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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, December 23, 2019

Bullshit Jobs

Anthropology is like no other academic subject. Only the anthropological student is expected first to immerse him/herself in the accounts and theories which the founders of the discipline have given of the lives of primitive people and then, until the supply of inaccessible tribes ran out, to live and do field work amongst them.
These days, instead of having to hack through thick underbrush to find people with strange customs and languages, the anthropologist negotiates with gatekeepers to access such esoteric groups as bankers; European Union civil servants; or the precariat.

The result is to endow the professional anthropologist with a rather unusual – if not “quirky” – perspective on things. (S)he seems unable to take things for granted in the manner of the economist, political scientist or sociologist - whose focus is generally that of the more familiar world of contemporary society.
Historians, of course, also look at the world slightly differently - but anthropologists live almost literally in other “civilisations” where behaviour and its significance needs to be teased out..

David Graeber is in this sense a typical example – particularly his latest book “Bullshit Jobs – a theory” from which I have just emerged with rather different perceptions about the world of work from those I held when I entered a couple of days earlier….a rare sign of originality…It began its life in 2013 as a short “rant” about modern work, went viral and had soon been translated into a dozen or so languages.
The book came out in 2018 and is a great read. For an academic, Graeber has a very accessible style – as you can see for yourself with these two other, shorter, books – The Utopia of Rules – on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy (2015); and Revolutions in Reverse – essays on politics, violence, art and imagination (2011?)

Bullshit Jobs” poses three big questions -
-       why so many people (Graeber suggests at least one third) consider that their jobs make absolutely no sense;
-       why we haven’t really noticed such a dangerous development
-       what we can do about it

He starts with a nice example of someone in the German army wanting to move a desk two rooms down a corridor – leading to a mass of paperwork with sub-contractors. You know the score – “terms of reference”, measures of performance, contracts etc
This allows him to sketch out 5 new types of work –
- Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important….Mischievously, he suggests that Think Tanks are a good example….
- Goons [are] people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them….Security companies and indeed the army spring to mind
- Duct tapers (emergency repairers) are employees whose jobs only exist because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist….
- Box tickers [are] employees 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….
- Taskmasters fall into two categories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others…. [Type 2 contains those] whose primary role is to create bullshit tasks for other to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs.”

The book, deservedly in my view, has become a best-seller – although few academics have considered it worthy of review.

One of the most compelling arguments in Graeber’s book is the simple observation that the creation of meaningless jobs is exactly what capitalism is not supposed to do. Governed by the need to maximise profits and minimise costs, companies subject to “pure” capitalism would gain no advantage in hiring unnecessary staff. However, Graeber points out that many industries no longer operate on this dynamic of profit and loss. Instead some industries like accountancy, consultancy and corporate law, are rewarded through huge, open contracts, where the incentive is to maximise the length, cost and duration of the project.
One testimony from a former consultant helping a bank resolve claims from the PPI scandal described how they, “purposefully mistrained and disorganized staff so that the jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong… This meant that cases had to be redone and contracts extended”.
It leads Graeber to make a simple point – perhaps parts of our economy are no longer governed by capitalism – or certainly not the type of capitalism that Marx, Milton Friedman and Adam Smith would recognise. To Graeber, an anthropologist, the bullshit economy resembles more of a feudal economy, which he brands “managerial feudalism”. The open-ended contracts represent the “loot” or “pots of gold” that feudal knights would have plundered and redistributed. And just as feudal knights surrounded themselves with serfs, peasants and slaves, so do the new executive knights of the information realm.

Yet Graeber argues that this is more than just economics. Bullshit jobs are political. Their existence is an attempt by the ruling class to manage and control the middle and lower orders. This analysis will strike some as conspiratorial nonsense.

But Graeber suggests that managerial feudalism is not the result of careful planning, central directives or an orchestrated conspiracy organised by a cabal of the world’s wealthiest people. It is more the result of inaction. Failing to invest in new technologies, to consider the adoption of policies like universal basic income and to challenge stale moral assumptions concerning work. In sum, it is the failure to change the status quo, which Graeber believes has enabled the ruling class to continue the management of people through labour.
Before branding Graeber as a crazy conspiracy theorist, it’s worth remembering that this idea is by no means new. Mainstream intellectuals from George Orwell to Buckminster Fuller have all made similar arguments. Graeber also points to measurable trends, such as consistent cuts to public services and wage stagnation for the working and middle classes since the 1970s, to make a legitimate claim that these are political decisions, privileging specific class interests.

I found chapter 6 the most interesting “Why do we as a society not object to the growth of pointless employment?”. This discusses the western world’s relationship to work and money, at least from Greco-Roman influences through the Middle Ages and then the Industrial Revolution – in the course of which some interesting points emerge – particularly about the concept of “service”. In England in the Middle Ages, working for someone else is what you before you became an adult. The Calvinist idea that work was supposed to equal suffering, that enjoying work made it “not work” and therefore not something that pleased God also makes an appearance -  although, for me, Graeber pushes the point excessively.

I’ve skimmed other books on work (Charles Handy’s books of the 1980s spring to mind) but somehow I don’t remember them having this historical perspective…

Further Reading
https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2018/07/bullshit-about-jobs one of the few academic reviews – but one with a tinge of jealousy about it
https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/08/bullshit-jobs; a serious review which does a good summary

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