I just finished David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which I think I first heard about from Cory Doctorow’s post on Boingboing: An excerpt from “Bullshit Jobs,” David Graeber’s forthcoming book about the rise of useless work. I went into this with, frankly, low expectations. Those expectations would be that the author of the book would spend many words cataloging how certain cherry picked jobs, that we all already know are redundant or useless or inefficient, are bad and should go away. However, what the book delivered was much more than that.
I learned that it is an expansion of Graeber’s STRIKE! article: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. And when I write that it’s an expansion, it’s very much that. The core concepts of the book can be read quickly in the article. The book argues that there are many jobs, mostly white collar, that serve no meaningful function. The author makes short work of my immediate criticism that a capitalist enterprise would not tolerate an administration populated with jobs that do not generate more money for the company that their pay would remove. Over the course of a chapter or two, he draws analogies between medieval era European feudalism and corporate hierarchies, leading to the argument that what we have may not actually be proper capitalism. As someone who has worked within a few large organizations (not all for-profit organizations) and I could easily see his point.
He also spends a great deal of the book by explaining how these jobs are staffed by people who know that the job are meaningless, which is bad for the soul. I had to spend some time thinking about this. If I had a job that paid well, but I knew that it contributed nothing meaningful to the enterprise that I believed in or society, in a greater sense, would I really care? Would I have a problem with spending 40 hours a week, most of which would be spent in a charade of any meaningful work, but still collect a solid paycheck? I think that the answer is: yes.
While working at Apple there were many seasons where I knew the answer to “does my work have meaning” was yes and other seasons no. As a side note, one of the seasons that it was “no” is when the company was all about “doing your life’s best work” and Tim Cook used that line at Steve Job’s memorial service. I had to talk myself down from honoring that moment by walking out of my job. Other years were better.
The author did seem to dip into areas of thought that struck me as a bit of a conspiracy theory area, but one of the things that really did bring credence into his argument is when he answered a, frankly, unrelated question for me. I have for a few years wondered why Barack Obama had gone for the Affordable Care Act, which provided health care for millions of Americans, but did so within the existing framework of America’s terrible insurance system. I had figured that it was a compromise with Republicans who think having a bit more socialism is a fast track to communism. David Graeber includes a passage from “David Sirota, ‘Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,’ Nation, June, 26, 2006”:
“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have,” Obama said, continuing on the health care theme. “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”
The Democrats left a cancer to save millions of jobs that only exist because of the broken healthcare system is broken.
That did give me a bit of pause. As someone who is completely for socializing America’s healthcare system, I am not for putting millions out of work in the process of destroying the legacy markets that they work in. Graeber answers this in the final chapter of the book with his thoughts on universal basic income. In the process of making his arguments, he also explains some of the social benefits of UBI that I had not considered. I’m not very curious about this idea, but I am still critical of where that money will come from.
It was a thought provoking read.