ALL JOBS ARE BULLSHIT JOBS. It’s in the nature of the beast we call capitalism to make them that way. Deep in our reptilian brains we all know this. A graduate degree in economics is not required. A Tim Horton’s degree will do.
Forced to sell the only power we have (our labour power) to others in order to survive is the quintessence of bullshit. But, it is only when a job is truly pointless that it becomes a “bullshit job” for David Graeber the writer of the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
Graeber defines bullshit jobs as jobs that seem to exist “just for the sake of keeping us all working.” He published an essay critical of that growing worklife reality in 2103. It hit a nerve.
Many people let him know that’s exactly the kind of work they are stuck with. They feel their job requires them to do nothing of value, or to do nothing at all while appearing to be hard at work. Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist, decided to write a book about it.
Graeber used the first-hand accounts people sent him to come up with a definition of a bullshit job 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.”
‘Shit jobs’ are different
Graeber distinguishes these bullshit jobs from “shit jobs,” like cleaning toilets, which serve a purpose but still suck.
Bullshit jobs also suck. But it is the fact they are bullshit jobs that makes them suck—not the nature of the work itself. Much of the stress bullshit jobs produce comes from the convoluted and preposterous maneuvers workers have to go through in order to pretend to be working when they have nothing to do. Graeber terms this “spiritual violence.”
Technological change was not supposed to bring an explosion of pointless work. Mainstream economists, like John Maynard Keynes, predicted technology would give us all more leisure time and a 15-hour workweek. What the economists had not allowed for was that the organization of work is far more than a question of economics.
The organization of work is the bedrock of all our social relations, embodying deep and broad moral and political elements. This can be very problematic as Graeber points out: "[E]very day it’s more difficult to tell the difference between what can be considered ‘economic’ and what is ‘political.’”
In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber employs anecdote in order to illustrate just how much insanity on the job we take for granted. Some stories are sad, others infuriating, and many are both. A number verge on the absurd. Here is Hannibal, one of Graeber’s contacts:
“I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.”
One woman’s job was to go around demanding IDs and proof of income from temporarily sheltered homeless people so that “the temporary homeless unit could claim back [the] housing benefit.” If homeless people couldn’t provide the necessary paperwork—as often happened—their caseworkers would kick them out.
Most of the stories involve jobs that are also nightmarish in their unrelenting tedium. Take the museum guard, for example, whose job was to protect an empty room, apparently to make sure no one started a fire in it. To ensure his vigilance, he was forbidden to read a book or even look at his phone.
The unnecessary compulsion of wage labour
The truth is what Graeber is really exploring in his book is not jobs that seem unnecessary, but the unnecessary compulsion of wage labour.
In a free society—one in which our time and work are our own rather than commodities—work would not be drudgery; we could and would find meaning in our jobs. But a society based on the production of value is by definition unfree, since we don’t really have a choice about whether to participate in it, and because work often becomes merely a tedious means of survival.
Some of the first factories at the start of the industrial revolution went bankrupt because laborers refused to work all day, every day. Factory owners reduced wages to the point that workers were forced to put in even more hours to survive.
Productive activity was cut off from any meaning beyond a means of earning a wage. Now we’ve all internalized this view of work.
This is the world we’ve inherited. Bullshit jobs are only one idiotic facet of this larger decoupling of work from meaningful activity. However, what we must not forget is that the idea that we can do nothing to change that is also quintessential bullshit.
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