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Book Reviews Review: David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs brilliantly unpacks the modern corporate economy

  • Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
  • By David Graeber
  • Simon & Schuster, 285 pages

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century, technological progress would go hand in hand with human freedom. Unfortunately, this utopian vision of society working less and citizens having the time to pursue artistic creativity and philosophical ideals never came to fruition.

As American anthropologist David Graeber explains in the introduction to his book, the pendulum of the white-collar-corporate economy has drastically swung rightward, resulting in the widespread global phenomenon of “Bullshit Jobs.”

Huge swaths of employees in Europe and North America now spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be pointless. Predominately, these jobs are in the administrative, financial and information sectors.

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The working system that’s now operating around this relatively new global corporate economy has become a benign form of totalitarianism, the author believes.

A progressive anarchist who played a central role in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber is also the author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, The Utopia of Rules and The Democracy Project.

This current tome covers some of the ground Graeber’s other books explore. Namely, the drastic transformation in global capitalism, which increased inequality and created a managerial class which Graeber claims is modelled on the value of “classic mediaeval feudalism.”

This is a world, Graeber explains, of killing employees with kindness: plying them with material goods, cash and seminars on mindfulness and yoga.

Of course, historically, employees have always been sweetened up with money and perks to ease the pain of working.

However, Graeber points out that since the 1970s, the culture within corporate capitalism shifted dramatically. Previously it was, as Graeber explains, “independent of, and to some extent, hostile to the interests of high finance.”

But everything changed when the financial sector and the upper echelons of the corporate sector fused. This fusion has led to a vicious cycle whereby workers and employers no longer feel any loyalty to each other, and consequently have to be “increasingly monitored, managed and surveilled.” The bullshit-job industry goes against the general rule of capitalism, which hires the smallest number of people to produce the most profit. Paradoxically, it hires more people to do less work.

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This shift has created a world in which employers speak in a paternalistic-fictitious language, layered with bureaucratic confusion. Both worker and boss play out a series of confusing mind games to keep a system that benefits a small elite in power.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that employees across the West have increasingly come to hate their jobs. Mass outbreaks of anxiety and depression have followed closely behind. So too, Graeber argues with conviction, has a culture of envy, leaving a terrible psychic wound on the Western collective-consciousness.

Graeber’s book is intellectually rewarding but easily digestible, too, mainly because he arranges the material with great diversity. There is a nice mix of first-person anecdotal experience; everyday testimonies from workers themselves; complex anthropological and political theory; and an informed view of western capitalism, as well as the history of work more generally.

All of this allows Graeber – incrementally and with striking clarity – to unpack his central argument: that “bullshit jobs” are not profitable for the global economy, but they ensure the masses will be too distracted by these mind-numbing tasks to think about plotting a revolution any time soon.

But Bullshit Jobs is about much more than politics or economics. Fundamentally, it’s a book that brilliantly explores a yearning for human freedom and dissects, with great analysis, the subtle distinction between power and domination in hierarchical corporate structures. Sadly, this is what most of the global economy is presently built on. It’s probably the best non-fiction book you’ll read all year. Just don’t tell your boss about it.

JP O’Malley is a freelance journalist and cultural critic who writes regularly on politics, history, literature, society, the environment and technology, for numerous publications around the globe.

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