Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I was around the age of fourteen, my mother’s younger brother said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. That his labor had brought him everything that I saw around him. But just when I thought he was about to continue on with some soliloquy on the value of work, he followed it up with, “...and it was terrible. Don’t ever be like me. Find some way not to have to have a real job.”
At the time I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, and at the time I was also too solipsistic to even care, but now that I’m older I realize just exactly what he was talking about. He was talking of course about bullshit jobs.
But what my uncle failed to recognize, and to paraphrase Michael Robbins, is that all jobs are bullshit jobs. Even if you’re a public defender or work for Médecins Sans Frontières, insofar as your labor is determined by a system of abstract compulsion, insofar, that is, as it exists within capitalism, it’s bullshit. And everyone knows it.
This is Graeber’s latest book, which follows his much circulated essay written, in 2013, that called out such bullshit occupations. His main argument is that in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour work week. Yet we seem to be busier today than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while the box-tickers and bean-counters keep multiplying. Some jobs, he thinks, are structurally extraneous: if all lobbyists or corporate lawyers on the planet disappeared en masse, not even their clients would miss them. Others are pointless in more opaque ways.
Since at least the Great Depression, we’ve been hearing warnings that automation was, or was about to, throw millions of people out of work. Keynes at the time even coined the term “technological unemployment,” and many assumed the mass unemployment of the 1930s was a sure sign of things to come and while this might make it seem such claims have always been somewhat alarmist, what this book suggests is that the opposite was the case. They were entirely accurate. Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up. But if one eliminates bullshit jobs from the picture, and the real jobs that only exist to support them, one could say that the catastrophe predicted in the 1930s really did happen. Upward of 50 percent to 60 percent of the population was, in fact, thrown out of work.
What’s interesting to me about all this, is that this is precisely the outcome we shouldn’t expect in a capitalist system. A free market ought to eliminate inefficient, unnecessary jobs, and yet the reverse has happened. We’ve got all these jobs that really shouldn’t exist but somehow do, and maybe it’s as simple as people needing something to do, so we keep inventing bullshit jobs to keep them busy.
So what the hell happened? Why are employers in the public and private sector alike behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they don’t seem to need? In an age that supremely prizes capitalist efficiency, the proliferation of pointless jobs is a puzzle. Since bullshit jobs make no economic sense, Graeber argues, their function must be political. A population kept busy with make-work is less likely to revolt. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.
As a general rule, we are often taught that people want something for nothing, which makes it easy to shame poor people and denigrate the welfare system, because everyone is lazy at heart and just wants to mooch off of other people. But the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of the middle-management positions Graeber talks about. We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.
All of this leads to a realization that Graeber circles but never articulates, which is that bullshit employment has come to serve in places like the U.S. and Britain as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole, one attuned specially to a large, credentialed middle class. Under a different social model, a young woman unable to find a spot in the workforce might have collected a government check. Now, instead, she can acquire a bullshit job at, say, a health-care company, spend half of every morning compiling useless reports, and use the rest of her desk time to play computer solitaire or shop for camping equipment online. It’s not, perhaps, a life well-lived. But it’s not the terror of penury, either. But it is about power and who has it.
This is the same critique Marx made in the 19th century. Marx said we have this perverse and unjust system, which is propped up by perverse and unjust values, but the system persists because the people suffering the most are mad at the wrong people. Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. You see this in Europe, and America, with austerity programs after any financial crash. There is all this talk about tightening belts, except for the people who actually caused the crash. They still get their bonuses, but the ambulance drivers and the nurses and the teachers have all got to sacrifice. The logic is insane, and it always falls on the people who are most vulnerable, who do the hard and necessary jobs to help sustain the economy. Those in the largely pointless jobs secretly resent teachers or even auto workers, who actually get to do something useful, and feel it’s outrageous when they demand nice salaries and health care and paid vacations too. Working class people who get to do mostly useful things, resent the liberal elite who grabbed all the useful or beneficial work which actually does pay well and treats you with dignity and respect.
As a result we are now faced with the choice between doing useful and important work like taking care of children but being effectively told that the gratification of helping others should be its own reward, and it’s up to us to figure out how to pay our own bills, or accepting pointless and degrading work that destroys our mind and body for no particular reason, other than a widespread feeling that if one does not engage in labor that destroys the mind and body, whether or not there is a reason to be doing it, one does not deserve to live. It’s just as Buckminster Fuller said, “We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist.” Which makes this book fundamentally about the yearning for human freedom and dissects, with great analysis, the subtle distinction between power and domination in hierarchical corporate structures.
Like so many other commentators, Graeber mentions a universal basic income (UBI) as a potential solution to the problems he lays out. But he is suspicious of the very challenge to produce a solution: the question “Well, what would you do about it?” is often used to silence criticism of the status quo. In an age when the myth of capitalist efficiency legitimates corporate managerialism, pointing out the bullshit is a job in and of itself.
There is however, something clearly, and inarguably, very wrong with the organization of our society. I think most people know it instinctively but fail to articulate it properly most of the time. And it is here that Graeber explores what is perhaps his true subject: the unnecessary compulsion of wage labor.
Almost everybody spends the majority of their life living in a totalitarian system. It’s called having a job. When you have a job you’re under total control of the masters of that enterprise. They determine what you wear, when you go to the bathroom, what you do, even while at home. As Noam Chomsky lamented in a recent interview, “The very idea of a wage contract is selling yourself into servitude. These are private governments. They’re actually more totalitarian than governments are. And you’re choice is between either starving or selling yourself to a tyranny.”
A society based on the production of value is by definition unfree, since we don’t really have a choice about whether to participate in it. In a free society, your time and labor would be your own. You really want to defeat fascism? Then get rid of the workplace. Get rid of the 9 to 5.
People will still naively claim however, that you need real world experience in the workplace. That it teaches you self-discipline. What they really mean is that you need to learn how to follow orders. Work ethic is really just coded speech meaning obedience.
For more and more people work seems to serve no purpose, and the ultimate “meaning” of most jobs is meaninglessness itself. The next time you leave for work, pay attention to the bustling throng. What are they doing? Where are they going? Focus on one of them. Perhaps he goes to an office where the same things are done today as were done yesterday, and where the same things will be done tomorrow as are done today. Perhaps he enjoys doing these things, perhaps not. He does them anyway because he has a home and family, and must raise his children. Why? So that in a few years they can do much the same things as him, and produce children of their own who do the same things as them. They will then be the ones worrying about reports and presentations and discussions.
Now here’s the rub. Perhaps he organizes his life around this job. Perhaps he worries about it, enough even to kill him at an early age. But, from the outside, the significance of this man’s daily actions lie only in the fact that they will produce others who can perform the same actions, and the significance of these others’ actions is that they will produce yet others who can perform the same actions. And this is the same as saying that they have no significance.
From the outside, each person’s life is like one of Sisyphus’s journeys to the summit, and each day of it is like one of his steps on this journey. The difference is only this. Sisyphus himself returns to push the boulder up again. We leave this to our children.
So I guess the question then becomes, is your job one that makes the world a better place? If the answer is anything other than yes, it’s bullshit, and part of a system who’s only purpose is that of keeping you under control. It’s time we realized that there is nothing honorable about work and that the bullshit that destroys us is the bullshit that endures.
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