Tag Archives: Occupy

David Graeber (1961-2020) on Bullshit Jobs


black and white headshot of David Graeber

Debbie says:

Those of us who followed the career of David Graeber were saddened to see his obituary pop up earlier this month. He died after a brief illness while on vacation in Venice. His wife, Nika Dubrovsky, tweeted “the best person in the world died today.”

I’m familiar with Graeber as a parent of the Occupy movement. He did not, as many have reported, invent “we are the 99%,” but he did first associate the 99% concept with the growing response to income inequality. His masterwork, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, has been pivotal to my thinking about economic justice.

I thought I’d remember him here by revisiting “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,  from 2013, which led to his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He opens:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Not convinced? Keep reading.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Like so many theories and thought experiments from the last ten years, much of this has become starker and more obvious since early 2020:

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

Can you hear the echo of “essential workers” in this? And don’t forget that the incomparable Nikole Hannah-Jones recommends calling them “sacrificial workers,” since as a society we are willing to put them in harm’s way every day so the rest of us can have not just what we need but what we want, or think we want, or think we are entitled to have.

To have lost Graeber’s mind, and his incisive drilling to the core of a problem, doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of his contributions; building on them is one way to move closer to a world where we can walk away from bullshit jobs and the psychological violence they engender.

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Living in Weimar 2: Creative Ferment


Laurie and Debbie say:


We’re not the only people thinking about the Weimar Republic while reading the news. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker just before the Republican National Convention, turned an art review into an analysis of both historical Weimar and contemporary U.S. politics.

Two thoughts, not strictly political but social, come to mind …: First, that the Weimar Republic gets a very bad rap for how it ended and insufficient credit for how much creative ferment and intelligent thought it contained. The notion that it was above all, or unusually, decadent was a creation of its enemies, who defined the creative energies of cosmopolitanism in that way. All republics are fragile; the German one, like the Third French Republic it paralleled, did not commit suicide—it was killed, by many murderers, not least by those who thought they could contain an authoritarian thirsting for power. And, second, that the United States has been the ultimate home of so many cosmopolitan citizens rejected by Europe. People expelled by hate from Europe wanted desperately to get to the American Midwest, to cities like Chicago…. Cosmopolitanism is not a tribal trait; it is a virtue, as much as courage or honesty or compassion. Almost without exception, the periods of human civilization that we admire as we look back have been cosmopolitan in practice; even those, like the Bronze Age, that we imagine as monolithic and traditional turn out to be shaped by trade and exchange and multiple identity.

It is always easy to fall into despair about the world, and ever easier as the news becomes more global, more instantaneous, and more omnipresent.  That’s why it’s so deeply important to take a wider view.

Our times also get insufficient credit for how much creative ferment and intelligent thought we contain. We live in a time that is

  • bringing indigenous movements to protect and sustain the earth (Idle No More is just one example) into prominence and some power
  • going completely over-the-moon about a radical hip-hop musical about the role of brown people in the time of the U.S. founding fathers
  • seeing the principles of the Occupy movement of a few years ago resurface as a powerful and perhaps lasting wing of a major American party
  • moving Black Lives Matter into the forefront of the national conversation
  • creating grassroots movements which force more and more municipalities, counties, and perhaps soon states to ban coal terminals, prohibit fracking, protect and restore clean water

The list is much longer, but you get the idea. All of these victories have costs; all are balanced by defeats, obstacles, and naysayers, but they are happening. And they only happen to the extent that people — here as in Weimar — are engaged, passionate, committed, and thoughtful.

As Gopnik says later in his article, “While the habits of hatred get the better of the right, the habits of self-approval through the fiction of being above it all contaminate the center.”

In our first post of this series, we quoted from Harold Meyerson’s article in The American Prospect. Here’s another piece of his analysis:

… the Nazi regime, [Ernest] Thälmann, [leader of the German Communist Party from the late 1920s until the Nazis arrested him a few months after they took power in 1933] argued, should not vex leftists, as the Communists would quickly overthrow it. “After Hitler, Us!” was the Communists’ slogan throughout 1932 and early 1933…

In a sense, Thälmann, was right. After Hitler’s death in 1945 and the Nazi surrender, the Communists, through the strength of the Soviet army, did come to power in East Germany. By then, of course, close to 60 million people had died in World War II and the Holocaust, and Thälmann himself, at Hitler’s command, was killed in Buchenwald in 1944.

Thälmannism, then, is the inability (be it duplicitous, willful, fanatical, or just plain stupid) to distinguish between, on the one hand, a rival political tendency that has made the compromises inherent to governance and, on the other hand, fascism.

If the habits of hatred get the better of the right, and the habits of self-approval contaminate the center, the habits of thinking in purist terms were a major piece of the downfall of the effervescent progress in Weimar.

That mistake was disastrous then, and must not be made now.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer to the Gopnik article.