Bullshit Jobs

January 04, 2019

Bullshit Jobs is about a problem that most people don’t even acknowledge exists — the proliferation of useless jobs (like HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, etc). The book shatters the idea that capitalism is “efficient.”

A bullshit job is 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

A couple weeks have now passed since I finished this book, and while I highly recommend it, I’m losing my motivation to write an interesting, thought-provoking blog post. Instead, here’s a few (very leading) questions I’ve been thinking about, and ideas I’ve taken away, and a good mix of quotes:

  • If these bullshit jobs do exist, why isn’t their existence acknowledged?
  • How can all of our work feel meaningful?

    • “detach livelihood from work” and “establish the right of material existence for all people”
    • Institute UBI and eliminate means testing to reduce paper pushing
    • “leaving it up to each individual to decide whether they wished to pursue further wealth, by doing a paying job, or selling something, or whether they wished to do something else with their time” which “depends on the assumption that human beings don’t have to be compelled to work, or at least, to do something that they feel is useful or beneficial to others.”
    • “(Money is after all a rationing ticket, and in an ideal world, one would presumably wish to do as little rationing as possible.)”
  • Is Graeber’s methodology for unconvering bullshit jobs (Twitter) reasonable?
  • How have “managerialist ideologies” impacted our morals?

    • “a deeply held popular feeling that paid employment alone can make one a full moral person, and finally, a fear on the part of the upper classes”
    • One thought from the book: “There was once a time when most students in college whose parents could afford it, or who qualified for scholarships or assistance, received a stipend. It was considered a good thing that there might be a few years in a young man’s or woman’s life where money was not the primary motivation; where he or she could thus be free to pursue other forms of value: say, philosophy, poetry, athletics, sexual experimentation, altered states of consciousness, politics, or the history of Western art. Nowadays it is considered important they should work. However, it is not considered important they should work at anything useful.” “In reality, the job just took away time and energy from other activities I had been doing, like campaigning and activism, or reading for pleasure, which I think made me resent it even more.”
    • [Pre-industrailization], “the main reason why work could remain so irregular was because it was largely unsupervised.”
    • “As a result, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, starting in England, the old episodic style of working came increasingly to be viewed as a social problem. The middle classes came to see the poor as poor largely because they lacked time discipline; they spent their time recklessly, just as they gambled away their money.”
    • “No longer do we hear much about the idle rich—this is not because they don’t exist, but because their idleness is no longer celebrated.”
    • “Work, Aristotle insisted, in no sense makes you a better person; in fact, it makes you a worse one, since it takes up so much time, thus making it difficult to fulfill one’s social and political obligations.”
    • “we have invented a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures”
    • “The more the economy becomes a matter of the mere distribution of loot, the more inefficiency and unnecessary chains of command actually make sense, since these are the forms of organization best suited to soaking up as much of that loot as possible.”
  • Are bullshit jobs actually 50% of jobs in wealthy countries? (Over the course of the last century in wealthy countries, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.”)

    • Do we value low employment to such a degree that we don’t object to the growth of pointless employment?
  • Do these types of jobs really protect the ruling class?
  • Why is it taboo to say your job is pointless or actively bad?
  • Do bullshit jobs inflict spiritual violence?
  • Are bullshit jobs the reason there hasn’t been a massive reduction of working hours in the past fifty years? Are American white collar workers actually spending a huge portion of their time “organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles, or downloading TV box sets”?

    • Could we “easily become societies of leisure and institute a twenty-hour workweek”? If yes, what can we do to get there?
  • Why is it that “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it”?

    • This seems faily easy to observe, but is the following also true?: “the amount of workplace aggression and stress I see in people is inversely correlated with the importance of the work they’re doing… working on meaningful stuff always has more of a collaborative atmosphere, everyone working together toward a greater goal.”
  • Is finance really that bad?

    • “one could argue that the whole financial sector is a scam of sorts, since it represents itself as largely about directing investments toward profitable opportunities in commerce and industry, when, in fact, it does very little of that. The overwhelming bulk of its profits comes from colluding with government to create, and then to trade and manipulate, various forms of debt.”
    • “the most socially valuable workers whose contributions could be calculated are medical researchers, who add $9 of overall value to society for every $1 they are paid. The least valuable were those who worked in the financial sector, who, on average, subtract a net $1.80 in value from society for every $1 of compensation.”
  • Why does it feel so shitty to pretend to be working? (And why is prentending to be overworked a “reciprocal gesture of appreciation and respect”?)
  • How do people justify that bloated bureacracy is preferable to laying those bloated bureaucrats off?
  • Why do prisoners prefer to do shit work (like cleaning toilets) to being idle? What does this tell us about society?
  • “Groos coined the phrase ‘the pleasure at being the cause,’ suggesting that it is the basis for play, which he saw as the exercise of powers simply for the sake of exercising them.”

    • “human happiness is always caught up in a sense of having effects on the world; a feeling which most people, when they speak of their work, express through a language of social value”
    • “The desire to create art is simply a manifestation of the urge to play as the exercise of freedom for its own sake as well.”
  • “Being forced to pretend to work just for the sake of working is an indignity, since the demand is perceived—rightly—as the pure exercise of power for its own sake.”
  • “had the effect of subtly reinforcing the idea that when a worker was ‘on the clock,’ his time truly did belong to the person who had bought it”
  • Are people’s social lives worse than ever? (“A common problem in large cities, especially in the North Atlantic world, is that most middle-class people now spend so much time at work that they have few social ties outside it”)
  • What exactly happened in the eighties? Reagan? “if productivity in a certain enterprise improved, a certain share of the increased profits would be redistributed to the workers in the form of improved wages and benefits. Since the eighties, this is no longer the case.”
  • Theory of value: “when a good or service answers a demand or otherwise improves people’s lives, then it can be considered genuinely valuable, but when it merely serves to create demand, either by making people feel they are fat and ugly, or luring them into debt and then charging interest, it is not.”
  • “Capitalism is not a single totalizing system that shapes and embraces every aspect of our existence. It’s not even clear it makes sense to speak of ‘capitalism’ at all… “capitalism” is a set of abstract ideas that have somehow come to take material form in factories and offices. The world is more complicated and messy than that. Historically, the factories and offices emerged first, long before anyone knew quite what to call them, and to this day, they operate on multiple contradictory logics and purposes.”
  • “Paradoxically, the more that software engineers collaborate online to do free creative labor simply for the love of doing it, as a gift to humanity, the less incentive they have to make them compatible with other such software, and the more those same engineers will have to be employed in their day jobs fixing the damage—doing”
  • “proletariat as a class—a term derived appropriately enough from a Latin word for ‘those who produce offspring,’ since in Rome, the poorest citizens who did not have enough wealth to tax were useful to the government only by producing sons who could be drafted into the army”
  • “the ‘source of status,’ as Harry Braverman put it, was ‘no longer the ability to make things but simply the ability to purchase them’”
  • “To be denied work is to be denied far more than the things that work can buy; it is to be denied the ability to define and respect one’s self.”
  • “Sitting around in cafés all day arguing about politics or gossiping about our friends’ complex polyamorous love affairs takes time (all day, in fact)”
  • “Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people, because they can imagine a scenario in which they or their children might become rich, but cannot possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite.”
  • “sure enough, to be accepted into the Peace Corps, you need to already have a college degree. The US military is a haven for frustrated altruists.”
  • “as an anarchist, I look forward to seeing states dismantled entirely, and in the meantime, have no interest in policies that will give states more power than they have already.”

Further reading

  • E. P. Thompson 1967 essay on the origins of the modern time sense called “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”
  • Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”
  • The Dark Side of Management: A Secret History of Management Theory by Gerard Hanlon for a good recent critical history of managerialism
  • Lynn Chancer and Jessica Benjamin’s theory of Sado-Masochism in Everyday Life
  • Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty, about the administrative take-over of American universities
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: The Case for Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek (New York: Little, Brown, 2017)
  • For the best recent synthesis on feudalism from a Marxist perspective, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso, 2002
  • Benjamin B. Lockwood, Charles G. Nathanson, and E. Glen Weyl, “Taxation and the Allocation of Talent,” Journal of Political Economy 125, no. 5 (October 2017): 1635–82, www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/693393
  • G. A. Cohen, “Back to Socialist Basics,” New Left Review, no. 207 (1994): 2–16, his critique of the Labour Party manifesto. Various versions of it can be found in his other work, notably in “Incentives, Inequality, and Community: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values” (lecture, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, May 21 and 23, 1991, https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/c/cohen92.pdf)
  • Bertrand Russell’s essay “In Praise of Idleness”: “What is work?
  • Durrenberger, E. Paul, and Dimitra Doukas. “Gospel of Wealth, Gospel of Work: Counterhegemony in the U.S. Working Class,” American Anthropologist (new series) 110, no. 2 (2008): 214–24.
  • Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (1995)
  • For the best critique of marginal utility as a theory of consumer preference, see Steve Keen, Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned?, 44–47.
  • Kurt Vonnegut’ very first novel, Player Piano
  • Martin Ford’s recent The Rise of the Robots
  • Sarath Davala, etc. Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2015).
  • For current arguments for basic income, see Guy Standing’s Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen
  • The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?, Frey and Osborne
  • Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic

Table of Contents

Preface: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Chapter 1 What Is a Bullshit Job?

  • Why a Mafia Hit Man Is Not a Good Example of a Bullshit Job
  • On the Importance of the Subjective Element, and Also, Why It Can Be Assumed That Those Who Believe They Have Bullshit Jobs Are Generally Correct
  • On the Common Misconception That Bullshit Jobs Are Confined Largely to the Public Sector
  • Why Hairdressers Are a Poor Example of a Bullshit Job
  • On the Difference Between Partly Bullshit Jobs, Mostly Bullshit Jobs, and Purely and Entirely Bullshit Jobs

Chapter 2 What Sorts of Bullshit Jobs Are There?

  • The Five Major Varieties of Bullshit Jobs

  • What Flunkies Do

  • What Goons Do

  • What Duct Tapers Do

  • What Box Tickers Do

  • What Taskmasters Do

  • On Complex Multiform Bullshit Jobs

  • A Word on Second-Order Bullshit Jobs

  • A Final Note, with a Brief Return to the Question: Is It Possible to Have a Bullshit Job and Not Know It?

Chapter 3 Why Do Those in Bullshit Jobs Regularly Report Themselves Unhappy? (On Spiritual Violence, Part 1)

  • About One Young Man Apparently Handed a Sinecure Who Nonetheless Found Himself Unable to Handle the Situation
  • Concerning the Experience of Falseness and Purposelessness at the Core of Bullshit Jobs, and the Importance Now Felt of Conveying the Experience of Falseness and Purposelessness to Youth
  • Why Many of Our Fundamental Assumptions on Human Motivation Appear to Be Incorrect
  • A Brief Excursus on the History of Make-Work, and Particularly of the Concept of Buying Other People’s Time
  • Concerning the Clash Between the Morality of Time and Natural Work Rhythms, and the Resentment It Creates

Chapter 4 What Is It Like to Have a Bullshit Job? (On Spiritual Violence, Part 2)

  • Why Having a Bullshit Job Is Not Always Necessarily That Bad
  • On the Misery of Ambiguity and Forced Pretense
  • On the Misery of Not Being a Cause
  • On the Misery of Not Feeling Entitled to One’s Misery
  • On the Misery of Knowing That One Is Doing Harm
  • Coda: On the Effects of Bullshit Jobs on Human Creativity, and On Why Attempts to Assert Oneself Creatively or Politically Against Pointless Employment Might Be Considered a Form of Spiritual Warfare

Chapter 5 Why Are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating?

  • A Brief Excursus on Causality and the Nature of Sociological Explanation
  • Sundry Notes on the Role of Government in Creating and Maintaining Bullshit Jobs
  • Concerning Some False Explanations for the Rise of Bullshit Jobs
  • Why the Financial Industry Might Be Considered a Paradigm for Bullshit Job Creation
  • On Some Ways in Which the Current Form of Managerial Feudalism Resembles Classical Feudalism, and Other Ways in Which It Does Not
  • How Managerial Feudalism Manifests Itself in the Creative Industries through an Endless Multiplication of Intermediary Executive Ranks
  • Conclusion, with a Brief Return to the Question of Three Levels of Causation

Chapter 6 Why Do We as a Society Not Object to the Growth of Pointless Employment?

  • On the Impossibility of Developing an Absolute Measure of Value
  • How Most People in Contemporary Society Do Accept the Notion of a Social Value That Can Be Distinguished from Economic Value, Even If It Is Very Difficult to Pin Down What It Is
  • Concerning the Inverse Relationship Between the Social Value of Work and the Amount of Money One Is Likely to Be Paid for It
  • On the Theological Roots of Our Attitudes Toward Labor
  • On the Origins of the Northern European Notion of Paid Labor as Necessary to the Full Formation of an Adult Human Being
  • How, with the Advent of Capitalism, Work Came to Be Seen in Many Quarters Either as a Means of Social Reform or Ultimately as a Virtue in Its Own Right, and How Laborers Countered by Embracing the Labor Theory of Value
  • Concerning the Key Flaw in the Labor Theory of Value as It Became Popular in the Nineteenth Century, and How the Owners of Capital Exploited That Flaw
  • How, over the Course of the Twentieth Century, Work Came to Be Increasingly Valued Primarily as a Form of Discipline and Self-Sacrifice

Chapter 7 What Are the Political Effects of Bullshit Jobs, and Is There Anything That Can Be Done About This Situation?

  • On How the Political Culture under Managerial Feudalism Comes to Be Maintained by a Balance of Resentments
  • How the Current Crisis over Robotization Relates to the Larger Problem of Bullshit Jobs
  • On the Political Ramifications of Bullshitization and Consequent Decline of Productivity in the Caring Sector as It Relates to the Possibility of a Revolt of the Caring Classes
  • On Universal Basic Income as an Example of a Program That Might Begin to Detach Work from Compensation and Put an End to the Dilemmas Described in This Book

Byrne Hollander

Written by Byrne Hollander who lives and works in New York City.