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.
6 thoughts on “Quickie Post — David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’”
I once briefly met Graeber at one of these ‘anti-capiitalist’ ‘anarchist’ events where, as usual, he was speaking—- or what be called ‘sharing his erudition’ . These are participatory, democratic, non-hierarchical events (usually held in places like a church on the edge of some the ghetto , where outside most of the people are getting high on cheap malt liquor or dope, while inside is mostly a bunch of hip. trendy college students and ‘intellectuals’, and the class/’race characteristics are different and evident.) The democratic, non-herarchecal , participatoary aspect of metings like this means sit at the feet of the speaker while S/He preaches to the choir, and say something positive, or say nothing at all.
I’ve also interacted with Graeber over WWW ( on infoshop dot org ) . He’s a ‘red diaper baby’ and his father fought in spanish civil war. Despite his humble roots he went to an elite private new england high school ( philllips) and U Chicago, then got a job at Yale, and now is at London school of econ i think.
( LSE also recently admitted to grad school one of the leaders of the ‘unite the right’ rally in charlottesville va / U V where a women was killed and 2 cops died in a crash. This shows if you display good leadership abilities your will succeed and go to LSE. Leading anarchists and fascists are birds of a feather. some of those U Va people also went to Duke which is where N scaffetta is—physicist who denies agw and predicts we are going into an ice age. .)
(Graeber also claims to have invented the phrase ‘we are the 99%’.— graeber after phillips academy, UC, yale and LSE still is in the 99% not the 1%. his bestelling book ‘debt’ probably just earned millions$, not billions$ so he’s still poor and low class. also he is in anthropology at LSE which is low class. his book some have called 5000 pages of anecdotes, and i agree. people like anecdotes, not theory or science.
(In contrast, my parents both graduated from an elite college, and were born with silver spoons in their mouths—my mom was born on a farm with no electricty or running water, and my father only had 2 jobs before college —fighting in 2 wars. I went to near top ranked public schools —ranked 3rd worst in USA—before colege).
apparently his book is an expansion of his Guardian article of same name–bs jobs. His thesis basically originates with Paul Largue (marx’s daughter’s husband) . and Bakunin (who along with Kropotkion and Proudhon are viewed as founders of modern anarchism) in 1800’s. I prefer 2 different temrs moire than ‘managerial feudalism’— which is like democratic soicalism, anarcho-capitalism, democrastic centralism , etc. One could liley write a math study to see how many terms exist.
Or just take a dictionary , cut it up, and assemble terms. william burroughs used to do that–make a book and sell it.
anarchist and anti-capitalist theory and practice is about as coherent as quantum gravity–which some physicists say is a solved problem while others say its an unsolved problem. Chaos theory has similar issues, as does science.
Thanks for pointing out this book to me, Dr. Chuck. It has given me something to read while I kill time at my bullshit occupation (I can’t honestly call it a “job”). It is consoling to know I’m not the only one wasting away at a desk being paid a guilt-inducing amount to stare at the corner. I no longer feel bad for leaving at 3 or taking long lunches, and I can start to think about what the hell I’m going to do with my life instead of pretending to play the corporate game.
I don’t think most managers are sadomasochists. I think most of them just don’t realize how much of what we do, and how we go about doing it, is bullshit.
Rian — you’re a talented guy. And young. If you drop by here, or keep me in the loop, I’m happy to talk. I still remember your awesome pictures. SO yeah — I actually know it’s you!
Thanks, that’s nice to hear. Occasionally I find myself in Pullman to visit friends. The next time I’m in town I’ll let you know.
When I read David Graeber’s essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine in 2013, I felt somehow vindicated. I had sat in the pub on many a Friday evening moaning to colleagues about data entry and inefficient meetings. But with the Martian gaze of the anthropologist, Graeber managed to articulate my plight in a way that made me feel part of some grand, absurdist outrage.