Graeber on the “Gigantic Embarrassment” of Work (RSA Replay)

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Lost to the archives are my previous discussions of Graeber or mentions of him at any rate. I don’t recall how many times I’ve talked about Graeber’s infamous article concerning bullshit jobs, but I know I never did any review of the article. But hey, this covers that!

Back in 2018 (approximately a million years ago), Graeber gave an interesting talk based on his then recent book with the RSA (which apparently stands for the Royal Society of Arts?) that I’ve had on my Youtube for a long time now. I’ve decided to get around to taking a look at it, now that I don’t have school and my part-time job is easier than ever thanks(?) to COVID-19.

For starters, it’s a decent lecture though it doesn’t tell anti-work advocates anything they don’t already know. It’s definitely more of a 101 lecture than something anti-capitalist anarchists (like myself or Graeber) would go out of their way to see. But then, that’s the point. It’s a very 101 talk because his audience is a crowd that conceivably flinches at “anarchist” and thinks terrorist.

The talk is split into three sections: A brief lecture section (20 minutes or so), a briefer dialogue section with the host (15 minutes) and the longest section, a Q&A fills out the rest. I took notes on all three of these sections and here’s a list of things that stood out to me:

  1. Graeber looks really haggard, I don’t mean this as an insult; I hope he was getting rest!
  2. Graeber talks a bit too much about how successful he is (especially with Debt)
  3. He loves to envision capitalists with “minions” like a Saturday morning cartoon show
  4. His solutions (UBI) are unpersuasive or vague and his methodology is suspect
  5. He’s certain no one believes in the myths of capitalism, despite them still being parroted
  6. His idea of “everything meaningful as an extension of care-ethic” is an interesting theory
  7. Sadly doesn’t address his own professions BS quality despite doing so in the essay
  8. Not a lot of discussion concerning automation (“robots have already taken our jobs!”)
  9. Has good anti-authoritarian instincts when it comes to the 4-day workweek
  10. Almost no discussion about gender roles in BS jobs, only when a question is asked.

I know a lot of that seems negative, but this is overall a good talk. It’s just unfortunate that Graeber’s biggest issue here is that his methods of talking about the phenomenon of BS jobs is either his Twitter page, an email group or a drunken rant he had done at parties for 10 years. I’m not saying anecdotal evidence is meaningless or that survey can’t be helpful, nor am I suggesting that he is wrong about the existence of BS jobs, just that I wish his methods had more rigor.

Graeber’s an intelligent anthropologist and I’ve read him on anarchism several times to usually pleasing results, but he only seemed to be at his best when he talked less about the symptoms (BS jobs) then the central issue (state-capitalism). Or when he was asked about the 4-Day weekend and noted that surveilling people’s activities would be incredibly costly, difficult and may not even work for his own profession. He’s paid monthly to work “all the time” as he says.

So Graeber admits he’s “suspicious” of calls for the 4-Day workweek, even though he thinks it would help. This is, roughly, where I stand as well and it was such a relief to finally hear and see someone else talk about it. Although, inconsistently and disappointingly he held no such worries for the Universal Basic Income (UBI) even though I’d think they’d equally apply?

I suspect that is because he spoke to a great cultural change (paraphrasing) that we’d need to go under in order for such a policy to happen in the first place. My question is that if we’ve already caused such a cultural shift that UBI becomes palatable then why shouldn’t we aim higher? There’s also another excellent question raised by the host: What about short-term strategies?

UBI may be a decent strategy for the long-term but as Graeber points out it is currently undesirable by politicians despite it gaining more steam in the past 5 years. We’ve seen that especially with US presidential candidates such as Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders. Social democratic ideologies have, in general, become more popular which has lead to the rise of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) gaining momentum. As well, we have publications like Jacobin that have also been steadily increasing in viewership over the years.

Nevertheless anarchism should never be a slightly radicalized social democratic stance. This was (and is) the problem with anarchists like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Colin Ward and others like them. They think of anarchism as a process for improving the state not as abolishing it and replacing its institutions and services with community-based ones.

Now, I understand I’m painting in broad strokes here and I certainly respect the thinkers I’ve just mentioned (Ward’s Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction and Chomsky’s definition of anarchism are both influential) but I think this strain of anarchism doesn’t get enough criticism.

I’m not saying we don’t focus on the short-term benefits such as UBI, 4-Day Workweek, $15 minimum wage, etc. But what I am saying is we need to look carefully at these policy proposals that depend on the ruling class suddenly turning around after hundreds of years (and much more) of oppressing others and suddenly treating us kindly. Yes, there have been some wins such as the unionist victories in the 1930s in the US but those were notoriously reformist and ended up weakening the unionist movement in the US in the long-haul. Even the IWW isn’t near where it used to be and neither are most other unions that fought for worker’s rights back then.

As the title suggest, one of the best parts of this talk is at the beginning when Graeber mentions that work is a kind of “embarrassment”. Everyone implicitly recognizes what they’re doing is BS but no one has a solution. Or if they do, it’s often discounted as “communism” or as Graeber said “it’s us or North Korea!” Any solution to our current problems would only make it worse, so why bother? Or it’s just an excuse for bad and lazy (let’s be honest: it’s the same in capitalism) people to get out of their debts, which, of course, Graeber wrote a whole book on and has responses to.

As for BS Jobs themselves, I have an interesting mix because I take care of living beings (dogs) but 90% of the time I’m doing nothing these days. And even before COVID, I still had hours and hours where I was on my phone or playing video games or doing something else. These days it’s just hilarious how much of my job is just sitting around and looking at screens. The pretense is someone needs to be there in case the place burned down (why would it?) and more crucially because the dogs need their bowls refilled and to be taken out once in a while (more sensible).

But in essence, most of my job feels like BS. Like, it’s amazing to me I get paid to just sit and read , play video games, watch wrestling videos on Youtube or whatever I want, really. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. I technically have a list of responsibility but due to COVID no one cares and even before that, so few people want to do overnight shifts that they often can’t make mountains out of molehills when much of the cleaning asked for is minor. The major cleaning to the facility happens throughout the day so even when we were busier there were periods of hours where, as an evening worker or an overnight one, I had hours where I did nothing or even napped.

Another interesting aspect of this lecture/dialogue is that Graeber briefly mentions how we sacrificed our leisure time for our commodity time. Instead of having more time with our friends or families we are spending more time with our smartphones. It’s worth asking: Can we have both? Is it possible to have a life full of commodity-based pleasures and enjoy bountiful time with our loved ones? Graeber doesn’t provide any answers to this question (nor does he even ask it) but I think if we abolished state-capitalism we could certainly get much closer.

Maybe Graeber believes that as well, I don’t know for sure. In any case, the benefits of technology can be dispersed and widespread instead of concentrated into the hands of the rich and powerful.

So, why do BS jobs exist?

Graeber has some answers:

  1. Making up jobs to suit those in power
  2. To keep people off the street (despite abandoned homes)
  3. The poor must pay their debts and the rich must provide them those opportunities
  4. If you don’t want to work you’re a bad person!
  5. Much easier to believe you think you’re doing something and aren’t.
  6. If you’re a manager you need 5-6 flunkies/minions or you’re not important
  7. Duck tapers: People who apologize for the lack of solutions
  8. Box Tickets: Efficiency designers who aren’t listened to
  9. Goons: PR, Marketing, Telemarketer(!)
  10. Taskmasters: Supervising people who don’t need it (Middle-Managers)

In addition, many of these industries (as Graeber points out) feed off themselves and the people Graeber heard from admitted this to him. From corporate lawyers, people within the financial industry Graeber concludes in this discussion that even if half of the current jobs were eliminated it likely would not impact anything materially.

Perhaps we are seeing this currently with the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of the job currently are “essential” ones that are (at least in my profession) an extension of the care-ethic, as Graeber puts it. Providing dogs care as well as other essential services like getting food to people reliably, nurses and hospitals are all extensions of the care-ethic, as Graeber would say.

On the other hand, society has never seemed so chaotic and disorganized. There’s a discomfort in the air wherever I go. I either have this gnawing feeling that there are too few people outside or making noise (e.g. a ghost town) or way too many and this isn’t safe and oh Glob I should really be home and not Here. I fluctuate between these two gnawing feelings but then, to his credit, Graeber didn’t have a pandemic in mind when he wanted corporate lawyers gone.

But what is the opposite of corporate lawyers? For Graeber it seems to be nurses, teachers (which he himself is one), tube workers (more on that in a second) and people whose jobs bear some¬†actual¬†value for the society around them. But what does that value look like and how is it best harnessed within a given society? Graeber doesn’t give us much besides the care-ethic I’ve now mentioned a few times, which I think is interesting but may not be enough on its own.

The discussion about tube workers was interesting. For those non-UK natives/folks unaware of the UK term the “tube” means subways tunnels for us Americans. Why would these folks be so tied to the care-ethic if the trains can mostly run themselves at this point and most folks know where they are going? Well, some people don’t for starters (hi, it’s me!), plus sometimes women are harassed by drunk men, sometimes people lose their laptops or even their children. So yeah, you could definitely argue (as some tube workers did on Twitter) that they’re very much essential.

BS jobs plague our lives, Graeber is no doubt right about that, but his evidence for that needs a bit more rigor for someone who says he’s more of an anthropologist than an anarchist on his Twitter bio. There’s also the curious incidents of people loving their job they know is a lie. Graeber reasons this could be because they’re just glad to be away from home (bad home life/hate their families) and within Graeber’s survey it was a measly 6% at any rate.

But for most of us, we’re all too aware of the bullshit we’ve got to endure within our jobs. The anti-work movement is forever benefited from Graeber’s insightful essay. Maybe we should let more academics publish their drunken rants from parties they’ve been crafting for 10 years?

The world might be a better place for it.


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2 thoughts on “Graeber on the “Gigantic Embarrassment” of Work (RSA Replay)

  1. I’m quite a Graeber fan (The Utopia of Rules is an excellent read, too) but I see your point about how he needs to go deeper in his exploration of bullshit jobs. I have particularly strange and ambivalent feelings towards my own job at the moment (I’m basically a bureaucrat, but for a social care provider, which providers some definite social good, even though my own work is quite removed from that). I enjoy it, some of the time, and some of that is to do with being able to keep it to less than 5 days a week, but there are also aspects I genuinely (I think!) enjoy. And one of those is the absurdity of it. The self-importance I’m forced to assume, the role I play. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny, and there’s genuine pleasure in that. Definitely something to think about.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment and sharing your experience, I really appreciate it. As for your comment itself, I totally get it. As I say in this article I provide care work (for dogs, but kinda for humans too!) but it can still feel detached from actual care because of how expensive it is or because of COVID dropping our customer base, etc. Thanks again.

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