Book review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
My rating: three stars

If ever there was a title to get me through the door, then this was it. How could I resist? The thing I didn’t know when I began Bullshit Jobs, though, was that Graeber’s position wasn’t that work as a whole was bullshit.

This I had to learn. (See, there’s also plain shit jobs, which are very different from bullshit jobs.)

The book is the natural extension of a 2013 essay Graeber wrote for Strike! about the rise of the titular jobs. The site is no longer online, but you can read an archived version here. I am fairly certain that if you were online at the time, though, you’re more or less aware of the thrust of the thing, given that it was reprinted and repeated through many organs, and was forwarded incessantly.

Basically, the author contended that these jobs – bullshit jobs – were tasks that had no perceptible worth to the person tasked with them. They’re the sort of jobs (usually situated in an office or some other professional setting) in which the employee must continually construct something to do. It’s the sort of job 40 per cent of UK workers believe they have: busywork with no real goal. Jobs that contribute nothing to society. They just exist and someone has to fill them.

But why? Graeber spends the text discussing the rise of bureaucracy and of the financial sector, and the way the restructuring of ‘work’ has led to the situation we’re in. Five classes of bullshit jobs are investigated but substantially more time is given over to the corrosive effect working in these positions has on the hapless employee. Indeed, the ‘spiritual violence’ of bullshit jobs is discussed at length. Why are we (as a society) allowing them? And how can we move out of this trap?

Throughout the work, Graeber relies on anecdotes gathered in the wake of his original essay. They humanise the arguments, though the author does use statistical rigour (and theoretical provocation) to shore up his arguments. It’s a good mix, and while there are economic and social theories at play here, the text conveys the important parts of anything germane to ensure the unread consumer (such as myself) isn’t left in the dark.

I really enjoyed Bullshit Jobs but I did feel it could’ve been more compact. My eyes began to glaze over by the end of the text, but that’s undoubtedly a function of the subject rather than the author’s prose, which was mostly arch and illuminating. Graeber’s tone is both angry and consoling: through the work he remains alive to the possibilities of universal basic income and a return to jobs of value.

I just wish I felt as confident of our ability to shrug off the bullshit as he did.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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