In the Summer of 2009 I had just graduated college and job prospects were slim in Recession-era Florida. My best lead for employment had been a Craigslist ad to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and after having attended the orientation in a remote office park I was now mentally preparing myself for a new life as an Arthur Miller character. That was when a friend called with a lucrative offer. She worked at a law office and they were hiring a part-time secretary to process the new wave of cases they had just gotten. This tiny firm represented home owners’ associations in mortgage foreclosures and bankruptcies, and business was booming.
The job was simple because everything about suburban homes is standardized: from the floor plans to the foreclosure proceedings, everything is set up for mass production. It was also optimized for bullshit. Sometimes I would be instructed to print out emails from clients who’d attached PDFs of scans of printed, previously received emails. I would write a cover letter, print out their email and the attachments (which, remember were scans of printed out emails) and enclose the printed-out email with the printed-out PDFs of scans of emails, then scan and email what I had just printed and mailed so that the client would get an email and a paper letter of the same exact thing. Sometimes I would fax it too. Everyone knew this was ridiculous but the longer it took to do anything the more money the attorneys made.
My job reminded me of a scene in the 1997 movie The Fifth Element, wherein CEO Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) delivers a monologue to Father Cornelius (Ian Holm) that begins, “Life, which you so dutifully serve, comes from destruction, disorder, chaos!” He then pushes a glass off his desk and as little robots descend on the shards and clean it up he narrates the scene: “a lovely ballet ensues so full of form and color. Now think of all those people that created them. Technicians, engineers, hundreds of people who will be able to feed their children tonight.” Financiers and the burgeoning tech industry had destroyed countless things, and now I was an obedient Roomba cleaning up the shards— a beneficiary of others’ creative destruction.
This is not a particularly deep thought, but that’s never stopped an idea whose time has been forced by capital. Depth is not a precondition of power when it comes to ideology. In fact, it is teenage suburban weed revelations like Zorg’s that dominate the minds of capitalists who, at least since Andrew Carnegie’s Prosperity Gospel, have done a good job of making everyone else agree that their bad ideas are immutable truths. Observers and practitioners of state power —from Antonio Gramsci to Karl Rove— recognize that political common sense is not forged through debate, it is imposed through brute force and media saturation. Simple, easy to digest ideas spread fast, which is why it is important to engage with deeply uncritical ideas and, whenever possible, come up with compelling alternatives.
The trick is to package an idea in such a way that it can survive virality, where it will get further simplified, misunderstood, taken out of context, and interpreted by both good and bad-faith actors. The journey to popularity is made easier if an idea is robust, simple, and speaks to something that is already felt. Given that so much of media is used to “manufacture” the consenting opinions that legitimize the power of corporations and their client states, reactionary and conservative ideas have a much easier time gaining traction. Books, essays, and YouTube videos that tell their audiences that financial success is tied to individuals’ moral character, for example, confirm widely held beliefs and therefore get shared and thus find themselves at the top of search results. To introduce a new idea that challenges widely-held notions about work and morality, one has to go about it by foregrounding relatability and then letting the moral consequences naturally follow. If the story I just told you feels right, then it follows that you agree with my moral explanation for that feeling.
David Graeber has done just that in his new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which is an expansion on his viral 2013 Strike! essay. Both make a fairly simple proposition: people are increasingly working at jobs that they know are meaningless (i.e. bullshit) but are often well-paid and easy to do. A bullshit job only requires a few hours of actual work a week, is not physically strenuous, and may even provide opportunities to pursue hobbies if done surreptitiously. Why then, Graeber asks, do people consistently feel psychically gutted by these jobs? Making lots of money to do very little sounds like the ideal job and yet, judging by the popularity of the essay alone, that is not the case for millions of people around the world.
What is the idea that Bullshit Jobs puts forward? Any book with political aspirations should be judged, at least in part, by a thorough investigation into who benefits from the widespread adoption of its ideas. To begin answering this question, we have to consider the definition of the titular term: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend this is not the case.”
Graeber fleshes the definition out into a taxonomy of five different kinds of bullshit jobs. Flunkies are someone whose profession exists solely through a combination of other, more powerful people’s desire to have underlings serve them. Goons aggressively carry out anti-social rules and laws. Duct-tapers hold together intentionally broken systems. Box tickers are jobs “who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact it is not doing.” And taskmasters “whose role consists entirely of assigning [bullshit] work to others.” These types often merge. For example, my job at the law office was a flunky-goon hybrid.
Far from being a detriment to economic activity, the proliferation of bullshit is arguably the major force of increased employment today. “At least half of all work being done in our society” Graeber speculates, “could be eliminated without making any real difference at all.” All the administrators your college hired as classroom sizes bloomed, the managers with sentence-long titles that write reports at each other all day, and the office drones who process paperwork to comply with laws that their company wrote and handed to Congress make up a good deal of the high-status jobs added to the economy in recent years.
“Even in relatively benign office environments” Greaber argues, “the lack of a sense of purpose eats away at people.” Increased status or compensation can compound shame, guilt, and anxiety as the worker becomes consumed by the idea that they are complicit in society’s ills. Who this book is for, then, appears to be middle class professionals who recognize the meaninglessness of their job.
When it comes to analyzing the race and gender dimensions, Bullshit Jobs is, by no means, directed solely at affluent white men. Not only is the bullshit economy simply too big to impact only one demographic, but the tactics of psychic violence it relies on —gas lighting and demanding unending emotional labor just to name two primary ones— are often directed squarely at women. The book also contains overlapping anecdotes from people of color who were hired to do nothing but work on company diversity issues, only to find that their job was designed to be an ineffectual box ticking or duct-taping role with no actual power to fix the problem they were hired to solve. These symphisian tasks not only frustrate the worker, they also make them the prime targets of white resentment.
What seems most important to Graeber though, is that we as readers bear witness to this particularly insidious form of psychic violence and recognize a fundamental truth that this suffering reveals: namely, that humans are not self-interested individualists. Rather we are compassionate creatures driven by the desire to help people and make a difference in the world.
There is something deeply disturbing and surprising palliative about reading the accounts of meaningless work that Graeber solicited through his Twitter account, anonymized, and republished throughout the book. There are stories of office managers, doormen, and even social workers whose daily responsibilities are no more meaningful than digging a hole in the morning and filling it in after lunch. I was lucky in 2009, in that I had an ideology that provided satisfying answers to explain why I hated my job. I had friends that were politically engaged, and we could talk about how good money goes to bad people. For many though, they can’t find a critique that goes beyond Zorg or maybe Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space. Griping with co-workers can be rewarding too, but people are hungry for bigger, but still straight-forward, answers.
Like most things, meaningful explanations to complex problems like, “why do I hate a job that by all accounts I should love?” are eminently Googleable. Jordan Peterson, whose YouTube success has been the basis for a best-selling self-help book masquerading as a work of philosophy, is increasingly found at the top of algorithmically sorted piles of data. Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor, has made a career out of lashing together several bunk theories about the relationships between IQ, gender, and race: ideas that are so predictably wrong and hateful that they don’t require much summary. It suffices to say that much of Peterson’s work is geared toward people who are drifting —YouTube video titles include “Jordan Peterson teaches you how to interact with anyone” and “Jordan Peterson: What Kind of Job Fits You?”— and in search of satisfying answers to big problems.
Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a fine distillate of the retrograde, reactive blather that made him internet famous; strapped together by moralizing truisms organized in 12 “rules” that make up chapter titles, the contents of the book sync up so well with white men’s contemporary alienation that it should be no surprise that it is a best-seller. Even seemingly reasonable rules like “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding” are really anti-social screeds about resenting women and fantasizing about physical violence. His treatment of theory is dead wrong and the anecdotes based off of his professional practice bely a deep suspicion of women’s basic ability to tell the truth. There’s also a chapter about being the best lobster so that women will be biologically attracted to you. This book has sold millions of copies.
Reactionaries like Jordan Peterson are enticing because they have no problem giving a single answer to deep questions of meaning and one’s place in the world. In addition to bunk evolutionary biology, Peterson also talks a lot about the Bible and what it says about living a good and just life. There are chaos dragons and spectral forces that the reader must slay in order to thrive. Similar to Alex Jones, Peterson invites his audiences to subscribe to a system of meaning similar to a religion that, from the outside, merely looks like a set of objectively wrong facts. What he is actually doing is much more profound: he is giving satisfying explanations for an unpredictable world.
Liberals, on the other hand, are happy to data posture; they avoid taking a political stance by reciting data, and seem astonished to find out that work for the sake of working does not breed happiness. They grab their chins and nod seriously at faux intellectual ideas by behavioral economists like Dan Ariely. One of Ariely’s most popular studies, presented at a TEDx event, offered subjects a few dollars to build a series of small Lego figurines. All were told that the sets would eventually be disassembled and re-used but some people had their sets torn down in front of them as they were building another one. Unsurprisingly, the people who saw their work instantly undone agreed to build far fewer Lego sets.
Seeking the stamp of approval of a behavioral economist before agreeing to the inherent value of meaningful work belies a deep distrust of other people and a willful ignorance of existing knowledge on the subject. For at least a century, researchers have known that humans derive a singular pleasure from what Graeber, citing early 20th century German psychologist Karl Groos, calls “the pleasure at being the cause.” To exist at all is to make change in the world, and “this realization is, from the very beginning, marked with a species of delight that remains the fundamental background of all subsequent human experience.” Demanding endless research on a topic that should be a moral supposition is a hallmark of liberal media. By replacing actual political work with calls for endless experimentation, powerful people can perpetually delay any meaningful political work.
Greaber, then, appears to be providing a new option that is more satisfying than liberal handwringing and far more humane than what the reactionaries are offering. The key to success is his method, which eschews data posturing in favor of a subjective analysis. Graeber is very upfront about the subjective nature of his work, arguing that his own motivations include trusting individual workers’ own assessments of their jobs’ effects on the world, instead of relying on some seemingly independent evaluation: “my primary aim is not so much to lay out a theory of social utility or social values as to understand the psychological, social, and political effects of the fact that so many of us labor under the secret belief that our jobs lack social utility or social value.” This leaves little room for quibbling over whether or not a Vice President for Strategic Visioning is really doing important work or not. The point is to understand how the role of Vice President for Strategic Visioning is experienced, why that experience can be negative, and to use that subjective experience as the basis for a normative argument about how work should be organized.
The book, which came out last May, has been derided on Twitter as an unnecessary expansion of Graeber’s five-year-old viral essay. This is an odd critique for political writing: that a popular essay should not be put into other forms unless you have something new to say. Such a reaction seems to ignore how attention intersects with politics. A popular idea, turned into a popular book, stakes a claim to news cycles, column inches, likes, plays, and followers. Bullshit Jobs is useful both for the ideas it contains but also as a subject of media coverage. Both characteristics, for better or worse, are important. Finding a happy balance —an idea that is both liberatory and capable of going viral without losing its moral clarity— is essential if the left wants their ideas to show up in the places where we look for truth: Google search results.
Much like the Trump presidency, Petersons’ work may have attracted a lot of attention for being singularly stomach-wrenching, but he is more of an avatar than a pariah; someone that has effectively consolidated hegemonic ideas into a digestible format. Peterson is an intellectual troll and, as Whitney Phillips’ definitive study of trolls concludes, that means he has a keen sense of how to inject ideas that “replicate behaviors and attitudes that in other contexts are actively celebrated.” By manipulating context and knowing when and where to break with decorum, he can create controversy by saying things that most powerful people already agree are true.It is this ability to rearticulate hegemony while appearing as though you are speaking truth to power that generates the attention that social media algorithms are keen to pick up on.
Someone seeking an explanation for why they hate their desk job will likely turn to algorithmically sorted media like Google search results and YouTube videos to find answers. The results, ranked and sorted by popularity, dutifully recite the dominant ideology: extroverted YouTube personalities talking directly into their cameras about the positive mentality that let them break the 100,000 views mark or a TED talk about how your brain chemistry changes when you do something that you love. What unites the motivational speaker and the neuroscientist is that your problems (and successes!) are your own. Society is a static obstacle course and you are racing against everyone else. Truly great people change the rules of the game, but they do it by being remarkable —winning so definitively that the game is changed forever, or cheating in a mischievous, enviable way— not by cooperating with others.
Bullshit Jobs can compete with the likes of Peterson precisely because Graeber built the theory on subjective experiences. It just feels true while simultaneously giving permission to feel that truth by introducing the reader to other people that have had the same experience. The book is not a barn burner, it asks very little of its reader, and these are its two most useful features as an entry point for better politics. If you already agree that your job is bullshit, then you are halfway towards agreeing that people, left to their own devices, will look to be helpful and cooperative. This basic belief, in turn, can go a long way towards making specific policy proposals like a universal basic income, unionization, and socializing essential services like medical care, easier to swallow.
We’re at the precipice of a grand re-arranging of political alliances in which neocons and neoliberals are banding together with an agenda of paltry centrist domestic policy and hawkish foreign intervention, while something dangerous but potentially liberatory is brewing everywhere else. The task now, which Bullshit Jobs is just the start of, is articulating a compelling narrative of peoples’ lives such that when they act politically they choose liberatory approaches —unionizing, socializing essential services, a universal basic income— instead of reactionary ones. What we need now are more, better works like Graeber’s. Ones that side-step the endless data posturing liberals engage in as they attempt to debunk the terrifying reality painted by reactionaries. Let us opt instead for compassionate understanding and inspiring calls to collective action.
David is on Twitter