Not really completely sure what I expected to get out of this book but I gotta say, every page was a surprise. In a sense, it starts with compassionate listening - people sharing about how much they hate their jobs because they find now sense of purpose or meaning in it, and then from there, he proceeds to dismantle the entire capitalist-western-democracy-edifice, one accepted brick of commonly-held wisdom at a time.
It took me a while to get through this and I only just now finished on the plane to Seattle. So I need to refresh what I was reading about. I think it would be best to look at the chapter titles and section summaries (which, with Graeber, are always entertaining in their own right.)
Book Report on Bullshit Jobs, a theory by the late, great David Graeber.
This book had so many ideas in it and it stirs up a lot of stuff and I read it in two parts - finishing the last 1/3 on the plane out to Seattle (and now I’m writing this on the plane back). So first of all my disclaimer I use with other people is that you don’t have to agree with everything he says, after all he’s an admitted and avowed anarchist. But I think that’s a bit dismissive and letting people off the hook, ie, because of the name of the book and the author’s extremist leanings, you don’t really have to take it seriously, haha, and don’t imagine for a second that I do. But as for the book, a lot of the questions are absolutely spot on, logical and society-changing if we could address them; and as for being an “anarchist” - well, after talking the ahimsa course and the encouragement to think of what your Utopia looks like, sounds pretty good to me.
Anyway, the book started because he wrote an essay called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for a radical magazine called Strike! The response was so overwhelming that concept went instantly viral with people writing to describe their own bs jobs - which he used as the raw material to write the book. So basically, I’ll just go through chapter by chapter and give a quick summary. This is in no wise meant to be a substitute for reading the book, as many of the most thought-provoking elements are sub-threads or sociological/economic theoretical asides from the main topic.
Chapter 1. What is a bullshit job?
A bullshit job is not something that someone else judges as detrimental or useless. For example, the first section is entitled “Why a mafia hitman is a bad example of a bs job” and he also uses Douglas Adams’ making fun of hairdressers as another example of a job that’s not necessarily bs because you’re performing a creative service. A bs job is pretty subjective but basically it’s a job that seems pointless to the person doing it and is definitely depressing and unfulfilling and seems to have no actual purpose - after all, who would know better than the jobholder themselves?
Chapter 2. What sorts of bullshit jobs are there?
There are five. Flunkies, Goons, Duct Tapers, Box Tickers and Taskmasters. I think this is self-explanatory, but flunkies are there being useless, doing meaningless task so that someone who has money and/or power can boss them around; goons enforce meaningless rules; duct tapers fix shit that’s probably not even a valid system or group activity to begin with; box tickers - yeah, we all know what that is, because even if it isn’t your only job, more and more of us are asked to do more and more bureaucratic box checking, simply as part of our regular non-bs jobs all the time; finally, a taskmaster is just a middle-management person, and no doubt a flunky for someone op the foodchain.
Chapter 3. Why do Those in BS jobs Regularly Report themselves unhappy?
This chapter gets into the concept of spiritual violence, and how shitty we all feel when we don’t have a purpose and he goes back in time to show that the very concept of buying and selling our time, as if it’s a thing, is pretty new in the human experience and sort of sets us up to feel like we’re just cogs. This is the best part of this book, because it brings up stuff you haven’t thought about - I hadn’t thought about time-as-a-commodity and how dehumanizing that could be. (And yet I time everything, from meditation to work …)
Chapter 4. What is it like to have a bs job?
(on spiritual violence, part 2) This chapter just basically goes through the ways that people deal with it - probably the chapter that draws most heavily on the case studies in the form of letters and emails that people wrote. Some people find other things to do - writing plays or contributing to Wikipedia while they’re getting paid. Etc.
Chapter 5. Why are bs jobs proliferating?
This is where it starts to get interesting cuz we’re getting into conclusion-land. People think that bureaucracy is the government and socialism and the epitomy of bs jobs would be the old Soviet Union (“we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”) But the rise of the new bs jobs really started in the 80s with the urge toward privatization. You would think that this wouldn’t have eliminated bs but it actually increased it. One, because there’s no this money out there and people aren’t really interested in getting the job done, but rather in creating processes of man hours and then going and getting funding for those people hours. So the bigger your staff of consultants, the more money in play, the more money made by those at the top of the foodchain - but like I said, no real work is getting done. Its just people checking boxes, making tasks, enforcing rules without purpose - doing bullshit without a true purpose in mind. The movie industry and primarily the financial industry are given prominence here as examples non parallel.
Chapter 6. Why do we as a society not object to the growth of pointless employment?
Basically, this goes back to ye olde “protestant work ethic” “work as a virtue in its own right” - “oh yeah, we’re all working so hard and so unhappy and super happy about it because we’re working so hard and that’s how we find value in life even if that value is hard to pin down.” Yeah, but there are a lot of interesting threads to pull out here. First of all, he goes into pinning down the actual tradeable value of what we do and how anomalous that is. Secondly, he goes into the seeming inverse relationship of the level of meaningfulness in a job and your monetary compensation. For example, teachers - useful job, low pay. Financial CEO, totally useless, highly compensated. (his judge of usefulness being thus: if that class of person were to disappear off the face of the earth, how fucked would we be? Teachers and garbage collectors - we’d be very fucked. Advertisers and finance guys? We might be better off.) From this, he goes on a minor tangent about moral envy - that sense that we resent teachers and others of the “coastal elite” because they think they’re better than us, and therefore since they actually have meaning in their lives and get to be useful and creative, they have no right to ask to be paid. He then goes into a little economic history and how capital-ism grew as a way to redistribute wealth from the landed gentry, but then because a way to exploit labor. Along came Marx, with his theories and the labor theory of value - basically, pointing out that the wealth of the robber barons was based on the effort of the proletariat. But then, the capital-ists turned that on it’s head and said, you can work and then you get a better life - look at all these things you can “consume!” and then the capitalist/consumerist model was born, where we all work at job we hate so we can have Big Gulps, jetskis and Netflix and destroy the world even as we numb the pain.
Chapter 7. What are the Political Effects of BS jobs is there anything that can be done about this situation?
By this time in the book, his nomenclature is full developed - “managerial feudalism” vs. “The Caring Classes” - and I’ll just kinda riff here my conclusions and may or may not clearly communicate Graeber’s.
Managerial feudalism is of course, the creation of economic empires of bs; there are piles of money out there, either created by extra profits or govt subsidies, and the bs empires expand to fit. Instead of just having people work less when we have more profits, let’s just hire more consultants and middle managers. It’s sort of a sneaky social welfare program because what’s the alternative? We all just hang out?
The caring classes comes out of this notion that our labor actually can’t be quantified. What we do as humans can’t be done by robots, and the rise of robots and systemization doesn’t actually save labor but creates more bs jobs. What we mean by “caring” in this instance is not necessarily giving a shit, but actually caring for other people. The example being ticket takers on the London Tube - it’s fine if they are replaced by machines if everyone’s healthy, not disabled, old or young or tourists from Akron.
While admitting that it’s a book that simply points out out a problem, in the end he does offer one solution (even though he is at great pains to qualify it, because he doesn’t want the book to be dismissed as simply a book about Universal Basic Income - but his premise is that if we uncouple work from “making a living” then a lot of these problems will disappear.
I would add that if we had free college education, then our young people wouldn’t be in debt. That would eliminate a lot of bullshit.
If we had universal healthcare, that would eliminate a lot more bullshit.
What a personally took from the book:
1)I think I have a clearer view of what my utopia looks like. Lotsa art, with an educated populace with an emphasis on learning, science, community, kindness, cooperation, an appreciation of beauty, simplicity and the creative arts.
2)Leisure is a good thing.
3)I don’t think being “driven” is really that cool. Just seems to create drama. Whatevs. Let’s hang out.