Ask yourself, says a notorious ‘Occupy’ academic, should your job exist?

BY David Graeber  May 9, 2014 at 2:11 PM EDT
meaningless work. Photo by John McBride & Company Inc./The Image Bank.

Do you actually perform meaningful work all day or are you paid to look busy, asks anthropologist David Graeber. Photo by John McBride & Company Inc./The Image Bank.

Editor’s Note: If you’re reading this at work, you’re probably not all that busy. Don’t you ever wish you could just fit your “work” into fewer hours, then go home to do your own thing instead of being paid to look busy all day?

John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technological advancement would make that possible by the turn of the century. He foresaw a 15-hour workweek. Instead, Americans are now working more and more hours. But what are they actually doing, asks American anthropologist David Graeber? “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working,” Graeber wrote in a summer 2013 essay in Strike Magazine that we’ll call “BS Jobs.”

For one thing, he writes, we’ve created entirely new jobs to accommodate the workaday world. Administrators (think telemarketing and financial services) and the growing number of human resources and public relations professionals can’t pick up their own pizzas or walk their dogs. That’s why, Graeber says, we have all-night pizza delivery men and dog-walkers.

Graeber’s (rather rank) vision of hell captures the cycle of meaningless work he’s criticizing:

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. [...]There’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

Graeber is a professor at the London School of Economics. So isn’t that a classic example of frying fish (i.e., meaningless work)? He welcomes that question, but quickly dismisses it, saying he wouldn’t dare tell anyone who truly believes in their work that it’s not meaningful. It’s those workers who are already cognizant of the futility of their day that he’s after — like his friend, the poet-musician-turned-corporate lawyer, whom he told us about in his previous Making Sen$e post on the guaranteed basic income. Those are his fish-fryers, resenting the cabinet-makers for doing “real” work.

Paul Solman interviewed Graeber for our broadcast segment on the basic income (watch below). That conversation led to a discussion of Graeber’s theory that many jobs shouldn’t exist.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor


You had an article recently, the name of which I can’t say on television, so let’s call it “BS Jobs.” What was the point?

So, all my life, there’s people, you meet them at parties, you run into them, you ask them what they do, and they kind of look sheepish and don’t want to admit it, you know? They say, well, it’s not really very interesting. It’s like, well, I’m a human resource consultant; I work at a computer firm where I fill out forms of a certain kind to make it faster for somebody else to do this, or I’m a middle man among seven layers of middlemen in this sort of outsourcing… They’re always embarrassed; they don’t look like they do anything. All those people out there who have these jobs that you don’t think they’re really doing anything, they must be suffering, they must know that their jobs are essentially made up. Imagine going to work every day knowing you’re not really doing anything. What must that do to someone’s soul?

How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist? But, of course, you’re not going to tell your boss that. So I thought, you know, there must be enormous moral and spiritual damage done to our society. And then I thought, well, maybe that explains some other things, like why is it there’s this deep, popular resentment against people who have real jobs? They can get people so angry at auto-workers, just because they make 30 bucks an hour, which is like nowhere near what corporate lawyers make, but nobody seems to resent them. They get angry at the auto-workers; they get angry at teachers. They don’t get angry at school administrators, who actually make more money. Most of the problems people blame on teachers, and I think on some level, that’s resentment: all these people with meaningless jobs are saying, but, you guys get to teach kids, you get to make cars; that’s real work. We don’t get to do real work; you want benefits, too? That’s not reasonable.

You mean that the resentment is born of envy?

It’s envy of people who get to have meaningful jobs that actually produce something. I think that’s a major political force in America, and other places as well. It seems to operate to the benefit of the people running the society. I don’t think they set it up as a conspiracy, but they let it happen, because if you think about it, that’s exactly what’s not supposed to happen in a capitalist system. You know, we all made fun of the Soviet Union because they would just make up these meaningless jobs because well, we have full employment. So they just make up jobs, moving things from one side to another. Or there’d be three different people to buy a piece of bread — you have to get a ticket from one, you have to go over here.

But we’re doing the same thing, except instead of making up meaningless proletarian jobs, we’re making up meaningless office jobs, and these guys are basically paid to act busy all day. A lot of them may really work one or two hours, and the rest of the time they’re downloading stuff from the Internet, or playing around on Facebook or something. But, their job is to sit in an office, and basically valorize the idea that everybody should look busy all the time, that work is valuable in itself.

We used to think work was valuable because it produces something. Now we think that work is just valuable itself. If you’re not busy all the time doing something, anything — doesn’t really matter what it is — you’re a bad person, and that’s exactly the sort of logic that basic income would get rid of.

What percentage of jobs do you think of these days, very ballpark estimate, as “BS jobs”?

I’d say 20 percent. But it’s hard for me to say. The last thing I want to do is come in and say, you, your job is BS, while you, you’re okay. The whole idea is that people should decide for themselves what’s valuable. But if you talk about jobs where the people who actually are working at them secretly feel that they really don’t produce anything, or don’t do anything, I’d say about 20 percent has been my experience. But, of course, you know, we’d have to do extensive research to see if that’s really true.

After you wrote the article, what kind of response did you get?

Oh, that was what was remarkable. I mean if ever there was a hypothesis that was confirmed by the response… I wrote this in a very obscure British lefty magazine called Strike Magazine, going out on the Internet, and within three or four weeks, I think it had been translated into 14 different languages, including Catalan, Estonian, Korean. It was circulated around the world, and I got all these messages from people saying, oh, people in the financial services industry have been passing this back and forth — I got this five times in the last week sent to me from different friends — and then people would start writing these blogs, these confessionals. There was one I saw in Australia, where people were writing things like, it’s true, I’m a corporate lawyer, I contribute nothing to society, I’m miserable all the time, I just do this for my children, otherwise I’d get out. Over and over again, people saying yes, it’s true, my job does nothing.

Graeber appears in Paul’s Making Sen$e segment on the guaranteed income, below.