When reading Bullshit Jobs. A Theory (2018), by David Graeber, one can but wonder if one has a bullshit job. One is constantly invited to question if our daily routine does not circle around a work whose main purpose is to demoralize us by imposing us endless tasks with unreasonable purposes. In fact, at least in my case, as I’m getting closer to finish a PhD program in Canada, the threat that my best, and more foreseeable, career choice will be to apply for a job that mixes managerialism and education is demoralizing. I hate managering, I love teaching. With this counter-position between love and hate one can understand what bullshit jobs are not. That is, a bullshit job is not a job you do even if you hate some parts of it because the main feature of the job you do actually like. A bullshit job is “one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing it” (2-3). These are tasks that require us to secretly be aware that the task we are performing is “simply a waste of time or resources or that even made the world worse” (xv). Jobs in academia, to conclude with my example, are not bullshit jobs, but they are, as Greaber argues, being bullshitized.
The phenomenon of bullshit jobs is related to the way we are facing a radical change in economics and politics. The recognizable image we once had of capitalism is slowly fading away. Since a bullshit job is a complete waste of time, money, resources, and all labor (all of the precious things that capitalism highly values), then, the spread of bullshit jobs goes completely against the logic of capitalism. With several testimonies, statistics, historical analysis, and discussion of labor theory, Bullshit jobs, explains what the consequences of these jobs are, why these jobs are spreading so fast, and, in a more reserved, but realistic way, proposes solutions to tame this problem.
Work is the master word of our times. With fair reason, worker movements pushed in the past reforms and approaches to understand it. However, as Graeber argues, what was never fully tackled is if all work was really necessary. That is, work came to be, at least for today’s dominant understanding, a useful activity, when “saying that something is ‘useful’ is just saying it’s effective as a way of getting something else” (197). Work, or labor, both are categories normally only understood as means of achieving something out of them. We suffer with work, from a Christian perspective, because we were expelled from Eden. Work is the punishment, but also the medicine to aid or malaise, after hard work we will achieve a reward. Graeber argues that work is not presupposed by this wrenching duality between punishment and medicine, but that actually work is presupposed by play, and other forms of action. From this perspective doing things for the sake of doing them, for the sake of seeing how they are affected by us is a happiness closer to play than to work. Bullshit jobs, then, deprive us from the pleasure of seeing our actions affecting the world. We cannot enjoy what we do because we do not see where the affect transferred to the work we put on doing things go. True, some jobs, as my example with academia, have some bullshit aspects, but in most of these jobs everyone can create some sort of fiction to comfort the hours of disappear, or to convince themselves that what they do has some “utility” or purpose. What is so wrong about bullshit jobs is that “you’re not even living your own lie” (74). While in academia, or in other fields, we create our own make-believes that supplement our oppression, in a bullshit job situation we would not be able to create our own lie, we would be living completely on the lie and fantasy of someone else’s.
There are many types of bullshit jobs, perhaps some escape the typology that Graeber crafts. Nonetheless the typology is important. From the “flunkies,” whose jobs consists of “to make someone else look or feel important” (28); the “goons,” that help increasing the putative domination that the employer portrays towards the world and its subordinates, via threats or violence of all kind (36); the “duck-tapers” that tirelessly solve problems that to begin with should not be problems and duck-tape everything as a palliative solution; the “boxticketers,” jobs “that allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing” (45)”; and to the taskmasters, that could be either unnecessary superiors or superiors who do harm by creating “entirely new bullshit jobs” (51), a bullshit job is there to satisfy the need of a company to increase a form of putative “values.” That is, today’s current mode of exploitation and domination mixes archaic ways of configuring power with traditional capitalist means of domination. Today’s mode of domination “in many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways—notably in its managerialist ethos—it is profoundly different” (191). We are in a managerial-capitalist mode of domination, and bullshit jobs are here to remind us that “values,” what presupposes any form of “value,” cannot be measured, nor produced, but only reproduced. The spread of bullshit jobs is the territorialization of reproductive and care labor.
What a bullshit job does is decrease the connection between the way we do things for the sake of doing them, but also this type of jobs guarantees the reproduction of putative “values” for the employers. Being a “goon” is not only a job that forces the employee to become “the bad guy,” it is also a job that transform the image of the employer. From a boss it turns to a “feudal lord,” an authority difficult to reach, close to the almighty. By the fact that today’s world is full of reminiscences to the Middle Ages, or its shift towards modernity (there are “narco-lords,” “gated communities” like feuds; social media as a theatre of cruelty; and jobs that create endless bureaucracies, and so on and so forth) it becomes clearer that the way we have understood work, from its transition of serfhood and slavery, have been all wrong. What we got all wrong is the fact that work is considered to be only a way of production, when in fact it is primarily a way of reproduction. That is, that reproduction presupposes production. In fact, “most working-class labor, whether carried out by men or women, actually more resembles what we are archetypically think of as women’s work, looking after people, seeing to their wants and needs” (235). Production, then, is a patriarchal and misogynist way of understanding the “result” of work because, at least for some, it reminds of the Christian god creating the world as he pronounced the right words. He created the world, and then rested, he went away: as a “macho” would do. Work is actually related to “other people, and it always involves a certain labor of interpretation, empathy, and understanding” (236). Work is caring. Or better, a work that can guarantee no spiritual violence, no dispossession of the way we affect the world, and actual “impact” for us and the rest, is a work that cares. To care is to realize that things require “long term” projections (239), means of preserving them, and that they cannot be based on the instant, and yet care is a work of successive instants. What makes care possible is its forgetfulness about the future in the present while making the future present in every action. Precisely, having a bullshit job is the cancellation of care, we no longer forget about the future in the present, because we make someone else’s fantasy (not even their future) in our own present.
While the landscape portrayed by Graeber is worrying, there is no pessimism in Bullshit jobs. In fact, if things have arrived to be the way they are now, there is a chance they can be otherwise. This is too what a traditional labor theory would say about work (238). Our challenge is that “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, and, at the same time, the fact that our jobs thus come to eat up more and more of our waking existence means that we do not have the luxury of—as Kathi Weeks has so concisely put it—“a life,” and that, in turn, means that furtive consumer pleasures are the only ones we have time to afford” (246). We not only have bullshit jobs, but we have furtive consumer pleasures, almost bullshit pleasures (if that could be possible), since we enjoy so that we can suffer more. A way out of this, Graeber points out, lies in the possibility of establishing basic income and a “safe word” to stop our sadomasochistic relationship with work, as in real sadomasochistic relationships happens. These solutions are realistic, but perhaps, as Bullshit Jobs itself suggests when discussing science fiction and the failure of traditional labor theory, one needs more imagination. This is the open invitation of Bullshit Jobs. A Theory, an offering to rethink redo work.