Job seekers fill out paperwork at booths during a weekly job fair event in Dallas, Texas, U.S. (Photographer: Laura Buckman/Bloomberg)

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber Review

(Bloomberg) -- If you voted for Bernie Sanders, have sea-punk green hair, and wear a pin declaring “Capitalism Is the Crisis,” you may already be familiar with David Graeber’s writings on the takeover of our lives by bulls--- jobs.

Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, was a mover and shaker in the Occupy Wall Street movement and is well known for his approachable critiques of neoliberal free market ideology. His new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster; $27), sprang from a shorter essay he published in 2013 in a feminist-activist magazine called Strike, which quickly struck a nerve. (One that  kept thrumming: on a Monday morning in 2015, an anonymous group plastered the London Underground with quotations from the writings.)

“Huge swathes of people spend their days performing jobs they secretly believe do not really need to be performed,” Graeber writes. The rise of automation has meant that fewer humans are needed in manufacturing and farming, but instead of this freeing up our time, we’ve seen those jobs replaced by “the ballooning of … the administrative sector up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.”

Very loosely, a bulls--- job, by Graeber’s definition, is one that could be erased from the Earth and no one would be worse off. It’s also phenomenological. If you feel your job is bulls---, it probably is.

Any corporate lawyer or health-care services administrator who’s reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute, serving my client’s needs is necessary and fulfilling,” is going to disagree with a lot of this book, but even those readers will be hard-pressed not to admit that inventing and maintaining many of the unpleasant aspects of daily life requires a lot of work hours that would be better spent elsewhere.

For instance, consider the poor souls whose work entails implementing the ubiquitous feature of automatic phone systems: when you call about a bill or service issue, you have to speak your name into a computer system; once you’ve articulated “speak to an agent” some 16 times to said computer system, waited 20 additional minutes, and finally reached a human being, you immediately have to provide the same information you already gave the system.

Meanwhile, says Graeber, practitioners in the fields that directly benefit mankind or offer personal fulfillment, such as teaching, caregiving, waiting, writing, performing carpentry, or making art,  are (with the exception of some doctors) poorly paid and secretly resented by those forced to waste their time pursuing a paycheck. Being occupied for long hours of the day fulfilling tasks that, at best, are useless and, at worst, hurt others—building the aforementioned phone systems, foisting software on budget-starved elementary schools, creating paperwork morasses for the homeless—is “a profound psychological violence” that causes anxiety and depression. Basically, our collective soul is being crushed by a rise in what Graeber sees as make-work.

His essay was such a hit that polling agencies in Britain and the Netherlands tested his hypothesis. A third of respondents in both countries answered negatively to the question: “Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?”

Armed with this affirmation, Graeber sent out a request on Twitter for descriptions of bulls--- jobs and received 250 thoughtful, detailed responses. These make up the anthropological basis for the book and are delightful in their comic darkness.

Here’s “Greg” describing his job as a designer of digital display advertising that, he came to believe—after reading that no one clicks on banner ads—were a scam: “High-paying clients generally want to reproduce their TV commercials within the banner ads and demand complex storyboards with multiple ‘scenes’ and mandatory elements. Automotive clients would come in and demand that we use Photoshop to switch the steering wheel position or fuel tank cap on an image the size of a thumbnail.”

“Eric” describes a job at a large design firm that was “pure liquid bulls---” with the title of Interface Administrator: “The firm was a partnership … [and the owners,] being unbelievably competitive fortysomething public-school boys, they often tried to outcompete one another to win bids, and on more than one occasion, two different [teams] had found themselves arriving at the same client’s office to pitch work and having to hastily combine their bids in the parking lot of some dismal business park.”

Eric was supposed to set up a “super collaborative” interface that would keep everyone on the same page and prevent this from happening. “I should have realized that it was one partner’s idea that no one else actually wanted. … Why else would they be paying a 21-year-old history graduate with no IT experience to do this? They’d bought the cheapest software they could find, from a bunch of absolute crooks, so it was buggy, prone to crashing, and looked like a Windows 3.1 screen saver. The entire workforce was paranoid that it was designed to monitor their productivity, record their keystrokes, or flag that they were torrenting porn on the company internet, and so they wanted nothing to do with it.”

There was little for Eric to do because he couldn’t fix the system and no one wanted to deal with it, anyway. He grew desperate and depressed and, despite the evident failure of the system, had to convince his bosses to let him resign. “I was basically tasked with selling and managing a badly-functioning, unwanted turd,” he wrote to Graeber.

This description might sum up the author’s view of the global economy and those tasked with (or conscripted into) maintaining it. One myth that these confessions debunk once and for all is that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector in its employment practices. While derisive phrases such as “close enough for government work” have long been part of our vocabulary, these days corporate jobs, newfangled finance vehicles, and tech startups equally conjure associations of time-wasting in the form of bulls--- managementese, hollow strategizing, and annoying software. It’s easy to envision employees working to death to produce morally dubious profits for upper management, inventing or selling things no one really wants or needs, or listlessly spending hours seeking the empty solace provided by  internet distractions and social media. Graeber, with this book, wants to and largely succeeds at solidifying our ambient low-level, collective sense  that “economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines of producing nonsense.”

Graeber writes that the only people who’ve ever argued with his basic premise 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.” LOLOLOLOL. Sure, corporations and private equity amassers are always laying people off in the name of shareholder value, but, as Graeber mentions, that’s usually a felling of  workers who are actually productive while the top layers of overpaid, unnecessary management are the last to go. (Or, if they go, it’s with severance packages.)

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Buoyed by a sense of recognition, the reader happily follows Graeber in his fun attempts to categorize bulls--- jobs into Goons, Flunkies, Box Tickers, Duct Tapers, and Taskmasters, which inevitably bleed together into Complex Multiform Bulls--- Jobs. It’s funny, albeit painful, that we’ve gotten work so wrong and spend so much time at it.

Graeber argues that the concept of selling off one’s time in increments is relatively new. Historically, he says, the idea “that one person’s time can belong to someone else is actually quite peculiar.” To the ancient Greeks, he claims, you were either a slave and your whole life was owned, or you sold a good (an eating utensil, food) that you created as you saw fit. He implicates the shift toward clock time in the Middle Ages as the culprit behind our collective acceptance of wage slavery. Whereas time was traditionally amorphous, determined by geographical distances or chemical transformations (as long as it takes for the bread to rise, the wheat to dry) clock towers and then pocket watches (disallowed in factories so bosses could cheat by meddling with the hour hands on clocks), turned time into discreet, barter-able chunks. Naturally, we’re built to work in bursts and then to celebrate and rest, just as Mother Nature ordained, not pace ourselves to produce at an even tempo for hours at a stretch, day after day, all week.

It hardly matters if Graeber’s history is accurate. His best-selling Dept: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, $22.99) garnered some controversy in this regard, with academics identifying myriad false claims—for instance, that Apple Inc. was started by former IBM engineers. The ideas alone are worth contemplating.

But Graeber loses traction when he tries to explain why “it’s as if someone out there made up pointless jobs for the sake of making us all work,” or when he attempts to get a handle on how automation and technology have done the opposite of creating a lovely four-hour workday. His explanation hews to an argument that fits his politics: “Corporations are less and less about making, building, fixing, or maintaining things, and more and more about political processes of appropriating, distributing and allocating money and resources.”

By positioning themselves as job creators and maneuvering the political system to laud any and all jobs, rather than asking if they’re meaningful or help society or the employees, “they” can maintain power indefinitely. (This would be Graeber’s ruling elite, the 1 percent targeted by the Occupy Movement.) But it requires manufacturing a lot of pointless duties, complex bureaucracies, elaborate financial vehicles. Graeber sees this as recreating medieval feudalism, with software and middle management instead of dukes, archdukes, weapons, and castles.

It’s not so much that I disagree, but it all gets into a “Why Capitalism? Because Capitalism!” tautology. Some of us know these elites, some of us are these elites, and most would agree that there’s more than enough moral failing to go around. But it’s still very hard to figure out why we keep creating bulls--- systems that leave many people exploited and spiritually empty (or worse).

I used to get into an argument with a cleaning woman who worked for me because, although we’d agreed on an hourly rate, she would treat my house only as a job rate situation. She’d work fast and be what she considered done in three hours. I was paying her for four, so I’d ask her to stay and clean further (via telephone from my office job). She would demand to know why. She was talented at cleaning, and she wanted to use her skill to make more money in less time. I wanted her to chip away at additional projects each week, such as washing a few windows or cleaning dead bugs from light fixtures. From her point of view, I was trying to exert power over her, make her do bulls--- work in an already vastly unjust power structure; from my point of view, she was taking advantage of me, and my house wasn’t clean enough for my liking.

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This cleaning person had survived a harrowing illegal crossing from Mexico at age 14 while I was born into a privileged demographic in the U.S., with dual citizenship in two wonderful countries. Given that, I was wrong and an entitled a--hole. In a better world, I’d have time to clean my own house; everyone would clean their own houses or live happily in their own filth.

But when I read Graeber’s account of how a boss taught him and his fellow dishwashers to be less efficient at a restaurant job he held in his youth by yelling at them for washing the dishes as fast as possible and then loafing around, smoking, I sympathized with the boss. When you’re the one who owns or feels ownership over the endeavor, you think there’s always something more that needs doing. To you, it’s important. It’s hard to get other people to see what you see needs to get done; it’s human nature to want to have things done your own way. Sometimes Graeber reminds me of a 12-year-old who insists there’s no reason to clean up his or her room, while the parent knows that bugs, vermin, mental chaos, or depression could otherwise ensue.

He does nail it when he writes that “much of the reason for the expansion of the bulls--- sector more generally is a direct result of the desire to quantify the unquantifiable,” but he’s fallen into the same trap. The tension at the heart of this book, of course, is that the writing of it is a bit of a bulls--- job. Graeber might even be hiding a crushed soul of his own.

In his comfortable seat as a professor at an esteemed institution, musing amusedly about the mind-numbing hours most working people have to put in and put up with—even at jobs that have lively, meaningful moments—fits neatly in his category of “duct taping,” maybe also “flunky.”

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The L.S.E. is publicly funded but also relies on alumni donations. (It’s known for graduating billionaires.) In other words, his salary is made possible by the people he accuses of being in charge of this bulls--- job-generating system. Why might they want to pay him? (Graeber loves the pedagogical  question structure.) By offering this cultural pacifier, which soothes by affirming people’s lonely suspicions, he’s doing only what the British version of The Office and Mike Judge’s masterpiece Office Space already have. And these diversions often just use up the little time we have left after work, restoring us only enough to return tomorrow.

Graeber is also an activist, so he must be given some credit for not just honking off in an annoyingly self-satisfied tone; although he claims he’s not interested in suggesting policy (he is, after all, an anarchist), he does endorse Universal Basic Income as one solution.

But he misses an opportunity to examine the other group of people who are trying to eliminate the bulls--- job cycle. This week, droves of Glocksters (Global Blockchain Hipsters) have descended on New York for the Ethereal Summit and Consensus 2018, conferences run by Consensys and CoinDesk Inc., which are companies trying to galvanize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Many attendees are just Bitcoin bros who are or want to be rich, but a significant segment of crypto believers is persuaded that the blockchain will obviate the middleman, cut through the administrative morass generated by Graeber’s overlords, and offer the first pure form of state-free value exchange.

It’s probably just another, even crazier layer of bulls---, but it’s becoming our civic duty to understand it, in case it is the turning point in human civilization we’re all hoping for.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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