Bull Shit Jobs – A Theory

An arrow aimed at civilisation.

David Graeber, anthropologist, and progressive thinker, who died so tragically before his time, said of his book, “Bull Shit Jobs – A Theory”: “I want this book to be an arrow aimed at civilisation”.

His arrow has indeed pierced the heart of our civilisation, disfigured as it is by gross inequality and so many millions of lives left pinched and unfulfilled.

David holds up a magic mirror to our way of life, and what he shows us is unsettling and true.

Why are many jobs useless?

The book was inspired by the world-wide reaction to an original essay, written for a new radical magazine, “Strike!”

The essay, David says in his preface, was based on the hunch that all of us know of jobs that do not really seem to do much of anything.

“What”, David asks, “if … (such) … jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are aware of it? … Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning … to perform a task that one secretly believed did not need to be performed … Would this not be a terrible psychic wound running across our society”?

The essay explores this concept to devastating effect. The book expands upon the insights set out there.

Spectacular and terrifying thought experiment

Owen Jones writes of this subversive thought experiment that it is “spectacular and terrifyingly true”.

David outlines the growth of jobs that add nothing meaningful to the world. He refers to corporate lawyers, management consultants, PR, and HR people.

He points out that those jobs which are necessary – nurses, teachers, refuse collectors, carers and so on – are those which are lowly paid and under-valued.

David writes “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it”.

A cruel spell

It as though a spell has beguiled us. Real, productive, workers are “relentlessly squeezed and exploited”.

“The remainder are divided between (the) … terrorised (and) … reviled unemployed, and a large stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has a clear and undeniable social value”.

Hence the shock horror shared, for example, about striking London tube drivers, or striking refuse collectors or teachers.

Going viral

David’s original essay went viral. Polls confirmed that significant numbers of people did, indeed, consider that their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world – 37% in the UK, according to a YouGov Poll, 40% according to a poll in Holland.

Spreading bull-shittery

I would argue that even jobs which might be described as creative, and jobs which support the care or betterment of mankind (such as public health workers, or teachers) have invaded or pervaded by elements of bull shittery.

My daughter, who works in the Creative Arts, has had to put together complex submissions for Arts Council Funding, and has had to master a complex bureaucracy.

One of the members of the Swanage Labour Party, Claire Hodgson, the Director of Two Theatre Companies championing inclusion, likewise has had to spend hours drafting proposals and lobbying fund-holders, rather than rehearsing and outing together new plays and performances.

As a Headteacher, I spent an enormous amount of time devoted to administration and going to endless meetings. I had to draft School Improvement Plan and deploy a multitude of performance indicators. I would receive thousands of e-mails per week.

OFSTED Inspections required all parts of the school learning community to be engaged in hours of data analysis. There were long meetings with Advisors and Inspectors, even “practice Inspections”.

Students were required to know their attainment level in every subject: “I’m 2b in KS3 Maths sir”!

Mark Fisher in “Capitalist Realism” touches upon the make-believe work created by our new culture of target setting and accountability.

Acquiescing to enslavement

David asks us why we think this situation is considered “normal, even desirable”.

“It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our enslavement”, he says.

Corporate lawyer’s last word

I leave the last word to a corporate lawyer from Australia, who responded to David’s original essay:

“Wow! Nail on the head! … I contribute nothing to the world, and am utterly miserable all of the time … Thanks to technology, we are probably as productive in two days as we previously were in five. But thanks to greed and some busy-bee syndrome of productivity, we are still asked to slave away for the profit of others ahead of our own unremunerated ambitions”.

Chris Bradey