By David Graeber
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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