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Bullshit Jobs: A Theory Hardcover – 15 May 2018
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Spectacular and terrifyingly true. David Graeber's theory of the broken capitalist workforce is right - work has become an end in itself. A timely book from the most provocative anthropologist and thinker of our time. (Owen Jones)
Praise for The Democracy Project: 'Clear, pungent and right ... a compact and incisive account of why capitalism has run with such a smash into the buffers' (Times Higher Education)
Graeber's talent is to take big concepts and unpack them, forcing us to examine their implications for society ... the book is a cool drink of water after so much dry, academic writing on the "revolutions" of 2011' (New Statesman)
Captures the joys and fears of a movement (Observer)
The most influential radical political thinker of the moment (New Yorker)
From the Inside Flap
Be honest: if your job didn't exist, would anybody miss it? Have you ever wondered why not? Up to 40% of us secretly believe our jobs probably aren't necessary. In other words: they are bullshit jobs. This book shows why, and what we can do about it.
In the early twentieth century, people prophesied that technology would see us all working fifteen-hour weeks and driving flying cars. Instead, something curious happened. Not only have the flying cars not materialised, but average working hours have increased rather than decreased. And now, across the developed world, three-quarters of all jobs are in services, finance or admin: jobs that don't seem to contribute anything to society. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber explores how this phenomenon - one more associated with the Soviet Union, but which capitalism was supposed to eliminate - has happened. In doing so, he looks at how, rather than producing anything, work has become an end in itself; the way such work maintains the current broken system of finance capital; and, finally, how we can get out of it.
This book is for anyone whose heart has sunk at the sight of a whiteboard, who believes 'workshops' should only be for making things, or who just suspects that there might be a better way to run our world.See all Product description
From the Publisher
37% people in the UK believe their jobs don't make a meaningful contribution to the world
'There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves.
We have become a civilisation based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance from their communities. The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities is to rankle with resentment over the fact there might be others out there who are not in the same trap. As a result, hatred, resentment, and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together.
This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end. If this book can in any way contribute to that end, it will have been worth writing.'
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Evidence is anecdotal at best: individual emails or, unbelievably, posts from internet fora where anyone can pose as anything. The BS-job-definition underpinning the book - it's BS if the person having the job believes it to be - is pure strategic genius, as it deflects all critique. Unfortunately, it's methodologically ridiculous in all its naive relativism. The obvious ramifications are left entirely unaddressed: CEOs, bankers, military (BS-job examples the author uses) do not acknowledge their job as such; engineers and SW developers, instead, often fall over each other to do that. (Annoyingly, I'm also a hands-on engineer; so are my half a dozen colleagues who read the book.) The figures (all two of them) are a joke: still unsure what Figure 1 supposedly shows, but it's neither trend (two datapoints, one year apart) nor that >50% of work is BS (unless emails, good and bad meetings, admin tasks and more are BS; anyone with teamwork experience can disprove that). Equally annoying are the straw men the authors insists on knocking down (Douglas Adams's hairdressers), as well as his abysmal ignorance of e.g. SW (industrial SW means duct-taping together open-source SW? for real?!). Again, should know better than have an anthropologist lecture me about SW.
All in all, a waste of time and money if you're a trained scientist/engineer or simply partial about substantiated claims. If you insist on wasting the former, I'll save you the latter by sending you my copy (lightly annotated before giving up). Even better, just read Graeber's original essay; the book adds nothing to it anyhow.
Graeber’s defines a BS 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 part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case’. He also says that ‘Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not particularly good at’. He provides plenty of examples, cabinetmakers compelled to fry fish is one of them. There is the story of a corporate lawyer who went on to become a happy singer in an indie rock band when he became disillusioned with his job as a corporate lawyer. He had taken ‘the default choice of many directionless folk: law school’ but has found his job as a lawyer to be ‘utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist’.
Some such BS jobs are so pointless that no one notices even if the employee vanishes. One case involved a Spanish civil servant who skipped work for six years to study philosophy and became an expert in Spinoza before he was found out. In another case, an employee had been sitting at his desk, dead for four days before his colleagues realised that he had died.
BS jobs can also be defined by the scope of work. People who are employed in jobs that exist primarily to make someone else look or feel important are known as ‘flunkies’. Doormen are examples in this category. There are also ‘goons’ who exist only because people employ them – soldiers, for example; and ‘duct-tapers’ who are employed to help one part of an organisation communicate with another in the same organisation.
In addition to financial consultancy, middle management is where one might find BS jobs aplenty. A sign that you have a job like this is when you are designated to provide ‘strategic leadership’. This is what Graeber has to say in middle management in academia:
‘Now, those of us toiling in the academic mills who still like to think of ourselves as teachers and scholars before all else have come to fear the word “strategic”. “Strategic statement” (or even worse, “strategic vision documents”) instil a particular terror, since these are the primary means by which corporate management techniques – setting up quantifiable methods for assessing performance, forcing teachers and scholars to spend more and more of their time assessing and justifying what they do and less and less time actually doing it – are insinuated into academic life’.
Graeber interviewed employees from various sectors. From one he quoted, ‘in banking, obviously the entire sector adds no value and is therefore BS’. Then there is the Human Resources Department that sets up intranet and instruct employees to make it ‘into a kind of internal “community”, like Facebook. They set it up; nobody uses it. So they then started to try and bully everyone into using it…Then they tried to entice people in by having HR post a load of touchy-feely crap or people writing “internal blogs” that nobody cared about.’
Graeber argues that the rise of such jobs was not due to economic factors but political and moral ones. He discusses how jobs can truly have value, and how exactly can value be measured. What is clear that we must resist ‘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’.
The last part of the book is devoted to answering the question, ‘How have so many humans reached the point where they accept that even miserable, unnecessary work is actually superior to no work at all?’ From there Graeber discusses the modern culture of managerial feudalism and the resentment it generates, yet is itself oblivious to it.
If Graeber is right that this is not an economic problem but a political and moral one, then the solution cannot be economic either. Unfortunately, Graeber is loath to make policy recommendations. That keeps us then, in utter suspense – unless workers revolt.