Blogpost on David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs
Recently I had the pleasure to discuss David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs with the author. https://www.herbstlese.de/de/veranstaltungen/herbstlese-2018/2018/09/21/david-graeber-bullshit-jobs/000970/
Here is my five cents about his book.
In all his books Prof Graeber manages to hit a nerve in the tense muscles of public opinion. Was it the arbitrariness and political power play of who owns what to whom in international debt crises exposed in ‘Debt – Its First Five Thousand Years’, or the mindless and at times cruel hoops the rise of bureaucracy makes citizens jump through in ‘Utopia of Rules’, David Graeber always finds original ways in exposing some structural pathology in the politics of modern life. ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is no exception to this.
The key thesis of the erstwhile essay in Strike! Magazine and now extended book version is that myriads of people suffer from jobs which they a) don’t like, b) which don’t seem to add any form of value to the society, and often not even to the organization which hired them, but c) about which they still have to pretend to be happy and useful employees. There are many, at times depressing, at times outright hilarious descriptions of such activities: the woman working at a reception for a company which never has any visitors; the guy who works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor charging hundreds of Euros each time he moves around one cardbox from one office to the one right next to it.
This simple idea about the rise of a ‘reserve army’ of often white collar, often not too badly paid, but utterly senseless jobs created so much resonance that David Graeber started collecting responses of people describing their personal bullshit jobs and converting this material into this book. Both in its material and its main punchline in sometimes reminds me of reading Scott Adams’ Dilbert books (no criticism implied, to the contrary).
The book starts with some principle characteristics of bullshit jobs as well as some variants of such jobs. One variant, for instance, is ‘task masters’ who do not do any work themselves, but just distribute the real work among other employees. Mr. Graeber puts a lot of emphasis in the fact that this is not the typical public-sector bashing. As a matter of fact, bullshit jobs have flourished in the private sector, a sector usually thought to weed out any kind of organizational slack and inefficient staffing like an ambitious gardener would recklessly fight real weed among his prize-winning rose trees. One (private) sector which has particularly taken off in the last decades seems to concentrate a lot of bullshit jobs harbours all kinds of services related to information: marketing, lobbying, lawyering and related activities are those sectors that receive a lot of punches from Mr. Graeber. In a deeper, political-economy sense the reason for the growth of these jobs is the increasing importance of the financial sector in the economy, which is the pinnacle of this new type of pretentious and power-driven information society.
Bullshit jobs are somehow useful for society by keeping a lot of people busy and hiding away the fact that there might be too few useful jobs around. Having these kinds of jobs also papers over the problem that a lot of jobs that create huge social value such as being a nurse or a teacher or often badly paid, whereas a lot of jobs which enjoy tremendous financial remuneration create little or sometimes even negative social value. Given this remarkable fact, which find a lot of corroboration from other scholars, David Graeber proceeds to delve more deeply into the human psychology of work and the historical evolution of work as a value.
Mr. Graeber painfully exposes what is one of the most interesting human paradoxes when it comes to work ethic: many people love working, but they hate their jobs. They love the idea to be productive, contribute to society, connect with people, but they do not see how their own everyday paid routines would help them fulfilling either of these goals. Yet, perversely enough, it seems that the sheer fact that the work is sometimes so meaningless makes people being drawn to it in a masochistic manner. Precisely through this horrible activity people earn their right of being a member of society – life needs to be painful to be worth living.
According to ‘Bullshit Jobs’ this in many ways weird work ethic is not something that has followed humankind through all its history. To the contrary, it is the product of a relative recent shift in the valuation of work from being either a stepping stone to acquire full adhulthood or a necessary evil for social classes without means. If this diagnosis is correct, modern work ethic can and should be changed to allow people to realize their lives and to end a lot of contemporary human suffering. While Mr. Graeber, being the scholarly anarchist he is, eschews concrete policy solutions, especially those that could be related to government initiatives, he sees universal basic income as a potential antidote to this masochistic fixation.
There is a lot to praise in this remarkable book. The relentless exposition of the human condition which finds increasingly sophisticated ways to torture itself is a painful diagnosis to read. The creative knitting together ideas from different research such as anthropology, history, philosophy and psychology gives illuminating and new perspective on important problems such as underemployment and the golden calf of ‘job creation’. Most importantly, it is often a very funny read.
To be honest, there is much to agree for me in the book. I also believe that modern societies suffer from chronic shortage of meaningful jobs, and that there are alarming discrepancies in the way how the market values certain types of activities vs. society’s needs, whatever the latter really means. I also think that modern welfare states couple too tightly benefits to the readiness to work, however meaningless and shallow the work itself is. I even agree that in the long run a universal basic income might be the solution to such problems.
But here is also where I part ways or at least, I am not so sure. Humans are animals of habits, so take away jobs from them, are they really feeling better? Some parternalists would say they look for surrogate drugs such as watching television or youtube videos. Rebuilding the welfare state and the labour market in such ways takes a long-term, gradual and very careful project. At least it needs some preparation to make people ‘buy into’ such fundamental transformations.
Another issue I have is the question whether the situation is really that bad. David Graeber uses a subjective definition of bullshit jobs: whatever people themselves define as bullshit. This is a fair strategy, after all mental states are closely related to these subjective evaluations. But it is also a bit of a one-size-fits-it-all category of all resentments people have against their own way of life. You do not like your boss? You have a bullshit job. You do not see value in what you are doing? You have a bullshit job. You think you sell products to people who do not need them? You have a bullshit job. All these instances perhaps merit the label ‘bullshit’, but for very different reasons and they follow very different, not necessarily compatible logics.
In a basic sense, conflating these very different critiques also risks inflating the problem. For instance, as an academic, I like to moan about my administrative burden and, in particular, the endless hours of academic meetings which numb my brain and strain my hind quarters. But unlike Graeber, I do not think that these meetings come out of an overall drive towards competitiveness, financialization or bureaucratization, at least not only and not necessarily in the German case. What they rather illustrate is the complexity of a university as a feudal stake-holder society. Many different voices have to be reconciled in university meetings, sometimes in consensual fashion, from professors, students to the university leadership, but also including equal opportunity officers, representatives from staff etc. If anything, the long meetings illustrate the downsides of building an ever-increasing inclusive and deliberative society (albeit, in the University case, quite horribly constructed). As such, this trend is not necessarily bad, although quite painful to endure.
This, in my mind, is also perhaps the most important weakness of the book. ‘Bullshit Jobs’ seems to imply that there is an overall rationale to the project which constitutes giving people senseless jobs. I am not against conspiracy theories, so perhaps yes, the political elites often prefer to maintain horrible jobs because the alternative of unemployment of large batches of middle class employees frightens them. But I do think that modern societies are governed by many different logics, even if some such as the financial capitalist logic rightfully take the stage light of critical inquiry.