David Graeber Publishes Book on BS – Jobs, That Is


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonderandhome.com

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28 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I feel like she’s being a touch uncharitable there. It’s not like Graeber hasn’t written about how much of academic work falls under the “bs jobs” category. He did so in the place it’s most likely to be read by academics in fact:

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I mentioned this in Space linkey but I have big issues with Graeber’s original essay and book because it seems to be the kind of half-baked Marxism that refuses to believe that anyone could like their job or work if it is remotely corporate.

    The original example in the BS jobs article was the one who strikes me with the wrong anecdote as a launching pad. An artist who was briefly professional but failed out for whatever reason is not going to be happy at anything! The guy could be a tenured professor of English Lit and a published poet and not be happy! A few years ago the Washington Post did a feature on local indie-rock legend Mary Timony. Mary Timony was the front woman for Helium and was in other respected bands. She still teaches guitar lessons to adolescents for cash. She seemingly makes peace with this.

    I don’t think anyone here can question my liberal and pro-employee bonafides but I have a hard time understanding the BS jobs complaint. Every job is going to have elements of drudgery and boredom and frustration. This is the nature to life.

    One of the things that seems to frustrate a lot of left-leaning types is that a lot of people (Americans and otherwise) prefer things to time. The left-leaning types who buy into the BS jobs argument seem to think that a new Renaissance will flourish once we are free from the shackles of corporate drudgery and in UBI-unicorn paradise. I’m not buying this.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Most struggling artists don’t have the option of going to law school and getting a lucrative even if boring corporate law job. Most go into much less well remunerative lines of work when the stop trying to earn a living by art.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        The time to worry about “law school vs. art” is long before college.

        My third daughter is an absurdly talented artist. Over the years I’ve made it clear to her what the “struggling artist” lifestyle looks like and what skills you need to make that work. She claims she’s decided to pursue art as a hobby and medicine as a profession… but we’ll see. She’s not in High School yet so there’s still time.

        However she WILL have enough math and a high enough GPA that she can make either work, and that process started before middle school.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      Note that Graeber is explicitly distinguishing “bullshit jobs” from “shit jobs.” It’s not a question of how well a job pays or how personally satisfying it is, but whether it creates net value for society. You can love your job, make good money, and even provide value for your customers, but still create no net social value.

      A good example of a job Graeber might classify as bullshit is developing low-latency trading systems. Up to a certain point, there is social value in having equities prices quickly change to incorporate all available information. But there’s essentially no social value created by shaving a millisecond off the time you need to execute a trade. All the private value you create by doing this comes from beating the other traders to the punch, not from making the stock market meaningfully more efficient.

      I suspect that sometimes Graeber simply decides that jobs are bullshit without actually understanding why they exist, but it’s definitely a real thing, even if he doesn’t get all the particulars right. However, the jump to a basic income doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nobody’s going to quit a high-paying finance job for a $10-25k basic income. The way to get rid of bullshit jobs is to fix the incentive structures that make them privately profitable without creating social value. This reeks of just prescribing the thing he wanted to do anyway.Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        This is the only category he labels “bullshit jobs” I can get behind. Of course correcting an adverse equilibrium is a lot harder than identifying it.Report

      • Avatar Dark Matter says:

        But there’s essentially no social value created by shaving a millisecond off the time you need to execute a trade. All the private value you create by doing this comes from beating the other traders to the punch, not from making the stock market meaningfully more efficient.

        This is like claiming there’s no social value in being a taxi driver because there are tens of thousands of other taxi drivers and someone else would make sure some person gets driven.

        You, the general public, would like to buy $100 stock for something like $100.1 and sell it for $99.9. Without low-latency systems that doesn’t happen. You still get to make the trade, but the spread between bid/offer are much higher (like $101-$99) and ergo much more of your money ends up in the hands of traders.

        Having traders nibble 1% of your investment per trade used to be the actual situation as opposed to today’s 0.1%. Any particular high speed trader doesn’t add social value but the system as a whole does, just like having more taxi drivers rather than fewer forces all of them to lower their prices and improve their services.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    The Supreme Court just authorized wage theft in a 5-4 decision. That seems like a more important fight for Labor than intense hand-wringing over whether jobs are BS or not.Report

  4. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Golgafrincham Ark Fleet, Ship B comes to mind here.Report

  5. Avatar Will Truman says:

    Here is the thing I had for Wednesday’s Morning Ed, which contains my my quick impression:

    [La3] My unpopular opinion remains that corporate policies against wage divulging are a public good. Fair is fair, though: Employers should not be allowed to ask salary history.Report

  6. Avatar James K says:

    This might be an opportune time to link back to a post I wrote on an article of Graebar’s from a few years ago. It’s fair to say I was not a fan.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I’m going to join Saul here. Most people take varyingly degrees of satisfaction from their work but very few are filled with absolute loathing or total devotion to their vocation. Even job or career involves some tedium. I’ve generally love my work and find interesting and fascinating. Its the type of job where I get to make a real big difference in the lives of real people. There are still times when I want to hang it all because of a really painful hearing or some other difficulty.Report

  8. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    I read the essay and found myself nodding along in places, but overall it was hard to square with my mental images of coal mines and sweatshops and what those workers might have thought about our modern jobs, bullshit or not.

    And of course, no discussion would be complete without the wisdom and insight of the Four Yorkshiremen.Report

  9. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I sometimes think back about my technical career and wonder how many of the projects I worked on were “BS job” sorts of things. For example, I spent a year as part of a two-man team building the world’s very first ISDN test set. I designed and built the physical layer: picture of the pretty side of the prototype here; picture of the ugly side here. The project was certainly successful. The test set was credited with getting ISDN actually up and working in the US by identifying all the vendor protocol errors. We sold 50-60 copies of the test set around the world. My board design was licensed by multiple mini-computer companies. It was interesting, and challenging, and entertaining. I woke up on Mondays eager to go to work.

    OTOH, ISDN wasn’t a commercial success. Heck, not too many years later, after a transfer and a couple of intervening projects, I was one of the people driving nails in its coffin. So it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with where we are today. Was it BS? I haven’t really decided.Report

  10. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Yeah, BS jobs pretty much defined my abbreviated technical career and is a big part of why that career was abbreviated. My first gig out of college with a brandly new MSME degree was with AT&T Technologies–in ’83, smack in the middle of the worst recession since ’29, at a company that I hadn’t researched thoroughly and didn’t realize was being broken up. But, hey, AT&T, amirite? And it was the only job offer I got so…

    Anyway, my first assignment there was to oversee the transfer of an obsolete piece of equipment that they needed to keep running for a couple years from a plant in Indianapolis that was closing to the Kansas City plant. All the planning to effectuate the transfer had already been done and there was literally nothing for me to do; I don’t recall so much as putting my initials on a piece of paper.

    Next assignment was to be in charge of an oven that baked thin-film circuits, ostensibly with the goal of improving the yield. I mean it’s a fucking oven; it’s at the right temperature or it’s not (it was, FWIW). I also had a mentor that put me onto this project he had going to jury-rig a test platform for thin-film circuits–measuring resistive and capacitive elements– based on a pen plotter and a mid-eighties era HP microcomputer. The stepper motors couldn’t really handle the extra load of the crap that was stuck on there for the test leads so it was constantly getting mis-aligned. It was never going to work and it never did, though I got pretty good at FORTRAN. BTW, we could have just purchased a testbed but somehow this project was important and I couldn’t get rid of it.

    Then layoffs were announced and since I hadn’t really accomplished anything I was on the chopping block. But I got a transfer to Chicago… where they made me a QC engineer. Which was cool at first, what with a trip to Bell Labs in New Jersey to take classes (I witnessed the Challenger disaster when I was there) but when I got back to the plant, once again, I genuinely had nothing really to do. The inspection systems were all set up (I was assigned Incoming Materials) and I was ostensibly “supervising”. In reality I ended up spending a lot of time wandering around pretending to be busy. When that plant announced layoffs I didn’t survive. And my career never recovered because I had literally nothing to claim as an accomplishment.

    You know… trucking isn’t glamorous and it only pays so-so (not bad for blue collar) but at least it’s not bullshit.Report

  11. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Expect to see a lot more BS jobs when President Gillibrand signs the job guarantee bill in 2021.Report