Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber made a landmark contribution to the debate about inequality, money, and wealth with his massive 2012 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (a book that helped inspire my 2017 novel Walkaway).
In 2013, Graeber published an influential essay called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, in which he charted the way that market economies were employing an ever-larger slice of the workforce in socially useless busywork that everyone -- including the holders of bullshit jobs -- knew to be a tremendous waste of time.
Graeber has a particularly good trick of pointing out the ways that late-stage capitalism has reinvented every institution that western states reviled the USSR for; his 2015 book "The Utopia of Rules" discussed how the west once demonstrated its superiority to the Soviet Union by pointing out the variety of shops on its streets; the lack of meaningless, bureaucratic paperwork; and the absence of endless security lines staffed by hostile, petty government employees. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the shops in great western cities have been replaced with outlets of the same chains selling the same goods; low-waged and unemployed workers now only survive by navigating a bureaucratic benefits thicket that is rivaled by the paperwork that Americans lucky enough to have health insurance must plow through every time they receive medical care; and even the privileged slice of us who can afford to fly frequently have learned to leave 1-2 hours extra so we can queue up to be humiliated by the TSA (but if you're lucky enough to have disposable income left after buying your plane ticket, you can also buy your way to the front of the line by submitting a personal dossier similar to the ones that the Stasi maintained on millions of East Germans).
Bullshit Jobs is definitely part of Graeber's shrewd ability to put his finger on the ways that 21st century markets have produced the kind of meaninglessness, emptiness and absurd inefficiencies that they were supposed to protect us from.
Graeber has expanded Bullshit Jobs into a forthcoming book that will be published on May 15 (he'll be touring the book, too -- I'm interviewing him at an event for Skylight Books in LA on June 13). The Guardian has just published a fabulous excerpt that makes an excellent case for pre-ordering the book.
Guarding an empty room
“I worked as a museum guard for a global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused. My job was to guard that empty room, ensuring no museum guests touched the, well, nothing in the room and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided, I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation, like books, phones, etc. As nobody was ever there, I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours, waiting for the fire alarm to sound. If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it.”
Copying and pasting
“I was given one responsibility: watching an inbox that received emails in a certain form from employees asking for tech help, and copy and paste it into a different form. Not only was this a textbook example of an automatable job, it actually used to be automated. There was some disagreement between managers that led to a standardisation that nullified the automation.”
“I was hired as a temp but not assigned any duties. I was told it was very important that I stay busy, but I wasn’t to play games or surf the web. My primary function seemed to be occupying a chair and contributing to the decorum of the office. At first, this seemed pretty easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you aren’t is one of the least pleasant office activities imaginable. In fact, after two days, it was clear that this was going to be the worst job I had ever had. I installed Lynx, a text-only web browser that basically looks like a DOS [disk-operating system] window. No images, just monospaced text on an endless black background. My absentminded browsing of the internet now appeared to be the work of a skilled technician, the web browser a terminal into which diligently typed commands signalled my endless productivity.”
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [David Graeber/Simon and Schuster]
‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job [David Graeber/The Guardian]