Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

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Provisional Definition: a bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence. Some jobs are so pointless that no one even notices if the person who has the job vanishes.

Book suggests that if you are serving the top 1% who have riches and power such as a cooperate lawyer you have a bullshit job. These jobs have increased in number “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” You tend to know if you have a bullshit job if the purpose is really not significant.

Note a bullshit job differ from a shit job which is necessary but just not very good and often underpaid. Note people in service industry from this books perspective don’t have a bullshit job unlike a professor of anthropology, for which the author is one!

Mentions a job at the Interlibrary Loan Office in the University of Chicago Science Library, and at least 90 percent of what people did there was photocopy and mail out articles from medical journals with titles such as the Journal of Cell Biology, Clinical Endocrinology, and the American Journal of Internal Medicine. The employee thought for the first few months these articles were being sent to doctors. To the contrary, a bemused co-worker eventually explained: the overwhelming majority were being sent to lawyers. Apparently, if you are suing a doctor for malpractice, part of the show involves assembling an impressive pile of scientific papers to plunk down on the table at an appropriately theatrical moment and then enter into evidence. While everyone knows that no one will actually read these papers, there is always the possibility that the defence attorney or one of his expert witnesses might pick one up at random for inspection – so it is considered important to ensure your legal aides locate articles that can at least plausibly be said to bear in some way on the case.

Business owners don’t think that there are a proliferation of bs CEO jobs. This is because, for better or for worse, CEOs actions do make a difference in the world. They’re just blind to all the bullshit they create!

Instead, the situation has sparked a proliferation of social media use (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter): basically, of forms of electronic media that lend themselves to being produced and consumed while pretending to do something else. in many medieval universities, a medieval sword smith or soap maker could go about his work in the confidence that he would never have anyone who was not himself a sword smith or a soap maker telling him he was not going about it correctly. This is unlike today, industrial capitalism changed that, and the rise of managerialism in the twentieth century drove the process even further; but rather than this in any sense reversing under financialised capitalism, the situation has actually worsened.

Efficiency” has come to mean vesting more and more power to managers, supervisors, and other presumed “efficiency experts,” so that actual producers have almost zero autonomy. At the same time, the ranks and orders of managers seem to reproduce themselves endlessly. Where once universities, corporations, movie studios, and the like had been governed by a combination of relatively simple chains of command and informal patronage networks, we now have a world of funding proposals, strategic vision documents, and development team pitches. These allow for the endless elaborations of new and ever more pointless levels of managerial hierarchy, staffed by men and women with elaborate titles, fluent in corporate jargon, but who either have no firsthand experience of what it’s like to actually do the work they are supposed to be managing.

Questions of value are always at least a little murky. Marxist theory would suggest terms “productive” and “unproductive” labour—by which he meant labour that is either productive or unproductive for capitalists. Productive labour yields some kind of surplus value that capitalists can extract in profits; other labour is at best “reproductive”—that is, like housework or education (these are always put forward as the primary examples), such tasks perform the necessary second-order work of keeping workers alive and raising new generations of workers so that in the future they can, in turn, do the “real” work of being exploited.

At the very top of organizations, apparently crucial positions can go unfilled for long periods of time without there being any noticeable effect, even, on the organization itself. There’s a reason why those who work in the financial sector, and who have extremely well-paid occupations more generally, almost never go on strike. In 1970 there was a six-month bank strike in Ireland; rather than the economy grinding to a halt as the organizers had anticipated, most people simply continued to write checks, which began to circulate as a form of currency, but otherwise carried on much as they had before. Two years before, when garbage collectors had gone on strike for a mere ten days in New York, the city caved in to their demands because it had become uninhabitable.

2017 paper, US economists Benjamin B. Lockwood, Charles G. Nathanson, and E. Glen Weyl combed through the existing literature on the “externalities” (social costs) and “spillover effects” (social benefits) associated with a variety of highly paid professions, to see if it were possible to calculate how much each adds to or subtracts from the economy overall. Their conclusion: the most socially valuable workers whose contributions could be calculated are medical researchers, who add $9 of overall value to society for every $1 they are paid. The least valuable were those who worked in the financial sector, who, on average, subtract a net $1.80 in value from society for every $1 of compensation. The general principle that the more one’s work benefits others, the less one tends to be paid for it.

Generally mentions doctors are the exception to the rule who tend to get paid well, providing benefits to others and don’t have bs jobs. Does offer a contrary view from a pharmacist, who considers his own job pointless and that doctors just prescribe placebos.

Suggest in general those who choose to benefit society, and especially those who have the gratification of knowing they benefit society, really have no business also expecting middle-class salaries, paid vacations, and generous retirement packages. By the same token, there is also a feeling that those who have to suffer from the knowledge they are doing pointless or even harmful work just for the sake of the money ought to be rewarded with more money for exactly that reason.

The key to caring labour as a commodity is not that some people care but that others don’t; that those paying for “services” feel no need to engage in the labour themselves. This is even true of a bricklayer, if that bricklayer is working for someone else. Underlings have to constantly monitor what the boss is thinking; the boss doesn’t have to care. The author suggests this is why psychological studies regularly find that people of working-class background are more accurate at reading other people’s feelings, and more empathetic and caring, than those of middle-class, let alone wealthy, backgrounds.

One cannot save to ensure a college education for one’s children unless one is sure in twenty years there will still be colleges or for that matter, money.

Over the course of the twentieth century, work came to be increasingly valued primarily as a form of discipline and self-sacrifice. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everyone has to be employed at some sort of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. In other words, they gain feelings of dignity and self-worth because they hate their jobs.

This is the attitude that seems to remain in the air all around us, implicit in office small-talk. “The pressure to value ourselves and others on the basis of how hard we work at something we’d rather not be doing . . . If you’re not destroying your mind and body via paid work, you’re not living right.” This attitude is more common among middle-class office workers than among migrant farm workers or parking lot attendants. But even in working-class environments, the attitude can be observed through its negation, since even those who do not feel they have to validate their existence, on a day-to-day basis, by boasting how overworked they are will nonetheless agree that those who avoid work entirely should probably drop dead.

Unconditional universal support could actually function well. Most people would prefer not to spend their days sitting around watching TV and the handful who really are inclined to be total parasites are not going to be a significant burden on society, since the total amount of work required to maintain people in comfort and security is not that formidable. The compulsive workaholics who insist on doing far more than they really have to would more than compensate for the occasional slackers.

The first objection raised when someone suggests guaranteeing everyone a livelihood regardless of work is that if you do so, people simply won’t work. Book argues this is just false. The second, more serious objection is that most will work, but many will choose work that’s of interest only to themselves. The streets would fill up with bad poets, annoying street mimes, and promoters of crank scientific theories, and nothing would get done. What the phenomenon of bullshit jobs really brings home is the foolishness of such assumptions. No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless; but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 or 20 percent.

This compares to now in which around 40 percent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless. Roughly half the economy consists of, or exists in support of, bullshit. And it’s not even particularly interesting bullshit!

If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all, how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labour more inefficient than the one we already have? This is a powerful argument for human freedom.

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