US anarchist David Graeber’s crusade against the rise of “bullshit jobs”

In his new book, the LSE professor argues that universal basic income can end the era of “pointless work” and promote freedom. 

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In 2013, the American anthropologist David Graeber began to notice a strange phenomenon. “I kept running into people at parties who didn’t want to tell you what they did [for work],” he recalled when we met. Others would say “we just make up the numbers” or “I can do my job in two hours a week – don’t tell my boss!” This wasn’t mere self-effacement – “they were really doing nothing”.

To test his thesis, Graeber wrote an essay that year for the radical magazine Strike!: “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. The response was remarkable. Thousands of workers contacted him, the publication’s website crashed and the piece was swiftly translated into more than a dozen languages.

Graeber had assumed only around 15-20 per cent of the UK population had a “bullshit job”, which he defines as “one so pointless that even the person doing it can’t justify it”. But a 2015 YouGov poll, inspired by his piece, found that 37 per cent of British workers did not believe their job made a “meaningful contribution” to the world (a further 13 per cent were unsure).

The anarchist author, whose previous books include Debt: The First 5,000 Years and The Utopia of Rules, has now expanded his piece into a book: Bullshit Jobs. I met Graeber, 57 – rumpled in mustard trousers and battered brogues – at his office at the London School of Economics, where he is professor of anthropology. Though recovering from a stomach bug, he spoke animatedly of his recent visit to Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish region of Syria. As one of the “anti-leaders” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber was impressed by the “intentional” absence of state structures. “What the Kurds are worried about is an invasion from Turkey,” he added. “They feel very betrayed because they did all the fighting [against Islamic State].”

Graeber divides “bullshit jobs” into five categories: “flunkies” (those who exist to make others feel important such as door attendants and admin assistants), “goons” (those who agitate on behalf of their employers such as lobbyists and telemarketers), “duct tapers” (those who undo damage by lax or incompetent superiors), “box tickers” (such as performance managers) and “taskmasters” (such as middle managers).

How many “bullshit jobs”, I felt compelled to ask, are there at LSE? “Oh God, I don’t know, and I’ve been intentionally not studying it,” Graeber said. “But I’ve been told that this university tops the UK, or did a few years ago, in terms of time spent assessing your work as opposed to actually doing it.”

For Graeber, “bullshit jobs” and the “bullshitisation” of others are “a scar across our collective soul”. He attributes their existence to the puritanical glorification of work, “managerial feudalism” (under which subordinates are continually added to enhance status) and political convenience. As George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London: “I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob… It is safer to keep them too busy to think.”

Graeber, the son of working-class autodidacts, was born in New York in 1961. His father, Kenneth, was a plate stripper who fought in the Spanish Civil War (“while Barcelona was being organised along anarchist lines”) and his mother, Ruth, was a garment worker who played the lead role in Pins and Needles, a 1930s musical revue staged by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. “I always say that the reason I ended up being an anarchist is because most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea – they think it’s insane,” Graeber told me. “But if you grow up in an environment where it’s not seen as insane, and you know that’s not the case, what reason is there not to be an anarchist?”

The one point on which the left and the right appeared to agree, he observed, is that “more jobs is the solution to any problem. How about fewer jobs?” He sardonically remarked: “The one thing that seemed to slow down global warming for a little while was the 2008 economic crisis – because so many people were unemployed.”

Graeber is sympathetic to the idea of a shorter working week (melancholically recalling John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 prophecy of a 15-hour working week by the century’s end). But as an anarchist, he is more attracted to a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens) to “detach livelihood from work”. He explained: “UBI is basically about freedom. What would happen if you said to people: ‘I trust you to decide for yourself what you want to contribute to society?’”

What of those who argue the left’s true challenge is to create more fulfilling work? “UBI would be a profound moral transformation about what people think is valuable,” Graeber replied. “Now, if you don’t think you can do that, why are you on the left at all?”

Have any politicians engaged with his vision? “John McDonnell has talked to me about it, he’s very interesting and open-minded… Who’d have thought that of all the countries in the world, Britain is the one globally providing hope for leftist renewal?”

Graeber described himself as a “professional optimist”. In 50 years, he predicted, “we’ll definitely have a system that is not capitalist”. But he warned: “It could be something even worse. It’s therefore imperative that we end this taboo around trying to figure out something that might be better. If we don’t get something better, it will be something worse – it won’t be the same.”

“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” is published by Allen Lane

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman