Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

★★★★★

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Buy this book ~May 6, 2018 Books read in 2018

Highlights

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.
This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?
In some countries, such as Brazil, such buildings still have uniformed elevator operators whose entire job is to push the button for you. There is a continuum from explicit feudal leftovers of this type to receptionists and front-desk personnel at places that obviously don’t need them.
As we will see in later chapters, there are all sorts of different ways that private companies employ people to be able to tell themselves they are doing something that they aren’t really doing. Many large corporations, for instance, maintain their own in-house magazines or even television channels, the ostensible purpose of which is to keep employees up to date on interesting news and developments, but which, in fact, exist for almost no reason other than to allow executives to experience that warm and pleasant feeling that comes when you see a favorable story about you in the media, or to know what it’s like to be interviewed by people who look and act exactly like reporters but never ask questions you wouldn’t want them to ask. Such venues tend to reward their writers, producers, and technicians very handsomely, often at two or three times the market rate. But I’ve never talked to anyone who does such work full-time who doesn’t say the job is bullshit.
Working serves a purpose, or is meant to do so. Being forced to pretend to work just for the sake of working is an indignity, since the demand is perceived—rightly—as the pure exercise of power for its own sake. If make-believe play is the purest expression of human freedom, make-believe work imposed by others is the purest expression of lack of freedom.
Much of the confusion that surrounds debate about social issues in general can be traced back to the fact that people will regularly take these different explanations as alternatives rather than seeing them as factors that all operate at the same time. For example, people sometimes tell me that any attempt to explain bullshit jobs in political terms is wrongheaded; such jobs, they insist, exist because people need the money—as if this consideration had somehow never occurred to me before. Looking at the subjective motives of those who take such jobs is then treated as an alternative to asking why so many people find themselves in a position where the only way they can get money is by taking such jobs to begin with.
Flunky positions are created because those in powerful positions in an organization see underlings as badges of prestige; goons are hired due to a dynamic of one-upmanship (if our rivals employ a top law firm, then so, too, must we); duct-taper positions are created because sometimes organizations find it more difficult to fix a problem than to deal with its consequences; box-ticker positions exist because, within large organizations, paperwork attesting to the fact that certain actions have been taken often comes to be seen as more important than the actions themselves; taskmasters exist largely as side effects of various forms of impersonal authority.
It seems to me all this is an intrinsic feature of managerial feudalism. Where once universities, corporations, movie studios, and the like had been governed by a combination of relatively simple chains of command and informal patronage networks, we now have a world of funding proposals, strategic vision documents, and development team pitches—allowing for the endless elaborations of new and ever more pointless levels of managerial hierarchy, staffed by men and women with elaborate titles, fluent in corporate jargon, but who either have no firsthand experience of what it’s like to actually do the work they are supposed to be managing, or who have done everything in their power to forget it.
Capitalism is not a single totalizing system that shapes and embraces every aspect of our existence. It’s not even clear it makes sense to speak of “capitalism” at all (Marx, for instance, never really did), implying as it does that “capitalism” is a set of abstract ideas that have somehow come to take material form in factories and offices. The world is more complicated and messy than that. Historically, the factories and offices emerged first, long before anyone knew quite what to call them, and to this day, they operate on multiple contradictory logics and purposes.
Translating a paragraph or document from one language to another—particularly from a dry business document—is not a task that many people would do for fun; still, one can imagine some reasons people might do it other than the money. (They are trying to perfect their language abilities, for example.) Therefore, most executives’ first instinct, upon hearing that translation work is required, is to try to see if they can’t find some way to make someone do it for free. Yet these very same executives are willing to shell out handsome salaries for “Vice Presidents for Creative Development” and the like, who do absolutely nothing. (In fact, such executives might themselves be Vice Presidents for Creative Development, and do nothing at all other than trying to figure out how to get others to do work for free.)
Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up. A combination of political pressure from both right and left, a deeply held popular feeling that paid employment alone can make one a full moral person, and finally, a fear on the part of the upper classes, already noted by George Orwell in 1933, of what the laboring masses might get up to if they had too much leisure on their hands, has ensured that whatever the underlying reality, when it comes to official unemployment figures in wealthy countries, the needle should never jump too far from the range of 3 to 8 percent. But if one eliminates bullshit jobs from the picture, and the real jobs that only exist to support them, one could say that the catastrophe predicted in the 1930s really did happen. Upward of 50 percent to 60 percent of the population has, in fact, been thrown out of work.
I’m personally an anarchist, which means that, not only do I look forward to a day sometime in the future when governments, corporations, and the rest will be looked at as historical curiosities in the same way as we now look at the Spanish Inquisition or nomadic invasions, but I prefer solutions to immediate problems that do not give more power to governments or corporations, but rather, give people the means to manage their own affairs.
Next: by Hilary Mantel