Book Review – Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber

By | August 21, 2019
Bullshit Jobs

I’d like to begin my review of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by first shedding some light on who David Graeber is, where he’s from and what he does, and what he purportedly believes.

While this might appear as a redundant, drawn-out way of broaching the subject of what I believe the book’s merits to be, it is necessary to understand why Graeber writes what he writes, in my opinion.

David Graeber’s Wikipedia page introduces him as an “American anthropologist and anarchist activist” and professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, best known for his book Debt: The First 5000 Years in which he proposed the idea of “everyday communism” while exploring the historical relationship of debt with various social institutions. An ardent supporter of immigrant rights, one of the highlights of Graeber’s political activism is his participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Bullshit Jobs (2018) is his latest work and unlike previous endeavours it is self-inspired, insofar as he was prompted to start working on it in part due to the overwhelming response he received to an essay he wrote as for the online magazine Strike!, and when I say overwhelming I refer to the literal connotation of the word, as in the number of hits the post got made the website crash.

This prompted Graeber to reassess what he’d intended to be a rant about work culture and develop it with further research into a coherent anthropological work with the added bonus of a possible solution to the problem he had addressed, that of jobs that serve no purpose, aptly referred to as ‘bullshit jobs’.

Graeber’s 2013 essay On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory both begin with a reference to an unfulfilled prophecy, that of John Maynard Keynes predicting in 1930 that by the end of the century technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like the United States and Great Britain would have achieved a 15-hour workweek.

That this has not come to pass is obvious. To the contrary, one of the most technologically advanced countries today, Japan has arguably the most hectic workweek in the world which allegedly culminated in the suicide of an overworked young woman in 2016. While Graeber does not reference the example of Japan, he states in no uncertain terms that it now seems apparent that technology seems to have figured out ways to make us work more by the creation jobs that are effectively pointless.

Granted, that this is probably the first and only literature on the subject and that this idea has never really been addressed by anyone (in fact Graeber himself mentions that the only other book on the subject is in French and that the authors claim to have been inspired by his 2013 essay), academicians or otherwise (with the exception of maybe Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy fame, as Graeber himself candidly comments in the book), the book maintains a perfect balance between lucidity and nuance, which may appear characteristic of a lighter revisiting of a popular and well disseminated academic idea.

For instance, the book, is divided into seven chapters, all titled as questions that in conjunction adequately sum up all one would want to know about the concept of bullshit jobs- (i)‘What is a Bullshit Job?’, (ii)‘What Sorts of Bullshit Jobs are there?’, (iii)‘Why do those in Bullshit Jobs regularly report themselves unhappy?’, (iv)‘What is it like to have a Bullshit job?’, (v)‘Why are Bullshit Jobs proliferating?’, (vi)‘Why do we as a society not object to the growth of pointless employment?’, and (vii)‘What are the political effects of Bullshit Jobs, and is there anything that can be done about this situation?’

While the preface introduces a brief history of the conceptualization of the book as derived from his essay and the text of the essay itself, the first two chapters are devoted to making the readers understand what Graeber means by a ‘bullshit job’ at length, commenting on the transition of our species from the agrarian to the industrial era and the subsequent development of the administrative sectors as opposed to the “service” sector, and the plethora of ancillary industries in addition to the administrative, technical and security industries.

Graeber makes no dramatic revelation of his belief that the “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger”, but declares this in the beginning itself before he builds up to this conclusion through the course of the book with the evidence he furnishes in the form of countless accounts of people who reached out to him post the publication of his essay and admitted that they were employed in what they believed to be a bullshit job. He goes on to clarify that while this may seem like a conspiracy theory, it is in fact ‘anti-conspiracy’ as he is asking why action wasn’t taken to prevent such a large proportion of our workforce from having to labor at tasks that they themselves consider pointless.

After reaching what he calls a serviceable definition of bullshit jobs for the purpose of the book, Graeber delves into the numerous ways in which bullshit jobs manifest themselves. He does this by drawing on the testimonies submitted to him by people aware of their pointless employment situation and reaches a conclusion that there are five kinds of bullshit jobs-

  1. Flunkies: Flunky jobs exist solely to make someone else look or feel important, such as receptionists in office spaces that do not require a receptionist.
  2. Goons: Jobs of an aggressive nature that have a largely a negative impact on society, such as telemarketers, lobbyists, et al.
  3. Duct Tapers: Individuals whose job is to solve a problem that ideally ought not to exist but does due to factors like incompetent people in high positions or impractical or unwise administrative policy.
  4. Box Tickers: Employees who exist primarily to allow an organization to appear to be doing something it is in fact not doing, such as people who work in compliance.
  5. Taskmasters: These are of two types, the first belonging to those whose job is to assign work or manage a workforce significantly capable of managing itself without intervention and the second more dangerous category of people whose task is to supervise bullshit or create entirely new bullshit jobs, such as people heading departments in charge of pointless administrative paperwork.

The third the fourth chapters are part of what Graeber refers to his ideas ‘On Spiritual Violence’ wherein he explores the moral and psychological effects bullshit jobs have on people trapped inside them, by questioning conventional economic models under which getting paid in terms of money for your work is the most significant aspect of employment and how it breeds the problematic attitude that if you’re getting paid well, you really should grow the proverbial pair and quit whining about what you don’t like about your job.

He laments the neglect shown to what he believes to be an essential function of one’s job, that is, to give meaning to one’s existence in addition to wages that allow one to sustain themselves.

While he outlines how this situation can lead to stress and anxiety, he does not however limit himself to this, but also explores, again through evidence in the form of first-hand accounts, the possibilities of one being satisfied with possessing a bullshit job either because they are free to pursue their own ambitions while holding a job that sustains them or because they simply like the pay. Nevertheless, Graeber makes it abundantly clear that he believes that the purposelessness of holding a bullshit job does catch up with most people even if they choose to ignore it, and makes them deeply unhappy.

The fifth and sixth chapters serve as a warning that the notion of pointless employment is nothing short of a crisis for the world and that the proliferation of these jobs is a threat to our society as much as it is a threat to our economy.

Graeber provides an in-depth analysis of why such jobs are proliferating by outlining social and economic factors, the most interesting of which is that said proliferation is no accident but can be directly linked to the rise of the financial sector in the 1970s.

A steady rise in jobs that have speculative objectives ultimately led to the gradual removal of fairer human qualities such as empathy and loyalty from the workplace, which in turn led to shifts that were as far-reaching such as changes in political sensibilities and directions of technological research. The most interesting point that Graeber makes is that bullshit jobs defy the logic of capitalism precisely because the prevalent system isn’t capitalism, in the traditional sense, but has begun to resemble a modern revival of classic medieval feudalism, with endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers (hence the reference to flunkies as ‘feudal retainers’). It is here that it is revealed that the underlying structure of bureaucratic managerialism that is more to blame than anything else.

The final chapter provides interesting historical narration of the evolution of our work culture, wherein jobs have gone from being a ‘means to an end’ to being an ‘end in itself’.

Here, Graeber initially abandons any purported effort to seem neutral and lets his politics dictate the course of his words as he ascribes the above evolution to the right-wing idealization of ‘hard work’ and ‘get a job’, even attacking consumerism. But he eventually, moves to the aspect ‘what can we do?’ as he explores, like many commentators today, the prospect of a universal basic income as a solution, and while it is well thought out and appropriately nuanced, this solution-based discussion slightly pales and looks borderline unconvincing after one reads through the entire book.

Whether Graeber is responsible for this last ‘feeling’, because of him being a post-capitalism thinker, or is it a mere reflection of my psyche as a reader living in a post-capitalism world is of course, up for debate.

But what makes Bullshit Jobs one of the most path-breaking works of today’s times is its premise, that of a world toiling away at jobs that serve no purpose than to keep one occupied. Graeber is adept at showing how this is deeply damaging to the human psyche. In this regard, one particular reference from the book comes to mind, that of the internment camp where inmates are forced to perform hard labor that serves no purpose on a daily basis to such an extent that they would rather kill themselves or commit a dozen more capital offenses.

This notion of doing something that serves no useful purpose repeatedly is at the heart of what Graeber probably believes is the tinder and the match for pointless employment, that the free market ideology project is not an economic but a political one, whereby rates of economic growth have stagnated to such an extent in developed countries that younger generations are facing the prospect of leading less prosperous lives than those of their ancestors, which can be evidenced for once by the rising number of homeless college graduates in the United States.

Proponents of market ideology continue to however display dogged determination that their way is the right way for the world, which can be attributed to the “1 percent” idea, whereby if the almost the entire wealth of the world is concentrated in the hands of one percent of the population the 99 percent have practically no say in how policies are formulated.

It would have been interesting if Graeber had incorporated his take on the whole Globalization discourse in his commentary and the subsequent connection to the rise of populism (something international organizations such as the IMF have commented on), in a more extensive way (how globalization has aided the creation of more bullshit jobs and robbed blue-collar workers of their jobs as well as drastically affected their standard of living).

In connection to this, I also feel that the book largely focuses on bullshit jobs as seen in the American and European context. This may be justified by facts such as Graeber’s point of view is shaped by the environment he inhabits and that it is the developed nations that have intellectually ‘developed’ so much as to identify that there may be jobs that are bullshit while people in the Third World struggle to find employment and much less question its nature.

Personally, one of the endearing qualities of the book in my opinion is how Graeber comes clean about the lack of much quantitative analysis to back some of his claims, but also justifies this with the fact that it is impossible to quantify some of the things that he is talking about, such as his comments about there being no absolute measure of value.

When I say that his work is nuanced, I do not mean that just in the case of his analysis of the data he possesses but also in calling out certain things in accordance with the times that we live in, for example his displeasure at the sexism of assuming that the blame for bullshit jobs being primarily held by women and systematically debunks this myth.

Some may argue that Graeber’s approach to the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is too informal and un-academic, while the idea itself may be relevant. I vehemently oppose this position.

Graeber is an anthropologist, and thus it is his job to work with human histories, and this human element is visible in his work in the language, the quirky style. All it does is make the book more appealing and relevant in this century. Additionally, he himself states that he is averse to granting agency to abstractions as some ideologues disguised as academics frequently do.

In addition to being a critique of not just 21st century work culture, but society at large, the book is a refreshingly honest attempt at formulating what the title suggests, that is, ‘A Theory’, and fortunately a theory that the more ‘scientific’ disciplines such as economics can explore to produce better models.

Suggested Readings

  1. Book Review – Bullshit Jobs (David Graeber) – By Shivam Chhaparia(Opens in a new browser tab)
  2. Book Review: Behind Closed Doors Written By Ngaire Thomas(Opens in a new browser tab)
  3. 10 Things you must do in your Law School(Opens in a new browser tab)

What did I miss? Don't forget to leave your valuable feedback