David Graeber on Capitalism’s Endless Busywork

Source: In These Times

David Graeber had a hypothesis. The anthropologist grew up working-class in New York, and while his scholarship garnered accolades, he’s never felt at home in the world of academia. From his time as a professor at Yale (ended prematurely, he believes, due to his anarchist activism) to his current gig at the London School of Economics, he kept running into professional managers who didn’t seem to do much. Over drinks, some confessed they actually didn’t do much; they spent a few hours a week working and the rest browsing cat memes.

Graeber developed a suspicion that this was rather common and, in 2013, wrote an essay for Strike! magazine, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” It was just a hypothesis—halfway a joke—but the piece was translated into at least a dozen languages and reprinted all over the internet, where it elicited floods of comments from people saying: “I have a bullshit job.”

A subsequent YouGov survey found that 37 percent of British workers believe their job makes no “meaningful contribution to the world”—more than Graeber expected. So, he dug deeper, soliciting testimonials and researching the political, cultural and economic structures that encourage millions of people to effectively waste 40 hours a week. The result is Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, a playful and provocative take on what he calls “a scar across our collective soul.” In These Times spoke to Graeber about the jobs problem, its causes and the future of capitalism.

How did you determine what counts as a “bullshit job”?

DG: I’m not going to tell anyone who thinks their job is meaningful and important that it isn’t. People weren’t saying, “I market selfie sticks, selfie sticks are stupid, that’s a bullshit job.” They assumed that, if someone actually wants something, then it’s not bullshit. They weren’t judgmental about consumer taste.

A bullshit job is a job that the person doing it believes is pointless, and if the job didn’t exist it would either make no difference whatsoever or it would make the world a better place.

The existence of bullshit jobs seems to cut against the idea that capitalism is efficient and squeezes labor. 

DG: Capitalism treats blue-collar and white-collar wage earners differently than salary earners. Since the 1980s, anybody who has a non-bullshit job, who is doing actual work, has seen their work downsized, sped up and Taylorized.

Simultaneously, capitalism has produced endless bullshit white-collar jobs, which are designed to make you identify with the sensibilities of managers. I call this managerial feudalism, whereby they keep adding more and more and more levels of intermediary executives. If you’re an executive you need to have an assistant or else you’re not important, so they hire these flunkies. It has to do with power, really.

It screws up the creative industries. Movies have seven different levels of executives, who all have these complicated titles. They all fuck with the script and everything turns into mush. People point out this is why movies are so bad now.

Continue reading