Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

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Some people doing bullshit jobs, yesterday

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This book is such a missed opportunity. The bullshit jobs phenomenon is real: there are bullshit jobs, they are endemic, but in his polemic, David Graeber mischaracterises them, for large parts of his book confuses them with other phenomena which, while odious enough, have a different character (namely good jobs in unscrupulous businesses[1], and survivors[2]: the piss-takers and grifters who hide in plain sight, without doing any work at all, in every large corporate organisation.

But neither capitalist pig-dogs nor the survivors are, necessarily, owners of bullshit jobs. Bullshit jobs are real jobs, that require acuity, dedication, patience, expertise and elbow-grease, only to achieve an end which, in the wider scheme of things, just cannot be justified by resources consumed in carrying it out.

Internal audit: now that is a bullshit job: these people must turn stones, analyse data, write PowerPoint presentations, jockey spreadsheets, and sanction the compilation of MIS against which they must measure formal, but never substantive KPIs and deliverables. In the weeds which are their natural habitat, these are perfectly sensible, prudent, and plausible means of managing systemic risk. From a birds' eye view they disappear from view altogether, but render really as a gray, sticky sheen over the whole organisation. In performing their role, internal auditors consume not only their own resources, external resources, but those of (usually) productive people whose functions they are employed to audit. That is bullshit squared, especially if they're auditing other people who themselves are carrying out largely bullshitty roles: ISDA negotiators or netting opinion compliance personnel.

Nor is it any part of the bullshittery of a bullshit job that its owner knows or suspects it to be so: most financial services lawyers believe sincerely that theirs is a critical contribution to the organisation’s — nay the financial world’s — continued prosperity. They believe their contribution to be self-evident, if ineffable, but in any case beyond question — possibly beyond the very descriptive capability of a question; certainly beyond any question a management consultant or an internal auditor could confect. Only a knave would put a price on legal services[3]

Most disappointingly of all, having stated it, David Graeber totally fails to address the central, throbbing question: how can bullshit jobs be so prevalent in our lean, sleek, uncompromising capitalistic market economy? This is an important question that an anthropologist ought to be well suited to answering. But he doesn’t even try, preferring instead to trot out cod old-Left platitudes and self-serving (and self-selected) anecdotes from individuals who hit him up on twitter, and who think their true calling is performance art, or self-educating about ethnocultural distributions of melody in world music, and are outraged that the free world is disinclined to fund their burning ambition. The real question for these sainted folks is what on earth anyone was doing hiring them into multinationals — it is a truth universally acknowledged that HR is a bullshit profession — and what these were doing even applying for them — in the first place.

David Graeber wonders at how, in our ultra-Darwinian world of red-blooded capitalism can sustain these jobs. In them, he thinks he’s found the definitive falsification of the capitalist ideology.

But let me put the contrarian view. Bullshit jobs don’t exist in the wild — there are no independent, self-employed compliance officers or internal auditors out there patrolling the market, like vigilante superheroes. If this genus ever evolved (it didn’t) the market would have killed it off pretty quickly. These roles only exist within corporations. Multinational corporations are not like free markets at all. There is no democracy within a multinational. There is no freedom of choice. There are long, absurd, chains of command — bullshitter squats upon bullshitter squats upon bullshitter, in an absurd forest of concatenated chains of bureaucracy and while these tendrils fan and spread seep through cracks and fissures, all of them ultimately run up to a single, controlling figure, vastly removed from all these dastardly beavers, who presides not at the pleasure of any one of these employees, but a passive group of unseen stakeholders who exert their only pressure by means of the severely derivative activity of buying and selling the company’s securities.

Multinationals, that is to say, are run exactly like Marxist dictatorships.

Rest in peace

David Graeber died unexpectedly in Venice in 2020. The JC doesn’t subscribe to Graeber’s total theory and certainly not to his general political outlook but still lauds the spot-on insight that propels Bullshit Jobs: A Theory all the same, and the brio with which Mr. Graeber articulated it. The world is a less interesting place without him in it.

References

  1. Unscrupulous businesses were around long before Dickens, as any old-school Leftie should know. They go with the capitalist running dog territory.
  2. Survivors are harder to rationalise, except as the small group “defectors” that get away with free-riding in any large scale game of prisoner’s dilemma.
  3. Of course, one can very easily evaluate the cost of legal services; evaluating the risks and costs one’s legal team avoided is harder: that is the dog that did not bark in the night-time.