non-conscious artificial intelligence which can do almost everything better (first stop: the claims department of Wiener Städtische insurance). But why wait 15 or twenty years as he cautiously predicts. It’s here now, in 2016, in Vienna and Austria, in the manifestation of Mindessicherung. And the costs – 1.7 billion Euro for Vienna alone in 2017 – are staggering.

Fortunately, Harari speaks of a “technological bonanza” which will probably make it “feasible to feed and support the useless masses even without any effort on their side”. But what will keep them occupied and content? Harari offers one solution: “drugs and computer games”. But the utopia comes with a warning. Such a development would deal a mortal blow to the belief in the sanctity of human life. And as he points out, there is nothing sacred about useless bums who spend their time immersed in the artificial experiences of what he deliciously calls “La La Land” (he is not referring to the Viennese civil servant).

Speaking of the useless class, one is reminded of the next great democratic battleground. This weekend on the 4th of December is the much awaited re-run of the Austrian presidential election. Like you I have had enough of elections, referenda and opinion polls to last me till the second week of 2017. But if you are looking for some background and comment about the remaining candidates whilst nursing your despair over a mug of Punsch, you can look here or here.

However, given the piss-poor management of Brexit so far, the US election and the failure of democracy, and the possible elevation of a far-right blockhead here in Austria, I feel I should warn you. The person who can write an algorithm which can expunge the world of politicians, elite or otherwise, mismanaging the planet already has my vote. Moreover, the Austrian vote and the ensuing campaigns, running in effect from the beginning of 2016, simply prove Harold Wilson was mistaken: a week is not a long time in politics; an Austrian presidential election campaign is a long time in politics.

© 2016 RJ Barratt