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February 8, 2019

David Graeber. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. (Review)

By Jason Kunin

Bullshit Jobs

In his colourfully titled new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, David Graeber expands on an argument he first made in a 2013 essay that first appeared in Strike! That essay, called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” went viral over the internet so quickly that the original web page received over a million hits and crashed the Strike! server. Blogs sprang up, and within weeks it had been translated into over a dozen languages.

Since the publication of that essay, Graeber’s thesis, that free-market capitalism has led to a proliferation of useless well-paying jobs, has been given some corroboration by a YouGov poll conducted in Britain that asked people whether they thought their jobs made “a meaningful contribution to the world.” A whopping 37% said they believed they did not, with another 13% saying they weren’t sure.

If true, as Graeber notes, the phenomenon of bullshit jobs would seem to fly in the face of free-market purists who tout the “efficiency” of the market economy. Indeed, some defenders of the free market have made the argument, as an Economist editorial did two days after the publication of the original essay, that many jobs only feel like bullshit because, in the increasingly complicated global economy of today, companies have had to adopt the post-industrial equivalent of assembly-line structures, and therefore individual employees simply cannot see the way in which the work they do contributes to the big picture.

Such an argument, of course, must be taken on faith – and will be by those who maintain a near religious devotion to the ideology of the free market – but with Bullshit Jobs, Graeber comes armed with hundreds of testimonials from people who contacted him after the appearance of the original essay, people with fancy job titles and generous salaries who explain in elaborate detail how and why their jobs are, in fact, bullshit.

A few examples: “Eric” is a 21-year-old history graduate with no IT experience who was hired to run a piece of malfunctioning collaborative software that the company’s competing partners had grudgingly agreed to use but did not actually want to work. After failing to get himself fired by arriving to work late and showing up drunk, he tried several times to quit, yet each time was offered a massive raise to induce him to stay.

“Hannibal” does digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies and admits to getting paid thousands of dollars for writing bullshit reports that are never read or used but that allow company marketing departments to tick off boxes.

“Alphonso” is hired to supervise a team of five people who have already proved capable of managing themselves. Same with “Ben,” a middle manager who admits that all he does is hand tasks to his ten staff that that they are likely to have done on their own anyway.

“Apollonia” worked with a television industry “development team” that spent its time pitching, assessing, and arguing about reality TV shows that would never be made – shows with titles such as Transsexual Housewives and Too Fat to Fuck.

Near the beginning of his book, Graeber tells the story of a Spanish civil servant who skipped work for six years to spend his days studying Spinoza, and no one noticed until he was about to be rewarded with a years-of-service medal. While this story plays into the accusation by free marketers that it is the government, not the private sector, that creates layers of useless bureaucratic jobs, the overwhelming majority of Graeber’s informants work in the private sector, not the public sector, and they occupy positions that come with high powered titles but little to do. “Rufus,” for example, works for the complaints department of a biomedical company that gets no complains, and so he spends his days playing Minesweeper and listening to podcasts. “Calvin” confesses that his work consists of largely of answering one email each morning, after which he pretends to be visibly overworked for the remaining seven hours of his day.

In one aside, Graeber offers a theory that the rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has largely been driven by the fact that they are convenient tools to fill up the time in bullshit jobs while making it look like employees are on the computer doing something that is actually important.

Graeber offers a taxonomy of what he identifies as the five main types of bullshit jobs, and most readers will undoubtedly be able to relate to some if not all of them: “Flunkies” are people whose “jobs exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important” (28). “Goons” are manipulators, like public relations specialists or lobbyists, or aggressors, like lawyers or telemarketers. “Duct tapers” are employees – traditionally women – whose jobs exist to fix holes that should not exist or to repair the damage done by incompetent managers or by computer software that doesn’t work. “Box tickers” are “employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing” (45). “Taskmasters” are either managers hired to supervise people who would function fine without supervision or managers whose job consists largely of generating bullshit tasks for others.

Unlike that other category of undesirable jobs – shit jobs, which are poorly paid, blue collar, and often essential to the functioning of society – bullshit jobs tend to be well-paid, white collar, and of no social value except to provide work for work’s sake only. They also are a form of what Graeber calls “spiritual violence” that “induce feelings of hopelessness, depression, and self-loathing” (134).

That most people would relish a job in which they do little work and are handsomely paid is an assumption about human behaviour that capitalism would have us believe but that Graeber refutes vigorously. The idea that most people would be delighted with a job in which they are paid well to do nothing is rooted, Graeber notes, in classical economic theories of homo oeconomicus, or “economic man,” which argue that human beings will naturally choose a course of action that provides maximum return for minimal expenditure of work (“minimax”). Graeber is decidedly humanist here in arguing that bullshit jobs are an affront against “the essence of what it means to be a human being” (134).

That “essence” would seem to be expressed for Graeber in the types of activities his informants often leave their bullshit jobs to pursue, or that they engage in secretly while passing time at work: composing music, writing novels, studying languages, reading philosophy. It’s hard to know how representative a sampling of workers at large Graeber’s informants actually are, or whether they’re simply representative of the type of people who would contact him in the first place, but Graeber rejects materialist explanations of human behaviour, and he takes issue with Marxists who believe, like free-market purists, that capitalism cannot create jobs that do not serve its interests. “Capitalism,” he argues, “is not a totalizing system that shapes and embraces every aspect of our existence” (203). Graeber identifies as an anarchist, though his training is as an anthropologist, and it’s perhaps that grounding in anthropology that leads him to argue that “values” shape human behaviour as much as economics.

In fact, building on an argument he makes in his 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber writes about “moral envy,” an “undertheorized phenomenon,” in his view, that refers to feelings of anger and resentment towards anyone whose behaviour upholds a higher moral standard than one’s own. It is this “moral envy that he believes underwrites the way in which our society undervalues, and underpays, those who are actually performing socially necessary jobs – nurses, teachers, caregivers, garbage collectors, and so forth – while overcompensating those doing meaningless, soul-destroying work, like corporate law or insurance adjustment. He even argues that the anger directed at “liberal elites” by right-wing populists is rooted in resentment that left-wing political parties, which are no longer working-class, are dominated by the sorts of petty bourgeoisie – academics, writers, teachers, artists – who actually enjoy their work, are able to contribute usefully to society, and get paid for it. Such privilege is rare and quite understandably invites resentment from both blue collar workers in shit jobs and white collar professionals in bullshit jobs.

The second half of Bullshit Jobs is largely devoted to explaining how we came to this pass. Much of the way we think about work, he argues, has its roots in Judeo-Christian theology that equates labour with pain. Indeed, the word “labour” shares an etymology with the same word that describes the painful process of childbirth that God in the book of Genesis condemns women to endure.

Up until the Middle Ages in Europe, he notes, almost everyone across all levels of feudal society, male and female, was expected to undergo a period of service in adolescence. At one end of the social spectrum, feudal lords served higher feudal lords and feudal women became ladies-in-waiting, while at the other end male commoners served as apprentices to guildsmen while young girls worked for slightly wealthier families as “milk maids.” Servitude was associated with a period of adolescence that was necessary before graduating to adulthood and becoming a lord, lady, or master craftsman.

The rise of capitalism, however, brought an end to this age-old arrangement and transformed relations of servitude into a permanent social arrangement, creating a class of frozen adolescents and “masterless men” whose moral behaviour eventually became a pressing social concern. In Graeber’s view, the moral and intellectual framework for disciplining the poor in the aftermath of the industrial revolution was provided by Thomas Carlyle, whose “Gospel of Work” argued that “man perfects himself by working” and that work that was noble was its own reward and should not need compensation. Carlyle’s thought, Graeber argues, still underwrites society’s attitudes about work even today.

One view that Carlyle shared with the burgeoning workers’ movements of his day was the belief that labour had value, but while Carlyle believed its value was moral, both workers and their capitalist overseers saw its wealth principally in material terms – what economists came to call the Labour Theory of Value. Though struggles ensued about who the fruits of labour rightfully belonged to and how much each group should get, those who owned the means of production and those who laboured for them shared a common understanding that wealth was created by labour.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the Labour Theory of Value began to give way in the face of an emerging consumerist society in which status was conferred not by how much you produced – or by how much your workers could produce for you – but by how much you could buy. Over time, talk about “wealth producers” came to focus less on workers and more on capitalists themselves.

In his original essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” Graeber opens with a quote from John Maynard Keynes who predicted in 1930 that advances in technology would enable industrialized countries like the United States and Britain to free society from the drudgery of most labour and enable the creation of a 15-hour work week. Graeber argues that the first part of this prediction actually came to pass. “Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment,” he writes. “We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up” (265).

These dummy jobs were largely created in the sector of the economy that increasingly came to be seen as the driver of economic wealth. Graeber refers to this as a “managerial revolution” that has led to bloated management hierarchies right across the private sector. The result was the emergence of a type of “managerial feudalism” that ultimately got replicated across all sectors of the private economy. (The public sector, in contrast to accusations from the right, actually tends to be leaner because it is more publicly accountable, though it too has gone through its own processes of bullshitization as governments have increasingly moved to implement private sector management models into public institutions.)

Near the end of the book, Graeber discusses his reluctance to offer his solution to the problem of bullshit jobs, in part because he’s an anarchist and “policy” proposals necessitate state government, and in part because he doesn’t want it to detract from the central focus of his book, but ultimately in the last few pages he offers an endorsement of Universal Basic Income as one way forward, despite his awareness that it’s actually long been a policy pushed by the right as a prelude to gutting social services. Done right, however, he believes that Universal Basic Income can free millions from the tyranny of having to do bullshit work to survive.

There is almost something cathartic about reading portions of Bullshit Job. At many points of the book I found myself exclaiming aloud, “Yes, yes, yes!!!!” It is immensely satisfying, after all, to have unnamed aspects of your work-life not only recognized but named and explained. It is also empowering because it helps us see understand what it is at a social and institutional level that we need to fight. Though accessibly written, the book at times can be a little repetitive, and while its taxonomy of bullshit jobs and its social history of ideas of work provide interesting reading, readers can get most of the basic argument of the book from Graeber’s original 2013 essay. Nevertheless, by arguing that the evolution of labour is the result of political and cultural forces and not the inevitable outgrowth of a capitalist economic system, this book offers an important analysis from the left that challenges some lines of Marxist thinking in ways that are productive to the project of bringing about social change. With terms like “the bullshitization of work”, “managerial feudalism,” and “duct taping,” Graeber has expanded both our vocabulary of labour and our ability to think about and theorize our way out of the soul-crushing bondage of bullshit work.

Jason Kunin is a Toronto teacher and writer.