David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work, and What We Can Do About It, Penguin Books, 2019, 368 pp, ISBN-13: 978-0141983479, pbk, £9.99

If you are only interested in the reasons why David Graeber thinks that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is part of the solution to what he calls the ‘bullshitization’ of work, then you only need to read the last ten pages of this book. But then you would miss out on the other 250+ hugely entertaining and thought-provoking pages that precede this one single policy recommendation in the whole book. And concentrating on policy is precisely the sort of thing that he wants you to avoid. Instead, Graeber wants you to focus on the question of why it is that so many people in modern economies do work that they themselves consider to be, well, bullshit.

The book grew out of an article that Graeber wrote in 2013 and published in the anarchist website Strike. ‘On the phenomenon of Bulshit Jobs‘ became something of an overnight sensation. It caused the site to crash due to traffic, it was translated into multiple languages, and reprinted all over the place. It inspired comment and debate. In the article, Graeber had given form to a hunch that he had that there were a large, and growing, number of jobs in the modern economy that appeared to consist of doing not very much at all: brand managers, PR consultants, corporate strategists, and other such professions, where the job appeared to consist of attending meetings, creating committees, writing reports, and other activities whose main purpose seemed to be to keep the job-holders busy, but not much else.

The response to his article was so overwhelming that he, and others, looked further into it. A YouGov poll in the UK found that fully 37% of people thought that their jobs did not ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. A further 15% were not sure. In Holland, the rate was even higher: around 40% of people thought there was no good reason for their jobs to exist.

The book sets out to answer the questions of what a bullshit job is (Chapter 1); what types of bullshit jobs there are (Chapter 2); why they are so pernicious (Chapters 3&4); why we are making more and more of them (Chapter 5); why no-one seems to care about their proliferation (Chapter 6); and, finally, what can possibly be done about it (Chapter 7).

So what is a bullshit job?

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. (p. 9).

There are two points to note in Graeber’s definition. Firstly, this is not an issue of some ‘higher authority’ deciding what is bullshit work and what is not. It’s about how people feel about the work they do. As Graeber says, ‘If the preponderance of those engaged in a certain occupation privately believe their work is of no social value, one should proceed along the assumption that they are right’ (p. 11). Secondly, the element of pretence. Graeber argues that this is one of the most debilitating aspects of bullshit work – he calls it ‘spiritual violence’. It consists of everyone having to pretend to everyone else that they are engaged in some meaningful enterprise.

He then goes on to create a topology of bullshit jobs:

  • Flunkies – Jobs created just to make other people look good or important.
  • Goons – Jobs that exist because other organisations have them and so you need them too.
  • Duct tapers – Jobs that only exist to paper over problems that no one wants to fix.
  • Box tickers – Jobs that exist to create the illusion that something is being done which isn’t really being done.
  • Task Masters – Jobs that exist purely to assign tasks to other people or (worse still) to create pointless tasks and then assign them to other people.

The book has numerous first-hand testimonies (by turns hilarious and poignant) from people describing their work and the reasons they consider it either simply pointless (being paid as a receptionist to answer the phone once a day and replenish a bowl of sweets), or even downright pernicious (telesales of financial products to often vulnerable people who don’t need them and can’t afford them).

Graeber draws heavily on anecdotal evidence that he himself has collected over the years. He set up an email address and encouraged people to communicate with him by this and other means (like social media). He readily admits that there is a problem of self-selection here, but argues that what statistical data exist (like the polls mentioned above) seem to bear out his evidence.

Why this is bad

Graeber argues that all this pointless working is not just wasteful but fundamentally soul-destroying. Humans are social animals whose sense of self is tied up, from an early age, in their sense of agency, of being able to have an impact on the world. Being forced to carry out tasks, day in day out, which they perceive as useless, and cannot avoid because it’s their only means to survive, eats away at the core of who they are as human beings.

It also, Graeber argues, creates a society that is built on resentment – those engaged in bullshit work (which, paradoxically, is mostly well remunerated) resent those, like teachers or nurses, who are not engaged in bullshit work. Non-bullshit work is poorly remunerated, at least in part because those who do bullshit jobs see that as the price these people pay for daring to do useful work. But non-bullshit workers resent the well-paid bullshit workers. And everyone resents those who do not work, ostensibly because they are deficients or shirkers who have no right to any help from society, but secretly because ‘how dare they not get either a bullshit job or one that doesn’t pay the bills?’

What is going on?

On the face of it, all this is supremely counter-intuitive. After all, enterprises in efficient market economies are supposed to maximise returns on investment. Given that headcount is generally the biggest cost to an organisation, they should only be employing people they really need. And this, Graeber claims, is not a case of vast state bureaucracies stuffing their payrolls with non-existent jobs. ‘The main difference between the public and private sectors is not that either is more or less likely to generate pointless work … [but that] … pointless work in the private sector is likely to be much more closely supervised’ (p. 5).

Graeber’s answer is that modern economies are not driven by some kind of market capitalism, but rather by what he calls ‘managerial feudalism’, a sort of loot distribution system by which the wealth extracted by those at the top of the corporate feudal system is shared down networks of patronage which allow lower corporate barons to surround themselves with flunkies, goons, box-tickers, and the like; and so on down the food chain, keeping everyone happy and compliant. This is not about profit maximisation but about maintaining the social order.

And what about Basic Income?

Graeber alights on Citizen’s/Universal Basic Income after admitting that the bullshitisation of work is very hard to tackle. There are no anti-bullshit jobs movements, and no-one, anywhere, is going to win votes with a campaign slogan that calls for job destruction. And of course, if anyone were ever to try to formalise what a bullshit job was in order to get rid of them, then this would spawn an even bigger industry of bullshit jobs to do the work!

‘What Basic Income ultimately proposes is to detach livelihood from work’ (p. 279), says Graeber. Once you are not compelled to choose between doing a bullshit job and starving, most people will be able to figure out for themselves which jobs are bullshit, which are not, and which they would rather be doing. And because Universal Basic Income is universal, it would do away with the army of people whose job currently is to assess who is and who is not deserving of public help while making it as difficult and humiliating as possible for them to access this help. For an anarchist like Graeber, this reduction in the power of the State is an added bonus.

Graeber’s book delves into the various strands that are intertwined in our current attitude to work (religious, historical, genetic) and into the difficulties of changing some deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour that most of us aren’t even aware of. But it has an ultimately optimistic message: People are naturally creative, industrious and empathetic. Every day we wake up and reinvent the world anew. And there is no reason why we cannot reinvent one that harnesses that creativity, empathy and industriousness in ways that do not require half of us to wake up every morning wondering why on earth we are about to go to work.