Managerial feudalism and BS jobs

BULLSHIT JOB: A form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the condition of employment, the employee fells obliged to pretend that this is not the issue.  [David Graeber]


Huge numbers of people work in jobs that they themselves think are completely unnecessary.  Many of them would prefer to do something useful, but useful jobs on average pay less.  Sometimes they quit and take a lower-paying useful job anyway.

Some five years ago, David Graeber, an American who teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote an essay for an obscure left-wing magazine called Strike!, about the phenomenon of bullshit jobs.

The article struck a nerve.  It got more than a million hits on the Internet, crashed the Strike! web site several times and was translated into more than 10 languages.

A YouGov poll soon after found that 37 percent of full-time employees in the United Kingdom thought their work made no meaningful contribution to the world.  A survey in the Netherlands put the number as high as 40 percent.  I imagine a survey in the United States would be much different.

Graeber himself communicated with hundreds of unhappy, useless employees via e-mail.

The result is his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory.

He learned about a museum guard whose job was to report if a certain empty room ever caught on fire; a military sub-contractor who drove more than a hundred miles in order to give a German soldier permission to move a piece of equipment from one room to another; a receptionist who, to fill her time, was tasked with jobs such as sorting paperclips by color.

But most of his reports are about people who worked in offices—making studies that were never read, making proposals that were never acted on or not doing anything at all, but doing their best to look busy.

How can there be so many admittedly useless jobs?  We live in a time of austerity and layoffs.  Full-time jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs.  That is true of government as well as the private sector.

One thing that free-enterprise advocates and Marxists agree on is that competitive capitalism produces economic efficiency.  Free-marketers think everybody benefits and Marxists think that only the capitalists benefit, but they agree on the drive of business to maximize profit.

Maybe this is wrong.  Maybe competitive capitalism is a myth.  Maybe we live under what Graeber calls managerial feudalism.

Back in the days before the French Revolution, the peasants, who were the main producers of wealth, paid so much in taxes and rent they could barely live.  They supported an aristocracy, who, in turn, supported an economic class of coachmen, door keepers, lace makers, dancing masters, gardeners and the like, who were generally better paid than the peasants.

Just like the aristocrats of old, the prestige of managers in organizations is based on the number of people they have working for them.  Prestige is not based on whether they are useful or not.  In fact, employees whose work is essential are a threat.  They have the power to quit or go on strike or to unexpectedly reveal they know more than the boss.

So the incentive is to diminish the role and power of those who do necessary work while inventing new jobs whose existence depends on the discretion of the job creators.

A large number of new jobs are administrative staff.  They are different from administrators who make actual decisions.  Their job is collect quantitative information about the work of the useful employees on the principle that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

This principle is plausible with, say, factory workers, whose output can be measured.  But even here, as W. Edwards Deming said, differences among individuals that are too small to be noticed are probably due more to random variation than to differences in ability or effort.  Everybody in a work site knows who is a good worker and who isn’t.

But production jobs are the jobs that are being eliminated by automation.  A rule of thumb would be: the easier it is to measure a job’s results, the easier it is to automate the job.

The growing non-BS jobs are in education, medical care, food service and maintenance work of all kinds—things you can’t measure and often don’t even notice if they’re done right.  As Graeber said, many caring and service jobs are shit jobs in terms of the way employees are paid and treated, but they are not BS jobs.

Bureaucratization of work does not increase efficiency.  What it does do is increase control by managers and reduce the independence of practitioners.  Here are a couple of charts, taken from the book, that show what’s necessary to approve a syllabus or an examination for a college course at a Queensland management university in Australia, as compared with a traditional university.

One justification for useless work is the notion that an employer is hiring you not just to perform particular tasks, but to do their will for a certain number of hours.  Thus when you’re “on the clock,” any time you spend catching your breath or talking to co-workers is “time theft.”

Graeber himself experienced this working as a dishwasher as a teenage boy.  He and his fellow teenagers on the first day cleaned all the dishes sparkling clean in lightning speed.   The reaction of the restaurant owner was that, since they had nothing to do, they should clean baseboards.  From then on they took their own good time washing the dishes.

In an Amazon warehouse, employees are monitored so that they can never slacken their effort.  This is oppressive, but it does benefit Amazon shareholders.  In other situations, the idea is that you should fill the time doing something, even if it’s useless, otherwise it wouldn’t be work.


On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber for Strike! magazine (2013)

Punching the Clock by David Graeber for Harper’s Magazine.

‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job by David Graeber for The Guardian.

Is Your Job BS? David Graeber on Capitalism’s Endless Busywork, an interview for In These Times.

Are You in a BS Job?  In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone by David Graeber for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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6 Responses to “Managerial feudalism and BS jobs”

  1. whungerford Says:

    Here is a story from my own experience. There was some useful work that an idle technician could have done, but the work location was in the factory. The technician maintained that he was a “lab technician” who could not be required to work in the factory. The dispute was settled by the manager in favor of the technician who remained idle while the work went undone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Actually that’s an example that goes contrary to Graeber’s theme. He says there are a lot of employees who would like to do useful work, but aren’t able to.

      Yours is an example of someone who refused to do useful work because it wasn’t in his job description. If the lab technician thought his regular job was useful, he is outside the scope of Graeber’s book.

      Labor union contracts usually define jobs and protect workers from having to do work outside their job description. Sometimes union featherbedding was abusive. Union workers in Broadway theaters were allegedly notorious for this. But this is a different issue from what Graeber was writing about.

      Liked by 1 person

    • whungerford Says:

      I enjoyed the article but haven’t read the book. I related more to the discussion of workplace inefficiencies than to the idea of useless jobs. The technician in my story was a valuable employee who like most Americans wanted to work. He would have gladly done the work in question under circumstances that he found acceptable. In this case the inefficiency was due to his concern about status rather than careless management. His job wasn’t useless, even though, like many workers if not most, he wasn’t productively employed all day every day.

      Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      When I was working as a newspaper reporter, I would not have willingly followed an order to write advertising copy or draft a speech by the publisher to a civic group—not that anybody would have asked me to do so!

      Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Then again, lots of people do important and necessary work that is not part of their job descriptions. School bus drivers do much more than transport children from Point A to Point B; they’re responsible for keeping order and dealing with emergencies.

      Police and firefighters do much more than make arrests and put out fires. David Graeber’s favorite example along these lines are ticket-takers on the London Underground, who are the go-to people for any kind of probelm, from taking charge of lost children to giving directions to passengers who don’t speak English.

      I myself, when I worked on the newspaper, spent a small but non-trivial among of time talking to members of the public who needed help in dealing with the newspaper bureaucracy—who to call to make a funeral announcement, things like that. I think that in certain circles I became the go-to person for dealing with the newspaper. i never told anybody about this and never got any credit for it. I think such things are true of a lot of people in a lot of occupations. It’s complicated.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. peteybee Says:

    Love his taxonomy of BS jobs. Was a bit of a light-bulb-turning-on moment for me too, in that many of the times I find my job frustrating is when I am basically stuck in the “duct taper” role.

    Liked by 1 person

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