Dead Work

Polish Amazon workers protest the arrival of Jeff Bezos at Axel Springer. Berlin, April 2018.

No problem is so central to everyday life in the modern world as that of work, although its manifestations vary widely depending on one’s location in the global topography of production and consumption. If the central issue of David Graeber’s latest book, Bullshit Jobs, is a phenomenon specific to postindustrial society, it is nonetheless true that the broader implications of his argument spiral outwards, making contact with the broader reaches the productive processes in late capitalism.

Graeber’s work is an excellent illustration of the way that modern anthropology brings powerful analytical tools to bear on the structures and organisation of modern societies. His first book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a tour de force, defetishising the language of debt in the modern society. In the long stretch of human history, debt has been a means of creating and confirming social relations, of building solidary relationships within and between social groups. Graeber highlighted the ways that modern financialised capitalism transformed debt into a sort of morality play, functioning both to obscure and to support the role of debt in the emerging structures of postindustrial capital reproduction.

Graeber’s second book, The Utopia of Rules, undertook a similar process of unmasking. In a series of essays, Graeber examined the ways that rules function in the context of societies increasingly organised along neoliberal lines. Once again, the central theme was an irony underlying the self-presentation of the system. While neoliberalism is invariably presented as a means of stripping away unnecessary restraints on the development of economic forces as a means of unleashing as yet unseen capacities for economic growth, the reality is that the system can’t operate without increasing rather than diminishing the quantity and intrusiveness of the rules that govern human life.

In 2013, Graeber published an essay entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” in Strike!, a small leftist journal. In it, he identified a phenomenon which he held to be characteristic of the late industrial society: jobs for which there is no actual purpose. These were not just meaningless jobs, like flipping burgers or waiting tables, but rather jobs that involved doing work that obviously didn’t need to be done in the first place, or simply doing no work at all.

The response was remarkable. Graeber was contacted by a large number of people eager to tell their stories of reports compiled and never read, of layers of bureaucracy devoted to moving a computer from one room to another, or of answering one or two phone calls a week while spending the rest of one’s time merely holding down a chair. These jobs shared a couple of common features. One was their soul-crushing quality. Much as it might be hard to believe in the abstract, it turns out that it is remarkably stressful spend the bulk of one’s time doing something that someone considers to be intrinsically valueless, even when the actual work process itself is not terribly difficult.

Alexa isn’t working for them. Berlin, April 2018.

A second common factor was that, on the rightward end of the political spectrum, the general view was that these sorts of jobs could not exist. Well, perhaps in government bureaucracies, in which gluttony, sloth, and all of the other mortal sins prevailed unchecked because of the absence of market discipline. But under competitive conditions, the argument went, such inefficiencies would not be tolerated. Sooner or later, the rationalising pressures of competition would root out any element of an enterprise which did not strictly and materially contribute to the achievement of its broader ends. More likely, Graeber’s critics held, this was simply a matter of cogs in the machine not understanding the role that they were playing in a complex and multifaceted enterprise. Rebutting these claims was one of the main motivations that Graeber cites for expanding the essay into a fully-fledged book.

As with Graeber’s other works, Bullshit Jobs is clearly and engagingly written. Its investigative procedure is that of collecting oral histories, solicited by Graeber via Twitter and other social media, and then attempting to interpret or decode them. An unsympathetic critic of the book might look at this and argue that the testimonies that Graeber received are self-selecting and not extensive enough to support his more expansive claims. These include that a significant proportion (perhaps approaching 50%) of jobs in modern postindustrial economies are of the bullshit variety. Given then a further large proportion are of the simply shit variety, we are confronted with the prospect of a society in which the majority of people are doing work that both doesn’t need to be done and crushes the souls of those who do it.

Graeber defines a bullshit job as, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as a part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obligated to pretend that this is not the case.” Graeber wishes to distinguish this sort of work from that which simply sucks, but the common pointlessness of both shit and bullshit jobs is that, to a great extent, they could simply be automated away. The distinction really seems to rest in the fact that jobs of the bullshit variety tend not to serve anyone. Even a burger flipper contributes in some (minimal and generally unwholesome) way to the satisfaction of a discrete human need. The jobs categorised by Graeber as bullshit lack even this ground. And yet, as the definition makes clear, the holders of these jobs can neither acknowledge their absurdity nor freely engage in actions unrelated to the job to pass the time or ease the psychic strain.

The ideology that underlies these jobs is fundamentally connected to the Puritan work ethic the suffuses western European and (particularly) American culture. As Peter Fleming argued persuasively in The Death of Homo Economicus, the proposition that work of whatever kind is good, full stop, is central to the culture of the West (if one may be excused for employing such an admittedly fraught term). Thus, the act of criticising the content of one’s job takes on a somewhat heretical tinge when it makes its way into public discourse, and one doesn’t have to look too far to find the latest think piece on the deficiencies in the modern work ethic.

Fleming’s book made the case that work in modern society was predominantly a means of control. Since an increasing proportion of jobs of whatever kind are subject to automation, it makes no sense to oblige actual human beings to do them. Unless that is, one’s goal is to keep them enmeshed in circuits of production and consumption and prevent them from checking out of the system altogether. Graeber argues for a version of this. Indeed, in one of the most interesting and suggestive sections of the book, Graeber argues that modern capitalism is being replaced by a variety of neofeudalism, in which the goal of human action is no longer the meeting human needs but rather the creation of fiefdoms that augment the power of their holders by creating an ever-greater pool of vassals.

In the mode of work that Graeber sees as increasingly prevalent, labour increasingly becomes a sort of ritual enactment. The connection to the production of value becomes abstract. What matters is showing up with the proper attitude and performing the proper steps, irrespective of their material consequences. More and more, the system comes to appear like a machine for dissipating potentially disruptive human energies. If people are allowed to freely study Chinese, or perfect their understanding of polyrhythmic music, they might become disengaged from the process of making things and consuming them so central to the reproduction of capital.

Graeber’s analysis seems to overlap with the of Deleuze in his widely cited Postscript on the Societies of Control. There, Deleuze argued that modern societies were moving away from the disciplinary model described by Foucault, characterised by spaces of enclosure each with their own productive and disciplinary logic, to societies of control in which behaviour is modulated by free-floating mechanisms not specifically tied to particular spaces. The maintenance of labour discipline over a population whose labour power is increasingly superfluous. What remains is the pure need for control and order.

Graeber’s particular area of investigation relates to educated people not engaged in industrial labour. Clearly, there is an important distinction to be made here, since the situation of such people is distinct in important ways from that of both people doing shit jobs in the postindustrial world, and those subjected to primary exploitation in the zones into which industrial production has been shunted. All of these cases are linked by the fact that they could mostly be replaced by robots. The fact that they have not speaks to the need for social control that keeping people engaged in the labour process serves. What makes the cases studied by Graeber different, and important, is the light they cast on the elements of the circuits of capital reproduction which contribute nothing and still persist.

Bullshit Jobs is an entertaining and important work. It makes a number of crucial points about the propensity of neoliberalism to produce precisely the sorts of inefficiencies and absurdities that its partisans are so eager criticise. If Graeber’s thesis about the prevalence of this sort of work is perhaps not rigorously demonstrated, he nonetheless points out some absolutely crucial features of modern advanced economies, showing that they are not tangential to the system, but rather natural and increasingly common developments.

Presented with humour and a sort of bemused optimism, Graeber’s insights on the nature of work in modern society do an excellent job of stripping away the complex self-descriptions of neoliberal capitalism, and in this respect, this work is of a piece with his larger project. No one knows who will occupy this cage in the future. As Graeber’s work shows, the proposition that it will be specialists without spirit and sensualists without heart now seems a little optimistic.