Modern capitalism and the rise of the bullshit job

Bored office worker © Getty Images
This feeling I have must be an indicator of something…

Modern capitalism was supposed to deliver productivity gains, efficiency and unimagined wealth for all. Why then are so many of us labouring away at pointless work? Stuart Watkins reports.

In the former Soviet Union, employment was considered to be both a right and a sacred duty. As the economy was supposed to be planned from above to meet people’s needs, and as those needs included their need to work, the system made up as many jobs as it had to. As anthropologist David Graeber points out in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, that had predictable consequences. In the USSR, it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat.

With capitalism, it’s all supposed to be very different. Free markets and competition between private firms keep those firms lean and efficient, finding the best possible use of resources, including labour, for the least cost in time and money. And yet, according to Graeber, ever increasing numbers of us fritter our lives away working all day at pointless jobs – work that is not worth doing. The world might even be a better better place if the work were not done at all, in the judgement of those doing it – and who is in a better position to judge?

Can this be true? Graeber published a version of the argument in an obscure left-wing magazine in 2013, and the enthusiastic response he got convinced him there must be something to it. So he began researching the question in more depth, and his new 368-page book is his report on what he has found. Sadly, he hasn’t found all that much. The original essay has been fleshed out with two facts and some anecdotes.

A few facts to begin with

The first fact will probably not surprise anyone very much – that over the years since the industrial revolution, fewer and fewer people have been employed in agriculture and more in industry, and that in more recent years in particular, since about the end of the Second World War, fewer and fewer in industry and more in services. This is probably the most important part of the explanation for the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, and we’ll come back to it.

The second fact, garnered from a YouGov poll in the wake of Graeber’s original essay, is that 37% of British workers think their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world, with a further 13% uncertain about whether they did or not. Graeber says the poll shows his hypothesis to have “now been overwhelmingly confirmed by statistical research”. But if one poll is enough to do that, surely one more is enough to refute it. As David Goodhart points out in The Sunday Times, the 2015 British Social Attitudes survey found that 71% of workers think they have a good job.

Beyond his two facts, Graeber’s research entailed asking his Twitter followers to send in their stories about their own experiences. As Goodhart says, most of these come across as clever people bored with their work. The sort of clever people who follow an anarchist on Twitter and who are likely, when asked, to send in amusing stories about their grievances.

Economics and alienation

Still, Graeber is surely right that the scale of the response to his original essay, and the fact that so many people report that they feel their jobs to be pointless, must be an indicator of something. But of what? It doesn’t seem necessary to look further than the insights found in the notebooks of a 26-year-old youth writing in 1844 and later published as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

For Karl Marx, it is human nature to seek happiness and satisfaction in meaningful, productive work – it is a part of our “species-being”, as the then-Young Hegelian put it. Under previous “modes of production”, humans not only did this but had to do so in order to live at all, and there was a direct and satisfying connection between the work and the satisfaction of individual needs and that of the immediate community.

Under capitalism, however, this basic need of our species becomes frustrated, says Marx. Most modern workers do not work on their own account, but sell their abilities to work to an employer. The work itself may have become so divided up by the division of labour that we may not even be entirely sure what our contribution to the final product actually is. We just move the paper from one tray to the next. The product, whatever it may be, is not ours and does not feel like a product of our own creative abilities – it is just something we hand over to the owners, who sell it for as much as it will fetch on the market. The whole process makes us feel estranged from our work because we are in fact estranged from it – “alienated”, as Marx put it, from the very activity that makes us feel fully human. We feel, to put the whole thing in more modern language, that our working lives are bullshit.

As The Economist pointed out in a review of Graeber’s original essay, the work process has become ever more subdivided and complex since Marx’s day. “The goods being provided are more complex; the supply chains used to build them are more complex; the systems to market, sell and distribute them are more complex; the means to finance it all is more complex; and so on. This complexity is what makes us rich. But it is an enormous pain to manage.”

Industrial jobs are on the decline because it is more efficient to break the task up and organise a production line. This raises productivity and hence wages. But the rising cost of the wages, not to mention the fact that the jobs have became so incredibly tedious, means it makes sense to replace the workers with machines. Something similar is happening in our increasingly complex, information society. There is plenty of work to do – but for reasons of efficiency, this has been broken down into similarly tedious and pointless-seeming fragments. And now the robots are coming for those tasks too. In short, if you are stuck in a job that you suspect might be bullshit, it might be as well to reflect that, from a global and historical perspective, you are very much one of the lucky ones.

What is to be done?

It’s one thing to diagnose a problem, quite another to say what is to be done about it. Graeber follows Marx’s example by being grumpy about the question even being raised. When asked who would clean up under communism, Marx once snapped: “You should.” When asked what we can do about bullshit jobs, Graeber grumbles at the impertinence and stupidity of those who raise the question and waves his hand generally in the direction of giving everyone a ton of money instead. (He halfheartedly proposes a basic income, but his proposal sits at the more unrealistic end of the spectrum of possibilities.) However, as David Ramsay Steele argues powerfully in his 1992 book From Marx to Mises, neglecting the economic details of proposed alternatives is much more than a minor intellectual oversight or foible. It is dangerous.

The Bolsheviks took power in Russia armed to the teeth with analyses of the problems generated by capitalism, but with nothing but the vaguest notions of what they were supposed to put in its place. Their attempt to abolish money, collectivise property and centralise planning led to short-term suffering on a huge scale and long-term economic disaster that in the end brought the whole system down. As Steele says, “all arguments against capitalism fail unless there is some feasible alternative which can do better”.

The basic problem, which Graeber touches on but does not resolve in his book, is to do with value. In any society, resources must be allocated in a more or less efficient manner between the various competing uses to which they might be put. In a market society, the conundrum of how to decide this unfathomably complex issue is delegated to society as a whole. Private ownership of the means of production, free markets in factors of production and consumer goods, and prices perform the role of an all-knowing and invisible hand that solves a vast economic problem that to date no human or computer program has been able to. If there is some other and better way of valuing goods, including our labour, and solving this problem in a better way, we should hear about it and evaluate it pretty carefully before moving to smash up the system that provides us with our living simply because our role in it occasionally bores us.

Finding meaning

Armed with these insights, we turn to the question that heads this piece – do you have a bullshit job? Of course you may feel that you do, and those feelings have relevance and interest, particularly for anthropologists. It’s their job to study such things. But objectively speaking, is your job of value? That question can, as far as we are yet aware, ultimately only be answered in reference to the price system, since under capitalism labour is allocated in the same way as other resources. If your job is objectively bullshit, you will soon know about it because, all other things being equal, you soon enough won’t have one.

As for what to do about the misery of feeling that you have a bullshit job, it seems that no one is waiting for my or David Graeber’s answer. As many of his anecdotes attest, people oppressed with such feelings tend to find ways to manage their minds so that they are able to minimise the unhappiness caused by their situation, to seek other situations, and in their spare time to find something more fulfilling to do.

When you are comparing the present with an imagined future where all problems have somehow disappeared, this may not seem like a very good answer. When you are comparing the present with how we have lived in the past, and with how people around the world are still forced to live, you might see it as not such a bad deal. As Darren McGarvey argues in his book Poverty Safari, the left wastes a great deal of time critiquing “the system”, and believes it is doing good. More good would be done if they could instead help people give up drinking, smoking and eating rubbish – and find something meaningful to do, both within and without their bullshit jobs.