Bullshit Jobs A Theory by David Graeber

Recommended for people that want to think 
Read September  2021
★   ★   ★   ★   

I was expecting something along the pop-sociology lines of Malcolm Gladwell, and what I got was something far more profound. I wandered my way through affirmation, skepticism, analysis, comprehension, understanding and depression, so take that as a recommendation if you like. I don’t think I have the tools to critique it appropriately, but much of what Graber writes resonates.

The book originates from an essay Graber wrote in 2013, “based on a hunch” about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, or, more specifically, the type of jobs where people don’t do much of anything. He approaches it with the mentality of a cultural anthropologist, which is to say, someone who deconstructs a group’s beliefs, social systems and values in order to understand their meaning. The starting point for a cultural anthropologist, as learned from Professor Littleton, is the ethnography, where you basically ask people about whatever it is you want to know, and then fit it in a larger framework where you compare it with people in different demographic books or societies, and hopefully shed some sort of light upon the system (thus coming to the conclusion that this is all constructed bullshit, but I may be mixing up my French existentialism in there). Once his essay hit the web, it became somewhat of a sensation, and per his report, he had hundreds of people telling him about their own ‘bullshit jobs’ experiences. He extracted these stories to create this book. Realize, then, that this is what the more physical sciences would consider a self-selecting, biased group. As Graber himself points out, he has a suspicion that corporate lawyers and VPs are also bullshit jobs, but they aren’t the ones writing into tell him so. But at least it’s a starting point, right?

A key point is the definition of such jobs, defined early on: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as a part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obligated to pretend that this is not the case.” (This is, of course, to be differentiated from shit jobs, which are horrible/low-paid but necessary). Such jobs can be further defined: “I found most useful to break down the types of bullshit jobs into five categories. I will call these: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box checkers, and taskmaskers.” Flunkies are human decorations, existing to reflect the significance of their bosses/organizations, and have clear parallels to feudal societies. Goons enforce or aggressively manage company image (think soldiers, lobbists, PR specialists, corporate lawyers); duct tapers fix what’s broken, mostly because the system doesn’t want to fix or rebuild more efficiently; box checkers ensure companies are meeting a requirement that someone decided should exist (but will then ignore); and taskmasters, who either make up bullshit for others to do, or assign tasks to others. (Apparently there was a suggestion for ‘imaginary friends,’ which are the jobs that are supposed to make employees into a ‘friend/family’ group, but it didn’t make the cut. Personally, I’d totally target that category if I was in an anthropology class these days).

Then he starts to connect it to social media, which Graber thinks is perfect for pretending one is ‘working’ but isn’t, as a diversion that’s highly interruptible should one need to spring into action for a minute or two. He doesn’t linger there long, though, because his real points are two-fold: what does it say about a capitalist society that these jobs are allowed to exist (because in the perfect capitalism model, all inefficiencies would be stripped away), and what does it do to the person working that job?

“According to classical economic theory…The model human being that lives behind every prediction made by the discipline—is assumed to be motivated above all by a calculus of costs and benefits… Everyone, left to his own devices, will choose the course of action that provides the most of what he wants for the least expenditure of resources and effort.

“Much of our public discourse about work starts from the assumption that the economists’ model is correct. People have to be compelled to work; if the poor are to be given relief so they don’t actually starve, it has to be delivered in the most humiliating and onerous ways possible, because otherwise they would become dependent and have no incentive to find proper jobs.”

What’s even more interesting is that a lot of these jobs belong to the ‘service sector,’ the field of employment that supposedly is showing growth–although he points out, if you analyze the ‘service’ job by subcategory (or remove a fourth category proposed in 1992, the FIRE-finance, insurance, real estate), ‘service’ is rather flat, with growth only in information/tech and FIRE. He builds on this idea of economy, and wonders why it is that we persist in the belief that such jobs are necessary, and contrasts it with historical assumptions about work as well as human biology. Unfortunately, he veers away from the economics discussion for a bit to delve further into the damage it does to the human psyche.

“Most people in the world today… are now taught to see their work as their principle way of having an impact on the world, and the fact that they are paid to do it is proof that their efforts do indeed have some kind of meaningful effect. Ask someone ‘what do you do,’ and they will assume you mean ‘for a living.’” ‘Work’ is about the impact one makes on the world and identity, so work that lacks meaning creates a kind of ‘social suffering.’ He also points out the mental trauma of having a job that appears like it should be purposeful, but could actually be perceived as harmful (here he cites stories from a therapist in a jobs program and a ‘box-checker’ in a homeless shelter program).

He’s not wrong about asking about jobs: in my efforts to start a non-illness, non-child related conversations with my patients, I often would ask them, ‘what kind of work do you do?’ I had thought about that carefully, knowing that there’s often a class issue going on there, but also that it played to having a life outside of hospitalization and yet wasn’t privacy-invasive. That’s what I mean by bias: Graber can make a generalization about what people value when asked what they do, but has he accounted for what is considered appropriate conversations in the public and personal discourse? I mean, of course you ask about work. What else are you going to ask that doesn’t sound invasive. (I asked a couple people if they lived/grew up around the hospital, and I felt like they thought I was casing their home for burglary). At any rate, what he’s saying makes sense, but that’s hardly the ruler we want to use, is it?

I really slowed down in the section on “Why are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating,” because it was depressing. At the end of the day, many of our institutions are money-extractors/concentrators, designed not to be efficient, but to squeeze money out of a system. “The moral of the story is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible. Of course, this is basically what the entire FIRE sector does: it creates money (by making loans) and then moves it around in often extremely complicated ways, extracting another small cut with every transaction.” I was so out of my wheelhouse, I felt like I couldn’t argue with his conclusions, and at every point, they become more devastating: At p.157, Graber quotes Obama; “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs, people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.” That, my friends, killed me, because it shows how truly revolutionary we would need to become as a society to change things, and how very little chance there is of that actually happening.

As a final, parting gift to my idealism, Graber looks at how culturally speaking, the intellectual elite are an isolated in-group as well. Try this: “Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people, because they can imagine a scenario in which their children might become rich, but not possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite.” Unfortunately, Graber, like some of the best desconstructionists, doesn’t have a lot of hope to offer, but I do appreciate his unflinching look at where we stand. I think mentioning Universal Basic Income is about as close as he gets.

After reading so many fuzzy science pop-psych books, I appreciate his willingness to walk the reader through the steps of his logic. Sure, there’s a lot of anecdotal stories, but that’s the essence of what anthropologists do, is collate the stories and then pick out the common threads of meaning, and he does bolster them with other studies when he can. There’s a long bibliography as well as an extensive collection of notes. I found myself with a bookmark in the note section so that it was easier to flip back and forth as the ‘Notes’ were further explanations or asides, not merely references.

There’s more, of course; there’s always more. Try Wick or Trevor’s excellent reviews for more–and better–insights.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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3 Responses to Bullshit Jobs A Theory by David Graeber

  1. pdtillman says:

    Huh. I have no idea of what to make of this. But this quote pretty much killed any interest I might have in reading the book: “Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people, because they can imagine a scenario in which their children might become rich, but not possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite.”
    Well. My family are all (IB) conservative voters, all pretty well off, one wealthy (by marriage), all what I would consider cultural elite. But maybe we wouldn’t pass muster on the coasts? Do we care? I think not, though I can speak only for myself….
    Anyway, it appears this author has a very odd idea of what goes on in America’s heartland!

  2. pdtillman says:

    Note that I’m not disputing his idea of Bullshit Jobs! Nor your comment that it would be too disruptive to eliminate most of such jobs. Glad I never got saddled with something like that!

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