Reviewed by Robert Ovetz
Declaring war on work is close to my heart. I have declared my own war on pointless work which guided me into higher education, a place where fellow academic David Graeber gleefully finds as much bullshit work as anywhere else in the capitalist economy. We should give a lot of credit to Graeber for declaring war on ‘bullshit jobs,’ the catchy title of his new book. His objective is far more reaching than just denouncing what he calls pointless work — he has declared war on nearly all work in a capitalist society.
While Graeber’s war on work is virtuous, it’s compromised. He is torn between charybdis and scylla, denouncing clearly pointless, destructive, and useless work while trumpeting a call for ‘good’ work — reproductive labour or what is widely now called caring work — to be defended, demanded, and expanded. He can spare caring work because he doesn’t have a theory of how human labour is exploited, whether it’s useful to society, pointless, or destructive. Bullshit Jobs ends up doing exactly what he criticises unions, liberals, and the left for doing — demanding ‘good jobs’ — except as long as it is work that cares for others.
Though captivating to read, Graeber will not have the final word on bullshit work because his book fails to answer two key issues. First, he is never able to tell us how much bullshit work is being done. Second, he does not have a convincing explanation for why it exists. His self-described anarchist analysis of bullshit work fails to explain how it serves capitalism. This second point is crucial because if there is one thing anarchists and Marxists agree on it is that capitalism is a system of imposed work in which the worker is exploited to make profits. As Haymarket martyr Adolph Fischer insightfully reminded us, ‘every anarchist is a socialist but not every socialist is necessarily an anarchist.’ In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber has left his socialist behind.
The Left’s Malcolm Gladwell
Graeber is a gifted and accessible writer. He not only writes clearly in the vernacular, but he writes with ease and heart that can probably reach the widest audience in translating the esoteric ideas of anarchism and libertarian socialists. He is, without a doubt, the Malcolm Gladwell of the autonomous left, translating complex theories in a way anyone can relate to and use. He has proven with his co-launching of the Occupy Wall Street movement and his widely read and discussed book Debt: The First 5,000 Years that he will be read and heard by a much wider audience that us ‘usual suspects.’
But that pop accessibility comes at a cost. Like Gladwell does for the behavioural and social sciences, Graeber sacrifices the rigour of theory for the relatable and digestible catchy idea — an otherwise acceptable compromise to get the ideas out to a wide audience. Graeber is a genius at marketing his ideas. The core of his book, for example, speaks to what nearly everyone already knows: work is exhausting, oppressive, and pointless. But he takes it much further than any other pop writer on work by arguing for its democratisation: everyone should be able to choose the work they do, and to do so socially as a community, movement, or collective. He’s talking about radically democratising the economy, a crucial topic on which there is a drastic shortage of thinkers, which is extremely commendable. We certainly don’t hear that too much about it from popular writers with the exception of science fiction. This book, like his co-authored manifesto that sparked the Occupy movement in which I participated, is likely to become a manifesto for the ages.
But Bullshit Jobs cannot be the last call on the issue of work and the struggle against it. The core reason for this is that Graeber’s thinking is often incomplete, strained, trapped in dead ends, and just plain wrong. While you will want to read every page, Bullshit Jobs delivers like a left Freakonomics. It is a compelling and entertaining geewhizzer type of book full of head turning stories and facts about work that is only loosely anchored to a substantive analysis that can help explain the cause for the very phenomenon on which it is focused, let alone what to do about it. Sadly, while he hesitates to venture down the ‘solutions’ road, Graeber has little to offer.
Work and Capitalism
Graeber has little use for the socialism Fischer identified as a core tenant of anarchism. This shows up in his oft repeated description of work as ‘neo-feudal’ and his outright dismissal of the labour theory of value. As a result, Graeber does not have an analysis of all work.
Graeber repeatedly dismisses the modern workplace as structured along a feudal system of relationships in which management serves as the lord of the manor and the workers, subjected to pointless bullshit jobs, are the serfs. This is just plain wrong and a theoretical dead end. There is nothing even remotely related to feudalism in work in a capitalist system. The workers are not tied to the land and the lord but can sell their labour (or not) with or without coercion (such as the necessity of eating). To call it feudal is a-historical, as if the capitalist revolution that displaced feudalism and ‘freed’ the serf as a waged slave never happened. Managers are not lords but highly paid workers (at least those who don’t own the company), who oversee and have authority over and serve to impose work on other workers lower in the pay and power hierarchy. The workplace is not a feudal relationship of production. The source of profits is not the land, acquired only through monarch, family, war, and conquest, and not sale on the market. Profits are generated by exploited labour power in excess of the cost of purchasing access to that labour power. Authority is not passed by monarch, blood, and god but acquired from HR.
This conceptual and historical confusion between the epochs of feudalism and capitalism not only muddies the waters but sets up Graeber’s failure to explain why bullshit work exists on such a vast scale and what to do about it.
There is one brief moment of lucidity when Graeber raises the issue of the global division of labour. Here he begins to explain what many of these jobs do and why they probably exist. In the past four decades the global economy has been transformed so that waged work is no longer done in house by a company’s workers and manufacturing work is no longer completed on a single assembly line. Rather, the entire supply chain for production and service work is now global with its parts rationalised, broken up and distributed along multiple assembly lines in a global supply chain in which each worker is separated by great distances, language, etc.
Much of the pointless bullshit work portrayed in the many fascinating first-hand accounts and testimonials from respondents to Graeber’s social media survey and interviews is the product of this vast global division of labour. There are many stories about how their work requires that they tend a phone, computer or device for days, weeks, months, and years in the event they are needed to carry out work that takes minutes or a few hours to complete, often fixing (‘duct taping’ as Graeber calls it) or cleaning up after the incompetence of other co-workers or bosses. It’s no surprise that these workers find their work pointless, tedious, and boring. Their work is characterised by the minutiae of their highly rationalised role as ‘bolt screwers’ in an assembly line so vast they can neither see its start or finish.
Many of the jobs carried out by what Graeber calls ‘flunkies,’ ‘goons,’ ‘duct tapers,’ ‘box tickers,’ and ‘task masters’ might be bullshit, mindless, and unfulfilling but they are not pointless. The first basic reason is that no matter how distasteful the work, they are various forms of abstract labour. Each of these workers are at work and whether they produce anything at all they are still reproducing capitalism because they are being disciplined and/or disciplining others to work. They are also paid a wage which they then spend to generate more demand for abstract labour to produce the good or service they purchased. These workers, as despicable or laughable their work may be, are productive parts of the global assembly line, a system of production which any single worker will strain to fully comprehend their place. As Harry Cleaver explains, ‘As with abstract labour, labour time must be grasped within the totality of capital. The measurement of abstract labour time can only be done within the framework of the total social mass of homogeneous, abstract labour time coerced from workers unit by “innumerable unit.”’ (Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 1979, p. 218)
Graeber has little use for any analysis of this global supply chain. While he acknowledges that they workers are running the minute details of the global system he dismisses them as worthless dumb jobs that contribute nothing. In over-emphasising the particular he loses sight of the system. We need to recall Marx’s analysis in Capital, Volume III (1894) that the share of profits doesn’t just go to the capitalist at the end of the supply chain but is shared by all the capitalists who are part of the entire production process. In this way, the bullshit workers carry out not pointless work but minuscule tasks that in total contribute to managing the global assembly line. Many of these workers are unable to see the consequences of the button they literally push once or a few times a day. But the value of their minuscule task does not measure the value of their labour; it is a small share of the total output of the entire assembly line. One of the best testimonials in the book was from a worker who literally waited all day to literally just push the proverbial button. That worker, however, cannot see the larger systemic impact of that one button being pushed. This is why we don’t substitute anecdotes for theory.
What Graeber misses is that these bullshit workers are productive, not because of any substantive measurement of the value of what they produce, but because they put other people to work. Such bullshit work is productive not simply because of any tangible thing they make or service they provide. It is productive precisely because they put people to work. To miss that is to miss the very analysis of unwaged work that Graeber praises the Wages for Housework movement for in the last chapter.
Graeber is absolutely correct to attack the social democratic left’s obsession with creating more work, ‘better’ work, and for higher pay. But, like them, he misses a deeper point: what is work for? Because he cannot see any ‘value’ (he calls it ‘social value’) in their work he dismisses it as pointless. Attempting to measure the value of work leads to what Cleaver calls the ‘phlogiston’ theory of value. Cleaver reminds us that Marx’s analysis of the exploitation of labour to produce surplus value is not about measuring a substance. It is an analysis of the relationship that perpetuates the system that imposes work. Capital is unable to produce anything if it cannot get the worker to the machine or the sink and make her work. To impose work is to transform potential labour power into actual work. By imposing work, capital perpetuates itself. The key here is any work, pointless or otherwise, is what produces value. That value is not to us (Marx calls these ‘use values’ although they are useful to capital as well) but to capital in its objective to maintain control and perpetuate the system of exploitation and domination. Value is not some thing excreted by workers working. It is the power to impose work. Cleaver explains,
Unfortunately, many tend to think that the magnitude of value of a commodity is determined by the amount of abstract labour time incorporated into it by the worker who produced it. But, to conceive of the value of a commodity as being the direct result of the work of producing that individual commodity is to lose the social character of value and to see it instead as some metaphysical substance that is magically injected into the product by the worker’s touch. Such a theory of value is akin to the old chemical theory of phlogiston in which the principle of fire was conceived as a material substance incorporated into inflammable objects. A phlogiston theory of value leads to such bizarre and politically dangerous results as identifying ‘value-producing’ workers only as those who do physical work directly on the product. From here it is only one step to the ritualistic categorisation of ‘real’ workers and ‘unproductive’ workers and the political positions usually associated with such an approach. (Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, 1979, p. 218)
This raises a second theoretical flaw in Graeber’s analysis: his dismissal of the ‘labour theory of value’ which he correctly attributes to Adam Smith and Marx’s critical expansion and application of the concept. These thinkers both surprisingly agreed that all value is produced by labour, only that Marx sought a way out of that trap. Because bullshit work is pointless, Graeber cannot see how it contributes to the social relations of production and reproduction, erroneously concluding that the labour theory of value no longer applies. Overturning two centuries of work critiquing capitalism, Graeber returns us to a feudal system of workers trapped in their bullshit jobs to survive.
Free Market Jobs Program
The strongest evidence of Graeber’s mistake is the explanation for why these jobs exist in the first place. Many of his respondents humorously acknowledge that their jobs need not exist. A robot, computer algorithm, or efficient restructuring could easily automate, eliminate, or absorb their pointless tasks. Graeber refuses to take the capitalists’ word at face value that they need people to do this work and instead, without evidence, argues that bullshit jobs are part of a preposterous free market jobs program in which corporations continue to create jobs in response to demands from political elites so the later can get elected and re-elected.
There are a few problems with this claim. First, there is no evidence that such a corporatist social contract exists. The headlines don’t scream ‘20,000 new jobs created by company X today’ but that they destroyed the jobs. Second, the number of well-paid bullshit jobs being created are far eclipsed by low paying shit jobs which Graeber briefly discusses. If there is any type of free market jobs program, it’s creating countless shitty jobs at starvation wages to do what can’t be automated or cheaper to do with human labour. Third, the complete opposite is occurring as politicians take large campaigns donations from the corporate sector to make it easier for them to engage in mass layoffs, outsourcing, automation, app-based work, contingency, etc. Lastly, the well-paid bullshit jobs portrayed in the book are rare inside and virtually non-existent outside the global north because these jobs exist to manage the global division of labour in which the workers in the rest of the world are engaged in shit jobs.
Here we return to Fischer’s point. Graeber’s fetishisation of value as a thing blinds him to the productive role of bullshit jobs. They produce surplus value because these ‘bullshit’ jobs exist to manage and exploit countless other workers downstream along the global division of labour. There is no denying most of these jobs are soul crushing and mind numbing. But saying that is not the same as demonstrating that their labour does not contribute to capitalism. They are productive to capitalism because they keep one person at work instead of doing all the unlimited activities Graeber celebrates for a life beyond work. At worst, they dominate and exploit many other seen and unseen workers who likewise are subordinated to endless work. Either way, they produce value because they are imposed work and in turn impose work on others. The fundamental fact of Graeber’s respondents are evidence of his mistake — these workers are informing him about their work. The fact that they are working, however absurd they might be, is evidence that they produce value — for capital.
Caring to Struggle
If Graeber is missing the socialism central to anarchism by dismissing the labour theory of value, he is further missing it by completely ignoring class struggle. As someone who did NGO advocacy work for years and now teaches political science, I admire Graeber’s refusal to propose policy prescriptions for what we should do about bullshit work. He especially refuses to make any proposals that do not allow workers ‘the means to manage their own affairs’ but rather empower the state and corporations. ‘Yeah, so this work is bullshit. What should we do about it?’ is often framed the wrong way. Graeber insists that he does not want to make work better. He did not set out to make the union, liberal, and social democratic prescription for more work (eg, exploitation) or ‘better’ work (eg, higher wages for more exploitation). That is extremely admirable.
Since Graeber self-identifies as an anarchist my expectations were sorely disappointed. Although he does celebrate the resistance to and refusal of work, he doesn’t have any tactics or strategies for ramping up the struggle against work. Rather, he eventually concedes to offering policy solutions by redefining all work as caring work and supporting Universal Basic Income (UBI), an idea hatched by libertarian capitalists. Drawing on the Wages for Housework’s critique of reproductive or caring work and emotional labour as unwaged labour, Graeber simply redefines all work as caring labour. He argues that whether working in an office, helping customers in a call centre or taking care of your children, virtually all work ultimately serves others and should be considered care work. Once all non-caring bullshit work is automated, Graeber foresees all the work that will be left will be caring work — the quintessential ‘good’ work he tries so hard to avoid for most of the book. And once UBI is established, people will be freed up to do only caring work. It is hardly an anarchist solution to propose a policy prescription that leaves us dependent on the state to collect and transmit the profits of the capitalist economy.
So ultimately, Graeber’s prescription in the title, ‘what we can do about it [bullshit work],’ is to choose caring work, either waged directly or paid for by a UBI payment. In the end, it’s not a collective global class struggle against the exploitation of human labour in order to buy the essentials of life to survive. It’s not mass strikes and other forms of job action to drive down work hours and drive up wages so as to make human labour unmanageable and prohibitively expensive. It’s not a revolutionary reorganisation of society to meet the needs of all the planetary inhabitants. In the end we are left with a policy prescription to choose caring work, work that reproduces the labour power of others to work. What a letdown.
Although we ultimately learn that Graeber’s stream of anarchism is the moral kind, Bullshit Jobs is a humorous page turning assault on meaningless work you’ll spend your rare ‘time off’ from work to read. But once you finish his moral denunciation of pointless work, you’ll still need to make lunch for tomorrow and hit the sack early for yet another gruelling commute and endless day of absurd work. In Bullshit Jobs we now know our jobs are mostly pointless. We still don’t know yet how to get rid of them — and all work for that matter.
Robert Ovetz, Ph.D. is a contingent lecturer in political science at a university in California in the US. He is the author of When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 (Brill 2018, Haymarket 2019) and the forthcoming tentatively titled Workers’ Inquiry: Strategies, Tactics and Objectives of the Global Working Class (Pluto Press). Read his writings on the refusal of work at: https://sjsu.academia.edu/RobertOvetzPhD and follow him at @OvetzRobert