A bullshit job is one that is useless, that the worker knows is useless, and that, if eliminated, would leave society none the worse. I wasn’t a huge fan of David Graeber’s Debt, but just had to pick up Bullshit Jobs because it’s always refreshing to read an author writing from firsthand experience.
Despite massive increases in productivity and overseas manufacturing, we’re all working just as much as we were a century ago. Some attribute this to the rise of the service sector – waiters, hairdressers, Uber drivers and such – but service staffs have stayed fairly constant as a proportion of the workforce. What we really have is a proliferation of information workers: admins, accountants, flak catchers, and paper pushers. These are bullshit jobs.
Graeber proposes that we do away with bullshit and give these otherwise-useless humans a universal basic income. Set them free to write poetry, start a band, or patronize cafes in a sort of uroboric form of economic stimulus.
Ugh. If you give the commoners a basic income, they’re going to ask for free health care. If you give them free health care, then they’ll want free education, free housing, more income, better health care, higher education, and so on. It’s like giving a mouse a cookie.
In doing away with bullshit jobs, Graeber misses the most important part of mass employment: Nobody wants an idle populace. At best they’ll scurry underfoot; more likely they’ll attempt to assemble and overthrow the ruling class. You can’t provide free bread unless you have free circuses to keep them occupied!
Give the Mouse a Job
That’s why Democratic candidates are running on a platform featuring a universal job guarantee!
I support a job guarantee for the same reason I support compulsory K-12 education and our prison system. Like, I wouldn’t want my own family members to partake in these facilities, but I recognize that there is some portion of the population that can’t be trusted to roam the streets. Just look at what David Graeber did when he had some free time in 2011! He took up vagrancy in Zuccotti Park and became a public nuisance.
Now, we can’t imprison everybody that society deems useless (although lord knows we try), but we can do the next best thing: Give ‘em all a job!
But what kind of jobs? Agricultural jobs, like the poorhouses of yore? Public works projects, like those administered by the WPA? As the employer of last resort, the federal jobs program will invariably end up loaded with subprime workers. You know, the kind that might otherwise be shooting up or urinating on the sidewalk, and that probably shouldn’t be trusted with critical infrastructure or anything with moving parts. To minimize societal harm, the guaranteed jobs will need to be bullshit.
We can’t call it that, of course. No one wants a low-wage makework job, especially if means-tested benefits are still on the table. Workers need Dignity and Purpose to help them swallow their bullshit wages. For inspiration we turn to academia, which is where most of these dumbass ideas originate.
Consider David Graeber. As a tenured professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, he holds a much-coveted guaranteed job. But not only is his field of study complete bullshit, the entire industry is bullshit as well!
Academia is a magical place where bright young narcissists forgo 6-8 years of present income in order to forgo a lifetime of future income. More importantly, they voluntarily incarcerate themselves in ivory towers to avoid inflicting harm on the real world.
With some ivied walls and clever marketing, any shit-wage makework can gain the illusion of influence. Arcane job titles, for instance, are a great way to impart a heightened sense of status. Associate Professor. Chancellor. Postdoctoral Scholar. Emeritus Fellow. What do these words even mean. I don’t know, but they have a lot of syllables so they must be important. An adjunct prof has the same approximate salary and job function as a substitute grade school teacher, but only the former would be invited to a gourmet sandwich shop with ingredients like soppressata, capicollo, and a striata baguette.
Government-guaranteed jobs are totally doable; just dump them all in the hallowed halls of higher education. Taxpayers currently subsidize both public and private institutions, so the cash spigots are already pointed in the right direction. WOW, all of a sudden universal free public college doesn’t seem so out of reach either! Damn. Sometimes I feel like central planning would be awesome, if only I were the one in charge of planning.