Last week the wonderful anarchist, activist and academic, David Graeber met an untimely death. The obituaries are united in acknowledging the insight, optimism and humour he brought into the political sphere. In his words, “capitalism dominates, but it doesn’t pervade”. He argued that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” My only quibble would be ‘easily’?
For my part the most illuminating remembrance, penned by Nathan Robinson, is to be found at https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/09/what-david-graeber-noticed?
Losing Graeber is difficult, because having people with his attitude is so essential to preventing horrors and improving the world. But the good news is: David Graeber’s framework rejects the idea that David Graeber is unique. It does not assume that knowledge and insight are handed down from intellectuals. It treats people as intelligent, and respects them rather than talking down to them.
I’ll confess something to you: on my bike ride to the office, I began to cry a little bit, because everything fucking sucks so much already this year, and things are getting so bleak and may get bleaker, and now it’s David Graeber this time, really? And I realized the only way I’m ever going to be able to keep myself from lapsing into despair if I can get myself to truly internalize the anarchist attitude of limitless defiance. To keep David Graeber’s death from being a total devastating loss, I will have to ensure I learn his lessons. I made a vow to myself through my tears: I will always notice things. I will notice what I am not noticing. I will help others to notice things. I will expose the criminal squandering of human potential. I will be nice to the reader. I will see joy as an end in itself. I will try to cultivate the kind of intelligence and humor that David Graeber showed. And I will fight, because that is what anarchists do. They do not put up with bullshit or bureaucracy. They refuse to accept the inevitability of tedium and the squandering of the gift of life. They dare to demand the “impossible.”
Rest in power, David Graeber.
Find below in full as tribute his provocative pamphlet of August 2013, later to become a book, with thanks to the STRIKE coop and magazine.
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant
by David Graeber
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
Why did Keynes’ promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the ’60s—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ’20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.
So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. 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.
While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.
The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The 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). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.
Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.
Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: ‘who are you to say what jobs are really “necessary”? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the “need” for that?’ (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.
I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.
There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% 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.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely (one or t’other?) Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.
This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told ‘but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’
If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.
4 thoughts on “David Graeber, the enemy of bullshit, rest in power”
Pingback: Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction. Wherefore Youth Work? – CHATTING CRITICALLY
Unfortunately .I think he was arguably an intellectual fraud who said things which Jordan B Peterson would have trouble to get away with. Here is why: It is as if different persons wrote Bullshit Jobs (Graeber, 2019), but failed to communicate properly. Vintage smash-and-grab of work from leftists who are not themselves impostors. I develop an alternative and discuss a theory of society in view of constructive criticism of economics.
Bullshit-Job theory is fake. The first section shows that Graber’s basic definitions and concepts about fictitious employment, i.e. his bullshit jobs are irrational. Contradictions and logical inconsistencies immediately emerge even when a friendly treatment is pursued.
Bullshit-Job theory requires pretence and duct taping. Graeber is unable to apply his own definitions. But even if given the benefit of the doubt, i.e. we pretend he makes sense, he still manages to be inconsistent by applying double standards on analogous examples.
Bullshit-Job theory creates unnecessary tasks. One of his main tasks is to argue a qualitatively new system or capitalism associated with bs-jobs. A highly contested assertion in terms of facts alone. More importantly, Graeber manages self-refutation once more, by giving a description sufficiently close of how capitalism was described over a century ago by the foremost experts of the time.
Bullshit-Job theory is redundant. It is either false or a copy of previous work. His remaining valid or interesting points either coincide with my theory on the foundations – first published and discussed years before his; or coincides with one of the most influential political thinkers of the modern era – on the most important application, i.e. the explanation of the phenomenon – first published and discussed a century ago.
Bullshit Jobs is a PR-flunky for the Right. Graeber’s engages in phrase-radicalism with pop-cultural references to Marx. Meanwhile, he refutes or bashes Marx or Marxists on most key issues. Still he manages to copy most of Lenin’s theory (arguably one of the originators of Marxism-Leninism), but omits all serious critique of imperialism. This smash-and-grab takeover was very lucrative and successful reputation-wise. It steals ideas and a tremendous amount of attention from solid work from leftists who are not impostors. As a minor remark, he portrays key institutions as left-wing, even Marxist.
Therefore, the work of Graeber (2019) is a bullshit theory in the sense of Graeber (2019) – loosely speaking of course. Whatever his intentions may have been, his behaviour, implied ethics, and the consequences of his work, are aligned with the alt-right project, also on a deeper level which involves deception. If Graeber represents the left within academia, then that left resides comfortably within the boundaries of an intellectual culture submissive to finance and power. A rhetoric Centre-Liberalism or Conservatism of sorts, which I dearly hope people around the world are free enough to favour. Common decency however, demands that we stop pretending otherwise.
Manuel – a scathing critique indeed – not only of Graeber but of all of us seduced by his bullshit. I’m long in the tooth – well into my 70s – so you’ll forgive me if I’ve had my fill of ‘vicious’ character assassinations across the decades. However, I promise to read the full critique before saying any more and start from a position of respecting anyone prepared to advance their perspective on what’s going on in the world. Best wishes.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi, somehow, your polite comment didn’t reach me until now, I’m glad it finally did. The context of my critique is the increasing concern with polarization over the past few years, left-wing bias in elite institutions especially. Suddenly, exceptionally connected and powerful people, such as the former US president, were portrayed as media-critical rebels. An exceptional self-serving discourse gained global reach: Power is challenged from within the establishment. There are few places in history where such narrative isn’t too good to be true. Still, even highly plausible hypotheses must be checked empirically. Although I seldom take political declarations at face value, especially when it comes to academics, I was still surprised about the glaring inconsistencies in Graeber’s political outlook. I was furthermore appalled by the incoherent reasoning and lack of empirical support for his claims. Unfortunately, I think it’s fair to say that Graeber is yet one more example of an acclaimed public radical who turns out to be an almost unbeatable way of silencing critics. On the positive side, his persona reveals important clues about how homogeneity in the service of power can be hidden with claims about polarization, activism, radical intellectuals and establishment institutions. Feel free to share your opinions or knowledge about the bullshit.