The Bullshit of Modern Work

The simple, yet counterintuitive, idea that many of the jobs in the modern workplace are completely useless is at once profoundly obvious and deeply subversive. Even more ludicrous is that the more value your job brings to society, the less you’re likely to earn. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what a capitalist system ought to produce, yet exists it does. David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, which morphed out of his online essay, ended up being a paradigm shifting read rather than the leftist rant I expected.

Defining bullshit

Bullshit should be taken seriously as a real anthropological phenomenon and requires a proper scientific definition.

anything that serves no real purpose, and the absence of which would go mostly unnoticed even by those in close proximity to it.

Writing SEO texts that no human will ever read or find useful is bullshit in the academic sense. It’s important not to confuse this with shitty.

something that is unpleasant regardless of its utility.

Cleaning toilets can be shitty, but it’s definitely not bullshit.

The ubiquity of bullshit jobs

It’s pretty clear that modern life would cease to function were a certain set of fundamental jobs to disappear: plumbers, medical workers, bus driver and garbage collectors to name a few. Other jobs don’t share this distinction. Were the mushrooming class of college administrators and marketers to suddenly stop showing up to the office, few would notice their absence. That’s not to say that office workers spend 100% of their time engaged in meaningless pursuits, although it’d be realistic to say a good half or more of the day is whittled away on social media, box ticking or attending pointless meetings.

This is precisely the opposite of what a capitalistic system ought to produce. In theory, capitalism is supposed to be the ultimate bullshit detector—why would investors allow this systemic proliferation of non-productive work? There’s no central committee demanding full employment and the resulting three cashiers to ring up a loaf of bread. There’s been a slight of the hand, to say the least.

The productive classes have been squeezed by the cruel mechanisms of optimization and reduced to outright slavery in many cases: agricultural workers in the West, Asian factory workers, nurses working grueling 12-hour shifts or ‘disrupted’ taxi drivers that work without medical insurance, paid-time-off or a pension.

Feudalism is the ultimate rentier capitalism

There’s something suspiciously feudal about this arrangement: The masses toil away, a good chunk of what they produce is whisked away by an unproductive lord and this produce is shared with an entourage that also does nothing but whose presence and size dictate the status of the lord. This explains away the existence of a good chunk of bullshit jobs as the vanity projects of the modern equivalent of the feudal lord.

Since I work in marketing, it’s easy to see. Good, sharp copy gets thrown out while useless copy is published all the time, even if it’ll never be read. I worked in a company that took this to the extreme. When I left, they had nearly 400 employees, although it seemed like less than a dozen actually did any serious work on the product. I later came across a company with a similar product that had three developers.

Perhaps one of the most incisive points of the book got relatively little ink, but it’s worth quoting in full:

One possible reason for [bullshit’s] proliferation might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism—or at least, isn’t any sort of capitalism that would be recognizable from the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman. It is increasingly a system of rent extraction where the internal logic—the system’s “laws of motion,” as the Marxists like to say—are profoundly different from capitalism.

To drive this point home, data show that a large and growing sector of the economy derives from fees and rent that aren’t tied to providing any utility.

This is a profoundly disturbing realization. The productive classes are exploited by the upper echelons of society, the metaphorical 1%. This extreme upper class then creates an entire army of bullshit jobs meant to further extract rent from the productive classes to produce vanity projects.

Bullshit is spiritual violence

When the typical white collar worker lands a job that is mostly bullshit, there’s little joy to be had in doing nothing while receiving an upper-middle class salary. Graeber terms this spiritual violence. This runs contrary to many assumptions in industrialized societies.

The Christian worldview, which still predominates in post-Christian Europe, holds to the pernicious idea of original sin. Essentially, if people are left to their own devices, they’d be lazy, leeches and all manner of evil. There’s precious little data to back up this fundamental belief of Christendom, yet it has guided management philosophy for the past century.

There’s no disputing that in a world without meaningful work, the average person wouldn’t spend 60 hours at a desk each week making motivational presentations about how to improve conversions by .01%. Forcing someone to do so by making it the only way to earn a reasonable living is spiritual violence.

Sure, it’s fun having nothing to do for a day or two, but the novelty wears off sooner rather than later. It’s probably not a coincidence that the spike in depression, anxiety and other disorders of malaise has happened right as meaningless work has proliferated.

A number I keep seeing is four hours a day. The brain is capable of really being engaged four hours a day, pre-moderns average four hours a day of work while progressive companies are experimenting with four-ish hours of work a day. Historically we worked in bursts around harvesting and planting with long breaks with only a few hours a day of active work. The 40-hour workweek doesn’t map to this natural rhythm, but companies are largely afraid to simply let people work when there’s work and go about their lives when there isn’t.

This likely harkens back to our deeply engrained sense of original sin. Without a task master cracking the whip and military style discipline, many fear that humans would simply stop working. In any system there would be some level of abuse, say 5% or whatever, but people want to be productive. It’s in our inherent nature to be useful, help others and feel like we’re part of society. Anthropologists observe this in cultures across the world.

Work without bullshit

I’m not as optimistic as Graeber that universal basic income would eliminate bullshit. Instead, we’d see a good chunk of people not really know what to do with themselves and spiral into a cycle of smoking, video games, drinking, meaninglessness, isolation, depression and death. Simply put, not everyone could collect UBI and then write poetry, create music and socialize all day.

Instead I’d like to see a feature with less work, say an average of 20 hours a week with some allowance for seasonal fluctuations. This isn’t radical Marxism or anarchy. It’s old school capitalism, producing something of value and making a profit off of it:

  1. A five-hour workday in practice
  2. A CEO’s manifesto for remote work
  3. Reinventing Organizations, a concept for worker autonomy

In both of my professions, teaching and marketing, it’s certainly doable to just work less. I don’t see why some sort of hybrid with UBI wouldn’t be a viable option, we’d still strive for something akin to full employment but with a target of 10–20 hours per week. A proper tax scheme would disincentivize rent extraction, provide universal healthcare, higher education and a safety net.

Second and third order bullshit

Another topic that is briefly mentioned, but Graeber could have delved into deeper is the idea of second order bullshit. Because so many people are spending the majority of their waking hours looking at cat memes at work, whole industries have sprung up to deal with the acute lack of time for basic necessities. David Cain explores how working fewer hours meant he spent much less money.

If I worked 20 hours a week, I’d cook nutritious meals most days, spend a lot more time working out, read more books and nurture the social ties that are most important to me. The second order bullshit jobs of fast food workers that feed me would be greatly reduced. The third order of bullshit jobs, health professionals that have to treat my fat ass from eating all that fast food would also be eliminated. Once you start doing this across the board, you’d have a much healthier and happier society.

The paradigm shift

Even if you don’t agree with all the points and conclusions that Graeber comes to, I’d still recommend the book. I hope the conversation only grows about the ethical problems of rentier capitalism and how much human potential our current system is wasting. You don’t have to be a radical leftist to appreciate this. In fact, anyone who’d like to enjoy life a bit more or simply run a more efficient business would do well to reflect more on just how much we’re buried in bullshit.