graeber book

David Graeber’s new book raises many questions about the function and worth of work, but doesn’t entirely explain why useless work persists, finds Clare Solomon


David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Allen Lane 2018), 368pp.

When London School of Economics Professor David Graeber (also of Occupy Wall St fame – he is credited with having come up with the ‘99%’ slogan) published an article in the radical Strike! Magazine on the topic of pointless jobs, little did he realise that it would snowball into a theory, further research and an ensuing book. Partly inspired by the now-famous story of the man in Spain who didn’t turn up for work for years and, instead, went to university whilst still getting full pay, with this book Graeber aims to serve a political purpose: his theory aims to be ‘an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization’ (p.xxvi). Whether he achieves this or not I’ll come to later.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory brings together reams of research into how and why so many of us are engaged and employed in jobs which could almost literally be abolished, or at least reduce the amount we have to work by at least 50%. Indeed 37% of British workers, according to a YouGov opinion poll inspired by his essay, self identify as having jobs that are of no worth to society. In a world where much of our work could be replaced by automation, why are so many of us working way longer than necessary to produce the things we need to live a healthy and happy life?

The questions Graeber raises are more than just about the ineffectiveness of this type of work but what impact it has on our lives. A majority of us in so-called bullshit jobs are unhappy and unfulfilled. Whilst the Tories bang on about the lazy worker, the sick unemployed and the rest of the undeserving poor, Graeber (and I) argue that in fact people do want to contribute to society, but in ways that are meaningful and satisfying.

What are bullshit jobs?

Taking a pop at corporate lawyers, middle managers, journalists working on in-house magazines, strategic-leadership professionals, advertising and PR specialists, portfolio co-ordinators and even call-centre workers and PAs, he handily (although perhaps protractedly) pigeon holes these types of BS jobs into the following categories: Goons, Flunkies, Box Tickers, Duct Tapers and Taskmasters. These categories can evolve, overlap and transform into what he calls ‘Complex Multiform Bullshit Jobs’.

Making a distinction between ‘shit jobs’ and ‘bullshit jobs’, Graeber offers a final working definition of the latter as ‘… 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.10).

Like billions of people I have lots of experience of both bullshit and, literally, shit work! As a teenager I was made to work in the soiled-laundry department of an old people’s home. It wasn’t pleasant but it was totally necessary. On the bullshit front, however, I remember a job when I picked up political newspapers from the printing presses in an industrial unit out of East London. On the road leading into it a security guy sat in a hut all-day-long, only being allowed out to pick up a traffic cone to let you pass and then replace it. I remember thinking every time I passed what would happen if this guy didn’t turn up for work?

Now, this book does indeed have long titles:

‘Concerning the Experience of Falseness and Purposelessness at the Core of Bullshit Jobs, and the Importance Now Felt of Conveying the Experience of Falseness and Purposelessness to Youth.’

Or the even longer

‘How, with the Advent of Capitalism, Work Came to Be Seen in Many Quarters Either as a Means of Social Reform or Ultimately as a Virtue in it’s Own Right, and How Labourers Countered Embracing the Labour Theory of Value’

Phew! Presumably this is a writing style employed to highlight the ridiculousness of the jobs themselves. But don’t let this put you off. Graeber’s style of writing is accessible, humourous and highly educational and makes the reading of this painless, if not a tad long-winded in the middle.

Why are there bullshit jobs?

So why, exactly, do so many of us do useless jobs? Were they invented to keep us all in overwork and in submission? This seems a tad conspiratorial in my opinion. Admittedly, Graeber explains how this did indeed happen in the uberly bureaucratic Stalinist period of the Soviet Union, but goes on to query why now, and why in private companies. Stalinism doesn’t explain how it has come to happen in western capitalism.

Part of the answer he gives is that it comes from the old Puritan-capitalist work ethic, so the social norm tells people that their worth comes only from work. Graeber states flatly: ‘It is not capitalism per se that produces the bullshit. It is managerialist ideologies put into practice in complex organisations’ (p.55). There isn’t really an explanation on how this comes about, and why capitalism allows it. Surely capitalism is about producing value that can be turned into profit? He doesn’t expand how it would allow managerialism to produce such waste. An exposition of this would’ve been a nice addition to the book to pad out his accusation that this ‘scar over the collective soul’ is caused by those in power just wanting to keep us all mind-numbed enough to stop us figuring this out and fighting back, organising to change our conditions.

So where do I think bullshit jobs come from? Advanced capitalism spends an inordinate amount of time on things that are apparently unnecessary because they are a part of the competitive system. These jobs are rooted not in production of values per se but in the production of markets: advertising, corporate tax evasion, the requirements of status display, and so on.

The only people who’ve ever argued with his basic premise, he says, are business owners, the people who are in charge of hiring and firing. He says he periodically receives ‘unsolicited communications’ from such people, who insist that no one ‘would ever spend company money on an employee who wasn’t needed’. However, it’s not the middle management with basically BS jobs who get the sack but those with often shit and underpaid but useful jobs that they get rid of.

The further from the fruits of the production line we are, the further alienated we become from our labour and each other. In other words, we all produce things for sale at some point (whether they are concrete items like meals, PlayStations, reports and so on or less obvious things like educational materials and teaching, or whether we engage in the service of them). But, because we don’t have any control of the planning and production of these things, we experience (not usually consciously) a disconnect from those products. We are alienated from them, the products of our own labour, in Marx’s terminology. 

Producing these things for so many hours a day leaves us little time to look after ourselves properly, to do more enjoyable and fruitful things like sitting around talking, discussing the issues of the day, or making beautiful things that give us pleasure. Instead we often find quick fix solutions in things like alcohol, shopping, electronic games or ‘compensatory consumerism’, as David Graeber calls it: ‘consumer pleasures are the only ones we have time to enjoy’ he says.

The uses and misuses of automation

He, rightly, argues against the worry about robots taking over. Whilst it would be great if we could get robots to do all the dirty work, it would in fact depend on who owns the robots. If the wealthy elite own them we would, he states, not end our wage labour but would be left with all the worse jobs and would still be required to work long shifts as the wealthy class see value in work even when it doesn’t produce values (profits). Where the wealthy see value in going to work (for long hours), a socialist approach would see the use value (as opposed to exchange value) coming from the caring elements of work. Caring for children, the infirm and the elderly, but also caring about a sanitised, healthy environment for us to organise our productive activity according to need, not profit. Unsurprisingly, a majority of these roles are carried out by women: work seen as ‘caring’, and some essential kinds of service work, in a capitalist world, produces no quantifiable value.

But whilst automation could simplify our lives it is not being used for that. Much of the bullshitisation, he says, is a direct result of the desire to quantify the unquantifiable.  And as we experience more robots and machines we are also faced with more to manage. Think about how we used to organise meetings: send a letter; the secretary of the board (or whatever) opens the letter and announces it at the next meeting. Everyone writes it down, remembers, and turns up at the correct time and date. Now this involves a complex process of Facebook, Twitter announcements, emails which invariable bounce back, data protection, iPhone batteries running out just as we approach the meeting, thus rendering our oh-so-highly organised iLives useless as we no longer remember meeting details!

The interesting thing Graeber picks up on is that automation has led to ‘mass unemployment’ which could in effect be a thing to celebrate – fewer labour hours are therefore needed to do all the things we need for a fruitful life. Yet somehow the wealthy have found a way to keep us occupied. For Graeber, this is not so much due to economic necessity but, rather, it is a political decision to keep us all working and occupied for longer.

He describes how a managerial approach as opposed to a non-managerial one, mostly aided by computers of one shape or another, actually requires more not fewer humans to administer what could be a fairly simple task.

He gives a case study of a worker called Leslie at a benefits advice NGO, which demonstrates how caring can’t be recognised by computers (p.272). There are related examples, such as of how people need CV training to make sure their CVs can make it through the application system, so the computers pick up on the key words. The whole benefits system is designed to ‘create the illusion that people are lazy and don’t really want to work’ (p.273).

What is the answer?

So, what is to be done? A no-bullshit jobs campaign? For a fifteen-hour week? Unfortunately, from what I can tell, Universal Basic Income is the only thing in which Graeber has any hope. Maybe he hasn’t seen the recent reports from Finland, where it was implemented by a conservative government to much acclaim in 2016, but the pilot project has now been halted, and a stricter benefits regime is planned. Universal Basic Income could led towards more austerity for people, not to less. 

In a free-market system essentially based on competition and duplication, universal basic income is wide open to abuse. It could perhaps be a temptation for companies to reduce wages because people will be getting their basic needs met. It is a subsidy for low wages which may leave people with not enough money and, therefore, power to strike, thereby decreasing the power of labour. It is a top down, state imposed scheme with no connection to the workplace, so it does nothing to increase working people’s power over their own labour. It would not necessarily do anything to make our society more democratic.

Graeber recognises that bullshit work can lead to unhappiness, and conversely that the opposite is also true; that fulfilling ‘work’, that is contributing to a better society, is at least a start to overcoming alienation. A different way of organising work is needed, so that the work that needs to be done is shared equally, and all can contribute democratically to the administration of things. This would be much better than a world divided into those excluded from work, those who do the necessary jobs under horrible conditions (the shit jobs), those who do the bullshit jobs to keep the whole unnecessary circus in play, and that 1% who benefit from it all.

Clare Solomon

As President of the University of London Union 2010-2011, Clare was a key organiser of the 2010 student rebellion. ‘Springtime: The New Student Rebellions’, her book on the student and youth revolts worldwide, co-edited with Tania Palmieri, is published by Verso. She is a leading member of the People's Assembly and Counterfire.

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