Nowhere do we find a more shameful squandering of human labor-power for the most despicable purposes than in England, the land of machinery.
Karl Marx, 1867
You probably first heard of him when reading, on Bloomberg.com or in the pages of The New Yorker, about his role as one of the “founders” of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of you might have stumbled across him even earlier, when The New York Times published a short article on the openly anarchist anthropology professor whose politics, he lamented, thwarted his plans for tenure at Yale. Others, probably a bit younger, and having drifted into post-2008 “radical” politics, first found him on Twitter, where he assiduously maintains contact with almost 70,000 followers. Slightly older radicals will recognize him as an eager participant in and chronicler of the turn-of-the-century anti-globalization movement. Slate, The Guardian, The Financial Times and other organs of the prevailing powers open their column space to his reflections on technology, money, and Corbynism, or his calls for Western succor to the “revolutionary Kurds” of Rojava (who have, for years now, enjoyed the lethal air support of US war planes). The son of NYC leftists—his father fought in the storied Abraham Lincoln Brigades—and one of the venerable Marshall Sahlins’s last students, David Graeber is today best known for his monumental 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which appeared just a couple of months before the establishment of the Zuccotti Park camp. That book, in the works for years, seemed, due as much to its timing as to its content, the theoretical and historical work most attuned to the Occupy Wall Street movement and its demands. Now, seven years after that publication—and the rise and folding up of that movement—Graeber has followed his earlier examination of the “barter myth” and the priority of debt over exchange relations throughout human history with a new book, this time on a contemporary matter: the “current work regime.” Or as he puts it in his insistently populist idiom, the “proliferation of bullshit jobs.”
In 2013, Graeber reports on the first page of Bullshit Jobs, he published a short article that “set off a very minor international sensation.”1 The thrust of that piece was to highlight what he claimed was a glut of “completely pointless” make-work jobs crowding labor markets in contemporary capitalist societies, and to give hints as to why, in a social order that claims to prize the efficient allocation of resources, so much human labor-power seems squandered in doing so. Since many, perhaps most, wage laborers in the developed economies of Europe and North America—and not just there—do find their current employment boring and pointless, a waste of attention and activity that could be put to better use, the piece struck a chord. Short, maybe rushed, follow-up pieces found places in the media outlets that have reliably hosted Graeber. Commentary poured in from all quarters. The Economist responded; mid-level bank employees sent emails. Graeber concluded that he was onto something important. He wrote the piece up into a book. Five years later, Simon & Schuster has just published the US edition; Allen Lane, a Penguin Press imprint, the British. Translations will follow. A very minor international frisson is pulsing through the webs of social media. The buzz is only beginning.
The book’s core claim is that in the US, the UK, and other economies in which the financial sector generates more income than all others, including manufacturing, and in which most workers spend their days performing what are confusingly called “services,” there are an inordinate number of pointless and even pernicious jobs. In these jobs, which Graeber categorizes as “information work,” people do very little of value, while the jobs themselves exact an enormous “spiritual” toll on those compelled to perform them and on the shredded social fabric of which these occupations make a larger and larger part. The evidence confirming this feature of the contemporary world of work is ubiquitous, and incontrovertible. Bullshit Jobs, however, has a hard time penetrating the crust of the obvious. Graeber’s conceptual schema is imprecise and elusive, and it seems so almost by design.
In a first pass at trying to size up these “bullshit jobs”—in order to distinguish them from, say, merely “shit jobs”—Graeber hits upon the idea of “positive social value,” to which he contrasts “mere market value.” Market value, the going rate someone will pay for a given good or service, is measurable; positive social value is not. According to Graeber, the only way to assess the social value is, paradoxically, to rely on the first-person individual testimony of the worker who performs the tasks required of a given occupation: “All I’m really saying here is that since there is such a thing as social value, as apart from mere market value, but since no one has ever figured out an adequate way to measure it, the worker’s perspective is about as close as one is likely to get to an accurate assessment of the situation.” Though the history of the labor movement offers a rich if minor tradition of militant inquiry into workers’ own experience of domination and struggle within the workplace, Graeber has something else in mind. He culls examples from the “great deal of online discussion” generated, he tells us, by his initial piece, while also soliciting confirmation from his Twitter following. Yet this attentiveness to the singularity of subjective experience produces a definition of “valuable” work at times dizzyingly banal (it makes “a meaningful difference in the world,” etc.), and at bottom wrongheaded, one Graeber refuses to take responsibility for, palming it off on the rest of us as so much “common sense.” Calling on the testimony of “Tom” and “Rupert,” he concludes that, however refractory to objective measurement it may be, the “unstated common sense” prevailing among his online devotees is that “when a good or service answers a demand or otherwise improves people’s lives, then it can be considered genuinely valuable.” Graeber elaborates: such jobs must “answer a genuine consumer demand” (my emphasis). And in case you were wondering what, for Graeber, “social” means, the fog lifts when he specifies that worthwhile occupations can be considered those “essential to the health and prosperity of the nation.”
In fact, Graeber tries out a number of definitions of good, honest work as the book plods forward. Eventually he arrives at a formulation that seems to stick, no doubt in part because it belongs to an age-old tendency in classical political economy, and appeals to the self-evidence supposedly prized by common sense. Those activities and occupations that meet consumer demand and contribute to the vitality and wealth of the nation amount, we are assured, to “actually making, moving, fixing, maintaining things” (in a slightly different version: “actually making, maintaining, fixing, or transporting things”). These are the features of what Adam Smith characterized as “productive” labor, by which he meant that “labour of the manufacturer [that] adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon.” To this value-adding labor Smith opposed a vast and varied cast of unproductive workers typical of the late eighteenth century: “churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, &c.”2 Graeber implicitly concedes this well-worn distinction between productive and unproductive labor on several occasions, referring to the work of making, moving, and maintaining things as “real, productive.” Whatever its appeals to the immediacy of workers’ lived experience—the vivid sense of pointlessness relayed to Graeber by his followers—the conceptual assumptions of the book are drawn from old-growth political economy, not to mention a recently revised populist idyll that regrets an age of fat and plenty when “we” actually made (or moved or maintained) things.
The distinction between productive and unproductive labor has a long history in the discipline of economics. Smith uses it to oppose the manufacturing and agricultural sectors to what we now call the service sector (exemplarily, for Smith, “menial” servants and government personnel). But Smith, like Graeber, confuses productive labor with its concrete content; they both presume to adjudicate the matter on the basis of observing, directly, the nature of the activity in question, as opposed to examining its place in the social mode of production as a system. Identifying real, productive labor with making and moving things seems to exclude tens of millions of US jobs in the health and education sectors—unless one takes the home health care aide who changes bedsheets and administers medication to an elderly or ill patient as fixing or maintaining things. The equation of socially valuable work with productive labor also presumes the social utility of any produced good, provided it is a “thing”: Swiss chard, methamphetamine, baby formula, or assault rifle. Are truckers who transport thousands of gallons of cheap, corn syrup-derived carbonated drinks from the bottling plants to massive retail sites on the outskirts of rural towns performing labor more socially “useful” than, say, the poorly-paid receptionist at a doctor’s office, who assists patients in filing insurance forms? Is the labor performed on a ranch that raises thousands of pounds of cattle—producing, in turn, enormous quantities of climate-subverting methane gas—each year on packed, disease-ridden lots to provide cheap beef to these same poorly-paid workers unequivocally a social good? Do workers in textile factories in Indonesia producing handbags for upper middle-class shoppers in the suburbs of NYC feel satisfied, because they are making discrete and supposedly useful objects, that the work they perform contributes some positive social “good”?
It is easy to multiply such examples, such questions; it is clear, from those I arbitrarily chose, that the matter of what is deemed socially useful is a political question, not a matter of opinion. But even this line of reasoning misses the real point here. Presuming the play between productive and unproductive labor is useful at all here—the notion of “productive” labor underpins all of Graeber’s argument, such as it is3—requires that we bracket any reference to the concrete activity (making/moving/maintaining) being performed as decisive. The great virtue of Marx’s reworking of Smith’s categories lay in his focus not on their concrete content (the kind of labor and its product) but on a given activity’s location within the process by which labor is put to work to produce a profit for capital, since profit—not the satisfaction of social demand as such—is the ultimate point of production in capitalism. The same activity—say, emptying bedpans—can be unwaged when performed by family members, “unproductive” when a health-care aide is paid out of that same family’s personal income, and “productive” when the health-worker’s wages are paid by an employer who sells the employee’s services to a consumer. Such conceptual discriminations cannot be observed directly with the senses; the difference is not in the concrete activity itself, but in the social form within which the activity is embedded.
Distinguishing activities paid out of personal income from those—perhaps the same—paid for by a business owner is one way to make the distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Another is to differentiate between activities that produce a saleable commodity, regardless of whether it is a good or a service, and the activities required to transform these commodities into money. Advertising, storage, accounting, the drawing up of legal contracts: so many operations constructing the moment of exchange, that instant when money changes hands. Consider the cashier, certainly the holder of a bullshit job by anyone’s estimation. The cashier makes, maintains, and fixes nothing. He is the paper pusher par excellence: he facilitates the process of exchange, by which possession of a good or service is transferred to a buyer in exchange for money. Such labor expedites, in a capitalist society, the “realization” of the value added in production, its transformation into money which can be reinvested in production or spent on consumption by the business owner, at the same time permitting consumers access to commodities, whatever their social utility (Swiss chard, methamphetamine, baby formula, or assault rifle). So much of the labor performed by workers across the world, and particularly in high-income countries, is just this: subjectively pointless, yet objectively necessarily for the distribution of goods and services produced, as they are in our societies, by private firms whose sole objective is not the meeting of social needs but the transformation of an initial sum of money into a larger one.4
Graeber compounds his error—evaluating and sorting occupations on the basis of whether they do or do not add value through the “actual” manipulation of material things—later in the book by mapping this distinction onto entire sectors of the economy. In point of fact, the border between productive and unproductive activity evoked above now exists in every sector of the economy, it runs through every private capitalist firm, and often even traverses a single occupation, depending on the types of tasks grouped under a particular job description. Bullshit Jobs, however, has no interest in such analytical precautions. At a time when the financial sector’s share of GDP in the US and the UK has long outstripped that of manufacturing—and given the role its newfangled financial technologies played in the global economic crisis of 2008—Graeber’s crosshairs are unsurprisingly trained on the fat cats of Wall and Lombard Streets. Yet his treatment of this matter is decidedly populist in its design, with the operations of banks, credit, and capital markets presented over and over again as an intricate, hoodwinking “scam” (“a scam of sorts,” “basically a scam”) perpetrated by a tiny elite positioned with value-siphoning straws at the summit of the social food chain. This rhetoric comes complete with a fable about a period just before the “fusion” of finance and large industry (companies that actually make, move, and maintain things) in the mid-1970s. Graeber’s is a story about the changing “moral responsibilities” of corporations, and how conscientious leaders of industry—“executives in firms dedicated to producing breakfast cereals, or agricultural machinery”—once had a special contempt for the razzle-dazzle of the money lenders and stock pickers, seeing “themselves as having more in common with production-line workers in their own firms than they did with speculators and investors.” Once upon a time, and not long ago, the captains of industry and workers on the shop-floor, those whose activity was equally “essential to the health and prosperity of the nation,” formed a bulwark against the predations of those who exchange money for money alone; if they share in common neither the ownership of the means of production nor the streams of income such ownership entitles them to, their socially useful activity stood starkly against the nihilism of the shadowy world of banks and the providers of financial services.
The contention that “during most of the twentieth century, large industrial corporations were very much independent of, and to some degree even hostile to, the interests of what was called ‘high finance’” is, though, a hard sell. The first two decades of the twentieth century generated a spate of theorizations of the then-novel integration of the banking and industrial sectors. Hilferding and Lenin, to summon only the obvious cases, examined this new era of trusts and cartels as a mature mutation of the capitalist order, in which heretofore unprecedented concentrations of capital gave rise to monopolies that troubled the “efficient” allocating function of markets and price signals. Some, like Giovanni Arrighi, have argued that the subordination of the “productive” sector to the logic and sway of finance capital is, understood historically, a cyclical phenomenon, indexing a coming crisis of accumulation. Were we to ask just why finance has assumed such a preponderance since the ’70s, we could do worse than look there. Doing so would require that we be concerned with the ups and (mostly) downs of the capitalist mode of production of the past five decades.5
Undoubtedly the scale of financial operations in the core capitalist countries can be chalked up in part to the expanding global division of labor characteristic of the current age. More to the point, however, is that because capital is mobile, and because it by definition seeks the highest rate of return on investment, it is extremely sensitive to discrepancies in profit in different industries and sectors of the economy. Since the rate of profit in manufacturing and industry across the world more generally has, by all accounts and on average, declined over the course of the past five decades, it is no surprise that capital began to pour into activities that promise a higher return on investment.6 One of the salient features of the capitalist mode of production is that asset-owners who are not productive industrial capitalists—landlords, money-capitalists, merchants, and so on—are able to capture surplus value generated by productive capital. From the perspective of a given sum of capital, the distinction between value-producing activities and those that merely circulate capital is irrelevant. There is a single law of gravity that operates on all capital-owners: the rate of profit. Finance is only one among many ways to capture a share of already-produced surplus value; retail giants like Amazon, Walmart and Alibaba, for example, derive most of their revenue from operations that add no value to the wares they offer online, yet are required for the circuit of capital to close, and money to return to its source (in this case an array of producers, money-capitalists, etc.) as more money.
In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber shows no interest about why the financial sector assumed a paramount position in the workings of the global economy around 1975. The rise of the financial sector is important for him only as an explanation of why bullshit jobs are so numerous. Almost all growth in unproductive employment since the 1970s has, Graeber inexplicably claims, been in the financial sector, which he enlarges to include related industries like insurance and real estate (often lumped under the sign of FIRE), then expands further to include something he calls “information work.” How, he asks, in an economy in which the winners survive and thrive through the most efficient allocation of resources, can so much waste prevail in the use of human-labor power? Precisely because the financial sector is a scam; because it is predatory and rent-seeking; because it sponges off real value-adding labor; because, in the case of one major US bank, “roughly two-thirds of its profits were derived from ‘fees and penalties’,” rather than through efficiencies in the use of labor and capital, and innovations that boost labor productivity.7 The profits thus extracted resemble less profits than rents or taxes, like those exacted by landlords or sovereign governments. In this way, executives heading these firms live like rural notables of the ancien régime. This social crust, Graeber’s argument goes, thrives on fixed income streams and lavishes these ill-gotten gains on all manner of luxuries—above all, salaried assistants and what the early political economists called “menial servants”: flunkies, doormen, personal assistants, and underlings of every stripe. The raison d’être of the financial sector is not premium rates of return on investment but the production of what Bullshit Jobs flatly names “hierarchy”—an “infatuation with hierarchy for its own sake”—in which power means the accumulation of subordinates, suck-ups, and sycophants.
Graeber’s claim is not, however, that this ethos of hierarchy and command rather than profit-seeking is confined to the growing (at least in GDP terms) financial sector. This would be less provocative, less likely to create a minor international sensation. His argument is that, with the fusion of industry and finance, the private sector as a whole has assumed this archaic character. This has resulted in the bureaucratization of the private sector, as enormous firms concerned ostensibly with market share and profit rates in fact function as gigantic generators of reticulated hierarchies in which millions of mid-level administrators—“salaried paper pushers,” according to Graeber—are kept on the payroll not because they serve a necessary function, but because they allow for the proliferation of hierarchies, power pyramids, and chains of command in which everyone is the superior of someone, and everyone equally someone’s errand boy, PA, or bouc émissaire. Indeed, taking the financial sector as a paradigm for the economy as a whole, Graeber suggests that, “One possible reason for [the] proliferation [of hierarchies] might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism.” What we thought was a system focused on the production of profit by means of the exploitation of labor is in fact a system of “rent extraction,” an order founded on prestige and abjection animated by tournaments of one-upmanship and humiliation, which Graeber calls “managerial feudalism.”
The picture Graeber paints of the “current work regime” is that of “millions of human beings spending years of their lives pretending to type into spreadsheets or preparing mind maps for PR meetings.” This is undoubtedly true. But since the global work force in 2017 stood at 3.5 billion strong, according to World Bank estimates, we can assume there are many more millions of human beings doing something else entirely.8 Indeed, the strange claim at the center of Graeber’s new book is that the explosive growth of the service sector—today, four of five jobs in the US are “service” occupations—over the past half century is entirely due to the massive addition of “pointless” employment in the FIRE sector, where hired toadies tinker with Excel and spitball advertising strategies to while away their days. After distinguishing between those who make, move, and maintain things and the rest of us, Graeber draws a line through the service sector itself: “The proportion of the workforce made up of actual waiters, barbers, salesclerks and the like,” he hallucinates, is “really quite small.” The share of total employment in all service occupations other than those in the FIRE sector has, he confirms, “remained remarkably steady over time, holding for more than a century at roughly 20 percent. The vast majority of those others included in the service sector were really administrators, consultants, clerical and accounting staff, IT professionals, and the like . . . It seems reasonable to conclude . . . that the bulk of the new service jobs added to the economy [since 1992] were really of the same sort.”9
In fact, since the 1970s, the advanced economies of the “West” have seen a dizzying expansion of low-wage, low-skill employment across the board, not least in retail and restaurants, but especially in healthcare and education. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the fastest growing occupations in the US offers a sobering correction to Graeber’s tableau of do-nothing “salaried paper pushers:” personal care aides, home health aides, “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food,” retail salespersons, nursing assistants, customer service representatives, restaurant cooks, medical assistants, and “janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners.” Eleven of the fifteen occupations require no college degree, most no formal education at all. The median pay for most is $25,000 annually, or less.10 This is the “current regime of work,” for those who have eyes to see. It is a world in which a sizable share of employment in the putatively rich countries takes the form of poorly-paid work tending to the sick and the young, making and serving cheap food to other poor people, or cleaning offices, warehouses, and hotel rooms, after the salaried paper-pushers are off the clock.
The vision of the world proposed by Bullshit Jobs is reminiscent above all of the prognostications developed by the academic sociology of the 1950s and 1960s, which predicted the near coming of a white-collar, middle-class world in which a constantly fatter layer of the salaried labor force would be tasked with carrying out administrative tasks: a world of “salaried paper pushers.” Where those theories, like the competing accounts of state capitalism developed in the decades just prior, imagined a world in which market dynamics and price signals would play less and less of a role in economic decisions, Graeber paints a world in which rent-seeking bureaucrats in the private and public sector alike allocate labor and capital in pursuit not of higher rates of return on capital investment, but of personal domination, of “hierarchy” and power. To make this claim, which one could expect of an anarchist who works in public sector higher education, he must turn a blind eye to the world around; he reaches for Twitter, and followers, for the testimony of “rebel banker[s]” and “corporate lawyers”—his cited interlocutors—instead. Rather than take aim at the predations of the labor market, which forces workers to compete against one another for fewer, poorly-paid jobs, Graeber offers his readership a group self-portrait, an office comedy sending up the minor slights of the cubicle, the email chain, and prepared lunches. In the face of a capitalist world lurching from crisis to catastrophe, shaped by a dramatic polarization of the workforce, tepid productivity figures, a stagnant technology sector operating in monopoly-like conditions, and a decades-long tapering off of profit rates across economic sectors, Bullshit Jobs plays us an old standard: the bureaucratization of the world. That most workers in capitalist societies find their work pointless and pernicious has as much to do with the social relations that envelop it as the content of the work itself. That wage labor is compulsory for all but a few and conducted under capitalist conditions—rationalized, disciplined—transforms even attractive labor into an experience of servility. We have every reason to believe that, in a world in which production is no longer organized on capitalist lines, a sizable share of such bullshit jobs will be rendered, like the human appendix, unnecessary, their residual presence a mystery, a matter for the natural sciences. But in this case, we will have abolished wage-labor altogether.
- David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), p. xv.
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 351-52.
- Graeber mentions the distinction and this tradition in passing, in order to dismiss it out of hand, and in his usual folksy way.
- Consider again the office assistant who helps a patient file the paperwork necessary to convince an insurance company to provide coverage for a particular procedure or medicine; imagine attempting to do so oneself, and decide whose (unpaid or paid) labor in this scenario is more “useful,” yours or the assistant’s. In a rational society in which insurance companies did not exist and in which health-care was freely provided, an army of clerical staff—smaller than that mobilized today—would be necessary to manage the massive distribution of medical services and goods necessary in wealthy, complex societies.
- Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994). The most compelling recent critical revision of the early 20th century debates on global finance and imperialism is Tony Norfield’s The City: London and the Global Power of Finance (London: Verso, 2016).
- To be clear, the structural crisis of the 1970s is almost universally understood, among Marxists, to be a crisis of profitability. While some authors see a recovery of profit rates in the 1980s and 1990s, this is the subject of lively and important debates. For a survey of recent writing on the subject, with particular emphasis of the 2008 crisis, see Deepankaur Basu and Ramaa Vasudevan’s “Technology, Distribution and the Rate of Profit in the U.S. Economy: Understanding the Current Crisis,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 37:1 (January 2013): 57–89.
- Graeber offers no source for this datum; typically, his most extravagant claims are neither footnoted nor referenced. A widely-cited source for these types of data offers a more plausible statistic: “In the first three quarters of 2016, overdraft/NSF fee revenue accounted for an average of 8.1 percent of reporting banks’ net income, unchanged from the same period in 2015.” See https://uspirg.org/reports/usp/big-banks-big-overdraft-fees
- These data are attributed to an uncited source (“Robert Taylor, a library scientist”) from a study done in 1992—the study is not listed in the bibliography, or footnoted. In fact, financial sector employment has remained around 5 percent since 1949.
- Graeber’s assertions can be easily refuted by the quickest glance at the numbers supplied by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (or its UK equivalent). There we find that occupations grouped under “financial activities” amount to barely more than five percent of employment in the US, and that this number has declined since 2006, despite a rapid rise in GDP share after the 2008 crisis. On the contrary, jobs in “leisure and hospitality” and in “retail trade” along made up, together, twenty percent of the labor force in 2016. The health care sector is by far the largest sector, providing 13.2 percent of US jobs; it is also the fastest growing sector, with a projected increase, by 2026, of 1.9 percent. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ecopro.t06.htm
ContributorJason E. Smith
JASON E. SMITH lives in Los Angeles and writes primarily about contemporary politics, art, and philosophy.