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Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein writes in praise of Industry in our postindustrial morass.

In his book Post-Industrial Society (1969), Alain Touraine defined a post-industrial society as one in which the service sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector. Most developed countries are already in this situation and most other countries are heading straight towards it.

This shift from the industrial to the post-industrial has advantages and disadvantages. Among the advantages is the reduction of industrial pollution. It has also been said that in post-industrial societies knowledge will become the most valued resource and form of capital: the production of ideas will become the main way to grow the economy. Post-industrial societies invest in creativity, and they appreciate the work of creative professionals such as scientists and designers. Among the disadvantages is an intensification of social exclusion, which Daniel Bell already pointed out in 1973 in The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society. But in recent years, another problem, which I want to address here, has moved to the foreground. The post-industrial society has produced a culture in which work is estranged or ‘alienated’ – entfremdet in Marx’s German – not because it follows the patterns of industrialization, as Marx once said, but because it has lost the industrial ideal. Since it is not bound to produce anything, much work in post-industrial societies has become inefficient, narcissistic, and superfluous. I’m talking about the sort of work the anthropologist David Graeber describes in his book Bullshit Jobs (2018).

Bullshit jobs, says Graeber, are mainly white-collar jobs. He analyzes the work of HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, and others. As the blue-collar sector has shrunk, unnecessary workers have been acquired upstairs in recently-emerged management roles.

Many jobs in post-industrial societies are meaningless. A poll in the Netherlands found that 40% believe their jobs to be meaningless (p.5). However, in post-industrial societies we do not work less but more, because increasingly pointless tasks are continually invented: “Technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless” (p.xvi). So we are industrious in the post-industrial society; but is it the right kind of industriousness?

It used to be thought that once the industrial period was left behind, all the problems of the industrial period would be left behind, too. But obviously this is not the case. We reproduce the industrial world’s major problems, and make the situation even worse by depriving society of its productive ground. Work is more meaningless and entfremdet than it has ever been before. Administrators maintain a working culture that keeps us busy as if we were still living in an industrial society, although in reality we aren’t. Innumerable white-collar workers engage in endless sequences of box-ticking rituals revolving around monthly targets. The post-industrial system has created a working world of mindless hyperactivity (evaluations, quantitative measuring, control, standardization) that are, most of the time, enforced by administrators. People spend their time handling meaningless numbers supposed to give the illusion of control. Services can be multiplied as long as service providers buy services from other service providers. Services can also be outsourced to agencies who will buy services from other agencies. The logical consequence is an increase of bullshit jobs in which neither goods nor knowledge are produced. This kind of work culture would have been unacceptable to earlier capitalists.

Post-industrial administrators claim to have overcome the industrial world to reach a better, post-industrial world. The standardization and evaluation methods they preach are meant to be humanitarian, and supposed to guarantee social equality. The problem is that there is not much substance behind the façade. The positive image of the post-industrial world crumbles away.

Social Media Is Bullshit

Another recent book bearing the word ‘bullshit’ in the title is B.J. Mendelson’s Social Media is Bullshit (2012). Social media and post-industrial society are closely linked. The post-industrial society is an information society, and the processing of information, useful or not, has become an occupation of almost everybody, from the multinational media company to the Facebook sharer.

Social media thrives particularly well in post-industrial societies because post-industrial workers have time to spend chatting on the net in a way their Fordist (production-line-working) ancestors couldn’t have even dreamt of. In this way, bullshit jobs and bullshit media are connected through a vicious circle: there’s an attempt to compensate the loss of a meaningful working life through an increased use of social media. But the ‘meaning’ found in social media activities is just as unreal as the ‘meaning’ propagated by bullshit jobs. Both bullshit jobs and social media, with their illusions of recognition and gratification, speculate with an ‘as if’ – as if something is being made or changed – but they provide no meaningful purposes in work or in life.

Whence came all these books with ‘bullshit’ in their titles? It is probably the fault of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who turned the word ‘bullshit’ into an official philosophical term in his short bestselling book On Bullshit (2005). He defined ‘bullshit’ as different from lying because, contrary to the liar, the bullshitter does not try to deceive. Rather, he is indifferent to the truth or falsity of what he says (p.6-7). The bullshitter is “bluffing but not lying, bullshit is not false, but merely fake and phony” (p.47). In bullshit jobs, the ‘doing as if’ creates a new type of bullshit. The neoliberal bosses, as well as the narcissistic social media, attempt to establish an alternative reality that’s not false but merely fake and phony.

The Knowledge Society Is Bullshit

Is post-industrial society a knowledge society? Had the intention really been to create a knowledge society, one would have suitably revised industrial methods and made them efficient in terms of their new values and usefulness, since without values and usefulness ‘knowledge’ is meaningless. But instead, what the ‘knowledge’ post-industrial society produces is information manufactured in the worst possible industrial fashion and subsequently sold as a service. And because in post-industrial society essentially services buy services, the quantity of useless information will soon become overwhelming.

Nineteenth century workers also found their work meaningless and alienating, true; but at least they were actually producing something. The post-industrial economy has not reformed industrial production in order to install more meaning and to make it less alienating. Instead, it has adopted the worst elements from the industrial period, although priding itself on having overcome the archaic working patterns of the industry. However, by ‘overcoming’ the industrial age in an oblique fashion, post-industrial society has deprived itself of the most basic ideal of the industrial age, which is the production of something valuable, useful, and real. The only thing that has really been overcome is the idea of efficiency. It was originally hoped that with the development of sophisticated technology much of the monotonous labor seen in factory production would become obsolete. The contrary is the case. It continues in bullshit jobs, and is replicated in, for example, the mindless overuse of smartphones.

Which problems from the industrial age have actually been fixed? Pollution has been reduced to a degree; but inequality is on the rise, and working conditions in industries such as the food industry have become even worse.

Bullshit jobs and social media keep us busy but prevent us from producing anything of value. A vague idea of efficiency has been taken over from the industrial period, but it has been deprived of meaning because there’s no production. The ideal tends to be reissued in the form of ‘excellence.’ It is also very likely that there’s a political program behind it.

The Busy-Bee Syndrome

Jacques Ellul said one should characterize a society by the fundamental values it has established (Ellul For Himself, 2008, pp.174-175). But post-industrial society has never established values, apart from vague ideals of knowledge (increase of information) and excellence (being ‘the best’ in whatever area). And while the industrial period was the time of revolts, populations occupied with busywork and social media have less time to revolt. The result is the busy-bee syndrome of pseudoproductivity now prevalent in all kinds of white-collar professions.

Industrial society is often seen as an intermediate phase between agrarian society and post-industrial society. The idea stems from Jean Fourastié, the great optimist of technology, who invented the Three-Sector Model. Ecological romanticism holds that the deficiencies of the post-industrial world can best be solved by looking for inspiration in Sector 1, the agrarian society. Nobody looks for virtues in industrial society. Industrial society has been entirely discredited: ‘industry’ stands for pollution, mechanization, low quality mass production, and inequality. One whole industrial world – the Soviet bloc – collapsed. A flight into a brand new utopian post-industrial world seems to be the most logical choice. And if we manage to import some elements from the pre-industrial period, maybe we’ll have a reasonably good life?

However, there are a few valuable virtues industry can offer us, such as productivity, efficiency, and the ideal of collective work. But post-industrial society has abandoned those virtues. On top of this, the errors of the industrial society have not been fixed, because we believe we have left this era for good. The mistakes will be repeated on another level. In this sense, the post-industrial is the continuation of the industrial. Instead of improving industrial society by learning from its mistakes, we introduce random virtues from the agrarian pre-industrial period, such as ecological ideas and alternative businesses.

Looking closer, an improved industrial society would look very much like what many people thought an ideal post-industrial society should look like (but never did). Henri de Saint-Simon, a French philosopher of the early nineteenth century coined the term ‘industrialism’ to mean an industrial mode of production delivering economic and political superiority (Catéchisme des Industriels, 1824). The new industrial mode was supposed to replace the non-productive class, the aristocracy. Saint-Simon’s vision is as optimistic as Daniel Bell’s later descriptions of post-industrial society. It is therefore ironic that Graeber puts forward ‘managerial feudalism’ as the most fundamental pattern of the new service sector jobs because these jobs are not due to economic needs but to the managers’ need of underlings. On top of this, managerial feudalism is mixed with what Christopher Lasch called ‘managerial narcissism’, and creates an absurd working culture of pseudo-industriousness. We end up with the worst elements of the industrial and the pre-industrial periods.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

© Dr Thorsten Botz-Bornstein 2020

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, David Graeber, 2018, $18.99 hb, 368 pages, ISBN: 978-1501143311

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