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The Bullshit-Job Boom

Linked by Paul Ciano on July 18, 2018

Nathan Heller, The New Yorker:

Bullshit, like paper waste, accumulates in offices with the inevitability of February snow. Justification reports: What are these? Nobody knows. And yet they pile up around you, Xerox-warmed, to be not-read. Best-practices documents? Anybody’s guess, really, including their authors’. Some people thought that digitization would banish this nonsense. Those people were wrong.

If you’re lucky, bullshit of this genre consumes only a few hours of your normal workweek. If you’re among the millions of less fortunate Americans, it is the basis of your entire career.

A bullshit job is not what Graeber calls “a shit job.” Hannibal, and many other of the bullshittiest employees, are well compensated, with expanses of unclaimed time. Yet they’re unhappy. Graeber thinks that a sense of uselessness gnaws at everything that makes them human. This observation leads him to define bullshit work 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.”

The epidemiology of the problem—how and why things got this way—is pretty blurry, too. Graber believes that bullshit helps explain why certain large-scale economic predictions have been wrong. In a famous essay drafted in 1928, John Maynard Keynes projected that, a century on, technological efficiency in Europe and in the U.S. would be so great, and prosperity so assured, that people would be at pains to avoid going crazy from leisure and boredom. Maybe, Keynes wrote, they could plan to retain three hours of work a day, just to feel useful.

Here we are nearly in 2028, and technology has indeed produced dazzling efficiencies. As Keynes anticipated, too, the number of jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining has plummeted. Yet employment in other fields—management, service—grows, and people still spend their lives working to finance basic stuff. Graeber blames, in part, the jobs we have.

Instead of reaping the rewards of our labor in the mid-century style, we now split them among shareholders and growth for growth’s sake. The spoils of prosperity are fed back into the system to fund new and, perhaps, functionally unnecessary jobs. And, though there’s plenty of make-work nonsense in government (a while ago, a Spanish civil servant stopped showing up at the office, which was noticed only six years later, when someone tried to give him a medal for his long service), Graeber locates a tremendous lode of bullshit employment in the private sector.

Some argue that bullshit jobs only look bullshitty; in truth, they are disaggregated, the white-collar version of the guy on the factory floor who makes a single metal rivet for an airplane. Graeber doesn’t buy it. The field he knows best, academia, had as much of a staffing explosion as any, and yet the work of teaching and research is no more complex or scaled-up than it was decades ago. The hordes of new employees must be doing something else.

Graeber comes to believe that the governing logic for such expansion isn’t efficiency but something nearer to feudalism: a complex tangle of economics, organizational politics, tithes, and redistributions, which is motivated by the will to competitive status and local power. (Why do people employ doormen? Not because they’re cost-effective.) The difference between true feudalism and whatever is going on now—“managerial feudalism” is Graeber’s uncatchy phrase—is that, under true feudalism, professionals were responsible for their own schedules and methods.

Is it possible that bullshit jobs are useful? In Graeber’s view, they simply reinforce their premises. “We have invented a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures, and, at the same time, the fact that our jobs thus come to eat up more and more of our waking existence means that we do not have the luxury of—as Kathi Weeks has so concisely put it—‘a life,’ ” he writes.

…his point is that the bullshit economy feeds itself. Workers cram in Netflix binges, online purchases, takeout meals, and yoga classes as rewards for yet another day of the demoralizing bullshit work that sustains such life styles.

On one of his many feudalism jags, Graeber makes a digression into youth work in medieval Europe. Back then, he points out, everybody—rich or poor, powerful or powerless—undertook service in early adulthood. Aspiring knights were pages; noblewomen worked as ladies in waiting. The goal was to break young people into the world before they launched as self-governed professionals. And yet, to the extent that nobody really needs an assistant to scrape mud off their boots or move a tray from one room to another, medieval youth employments were, in large part, bullshit jobs. Certain work, in this sense, may be fine, and even helpful on the road to a self-realized life. The bullshit that destroys us is the bullshit that endures.

Paul Ciano

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