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. “Guerrilla” 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.
As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for
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.
‘The Martian gaze of the anthropologist’ … David Graeber. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the Guardian
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.
Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics: On the Demonisation of Ideology, Authority and the State is published by Repeater. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber (Allen Lane, £20). To order a copy for £17, go to guardianbookshop.com
or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.