Cast your mind back to 2013 and you may remember reading a blog titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. If you happened to read this essay, did its description of a contemporary economy mostly comprised of meaningless, made-up work, resonate with you? If so, you’re in good company. Quickly after its publication, the blog went viral and has been read by millions. The author, David Graeber, received hundreds of personal testimonies, detailing misery, frustration, hilarity and insanity from people working in “bullshit jobs”. It seemed Graeber had hit a nerve.
His new book, Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, combines these personal testimonies with ideas from psychology, history, philosophy and economics. In doing so, Graeber has expanded his original thesis into a subversive attack on the nature of work today.
How does Graeber define a “bullshit job”? Essentially it’s a job devoid of purpose and meaning. It’s different to a “shit job”, which is a job that can be degrading, arduous and poorly compensated but which actually plays a useful role in society. Rather a bullshit job can be prestigious, comfortable and well-paid, but if it vanished tomorrow, the world would not only fail to notice, it may actually become a better place. Bullshit jobs ‘take’, more than they ‘give’ to society.
Graeber refines his definition by providing his own hilarious typology of bullshit jobs. There are “flunkies”, also known as “feudal retainers”, who are specifically hired by directors to make them appear more important. “Goons” are the aggressive, hired-muscle frequently found in telemarketing teams and PR agencies, employed solely to cajole people into do something that contradicts their common sense. “Duct tapers” who are employees hired only to fix a problem that ought not to exist. “Box tickers”, which we need no introduction to and “task masters”, whose sole function is to create whole new ecosystems of bullshit (the latter can also be described as “bullshit generators”). And there are various combinations of the above, which Graeber describes as “complex multiform bullshit jobs”.
For Graeber, the “bullshitization” of jobs has extended into numerous sectors and industries, however the epicentre of this phenomenon is located within what he describes as “information work”. In Graeber’s estimation, meaningless work has proliferated within financial services, accountancy, advertising, IT, corporate law and consultancy but has also begun to spread to media and the creative arts.
He makes a bullshit claim that as much as half of the workforce are engaged in bullshit jobs; this is a wild, unsupported and speculative guess. But in his defence, there are few statistical studies examining the bullshitization of the economy. Ultimately Graeber acknowledges that whether one finds their job to be bullshit or not is a subjective matter. And he suspects that many people are secretly aware of the futility of their work.
Yet the problem of bullshit jobs is much more than just wasted time, stress and unhappiness – although these consequences are important. For Graeber, it is a social problem, caused by a new type of political and economic system, which bears little resemblance to capitalism and which is inflicting a deep psychological scar on society.
One of the most compelling arguments in Graeber’s book is the simple observation that the creation of meaningless jobs is exactly what capitalism is not supposed to do. Governed by the need to maximise profits and minimise costs, companies subject to “pure” capitalism would gain no advantage in hiring unnecessary staff. However, Graeber points out that many industries no longer operate on this dynamic of profit and loss. Instead some industries like accountancy, consultancy and corporate law, are rewarded through huge, open contracts, where the incentive is to maximise the length, cost and duration of the project.
One testimony from a former consultant helping a bank resolve claims from the PPI scandal described how they, “purposefully mistrained and disorganized staff so that the jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong… This meant that cases had to be redone and contracts extended”.
It leads Graeber to make a simple point – perhaps parts of our economy are no longer governed by capitalism – or certainly not the type of capitalism that Marx, Milton Friedman and Adam Smith would recognise. To Graeber, an anthropologist, the bullshit economy resembles more of a feudal economy, which he brands “managerial feudalism”. The open-ended contracts represent the “loot” or “pots of gold” that feudal knights would have plundered and redistributed. And just as feudal knights surrounded themselves with serfs, peasants and slaves, so do the new executive knights of the information realm.
Yet Graeber argues that this is more than just economics. Bullshit jobs are political. Their existence is an attempt by the ruling class to manage and control the middle and lower orders. This analysis will strike some as conspiratorial nonsense. But Graeber suggests that managerial feudalism is not the result of careful planning, central directives or an orchestrated conspiracy organised by a cabal of the world’s wealthiest people. It is more the result of inaction. Failing to invest in new technologies, to consider the adoption of policies like universal basic income and to challenge stale moral assumptions concerning work. In sum, it is the failure to change the status quo, which Graeber believes has enabled the ruling class to continue the management of people through labour.
Before branding Graeber as a crazy conspiracy theorist, it’s worth remembering that this idea is by no means new. Mainstream intellectuals from George Orwell to Buckminster Fuller have all made similar arguments. Graeber also points to measurable trends, such as consistent cuts to public services and wage stagnation for the working and middle classes since the 1970s, to make a legitimate claim that these are political decisions, privileging specific class interests.
Bullshit jobs are also causing a lot of psychological damage. This book challenges the ‘homo economicus’ view of human nature, which argues that human motivation and decision-making is largely driven by maximising output, through minimal effort. Drawing on the research of the 19th Century German psychologist Karl Groos, Graeber argues that humans are more complex. We find great happiness in causing predictable effects in the world but this exercise of power and influence does not necessarily have to be for a specific end in itself. We find “pleasure in being the cause”.
When that ability to influence the world is taken away from us, Graeber suggests it has dramatic results on humans. Depression, aggression and listlessness are some of the symptoms. Ultimately for Graeber, “a human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist”. But it also leads to a type of “moral confusion”. At the core of the bullshit economy is not just the meaninglessness of the work. It is the falseness and pretence that surrounds the charade of make-believe work. Individuals working in bullshit jobs are operating in an ambiguous world, where they don’t have a clear script to follow.
“Stop whingeing! You’ve got it so much better than I had it in my day!” This will be the chorus that will respond to Graeber’s suggestion that bullshit jobs are damaging people. In truth, it was my own initial reaction. However Graeber sees this type of response as an example of “rights scolding”, which he describes as a popular form of political discourse, used on the right and left of the political spectrum. Any time people demand a new right – such as the right to meaningful work – “rights scolding” is the rapid denouncement and dismissal of these claims as over-entitled and ungrateful. It's particularly evident in America, where public sentiment quickly turns against any new claim for rights.
Graeber astutely observes that ‘rights scolding’ is particularly aimed at younger people. We are quick to accuse the young of being spoilt, lazy and over-entitled. Yet, this is unfair because in most wealthy countries, the current batch of twenty-somethings represent the first generation in more than a century that can expect opportunities, living standards and welfare support to be substantially worse than those of their parents and grandparents. This generational divide in opportunity and assets will likely mean that Graeber’s thesis will resonate with the young.
“Rights scolding” is just one example where Graeber reveals how public attitudes towards work have been manipulated in perverse ways. Another example is the public reaction to strikes. Today, most people direct their anger and frustration at the unions and workers – branding them as lazy, feckless and corrupt. Graeber insists they should instead be directing their anger at the political and managerial class, who have not been sharing the spoils of decades of increased profits. The book persuasively shows that the perversion of public attitudes towards work are so great that we have sanctioned a system whereby the less you do for society, the more you get paid.
The intention of Graeber’s book is to highlight the problem of “bullshit jobs”; he explicitly rejects talk of “solutions”. Having guided you through the ruins of one utopia, he is reluctant to welcome you into a new one.
On automation, Graeber offers useful, new ways of thinking about the subject. He reminds us that automation is not an event in the proximate future, which we should fear, but a process that has been continually at play over the past several centuries. For Graeber, the creation of bullshit jobs over the past 30 years has been partly caused by automation. He suggests that automation of jobs should be allowed to continue – we should eliminate the drudgery of meaningless work - but only if societies respond with policies like the basic income.
This section of the book does run into problems. Graeber’s entire analysis focusses upon the rise of the behemoth bureaucracies of the information economy. Yet he neglects to consider the growth and proliferation of technology companies and small startups. With a penchant for flat organisational structures, it is these organisations that some see as the beginning of the end for bloated information bureaucracies. His grasp of the technologies governing automation, which he continually refers to as “robots”, is also weak.
Yet his greatest error is his own faith-based belief in the beneficial effects of unadulterated freedom. He suggests that through the basic income, people left to their own devices will make decisions where “whatever they end up doing, they will almost certainly be happier than they are now”. Obviously, some people will enjoy this freedom. But others will suffer by making choices that will inadvertently restrict their freedom and make them unhappy. Drug addiction is one example where the freedom of choice can lead to a restriction of freedoms and unhappiness further down the line.
Advocates of the basic income, like Graeber, are helping to challenge stubborn misconceptions surrounding the idea. His work joins a growing chorus of people who are revealing exactly what money is, how it is made and the political effects of its distribution. But the effects of a policy like this are likely to be complex and supporters like Graeber need to acknowledge that freedom will have its casualties, as well as benefits. He fails to account for all the challenges that such an idea would introduce, like how it would actually work in a global economy.
Despite this, Graeber has convincingly called “bullshit” the nature of work today and reveals how – in his words – “economies have become vast engines for producing nonsense”. To his ideological opponents, convinced of the efficiency of free markets, his most devastating attack is to reveal how inefficient these systems can be. I suspect millions of workers around the world will instantly recognise the nonsense and inefficiency he describes. Whether they do anything about it is another matter.