Recently I solicited impressions of his job from the new head of external affairs at a big financial organisation. What had struck him first was the manpower at his disposal. The total headcount ran into many hundreds – larger than most if not all Australia’s print and electronic newsrooms. There was not merely one department. Each division of the institution had its own well-resourced team.
Yet what struck him next was a paradox. Only a relatively small proportion of the external affairs personnel dealt with anyone ... well, external. What did they do all day, I asked? ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘They talk to each other.’
Five years ago, this paradox, and others like it, provoked the American anthropologist David Graeber to publish an essay in the magazine Strike! entitled ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’, based on a ‘hunch’ that corporations were replete with jobs that didn’t ‘do much of anything’: in this category he lumped the like of ‘HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers’. It touched, as they say, a chord. In Bullshit Jobs: A theory, Graeber seeks to strum it.
No longer content simply to observe the phenomenon, Graeber aspires to explain it. The bullshit job he defines as a ‘form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case’.
Bullshit jobs are not to be confused with shit jobs, such as those of cleaners, ditchdiggers etc. The blue collar latter involve being ‘paid and treated badly’ and ‘held in low esteem’ despite involving ‘work that needs to be done’; the white collar former often offer ‘excellent working conditions’ despite their futility. Why? Because bullshit jobs have proliferated as a kind of balm for the workplace attrition wrought by neoliberalism and mechanisation, ‘the ruling class’ having ‘figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger’. Graeber wants Bullshit Jobs to be ‘an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization’. With the best will in the world, it is more like a protest rock thrown at a departing tank.