David Graeber's new book provides interesting insights to the nature of modern work, but it fails to provide a materialist analysis.
David Graeber is one of the more interesting contemporary anarchist writers, it is best to see his work not as a anarchist intellectual, but more of a leftist academic who happens to be personally a anarchist. Similar to how Noam Chomsky is. What is important with the works of Graeber, is he actually goes beyond anarchist dogmas such as the labor movement, urban insurrection, direct action, and takes deep dives investigating things such as the history of debt. His most recent work is a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, based on a previous article he has written a few years before that went viral.
The book is a more comprehensive text and richer in details. Sadly, it doesn’t really provide why bullshit jobs exist, hundreds of pages are written to explain what is it like to have a bullshit job, but not much to why or how such jobs came to existence in the first place. The author is clearly trying to make a strong argument, that the phenomenon of jobs that don’t have any reason to exist isn’t just exclusive to the likes of the Soviet Union, where hundreds of workers are hired to build a bridge that only requires a few dozen, or how it takes three employees to package groceries where it could be done with only one person. Or even government jobs in capitalist societies, where a municipal government keeps hiring bureaucrats and never seem to get anything done. What Graeber is aiming at, is that even corporate economies are filled with bureaucratic positions that don’t really have any useful function when examined under a microscope. Something that should go against the mythology of capitalism where competition gets rid of any efficiency in organization and production. Many examples are given, such as telemarketers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, PR strategists, human resource managers.
At the same time, a distinction is made in order not to create any confusion. Between bullshit jobs, and shit jobs, the latter is for jobs are useful, but are extremely hard or painful to do. Such as picking the garbage or working in a fast food joint, that certain jobs might be full of shit to deal with, but have a clear and useful function in society. Where as the former, if corporate lawyers or management consultants suddenly disappear, society wouldn’t notice, or so the argument goes. The rest of the book is filled with examples attempting to prove this argument, some are funny, others are just sad to read on how soul crushing some jobs are. The only argument given on why bullshit jobs exist, is the puritan work ethic!
The entire book, doesn’t have a single materialist argument. Even though examples are given from many parts of the world as far as Egypt. To assume that the puritan work ethic would increase efficiency for blue collar worker over a century, and then simultaneously create white collar jobs that don’t have any meaningful function, is not a convincing argument. Even Graeber noticed this.
In the upper echelons of those same companies, things are not the same. We can, if we like, trace this back to the key weakness in the managerial cult of efficiency—its Achilles’ heel, if you will. When managers began trying to come up with scientific studies of the most time- and energy-efficient ways to deploy human labor, they never applied those same techniques to themselves—or if they did, the effect appears to have been the opposite of what they intended. As a result, the same period that saw the most ruthless application of speed-ups and downsizing in the blue-collar sector also brought a rapid multiplication of meaningless managerial and administrative posts in almost all large firms. It’s as if businesses were endlessly trimming the fat on the shop floor and using the resulting savings to acquire even more unnecessary workers in the offices upstairs. (As we’ll see, in some companies, this was literally the case.) The end result was that, just as Socialist regimes had created millions of dummy proletarian jobs, capitalist regimes somehow ended up presiding over the creation of millions of dummy white- collar jobs instead.
For the entire book, Graeber seems to go around in circles on a common theme, but never gets to mention it in concrete form or even put his finger on it. That is, class relations. With each example given, it screams of social relations to private property. A term was even coined by the author to describe the situation, managerial feudalism. Now what is or isn’t managerial feudalism is somewhat murky, so a degree of improvising is necessary. Managerial feudalism, would be defined for this article as the entire set of jobs and positions that aren’t part of the production cycle, but rather management of those who work in production. So every politician, every boss, every executive in upper management is part of this, and then anyone who works directly for them, their assistants, secretaries, and if a organization is big enough and can’t be managed by a single individual, departments are formed to work as extensions for them, such as human resources and quality control. What Graeber seems to focus mostly on, is the lower stratum of the managerial class. Not the bosses themselves, but those who work for the bosses as extension, who tend to be middle management white collar office workers with a upper-middle class income. A term was used to describe them, “information workers”. What was meant with this, is probably those who are working as a middle layer on the ground collecting information and pushing it upwards for the decision maker, the business owner. To quote Graeber again:
This, of course, is precisely the zone where bullshit jobs proliferate. Obviously, not all information workers feel they are engaged in bullshit (Taylor’s category includes scientists, teachers, and librarians), and by no means all those who felt they are engaged in bullshit are information workers; but if our surveys are to be trusted, it seems evident that a majority of those classed as information workers do feel that if their jobs were to vanish, it would make very little difference to the world.
What bullshit jobs theory seems to fail at grasping, is the social function of the professional managerial class is, they aren’t hired for productive labor, but to function as extension to bosses, and boss others who labor. Here Graeber is again giving confusing examples.
]Ben calculates that he spends at least 75 percent of his time allocating tasks and then monitoring if the underling is doing them, even though, he insists, he has absolutely no reason to believe the underlings in question would behave any differently if he weren’t there. He also says he keeps trying to allocate himself real work on the sly, but when he does so, his own superiors eventually notice and tell him to cut it out. But then, when he sent in his testimony, Ben had only been at the job for two and a half months—which might explain his candor. If he does succumb eventually and accepts his new role in life, he will come to understand that, as another testimony put it, “The entire job of middle management is to ensure the lower-level people hit their ‘productivity numbers’ ”—and will therefore start coming up with formal statistical metrics that his underlings can try to falsify. Being forced to supervise people who don’t need supervision is actually a fairly common complaint.Here, for instance, is the testimony of an Assistant Localization Manager named Alphonso: Alphonso: My job is to oversee and coordinate a team of five translators. The problem with that is that the team is perfectly capable of managing itself: they are trained in all the tools they need to use and they can, of course, manage their time and tasks. So I normally act as a “task gatekeeper.” Requests come to me through Jira (a bureaucratic online tool for managing tasks), and I pass them on to the relevant person or persons. Other than that, I’m in charge of sending periodic reports to my manager, who, in turn, will incorporate them into “more important” reports to be sent to the CEO. This kind of combination of taskmastering and box ticking would appear to be the very essence of middle management. In Alphonso’s case, he did actually serve one useful function—but only because his team of translators, based in Ireland, was assigned so little work by the central office in Japan that he had to constantly figure out ways to finagle the reports to make it look like they were very busy and no one needed to be laid off.
Both examples are used to illustrate how some managerial jobs are counter productive, and how some workers attempt to help with work but are forbidden to do so by their bosses. It appears that Graeber is missing the point on why those people are hired, they aren’t hired to labor, they are hired to embody the position of the boss. It is understandable that many are even confused on what to do, they are wage workers who don’t own a share of property on the organization they work for, so they have the same interest as their wage working colleagues, that is to survive until the end of month and get a paycheck for work hours. At the same time, they are supposed to represent a class interest of the employer, its called managerial class for a reason. So what is probably happening, is that many are confused on whats their purpose to show up to work everyday, they aren’t part of production, nor are they part of profit beneficiaries. From this perspective, it becomes understandable why many managerial workers find their jobs bullshit and lacks of meaning in life. Again, Graeber keeps writing about this without ever explicitly mentioning social class relations, how can he keep missing this is simply weird!
I should add as a final note there was really only one class of people that not only denied their jobs were pointless but expressed outright hostility to the very idea that our economy is rife with bullshit jobs. These were—predictably enough—business owners, and anyone else in charge of hiring and firing. (Tania appears to be something of an exception in this regard.) In fact, for many years, I have been receiving periodic unsolicited communications from indignant entrepreneurs and executives telling me my entire premise is wrong. No one, they insist, would ever spend company money on an employee who wasn’t needed. Such communications rarely offer particularly sophisticated arguments. Most just employ the usual circular argument that since, in a market economy, none of the things described in this chapter could have actually occurred, that therefore they didn’t, so all the people who are convinced their jobs are worthless must be deluded, or self-important, or simply don’t understand their real function, which is fully visible only to those above.
Perhaps an analogy with a similar class might help to make a clear example, the police force. If a State is defined as a monopoly of violence, then the police force is only a small part of the State’s capacity for violence, the vast majority of violence is practiced by the army, which has fighter jets and tanks. Even with the majority of violence being concentrated in the armed forces, it is also necessary to have small groups within the ranks of civilian population for a government to assert its authority, because it wouldn’t be rational to use the navy to evict tenants or collect taxes or fine traffic violators. This is something the modern nation state has learned over a few centuries, armies are used only combat other foreign armies and invaders, and used internally only in extreme situations such as armed insurrections or violent riots. As for the day to day governing of society, only a minority of light armed individuals can be sufficient to ensure courts can guarantee their orders will be executed. With a police department.
A city could come up with a proposal to self-govern, and prove that neighborhoods can be safe with community patrol, and also provide a strong argument to save tax money by cutting spending on police departments. At the same time allowing the army to exist far away in the barracks in case of emergency and even continuing to assure the government still has a monopoly on the use of violence. It wouldn’t be likely that a state would approve of such proposal, and the more authoritarian a state is, the more unlikely it would accept such a plan. While community safety patrol could save on government budget and allow it to allocate more resources elsewhere, a state wouldn’t waiver its ability to assert control and discipline a population. Because even if there is a consensus with the population on what is and isn’t a crime, at some point, there will be a point where residents will defy the rules issued from above if they don’t believe it is in their interest to follow said rules. Leaving the state only to costly options such as rolling tanks inside neighborhoods.
The same can be said with worker-employer relations, a business owner could theoretically allow his workers to self-manage their own workplace, but if workers self-manage, a employer wouldn’t have much authority on them for micro management. If workers defy the rules from their boss, the business owner has only costly options of firing people in mass, which means a higher chance of running a failing business. So for business owners to assert control and discipline their workers, they need more manpower to manage on their behalf, sending delegates to each section of the workplace, with a nested hierarchy of managers, all working as what Graeber would describe as “information workers”, filing reports to the upper executives for them to make decisions on how to manage the workplace rather then the workers themselves.
As for the thesis of the book, that those who have bullshit jobs don’t really work. Graeber is spot on, but it isn’t because certain jobs exist without having any useful function. It is because that is what property owners do, collect rent from those who do the labor and not work themselves, a process of accumulating capital. So for those who embody the position of a boss, but don’t enjoy the privileges granted from it, or the power over others, and at the same time not working on any meaningful labor, it becomes understandable how it can be a soul crushing experience.
To conclude, it would be best to end with a last quote from the book
If 37 percent of jobs are bullshit, and 37 percent of the remaining 63 percent are in support of bullshit, then slightly over 50 percent of all labor falls into the bullshit sector in the broadest sense of the term. 28 If you combine this with the bullshitization of useful occupations (at least 50 percent in office work; presumably less in other sorts), and the various professions that basically exist only because everyone is working too hard (dog washers, all-night pizza deliverymen, to name a few), we could probably get the real workweek down to fifteen hours— or even twelve—without anyone noticing much.
No David, some will notice, every boss who suddenly realize they have lost a source of steady rent without working.