The Cliff Notes for "Bullshit Jobs"
If you have heard of Bullshit Jobs and heard of the precariat, then you have been exposed to the ideas of David Graeber. Despite being able to popularize catchy memes, like "we are the 99%", his books are somewhat prolix. That's why I'm recommending what amounts to Cliff Notes for his recent book, "Bullshit Jobs".
Dr. Wright provides capsule summaries of Graeber's five types of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. But then he gets to the part that's important: why have bullshit jobs been proliferating like rabbits?
Graeber’s own answer is that capitalism has changed its character since the days when it somewhat approximated conditions of perfect competition. When capitalism was mainly about producing things competitively, the argument that free-market enthusiasts give against the notion that corporations would ever hire unnecessary workers to do bullshit jobs made sense: maximizing profits meant paying the least number of workers the least amount possible. To hire a large number of redundant workers would be absurd. But, as Graeber argues, the logic of the economy has changed in the last forty years, with the rise of financial capitalism and the FIRE sector (including insurance and real estate). The main object now is not to produce goods competitively but to distribute large sums of money, to distribute the proceeds from enormous amounts of debt, to create money (by giving loans) and then move it around in very complex ways while extracting fees with every transaction. “The results often leave bank employees feeling that the entire enterprise is…pointless.”
So, “when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.” It can then find pretexts to take more cuts, even acting against the interests of its clients, and using its profits to hire more people and grow bigger. There seems, indeed, to be a tendency inherent in large bureaucracies, whether corporate or political, to expand, to suck up more resources as an end in itself. Graeber gives a name to the “new” dynamic that has emerged in capitalism: managerial feudalism. It’s supposed to be analogous to the creation of hierarchies of nobles and officials in medieval Europe through a process of devolution called “sub-infeudation,” in which a king would grant land to a duke, who would use the resources from that land to support a huge retinue of courtiers and vassals, many of whom would be granted their own plots of land that could support their own retinues, and so on down to local knights and lords of the manor.
“The rise of managerial feudalism has produced a similar infatuation with hierarchy for its own sake.” Managers manage other managers, each with their own staff; various levels of managers market things to one another...The notion of managerial feudalism is evocative, and Graeber is clearly onto something with his suggestion that “there seems to be an intrinsic connection between the financialization of the economy, the blossoming of information industries, and the proliferation of bullshit jobs.” What exactly that connection is, though, is hard to tease out.
- Chris Wright, On “Bullshit Jobs”
The connection between looting by financialization and bullshit jobs felt like a lightbulb going off. Of course I knew both facts, but the idea that BSJ was the logical outcome of financialization had never crossed my mind. When I look at the unlucky people who have BSJs as peasants handed to feudal lords by the market monarchists, everything becomes clear. (My hat is off to Dr. Wright, an actual Ph.D. historian, for making Graeber's thoughts accessible in a five minute read.)
The connection gives me a conversational hook anytime someone moans about their BSJ. I can say, "you realize that Wall St. is the reason that most of the available jobs to non-connected, non-Ivy League grads are BSJs." I can riff about financialization.
The financializers produce nothing except deals and profits. They are literally stripping every American asset they can find, including future assets. They long ago deindustrialized America by offshoring its factories (literally dismantling and moving some of them to China). The real estate bubble almost killed them. As Graeber says, they still need more and more churn on their money. Absent any more swag to take to the pawn broker, for the past decade, more than 100% of corporate profits have been extracted for consumption today via stock buybacks, instead of being invested for the future. That's why America will soon fall far behind places like China, who are investing heavily in the real world of manufacturing, transportation, and telecommunication.
You can also explain our military spending as "the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible."
As Caitlin Johnstone said, the only thing stopping a massive revolt is the propaganda narrative that is blasted out 24/7 by the media, blaming the victims for having BSJs. Dr. Wright counters that narrative in what amounts to an "elevator pitch".