Sunday, December 23, 2018

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018, pp. 368.

Back in 2013 David Graeber penned an article for Strike! Magazine regarding what seemed to him the explosion of pointless, economically irrational unemployment, which he colorfully termed "Bullshit Jobs."

In an extraordinarily rare case of an item with actual intellectual content going viral, it became something of an international sensation, leading to a broader research project and book-length treatment of the issue five years later. The book, like his earlier Debt, presents a large, intricate and conventional wisdom-smashing argument, but one that leaves the densely written and documented macrohistory to a minimum while in more sprightly fashion making a case rooted in anecdotal stories of present day individuals. In particular he relies on his collection of employees' self-reports about their work being "bullshit," defining the bullshit job 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 (9-10).
In line with this emphasis on the subjective, Graeber is also more concerned for the "moral and spiritual damage" done by the situation; the reasons why this is happening; and what might be done about it.

As one might guess, bullshit jobs consist substantially of administrative and bureaucratic functions of questionable value, especially at the middle management level. What may be more surprising to adherents of the "conventional wisdom" is that these are every bit as present in the private sector as in the public (in case it needed to be done, Graeber once more debunks the rightist/libertarian stereotype of bureaucracy as unique to government). Also surprising to those of the conventional turn of mind is the extent to which this has been bound up with the growth of those sectors that cheerleaders for neoliberalism endlessly exalt, and which have tended to shape other sectors in their turn--namely finance and information technology, whose ways have penetrated such non-profit institutions as the university. Thus everywhere one looks one sees an abundance of "flunkies" (whose job is to make the boss "look important," as a receptionist often does); "goons" whose essential task is to enable their employers' exploitation of the public, and often exist only because their competitors have them (as is often the case with telemarketers, lobbyists, corporate lawyers, public relations specialists); "duct tapers" (whose job consists of patching over quite fixable problems the bosses are too lazy, incompetent or short term-minded to resolve properly, as is often the case in computer programming); "box tickers" (whose task is to "allow an organization to claim it is doing something it is in fact not doing," like going through the motions on due diligence); and "taskmasters" (who invent additional unnecessary work for all of the unfortunate underlings named above).

Graeber also notes the ways in which "real" jobs rather than the "bullshit" kind may be infiltrated by or even an outgrowth of bullshit. As an example Graeber presents members of the teaching profession, who perform an essential function, but find their time increasingly taken up by administrative tasks; or researchers and their institutions, which devote increasing amounts of time to chasing grants (ironically, squandering billions that could be used to fund a vast amount of research).1 Janitors likewise remain essential, but janitorial work may be classifiable as a bullshit task when the workplace they happen to clean serves only a bullshit purpose--such as a PR firm. Given polling data indicating that as many as 40 percent of employees feel their jobs fall into the category he describes; and the other jobs which increasingly consist of bullshit activities, or service such activities in some respect or other; Graeber estimates that 50 percent of all work done today qualifies as bullshit "in the broadest sense of the term."

Graeber contends that this situation where half the country and the developed world are giving their waking hours to bullshit jobs entails enormous "spiritual" violence. The reason is that even if human beings are not naturals for the routine of intense and continuous toil from nine-to-five (or longer) demanded by their employers, human beings do have a significant need for purposeful (and even altruistic) activity. The make-work, the parody of work, that is a bullshit job denies them that, indeed harms them by inflicting on them the opposite, the anguish of pointless activity, while subjecting them to many of the worst features of employment--like the loss of personal freedom to the will of a boss who is often arbitrary and abusive, and more generally the alienations of which Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills wrote. Where the job pays relatively well, there is guilt and shame at their remuneration being unearned; and where the job makes the world actually a worse place, guilt and shame at their contribution to having made it so. (Indeed, many of those whose testimonials Graeber recounts quit well-paying, prestigious "bullshit" jobs to take less remunerative but more meaningful work.)

The absurdity, and tragedy, of the situation appear all the greater for the contrast with and ramifications for those doing productive, non-bullshit jobs, whose conditions deteriorate and whose compensation declines (turning them into "shit" jobs, making a genuine contribution but unpleasant to do). Graeber explains this partly in terms of know-nothing, corporatized administrators subjecting those workers to speed-ups, pay cuts and the like (there being actual productivity to squeeze further here); in part because right-wing populists stoke public hostility to such groups as teachers, nurses, and even auto workers. Indeed, Graeber goes so far as to contend that an envy of those who are genuinely productive is part of the political game being played. ("You get to do something meaningful with your life, and you expect a middle class standard of living too? How dare you!")

How could this perverse situation have been permitted to come about in a system that may not be respectful of workers, but at least prides itself on efficiency? For Graeber an important part of the story is that, rather than mass technological unemployment being a fear for the future, it is something that has already happened to us, leaving us with a "real" unemployment rate of 50 to 60 percent. However, what happened was that the gap was "stopp[ed] . . . by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up." Indeed, Graeber argues (as he did in his essay "Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit") that post-1960s neoliberalism is not a project for maximizing economic efficiency and growth as it claims to be (objects it has signally failed to deliver), but for preserving the existing order--capitalist property and labor relations (an object at which it has been rather more successful).

An Orwellian notion, Graeber admits that this sounds like "conspiracy theory," but regards it as an emergent phenomenon, resulting from the failings of the system, and of our misconceptions about what work is and what it ought to be. As he notes, the tendency to large numbers of flunkies and duct tapers and box tickers and taskmasters ordering them all about was the way financialization (and IT) led to a more ruthless, more conflictual, more alienating workplace overseen by managers increasingly divorced from and ignorant of the actual productive task, and in greater need of surveilling their work force. (Indeed, it was this unfamiliarity of managers with actual work that led to the blooming of the "consulting" industry.)

However, Graeber devotes more of his attention to the deeply distorted perceptions of work we carry around in our heads. The most basic would seem the identification of work with the "production" of material goods--when, he argues, most work has not been about production, but rather "caring" for people (child-rearing, housework, education, medical services, etc.) and things (maintenance and repair), which has been overlooked. (As the above list demonstrates, caring work has largely been women's work, and so less valued--and indeed, Graeber credits leftist feminists with developing the concept.)

Hardly less important is the tendency, already emergent in Medieval North European culture, and reinforced by the "Puritan" ethos (and capitalism, of course), to equate work with "alienated," mind-and-body destroying labor done for something other than the work's intrinsic value to the doer, under the supervision of others, all day, every day, and indeed, with the misery normally attendant in the situation.2 All other activity is "idleness." Work is deemed virtuous, idleness sinful, so that being miserable in one's work marks them as "deserving," and someone who is not working, and made miserable by their work, is "undeserving" even of the means to live.

Consequently, as production became more automated, caring work was not acknowledged as an alternative locus for labor; and there was a timidity about or hostility to changes in the social system that would reduce workloads (a shorter work week) or detach income from work, productive, caring or otherwise (through income floors, for example). Public well-being was instead identified with the maintenance of high levels of employment, particularly "full-time" employment, to the extent that this could be invoked as an excuse for wasteful or destructive social policies, Graeber citing the way in which the preservation of millions of jobs directly connected with the private health care bureaucracy has been given as a justification for not shifting to a more efficient alternative--not least by President Barack Obama himself.3 (Indeed, social safety nets themselves drove the growth of bullshit employment, through a massive bureaucracy devoted substantially to making the lives of qualified applicants seeking benefits more difficult through means testing and refusals.)

As a result, despite his aversion to the demand that social critics serve up policy solutions as the price of opening their mouths (which he observes is a way of distorting or suppressing dissent), Graeber argues for a Universal Basic Income as a solution to the problem, on several grounds. Such an income, he contends, would affirm the right of human beings to live, and aid our moving past our flawed conceptions of its connection with a perverse understanding of work by delinking income from labor. It would also eliminate the problem of means-testing and the associated welfare state bureaucracy. (The problem of how those made redundant by the change are to get on is, of course, resolved by their getting such an Income too.) It would eliminate, too, the incentive of people to do bullshit jobs (which would be a quick way of forcing employers to do without positions that are often unnecessary and wasteful for even their own firms), and more generally enable employees to walk away from a raw deal, likely improving the pay and conditions of work for all. This would be all the more significant, as he expects that the great majority of people will still be working in one way or another, at tasks that may well prove more beneficial not just to themselves but to society and the world as a whole (precisely because so much of the work being done was bullshit, and much potential creativity and ingenuity wasted in the process). Graeber also contends that this could contribute to resolving other major problems, citing that experiments with such income policies in the past (he cites India as an example) also reduced social distinctions, prejudices and ills to which the "rat race" and all the rest contribute so much; while pointing out that perhaps the single best thing we could do for the environment is to scale back our wasteful working.

In discussing what Graeber has to say it seems only fair to admit that I have long been convinced of the truth of what many will regard as his most radical claims--the immense wastefulness of contemporary capitalism, that technological employment has already happened (after picking up Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work back when it was still current). Perhaps because of that I had reservations about just how much he stuck to his emphasis on subjective perceptions, to the exclusion of other examinations of the issue proffered by heterodox economists under the heading of "waste" for over a century (generally, in more objective, materialist ways), matters like built-in obsolescence, or marketing efforts like advertising and "product differentiation." In fact it seemed to me that doing so could have strengthened his argument considerably, and perhaps, helped him avoid what seemed to me certain exaggerations that came from his reliance on a narrower basis for approaching the issue than he might have used--like going too far in downplaying productive labor in his (justified) correction of the tendency to overlook caring labor, or his trying too hard to explain the widespread hostility to particular occupational groups in terms of this theory when others have at least as much to offer. (While he seems to me entirely right to say that the public begrudges artists a living because they seem to be avoiding their share of the common misery, it is also the case that artists are not generally respected as "useful" people; while Galbraith's concept of "convenient social virtue" seems to me to account for much of the disrespect constantly shown members of the teaching and nursing professions).4

Still, these are comparatives quibbles with a case that is as compelling as it is unconventional. Materialist, hard data-and-statistics grubber that I am, I consistently found his argumentation regarding not just the existence of the problem, but its discoverability through his particular approach, persuasive, with the same going for his treatment of its causes and implications. At the same my interest in those other approaches was, on the whole, not a matter of skepticism but of my finding his argument so compelling that I could not but think of the possibilities for a synthesis of Graeber's argument with that longstanding tradition of writing on economic waste. (What, for instance, would it take to produce a pie chart that shows the share of bullshit in Gross World Product? How about time series' of GDP and GWP presenting figures adjusted and unadjusted for the bullshit component side by side?) It strikes me, too, that if Graeber is less concerned with the macroeconomics of the solutions he recommends than he might have been, that his case for a guaranteed minimum income is one of the more robust I have seen in recent years. Indeed, in a market full of books which are really just extensions of banal magazine articles (especially when we look at those produced by major commercial publishers for a general audience), this book, like Graeber's earlier Debt, is a diamond in the rough.

1. See Richard Harris' Rigor Mortis (reviewed here) for an in-depth discussion of this in the medical sector.
2. Graeber cites Alfred Marshall's definition of labor in Principles of Economics as work done "with a view to some good other than the pleasure derived from the work."
3. I was dismayed to see James K. Galbraith make a similar case in his otherwise excellent The Predator State.
4. As he put it in Economics and the Public Purpose, this "ascribes merit to any pattern of behaviour, however uncomfortable or unnatural for the individual involved, that serves the comfort or well-being of, or is otherwise advantageous for, the more powerful members of the community. The moral commendation of the community for convenient and therefore, virtuous behaviour then serves as a substitute for pecuniary compensation. Inconvenient behaviour becomes, deviant behaviour and is subject to the righteous disapproval or sanction of the community." It seems noteworthy that Graeber has over the years cited the works of the elder Galbraith a number of times, but also that while four of Galbraith's mid-century classics are listed in his bibliography, including American Capitalism, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, Economics and the Public Purpose (the work that capped that line of research) is not.

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