Bullsh*t Jobs by David Graeber – Penguin £9.99

Anthropologist David Graeber knows his enemy; “if an author
is critical of existing social arrangements, reviewers will…search the text
until they find something that looks like a policy suggestion, and then act as
if that is what the book is basically about.” Graeber insists, “This is not a
book about a particular solution. It’s about a problem.”

Graeber proposes that many of us are engaged in jobs that we
consider to be meaningless and unproductive. They exist in both the public and
private sectors. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs
just for the sake of keeping us all working…In capitalism, this is precisely what
is not supposed to happen. According to economic theory, at least, the last
thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they
don’t really need to employ. Still somehow it happens.”

Graeber’s bullshit jobs include “duct-tapers” who solve the
flaws of chaotic organisations, “box-tickers” who, “pretend things are great to
senior managers, and generally feed the beast with meaningless numbers that
give the illusion of control.” There are taskmasters – “superfluous middlemen”
and those keeping managerial plates spinning with “strategies, performance
targets, audits, reviews, appraisals”. And then there are the Goons: people
whose job have an aggressive element, but have a largely negative effect on
society (often by deceiving or pressuring people into doing something against
their best interests).

Towards the malevolent end of the scale, Graeber notes that,
“there is an added dimension of guilt and terror when it comes to knowing you
are involved in actively hurting others.” Workers employed in enforcing
Government rules (often via non-governmental subcontractors) that harm the
vulnerable generally find this “soul destroying”.

Starting out from a magazine article, Graeber has gathered a
multitude of self-reported testimonies from those who feel their jobs have no
purpose or worth. Receptionists who are hired just because an organisation
feels it needs to have a receptionist to look successful. Consultants who write
reports that are never acted upon.

He notes that “In film, television, and even radio…owing to
internal marketization of the industry, a substantial chunk of those who work
in it spend their time working on shows that do not and will never exist.”

Graeber asks how modern capitalist society has developed a
system that sounds like something out of
Cold War Communism (maintaining large sections of society in meaningless jobs).
His answer is that “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and
productive population with time on its hands is a mortal danger” and that, “ we have a political culture in which “it is
better to maintain.. basically useless office jobs than to cast about trying to
find something else for the paper pushers to do.”

If that sounds paranoid, bear in mind his suggestion that, “if
1 percent of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we
call ‘the market’ reflects what they think
is useful or important, not anybody else.”

It’s instructive to compare the self-reported frustrations
of Graeber’s correspondents with the direct experience of James Bloodworth in Hired: 6 Months Undercover in low Wage Britain.(Atlantic
Books £12.99). Bloodworth takes jobs which may have a purpose (Uber Driver,
Amazon picker) but do not reward. There is some crossover with Graeber:
Bloodworth serves time as a care worker observing that ,“as well as being paid
effectively less than the minimum wage there was the cost of petrol to travel
between appointments”. Graeber does indeed explore the question of why jobs that
contribute to society are paid in inverse proportion to their worth. Why is it
that teachers are poorly paid despite their investment in self-development? Why
is it that nurses and care workers are poorly paid despite their scarcity? Why
is it that eight years of ‘austerity’ have cut the wages of government workers “who
provide immediate and obvious benefits to the public”? Graeber suggests that
there is a sense that those who have “the gratification of knowing their work
is productive and useful” are resented by those who feel their jobs are

Bloodworth echoes Graeber in saying “My purpose in writing
this book has not been to offer a solution as such, but to draw attention to
certain issues and perhaps alter the common perception of them.” He recounts the survival of the fittest ethos
in an Amazon warehouse, with the speed of picker monitored by their hand-held
devices, and slow workers being urged to pick up the pace. He recounts seeing a
manager set upon a man in his 60’s, (“words came out of his mouth like soured
milk from a jug.”). At lunchtime he sees the grief-stricken man “released”
(Amazon’s term for sacked), staggering out of the security gates” as if all the
life had been drained out of him.” In
Bloodworth’s opinion, “Many of the things that appear in this book exist
because of the widely accepted creed of meritocracy. In this view of the world
it is primarily the job of politicians to sort the sheep from the goats. It is
perfectly acceptable for someone to toil
away hopelessly in a rotten job as long as that person had been judged to lack
the requisite merit to do anything better.” After reading Bloodworth’s Picture
of suffering it colours your view of Bullshit Jobs. You suspect many of the
people Bloodworth labours alongside would gladly accept the ‘pointless’ office
jobs and that Graeber’s witnesses are often the bleating of the disappointed
privileged class.

However, Graeber distinguishes between a ‘shit job’ (such as
a college dorm receptionist whose role is to catch the flak that would
otherwise be directed at the employer) and a bullshit job. He also defends the
younger graduates saying this is , “the first generation in more than a century
that can , on the whole, expect opportunities and living standards
substantially worse than their parents. Yet at the same time, they are lectured
relentlessly from both left and right on their sense of entitlement for feeling
they might deserve anything else.”

Despite saying he offers no solutions, Graeber does
speculate that we are naturally inclined to work. If everyone was offered a
guaranteed living wage – while there would be some Rab C Nesbitt’s happy to do
nothing, the majority would continue to work. But freed from the need to make a
living, we would do so in much more productive and fulfilling ways.