Book Reviews

Book review: Bullshit Jobs

We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darvinist theory, he must justify his right to exist

Buckminster Fuller

David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is a 360-odd page expansion of his earlier essay ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs‘, which set out to make the case that many high-paying, respectable jobs are completely unnecessary and meaningless. I must admit, I wasn’t familiar with Graeber’s essay before reading the book. For the most part, I hadn’t really thought very deeply about the phenomenon, despite knowing many people I can now recognise as being caught in such BS jobs.

When I picked up this book, I was going solely by the title and coverpage, which looked interesting and provocative. I thought was it was going to be one of those ‘The 4-hour Workweek’ kind of pop-management books, where the author makes a bunch of loose, interesting but essentially forgettable claims to support a “cool”, contrarian viewpoint. My experience with such books has generally been that they’re easy reads, and make for good ways to kill time on a flight or something, and I always hated the fact that these authors take 200+ pages to make a point you could easily fit on a business card with some room to spare.

‘Bullshit Jobs’ is nothing like that. It’s a deceptively simple idea hiding a far more sinister, insidious structure that is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore.

The first chapter introduces the reader to Graeber’s previous essay, and defines what he considers to be bullshit jobs:

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless or pernicious; typically, there has to be somd 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

The examples he provides include the well-remunerated armies of administrative staff in universities, PR consultants, IT subcontractors, financial sector workers etc. Jobs that are meaningless because they perform redundant, circular or unnecessary activities that only aim to further the existence and creation of more such jobs. In effect, Graeber’s book identifies modern industries of corporate rent-seeking. They’re just as likely in the public as well as the private sector, and increasingly more common in the private sector, where the firms are shielded from public scrutiny, and protected by neoliberal apologists who justify their existence because in a free market, the market creates needs, which are then filled by jobs. Therefore, bullshit jobs cannot be bullshit because they’re only responding to a market need for such jobs (I will comment on my own assessment of this argument later on).

Moreover, he points out, there’s a distinction between “bullshit jobs” and “shit jobs”:

Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are treated badly

The second chapter creates a taxonomy of bullshit jobs – flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers and taskmasters. Flunky jobs are those that exist purely to make someone else look or feel important – like executive assistants for a mid-level manager who wants to feel important, and receptionists for an office that only does business online. Flunkies sometimes end up doing 80-100% of non-bullshit aspects of their bosses’ jobs. Goons’ jobs have an aggressive element to them, and there’s no reason for them to exist except that other people employ them – think national armies, lobbyists and telemarketers. Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist because of flaws, inefficiencies or problems in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that shouldn’t even exist – Graeber includes a poignant little example about how throughout history, prominent men have wandered around oblivious to the goings-on around them, leaving their wives, sisters or mothers to clean up after them and negotiating solutions as they arise, thereby “duct-taping” the issues caused by these great men. Box-tickers are people who exist predominantly to allow an organization to claim to be doing something it isn’t – like diversity consultants, factfinding commissions, PR people, sustainability consultants etc. Finally, taskmasters come in two varieties – unnecessary superiors and creators of unnecessary tasks for others.

While the taxonomy is definitely interesting and sometimes insightful, I see many of these BS jobs (especially flunkies, box-tickers and goons) as a form of signalling and a type of Mullerian mimicry, where you stand to lose by not indulging in this meaningless activity.

This reminded me of a (possibly apocryphal) story of a Fortune 500 CEO, when asked about why his company is paying him an outrageous amount despite the company’s poor performance, stated that if they didn’t do it, it would signal to its competitors and investors that the company isn’t serious about improving performance, and other executives would jump ship, thinking it was sinking. Essentially, for any company that seeks to buck this trend of useless jobs, it’s a Catch-22: “yes, a CMO is entirely useless to the day-to-day functioning of the company” (Uber hasn’t had one in over a year), “… but we can’t attract top marketers to our company if they don’t see a neat career pathway leading to the top”.

So, a BS job – if sufficiently common – is meaningful merely because it is widely expected among peers, therefore requiring you to employ a flunky if you are to perform your job properly. Of course, it’s another matter if your job is itself a BS job. And the flunky becomes the flunked.

The third chapter is mostly a treatise on the consequenes of Puritanical “moral confusion” that Graeber talks about in his previous book on debt. The gist of it is that our assumptions about why humans work and what motivates them to keep working in meaningless jobs are completely wrong. We assume that people, when given the choice to be a parasite, would definitely take it. Graeber makes a case for the opposite view: that actually, people hate boredom, and want to be the cause of something meaningful. As Graeber’s interviewees see it, “a human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.” I think this is a particularly powerful insight, and helps to explain why most people end up gravitating to one of two kinds of jobs: BS jobs at important companies, and non-BS jobs at startups that have no real shot at success. We look for purpose even as we try to chase money, fame and all the other things humans have always chased after.

Here, Graeber takes a historical view at the changing nature of what it meand to work, and how it related to other abstractions like time, money, the economy, God and so on. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the book and could easily have been trimmed down to a few pages of high-level analysis without going into the details of serfdom and ancient Roman concepts of slavery.

Nevertheless, Graeber teases two factors that could explain why a reasonable person values jobs so highly – even if (and sometimes, especially because) they’re complete BS. One reason is that in modern cities, it’s impossible to have many friends that aren’t somehow related to work. The other, which I found quite interesting, is a concept of “scriptlessness”, where people don’t know how to respond to having a job they think is meaningless simply because there’s no prescribed or socially-acceptable way of dealing with it.

Here again, Graeber circles back to his reasoning that neoliberal economic thinking is at fault. Part of the reason that nobody has noticed this epidemic of BS jobs, he argues, is that people simply refuse to believe that capitalism could produce such results.

I’m sympathetic to this line of argumentation, because this is what standard economic theory teaches us and the more educated one is, the less likely you are to question the wisdom of such a fundamental premise of the modern world. It’s become gospel (on the political left as much as the right) to assume that free markets force companies towards a relentless pursuit of efficiency, which means that any jobs created in a free market must be necessary or somehow demanded by market forces.

This kind of circular logic reminds me of the scene from Vice where Dick Cheney argues for why the United States can not be accused of torturing its prisoners:

Cheney: “We believe the Geneva Convention is open to… interpretation.”

Tenet: “What exactly does that mean?”

Addington: “Stress positions, waterboarding, confined spaces, dogs.”

Rumsfeld: “We’re calling it enhanced interrogation.”

Bush: “We’re sure none of this fits under the definition of torture?”

Addington: “The U.S. doesn’t torture.”

Cheney: “Therefore, if the U.S. does it, by definition, it can’t be torture.”

If you imagine David Graeber to be a cat making a meal out of some sorry animal, the first three chapters are where he fusses over the location and licks the carcass clean of hair, feathers and other detritus. The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters are where Graeber really digs his teeth into the meat of the issue and goes to town. And this is also where his own self-assured political and moral leanings begin to come through more clearly.

He begins by tackling the arguments that seek to justify BS jobs, and shows that people who defend such jobs as simply a reflection of market demand and/or government regulation are speaking out of their rear ends.

It’s extremely unlikely that government regulation caused private sector administrative jobs to be created at twice the rate as it did within the government itself. In fact, the only reasonable interpretation of these numbers is precisely the opposite: public universities are ultimately answerable to the public, and hence, under constant political pressure to cut costs and not engage in wasteful expenditures

He points out that historically, BS jobs have been confined to a few sectors – most prominently, in the legal profession as in Dickens’ Bleak House. They rose in prominence as businessmen and corporations raised the profile of adminstrative tasks at the expense of actual, physical labour through concepts like “scientific management”, and the resulting emphasis on middle managers and supervisors led to corporate overlords usurping power from factory unions, teachers and nurses through the creation of new and entirely pointless professional-managerial positions. Graeber points to the current state of affairs, where banks derive most of their profits from fees and penalties, and car companies make more money from interests on car loans than from actually selling cars.

“Efficiency” has come to mean vesting more and more power to managers, supervisors and other presumed efficiency experts, so that actual producers have almost zero autonomy. At the same time, the ranks and orders of managers seem to reproduce themselves endlessly.

Graeber sees the new system as akin to a revamped, facelifted Feudalism 2.0 that oppresses workers while rewarding overseers and supervisors. He proceeds to make his point by examining how feudalism worked historically, what changes made it less prevalent, and how capitalist logic brought it back from the dead. This section is positively riveting, and reads like the impassioned sermon of a fervid missionary. He uses economic data to show how even by libertarians’ own estimation, many of these jobs are a drain on society, destroying more capital than they are paid. For good measure, he also points out the role of religion by showing how God himself may be held responsible for some of this undue stress on having a job and working your ass off, even if it’s ultimately meaningless:

The Judeo-Christian God created the universe out of nothing. (This in itself is slightly unusual: most Gods work with existing materials.) His latter-day worshippers, and their descendants, have come to think of themselves as cursed to imitate God in this regard

All these factors, Graeber argues, mean that present-day managerial feudalism is maintained by a delicate balance of resentments. Here, he synthesizes his pointed understanding of the problem, in a form he calls the “paradox of modern work”:

  1. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living
  2. Most people hate their jobs

The final section discusses some political implications of this trend towards bullshitization of jobs. Graeber also recommends a policy fix, but only hesitatingly and almost unwillingly, leading one to wonder why he needed to at all. Regardless, he leans heavily in favour of universal basic income as a possible cure for the proliferation of bullshit jobs. After all, who would even bother working a BS job if they didn’t have to worry about feeding their kids or taking care of medical expenses?

In the main, Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is not to be read for its policy proposals or even for the role of politicoreligious institutions in creating the economic structures we’re saddled with today. In my opinion, the book must be read as a critique of the popular discourse surrounding the social role of jobs and what work ought to be. On this front, the book is par excellence. Political theorists can argue about whether this discourse is because of politics, or drives political incentives. And religious scholars can debate whether religious scripture condones or militates against it. But for most of the rest of us, the ideas provided by David Graeber form a solid bedrock to build better relationships with our jobs.