Bullshit Jobs – David Graeber

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would reduce the hours of work required to live in Western Society to roughly 15 hours per week. This didn’t happen obviously, and the prevailing sentiment is that consumerism is to blame. Given the choice between less hours and more pleasures, people have gone for pleasures.

Graeber doesn’t fully buy in. To him it seems like someone was out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping everyone working. This does not make sense in the confines of capitalism though – you should not have people getting paid for non-value creating positions in a profit-driven, market economy.

Maybe the political class feels like it’s dangerous for the general population to have so much surplus time on their hands. Also ties into morality, where hard work is encouraged as a very positive attribute.

Graeber believes there is profound moral and spiritual damage from keeping people tethered to jobs they know deep down are not needed. Doing things they know make no real contribution to the world. We’ve somehow become a society that values and stresses work, but doesn’t really care if the work is productive.

BS Jobs – a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as port of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obligated to pretend that this is not the case. If they disappeared, it would make no difference whatsoever. Note that this definition is subjective.

Shit Jobs – not pleasant, some might say bad. But there is a point to them – they fulfill a duty that has a clearer line to societal benefit.

Categories of BS Jobs

Flunkies – positions exist primarily to make someone else look or feel important. In the private sector VPs wanting to inflate their HC for example. Hire people to stand around and look impressive, implying the hiring manager is even more impressive if these people are willing to work for him or her. Doorman, receptionist, etc.

Goons – people who’s jobs have an aggressive element. Lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, corporate lawyers. Largely have a negative impact on society. They themselves find the jobs objectionable in many cases, the positions require manipulation and aggressiveness. Deception abounds too.

Duct Tapers – jobs that exist to half-heartedly fix a glitch within an organization or process. They solve a problem that really shouldn’t exist.

Box Ticker – Jobs that exist mainly so an organization to claim they are doing something, usually when in reality they are not. The positions really don’t move the organization towards accomplishing anything other than signaling. Creating meaningless management reporting would be an example.(!)

Taskmasters – 2 types. Type 1 – assign work to others. Routers. Type 2 – more harmful. Complicit in the creation of bs tasks, jobs, etc. Middle Management, supervising the work of others when they don’t really require any supervision.

Is having these types of jobs really a problem? People need money to live after all. It is a problem since it creates feelings of moral embarrassment in the people who fill them.

People do not enjoy, and seek out opportunities that pay them to do nothing for the most part. This is at odds with economic theory, which would argue that jobs paying for no-effort or exception should be the most desirable.

Forcing someone to pretend to work is an exercise of power. People in the past were paid purely on output, production, not time.

In hourly work today, the worker’s time is not their own, it belongs to the person who bought it. Leads to an obsession to keep busy, to get value, even if there is no real work to be done. In Roman and Greek times, this was limited to slaves?

In places without clocks, time is measured by actions. In reality, many functions are paid to be on-call. Just in case. But they cannot pretend they are doing nothing in-between if on site.

People often find being paid to do nothing an exasperating, insufferable, or oppressive experience – often, even when the conditions of employment are quite good.

You might ask yourself what kind of economic system creates a world where the only way to support yourself is to spend most of your time engaged in useless activity. But on the flip side, maybe your job isn’t as useless as it seems if it’s a part of an economic system that allows you to support yourself?

The integrity of the human psyche is caught up in relations with others, and the sense of one’s capacity to affect the world.

Proliferation of administrators, consultants, clerical and accounting staff, IT professionals – all BS job categories.

Finance – supposed to direct investments to profitable opportunities in commerce and industry. In reality it makes it’s money by colluding with governments to trade and manipulate various forms of debt. Smoke and mirrors.

  1. Individual Level – why do people agree to take bs jobs?
  2. Social and economic Level – what are the larger forces that have led to the proliferation of bs jobs?
  3. Cultural and political level – why isn’t the bs-ification of the economy not seen as a social problem?

Libertarians either argue that there are no useless jobs in the private sector since globalization has made things more complex, leading to specialization, or if there are, they exist only because of excessive governmental regulation.

BS Job increase lines up with an increased prevalence of FIRE sectors (finance, insurance, real estate) and financial capitalism.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House – when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.

Finance – creates money and then moves it around in extremely complicated ways.

Corporations – less and less about making, building, fixing, or maintaining things and more and more about political processes of appropriating, distributing, and allocating money and resources.

Managerialism – wealth and position are allocated not on economic but political grounds, makes it very difficult to parse what should be considered economic and what is political.

Sophisticated hierarchies develop which add complexity. Arguable as to whether they improve output. This form of capitalism originated in the US and Germany in the 19th century. The 20th century reverted away from high finance, back towards industry. This only started coming back in the 1970s.

Why doesn’t society push back against this? Large ties to the morality of work put through religious doctrine.

Social value of work usually is expressed as something that fulfills an existing need, or creating something people haven’t even thought of that enhances their lives. Hard to define “needs” though, economists do not like to try. Graeber – needs are really people’s expectations.

Difficult also to differentiate between material selfishness (value) and selfless idealism (values). They usually end up leaking into each other.

Most people would argue the ideal job provides the money they need to pay their bills while also allowing the person to make a meaningful contribution to the world. Unfortunately, there is usually an inverse relationship between those two ideals.

Work definition – something no one would ordinarily wish to be doing for its own sake. second, that we do it anyway to accomplish something beyond the work itself (creation). Graeber argues that the notion of productivity, or the origin, is theological.

Saint Augustine – we have infinite desires in a finite world. Leads to us “economizing”, allocating the scarce resources we have. The celebration of work as redemptive started in Northern Europe in the 16th century. Work went beyond satisfying material needs, it became the essence of life itself.

In the 1800s, the labor theory of value was dominant. Calling someone a capitalist was considered to be a slight.

Robber Barons began to swing it the other way. Argued (Carnegie) that concentrated capital under the control of a few would lower the prices of commodities and improve the lives of all.

The western world switched from “producerism” to “consumerism”.

The idea that work forms character has been propagated in America. Revival of Puritanism. Notion that paid labor under a master’s discipline is the only way to become a genuine adult.

Consumerism – we express our being through what we consume. What types of clothes we wear, music we like, sports teams we support.

But paradoxically, people at the same time still claim that work is what gives meaning to their lives. Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living. And worse, the idea of hating your job makes it feel like a sacrifice that leads to more feelings of dignity in many. Hardworking American stereotypes.

Suffering has become a badge of economic citizenship. The poor are accused of being lazy. People who work in jobs that are actually satisfying – creative or provide value to society – are seen as not sacrificing enough, hence not being rewarded to the same level.

There is a lot of resentment in our system. People who work in jobs that are redeeming are underpaid, and resent those who work in lucrative non-value creating positions. The rich in turn look down at the poor for being lazy or un-ambitious. Everyone looks down at politicians for being corrupt and incompetent.

Animosity against the liberal elite – if you want to pursue a career based on “values”, hard if not impossible without family wealth, social networks, and cultural capital. The liberal elite rope off these types of positions for themselves. People can get rich in many different ways, but can’t move into “values” based circles.

Graeber – expansion of the bs jobs sector is the direct result of a desire to quantify the unquantifiable.

Marx – prior to the industrial revolution, it never occurred to anyone to produce a book asking what conditions would create the most overall wealth. Many people throughout civilization wrote about conditions that produce the best people, and that is how society should be arranged and optimized for.

Graeber on policy – against it because it implies that there exists an elite group that gets to decide on something that they arrange and impose on everyone else. Doesn’t want any policy elites around, claims to be an anarchist.

Graeber on UBI – in favor, but has to be given to everyone without exception, even to those who obviously don’t need it. Why? because it would help to detach livelihood from work. Ironically, would render large areas of the government unnecessary.

Orwell – a population of busy working people hardly has time for anything else. Further incentive for politicians and the powers that be to not do anything about the situation. Status quo is ok for them.

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