Anyone with a pulse and half a brain knows that work sucks. From comics like Dilbert to cult classics such as Office Space and Fight Club, the 9-5 grind has long inspired despair and twisted gallows humor. However, one doesn’t have to be a pop culture expert to know that people hate their jobs. Just take a gander at polls, which show that a whopping 13% (!) of employees around the world are engaged at work. I imagine that if these polls only measured the attitudes of regular workers and omitted top managers and independent entrepreneurs, that percentage would be even lower. Of course, these numbers are hardly surprising, since anyone who enjoys waking up early every day and commuting to work is clearly nuts.
Yet despite the well-documented miseries of wage slavery, work remains a religion in the United States – that stubbornly Calvinistic nation. On the right, Ayn Rand-worshipping Republicans and libertarians believe that anyone who doesn’t work is a lazy parasite who deserves to suffer and die. Meanwhile, progressives such as Chris Hedges and Dean Baker treat “full employment” as a panacea. While the two factions frequently butt heads, both agree that jobs are socially and morally necessary.
Are they? David Graber, an anarchist anthropology professor famous for pioneering the concept of the 99 percent and his writings on “bullshit jobs” – which began with a 2013 essay, and ended with his recent book – says no. In fact, far from improving morals, most of today’s jobs are bad for the soul. “Well, no shit, Sherlock! I’d be dead inside too if I were a Walmart ‘associate’ or office drone.” Indeed, few dispute that many jobs are utter shit. Even so, Graeber’s main focus is bullshit jobs. What’s the difference? Read on, and behold the utter bankruptcy of 21st century work culture.
Different flavors of shit
Before one can truly appreciate Graeber’s fulminations against bullshit jobs, it’s important to distinguish between shit and bullshit jobs. In a nutshell, the former are low-status and/or low-paying, but are nevertheless necessary in some way. If food service employees, cleaners, and other menial workers suddenly disappeared, shit would hit the fan (no pun intended). Bullshit jobs are the exact opposite: relatively well-paying, prestigious, and useless.
To illustrate this distinction, Graeber juxtaposes New York City’s garbage collector strike of 1968 with an Irish banker strike in 1970. Long story short, the former brought New York to its knees within 10 days, and forced the city to appease the striking workers. Meanwhile, after around 6 months of being on strike, Irish bankers had to call it quits, because nobody cared that they were gone! Yet for some perverse reason, bankers get paid way more than garbagemen. No doubt some Koch brothers-funded “free market” economist can rationalize such lunacy. Anyway, brief rant aside, the mere uselessness of BS jobs isn’t enough for them to be branded “bullshit jobs.” What really puts the “bull” in “bullshit” is the deception involved. Graeber writes:
Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless or pernicious; typically, there has to be some degree of pretense and fraud involved as well. The jobholder must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason why her job exists, even if, privately, she finds such claims ridiculous. There has to be some kind of gap between pretense and reality.
This explains why “professions” such as Mafia hitman and warlord are not bullshit jobs. Sure, they contribute nothing positive to society, but at least nobody has any illusions about what they are. The same cannot be said for myriad (legal) white-collar jobs, which Graeber breaks down into 5 categories:
- Flunkies. Flunkies only exist to make their bosses look good. A good example is a receptionist at a small publishing company that only receives two calls a day (after all, a company isn’t a true company without a receptionist). Ditto for doormen and other people who are just there for show. Since managers are often judged by how many people they have working under them, they’re more than happy to spend “other people’s money” on employees that make them appear prominent.
- Goons. Goons are aggressive thugs, but not of the cool gangsta or wise guy variety (apologies for subjecting readers to Joe Pesci’s terrible rapping. Couldn’t help myself!). Goons inspire no respect, and are only needed because somebody else has them. Corporate lawyers are the perfect example of goons. While individual corporate lawyers may perform useful functions for their employers, society would get by just fine if every single corporate lawyer disappeared. The same applies to telemarketers, lobbyists, and people who work in public relations.
- Duct tapers. Duct tapers are there to fix problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place. For example, at one of the universities where Graeber taught, there was only a single carpenter. Understandably, this inspired many complaints, which led Graeber to discover that the university hired someone whose sole job was handling complaints. Makes one wonder why they didn’t just hire another carpenter. As Graeber has mentioned many times, hiring duct tapers is like paying someone to empty a water bucket under a leaky pipe – as opposed to simply fixing the damn pipe.
- Box Tickers. Box tickers allow institutions to claim that they’re doing something they have no intention of actually doing. In the private sector, this often takes the form of compliance workers, especially in the financial sector (after clicking on the link, use command F and search for “Everett Stern”). Most adults with critical thinking faculties know that financial firms like HSBC have no desire to behave legally – much less ethically – and would gladly speculate in starving Yemeni children’s organs if they could get away with it. However, since they have at least a modicum of self-awareness, they have to pretend that they’re policing themselves. So do government officials any time there’s an unwarranted police shooting of an unarmed man or a major scandal such as the NSA spying revelations. After their agents get caught transgressing, the authorities always vow that there will be transparency, a thorough investigation, and accountability. In reality, the “investigation” often amounts to obstruction, and there’s seldom much accountability or meaningful reforms in the end.
- Taskmasters. Taskmasters don’t require much explanation. Bill Lumbergh from Office Space, and pretty much ever middle manager who does little more than sit in meetings and annoy employees, paints a pretty good picture of taskmasters. Graeber calls them taskmasters because most of their work involves supervising people who don’t need much supervision. Worse, many taskmasters will devise silly and pointless chores for their underlings in order to feel like they’re making a difference.
Unfortunately, these 5 categories don’t cover all forms of worthless employment. We also have to recognize people who have “second-order bullshit jobs” – useful jobs that support bullshit jobs. Think of late night pizza delivery guys who deliver food to a building housing some dubious financial consulting firm. Ditto for security guards, cleaners, and other people who toil on behalf of bullshit employees. When all these workers are factored in, today’s jobs looks even more pointless and depressing.
But wait, there’s more! As if 21st century society didn’t appear bleak enough, one can’t forget what Graeber calls the “bullshitization of useful work.” Since misery enjoys company, frustrated office monkeys should know that teachers, nurses, and other people with important jobs have to spend an increasing amount of time filling out forms and tending to other soul-crushing administrative tasks – and less time actually doing their jobs. It’s as if no jobs are truly safe, and that George Carlin was on the money when he claimed that bullshit is everywhere.
Thing is, it’s puzzling that so much bullshit work can endure in today’s globalized, neoliberal economies. Given how obsessed businesses are with cutting costs and earning profits, logic dictates that they wouldn’t squander money on deadweight employees; and indeed, the mass layoffs pioneered by corporate psychopaths like Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap show that corporations can be very lean and mean vis-à-vis regular workers. However, such cold logic only applies if we live in rational capitalist societies.
Those familiar with Michael Hudson’s work know that what often passes for “capitalism” is actually neofeudalism. You see, in a functioning capitalist economy, businesses actually have to produce something valuable in order to profit.
Neofeudalism, on the other hand, involves more extraction than production. Landlords – which are increasingly corporate – fleece their tenants; banks squeeze their customers via high interest rates, late fees, and penalties; and monopolists use their market power to charge exorbitant prices. Like rentiers of old, today’s Masters of the Universe use property claims and special legal privileges to collect money just for existing. Moreover, another thing they have in common with their feudal forebears is distributing loot to various lackeys. Graeber writes (emphasis mine):
The whole point [of feudalism] is to grab a pot of loot, either by stealing it from one’s enemies or extracting it from commoners by means of fees, tolls, rents, and levies, and then redistributing it. In the process, one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies (goons), or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.
Graeber aptly describes the modern version of this arrangement as “managerial feudalism,” and it’s depressingly similar to the old school kind. Think of CEOs and owners as today’s lords. Likewise, instead of vassals, there are lower level executives. In the place of knights, there are HR and middle manager enforcers; and instead of well-dressed retainers tweezing their lord’s mustache, cubicle robots turn in meaningless reports.
Under this system, hierarchy and loyalty (or at least obedience) are more important than economic growth. As Graeber likes to emphasize, the proliferation of bullshit jobs is the result of political considerations, not economics. As proof, he cites former president Barack Obama’s smoking gun acknowledgment that America’s heavily privatized healthcare system is inefficient and burdensome, but nevertheless necessary because it keeps duct tapers working in the healthcare industry employed. On the other hand, everyday workers who actually create value – today’s serfs – are relentlessly squeezed, and no special efforts are made to prevent them from getting laid off. Funny how that works.
A Marriage Made in Hell
That said, neofeudalism isn’t the only reason bullshit jobs exist. Graeber also highlights religious factors, and specifically singles out the unholy marriage of Christianity and traditional Northern European work culture. For those unfamiliar with either, a simple way to sum up the religious part is that Christianity’s belief in the curse of Adam simultaneously treats work as both necessary and a form of punishment. Meanwhile, traditional Northern European culture endorsed paid labor in the form of various apprenticeships and other types of service, with the hope that such work would allow men to evolve into mature, self-employed adults.
Regrettably, the rise of capitalism, industrialization, and mass production rendered the self-employed craftsman a rare species. Since dignified work became increasingly rare, most people were encouraged to see their work “not so much as wealth-creation, or helping others, or at least not primarily so, but as self-abnegation, a kind of secular hair-shirt, a sacrifice of joy and pleasure that allows us to become an adult worthy of our consumerist toys.” To translate, Graeber is saying that because work could no longer be justified in terms of its value, it came to be promoted precisely because it’s depressing and often meaningless; to needlessly suffer is to build character. Strangely, this new conception of character doesn’t translate into greater support for a higher inheritance tax that would compel affluent heirs to work. I guess too much leisure time is only harmful to regular Joes.
Speaking of time, what makes jobs – shit and bullshit alike – especially miserable is pretending to be busy in order to keep the boss at bay. Even though the average employee only does around 3 hours of actual work per day, most employers still believe that workers have no right to chill whenever things get slow. Bosses even invented a term to describe employee idleness: Time theft. Better not go over that 1 hour lunch break, wage slave, or you’re no better than a mugger!
Sadly, most people accept the reasoning behind a concept like time theft. However, what blew my mind when reading the book was learning just how recent this “you’re on the clock!” attitude is. As Graeber points out, for most of world history, it simply didn’t occur to people that one could rent human beings and own their time. In fact, they barely distinguished between owning and renting a person. For them, to be “a slave, to be forced to surrender one’s free will and become the mere instrument of another, even temporarily, was considered the most degrading thing that could possibly befall a human being.” And sure enough, the historical record shows that early wage laborers were slaves rented out by their masters. Needless to say, the great minds of antiquity would not consider today’s regimented and closely monitored 9-5 workers free, and would be outraged if made to live like the average employee.
One of the reasons why the ancients found the notion of controlling someone’s time so offensive is because of the way time was previously measured. Prior to the invention of the clock, time was “measured by actions rather than action being measured by time.” In other words, if one headed over to a friend’s place, he would say that it would take the boiling of two eggs for him to arrive. Today, by contrast, a pizza place would say that a pizza will be ready in 30 minutes. This difference is key, because before actions could be measured by time, people worked in cycles. During harvest season and other busy times, they would work tirelessly for some 12 plus hours; and after the hard and necessary tasks were done, they would then rest and at most do 3 hours of maintenance work per day. Such a periodic schedule is how nature intended for people to work.
However, the invention of the clock changed everything for the worse. Since time became quantified, people began to treat time as money – something that could be bought, wasted, or used productively. Consequently, poor time management came to be seen as a major social problem, and the “solution” was for the unwashed masses to work more. To compound matters, the demand of workers’ movements for more free time had the unintended effect of “subtly reinforcing the idea what when a worker was ‘on the clock,’ his time truly did belong to the person who had bought it.” This new and radical conception of time helps explain why bullshit jobs continue to exist. Since time cannot be wasted, it’s better to sell it and spend an extra 5 hours in the office than have more unstructured time to oneself. If nothing else, the existence of bullshit jobs reveals mainstream society’s cynical and distorted view of the purpose of life.
Oh, the Humanity!
While Bullshit Jobs is a brutal and gratifying expose of today’s comically dysfunctional work culture, what makes the book especially edifying is the way it challenges readers to ponder what makes us human. All Office Space fans can recall Peter Gibbons’ line that humans were not meant “to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!” At first glance, many may wonder why Peter is so jaded. After all, he makes decent money while only doing around 15 minutes of real work any given week. Sure, his job is dull, but it’s better than being a “crew member” at McDonald’s.
Nevertheless, Peter is depressed and miserable; and lest one think that workers like Peter Gibbons are confined to 90s cult comedies, Bullshit Jobs is full of anecdotes about people with white-collar sinecures who are restless and despondent. What gives?
In order to resolve this mystery, Graeber cites the research of early 20th century German psychologist Karl Groos, whose observations of infants say a lot about adults. Graeber writes (emphasis mine):
As early as 1901, the German psychologist Karl Groos discovered that infants express extraordinary happiness when they first figure out they can cause predictable effects in the world, pretty much regardless of what that effect is or whether it could be construed as having any benefit to them.
Groos attributed this to the “pleasure at being the cause,” and noticed that it could be triggered by something as simple as moving a pencil. What Groos’ research reveals is that people don’t actually object to pointless activity in and of itself. This explains why both kids and adults enjoy playing video games, rewatching YouTube videos, and engaging in other frivolous pursuits. Plenty of people are also more than happy to partake in pernicious endeavors; notice how much fun con man Frank Abagnale has in Catch Me If You Can. Even having a boring job can be satisfying, provided that it does some noticeable good in the world. For human beings, what matters is having the power to make a difference, however trivial, in their surroundings.
For this reason, Graeber concludes that what ultimately bothers people about bullshit jobs is doing something pointless and/or sleazy on someone else’s terms. It’s one thing to make a living as an independent snake oil salesman; it’s quite another to be some call center jockey who, on pain of termination, pesters a customer into signing up for some crappy extended warranty plan. Graeber describes this lack of agency as a form of “spiritual violence,” because nothing maims the soul more than being forced to repeatedly do something unnecessary or harmful.
Turns out that this daily spiritual violence plays a hidden role in fomenting populist explosions around the world. On the left, such populist discontent is especially pronounced among members of what Graeber calls the “caring classes,” who comprised a large bulk of Occupy Wall Street protesters. For people who wish to make a living helping others, they’re too often forced to choose between doing good deeds for low pay, or selling out in order to cover rent. Meanwhile, on the right, this anger manifests itself in resentment of coastal liberals who monopolize creative jobs – screenwriter, art critic, and other stimulating professions – that are both fulfilling and pay well. Bullshit jobs also explain conservative hostility to teachers and auto workers, because few things enrage unfulfilled grunts more than seeing people with useful jobs demanding good pay and benefits. As far as people languishing in cubicle hells are concerned, the fact that teachers and auto workers get to do something important ought to be enough of a reward. Unlike most lefties, Graeber is sympathetic to such rancor, and even notes that one of the reasons so many Red State conservatives support the military is because it’s one of the few industries that’s both interesting and doesn’t require the extensive credentials demanded by so many rewarding careers.
Needless to say, Steven Pinker types who deplore the rise of radicalism and cynicism ought to read Bullshit Jobs. If they did, they’d know that bragging about higher literacy and life expectancy rates falls on deaf ears when so many people endure sustained assaults on their humanity.
Fortunately, this suppressed truth of the human condition gives Graeber an idea of how to reform work and usher in a more humane civilization. Like me, Graeber isn’t much of a policy wonk, but his vision of a truly free society leads him to endorse a Universal Basic Income. A UBI is as simple as it is radical; by decoupling money and work, people will at last enjoy real independence and self-determination, and have ample time to pursue their passions.
Obviously, many conservatives object to a UBI on the grounds that it would encourage indolence and sloth. Such fears are baseless, since the “pleasure at being the cause” would motivate most UBI beneficiaries to do more than sit around and jack off all day. Graeber admits that the result may be a torrent of deranged blog posts, lame YouTube channels, terrible poetry, and other forms of cultural pollution. However, if only a few UBI recipients end up becoming brilliant scientists or artists, a UBI would more than pay for itself. At the very least, it would make for a far more interesting and less stressful society.
Even better, since conservatives love to denounce “big government,” a UBI would instantly eliminate a large chunk of bureaucracy. No longer would governments have to hire invasive paper pushers to monitor benefits recipients. I’m sure that if one sat down with a milquetoast, bureaucrat-hating conservative like Hank Hill, he could make a good case for a UBI.
Of course, because certain conservatives and libertarians support a UBI, skeptical progressives believe that a UBI is a Silicon Valley-promoted Trojan horse – a means to entrench inequality and reduce people to dependent consumers. There is certainly merit to these concerns, and Graeber acknowledges that implementing a UBI will require some care. However, if there’s one thing the past couple of years of politics should have taught us, it’s that articulating a compelling vision is more important than getting lost in the weeds, which centrist governments around the world are learning that the hard way. If and when the majority of people embrace a UBI, the messy details can be tackled later.
Before we can get to that point, however, we’ll have to do the messy, non-bullshit job of changing attitudes toward work. Given that Americans of most stripes believe in the work ethic, this will be no easy task. When even solid progressive Bernie Sanders argues that nobody who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty – which tactitly says that anyone not willing to work that much is less worthy – it’s clear that the US (and to a smaller extent other countries) has a long way to go.
Additionally, given the US’s penchant for “rights-scolding” – Graeber’s term for the tendency of conservatives to condemn people for wanting “free stuff” like universal healthcare, and leftists to tell people to “check their privilege” for feeling “entitled” to something that more oppressed people don’t have – many think that even if all of Graeber’s arguments about bullshit jobs are true, they still have no right to complain. Take one of my close friends – someone who’s otherwise critical of our current economic system – who claims that bullshit jobs are a “good problem to have,” and deems Graeber whiny.
Whiny or not, the good news is that what is seen cannot be unseen; and with Bullshit Jobs enjoying significant mainstream recognition, I hope more people will unlearn bullshit beliefs about work and life that modernity has shoved down our throats.
They may even end up reading Graeber’s writings while at their office desks. Now that’s a good way to look busy and fend off the boss!