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Bullshit Jobs: A Theory - David Graeber


Bullshit Jobs: A Theory - David Graeber

Review author: Cameron Piko*

(Allen Lane, London, 2018)

“Final Working Definition: a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case.”

In 2013, American academic, anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber published an essay called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. The essay put forth the idea that a large portion of jobs in current society are ‘bullshit’. That is, they are pointless and society could do without them – in fact, it would improve without them. The piece was widely circulated on the internet and sparked debate from both sides of the political spectrum. Graeber was also contacted directly by hundreds of people who had felt this exact problem with their jobs, and a YouGov survey in response to the essay found that 37 per cent of people believe their job provided no “meaningful contribution to the world”.

All of this lead Graeber to write Bullshit Jobs as a more thorough analysis of the problem that had so clearly struck a nerve. Whilst it might not seem initially clear how such a seemingly hand-wavey term as ‘bullshit jobs’ could justify extension a book, Graeber’s critique of the way society currently operates is both urgent and profound.
Graeber classifies bullshit jobs into five types: flunkies, goons, box-tickers, duct-tapers and taskmasters. All are unnecessary in their own ways, and even ‘real jobs’ (i.e. those that actually contribute to society) suffer from increasing elements of one or more of these types into their roles. Listed are example upon example from those who approached Graeber after his initial essay, venting and explaining the tediousness of their roles. From civil servants to charity workers, academia to the financial services, there is an excessive and unnecessary bloat. In one instance, an innumerable number of bureaucratic steps need to take place just in order to move a table from one room to another in a military base.

Most grippingly are the two chapters on what Graeber terms “Spiritual Violence”. Those who work with the awareness that their job is ultimately pointless have a violence done unto them that is all the more unforgiveable when you acknowledge that they don’t even need to be working in the first place - they are achieving nothing. Here, the book harks back to Erich Fromm’s 1955 classic The Sane Society, itself essentially a book on the spiritual damage capitalism does to those who live under it.

Graber’s analysis of how things have come to be this way involves a thorough critique of what he terms ‘managerial feudalism’ – an ideology that sits atop capitalism and allows bloat to thrive where capitalism, obsessed with efficiency, would otherwise be compelled to remove. He also looks at how value and values have been conflated across the centuries, challenging the labour theory of value in the process (to the potential upset of any Marxists reading the book). All of this is to say the book covers much more than one would expect, and the lucidity of Graeber’s arguments make for fascinating reading.

In the end Bullshit Jobs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a book that one can enjoy whether they are a hard leftist academic or just someone who hates their job and wants to know why things have come to be this way. The book itself is light on the answers as to how to solve the problem of bullshit jobs – intentionally, as Graeber is no authoritarian – but does briefly examine the potential inherent in Universal Basic Income to liberate people from their unnecessary roles. But regardless of how you feel about that argument, Bullshit Jobs is a way to get more people understanding that they are not alone, and that things do not need to be how they are.

*The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author a not NIBS as an organisation, though of course we agree to publish it. 

Jonathan Rutherford