Saturday, January 10, 2015

Our Jobs Are (Still) Bullshit

Someone apparently put quotes from David Graeber's legendary essay about bullshit jobs all over London's subway system. No one is quite sure who, but good on them. This caused Vice to interview Graeber again, and he's in fine form:
So do you think someone is just making up pointless jobs to keep us working? One of the phrases on the posters suggested that.
Obviously it's not like people are sitting around in a room saying, you know, "Let's think up pointless jobs!" but it is true that people who talk about economic policy talk about creating employment but never talk about whether that employment is meaningful or not.

This completely contradicts what should happen in a capitalist system. You know, we're used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an economy where they had an ideology of full employment and they had to make up jobs for people that were completely unnecessary and pointless; you'd go to a cashier and one gives you a ticket and another does something else and another something else – they were constantly making up these pointless jobs. It's understandable that this would happen in an economy that is based on the principle of work as a value unto itself and full employment and so forth and so on. But in a capitalist society, paying somebody to do nothing is the very last thing you'd expect a firm to do, but in fact they do and often you can observe it.

In a lot of the responses I got on blogs, people would talk about how they had figured out a way to automate 90 percent of their job or whatever, and they'd say, "I showed it to my supervisor and they said, 'Don't do that! If you do that, I'll need three workers instead of eight workers and I'll be much less significant within the corporation.'" The corporate bureaucracy is not that different to what happened in the old Soviet system.

Why do you think many people are unemployed and actually wish they had any job – even a bullshit job – to do?
I think one thing that's really significant is an ideological shift, away from the idea that work is valuable in that it produces stuff. It's kind of self-evident that, in the 19th century, work was important to produce the world around us.

But over the course of the 20th century there's been a huge effort to re-imagine the world; it's the imagination of these great entrepreneurial geniuses that create all these things – workers are just robots, working in the factories, doing what they're told, extensions of the minds of these quite great people. It seems there has been an increased emphasis on work as of pure value unto itself.

You say bullshit jobs do moral and spiritual damage. How come?
There's this idea that work is discipline – you can't become a mature, responsible, self-contained, proper person without basically working more than you want to at things you don't really like. The more unpleasant work is, the more moralising it is. And that logic has become stronger and stronger and stronger, so anybody who doesn't work you can revile as a parasite.

But we have this weird thing now where even people who enjoy their work are viewed a bit suspiciously. We have this weird situation where the more obviously your work contributes to the world, the less they pay you, with a few exceptions like surgeons, airline pilots, things like that. But for the most part the people who get paid the most are people who it is entirely unclear what they contribute to the world at all. Meanwhile people like say, a nurse – the people who, if they disappeared, the world would immediately be in trouble – those guys get the least.

How does that happen? I think one of the reasons is passive morality – that, like, work is valuable because you don't wanna be doing it and there's no meaning or value in it at all. It's really hard to get a company to pay people to do something when they have any reason to do so other than the money. So even if it's like transformation work or artistic work – anything that's in any way fun – they say, "Is there some way we can get people to do this for free?"


I remember being very struck by Dostoyevsky, who was in a Russian prison camp, and he said if you really want to destroy someone psychologically, much worse than through physical torture, just make up a completely meaningless form of work. You know, have them take water from some giant vat and then move it back to the first vat again. Have them do that all day and before long even the most hardened criminal will be utterly despairing of life, because there's nothing more horrible than devoting one's life to something completely meaningless. I mean, you know, sure, there will be some freeloaders, but we've got more freeloaders right now.  
Activists Plastered the Tube with Posters Telling People Their Jobs Are Bullshit (Vice)

By coincidence, I received this comment from an anonymous reader just last week:
I'll admit that I feel resentment against those who do some of the "meaningful" work that Graeber describes although arguably I am now doing "meaningful" work at a university so maybe I should accept my lot. I will say that coming out of law school and grad school I assumed that I could find work in the NGO world only to find out that indeed most of the really good jobs including those working directly with the poor and working class were held by Ivy league types from very, by my standards, wealthy families. In fact I nosed my way into some of these cliques only to find that I really did dislike these people even though they were ostensibly doing good work they were very elitist and openly hostile to outsiders. In addition no experience not stamped with certain types of approval, e.g. Ivy league institutions or certain NGOs and governmental organizations, was simply overlooked or even held against you. Many of these do-gooders considered themselves socialists and there were even a few commies in the mix but actual experience with left politics that was not electoral in nature or that wasn't clearly didn't embrace up front a on-violent ethic that would make Gandhi seem dangerous made you persona non grata unless or course you had lots of other marks of class distinction and your experience was wholly in the past. Some NGOs especially those dealing with the UN and international issues explicitly recruit only from Ivies. There's a whole class of fake leftists who facilitate these sort of cultural experiences for leftists who want to experience the thrill of being anti establishment but go on, never the less, to good careers. I'll name one Angela Davis. Happy New Year!
This is a phenomena I've described before: opportunity hoarding. The good and meaningful jobs are taken by the upper class, and they put all sort of impenetrable barriers to make sure those of us without means do not have access to them. There is the soaring cost for college - which is a feature, not a bug of American society (unlike Europe). Then there are the unpaid internships in the most expensive cities in the world. Then there are costly licenses and certifications which ordinary people cannot afford. Then there are jobs that pay too little to live unless you have another source of income like a trust fund (as Graeber describes above).

The end result is that the supposed wonderful jobs our economy is producing are taken by the elites, and the rest of us end up stocking shelves, working the deep fryer or in the Amazon warehouse. And then the poor are lumped together by the moniker "unskilled labor" and told their situation is due to their laziness and lack of social skills. I've seen this personally in architecture - it deliberately puts up as many barriers as possible (e.g. more school than anything except doctors and lawyers doing essentially pointless busywork) to prevent people of modest means from pursuing a career in the field because a lot of people find it theoretically appealing . And maybe it is if you're a graduate of Yale, Harvard or Columbia and get to build award-wining houses for wealthy friends of your wealthy parents.

I had my own bullshit job interview last week on the coldest day of the year, which made me have to drive in this awful weather (fortunately not too far). And I'm sitting in this conference room in my uncomfortable suit across from the typical four pasty dull white suburban males talking about how their kids' school is called off due to the cold and inside I'm thinking WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING HERE? I do not belong here. I do not have a wife and a house and 2.5 kids and an SUV. What the fuck am I doing with my life? Do I really want another cubicle job with tight budgets, tight deadlines, angry clients headaches and high stress? DO I really want to sell the minutes of my life to another bidder, one who will probably eliminate what little vacation I do have. And I certainly don't want to continue throwing my life away in this lonely frozen hellhole that I currently live live in. I am filled with disgust and revulsion and fall into a deep depression. But what other options do I have besides throwing myself off a bridge, which is looking better and better. Surely there is more to life than this?

So anyway, that my job story. Some might find this essay relevant"
Authoritarians of the left, libertarians of the right, objectivists, conservatives and even liberals and progressives fixated on “jobs” and “rehabilitation” of the socioeconomically dysfunctional give the answer “no; ” sometimes directly (as in the case of the Stalinist and the American conservative) and other times through actions, policies, and preferences (as in the case of elements of the “occupation” movement distancing themselves from “homeless bums,” “drug users,” and “ex-cons”).

Most of all, those with the power to set wages, prices, working conditions and societal expectation for those who have nothing left but their time and “docile bodies”*(Foucault) to sell, control and trade in human lives as commodities. While most of the supposedly civilized world frowns on chattel slavery (although a good bit of it goes on, especially in the sex trade, where prosecution of traffickers is the exception rather than the rule), the legal technicality of ownership is superfluous to the trade in human lives, time, labor, and in Reichian terms orgones.

What do Stalinism, objectivism, authoritarian capitalism, and global corporatism all have in common ? They are in my opinion fundamentalist-materialist cults that value the inanimate over the living, the concrete over the abstract and have effectively reduced the vast majority of the human race to livestock, or wild beasts to be hunted down, captured, contained, broken, or in the alternative, simply slaughtered and destroyed.

The message remains the same though, as it has been throughout history: “Obey or suffer.” Individual disobedience or even mere failure to “produce” in spite of the individual’s best efforts will result in stigmatization, marginalization, a degrading dependency on the state and, as state support for the economically disengaged is cut back and removed, starvation, homelessness and imprisonment; even the fact of homelessness is defined as a criminal offense by more local jurisdictions with each passing year.

The fact is that life is cheap; the idealistic visions of humanitarians are swept aside by those advocates of “austerity” and “tough choices,” whose calculations in service of usury on a global scale will determine the level of human suffering in each nation up to and including death by starvation, disease, and the inevitable outcome of manufactured scarcity, war.

The blurry and dim imagery of the concretes of suffering fades from vision in the glare of the deadly abstractions; political ideologies, religions, money that does not exist anywhere other than in the record keeping of the money lenders remains in clear focus. The conclusion returns stark, glaring and obvious: human life is a commodity, the value of which is consistently decreasing. The devaluation of an individual human life to a unit of production and consumption, which therefore can be discarded if determined to have no economic value, is all that is required for the machinery of mass exterminations and genocide to be set in motion.
People as Livestock: The Cult of Fundamentalist Materialism and the Cheapening Life (Op-Ed News)

As for meaningful jobs, 29-year-old St. Louis Rams center Jason Brown left NFL and $37 million contract to become farmer in order to feed the hungry (Daily Kos)


  1. One of the things that struck me about the movie "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" was that, as soon as people realized that the Earth would be destroyed (or at least, rendered uninhabitable by asteroid collision) within a month or so, they stopped working their bullshit jobs. They also left bullshit relationships. Those that had jobs with meaning kept at them until the last week or so, when they left to say good-bye to the people that mattered.

    Of course, this is a movie comedy, so that might not happen in the real world (there was a surprising lack of revenge killings, for example), but it did try to answer a "what if?" question seriously, if humorously.

  2. Johnnie, I luv yer werk. It pierces my imaginary equipage. It makes me shout incredulously, "her name is Brunnhilde Von Shaft?" Being educated and poor (and completely ready for alternatives) is a many-faceted diamond. Congratulations on your work.

  3. I have been lurking here for years because I couldn't figure out how to comment (I like Discus). This post motivated me (and Vera, who is visiting right now, encouraged me) to get help to figure out how to use Google to comment.
    I'm concerned about your comments about throwing yourself off a bridge. Probably not quite serious, but it sounds maybe half serious, and...don't do it. It would be such a loss to the rest of us, of someone as intelligent, sensitive, and USEFUL as you--and a loss to you of the rest of your life, which could maybe be much better than the first half. Seems to me the problem is that you identified architecture as your dream, your heart's path, early in life, worked hard to get the credentials, and now you find the reality is thinly gilded shit. Maybe it's time for a transition. Like when my husband, a computer programmer, went from designing energy management systems for buildings to employee monitoring systems and then they wanted him to work on a rotary bomb launcher, whereupon he "screamed and ran away." Now he works from our home (which we built ourselves), helping green and labor groups with their websites, while I work at growing as much as possible of our food so we can live well on a small income. This choice may require that you work at your current job longer to save enough to finance buying land; we live in WV where land is cheap, and we joined a land trust so the land didn't cost us anything but we have put over $30,000 into materials for the house, off-grid solar system, various outbuildings...
    Or maybe this path is not for you. But still, is it not time to find an alternative to banging your head against a wall of frozen manure?

    1. Thanks for your concern. Actually, I had no particular desire to be an architect, but I had to be something, and nursing and engineering were out (I would rather be an engineer as there are more jobs available, but unfortunately I suffer from dyscalculia). I was pressured from the get go by the typical American dream nonsense – succeed in school, go to college no matter the cost, get a cubicle job with benefits, get a house and hunker down for the rest of your life mowing the lawn--you know, the whole 1960’s dream for poor, working class people in America. And of course it’s led to a soul-crushing and depressing existence which I never wanted in the first place and have no desire for. It’s also embedded in the Babbitt culture here. Besides, because of my lack of a Master’s Degree, I’m not even a real architect, unless I want to drop out of the workforce for three years and take on a six-figure debt. I have no love or motivation for what I do anymore.

      I wish I could explain my situation better. Where I live, if you don’t have the young kids and the wife and the mortgage and the SUV and don’t spend every waking moment of your free time watching spectator sports (GO PACKERS!!), you are a complete and total social isolate. You might as well be a three-eyed purple monster from the planet Tralfamadore. I’m alienated, isolated and alone. I’m just so sick of it all. I want out. But I don’t see any road ahead that doesn’t end in a corporate cubicle or struggling at a minimum wage job working with typical American beer-swilling lunkheads (and I’ve had both). But sadly, if you come from no money and have no family, there aren’t many other options, and it’s not like there’s a safety net in this savage, brutal country. The whip and the lash of utter destitution is always at your back, keeping you trapped in your current existence if you don’t have familial wealth

      At the end of the day I’m still a complete and total social isolate who hates where he lives, hates his job, hates his career, doesn’t like his neighbors, has no friends, no intimate relationships, no family to speak of, and feels pretty confident staying here means continuing that situation in perpetuity. This is why I describe my life as a failure. Ironically – even though I tell people the measure of success is not money or possessions, but happiness, liking what you do, and friends, my life is an utter failure on all those fronts.

      My interview last week just put into sharp focus that alienation, the feeling that I don’t belong, and the fact that I’m living someone else’s expectations and value system. I just don’t know what else to do with my life. Right now, all I do is go through the motions. I just feel utterly alone, lost, scared, trapped and hopeless.

    2. Yikes. First, get out of the vicious circle, ey?... depression is a trap. You don't have to stay in it; you can choose to step out into the next moment, and chances are good that the next moment won't suck or will suck less.

      But more to the point, what do you want? What *would* give you joy? What would it look like if you lived your own "expectations" and values?

      Rooting for you from West Virginia...

  4. I am also a cubicle wage-slave, and have been for about a quarter-century. I've learned a few hard lessons, such as do not stay in your job for more than a few years at a time, because more and more work will gravitate your way as you become more expert at solving workplace problems. Stress increases in direct proportion to time served, and this leads to an increasing focus on the negative, which can lead to all sorts of physical and mental problems, such as overeating, alcoholism, anxiety attacks, and antidepressants. Best to keep moving around.

    I worked in securities sales for a number of years after college, it was all I could find, and I was terrible at it, too honest. I became quite depressed and couldn't see a way out. Two things helped: 1) Now don't roll your eyes at this: I studied Buddhism and some other stuff, and it turns out that even a casual study of a spiritual discipline mysteriously provides a positive "energy boost" that can alter circumstances. It turned out that the cage I'd become trapped in didn't have a ceiling. 2) I bottomed out, let go, let it be, stopped trying to make something happen, or in my case, not happen. I got out of my own way.

    What was the next floor up from sales? Unfortunately, it turned out to be office cubicle life, where I've remained trapped ever since. A lot better than sales, even so. But my problem, like yours, is that I cannot see a way out, and so I rot.

    But you are already in a soul deprivation tank, so the next floor up might be interesting. If I could move up a floor, so can you.

  5. Okay. My last job, six years ago, was as a case manager in the local community mental health center, where I learned some things about depression. I told my clients they needed to do two things they didn't feel like doing while depressed: exercise and socialize, because both help alleviate depression.
    I used to tell myself that if I ever felt suicidal, I should hitchhike across country in a red dress, my metaphor for doing something to totally shake up your life. Sounds like you have nothing to lose in saying fuck architecture, fuck Wisconsin, taking your savings and going somewhere else--and likely somewhere south or west, in January, would help with more literal sunshine. You are in a trap partly of your own making, seeing bars that are not actually there, saying like Margaret Thatcher, There Are No Alternatives, when actually there are lots of alternatives--but they're hard to see when you're depressed. It's so dark in there.
    For me, the best choice was homesteading. My husband works at home, earning a small income doing website management; my part is to grow as much as possible of our own food to reduce the money we need. gardening is therapeutic for a lot of people, I among them. And I hate cities. This might not be for you. But there are other alternatives to a regular job; clearly you are highly intelligent, which ought to open up possibilities even if you don't have credentials. You need to think about what you would LIKE doing, what your talents are, etc. But it's hard to think clearly when you're depressed--your judgment sucks. I noticed, for example, that your last paragraph turns your alienation in the job interview scenario in on yourself--instead of saying, "What am i doing here with these people? I don't want this job, these people would bore me to tears, I don't belong here," you say "I don't have the accouterments of the straight, middle American lifestyle so I don't measure up and don't belong here." A negative self-assessment is another part of depression. But clearly you are smart, and more than that, you have depth--that's why you're screaming, your soul is getting pinched so hard in that ill-smelling cage. But the bars are largely illusory: there are other jobs, there are other ways of making money than having a job, there are other ways of living than spending money.

  6. Listen to Vera and Mary. You arent trapped. Take off to another place. Live a hand to mouth experience in a foreign country. Maybe South America? You wont starve, in fact you will meet new people. What do you have to lose ?

  7. Life can certainly be pretty grim even if during economic booms. Personally my low expectations keep me from getting too crazy. I also come from a religious background, I’ll keep silent on which religion, that is pretty grim which in an odd way keeps me sort of sane as well. If you have really low expectations and are also embedded in mythological universe that says something like “what you see is what you get and there’s really not much more to it and even if there is you can’t experience it as a human begin so just do what you are supposed to do” then you either go nuts because it’s not supposed to be like that, or you are lucky and life is good and you don’t care, or you get used to life as it is. Not exactly an uplifting message and probably not what you would be told if you questioned a fellow believer about his or her religion but basically I think I’m being fair to the tradition. I try not to take myself and certainly not my religion too seriously but I also avoid cynicism life is what it is and things do change for better and for worse and it won’t be fair at least not in any way that would make sense to a sane human being but we can still take joy in some of it and other parts of it we can avoid at least some of the time. Stories about how everyone who tries really hard wins in the end at one end and cynicism at the other neither do much for my sanity and both are staples of mass media. It’s either hopeless or every good boy does fine. I have met many examples of really heroic people who did some really wonderful and ethical things but never anyone who was both heroic and successful in a traditional way. I have met some people who hid their heroism behind a successful front of some sort (people boring away from within) but they were certainly not happy.

    I was without a job for a couple years during a relatively benign economic period, during which I applied for at least 4 jobs every day (yes every day!), and didn’t really get a job again until the housing bubble starting really picking up steam. The housing bubble is also the one piece of luck that allowed me to get rid of my student loans that had ballooned to unbelievable proportions. One thing about not having attachments is that you can try almost anything once you have a decent job it becomes hard to live without one especially if you happen to have a family of any sort at all. Having people around you to support you is good but also difficult in a post-modern world. I had lots of friends before I was married but afterwards I focused primarily on my wife that’s what most people did and then one day I realized that I didn’t have any real friends at all at least none within a day’s drive and very few of those. When I did have friends what brought them to me was my generosity my willingness to spend time and whatever little else I had on them but later I drew a much tighter circle around myself and my family, keeping my time and resources close to home, and I think that’s when I started to lose friends. If you are aware of how ridiculous life and work are under the current socioeconomic regime then at least, I hope, you have humor. I live in the frigid N. myself and I’m none too infatuated with the below zero temperatures that are frequent in the winter. Wish you the best of luck with your search for work meaningful or not sometimes we just have to do what we can.

  8. You know, back in 2008 or so, I assumed this architecture gig would fall apart. And when I got my license, I thought, “I’ve achieved the architecture goal, I’ve gone as far as I can with that, now what?” I assumed that circumstances would force my hand. So I saved everything I could and bided my time (some of those savings, wisely or not ,ended up in a house). But things never fell apart, not in the way I expected. So when I write about why people sometimes secretly *want* things to fall apart, I speak from personal experience. But there was no falling apart. There has been no “now what?” There has been no sign.

    Given all the bad things that have happened in my life and the unfortunate circumstances I grew up in (which, of course, readers don’t know about), it’s hard for me to believe in “leap and the net will appear.” It’s one thing if you have a family or a soft place to fall. Most people can just move back in with their parents, or at least a sibling. I realized that has been why a great deal of my life has been lived in a state of fear. But is the fear real?

    Anonymous (1) - Funny you should say that – I have a class in mindfulness meditation starting tomorrow!

    Mary - Our society is very good at creating invisible chains. Homesteading’s a great idea, but not for everyone. Personally, I like cities, but it’s what I’m used to (most architects like cities by inclination). For me homesteading would be too lonely and isolating. When I bought my house, I had thought once I paid it off things would be easier. But I do not want to say here, and I realized when I was out West how much of my unhappiness comes from where I am (not that your location is everything, but a change of scenery and a fresh start are important to get out of a rut).

    Meester - Chris Ryan has some great advice on Tangentially Speaking this week (Phil Zuckerman). It’s one of those times when it feels like he’s talking directly to me. Have a listen and tell me what you think. South America is enticing, especially since I speak Spanish, but I’m saving for a permanent move first, and in a foreign country I would not be able to work legally.

    Anonymous (2) – Yes, the economic situation is a bummer. I was unemployed myself for about a year after the September 11 attacks and lived at home – a situation I absolutely do not want to repeat. Sounds like you’re in a good situation now with a family. I find that friendship in America is nonexistent. Americans are different – what few friends I do have are either European or have lived there. There is just something *different*about American culture, and not in a good way. Sometimes it seems like Americans really are soulless, petty, social-climbing, sports and status obsessed idiot savants. And in my experience, the farther you get from the coasts the worse that is.

    BTW - There must be some weird serendipity here – I’m being sent to California next week for a couple of day- San Francisco, not Los Angeles. It’s totally out of the blue. I’ve dropped several hints that I would have no problems staying there longer. A good sign?

    What would my ideal situation be? Probably doing this – writing for a living. How to go about that I’ve no idea. For some reason I have a much easier time writing blog posts than putting together a book, for which I have too many ideas and too little follow-through (a common problem, I know). The closest things to a message are what I received when I was in Topanga. And yes, that has been something I’ve been integrating a while. But I’m a planner by nature. Let’s just say I’m a big fan of the Shawshank Redemption….


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