I just finished listening to David Graeber’s recent work — actually, from an academic perspective, it’s pretty much a masterpiece — ‘Bullshit Jobs‘. Why is it a masterpiece? Well, because, for an academic book, it’s actually funny (and on a very serious subject.) Until you start crying. The book is also multi-level, looking at the specifics of Bullshit Jobs, as well as exploring the systemic issues. Graeber does not come from the social class that spawns classical academics. He subtly covers the basis of this, though you have to connect the dots to see that Graeber, the son of a printer, and actual, real-life activist, does not live in the Ivory Tower. He does give himself some labels — some anarcho-anti-capitalist — but mostly, he’s rational. And he thinks. And believes in independently generated, relational dynamics. Which is a good thing. Graeber is writing from a position of deep empathy.
The book starts by laying out the definition of a Bullshit Job — which is basically a job where the person doesn’t produce anything, and knows that their job produces nothing of benefit to larger society, or even their organization. There are five kinds of Bullshit Jobs — Flunky, Goon, Duct-taper, Taskmaster, and Box-Ticker — and places them in the context of the corporate hierarchy — necessary for destroying agency to produce an incapacity to function.
Graeber’s labels are extremely useful for spreading his ideas, and I like them. He calls the current system ‘managerial feudalism’, and it’s about right. What my work contributes (I agree with Graeber’s assessment of affairs on most everything, though he’s up on the top level of societal description in the Matrix) is that the real problem is the relational disruptive, empathetic devolution inflicted by the social structure is baked into the system. Of course, the bosses are sadomasochists. They have to at least have an edge of psychopathy to do what they do. And in relational systems, like rigid hierarchies, the various strategies to maintain isolation are necessary for maintaining the real goal — stasis of that rigid hierarchy, and control of the people in it. It’s not about the money. It’s a function of the social physics of the system. No one has to do any thinking, because the behavior is, given the resources and the information flow, fundamentally emergent.
And that emergence is why it’s going to be so hard to break. If you’re in a low-performance, status-driven hierarchy, the last thing you’re going to want is to minimize the number of your flunkies, and all the others. It’s not like you’re going to open your organization to the forensic accountants to see exactly how that money is being wasted– even if you’d make more money. How would you look? What would your status be? As shown in the clip above, it’s about sending a message.
If there’s a meta-conclusion from the point of this blog, which is really about creating high performance organizations, when you lard up your organization with people doing busywork, then you don’t leave any energy available for creativity — and thus you ensure stasis. You close those system boundaries so new information not only can’t take hold. It almost can’t get in. Which reinforces the value set that drives the creation of the social structure in the first place. Kings were supposed to reign forever. And as such, Graeber’s coining of the phrase ‘managerial feudalism’ is particularly apt.
Unfortunately, when you do this, you also ensure your extinction — it’s that parthenogenesis thing. For businesses, Geoffrey West in ‘Scale’ calculated this out at around 40 years lifespan. Societies? Not as clear. But with all things it’s evolve or die. Let’s hope Graeber’s more accessible message takes hold. Because (and trust me on this one) he’s got the information physics right. And those suckers don’t lie.