Thursday, December 19, 2019

Pointless Work (2019)

Book Review from the December 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Graeber: Bullshit Jobs. Penguin £9.99.

Socialists often refer to the fact that so many jobs under capitalism are useless in terms of satisfying people’s needs. Everything to do with banks, insurance and accounting falls into this category, as do the armed forces, courts and prisons, bailiffs, advertising and so on.

But here David Graeber takes this idea much further, with the idea of a bullshit job: ‘a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.’ Such jobs are mostly white collar, and one survey showed that 37 per cent of workers felt that their job did not ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Jobs which are unpleasant and badly paid, but which need to be done, are not bullshit jobs but rather are characterised as ‘shit jobs’.

Much of Graeber’s evidence is taken from email and other responses to his requests for examples of bullshit jobs from workers performing them, and he quotes at length from these accounts. The jobs themselves are of various kinds, including flunky jobs (designed to make someone else feel important), duct tapers (who solve problems that should not really exist) and box tickers (who allow an organisation to claim it is doing something which in fact it is not). Such jobs often lead to increased stress and anxiety, while more meaningful work may be done in a more collaborative way. Moreover, the more a job benefits others, the less the worker is likely to be paid (though of course there are many exceptions to this).

Although it is hard to quantify, the number and proportion of bullshit jobs appears to be increasing, and Graeber attributes this primarily to what he terms ‘managerial feudalism’, a concept which seems to mean that managers want more power and so more underlings to make them feel and appear important. He also cites a remark made by Barack Obama, that rationalising the US health care system would lead to the problem of what to do with the millions who work for medical insurance companies: in effect admitting that they are not doing useful work at all, but then wondering how they would otherwise be employed.

The final chapter contains a proposal for a universal basic income, but the book’s interest lies in the earlier chapters, where a great deal is said about the reality for so many of employment under capitalism. One worker in a bullshit job is quoted as follows: ‘I consider a worthwhile job to be one that fulfills a preexisting need, or creates a product or service that people hadn’t thought of, that somehow enhances and improves their lives. I believe we passed the point where most jobs were these type of jobs a long time ago.’ Indeed, and it would be straightforward to make work more satisfying and to reduce working hours, while still producing enough to meet human need.
Paul Bennett

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