Anent the Phenomenon o Bulls**t Jobs: A Wark Threap

I the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predictit that, bi the century’s end, technology wad be advanced eneuch that kintras like Brítain or the Unitit States wad hae achieved a fifteen-hour wark week. The’re ivery raison tae trew he wis richt. In terms o technology, we are brawly capable o this. But it didna happen. Insteid, technology haes been marshalt, gin onything, tae airt out weys o makkin us aw wirk mair. For tae win at this, jobs hiv haed tae be creatit that’s, less or mair, pyntless. Thrangs o fowk, in Europe an North Americae in partícular, spend the hale o their wirkin lifes daein tasks they saicretly believe dinna really need tae be duin. The moral an spíritual skaith that comes frae this sítuation is profound. It is a scaur athort our collective saul. But maist naebody speaks about it.

Hou is it that Keynes’ hecht utopie — that fowk wis aye gleg waitin on i the saxties — niver cam about? The staundart line the day is that he didna spae the muckle accress in consumerism. Fowk wis gien the chyce atween fewer hours an mair toys an pleisurs, an fowk haes collective-like waled the latter. This is fairly a bonnie story, but gin ye think about it for a mínit, ye’ll suin realise it canna really be true. Ay, we hae seen a fouth o new jobs an industries bein creatit sin the twinties, but gey few haes ocht adae wi the production an distribution o sushi, iPhones, or fantoush trainers.

Thrangs o fowk, in Europe an North Americae in partícular, spend the hale o their wirkin lifes daein tasks they saicretly believe dinna really need tae be duin

Sae juist what is thir new jobs? A recent report comparin employment i the US atween 1910 an 2000 gies us a clear pictur (an, I note, ane echoed awmaist exact i the UK). Ower the course o the last century, the nummer o wirkers employed as hamelt servands, in industry, an i the ferm sector, haes foundert clyte. At the ilk time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, an service workers’ tripelt, growin ‘frae ae-quarter tae three-quarters o total employment.’ In ither wirds, productive jobs haes, juist as predictit, been maistly automatit awa. (E’en gin ye count industrial wirkers atour the warld, includin the trauchlin masses in Indie an China, siccan wirkers is no yet near sae lairge a percentage o the warld population as they uised tae be.)

But raither nor allouin a muckle tak-doun o wirkin hours tae lowse the warld’s population sae they can pursue their ain projects, pleisurs, vísions, an ideas, we hae seen the balloonin o no e’en sae muckle the ‘service’ sector as the admínistrative sector, up til an includin the creation o hale new industries like financial services or telemercatin, or the unprecedentit raxin out o sectors like corporate law, academic an health admínistration, human resources, an public relations. An thir nummers daesna e’en reflect aw thae fowk that’s job it is tae provide admínistrative, technical, or security uphaud for thir industries, or for that maiter the hale feck o ancillary industries (dug-washers, aw-nicht pizza delivery) that is only there cause awbody else is spendin sae muckle o their time wirkin in aw the ither anes.

Thir is what I propone tae caw ‘bullshit jobs.’

It’s as gin someane wis out there makkin up pyntless jobs juist for tae keep us aw wirkin. An it is here whaur the mýstery bides. In caipitalism, this is exactly what isna supposed tae happen. Ay, i the auld inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, whaur employment wis consídert baith a richt an a saucrit duty, the sýstem made up as mony jobs as they haed tae. (This is hou in Soviet depairtment stores it teuk three clarks tae sell a piece o meat.) But, o course, this is the kind o problem mercat competítion should can sort, na? Gaun bi economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seekin firm is gaun tae dae is gie out siller tae wirkers it daesna really need tae employ. Somehou, tho, it happens yet.

As corporations gae about their fell dounsizin, it’s aye the case that the layaffs an speed-ups faws on yon cless o fowk that is actually makkin, muivin, mendin an uphaudin things. Throu some orra alchemy naebody can quite redd out, the nummer o salaried paper-pushers aye seems tae growe, an mair an mair employees finds theirsels — no unalike Soviet wirkers actually — pittin in forty- or e’en fifty-hours a week on paper, but in effect wirkin fifteen hours juist like Keynes spaed, sin the lave o their time is spent reddin or gaun tae motivational seminars, updatin their Facebook profiles or dounlaidin TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isna economic: it’s moral an polítical. The rulin cless haes figurt out that a happy an productive population wi free time on their haunds is a mortal danger. (Think o what stairtit tae happen whan this begoud tae kythe, e’en juist a bittie, i the saxties.) An, on the ither haund, the feelin that wark is a moral vailue in itsel, an that onybody no willin tae juist pit their heid doun an wirk theirsels sair for maist o their waukin hours desers naething, is by-ordinar haundy for them.

It’s aye the case that layaffs an speed-ups faws on yon cless o fowk that is actually makkin, muivin, mendin an uphaudin things. Throu some orra alchemy naebody can quite redd out, the nummer o salaried paper-pushers aye seems tae growe

Ance, whan thinkin on the appearantly endless growthe o admínistrative responsibílities in Brítish academic depairtments, I cam up wi ae possible vísion o hell. Hell is a menyie o fowk that is spendin the bouk o their time wirkin on a task they dinna like an arena aw that guid at. Say they war hired cause they war braw caibinet makars, an than discover they are expectit tae spend a muckle feck o their time fryin fish. Nor daes the task really need tae be duin — at least, the’re only a gey límitit nummer o fish that’s needin fryin. Yet somehou, they aw become sae scunnert at the thocht that some o their co-wirkers micht be spendin mair time makkin caibinets, an no daein their fair skare o the fish-fryin responsibílities, that afore lang the’re endless rickles o uissless, badly keukit fish pilin up aw ower the warkshop, an it’s aw that onybody really daes.

I think this is actually a fairly accurate description o the moral dynamics o wir ain economy.

Nou, I weel ken ony siclike airgument is gaun tae be met wi objections quick-like: “Wha are you tae say what jobs is really ‘necessar’? What’s necessar onygate? Ye’re a anthropology professor; what’s the ‘need’ for thon?” (An, deed, a guid wheen o tabloid readers wad tak the existence o my job as the verra definítion o wastefu social outlay.) An on ae level, this is obviously true. There can be nae objective meisur o social vailue.

Illustration o a screichin ape seatit at a dask
Illustration bi John Riordan

I wadna presume tae tell a body that is richt shuir they are makkin a meaninfu contribution tae the warld that, really, they arena. But what about thae fowk that’s theirsels convinced their jobs is meaninless? No lang syne, I got back in titch wi a scuil fríend that I haedna seen sin I wis 12. I wis mazed tae discover that, i the meantime, he haed become first a poyet, than the front man in a indie rock band. I’d heard some o his sangs on the radio an haed nae idea the sangster wis someane I actually kent. He wis obviously gleg, innovative, an his wark haed nae dout brichtent an bettert the lifes o fowk aw ower the warld. Nanetheless, efter a couple o unsuccessfu albums, he’d tint his contract, an, plagued wi debts an a newborn dochter, endit up, as he pit it, “takkin the defaut chyce o sae mony airtless fowk: law scuil.” Nou he’s a corporate lawyer wirkin in a weel-forrit New York firm. He wis the first tae admít that his job wis haley meaninless, contríbutit nocht tae the warld, an, bi his ain reckonin, shouldna really exist.

The’re a hantle questions a body could speir here, stairtin wi: what daes it say about wir society that it seems tae generate a sair límitit demand for talentit poyet-muisicians, but a appearently mairchless demand for speicialists in corporate law? (Answer: gin 1 per cent o the population hauds in maist o the disposable walth, what we caw ‘the mercat’ reflects what they think is uissfu or important; no onybody else.) But e’en mair, it shaws that maist fowk in pyntless jobs is, at the hinder end, awaur o it. In fact, I’m no shuir I’v iver met a corporate lawyer that didna think their job wis bullshit. Same wi awmaist aw the new industries mentiont abuin. The’re a hale cless o salaried professionals that, gin ye war tae meet them at perties an admít that ye dae something that micht be consídert interestin (an anthropologist, for example), winna want tae discuss their line o wark ava. Efter twa-three swallaes, houiver, they’ll breenge intil a screed about hou pyntless an stupit their job really is.

Yon is a profound psychological violence. Hou can ye e’en stairt tae speak o mense in labour whan ye saicretly feel your job shouldna exist? It shuirly canna help but gar fowk feel a byous sense o rage an resentment. Aye an on, it’s the gate our society haes taen that the high heid anes haes figurt out hou, as i the case o the fish-fryers, tae mak siccar that rage is airtit precisely agin them that actually daes get tae dae meaninfu wark. For instance: in wir society, there seems tae be a general rule that, the mair obvious is it that your wark benefits ither fowk, the less ye’re likely tae be peyed for it. Again, an objective meisure is a sair fecht tae find, but ae easy wey tae get a sense is tae speir: what wad happen gin this hale cless o fowk wis tae juist couk? Say what ye like about nurses, binmen, or mechanics; it’s obvious that gin they war tae vainish on a suddenty, the results wad be immediate an catastrophic. A warld without dominies or dock-wirkers wad suin be in trouble, an we’d e’en be mair the waur without fowk like science fiction scrievers or ska muisicians. It’s no juist quite clear hou humanity wad suffer gin aw private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR fowk, actuaries, telemercaters, bailies or legal consultants war tae vainish siclike. (Mony jalouse it micht weel impruive a guid bit.) Apairt frae a haundfu of kenspeckle exceptions (doctors), the rule hauds surprísingly weel.

In wir society, there seems tae be a general rule that, the mair obvious is it that your wark benefits ither fowk, the less ye’re likely tae be peyed for it

E’en mair contrair, there seems tae be a braid sense that this is the wey things should be. This is ane o the quate strenths o richt-wing populism. Ye can see it whan tabloids steers up ill-feelin agin tube wirkers for bringin Lunnon til a staundstill ower contract tuilyies: the verra fact that tube wirkers can paralýse Lunnon shaws that their wark is actually necessar, but this seems tae be the verra thing that fashes fowk. It’s e’en clearer i the US, whaur Republicans haes haen rare success at garrin fowk resent scuil teachers or car-makars (an no, signíficant-like, the scuil admínistrators or car industry managers that actually causes the problems) for their jaloused brosie wages an benefits. It’s as gin they are bein telt “But ye get tae learn bairns! Or mak caurs! Ye get tae hae real jobs! An on tap o that, ye hae the bress craig tae expect middle-cless pensions an health care an aw?”

Ye couldna design a wark regime mair better suitit tae uphaudin the pouer o finance caipital gin ye tried. Real, productive wirkers is aye sair hauden doun an exploitit. The lave is dividit atween a terrorised boorach o the universally reviled unemployed an a lairger feck that is less or mair peyed tae dae nocht, in posítions designt tae mak them identifý wi the outleuks an laits o the rulin cless (managers, admínistrators etc.) — an in partícular its financial avatars — but, at the ilk time, gar fowk tak a scunner at onybody that their wark haes clear social vailue. Nae dout, naebody gaed about ettlin tae design this sýstem deliberate-like. It kythed efter awmaist a century o trial an error. But it is the only explanation for hou, i maugre o wir technological capacities, we arena aw wirkin three- tae fower-hour days.

This essay wis oríginally setten furth i the August 2013 outgie o STRIKE! magazine. It’s been pitten ower intae Scots for Mak Forrit bi Jamie Smith.


David GraeberDavid Graeber is a scriever, anthropologist an steerar. He is professor o anthropology at the London School of Economics. He haes authored a nummer o beuks, includin Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) an The Utopia of Rules (2015). His maist recent is Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, setten furth i Mey 2018 bi Allen Lane.

Scots-til-English glossar

abuin above; accress increase; adae to do; agin against; airtit directed; airtless directionless; anent concerning; at the hinder end ultimately; athort across; aye always or still; aye an on yet, nevertheless; begoud began; bides stays, lives, here in the sense of ‘can be found’; boorach a mass of people; bouk bulk; brawly very much; breenge launch; bress craig brass neck; brosie bloated; by-ordinar extraordinarily; contrair perverse; couk disappear; dominies teachers; ettlin endeavouring; fantoush fancy; fashes annoys; feck host, a large number; fell ruthless; foundert clyte collapsed dramatically; fouth abundance; gar cause; gin if; gleg keenly (adv) and smart, brilliant (adj); hamelt servands domestic servants; hantle lot of; hecht promised, forecast; i maugre o despite; ilk same; jalouse suspect; kenspeckle well known; kythe become manifest; kythed emerged; laits sensibilities, habits; lave rest, remainder; lowse free; mair the waur worse off; mairchless infinite; mense dignity; menyie a group; muckle large or much; nocht nothing; nor than; ocht anything; orra strange; outlay expenditure; outleuks perspectives; propone propose; quate secret; rare remarkable; raxin out expansion; redd out explain; reddin preparing, organising; rickles piles; screed tirade; siccan such; siclike such; siller money; sin since; skaith damage, injury; spae foretell; speir ask; steers up whip up; swallaes drinks; tak-doun reduction; thir these; thrangs large numbers; threap rant; tint lost; trauchlin toiling; trew believe; tuilyies disputes; uphaudin maintaining; waled chosen; weel-forrit prominent

The birds an the bees

For a fyle nou there’s been a hert-warmin video circulatin social media, fit is focused on the story o a humble wifie fae Inverness. The video, made bi ‘The Dodo’, tells the tale o Fiona Presly fa cam across a wee bee ’ithout wings in her gairden ae day, an decidit tae rescue her an tae gie her a new lease o life. Sae mony fowk hiv been titcht bi this story that it’s ainly fower views aff o twa million on YouTube alane, an will probably hit the twa million merk weel afore ah’v fínisht scrievin this airticle. If ye hinna seen it aaready, ah strangly advise ye tae, as it sers as a reminder o an aafu important lesson. As a quine fa haes growen up in the kintra, ah wis aaready weel awaur that leukin efter aa o the wildlife around us, is, in the wirds o Presly hersel, “our duty of care.” Ah will admít that ma hous juist disna feel richt if there’s nae a beastie o some kind takkin refuge in it. Be it a nae-weel hen sleepin in the bath, or a sickie lamb bosied up wi the dug in his bed in the utility room, there’s aye some kind o animal rescue mission gaun on. The story o Fiona an Bee haes brocht back fond memories o ae experience in partícular o practicin ma duty o care tae wildlife. Haud on readin . . . “The birds an the bees”

The skeels o Jock Tamson’s bairns

Humans is animals like ony ither in that we eat, sleep, muive about an dae the auld hochmagandie. But, at the same time, we arenae the same as ither animals, pairtly acause we are the anerly species that can unnerstaund whit A’m scrievin. We are the anerly species that haes gane fae bein an endangert species in an East African glen tae bein the anerly species tae bide on theirsels on aw the continents; the last ane, Antarctica, designtly, an it isnae even acause it haes onything tae eat on it. An we’re the anerly species tae transmogrify the face o a feck o the globe. An even the anerly species tae send itsel an its companions intae space. Hou is that humans did that an no ony ither species? Whit gars us homo sapiens sae sonsie? Haud on readin . . . “The skeels o Jock Tamson’s bairns”

Sounds o the kirk an court: early airt muisic in Scotland

Whither in Italy, Germany, France or England, muisic bi gate o court an kirk wis flourishin aw ower Europe i the Renaissance an Baroque periods. But what o Scotland? Wis it aw juist bagpipes, reels an fowk sangs? I pit on my speirer’s bunnet an haed a bit leuk . . .

Atween c1430 an c1750 — a time that comprehends twa muisical eras scholars caws the Renaissance an Baroque periods — Europe’s kirks an royal courts wis the patrons o ‘airt’ (or ‘clessical’) muisic. Tak, for instance, the liturgical muisic o the Renaissance, like the Masses an motets o Italy’s Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c1525–94). Or, efter in Germany, the fouthie outpit o J. S. Bach (1685–1750), that’s kent as the heidmaist componer o the Baroque period. Siccan dargs couldna hae been wrocht without the siller o the estaiblishment.

For maist o the time period we’re concernt wi Scotland wis yet a free-staundin kintra, an for about hauf o it haed a royal court steidit in Edinburgh. It gart me wunner (as a body that lang syne did a bit study o early European airt muisic) what wis gaun on in Scotland at yon time. The subject o liturgical or court muisic in our airt o the warld haed niver kythed i the year I studied the muisic o the period, an — I maun admít — I’d niver thocht tae leuk intil it afore nou. Haud on readin . . . “Sounds o the kirk an court: early airt muisic in Scotland”

Whaur we cam fae: the Pechts

‘Whaur we cam fae’ is a tryptych explorin the history an explodin the myths o the last twa thousand years o Scotland. Tae ken whaur we are gaein ye maun ken whaur we’v been.

The Pechts war warriors, fermers an airtists that ruled ower maist o Scotland throu the first millenia AD. They war the distinct fowk that emerged whan aa the hunners o wee clans in verra early Derk Age Scotland gaithert thegither. They spreid ae appearently homogenous cultur out fae their hertlaunds in the saxt century, an suin Pechtland raxed ower maist o Scotland. Their name an the ends o their muckle launds are commemoratit in the Pentland Hills, south o Embra, an the Pentland Firth aff John O’ Groats, wi Pent bein anither name for Pecht. There’s a guid amount o haivers spak about the Pechts, an little truith. Lat’s here ging on a wee journey throu the story o the Pechts an sort out whit’s kent fae whit’s keech. Haud on readin . . . “Whaur we cam fae: the Pechts”

Fit tae dae about obesity?

Nae ower lang syne, there wis an outcry on social media. Cancer Research UK haed juist release’t new advertisin, fit wis intendit tae mak a verra clear pynt. The ímage clearly read: “Obesity is a cause of cancer.” Ae quine wisna too impressed wi this idea, an cried on Twitter that it wis ‘fat-shamin’ an that the chairity should tak it doun. Than, aa o a sudden, a haundfu o trolls pop up (at least hauf o them wi eggs for profile picturs) gaun on about foo “fat fowk juist need tae get a grip an gang on a diet.” Nou, ‘at’s fit got me rile’t up. The UK is the maist obese kintra in Europe. Nae ane o the maist, but the maist. Aye, it’s aafu, but it’s nae wird o a lee aither. Tae really pit ‘at statistic intae perspective, Cancer Research UK maks it pretty clear on their wabsite that obesity can cause thirteen types o cancer aathegither, sic as kindey cancer, breist cancer, intestine cancer an oesophagus cancer. Sae foo can we improve the state o our population’s health an tak the pressure aff our NHS? Foo can we pit a stap tae the cancer epidemic that could be comin if we dinna dae something about the astoundin rate o obesity? Ah dinna think bullyin owerwecht fowk online is the wey tae dae it.

Haud on readin . . . “Fit tae dae about obesity?”

Richt o sel-law as fundamental richt for democracy: The case o hauf-free decísions anent Catalonie

A feck o democratic Catalan politícians haes polítical captions agin them. The Spainish government is forfendin yet again the process o the Catalan pairlament. In October, it wis acause o the wanthirldom referendum. An nou it’s the jylin o politícians for polítical causes. They are socht for ‘rebellion’ an ‘embezzlement’. The definítion o ‘rebeliòn’ in the Spainish constitution actually haes specífically adae wi bangstrie, something that Puidgemont, Ponsati or ither Catalan independentists haes niver promuived. An the referendum wis for the public guid, sae it cannae be embezzlement.

A ‘mids’ postur o mair autonomy for Catalonie, as propone’t by Claus Hecking in Der Spiegel, juist isnae tenable ony mair: the Catalan population haes awready votit on the question o mair autonomy an it wis approbate by thereabout aichty per cent o the population, but than pairtly annult by the Spainish Heich Court.

Gif the Spainish government wants tae be raisonable an trulins be a democratic state, it anerly haes ae option: exeem the polítical prísoners an pit in place a wanthirldom referendum.

Haud on readin . . . “Richt o sel-law as fundamental richt for democracy: The case o hauf-free decísions anent Catalonie”

The killin fields!

I wis watchin a bonnie cock pheasant makkin his wey alang the road aside ma hous; in his ain guid time, o course, as their kind are wint tae dae, an regairdless o the caurs fleein close by. His heid an tail war up, birse puffit out an shimmerin in the sun. Tae see sic gledsome beauty in aw its glory is aye a sicht for sair een. But I wis mair than delichtit whan he sprackelt awa fae the road an throu the fence intae a field. Lívin in the Lawlands, near tae a sportin estate, it’s likely I see thae bonnie birdies gaein about mair nor maist. It’s aye vexin tae find ane deid on the road, but the thing that mair maks ma hert sink is the sound o gunfire, for I ken the wee craiturs are bein forced tae tak wing anely tae be a target for sae-cawed sportsmen.

I’v been agin field sports aw ma days, an whiles I ken it’s big business, an about makkin siller, I hae tae say, I will niver unnerstaund hou onybody could tak pairt in sic delíberate destruction an cry it sport. But there’s a hale industry dedicatit tae it; the shootin estates e’en proscribin tae thirsels whit ither craiturs alangside their sportin targets should be allou’t tae live or dee. Sae it’s aye guid whan sic muckle pouer gets cawed tae account; brocht intae the licht for a bit o closer scrutiny as happent in the last week or twa, wi a video makkit on the fly in Januar on the grouse muirs an gied tae the BBC by an animal richts chairity.

Haud on readin . . . “The killin fields!”

A dangerous thing wi style

Tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is whit ah caw airt — Charles Bukowski

As a scriever ye’re no meant tae read ablo-the-line o yer ain airticles, gang gallus intae yon dour Apache laund o Unicode emoticons an racist GIFs an illíterate comments bi fowk wha micht mean wan thing an micht mean anither but neither thing maks ony sense. Ye’re no meant tae dae it, ah say, but ye dae it onywey; an as a scriever o Scots ye can be gey shuir that a smaw but faithfu minority o commenters (ah’ll no say readers — wha’s got time tae read onything these days but heidlines?) are giein ye a hefty shirrackin for writin the wey ye dae.1

Sae tae be treatit like a scriever o English — that is tae say, tae tak a skelpin for whit ye actually scrievit, raither than the leid ye chose tae scrieve it in — is kind o a tonic. Somebody’s taen the time tae disagree, repone tae ye like ye war a plausible human bein raither than some wee bauchle shoutin the odds outside the Sports Direct on Argyle Street. Anither ane o Adam’s bairns is pure ragin at ye, wad tak a flier richt at ye, if they could — an, in short, ye’v duin no bad for yersel.

Like, twa-three weeks syne, sowt ah scrievit got somebody’s back up a bit, an they got wired intae the comments section wi a dissentin opínion. It wis awfu polite, ye ken. Weel-trickit, ye micht even say. Ah mean, they war talkin out their hint-end, but the thocht wis there. Ah’d hiv felt quite chuffed wi masel, if they haednae obviously got me mixed up wi ma guid fere an colleague Rab Wilson.

Haud on readin . . . “A dangerous thing wi style”

The Scots leid in Australian líteratur

Onybody that kens anent the Scots leid kens that Scots is spoken in Scotland, whaur the leid first upbiggit. Fowk will like eneuch ken that Scots exists in anither pairt: there the Ulster Scots, the Scots spik o Northren Ireland. But whit isnae sae weel kent is the Scots uised in Australie.

It’s kenable that the main leids o Australie for hunneryears wis the aborigine leids, Dyirbal an Warlpiri amang ithers. An thae leids is gey an interestin theirsels. R.M.W. Dixon an Kenneth L. Hale amang ither linguists haes written beuks anent thae leids that is orra unalike fae ither leids in the warld. Amang their partícularities is coverbs, whaur the verb is for common formed fae a coverb an the main verb, coverb specifeein the main verb. There is forby the mony places o articulation o consonants (distinction acqueesh sounds produced at different pairts o the gab). An they aften uise the selsame wird for an object an anither object that could potentially become it, for ensaumple ‘animal’ an ‘meat’.1

For their nummers, it is upcast there wis thereabout 250 aboriginal leids in 1788. The feck o them is misfortunately endangert or weedit awa, wi anerly 130 bein uised in ilkaday life, an nae mair nor twinty bein leart by bairns.2

Thir days the leid that’s the maist spoken in the southren continent is the Southspik. But there is forby ither leids that haes come tae Australie by recent immigrants, the main anes thir days bein Mandarin, Italians an Arabic. But Scots wis amang them, inspecially in the nineteent hunneryear.

Haud on readin . . . “The Scots leid in Australian líteratur”