Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers

“In our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it”
~David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

“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 dockworkers would soon be in trouble…It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEO’s, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.”
~David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

States are bailing out privately owned corporations’ #bullshitjobs with public money. No doubt austerity measures down the line will hit the very public sector workers we now call ‘essential’.”
~Tashina Blom

“What if an economy that forces poor people of color to wear diapers all day processing chicken parts during a pandemic isn’t an economy worth saving?”
~love one another

David Graeber: “Will we then pretend that everything was just a dream?”
from Zeit Online

David Graeber: Because the market is not so much based on supply and demand as we are always told – who makes how much is a question of political power. The current crisis makes it even clearer that my wages do not depend on how much my profession is actually used.

ZEIT ONLINE: This is the issue in your current book Bullshit Jobs : Many socially indispensable jobs are poorly paid – while well-paid employees often doubt whether their office work makes any sense at all or whether they are only doing a “bullshit job”.

Graeber: What is important to me: I would never contradict people who feel that they are making an important contribution with their work. For my book, however, I have collected voices from people who do not have exactly this feeling: They are sometimes deeply frustrated because they want to contribute to the good of all of us. But to make enough money for their families, they have to do the jobs that don’t work for anyone. People said to me: I worked as a kindergarten teacher, it was great and fulfilling and important work, but I couldn’t pay my bills anymore. And now I’m working for some subcontractor that provides health insurance with information. I tag some forms all day, no one reads my reports, but I earn twenty times as much.

ZEIT ONLINE: What happens to these office workers who are now doing their bullshit jobs because of the corona virus from their home office?

Graeber: Some people now contact me and say: I always suspected that I could do my job two hours a week, but now I actually know that it is. Because as soon as you do this from home, for example, the meetings that don’t do anything are often dropped.

Coronavirus Unmasks the Lie That You Have to Work in London to Succeed
by Aimee Cliff

Remote working is set to expose more than a few fallacies about our working life. At one end of the spectrum, it might lift the veil on the nature of white-collar work itself. Manual workers and non-office-based professionals are risking the lives of their loved ones to continue working while others – like me – are quickly able to dismantle and digitise our office cultures. As anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs pointed out, a huge amount of our economy is predicated on the illusion that many people have to come into an office from 9 AM to 5 PM every day in order to create content, send messages, and schedule social media posts.

Or, as Twitter user @MikiZarzycki put it for the coronavirus era: “Everyone with a fake job gets to stay home and get paid to drop funny GIFs into Slack, everyone with a real job has to be a frontline pandemic worker or get fired.”

Coronavirus – Is telework identifying our Bullshit Jobs?
from GenX @ 50

The epidemic has resulted in statewide lockdowns in more and more states. With schools, businesses, and government offices closing or being limited in their services, people are teleworking if it is possible, being laid off if it is not possible, or still working if they perform an “essential” function. The truly essential jobs – keeping the food supply chain intact, medical work, trash collection, and other life sustaining and disease preventing professions clearly are not bullshit jobs. Other jobs like teaching, restaurant work, or manufacturing, are not bullshit, but can’t be done when under quarantine.

But the Bullshit Jobs associated with Graeber’s categories – flunky, box ticker, taskmaster – are all easily done when working remotely. In fact, if you can do your work remotely, it might be a good sign that you have a Bullshit Job!

I would argue that many of these bullshit jobs add negative value to an organization, creating useless paperwork, internal regulations, and otherwise throwing sand in organizational gears that might otherwise run more smoothly. Having these things not be done might improve overall productivity. Will anyone examine how things worked after the COVID-19 telework is over and decide that many of these administrative jobs were unnecessary? Perhaps it might be worth it to the bottom line to continue to pay some flunkies, goons, box-tickers, and taskmasters to not come in to work when this is over.

The COVID-19-Induced Crisis and Three Inversions of Neoliberalism
by Roderick Condon

If neoliberals truly understood economics they wouldn’t be neoliberals. Against Friedrich Hayek’s assertion that socialists don’t understand economics, Covid-19 exposes the neoliberal location of social value exclusively in the profit-making activities of private enterprise as misapprehending the essential basis of value creating activity in the reproduction of society itself. Suddenly, it is automatically and immediately apparent those services necessary for the continuity of society as a going concern as those, to appropriate a phrase from Louis Althusser, reproducing the conditions of production.

Two insights follow from this. First, the devaluation – in both material and symbolic terms – of use-values by exchange-values under neoliberalism. Financial activity, only barely distinguishable from compulsive gambling, has been elevated to the highest social importance while vital reproductive activity has been, in effect, beaten down, raped and systematically pillaged. Second, David Graeber’s aptly conceptualized ‘bullshit jobs’ are now exposed as the very foundation of a farcical social order in which all activity must constitute itself in exclusively economic terms and measure itself accordingly. The decelerated pace of economic life induced by Covid-19 directly reveals the superfluity of a great deal of what constitutes ‘productivity’ under neoliberalism as in reality socially unnecessary labour-time, to refashion Marx. Furthermore, the forced imposition of such activity by the social order is itself revealed as a type of hidden tax (something the neoliberal economists show a great deal of disdain for) on real, lived life-time; that is, the time available in each individuals’ lifespan for activities that truly matter.

The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession
by Andrew Mackay

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.

It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What will the world be like after coronavirus? Four possible futures
by Simon Mair

The key to understanding responses to COVID-19 is the question of what the economy is for. Currently, the primary aim of the global economy is to facilitate exchanges of money. This is what economists call “exchange value”.

The dominant idea of the current system we live in is that exchange value is the same thing as use value. Basically, people will spend money on the things that they want or need, and this act of spending money tells us something about how much they value its “use”. This is why markets are seen as the best way to run society. They allow you to adapt, and are flexible enough to match up productive capacity with use value.

What COVID-19 is throwing into sharp relief is just how false our beliefs about markets are. Around the world, governments fear that critical systems will be disrupted or overloaded: supply chains, social care, but principally healthcare. There are lots of contributing factors to this. But let’s take two.

First, it is quite hard to make money from many of the most essential societal services. This is in part because a major driver of profits is labour productivity growth: doing more with fewer people. People are a big cost factor in many businesses, especially those that rely on personal interactions, like healthcare. Consequently, productivity growth in the healthcare sector tends to be lower than the rest of the economy, so its costs go up faster than average.

Second, jobs in many critical services aren’t those that tend to be highest valued in society. Many of the best paid jobs only exist to facilitate exchanges; to make money. They serve no wider purpose to society: they are what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. Yet because they make lots of money we have lots of consultants, a huge advertising industry and a massive financial sector. Meanwhile, we have a crisis in health and social care, where people are often forced out of useful jobs they enjoy, because these jobs don’t pay them enough to live.

The coronavirus pandemic might have a silver lining. People might wake up to what’s really important.
by Peter Bolton

What jobs are really ‘essential’?

The first big question is: what jobs does society really need? Could it be that some are not only unnecessary but also harmful? And if so, could we just get rid of them? In the US healthcare industry, for example, private health insurance companies have ‘claims teams’ that determine whether the company will cover the cost of treatments for their policyholders. Such workers are even rewarded by their bosses for saving the company money by finding (often spurious) reasons for denying payment. Transitioning to a public system of universal care would eliminate this needless overhead and, in turn, lower healthcare costs.

Many jobs in the finance sector, meanwhile, are equally worthless. The 2007/8 financial crash, for instance, was caused in part by the bundling and trade of ‘subprime mortgage’ debt. And as The Canary has previously argued, financial markets increasingly resemble an imaginary world that bears no relation to actual production. This raises the question of whether jobs such as ‘stockbroker’, ‘currency trader’, or ‘speculator’ could simply be abolished. […]

Who really benefits?

If many jobs are pointless and many goods and services are unnecessary, then that ultimately raises a follow-up question: why do they exist? Scholars across various disciplines have tried to answer this question. In his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber suggests that the existence of pointless jobs is part of a deliberate strategy by the ruling class to keep the masses occupied so that they won’t have the time or inclination to question (or, worse, organize to dismantle) the power structures of the status quo. He says:

The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. …

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how he or she could have done a better job. […]

Time to reflect

Ultimately, the coronavirus outbreak has shown that society can continue to function without certain kinds of work being performed – so long as governments intervene to provide for the social good. At the same time, many people in wealthier countries have realized that they can live just fine with less. And on both counts, this is exactly what socialists have been arguing all along.

Bullshit Jobs in an age of Coronavirus
by imothyt

Bullshit jobs have turned into a sort of “workfare” for the educated classes.

That’s a fact that seems inescapable now as the Coronavirus pandemic has deemed essential and non-essential. The essential people are the folks stocking shelves in the supermarket, driving long-haul trucks, delivery drivers, nurses, doctors, people manufacturing essential goods (medical and otherwise), farm workers, and food workers. The rest of us are told to stay at home, shelter in place, and devise new things to do with our time, to prove that we are productive.

The pandemic has forced us all to become task-masters, box-tickers, and duct tapers for the very (probably) bullshit jobs we held before so that we could all continue to exist at a high-level of universal basic income.

I’m not an economist but the whole system always seemed deeply flawed to me. When I was in the Army in the 80’s it was patently obvious that we were all there on a sort of welfare system. And as the military-industrial complex rose and as “pork-barrel” spending increased at the Federal level, I started wondering how many of the jobs which supplied the military and infrastructure projects (the bridge to nowhere) were just versions of workfare? If you build missiles you’re kind of just a Goon, aren’t you? The only reason we need rockets and bombs is because others have rockets and bombs!

And, all of this government “red-tape” that people says kills jobs? In my lifetime it does the exact opposite. It creates jobs! Millions and millions of jobs. Jobs for people to process oversight paperwork, efficiency modeling, insurance claims, and so on. […]

Graeber quotes President Obama after the USA passed the worst healthcare plan ever devised in human history*, “everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork. That represents one million, two million, three million jobs.” And all politicians know this for a fact. Running for president, Howard Schultz called universal healthcare “not American,” adding, “What industry are we going to abolish next — the coffee industry?” And said that single-payer would “wipe out the insurance industry.”

And not just the insurance industry (which is completely useless, Goon, work) but think about what Medicare for All really means. It says that it will save money – and it would – but it would do so by eliminating millions of jobs in insurance, middle-management, billing departments, claims-negotiators, oversight officials, and so on. All of those people make middle-class incomes which in turn support the people who do that actual work of our society.

That’s why Trump needs so many people to just go back to work and why he literally doesn’t care if we live or die from this virus or really from any of the existential threats we face (global warming, etc.). I’ve long held the sneaking suspicion that most of human endeavor (especially in the West) is a con of some sort. Getting people to do stuff that they probably wouldn’t want to do by tempting them with baubles like Harleys or new cars. The economy relies on people doing all of these bullshit jobs because the economy is bullshit and only functions as long as we are producing bullshit wealth for a bullshit class of top bullshitters!

Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
by Jonathan Carp

Millions of us have what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs,” jobs that produce nothing, create no wealth, but exist merely to help circulate money so goods can be distributed. Even white-collar workers with real jobs are chained to 19th-century notions of work, with a desk in a building and appointed hours at which they must sit there. We rise to alarm clocks, get into cars, belch carbon into the atmosphere, and alternate between working and goofing off as we wait for the time to pass.

But not under coronavirus. Under coronavirus, we wake with the sun, we take leisurely morning strolls, we fit our work around our children and our spouses. Instead of furtively scrolling Facebook when we get bored working, we play or make love or create. For many of us, coronavirus has been liberating amidst the quarantines. How ghastly that it has taken the threat of a global pandemic for our bosses to take advantage of technology that has existed for twenty years, at least. How cowardly of us not to demand it sooner.

What if we never went back? Imagine roads clear of traffic around the clock. Imagine air cleansed of the emissions of millions of cars. Imagine the demand for gas dropping first the price, then the environmentally devastating production. For my fellow office drones, imagine every morning waking up naturally, not to an alarm clock, and spending each day doing at each moment what you most wanted to do, not whatever would pass the time while waiting for five o’clock. That could be ours, if only we insist on it.

And what more could we imagine? Could we imagine, as my former colleague Kevin Carson has described in his work, a world of decentralized production, where “going to work” is for almost everyone a strange anachronism from a dimly remembered past? Could we imagine a world of automation that serves people rather than displaces them? Or will we be content to fritter with the margins of neoliberal capitalism, pushing for “oversight” on massive giveaways to corporations while villains like Ben Sasse clutch their pearls at the idea of a fast-food worker making more on unemployment than she does flipping burgers?

Adrian Ivakhiv: Pandemic politics, or what a disaster can do for us
by Adrian Ivakhiv

For me, this is in part a reaction against the push for “business as usual” in these strange, new times. “Keeping calm and carrying on” works for some, but easily becomes an excuse for disaster capitalism: if you can’t work normally, we’ll have you work from home. (That your kids are suddenly there with you all day, “zooming” into their classes, and that you’ve just brought your mother-in-law home from her precarious seniors’ community, and that the fridge is getting empty, is all irrelevant.) We’ll have you work harder to learn new tools that we can then require you to use when things have returned to “normal” (and if you don’t, then someone else can fill your shoes).

The other strategy is to stop and ask ourselves what’s really important. What do you need to do to protect your loved ones? Do you even know who your loved ones are? (How wide does that circle extend?) What work will keep you going in a world where business-as-usual has become an unaffordable luxury? When there’s so much to do to be happy and safe, some “bullshit jobs,” as anthropologist David Graeber call them (no mincing words), might start to look expendable.

Taking stock, for me, means asking: how can institutions of higher learning reach out to the communities we serve to help us transition into times of likely scarcity, in which the temptation for hoarding, closing borders, and “disaster capitalizing” — the temptation of the Handmaid’s Tale — will be all too palpable? How do we re-engineer our societies to preserve and enhance democracy, equality, and ecological integration when things get bad, as any good “disaster environmentalist” knows they will? That’s the challenge ahead of us, and COVID-19 is its messenger.

What’s the point?
by Anne-Sophie Moreau

Coronavirus acts like a daunting mirror, reflecting the sheer pointlessness of what we do. It exposes a phenomenon described by anthropologist David Graeber as “bullshit jobs”: most of us, he argues, occupy positions which at best, make no difference to society, and at worst, can be downright harmful. He says the ranks of big firms are filled with minions whose sole purpose is to flatter their boss’ ego, or fill in charts as part of painstaking but ultimately pointless “processes”. That’s when they’re not busy selling goods and services that empty the consumer’s pocket whilst exhausting the planet’s natural resources. In short, entire swaths of professional activity shouldn’t even exist at all! Surely that should put you off organising yet another meeting during the coronavirus crisis. […]

After all, “bullshit jobs” haven’t put an end to “shitty jobs”, Graeber explains. On the contrary – and this is why he thinks our societies are paradoxical –, the more useful we are, the less we’re paid. How many of our government ministers are truly interested in the foot soldiers of our digital platforms? Not many; and when they do speak to them, it’s to tell them to get to work! Bullshit jobs at home, shitty jobs on the front – this is the sad dystopia we’re living in. Not to mention that many service industry jobs will likely be replaced by AI, and that central banks are thinking of showering us with “helicopter money” to avoid a global recession… Will tomorrow’s office workers be forced to stay at home, force-fed with Netflix and free money? […]

Paradoxically, this crisis might help us rediscover the real reasons why we work. By hitting the rock bottom of uselessness, we might find a way to rise back to the surface of our ambitions. And yes, these might indeed seem futile. But even the act of drawing dinosaurs can be useful, Graeber argues. Does this surprise you? “I lean towards Spinoza’s theory of work, where the aim is to increase or preserve other people’s freedom”, he told me, when I expressed my surprise at him classifying entertainment as “useful”. He went on: “The paradigmatic form of freedom is chosen activity – in other words, play. Somewhere Marx wrote that you only attain real freedom when you leave the realm of necessity and work becomes an end in itself. That might be the new paradigm of social value: to care for others, to make sure everyone leads a freer, more leisurely life.”

Notes from a Pandemic
by Tammy Sanders

One refrain I keep hearing from friends with stock portfolios and retirement funds is that we’ve got to reopen the economy. But really, is that the best we can think to do, reopen an economy that typically disenfranchised the most valuable people in it?

Instead of reopening the economy, why not rethink it, rework it, redesign it toward the more ethical, just and sensible society so many of us want to have.

An example: I wonder now that so many men, millions of them, have for the first time in their adult lives spent the majority of their waking hours in the company of their children, could we see a fundamental shift in policy norms and standards around parental leave and flexible work. Conceding that some men cannot wait to get back to being away for 14-hour days, I also wonder how many more will no longer abide prioritizing their professions at the expense of their families.

In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber talks at length about the notion of care-related work, particularly how and why our society devalues that work. Nowadays, we’re honking horns and applauding health care providers and grocery store cashiers as “heros” — but are we willing to insist they be paid a hero’s wage, perhaps 1/16th what an MLB pitcher or NFL quarterback earns?

Might we refuse to send children back to school, or better yet, might kids strike and refuse to go back to school until adults sort out school shootings?

Might we, as Graeber suggests in his book, commit whatever effort we can to stop making so much of what has until now made life unlivable for so many: unbearable traffic, inflexible work, toxic air, a ruthless pursuit of achievement at the expense of connection?

We crafted the world we lived in on 1 March 2020. Then, we stopped that world. If there was ever a time to point the world toward wellness, wholeness, more positivity, less polarization, now is that time.

4 thoughts on “Bullshit Jobs and Essential Workers

    • I thought about adding my own commentary to it. But then I realized that was unnecessary and superfluous. This post can be taken as a companion piece to another one from a couple of days ago, also posted without any commentary of my own:
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/capitalist-suppression-of-innovation/

      Above, I quote Graeber: “In our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.” And in that previous post of a Twitter thread, one person stated that, “Veblen was pretty clear in emphasizing that the most useless and destructive members of society were accorded the most prestige, not in spite of being useless & destructive but because of it.”

      So, it’s no accident that bullshit jobs are prevalent. It’s built into the system, as our present capitalism is ruled by bullshit artists. Bullshit is the guiding vision. As George Burns put it, “Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made!” And that reminds me of the conclusion by Harry Frankfurt in analyzing our society, the claim that “Sincerity is bullshit.” Capitalism is a confidence game.
      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/on-truth-and-bullshit/

    • Out of curiosity, what do you think of the idea of bullshit jobs? Have you previously read about Graeber’s theory? If so, have you written about it in your own blog?

      At the moment, I find the bullshit jobs theory to be one of the most important explanations about the situation we find ourselves in. It also might give us a sense of where we’re heading.

      As a way of framing our economic troubles, it is brilliant in its direct simplicity. One of the main points Graeber makes is that many Americans admit that they perceive their own job as bullshit.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s