By Mary Tracy
In 2013 David Graeber told the world what many of us secretly believed but were too afraid to admit out loud: many modern jobs appear to be bullshit because they are, in fact, bullshit.
Graeber wrote an article titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for the magazine “Strike!”, and the piece went quietly viral.
He has now expanded it into a book, bringing together economics, politics, history and personal testimonies to unravel the mystery of why so many millions of people appear to be engaged in pointless, meaningless activity for a living, while society watches idly by without either stopping it or acknowledging it.
In 2015, YouGov conducted a poll using language taken from the essay, and asked people “does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world”; 37 per cent said no. In another poll, taken this time in Holland, 40 per cent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no reason to exist.
Graeber’s argument is that automation has already happened, but instead of freeing us from the tyranny of the 40 hour work week, we have invented a whole crop of pointless occupations that are at best unnecessary and at worst pernicious.
What is a Bullshit Job? A job you secretly believe to be pointless and meaningless.
What could be the point of pointless jobs? This is what Graeber seeks to find out with this book. The point of pointless jobs is that they are politically useful.
It took a radical anarchist of academic pedigree from a working class background to blow the proverbial whistle on the fact that many well paid jobs are either pointless or actively harmless.
“Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense”.
One question will plague the reader, from the very beginning of the book until the very end: how can these jobs exist? Aren’t they a waste of money?
Here is the core argument of the book: we are no longer living under “Capitalism“. We are living under a system Graeber calls “Managerial Feudalism”, where most of the money comes from either “rents” or “debt”, precisely like in the days of feudalism proper. In other words, the “FIRE” sector: finance, insurance, real estate.
We are used to thinking about the economy as “production”, that is, making things. But under this “Managerial Feudalism”, the money flows to the elites, the owners, regardless of what workers do. And so “doing” becomes less important.
What, then, to do with all that money, but buy a whole cohort of people who will be kept in comfort and security and who, in exchange, will swear loyalty to the system, to feudalism; people whose wealth and status prove, by definition, that the system “works”, that some get to do very nicely indeed.
To put it in simple terms: the economy is no longer run by the “making of things” but by the “stealing of money”, and so large chunks of people are employed in the stealing of said money (jobs) and in the pretending that they aren’t (bullshit).
According to Graeber, the “professional-managerial class” holder of most BS jobs are actually the class enemies of those doing “caring work”. This renders unionisation ineffective. Graeber himself admits to not know the answer to this dilemma. When he was fired from Yale for engaging in a teacher unionization drive, the traditional campaigning approach of the union’s strategists was rendered ineffective, since the very Yale administrators responsible for his dismissal would be active in that left-liberal space.
This is one of the most dramatic effects of bullshitization: the fragmentation of the working class.
Getting paid good money to do almost nothing is what defines the ruling class. Those on BS jobs are given a mimicry of the real thing, a taste at being the “1 per cent”. Enough so that they are wrecked with the guilt only working class people could experience, having been raised on the notion that their duty is to actively contribute to society. Enough so that they never draw attention at those making their fortunes without working.
There is another effect of the proliferation of BS jobs that Graeber does not dwell in, but I cannot help but bring up. Especially in view of the rise of the fascist right across much of the so-called developed world.
It worries me that people can be made to care about such destructive nonsense such as selling advertising for a magazine that doesn’t exist, a real example from the book. If people can suspend their moral and intellectual judgement long enough to do their job convincingly, then how can we trust them to no carry out atrocities under the logic of employment?
In the past few weeks, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the US-Mexico border and placed in compounds reminiscent of cages and concentration camps. Officials have already started using the expression “following orders”.
Once people can be coerced into caring about nonsense, what else won’t they be convinced to do?
Graeber delivers blow after blow to the carefully constructed house of cards, this charade that has become the modern workplace.
Yet he also goes to great lengths to show that contrary to accepted wisdom, people want to be useful, they want to contribute to society. That even people who are well paid to not do much are not happy with this arrangement. They want to do meaningful work.
People have a sense of what makes a job worthwhile. Otherwise they would not experience the cognitive dissonance of thinking that their jobs are meaningless and that they shouldn’t be.
This argument lends strength to the project of Universal Basic Income (UBI), which he supports.
Freed from the constraints of economic dependency, our naturally caring natures can be free to do what we do best, and care for.