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By Lawrence Grandpre
David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory argues most jobs are depressing because they are full of unnecessary make work, or are completely pointless. But he fails to account for the history of race, which teaches the white masses they should expect to be bosses, and thus someone is to blame if they have crappy jobs. Before we imagine radical wealth redistribution or a world without work, we must understand the racial dynamics that cause many, Black and white, cling to work as the measure of human value.
Introduction: On the Bullshit-ification of Work
As America has shifted from an industrial economy to a predominantly service economy, the nature of work has changed dramatically. Rather than the factory or the corporate office, the computer screen, and the co-working space have become the paradigmatic workplace. With the rise of contractual labor, employment has become more precarious, less likely to include access to benefits, and, perhaps most importantly, less likely to be seen as inherently meaningful or producing some societal good. With the rise of desk work creating more dead time, a rise in institutional complexity creating redundancy in employment roles, and an increasing focus on bureaucracy and paperwork, there’s a growing sentiment that much of the time spent at work for many employees is spent doing non-work related activity (or indeed nothing productive at all). Indeed, many of the jobs this current economy is creating are so lacking in necessity or redeeming value that they deserve to be categorized, colloquially, as “bullshit jobs.”
In a book-length treatment of this conundrum (stemming from a viral think piece he wrote in 2013), London School of economics professor David Graeber argues that the phenomenon of “: bullshit jobs” is real and worthy of serious scholarly analysis and political consideration. Using an interdisciplinary method, he argues that the crisis of meaninglessness in contemporary employment is far worse than previously imagined. Graeber notes the prediction of economist John Maynard Keynes’ that technological advancement would create such efficiency in work that the work week could be shortened to as little as 15 hours a week. This prediction has been largely dismissed, given that the number of hours per week worked on average in the developed world has barely decreased at all over the past two decades despite massive productivity gains. Graeber makes the controversial argument that Keynes’ prediction has largely come true, and productivity gains have made large swaths of work unnecessary, but rather than cutting work hours, jobs have expanded their scope to include dead time and unnecessary work: Graeber writes:
“ …Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it…
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services and telemarketing, and the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect all those people whose job it is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or, for that matter, the whole host of ancillary industries (dog washers, all-night pizza delivery people)) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.” (Graeber, xvi-xvii).
The reality of this dynamic is reflected in the opinions and testimonies of workers themselves. In self-reported data, around one-third of respondents in countries like the UK, Netherlands, and the United States say an increasing part of their workday, up to 50% of it, consists of unproductive or none work-related activities (disruptions, bureaucratic work, emails, etc).
Thus, Graeber concludes:
“If 37 percent to 40 percent of jobs are completely pointless, and at least 50 percent of the work done in non-pointless office jobs is equally pointless, we can probably conclude that at least half of all work being done in our society could be eliminated without making any real difference at all.” (Graber, 25).
While the title of his book would seem to suggest that it’s a light-hearted satirical polemic against the downsides of contemporary capitalism, Graeber marks his intent as deeper than that, and after providing examples of the bullshit-ization of work, from ever-expanding administrative staff at universities to the multiple layers of bureaucratic overlap in Hollywood, he seeks to identify what makes individuals tolerate this condition. While 37% of his study respondents say their jobs are largely meaningless and filled with dead time or simple, repetitive tasks, 33% say they do not enjoy their jobs, a finding which may appear counter intuitive. Who wouldn’t enjoy getting paid for doing something simple or essentially doing nothing? Graeber flips this argument, saying that the contemporary state of employment creates people trapped in a psychologically and spiritually damaging cycle. Student debt locks young people into taking jobs they would rather not take, jobs increasingly filled with the bureaucratic and repetitive work Graeber describes as “bullshit”. These jaded young people are eventually promoted up the chain, becoming callous middle managers who enact rituals of discipline over their underlings which mirror the treatment they got coming up. The author sees this cycle as an extension of a long history of exploitative work arrangements that started with Middle Age European apprenticeships and ancient forms of slavery. The author equates the contemporary economy to a sadistic game where individuals, trapped by debt and the need to make a living, are unable to quit jobs they hate, and thus forced to subject themselves to the psychological torment of not just a “bullshit job,” but an increasingly “bullshit” existence filled with anxiety, frustration and escapism.
The Rise of the Resentful Right: A New Theory
One of the more interesting connections Graeber makes is the connection between working-class resentment toward unionized labor and the rise of “bullshit” jobs:
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteachers and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told ‘But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?. (Graeber, xxi).
This framing of political resentment seems particularly salient given these arguments, which stem from his 2012 blog post and therefore pre-dates the rise of Donald Trump. In this light, Trump’s catchphrase, “Make America Great Again,” might include the sub-text of “make work meaningful again.”
Graeber doesn’t boiled-down his analysis to a “here’s what we must do” policy position, but he does state his support for a universal basic income (UBI) as part of the solution. He argues that all current income restricted (i.e. means-tested) government programs like Medicaid and food stamps should be replaced with an unconditional cash payout for everyone. He even argues that the eliminating of many government jobs rather than being an economic loss, would be a social gain, arguing that the damage caused by people being forced to jump through hoops to get limited benefits and the psychological toll of individuals forced to work these “bullshit jobs” justifies eliminating these positions. With this analysis, Graeber argues for decoupling employment from the value imbued in an individual. He also challenges the notion, accepted by many on both sides of the American political spectrum, that politicians should focus on “job creation”. As the author notes, the political fixation with “creating jobs” obscures the question of whether all jobs are worth creating. He uses the example of Obamacare to show that politics have been hamstrung by the desire to preserve “bullshit jobs”. He writes that one of the reasons a full-scale replacement of the existing patchwork of American health insurance systems with a universal government healthcare system wasn’t entertained in 2009 was concern over the loss of millions of health care sector jobs. This has hampered political will to implement a better healthcare system because policymakers don’t want to “rock the boat” and take jobs away, even if the existing system is objectively illogical and created ultimately damaging employment conditions.
Where Did We Learn What a “Boss” Is? Slavery and Management Theory
In reading Graeber’s book, we are left with many interesting and potentially useful points of analysis, yet the question we must ask is “what does this mean for Black people”? Given the Black community’s exclusion from many avenues for employment, one could say that his analysis is irrelevant for Black communities, whose central political demands must be around access to, not criticism of, employment opportunities. Embracing this logic would be a mistake. In reality, Black men and women disproportionately hold the menial service economy jobs Graeber critiques. As such, his analysis of the psychological toll these jobs take on those who must do them can be considered a “Black” issue. Nevertheless, Graeber’s text should be subjected to legitimate criticism for his inability to see how the cultural and political histories of whiteness and anti-blackness, not only in the United States but around the globe, implicate his analysis of “Bullshit Jobs.”
While Graeber is in many ways careful to account for his position as a (relatively) privileged white man, specifically mentioning instances of gender discrimination and racialized slavery, his book fails to account for the depth of the linkage between chattel slavery, anti-blackness, and white privilege in his analysis of how the culture of work has evolved.
Graeber’s text is psycho-social analysis of labor and management, and it mirrors a historical tendency within studies of labor and management, under-theorizing and misunderstanding the role racialized chattel slavery plays in contemporary conceptions of work. Bill Cooke from the University of Manchester summarizes the importance of understanding slavery from the context of managerial studies, arguing that the labor-management techniques often associated, with the Industrial Revolution, as Graeber does in his book, not only have their roots in slavery but created racialized notions of labor and management.:
… The industrial discipline which emerged on the plantations was not disconnected temporally, spatially or in substance from that which emerged in other parts of the US economy. The imprint of slavery in contemporary management can be seen in the ongoing dominance from that time of the very idea of the manager with a right to manage. It can also be seen in the specific management ideas and practices now known as classical management and scientific management which were collated and represented with these labels within living memory of the abolition of US slavery. As this article has shown, this presence of managers and management is widely documented outside management studies, but has not had any mention within it. (Cooke, 2003).
This analysis shows that workers, specifically white workers, bring certain expectations to their workplace, expectations conditioned by a racial history York argues has been left out of management studies.
The “Ethos of Dominion”
In an environment where managerial identity is linked to “thinking” and thinking is linked to agency, then being stuck in mindless, pointless work is more than just a general affront to one’s sense of subjectivity; it is a violation of a specifically racialized vision of subjectivity. Cooke is far from the first to point out the subtle but nonetheless profound ways conceptions of work have been racialized and are linked to notions of racial slavery. University of Utah professor Ella Myers writes on the work done by W.E.B. Dubois over 100 years ago on the “psychological wages of whiteness” as a framework for how the white working class interpreted their interests to be more in line with their white bosses than black workers, creating a racialized notion of working class status. But, Myers notes, Dubois’s analysis also goes further, linking the experience of chattel slavery and creating a template for contemporary white identity formation. She writes:
“… it is no accident that in ‘The Souls of White Folks,’ Du Bois speaks in the idiom of property relations (‘ownership,’ ‘title’) to characterize what he calls ‘the religion of whiteness’ evident in his day. This language evokes a specific historical precedent—a regime within which humans socially categorized as black could be held as ‘real estate’—to illuminate what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘the afterlife of slavery.’ Du Bois signals that the ethos of dominion, which animated white existence in antebellum America, did not simply disappear with abolition; it persisted, feeding the sense of unchecked proprietorship DuBois locates in the very ‘souls’ of white people.” (Myers, 2017)
Graeber’s analysis of contemporary relations to work must be read within the context of seeing the modern world as in “the afterlife of slavery.” Increasingly, historical analysis shows that contemporary managerial techniques previously associated with the industrial revolution can, in fact, be seen as extending from the experience of the management of chattel slavery. In Accounting for Slavery, Caitlin Rosenthal extends Cooke’s analysis to argue that the slave origins of managerial techniques have been obscured by the assumptive logic that capitalism was coterminous with “freedom.” And while Dubois notes that the exploitation of the factory worker is not analogous to that of the slave, the thinking and frames of identity used to create the slave have serious implications for how work is conceptualized. Frustration over contemporary “Bullshit Jobs” can be read at a macro-level as frustration that contemporary work is not providing the sort of fulfillment and “freedom” this generation was conditioned to expect. Myers’s reading of Dubois’s work helps us understand how to read the subtext of this expectation of “freedom” provided by work, which may, in reality, be merely the freedom to experience the forms of power and privilege defined by experiences of historic domination.
As such, the “ethos of dominion” Duboise describes did not end with emancipation, but created frameworks of identity formation which are then carried over to the world of work. This is perhaps most clearly recognized by Graeber in his analysis of masochism in workplace environments. In his book, to be subjected to the “masochistic” whims of a manager is revealed to be more than an individual frustration; it’s linked to personal denigration. Graeber notes that contemporary managerial identity means having the “freedom” to impose your will on others, but he lacks the historical context to see why this interpretation of freedom is so inexorably linked to domination and control. He is correct in pointing out that the dynamics of the workplace creates a desire for petty acts of control, but his lack of an analysis of racialized slavery leads him to miss a critical element of this relationship: that these acts of control must be theorized through the lens of the historical conditions which produced “managerial identity,” chattel slavery.
Slavery is…Slavery Ain’t: On Sloppy Analogies of Workers to Enslaved Africans
Graeber uses the slavery analogy continually throughout his book , yet even a simple analysis of the conditions of chattel slavery reveal this analogy to be problematic. University of California – Irvine professor Frank Wilderson explains the fundamental distinction between the worker and the slave. Wilderson writes:
The worker demands that productivity be fair and democratic (Gramsci’s new hegemony, Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat, in a word, socialism). In contrast, the slave demands that production stop, without recourse to its ultimate democratization. Work is not an organic principle for the slave. The absence of Black subjectivity from the crux of radical discourse is symptomatic of the text’s inability to cope with the possibility that the generative subject of capitalism, the Black body of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the generative subject that resolves late capital’s over-accumulation crisis, the Black (incarcerated) body of the 20th and 21st centuries, do not reify the basic categories that structure conflict within civil society: the categories of work and exploitation. (Wilderson, 2007)
Frank B. Wilderson III Speaking on Literary Activism in 2010
By pointing to the contemporary mass incarceration of Black people, where they perform labor for less than minimum wage, Wilderson agrees that slavery does exist as contemporary condition, but argues that this condition is specific to descendants of African slaves in America. A bullshit job means one thing when you expected to be a beneficiary of white privilege,it means something different when you are forced to participate in a system inaugurated through the enslaving of your ancestors. That Graber doesn’t recognize the difference between those two states of being and tacitly creates an equivalence between by essentially thinking of both of them as an extension of slavery, hurts the emancipatory value of his analysis. There is no doubt that work in our current society creates conditions that many find frustrating, annoying and downright depressing, but there is a problematic history which creates the conditions of the expectations which are being disappointed by contemporary employment. In this frame, Graeber’s analysis amounts to a depiction of the modern world inaugurated through acts of extreme violence, with whites unable to reconcile themselves with the world they have, in point of fact, created.
Racial Resentment Determines Which Jobs are Seen as “Bullshit”
The ability to see the role of slavery and anti-blackness play in American theories about work have serious policy implications. In relation to Graeber’s analysis of the “secret” to right -wing resentment of perceived exclusion from meaningful work, he fails to engage the body of literature stating that the backlash against unions has not been general, but specific. While the author is careful to note that bullshit jobs are not the sole province of the public sector, the trope of the “lazy government worker” has become a powerful driver of anti-union sentiment. Frank Wilderson’s fellow University of California-Irvine professor David Theo Goldberg writes that since the Civil Rights Act, the public sector has been seen in many ways as specifically promoting the interests of Blacks and other people of color, a fact which coincides with the more rigorous application of anti-discrimination policies leading the public sector to employ a disproportionately large percentage of minorities and/or it is Black people benefiting from government programs. Goldberg writes:
… The perception among critics of these programs accordingly devolved into the view that black people are either employed as beneficiaries of affirmative action or they are supported by welfare. In short, from the 1970s on, the state increasingly came to be conceived as a set of institutions supporting the undeserving… Fear of a black state is linked to worries about a black planet, of alien invasion and alienation, of a loss of local and global control and privilege long associated with whiteness. Neoliberalism, therefore, can be read as a response to this concern about the impending impotence of whiteness. ” (Goldberg, 2007)
Graeber has, therefore, missed a critical component in the story of why specific jobs are targeted for right-wing resentment, a frame which can’t solely be explained by resentment of individuals being given access to productive work but an understanding of who, specifically these individuals are, or at least how they are coded. While, to Graeber’s credit, resentment over productive labor may explain why resentment has been targeted at teachers as opposed to their administrative bosses (whose higher salaries and nebulous societal value should make them prime targets), it fails to explain why attacks on public sector unions, in particular, have been so effective. The neoliberal is linked to a glorification of the private sector over the public, which works on racialized hydraulics, with the private sector promising power and control (i.e. viral whiteness) and the public sector, with its tactical racialized status signifying in Goldberg’s terms “impotent whiteness”, to be resisted at all costs. Teachers and government employee union as the material embodiment of this impending emasculation, are therefor the prime targets.
The reality of racialization helps explains one of the most prominent counterpoints to Graeber’s argument about productive labor which causes right-wing backlash: the social status of police. If Graeber’s theory of right wing resentment being driven by exclusion from meaningful work were true, police, whose job is seen by many as the ultimate in productive employment, should be subject to the same sort of resentment because of their consistent demands for increased wages and benefits. The reality has been the exact opposite. As cops are coded as being necessary to a refutation of the “impending impotence of whiteness” their access to productive labor is not resented, but respected. Even in the face of increasing criticism, police unions still hold incredible sway when it comes to negotiating concessions on pay, benefits, and job protections in their collective bargaining negotiations with the cities which continue to shell out disproportionately large sums of money to fund them. The status of police unions proves the author underestimates the role of racialization in terms of how different forms of employment are framed culturally.
Rethinking Racism: A Prerequisite for Economic Redistribution
Finally, the reality of this racialization undermines even the qualified attempts the book makes to propose solutions to the “bullshit jobs” phenomena. While Graeber locates resentment in the lack of meaningful work, Goldberg’s analysis of the racialization of the state is the shadow which hangs over all redistributive policy, creating a resistance to even universal policies. Jill Qualdingo, in her book The Color of Welfare, notes that even though statistically whites are the largest recipients of many welfare programs, resentment has been marshaled against these programs under the false perception that these programs allow lazy (read black/brown) individuals to leech off the system. As the concept of universal basic income has become more popular, both the left and right have centered their criticisms around the argument that people would stop working if given a universal basic income. While Graeber’s book is an attempt to decouple the centrality of work to personal self-worth and identity, the reality is social adherence to the mythology of work as an expression of self-worth stems from a racialized history Graber fails to deal with. The very ability to get any UBI or other economically redistributive policy passed is deeply hindered by the racialized fears of more generous government policy leading to the moral degeneracy of the poor.
It is also worth noting that Black communities may have a different relationship with work than whites, one Graber fails to account for in his analysis of solutions.While Graeber’s point about these government jobs is that they are dehumanizing, a disproportionately large percentage of the folk being fired in his proposed scenario would be Black , who may not take well to the elimination of their hard-won public sector jobs as a societal advancement. Even if this work is grinding, there is a pride that comes from working hard against a racist system and getting a good job that will likely lead to resentment to any attempts to eliminate these jobs which do not speak specifically to what benefits black communities will get to make the loss of public sector jobs palatable. While these workers would theoretically be free to pursue other ventures with their universal basic income, the idea that money alone is sufficient to account for the historical trauma of slavery and racism is a premise which should be rejected out of hand. This goes double if this payout is indeed “universal” and doesn’t take into account the specific suffering of Black communities by giving them additional support to make up for the material and psycho-social damage done by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. In fact, the specific version of UBI Graeber advocates, one which eliminates means-tested government based assistance, has been supported by many notable figures on the right as a way to shrink government. It is often, in fact, framed by them as a social control mechanism (keeping the Black/Brown unemployable masses calm) rather than a liberatory one. That his anarchism-infused analysis can so easily be contorted into support for conservative policy should be of concern for Graeber, whose inability to account for these dynamics limits the usefulness of his analysis and proposed solution.
Conclusion: Whiteness..the Original Bullshit Job
Ultimately, Bullshit Jobs is useful in demythologizing traditional paid employment as what makes individuals valuable and offers space for criticism of larger economic development policy. The book’s criticism of office work has been borne out by the work habits of the millennial generation, whose obsession with the creative “side hustle” has been well noted but often under-theorized as a way of creating meaning in the face of largely meaningless primary modes of making money. Additionally, its analysis is useful in beginning to reframe economic development policy debates. For example, while there are many who criticize the outright disgraceful begging by many cities to attract Amazon’s new headquarters as bad economic and civic policy, one point which was rarely linked to these conversations was an analysis of the “work culture of Amazon,” noted for pushing a focus on hyper-productivity at the cost of employees’ mental and physical health. The logical, communal question of whether injecting 25,000 rich, stressed-out office workers into a city is a good idea gets swamped under a barrage of politicians touting “job creation” as a good in itself . To the extent that the book makes us ponder questions like this, it is useful.
However, Graeber’s book would benefit greatly from a deeper engagement with the complex reality of race and racism. It would be easy, for example, to dismiss many of the personal narratives he includes in the book as simply the disaffected musings of high-minded white professionals who feel their obvious talents for creativity and innovation are being wasted at their current job, privileged liberal arts majors feeling hamstrung by a corporate world. While it would be a mistake to flippantly toss out the message of the author simply because of its limited scope or the Eurocentric intellectual traditions he pulls from, the lack of deep understanding of whiteness and anti-blackness implicates the value of the solutions Graeber proposes. His analysis around psychological harm done by government workers forced to deny people basic human rights by means testing programming is very compelling; the idea that these Black employees who struggled to get these government jobs can be made whole with only a universal basic income is dangerously short-sighted. In addition to a UBI (which many argue should come alongside existing government programs and not in place of them), there needs to be targeted investment in Black communities to reestablish the network of programs which help to create strong communities. Legalizing marijuana and redirecting these revenues into reparations for the War on Drugs could be one way to pay for such an investment. Without this , it’s easy to imagine young white people reading Graeber’s book and, inspired by his message, quitting their office jobs and moving into a Black neighborhood to start a co-op or a brewery and gentrifying the neighborhood in the process. Even a UBI cannot address the generational wealth inequality which makes this possibility a dangerous one for Black communities. Graeber would probably balk at such an interpretation of his work, the harsh reality is that whiteness itself is a bullshit job, and despite his best effort, Graeber’s book makes more work for Black activists and scholars to reinterpret and reinvigorate his findings for a deeper emancipatory purpose.