Notes in the margins of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs

In 2013, David Graeber wrote a polemic piece in Strike!, on the ‘Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’. The response he received indicated that he had ‘discovered’ – in that timely academic way of labelling something before others have – a genuine social problem.

‘Meaningless jobs, contingent employment and unemployment and even lower rates of remuneration are the fate of labour unless resistance is effectively mobilised to counteract them.’ So David Harvey wrote in Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (2018). Labour unions, workers’ movements and left-wing theorists have largely – probably rightly – focused on the last three issues mentioned by Harvey. Since many of the ‘bullshit jobs’ that Graeber considered are white collar administrative or bureaucratic roles in corporate organisations, they have been relatively unrecognised.

However, this phenomenon is both more widespread and more malignant in our social and political life than we countenance. Walter Benjamin’s description of nineteenth-century Paris’ bourgeoisie is prescient: ‘The private person who squares his accounts with reality in his office demands that the interior be maintained in his illusions.’ (Our fantasies of super-heroic action are beset by a sense of the interminable apocalypse.) The general condition of malaise among a growing class of securely but meaninglessly employed people fosters contempt for genuine work, withdrawal from substantive forms of public life, a sense that things cannot change, and an ambivalence about the world bordering on nihilism.

To provide some context, here is Graeber’s typology of bullshit jobs:

Flunkies: ‘make someone else look or feel important’.

Goons: bullshit with an ‘aggressive element’. Say, people who try to ‘convince others to do things that defy their common sense’ (like selling useless commodities, or participating in commodification).

Duct-tapers: jobs that ‘only exist because of a glitch or fault in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.’

Box-tickers: ‘allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’.

Taskmasters: roles that consist ‘entirely of assigning work to others’.

Graeber conducted extensive interviews, and combines ethnographic techniques with social and political analysis in a way we have come to expect and enjoy in his work. His book is a common-sense account of the system that produces bullshit jobs. It is a welcome wrinkle in capital’s arid imagination.

  1. What is bullshit?

The job description is vague, uses a bouquet of management speak, and the office is bland and colourless. Hannah Sullivan, in ‘You, Very Young in New York’ gestures at it wryly:

‘You should be addressing inefficiencies in online processes
Mastering multichannel, getting serious about small business,

You have created a spreadsheet with thirteen tabs,
The manager is giving you hell, ordering sushi, cancelling cabs.’

The workplace becomes a private hell for the body and mind, where everyone, as Graeber writes, is ‘forced to become a little bubble unto [themselves]’. Social isolation ironically is accompanied by higher and higher levels of surveillance. But on top of shit workplaces (which can still perform useful work), bullshit jobs produce nothing of value, and the people who work there come to believe they are being subjugated for no meaningful purpose.

Bullshit jobs can be fully bad, like when you sell things that produce the very dissatisfaction they purport to cure, or simply bad for you, such as when they ‘create an uncomfortable feeling that [one’s] lived reality is an inadequate substitute for the real thing.’ In ‘The Eclipse of the Spectacle’ (1984), Jonathan Crary – writing on the cusp of the digital age – perceived the allegiance between the ‘TV screen and the car windshield’, two quintessential items of suburban capitalism, each reconciling ‘visual experience with the velocities and discontinuities of the market place.’ Graeber adds a distinction: ‘Where honest illusions add joy to the world, dishonest ones are intentionally aimed toward convincing people their worlds are a tawdry and miserable sort of place.’ The contempt for the ordinary world is matched by the contempt for ordinary lives.

Employees can enter hopeful, eager and well-qualified into what they think will be an interesting role. Shirley Hazzard captures the grindstone of bullshit-isation and bureaucracy in her satire of the UN, People in Glass Houses (1967):

The nature of the Organisation was such to attract people of character; having attracted them, it found it could not afford them, that there was no room for personalities, and that its hope for survival law, like that of all organisations, in the subordination of individual gifts to general procedures.

  1. The epidemic

One of Graeber’s more provocative claims is that even movements that seek, for instance, to recognise housework as work, could only lead to pyrrhic victories. Candi, one of Graeber’s informants and a member of the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement, acknowledges that some members were ‘understandably resistant to commodifying all human activity in the way that getting a wage for housework might imply.’

Unfortunately, such attempts to bring unrecognised people and their vital labour into the official economy have turned into a new industry for expropriation and exploitation, perversely robbing care-work of care. Ana Dinerstein and others note the risk that even a universal income might have on people’s lives:

Via the wage, capitalism involves the subordination of our lives to the command of money. Money is not a thing, or a neutral mechanism to allow buying and selling, but a form of social domination which is impossible to escape. In the global economy, we cannot live without money. So while UBI may make us free from (un)employment, it makes us more dependent on money and the state. Ultimately, it provides a state-sponsored foundation for unsustainable hyper-consumption.’

Along with the ills introduced by money, Graeber notes how bullshit jobs often involve a punitive hierarchy. ‘[T]he key to caring labour as a commodity is not that some people care but that others don’t; that those paying for ‘services’ feel no need to engage in interpretative labour themselves… Underlings have to constantly monitor what the boss is thinking; the boss doesn’t have to care.’ Come the revolution, this won’t be good for the boss. Until then, many work hard to placate a boss, or customer, who in turn feels no obligation to treat them with any humanity.

Even meaningful jobs are at risk of bullshit. I love the teaching that I do. In a sense, doing it well is part of what Graeber describes as

just life, or life lived properly – humans are naturally empathetic creatures, and to communicate with one another at all, we must constantly cast ourselves imaginatively into each other’s shoes… which usually means caring about them at least a little – but it very much becomes work when all the empathy and imaginative identification are on one side.

Hierarchies erode the possibility of camaraderie, just as bullshit and bureaucracy have the capacity to render meaningful work painful and unliveable.

  1. The analytic technique

I want to note Graeber’s commendable mode of analysis. Although he is prone to pithy generalisation, the book aims ‘not so much to lay out a theory of social utility or social value as to understand the psychological, social and political effects of the fact that so many of us labour under the secret belief that our jobs lack [meaning].’ Graeber’s insistence on avoiding abstractions mitigates against the fact that his analysis is has a dangerously broad applicability. ‘[O]nce you recognise the logic, it becomes easy to see that whole jobs, careers and even industries can come to conform to this logic.’ But Graeber is strict in thinking that ‘it’s safe to assume the worker knows best [and that it’s] best to defer to the judgment of those who do that kind of work.’ Graeber trusts people, and if they report that they see meaning in their labour, he believes them. ‘I fantasise about eliminating the jobs, not the people who have them,’ he remarks, admirably refusing to share the contempt for workers that has become so prevalent.

  1. The work ethic

Work dominates our lives and, along with its abstract twin, ‘the economy’, drives neoliberal political discourse. The pressure is felt particularly by young people to enter employment, whatever the cost. ‘Nowadays it is considered important that [they] should work. However, it is not considered important that they should work at anything useful.’

What once might have been an apprenticeship characterised by a teaching relationship has transmuted into the ‘idea that dutiful submission even to meaningless work under another’s authority is a form of moral self-discipline and makes you a better person.’ You shouldn’t expect to enjoy yourself or do anything meaningful at work – that’s the privilege of the rich. You should learn to submit to your allotted position.

After the industrial revolution, religious ideologies ‘could no longer promise much to the poor – certainly not adulthood as it used to be conceived, as the freedom from the need to work under the order of others [i.e. to be autonomous, a free labourer] – they substituted charity, discipline and a renewed infusion of theology.’ Work itself was deified, regardless of its outcome. Some version of what Max Weber called the protestant ethic is undoubtedly at work, but other religious denominations – not to mention conservative ideologues – contribute to entrenching the social role of employment in maintaining class hierarchy.

  1. The fetish of efficiency

Many reforms introduced under neoliberalism have been justified under the banner of efficiency. Privatisation is a particularly prevalent strategy. Neoliberals believe anything the state can do, the market can do better. Yet it is precisely this logic that has produced bullshit jobs.

Efficiency used to mean greater productivity with less labour time. Now, it means putting in the least amount of effort to barely do the thing for which the company receives the most amount of money. Graeber argues that bullshit jobs are a direct result of ‘market reforms [that] invariably created more bureaucracy, not less.’ And with more bureaucracy comes greater distance from achieving what funding sets out to achieve, and greater opportunity for the predatory business world to extort. To pick just one example, the UK government spent almost $178 million on private consultants for Brexit. Every year (2017, 2018, 2018 again, 2019) a drily-worded article appears claiming that the Australian government spending on consultants is getting out of hand, but the otherwise rabidly stingy conservatives are unlikely to cut it since it amounts to giving money to their mates for glowingly evaluating another one of their failing schemes.

The key aim in ‘efficiency’ is corporate profit. Whole industries are now devoted not to making products, or providing services, but to creating and managing debt.

In his earlier book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), Graeber illustrated how finance operates not only by ‘creating’ (capitalising and commodifying) and ‘manipulating’ (trading, speculating), but also by destroying value. Neoliberal capitalism enforces its systematic inequality by such mechanisms and re-directs anger onto the social services vainly designed to contain the damage.

I include myself in this when I say that we easily become complicit in the bullshit and must pay lip service to the culture of efficiency and optimal productivity. Job selection processes baptise us into ‘a universe of BS narrative that documents the purpose and functions of the position as well as the qualification required to successfully perform the job.’ But, to add obscenity to misery, everyone down the line knows it’s a bullshit job. The joke is on us when we fill out the bullshit applications, but those who write them are often not free from self-contempt.

  1. Varieties of compensatory mechanisms

Why does anyone put up with this situation?

Some bullshit jobs are very well paid. The compensation of vast retirement funds, international holidays and shiny toys accumulates along with the need to paper over the sense of meaninglessness that pervades these professions, even at the upper echelons. With this compensation, however, comes resentment at people who actually do meaningful work. So entrenched is the system of bullshit jobs and its hierarchies of carelessness that, as Graeber laments, ‘most people who do a great deal of harm in the world are protected against the knowledge that they do so.’ Call it capitalism’s active ignorance of the misery it produces.

At the bottom end of the labour market, various self-help guides will help you ‘not care’ about the fact that a job does nothing in the world, and perhaps produces harm. There’s even an article suggesting that Graeber himself advocates this: it touts the positive benefits of ‘feeling busy’ and having a ‘sense’ of control, perpetuating the narrative that our work doesn’t have to be meaningful, and ignoring the legitimate distress people can feel in a job that produces ‘net harm’ or net nothing.

For its part, The Economist – that bastion of right-wing liberalism chides that ‘Disaggregation may look meaningless, since many workers end up doing things incredibly far removed from the end points of the process; the days when iron ore goes in one door and a car rolls out the other are over. But the idea is the same.’ You’d be childish to object to this common sense, they proclaim. Don’t second-guess TINA, they warn.

But Graeber’s lesson is that capitalism produces bullshit deliberately. Like the consultants, many corporations – as one informant admits – ‘make money from dealing with a leaky pipe’. And in a situation like that ‘do you fix the pipe, or do you let the pipe keep leaking?’

  1. How to…

One thing Graeber wants us to recognise is the contingency of the situation. His analysis aims towards ‘the recognition that the world we inhabit is something we made, collectively, as a society, and therefore, that we could also have made it differently.’ Of course, he is equally attentive to the difficulties of change. One of the reasons he cites for the institutions of bullshit jobs and commodification is that our very relationships of care have become enmeshed with the very things we want to abandon. It is ‘difficult to simply create a different society [because] our actions are caught up in relations of caring. But most caring relations require we leave the world more or less as we found it.’

Many of our caring relationships – even the ones where we might bristle at the suggestion that they relied on exploitative capitalism – are dependent in structural ways on the regularity and predictability of a world run by profit. Getting home, eating, providing any kind of material good sows us into this network of relations, just as our dreams and desires play host to the empty imagery of consumer objects. As John Holloway writes: ‘To say goodbye to capital is to break a relationship…’

One way Graeber thinks we can begin to sever these ties is by means of a Universal Basic Income. Many writers have debated the arguments for and against the UBI on these pages, and I do not propose to contribute to this debate but simply present Graeber’s case.

For Graeber, the UBI is a way of untethering both ‘jobs’ and ‘wages’ from that thing we call ‘life’. It would serve, he argues, to make living independent from the work we do and release us from having to submit to meaningless or harmful jobs. My sense is that he thinks that the UBI will be the vanguard to other changes including – crucially for him – the reduction in bureaucratic population management. You hardly need surveillance of welfare recipients in a system where everyone is entitled to an income.

Beyond the UBI, a great deal of cultural change is also needed. Graeber argues that our current labour and political systems are essential feudal in their hierarchical structure. He is not the first, of course. Alain Supiot, a relatively centrist French legal scholar, has decried the ‘Refeudalising’ of Europe. His analysis proposes that the nexus of neoliberal cuts to social and public services  and increasingly exacting employment contracts have shifted workers from relying on the law to swearing allegiance to a stronger party, in a situation akin to the medieval institution of ‘vassalage’.

Graeber is suspicious of top-down policy, however, and insistent that egalitarianism be affirmed instead. This egalitarianism should apply not only at a state and legal level, but also on an interpersonal basis. While the current dominant employment relationships have been characterised by Lynn Chancer as sadomasochistic, Graeber tells an anecdote that inverts that dynamic.

Unlike in consensual BDSM, at work there’s no safe word when a hierarchical relationship is going wrong. Or, as Graeber quips, ‘you can’t say ‘orange’ to your boss’. He further notes how Michel Foucault

underwent a remarkable personal transformation on discovering BDSM, turning from a notoriously cagey and standoffish personality to one suddenly warm, open, and friendly…

Graeber speculates, on the basis of Foucault’s distinction between ‘power and domination’ that in BDSM he discovered the possible pleasures of ‘power’, but crucially distinguished it from ‘domination’ by the criteria of reversibility: ‘To exercise power over another, in this sort of open strategic game, where things could be reversed, that is not evil. That is part of love, passion, of sexual pleasure…’

There is something irresistibly egalitarian in Foucault’s suggestion. I imagine a non-bullshit team-building activity in which the hierarchies of the office are thrown out by the playful enactment of their contingency. There is no reason why anyone should rule over another. Applied to broader social hierarchies, the principle of egalitarianism might not eliminate all the bullshit jobs at once, but it would certainly contribute to emancipating us from the drudgery of bureaucracy and reverse the trend of refeudalisation.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Scott Robinson is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at Monash University.

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