Amidst the current debate over the benefits and dangers of automation, one has to recall what Karl Marx had said almost two hundred years ago, in an era when machines, just like today, were threatening to take over millions of jobs. In his analysis of capitalism, Marx found that the value of a commodity, which he called exchange value, was primarily generated by a prior commodification of living human labour. It is living labour, Marx found, which primarily generates value.
Machines might be better at producing and manufacturing objects, but it is living labour which produces the value that turns the object into a commodity. In very simple terms, we can understand this by the example of a handmade object versus the same thing manufactured in a factory – in almost every instance, the handmade one will have a greater exchange value.
The debate over automation today avoids addressing this question of value. People are busy arguing that either the machines will just take over jobs no one really wants to do, or that the machines will create more jobs than they destroy. But what are these jobs that everyone is bickering over anyway? David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist at the London School of Economics and bestselling author of Debt: The First 5000 Years has a typically idiosyncratic answer – many of them are bullshit.
In his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he pre-empts the debate over automation by saying that “automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.” For most of the book Graeber uses a more catchy title for these dummy jobs: he calls them bullshit jobs, jobs which contribute nothing to either the employee, the employer, society, or the economy. The question that motivates this book, then, is simple: why do these bullshit jobs still exist?
Why bullshit jobs came about
While the economist John Maynard Keynes had in 1930 argued that technology would pretty much help us to achieve a 15-hour work week, Graeber finds that those of us lucky enough to be employed are working more than ever before, but often doing things that are basically useless. In fact, the major problem the book is impelled by is that working a bullshit job makes no sense not just to the employee, but is also economically speaking a waste of time and money.
So why do modern-day corporations and industries ranging from finance to information technology, which pride themselves on their capitalist efficiency, continue to hire people to do these bullshit jobs, which might even make up an extrordinary 37%-40% of the workforce? Graeber’s book is an attempt to address this compelling problem, a crisis which is perhaps the least studied among the many crises engendered by contemporary capitalism.
The book was inspired by an article Graeber published in Strike! Magazine in 2013. The article was immensely popular and hundreds of people wrote back to Graeber recounting their experiences of working bullshit jobs. Sitting upon this vast trove of anthropological data which nobody had yet even recognised, Graeber decided to write a book on this strange phenomenon and give some theoretical underpinnings to its persistence in an economic system that prides itself on efficiency above all.
It is, of course, a very interesting question. Why would corporattions attempt to imitate the economic nightmare of Soviet style Communism, where everyone had to have a job, or to consider an example closer home, ensnare themselves in bureaucracy as like Indian government departments? If bullshit jobs make no economic sense, then Graeber argues that the only reason they still exist must be political. As he wrote in his article, “[T]he ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s)”. His argument makes some sense – it is probably a better idea for the ruling class to pay the workers to stay busy in an office staring at the ceiling or watching cat videos rather than to risk even the slightest chance of a revolution.
In the first few chapters of the book Graeber offers a definition: “[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 part of the condition of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case”. Of course Graeber has to delineate the difference between a bullshit job and a shit job. He gives the example of the toilet cleaners at his university who have to work for little pay in inhumane conditions, and are generally treated with disrespect. That would be literally speaking, a shitty job.
But at the same university, there are people employed by the administration whose sole responsibility would be to apologise to the teaching staff if the carpenter who was supposed to fix their shelves did not turn up. That, for Graeber, is a classic example of a bullshit job – and the lesson to be learnt from this is that in almost all cases, those working bullshit jobs get paid substantially more to do nothing than those who are actually slaving away in hazardous conditions all day.
Five types of bullshit jobs
Much of Graeber’s research for this book is based on the email he received after the publication of his article. The first few chapters try to collect these responses and construct a typology of the bullshit job. Graeber isolates five basic types: the flunky, the goon, the duct taper, the box ticker, and the taskmaster.
Flunkies are those whose only reason for existence is to make someone else look important, much like the earlier concept of the feudal retainer, people like footmen in Victorian England for example. Today liftmen, doormen, concierges and receptionists fill up the role of the flunky according to Graeber.
The second category is the goon, whose only reason for existence is that other companies also hire them. Take for example, the PR specialist. The University of Oxford, which one would suppose would not have to convince the public of its obvious excellence, only has a PR department working overtime because the University of Cambridge hired one too.
Duct tapers, members of the third category, are employees whose only reason for existence is to solve a problem that ought not to exist. Like the university administrator mentioned above, duct tapers have to correct for problems which are usually caused by the ineptitude of their superiors.
Box tickers, belonging to the fourth category, exist to allow an organisation to be able to claim that it is doing something when it is not, in actuality, doing it at all. Graeber gives a very interesting example of a box ticking job. At the University of Chicago Science Library, there would always be people photocopying random articles from medical and scientific journals and sending them to lawyers so that they could throw them down, theatrically, in court while suing a doctor for malpractice. Apparently, as Graeber wryly notes, it is important as a lawyer to have whole sheaves of random medical articles to convince the defence that one has done the right research.
The final category is that of the taskmaster, whose entire responsibility is delegating work to others. The taskmaster’s is a bullshit job when it is apparent to him that there is absolutely no need for his intervention and that his employees would carry on perfectly well without him.
The future of bullshit jobs
In the second half of the book Graeber tries to develop a theoretical understanding for the phenomenon. He challenges the prevailing political and economic dictum that people are inherently lazy and would love to get paid for doing nothing, by pointing out how many of those who emailed him quit their substantially-paid bullshit jobs to take up something more meaningful, which however paid much less. Graeber also tries to trace the evolution of the cult of the work ethic from the Puritans onwards, through Thomas Carlyle’s Gospel of Labour, culminating in today’s feudal managerial class.
In the process, he questions the Marxist idea of labour as production, arguing that most work has always been in the form of the caring professions, and the future of work lies in emphasising caring over production. His ideas on the theological roots of everything economic is refreshingly unusual. Can one claim that the basic theories of economics are actually secularised theological concepts, an economic theology if we will? If so, it will need a lot more space dedicated to it than Graeber allows in his book.
Graeber’s solution to the problem of bullshit jobs is to have a Universal Basic Income, which seems like a promising idea but hasn’t been tested yet (though to give Graeber credit he only posits this idea because he is aware that today people are not satisfied with criticism but want solutions as well) in most parts of the world.
The only disappointing aspect of Bullshit Jobs is that it does not really offer a more detailed systematic and structural analysis of the phenomenon in question, which one would expect from the author of Debt. One would expect the author of the book Towards an Anthropological Theory of to truly tackle a serious paradox manifesting itself in the workings of contemporary capitalism, which is the economic crisis of value itself. The paradox lies in the fact that either contemporary capitalism jettisons human living labour and becomes fully automated, in which case it suffers from a complete loss of the power to create value, or it sticks with human living labour, but then it has nothing for those people to actually do except bullshit jobs.
However the conceptual discovery of bullshit jobs as a symptom of an internal philosophical crisis within the global economic system is in itself a major achievement of Graeber’s book, which will make it an important resource for years to come. For the present, one can hope that after reading the book, the oppressively bored workers of the world will unite, knowing that they have nothing to lose but their bullshit jobs.
Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber, Allen Lane.