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The Bullshit-Job Boom



At the New Yorker, Nathan Heller riffs on David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which began life as an essay published in a small left-wing magazine in 2013 that subsequently went viral. As Heller notes, the overwhelming response to Graeber’s essay suggests that a large swathe of the workforce believes that their own jobs are, in fact, bullshit, and research polls have borne this out. For the book, Graeber delves deeper into why such jobs—which have only proliferated in recent decades—exist in an capitalist economy that supposedly prizes efficiency. Here’s an excerpt from Heller’s piece:

Graeber comes to believe that the governing logic for such expansion isn’t efficiency but something nearer to feudalism: a complex tangle of economics, organizational politics, tithes, and redistributions, which is motivated by the will to competitive status and local power. (Why do people employ doormen? Not because they’re cost-effective.) The difference between true feudalism and whatever is going on now—“managerial feudalism” is Graeber’s uncatchy phrase—is that, under true feudalism, professionals were responsible for their own schedules and methods.

Left to their own devices, Graeber points out, people tend to do work like students at exam time, alternately cramming and slacking. Possibly, they work this way because it is the most productive way to work. Most of us would assume that a farmer who started farming at 9 A.M. and stopped at 5 P.M. five days a week was strange, and probably not a very good farmer. Through the better part of human history, jobs from warrior to fisherperson to novelist had a cram-and-slack rhythm, in part because these jobs were shaped by actual productive needs, not arbitrary working clocks and managerial oversight. Graeber laments a situation in which it’s “perfectly natural for free citizens of democratic countries to rent themselves out in this way, or for a boss to become indignant if employees are not working every moment of ‘his’ time.” Still, it’s likely that he overstates the pleasures of the freelance life.

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