This morning, many sleepy, grumpy, bloated people across the country returned to their jobs for the first time since before Christmas. Some of those people in London – the country's largest hub of early morning misery – were made to stop and consider the numb feeling inside of them by 200 posters that someone had plastered up in ad spaces on the tube, with depressing quotes such as:
"It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working."
"Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed."
"How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist?"
The quotes were taken from LSE anthropology Professor and activist David Graeber's article "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs", which explained that much modern employment is pretty much pointless, and the toll having to do them takes on everyone's mentality. The article went viral in 2013 and hasn't lost its relevance since. The poster campaign seemed to be a re-run of the anti-police posters that went up before Christmas. Just like back then, the Bullshit Job posters were designed by Strike! magazine, which ran the original article.
Nobody knows who put them up though, least of all Graeber, so I decided to call him up and chat about why everything I do is a meaningless waste of time.
VICE: Hi David. Apparently 200 "counter-propaganda" posters have been put up on the tube today quoting an article you wrote on "bullshit jobs". How do you feel about that?
David Graeber: You know to be perfectly honest, I didn't even know in advance about the action. I was thinking of going in to work today myself. Oddly, I was going to bring a picture with me – the one from the Bullshit Jobs piece – that someone gave me as a birthday present, to my office, to use as a "Do Not Disturb" sign.
It was a very pleasant way to wake up: to check Twitter and see pictures of phrases that I had said. I guess the idea is that today's the first day people are going back to work, so I'm assuming whoever did it wants people, after having spent time with their families and doing things that they truly care about, to reflect on whether the job they're going to is meaningful – what they actually think about it, and also the value of what they're doing.
Can you explain what you mean by "bullshit jobs"?
When I came up with the phrase, I was particularly interested in what the subjective value of one's work is. There are millions of people who go to work everyday, and feel that maybe one hour of their work is actually contributing something to the world, and maybe not even that – maybe they're actually subtracting from the world by what they do. I was interested in the effect this has on people.
So do you think someone is just making up pointless jobs to keep us working? One of the phrases on the posters suggested that.
Obviously it's not like people are sitting around in a room saying, you know, "Let's think up pointless jobs!" but it is true that people who talk about economic policy talk about creating employment but never talk about whether that employment is meaningful or not.
This completely contradicts what should happen in a capitalist system. You know, we're used to thinking of the Soviet Union as an economy where they had an ideology of full employment and they had to make up jobs for people that were completely unnecessary and pointless; you'd go to a cashier and one gives you a ticket and another does something else and another something else – they were constantly making up these pointless jobs. It's understandable that this would happen in an economy that is based on the principle of work as a value unto itself and full employment and so forth and so on. But in a capitalist society, paying somebody to do nothing is the very last thing you'd expect a firm to do, but in fact they do and often you can observe it.
In a lot of the responses I got on blogs, people would talk about how they had figured out a way to automate 90 percent of their job or whatever, and they'd say, "I showed it to my supervisor and they said, 'Don't do that! If you do that, I'll need three workers instead of eight workers and I'll be much less significant within the corporation.'" The corporate bureaucracy is not that different to what happened in the old Soviet system.
Why do you think many people are unemployed and actually wish they had any job – even a bullshit job – to do?
I think one thing that's really significant is an ideological shift, away from the idea that work is valuable in that it produces stuff. It's kind of self-evident that, in the 19th century, work was important to produce the world around us.
But over the course of the 20th century there's been a huge effort to re-imagine the world; it's the imagination of these great entrepreneurial geniuses that create all these things – workers are just robots, working in the factories, doing what they're told, extensions of the minds of these quite great people. It seems there has been an increased emphasis on work as of pure value unto itself.
You say bullshit jobs do moral and spiritual damage. How come?
There's this idea that work is discipline – you can't become a mature, responsible, self-contained, proper person without basically working more than you want to at things you don't really like. The more unpleasant work is, the more moralising it is. And that logic has become stronger and stronger and stronger, so anybody who doesn't work you can revile as a parasite.
But we have this weird thing now where even people who enjoy their work are viewed a bit suspiciously. We have this weird situation where the more obviously your work contributes to the world, the less they pay you, with a few exceptions like surgeons, airline pilots, things like that. But for the most part the people who get paid the most are people who it is entirely unclear what they contribute to the world at all. Meanwhile people like say, a nurse – the people who, if they disappeared, the world would immediately be in trouble – those guys get the least.
How does that happen? I think one of the reasons is passive morality – that, like, work is valuable because you don't wanna be doing it and there's no meaning or value in it at all. It's really hard to get a company to pay people to do something when they have any reason to do so other than the money. So even if it's like transformation work or artistic work – anything that's in any way fun – they say, "Is there some way we can get people to do this for free?"
So for society, what's the alternative to creating bullshit jobs – how should we organise so that people have to do fewer hours of work in a job that has a point to it?
I think there are any number of different ways. One interesting programme would be a basic minimum income system – they're playing around with that in Switzerland. Instead of your wage being dependent on your work, you just give everybody a flat rate and have them decide for themselves how they want to contribute to society. And people do want to contribute in some way.
We have this idea that people left to their own devices will just be parasites – they'll lounge about and not do work – but that's clearly not the case. The example I go to is prisons, even here [in the UK], they actually use work to reward people. Here are people who are not particularly altruistic – they're criminals, after all – and they're in a situation where they get food and shelter and they could just sit around all day but actually they're so eager to do something rather than just sit around that they'd rather work. I think people really do want to do something.
I remember being very struck by Dostoyevsky, who was in a Russian prison camp, and he said if you really want to destroy someone psychologically, much worse than through physical torture, just make up a completely meaningless form of work. You know, have them take water from some giant vat and then move it back to the first vat again. Have them do that all day and before long even the most hardened criminal will be utterly despairing of life, because there's nothing more horrible than devoting one's life to something completely meaningless. I mean, you know, sure, there will be some freeloaders, but we've got more freeloaders right now.
What would you suggest to people reading this, or who saw excerpts of your article on the tube today, and are wondering if their jobs are bullshit?
I'm not really there to tell people what to do with their lives. But if you can find something that actually helps other people and you can still afford to feed your family, you might want to consider that. I think that's most people's dilemma: I remember this very clearly from Occupy Wall Street – people would tell the story of their lives on little post-it notes, and the vast majority complained about their lives a lot. [They'd say] "I want to have a job where I actually contribute something to society, I want to be in education, I want to be a nurse, I want to help society."
What is a non-bullshit job?
A job that isn't bullshit should have concrete benefits to other people. But we can't do jobs that aren't bullshit because of debt. That's a great dilemma from which that movement actually started I think. I would say to unions and organisers, think about that, redefine what is valuable about work – work is valuable if it makes other people's lives better. It would be nice if we were rewarded for making people's lives better, not punished. From an individual point of view, think about the way that you can navigate that with your own conscience.
More jobs that suck: