David Graeber Publishes Book on BS – Jobs, That Is

David Graeber

David Graeber’s new book, “Bullshit Jobs” is sure to grab people from the title. But how does the content stack up?

From Miranda Purves for Bloomberg:

Very loosely, a bulls— job, by Graeber’s definition, is one that could be erased from the Earth and no one would be worse off. It’s also phenomenological. If you feel your job is bulls—, it probably is.

Any corporate lawyer or health-care services administrator who’s reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute, serving my client’s needs is necessary and fulfilling,” is going to disagree with a lot of this book, but even those readers will be hard-pressed not to admit that inventing and maintaining many of the unpleasant aspects of daily life requires a lot of work hours that would be better spent elsewhere.
For instance, consider the poor souls whose work entails implementing the ubiquitous feature of automatic phone systems: when you call about a bill or service issue, you have to speak your name into a computer system; once you’ve articulated “speak to an agent” some 16 times to said computer system, waited 20 additional minutes, and finally reached a human being, you immediately have to provide the same information you already gave the system.

Meanwhile, says Graeber, practitioners in the fields that directly benefit mankind or offer personal fulfillment, such as teaching, caregiving, waiting, writing, performing carpentry, or making art, are (with the exception of some doctors) poorly paid and secretly resented by those forced to waste their time pursuing a paycheck. Being occupied for long hours of the day fulfilling tasks that, at best, are useless and, at worst, hurt others—building the aforementioned phone systems, foisting software on budget-starved elementary schools, creating paperwork morasses for the homeless—is “a profound psychological violence” that causes anxiety and depression. Basically, our collective soul is being crushed by a rise in what Graeber sees as make-work.

But there is also the author’s motivations to consider:

He does nail it when he writes that “much of the reason for the expansion of the bulls— sector more generally is a direct result of the desire to quantify the unquantifiable,” but he’s fallen into the same trap. The tension at the heart of this book, of course, is that the writing of it is a bit of a bulls— job. Graeber might even be hiding a crushed soul of his own.

In his comfortable seat as a professor at an esteemed institution, musing amusedly about the mind-numbing hours most working people have to put in and put up with—even at jobs that have lively, meaningful moments—fits neatly in his category of “duct taping,” maybe also “flunky.”

The L.S.E. is publicly funded but also relies on alumni donations. (It’s known for graduating billionaires.) In other words, his salary is made possible by the people he accuses of being in charge of this bulls— job-generating system. Why might they want to pay him? (Graeber loves the pedagogical question structure.) By offering this cultural pacifier, which soothes by affirming people’s lonely suspicions, he’s doing only what the British version of The Office and Mike Judge’s masterpiece Office Space already have. And these diversions often just use up the little time we have left after work, restoring us only enough to return tomorrow.

Graeber is also an activist, so he must be given some credit for not just honking off in an annoyingly self-satisfied tone; although he claims he’s not interested in suggesting policy (he is, after all, an anarchist), he does endorse Universal Basic Income as one solution.

But he misses an opportunity to examine the other group of people who are trying to eliminate the bulls— job cycle. This week, droves of Glocksters (Global Blockchain Hipsters) have descended on New York for the Ethereal Summit and Consensus 2018, conferences run by Consensys and CoinDesk Inc., which are companies trying to galvanize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Many attendees are just Bitcoin bros who are or want to be rich, but a significant segment of crypto believers is persuaded that the blockchain will obviate the middleman, cut through the administrative morass generated by Graeber’s overlords, and offer the first pure form of state-free value exchange.

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28 thoughts on “David Graeber Publishes Book on BS – Jobs, That Is

  1. I mentioned this in Space linkey but I have big issues with Graeber’s original essay and book because it seems to be the kind of half-baked Marxism that refuses to believe that anyone could like their job or work if it is remotely corporate.

    The original example in the BS jobs article was the one who strikes me with the wrong anecdote as a launching pad. An artist who was briefly professional but failed out for whatever reason is not going to be happy at anything! The guy could be a tenured professor of English Lit and a published poet and not be happy! A few years ago the Washington Post did a feature on local indie-rock legend Mary Timony. Mary Timony was the front woman for Helium and was in other respected bands. She still teaches guitar lessons to adolescents for cash. She seemingly makes peace with this.

    I don’t think anyone here can question my liberal and pro-employee bonafides but I have a hard time understanding the BS jobs complaint. Every job is going to have elements of drudgery and boredom and frustration. This is the nature to life.

    One of the things that seems to frustrate a lot of left-leaning types is that a lot of people (Americans and otherwise) prefer things to time. The left-leaning types who buy into the BS jobs argument seem to think that a new Renaissance will flourish once we are free from the shackles of corporate drudgery and in UBI-unicorn paradise. I’m not buying this.

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    • Most struggling artists don’t have the option of going to law school and getting a lucrative even if boring corporate law job. Most go into much less well remunerative lines of work when the stop trying to earn a living by art.

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      • The time to worry about “law school vs. art” is long before college.

        My third daughter is an absurdly talented artist. Over the years I’ve made it clear to her what the “struggling artist” lifestyle looks like and what skills you need to make that work. She claims she’s decided to pursue art as a hobby and medicine as a profession… but we’ll see. She’s not in High School yet so there’s still time.

        However she WILL have enough math and a high enough GPA that she can make either work, and that process started before middle school.

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    • Note that Graeber is explicitly distinguishing “bullshit jobs” from “shit jobs.” It’s not a question of how well a job pays or how personally satisfying it is, but whether it creates net value for society. You can love your job, make good money, and even provide value for your customers, but still create no net social value.

      A good example of a job Graeber might classify as bullshit is developing low-latency trading systems. Up to a certain point, there is social value in having equities prices quickly change to incorporate all available information. But there’s essentially no social value created by shaving a millisecond off the time you need to execute a trade. All the private value you create by doing this comes from beating the other traders to the punch, not from making the stock market meaningfully more efficient.

      I suspect that sometimes Graeber simply decides that jobs are bullshit without actually understanding why they exist, but it’s definitely a real thing, even if he doesn’t get all the particulars right. However, the jump to a basic income doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nobody’s going to quit a high-paying finance job for a $10-25k basic income. The way to get rid of bullshit jobs is to fix the incentive structures that make them privately profitable without creating social value. This reeks of just prescribing the thing he wanted to do anyway.

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      • But there’s essentially no social value created by shaving a millisecond off the time you need to execute a trade. All the private value you create by doing this comes from beating the other traders to the punch, not from making the stock market meaningfully more efficient.

        This is like claiming there’s no social value in being a taxi driver because there are tens of thousands of other taxi drivers and someone else would make sure some person gets driven.

        You, the general public, would like to buy $100 stock for something like $100.1 and sell it for $99.9. Without low-latency systems that doesn’t happen. You still get to make the trade, but the spread between bid/offer are much higher (like $101-$99) and ergo much more of your money ends up in the hands of traders.

        Having traders nibble 1% of your investment per trade used to be the actual situation as opposed to today’s 0.1%. Any particular high speed trader doesn’t add social value but the system as a whole does, just like having more taxi drivers rather than fewer forces all of them to lower their prices and improve their services.

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  2. The Supreme Court just authorized wage theft in a 5-4 decision. That seems like a more important fight for Labor than intense hand-wringing over whether jobs are BS or not.

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  3. I’m going to join Saul here. Most people take varyingly degrees of satisfaction from their work but very few are filled with absolute loathing or total devotion to their vocation. Even job or career involves some tedium. I’ve generally love my work and find interesting and fascinating. Its the type of job where I get to make a real big difference in the lives of real people. There are still times when I want to hang it all because of a really painful hearing or some other difficulty.

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  4. I read the essay and found myself nodding along in places, but overall it was hard to square with my mental images of coal mines and sweatshops and what those workers might have thought about our modern jobs, bullshit or not.

    And of course, no discussion would be complete without the wisdom and insight of the Four Yorkshiremen.

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  5. I sometimes think back about my technical career and wonder how many of the projects I worked on were “BS job” sorts of things. For example, I spent a year as part of a two-man team building the world’s very first ISDN test set. I designed and built the physical layer: picture of the pretty side of the prototype here; picture of the ugly side here. The project was certainly successful. The test set was credited with getting ISDN actually up and working in the US by identifying all the vendor protocol errors. We sold 50-60 copies of the test set around the world. My board design was licensed by multiple mini-computer companies. It was interesting, and challenging, and entertaining. I woke up on Mondays eager to go to work.

    OTOH, ISDN wasn’t a commercial success. Heck, not too many years later, after a transfer and a couple of intervening projects, I was one of the people driving nails in its coffin. So it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with where we are today. Was it BS? I haven’t really decided.

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  6. Yeah, BS jobs pretty much defined my abbreviated technical career and is a big part of why that career was abbreviated. My first gig out of college with a brandly new MSME degree was with AT&T Technologies–in ’83, smack in the middle of the worst recession since ’29, at a company that I hadn’t researched thoroughly and didn’t realize was being broken up. But, hey, AT&T, amirite? And it was the only job offer I got so…

    Anyway, my first assignment there was to oversee the transfer of an obsolete piece of equipment that they needed to keep running for a couple years from a plant in Indianapolis that was closing to the Kansas City plant. All the planning to effectuate the transfer had already been done and there was literally nothing for me to do; I don’t recall so much as putting my initials on a piece of paper.

    Next assignment was to be in charge of an oven that baked thin-film circuits, ostensibly with the goal of improving the yield. I mean it’s a fucking oven; it’s at the right temperature or it’s not (it was, FWIW). I also had a mentor that put me onto this project he had going to jury-rig a test platform for thin-film circuits–measuring resistive and capacitive elements– based on a pen plotter and a mid-eighties era HP microcomputer. The stepper motors couldn’t really handle the extra load of the crap that was stuck on there for the test leads so it was constantly getting mis-aligned. It was never going to work and it never did, though I got pretty good at FORTRAN. BTW, we could have just purchased a testbed but somehow this project was important and I couldn’t get rid of it.

    Then layoffs were announced and since I hadn’t really accomplished anything I was on the chopping block. But I got a transfer to Chicago… where they made me a QC engineer. Which was cool at first, what with a trip to Bell Labs in New Jersey to take classes (I witnessed the Challenger disaster when I was there) but when I got back to the plant, once again, I genuinely had nothing really to do. The inspection systems were all set up (I was assigned Incoming Materials) and I was ostensibly “supervising”. In reality I ended up spending a lot of time wandering around pretending to be busy. When that plant announced layoffs I didn’t survive. And my career never recovered because I had literally nothing to claim as an accomplishment.

    You know… trucking isn’t glamorous and it only pays so-so (not bad for blue collar) but at least it’s not bullshit.

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