MAY 31, 2018
ANTHROPOLOGIST AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST David Graeber wrote a 2013 essay for Strike! Magazine that got more attention than an essay in a niche radical magazine typically gets. The piece, called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” inspired responses in outlets from The Economist to Jacobin; the Guardian insisted that the essay would “change your life.”
Much of the attention could be attributed to the essay’s simple but relatable title — everyone seemed to intuitively understand what it meant to call a job “bullshit.” The image of a modern workplace filled with people pretending to look busy while secretly checking Facebook was immediately recognizable. But, more substantively, the piece’s premise struck at one of the core tenets of capitalism. It suggested that many jobs created in the modern economy do not actually need to exist at all.
This is not how we’re taught it works. We’re taught that, to stay viable in a free and competitive marketplace, businesses need to maximize efficiency. Instead, Graeber wrote, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” The essay was refreshing because it didn’t presume this was an illusion. Maybe so many jobs feel pointless because they are.
Now Graeber has expanded that essay into a book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, drawing on research conducted in the aftermath of his essay. But 2018 is not 2013, and the political context of a discussion of “bullshit jobs” is very different now. The five years since the essay first came out have seen news that bears on Graeber’s argument: a continuously falling unemployment rate (without corresponding wage growth); a stunningly successful socialist presidential campaign premised on inequality; an even more stunningly successful presidential campaign attributed largely to grievances of the “working class”; and leftist pressure that has pulled prominent Democrats toward support of a federal jobs guarantee.
All of which make the new book especially relevant. What was presented as mostly a provocative premise in the essay is now a full-fledged argument. Instead of relying on a shared intuition about what a “bullshit job” is, Graeber offers a detailed description. Instead of a few anecdotal examples, he now has a taxonomy. And instead of just alluding to the moral questions they raise, he tries to answer them, and situates them in a historical context. None of his claims will be all that surprising to readers familiar with the original essay, but the book feels less like a thought experiment and more like an overdue diagnosis of a fundamental social ill.
Overall, then, this book resonates in a different way than the essay did five years ago. The book is noteworthy not simply for saying something new, but for advancing arguments that have been hinted at elsewhere. For instance, it’s difficult to read Bullshit Jobs and not think of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which appeared in English just eight months after Graeber’s original essay. In that book, Piketty examined sources of inequality and argued that, absent outside interference, economic growth will lag behind the rate of return on capital. In other words, wage growth on its own cannot actually reduce inequality, since it will always be outpaced by returns on investment.
If this is true, then Graeber’s contention that a capitalist system might pay wages for pointless jobs doesn’t seem so shocking. These jobs might actually work as tools for propagating this inequality. As he put it in his initial essay, “If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job” than a system in which so many people are trapped in bullshit jobs. Instead of treating that like a conspiracy theory, though, the book presents it as a political answer to a question that had previously been dismissed as merely economic.
The biggest difference between now and 2013 might simply be that it no longer seems heretical to analyze capitalist institutions through a non-economic lens. In fact, Graeber’s book reads more like an anthropological analysis of the modern economy than anything else. Drawing on hundreds of testimonials from people who responded to his original essay, Graeber presents a typology of bullshit jobs, which he defines 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.”
Since these testimonials, though copious, cannot be exhaustive, Graeber does not pretend that this typology is complete. Indeed, there are many times that the obvious limitations on people’s ability to be honest about their jobs make it hard to draw comprehensive conclusions (a few times in the book, Graeber imagines a study that could illustrate his point before conceding that such a study would obviously be impossible). Still, there is value in the categories presented, even if it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.
One premise of the original essay is that “bullshit jobs” stand in contrast to those done by “real, productive workers.” Graeber retains this framing in the book, at least in part so as to avoid sounding judgmental — if you feel that your job is not bullshit, then he is not here to tell you otherwise — but it seems misguided. A more persuasive case could likely be made that all jobs in the modern economy are at least a little bit bullshit. For example, when discussing the category of “box tickers,” or roles that are filled so that institutions can claim they are addressing a problem without actually addressing it, the book quotes someone whose main job was preparing reports that looked very nice, but were never actually read.
According to Graeber, this is a recurring feature of such jobs: “The meetings in which such emblems are displayed might be considered the high rituals of the corporate world.” It is not always easy to identify what jobs fall into this classification, or to know if a report you made was actually read. But recognizing that some jobs are meant to perform “high rituals,” instead of actually productive tasks, certainly illuminates much about modern workplaces.
Similarly, another one of the book’s testimonials comes from a receptionist at a small office that rarely receives more than one call a day. Another employee could easily add this task to their remit, but to do so would seem, as Graeber puts it, “shocking and bizarre.” An economist might insist that whatever this receptionist is earning must be worth less to the employer than the risk of appearing unprofessional to potential callers. In other words, what is done must be rational, because if it weren’t rational, then it wouldn’t be done. But it certainly seems more like a ritual than anything else, and Graeber’s book takes that possibility seriously.
Economists also like to point out that wage labor is a relatively modern invention, but the book traces the structural similarities of most jobs back to feudalism. Perhaps its most audacious argument is that modern corporations are not just similar to feudalism — they are basically the same thing: “Managerialism has become the pretext for creating a new covert form of feudalism.” The proliferation of unnecessary employees doesn’t make sense if you’re a capitalist trying to keep costs down, but it does make sense if you’re a feudal lord trying to flaunt your importance and buy the loyalty of underlings.
Of course, it’s worth cautioning against such a bold claim, and Graeber’s logic sometimes displays less caution than a reader might like. His prose moves quickly, bouncing from specific example to historical detail to sociological observation. But occasionally it slips in some more contestable claim without justification — there’s a lot of “there is every reason to believe” and “for all we know” and similar hedging of the just-go-with-this-for-a-minute-I’m-on-to-something variety. Even those sympathetic to his perspective are likely to catch him begging some questions as he goes.
This brings us to the book’s most glaring problem — there’s selection bias all over the place. Graeber’s main sources for research and testimonials were people who reached out to him, either privately or publicly, to talk about their experiences. In other words, he’s drawing from people who read his essay and were already predisposed to agree with it. So not only do his testimonials represent a mere drop in the ocean of modern employment, but it’s a particularly skewed sample. The lack of specifics in the testimonials makes it more or less impossible to verify the facts provided, even though people are notoriously unreliable about much of what they’re talking about here (office politics, interpersonal feuds, comparative productivity, et cetera).
Graeber doesn’t pretend otherwise, and he does not claim to be presenting a random or statistically significant sample. It’s clear that he is more interested in his subjects as illustrative examples than as a dataset. Nevertheless, he is using them to make broad social observations, and he occasionally seems to forget that the subjects he is quoting are not necessarily representative of the industries they speak for. Bullshit Jobs is at its least persuasive when it makes these generalizations, or tries to rank and categorize types of work by relative amounts of bullshit.
On the other hand, the book is at its most persuasive when recontextualizing observations that feel familiar. For example, Graeber’s discussion of why bullshit jobs are so unpleasant is eye opening. They have few of the features that usually mark a bad job: they tend to pay reasonably well; they’re rarely physically demanding or unsafe; they often come with reasonable job security and enviable social status. But people still hate them, largely because they drain any sense of autonomy or value from an employee’s life. They also necessitate a level of deception, since employees have to constantly lie to their bosses and clients about the value of their labor, that makes people cynical and distrustful.
This has important implications, not just psychologically, but socially. Bullshit Jobs contrasts two young men, Eric and Rufus, who had similar bullshit jobs that they hated while they had them. Eric, from a working-class background, was so startled by the pointlessness of his job that he tried to get fired, arranging fake business trips on which he “spent three days taking MDMA at an anarcho-syndicalist house party” before eventually quitting and moving to a squat to grow his own vegetables for six months. Rufus, who got a sinecure at a company where his dad was a vice president, says that “[t]hinking back on it, it was kind of a dream job.”
In other words, even though they both hated their jobs, Rufus knew what to expect, and so was able to endure and profit from it. He was there not for work experience, but “work experience” — a line on a resume that would look impressive to outsiders despite signifying nothing. On the other hand, someone from a working-class background, who expects work to be perhaps unpleasant but at least productive, is unprepared for this charade. This does not seem like a trivial factor in social mobility or class identity.
Again, what makes Bullshit Jobs so refreshing is how it exposes that none of this is really about economics. At one point, Graeber refers to work as “a kind of secular hair-shirt” because of the way we have been conditioned to view a job as something that is necessarily unpleasant. It can be physically unpleasant, or low-paying, but increasingly, work is unpleasant because it is devoid of meaning or social value. A bullshit job, like any job, is a test of character, and so “anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person.”
The connection between capitalism and the moral value of work has been examined for a long time — at least since the Protestant Reformation, and Graeber takes it even further into the past. Once again, though, his argument sounds fresh because of its bearing on questions that have emerged since his original essay. For example: What makes someone a member of the “working class”?
If the moral worth of a job comes from its lack of obvious value, then anyone who is tangibly helping people — like a home health aide caring for a patient, or a waiter bringing someone food, or a maid making someone’s bed — should not qualify, while a regional compliance associate living in the suburbs still might. This doesn’t have to crowd out the questions of race and gender that complicate this answer, in part because they are so closely connected — “care work” of various types having for so long been the domain of women and people of color.
Of course, it’s not usually bullshit jobs that are considered “working class” — the oft-mentioned, rarely seen coal miner does not have a bullshit job — which is why the term is less successful as a classification than as a prism to understand all jobs. But this makes the book perhaps all the more fundamental: bullshit is an unavoidable part of modern employment. Even that coal miner might have to fill out a requisition form to get a new belt. Yet, until recently, the only people discussing this phenomenon were the employees who complained about it.
Graeber’s original essay was one of the first signs that these employees weren’t just whining, but were actually interrogating a major internal contradiction of capitalism. Now, those signs are more common. It is not uncommon to hear calls for a universal basic income, to separate work from livelihood, or to suggest that a job’s economic value and social value might be fundamentally at odds, and not just slightly misaligned. So while this book might seem slightly less audacious, it is all the more valuable. Hopefully, it is only an opening salvo — Graeber’s skewed data and broad argument probably won’t pull the reader quite as far as he would like them to — but it is a crucial one nonetheless. The idea that jobs are inherently valuable has gone without serious challenge for too long. It’s about time someone called bullshit.