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Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

by David Graeber


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I had a bullshit job once. It involved answering the phone for an important man, except the phone didn't ring for hours on end, so I spent the time guiltily converting my PhD into a book. I've also had several jobs that were not bullshit but were steadily bullshitised: interesting jobs in the media and academia that were increasingly taken up with filling out compliance forms and time allocation surveys. I've also had a few shit jobs, but that's something different. Toilets need to be cleaned. But to have a bullshit job is to know that if it were to disappear tomorrow it would make no difference to the world: in fact, it might make the world a better place.

When I read David Graeber's essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine in 2013, I felt somehow vindicated. I had sat in the pub on many a Friday evening moaning to colleagues about data entry and inefficient meetings. But with the Martian gaze of the anthropologist, Graeber managed to articulate my plight in a way that made me feel part of some grand, absurdist outrage.

I wasn't alone. The essay went viral, receiving more than 1m hits, and was translated into a dozen languages.'Guerrila' activists even replaced hundreds of ads in London tube carriages with quotes from the essay, presumably in order to jolt commuters out of their apathetic stupor. As is the way in the world of reactive non-fiction publishing, a book followed.

The argument of both essay and book is this: in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advances would enable us to work a 15-hour week. Yet we seem to be busier than ever before. Those workers who actually do stuff are burdened with increasing workloads, while box-tickers and bean-counters multiply.

In an age that supremely prizes capitalist efficiency, the proliferation of pointless jobs is a puzzle. 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? 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.

Yet as he notes, people are not inherently lazy: we work not just to pay the bills but because we want to contribute something meaningful to society. The psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don't need to be performed is profoundly damaging, 'a scar across our collective soul'.

As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become 'vast engines for producing nonsense'. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for 'hardworking families'. The rightwing injunction to 'get a job!' is mirrored by the leftwing demand for 'more jobs!'

Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. Thus the hated 'liberal elite' are those who get paid to indulge in such compelling and glamorous activities that many people would undertake them for free. Yet even members of that dwindling caste dutifully take on more and more paperwork, in a gesture of warped solidarity with their colleagues in admin. The problem of bullshit jobs has a lot to do with the problem of bureaucracy, the subject of Graeber's previous book The Utopia of Rules.

The problem with Bullshit Jobs is that the first two-thirds is essentially an elaboration of his original, brilliant intervention. Graeber uses the hundreds of messages he received in response to his essay as source material, quoting testimonies at length. This puts the cart before the horse, and is also rather tiresome. I wanted to see the phenomenon traced back to its source. He provides one 'smoking gun' in the form of Barack Obama's explicit justification for sticking with the US health insurance system: otherwise, millions of form-filling jobs would be lost. A more systematic analysis - along the lines of his groundbreaking Debt: The First 5,000 Years - would help make this book what he claims it to be: 'an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilisation'.

Things pick up again in the final chapters, with the injection of salutary - and fascinating - lessons from history. Graeber sketches the evolution of our cult of work as an end in itself, from the emergence of the Protestant work ethic as a response to the breakdown of medieval guilds to Thomas Carlyle's 'Gospel of Labour'. What appear to be natural or inevitable features of our world are relatively new, and not set in stone.

Will robots do away with bullshit jobs? Probably not, since computers need humans to break down complex tasks into units basic enough for them to digest. Some radical leftists are touting the idea of 'fully automated luxury communism', but for Graeber this relies on the assumption that jobs are primarily about making stuff. Most jobs - even those that aren't officially in the 'caring profession' - are about responding to the needs of other people, and robots aren't very good at that.

Like many commentators these days, Graeber mentions a universal basic income as a potential solution. 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 itself.

This column will change your life: how to tell whether you have a bullshit job:

It has often been observed that the future didn't turn out as predicted. By now, thanks to technology's advance, we were supposed to be working 15-hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on great literature, conversation, and leisurely jetpack trips to the dome-covered shopping mall, to check out the latest range of 1950s horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, we're busier than ever. But it's worse than that, according to David Graeber, the anthropology professor credited with helping to launch the Occupy movement: much of that busyness is completely pointless. Entire professions, he argued in a recent essay in Strike! magazine, consist of 'bullshit jobs' that the world just doesn't need. If nurses and rubbish collectors disappeared overnight, we'd be in trouble; but 'it's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish'. What explains this proliferation of pointlessness? Graeber concludes, true to his anarchist beliefs, that it's all about social control. A population kept busy with bullshit has no time to start a revolution.

I can already hear the indignant howls from PRs and telemarketers. (And the telemarketers have my home number. Oops.) But then I should probably howl, too, given how frequently surveys show that people think journalists contribute nothing to society. Who's Graeber to say what jobs are "needed" anyway? Some would say anarchist anthropologists aren't exactly essential. Anticipating this response, he poses a different question: what about people who consider their own jobs meaningless? "I'm not sure I've ever met a corporate lawyer who didn't think their job was bullshit," he writes. Get them tipsy at parties, and many others will speak similarly of their own work. "There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist?"

Whether or not you agree with Graeber about the prevalence of bullshit jobs, it's hard to deny that plenty of jobs involve some bullshit. One reason we rarely complain about that, I suspect, is that we're chronically prone to confusing the feeling of putting in effort with actually getting useful things done. That's why lifts have "placebo buttons", which make us feel like we're achieving something when we're not. It's also why an exhausting day at the office leaves you feeling virtuous - a 'hard worker' - even if you only did busywork. Two good hours on the important things, followed by an afternoon of TV and eating Monster Munch, might have been more constructive. But you'd feel like a skiver, and possibly get fired.

You can easily go too far with all this talk of meaningfulness: that way lies acres of self-help nonsense about Finding Your Life Purpose and "doing great work". But Graeber's analysis suggests a more down-to-earth question for navigating the world of careers: is the job you're doing, or applying for, one that the world would be perfectly fine without? (Financial necessity might still oblige you to do it, but at least you'll be acting without illusions.) As life strategies go, this seems a decent one: where possible, move in the direction of non-pointless activities, and away from those that reek of bullshit. Do stuff that people would miss - however slightly - if it never got done at all.

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