Bullshit Jobs and Blue Collar Frayed: A Review

In 2013 an essay entitled ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ appeared in the radical magazine Strike! Its author was the anthropologist and political activist David Graeber, who sought an answer to a simple question: How is it that developed economies in thrall to ideals of efficiency and high productivity generate so many jobs that even the people who do them regard as pointless? In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the year 2000 workers in developed economies would be working a fifteen-hour week. How could the great economist have got it so spectacularly wrong, and might these ‘bullshit jobs’ have something to do with it?

To say the essay hit a nerve would be to put it mildly. Translated into numerous languages, its premise became the subject of a YouGov poll, which found that 37% of British workers regarded their jobs as meaningless. Meanwhile Graeber himself was inundated with testimonies from exasperated workers eager to confirm his thesis, or at least the assumption underlying it: that for a certain stratum of knowledge workers, pointless busywork was the rule, not the exception. Convinced he was on to something, Graeber began to solicit further testimonies, and to think more deeply on the problem.

The result is Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which combines the abovementioned testimonies with passages of philosophical and political theory. Though not as impressive as Graeber’s last book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, it is a highly original take on a subject that is fast becoming an inescapable modern theme: the nature and availability of work in a rapidly automating economy. To the prophecies of ‘jobocalypse’ on the one hand and Silicon Valley-style Pollyannaism on the other, Graeber adds a tantalising question: Will the price of surviving the coming changes be a job so pointless it wouldn’t be worth doing if there wasn’t a paycheck at the end of it?

Graber defines a bullshit 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’. In other words a bullshit job is precisely the kind of job that capitalism is supposed, over time, to eliminate. Big business and its political proxies are forever spruiking the efficiency of markets, and even their leftwing opponents would agree that capitalism operates by squeezing workers. And yet bullshit jobs proliferate. Why?

One answer – the right-libertarian one – is that it’s all the fault of government bureaucracy: an unsatisfactory explanation. Another is that whole areas of life that were once beyond the purview of the market (leisure activities in particular) have been seized upon by a capitalism hungry for new things to monetise and marketise. But as Graeber suggests it isn’t primarily service jobs that are proliferating but rather managerial and administrative ones. Moreover it is precisely those jobs – HR consultant, communications coordinator etc. – that people appear to regard as bullshit. Bullshit jobs, in the majority of cases, are to be found in the knowledge economy.

For Graeber it follows that the reason for their existence cannot be purely economic; it must also be moral and political. Part of it has to do with what he calls ‘managerial feudalism’, the process whereby self-important executives surround themselves with minions in much the same way that a feudal lord might keep adding to his retinue. This fuels an infatuation with hierarchy, which is further fuelled by the fact that certain organisations can soak up more of the available loot by becoming less efficient, not more. As Graeber puts it: ‘In any political-economic system based on appropriation and distribution of goods, rather than on actually making, moving, or maintaining them, and therefore, where a substantial portion of the population is engaged in funnelling resources up and down the system, that portion of the population will tend to organise itself into an elaborately ranked hierarchy of multiple tiers.’

Other factors are important, too. For example Graeber cites the political consensus that regards more jobs as necessarily A Good Thing and the fact that economics (and hence work) is imbued with quasi-religious meaning, having emerged from moral philosophy, which itself emerged from theology. There is also an interesting disquisition on time, and the way a moral attitude to it came to replace a more practical one derived from natural or seasonal rhythms. To be paid for one’s time, rather than what one produces, is for Graeber a perverse arrangement, and liable to generate busywork of the bullshit-job variety.

Some early reviews of Bullshit Jobs took Graeber to be saying that there is some elite ‘out there’ creating work for all us drudges to do. But while there is an element of that in the book, and certainly in the original essay, this is to oversimplify Graeber’s argument, which attempts to combine (not always convincingly) psychological, historical and political factors. If the book has a failing, it’s that Graeber’s ‘sources’ are obviously self-selecting. The many accounts of pointless work that Graeber takes as his raw material are often highly politicised, which leads one to wonder if these correspondents are really representative. The first third of the book especially has the quality of an echo chamber.

The qualitative research in Jennifer Rayner’s new book, Blue Collar Frayed, is less consciously political, though its political implications are clear. For whereas Graeber is interested in the kind of jobs that arose from the transition to a post-industrial economy, Rayner is concerned with the jobs that have gone, or are going, as a result of the same process. Her book is an intervention on behalf of those who, far from doing the bullshit jobs, would once have been regarded, and regarded themselves, as the heart and soul of the material economy.

Rayner has focussed exclusively on men and their prospects in the new economy. The figures are stark: Australia’s manufacturing industry has shed 33,000 jobs in the last five years alone, while agriculture has shed 15,000 and mining 18,000, with another 30-50,000 predicted to go by 2020. Moreover it’s likely that the real rate of unemployment amongst this cohort is higher than official estimates. Since unemployed blue-collar workers tend to lack ‘transferable skills’ they often stop looking for new work altogether, with the result that they cease to be included in the figures.

There is a tendency on the part of power elites to stress the ‘inevitable’ aspects of this process, and it is here that Rayner’s analysis bites. For while she accepts that automation and globalisation are partly responsible for the high rates of retrenchment amongst blue-collar males, she regards the failure to plan for this outcome as one of policy and political will. For her there is plenty that could have been done, not only to soften the blow to the communities affected by these processes, but also to make Australia’s economy more resilient in the future. Prefabricated housing, medical prostheses, water infrastructure and green technologies are all areas that could benefit both blue-collar workers and Australia as a whole. The failure to invest in these areas is, for Rayner, the crowning disgrace.

Though not as intellectually ambitious as Graeber’s mightier, messier tome, Blue Collar Frayed is an excellent essay on the plight of a crucial section of the workforce. Politicians will sometimes talk as if men who’ve spent their working lives assembling cars or turning lathes will be frictionlessly assimilated into the knowledge and service economy. Rayner calls bullshit on that idea, and does it in style.

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David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Allen Lane; $49.99; 333pp)

Jennifer Rayner: Blue Collar Frayed: Working Men in Tomorrow’s Economy (Black Inc; $22.99; 147pp)

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First published in The Weekend Australian