Laboring Under Delusions vs. Laboring Under Bullshit

Nick Irving

Content Warning: Brief discussion #MeToo subject matter

A few months back I wrote about David Graeber at an RSA talk concerning his book Bullshit Jobs. I was struck by some of his claims but found many lacking academic rigor behind them.

Apparently, when reading his book, I was not alone on this front as Nick Irving in his article, Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic noted much the same:

The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics.

There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a person thinking their job is pointless. I can think of quite a few such factors … class, education, gender, the entitlement these things bring, cultural expectations of reward for effort or meaningfulness…

When I read this first part I said aloud, “Yes, thank you!” We’ll get to that bit about “contingent cultural … factors” later on in my discussion. For now, it’s worth noting that it’s always nice to be validated by other folks. Of course, Irving’s validation of my own opinions isn’t consistent (nor should it). There are plenty of places in the article where I think Irving is off base.

For example, Irving says of Graeber’s methodology that:

[it] seems like a canny attempt to capitalize on the article of faith among young leftists on the internet that the victim who speaks should always be believed.

First, Graeber just taking people at their word doesn’t necessarily have to mean he’s capitalizing on any particular branch of identity politics. Taking folks at their own word about their own experiences has been a common thing folks do before #MeToo happened and women came forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of powerful men.

There’s something to be said for taking people at their word. If I go up to my friend and ask him how work was and he says, “It kinda sucked” I’m not gonna sneer and reply, “Well what about all of that cultural baggage and expectations you’re carrying around? Maybe that is what made it suck so much?” And he’d be right to say, “What? No, it just sucked.” Maybe he does have cultural expectations that are unfair, but as I’ll discuss later that says less about him than society at large.

By the way, I say “sneer” because the term “article of faith” is meant to denigrate a solid foundational epistemic claim: That people are often the best judges of their own situations and contexts. Yes, it’s possible people have false memories or that bad expectations lead to bad results, but does it happen often? No, the false reports percentage has always been low and when survivors (not victims) speak up, they should be believed unless there’s strong reason not to.

That isn’t an “article of faith” so much as it’s the right thing to do and something that makes the most sense. If someone calls you out and you say, “Well, yeah, but are people supposed to just take you at your word?” Then folks are gonna quickly take grievance, cause unless you got a great alibi or a terrific personal history, there’s reason to take your response as itself very telling.

I know this is all besides the (anti-work) point but it irked me that Irving would put the idea that survivors should be believed down and it’d be irresponsible of me to say nothing about it.

That said, let’s back up and start from the top

Three days ago, I changed my job title on LinkedIn. The title change was part of a broader restructure at work and was accompanied by a new role description that was really just a superficial tweak to the old one. There was no real increase in responsibility and no extra money.

Irving goes on to say he got congratulations despite the lack of increase in his financial security or role in the company. That felt like bullshit to him and it leads him to discussing Graeber later on.

In the meantime however, he notes how LinkedIn was completely incapable of not sending his “promotion” to all of his friends online. That also seems like bullshit to me (not his story, but LinkedIn) but it isn’t surprising given how social media tends to handle our personal data. I jest but perhaps Linkedin isn’t at fault, but rather Irving’s own bad expectations of social media?

Before Graeber however, Irving mentions other writers named Dardot and Laval who wrote on how our culture’s obsession with self-improvement can lead to dystopian times. Here, Irving mentions the concept of a “Marxian capitalist” and I had to re-read this sentence a few times:

They argue that we relate to ourselves now as a Marxian capitalist is assumed to relate to capital: We want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else, so we can remain competitive.

I skimmed the articles in question and specifically went to the concepts that are supposed to explain this passage but came up empty. I’m not sure what “Marxian capitalist” is supposed to mean without further explanation from Irving, which he doesn’t provide. Perhaps I missed something pertinent within Irving’s articles or the linked ones? Apologies if so.

Regardless, I think our personal relations to the self under capitalists are damaged as Irving and co. argue. We constantly want to “improve” even if there’s no tangible improvement to be made to ourselves or we’re just doing it due to Fear of Missing Out. There’s a pressure for gamers, for example, to have the latest hardware like the PS5 that’s coming out and then those who don’t are implicitly looked down upon by some in the community which only ratchets up FOMO.

Getting the PS5 is “self-improvement” because it means your life is more hi-tech, that you’re more “in touch” with the current state of technology and “up to date” with the world. For gamers it means there’s up to date on the latest games and fastest loading times which means they’re not “behind” on the big news of the day. But when do you actually get ahead of such news?

It’s a never-ending quest for “betterment” at the cost of finances and perhaps even your financial security if it goes far enough. You drive yourself mad trying to keep up the world and that’s why I try to keep my time on Twitter and Facebook rather limited. The world can be a horrible place, we can be horrible people and social media often flocks to the negative more than the positive.

All of this lends itself to, as Harry Frankfurt argues, bullshit:

 [The bullshitter] does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Funnily enough, I own this book and, like so many of my books, have yet to get around to it.

Irving compares LinkedIn to a parody app named Binky which has you “like” useless photos that do not modify what you see later on. Binky is an app where you can’t socialize with anyone else and you’re only able to scroll to your hearts content. The app is non-responsive to you in ways that corporations tend to be non-responsive to the needs of their workers, how apt!

This conversation about bullshit leads us back to Graeber and his book/article on Bullshit Jobs.

Here’s Irving’s takeaway:

Rather than assuming that an ephemeral but hegemonic system has created pointless job descriptions because it can’t figure out how to make a universal basic income work, I think it’s possible to read the anger as a response to work that doesn’t live up to a system of meaning shared by Graeber’s Twitter followers.

This goes back to Irving’s title Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic where the faults of the system come down more to cultural expectations rather than a “ephemeral but hegemonic system”.

However, it’s difficult to know what the upshot of all of this is.

Does this mean we (or at least Graeber’s Twitter followers) are to blame for the faults of capitalism? Do Graeber’s criticisms of capitalism come off as reifying an economic system to Irving? Does he not see capitalism as centrally at fault but something else?

It’s tough to tell so we need to dive deeper:

It’s fairly common to say that that much of the anger and resentment felt by this group of twenty-to-thirty-somethings is because what was implicitly promised has been placed beyond their grasp by a volatile labor market in the throes of apparently permanent and traumatic change. The world they were promised, in short, is now impossible. The skills they have attained are useless. The goalposts never stop moving.

Just a note here: I am a follower of Graeber on Twitter (though I didn’t participate in the book) and I am also a twenty-to-thirty-something. So I’m the exact demographic for Irving’s thesis. Of course, generalizations only work for individuals within the groups being generalized about so well. I could tell you that there’s many gamers who are toxic in one way or another but also find communities that are (on the whole) much better.

Point being, there are always individuals deviating and flying closer to the norm. Sometimes that norm is a flame for moths, and sometimes it’s a good norm to replicate.

Irving sees Graeber’s result and the demographic he cites as revealing a “cultural logic of work” that invites disappointment within millennials. We were supposed to get homes, have full-time jobs, the university was supposed to be our gateway to Better Things. Instead, many of us have to live with roommates in unkempt apartments, live with our parents/family, or live in college dorms and hope that ramen supply doesn’t run out.

This experience is such a wake up call for millennial when they get out of college. I remember dropping out around 10(!) years ago and only recently coming back. College didn’t get me the dream I wanted (professor of philosophy) nor did going out into the “real world”. I had lived in several unhealthy/abusive situations because of my poor financial status. Some of those relationships I made worse, but in all of them I felt disempowered to make my life better.

Irving goes on to list several of Graeber’s categories for bullshit jobs, we’ve talked about them before so no need to go over them again. Instead, here’s Irving on those types of BS Jobs:

This last part may be true. The folks who want these jobs want some level of satisfaction, a decent pay, benefits and to feel a sense of…purpose? Wait a second, these just seem like pretty basic expectations from something you’re going to spend a lot of your life doing, right?

Am I missing something here? Because it seems like the folks who write the descriptions have the messed up priorities and expectations here, not the folks applying!

Again, this comes off as victim-blaming to me.

The fault of capitalism doesn’t lie with the people who write and facilitate these boring, pointless jobs but with the expectations we have because of “do what you love”.

Now, I’ve written on that fallacious idea before and I agree it sets bad precedent for our expectations. Most people can’t afford to work at something they love because of the way capitalism is set up (notably nothing to do with our own expectations). And to instill that idea into young folks that you should reach for something you love and do it 40+ hours a week is a dangerous idea because it can quickly burn you out or even make you hate it.

But again, maybe I’ve got Irving all wrong and famed philosopher Hannah Arnedt will convince me that “Bullshit is just another word for labor”

Arendt’s notion is that labor—the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption—has colonized and supplanted work—the realm of craft, fabrication, and use. Arendt describes the work of labor as both futile, in that it will never end, and necessary, because to be without its products is to die.

The logic of the market that Neoliberalism extends to all spheres of human activity essentially makes everything into labor. I think it’s possible to read Graeber’s sources as reports of people who expected to be working, but found themselves laboring instead.

I read some of Irving’s article on Arnedt’s and her definition of labor, but it came off as too ambiguous, though Irving claimed that as a strength for it. To be fair, conceptual ambiguity can be a strength in some cases as it can encourage conceptual flexibility as Irving argues. But this flexibility should not come at the cost of overall conceptual clarity. We need some sense of what the upshot for her definition and what Irving’s own take on what labor vs. work is. What does this difference in wording get us? What makes labor reducible to “metabolism, maintenance and consumption” while work is “the realm of craft, fabrication, and use”?

I’ll admit it sounds intuitive but I’m not sure there’s a lot of substance behind that intuition. For example, if I labor in my backyard and get hungry but I go to my job and get hungry (thus relating both to metabolism) which is work and which is labor? If I make something at a craft fair for myself with no intention but to hang it up on my wall does this display work or labor?

I’m also unconvinced that labor is “futile” simply because it never ends.

Firstly, as of now transhumanism has not won (not even close) so our lives will inevitably end which means our labor will as well. But, generally speaking, things lacking an “end” does not mean those things are then meaningless, fruitless or can’t contain meaning for those engaged with it. The process of learning has often been called futile because we are all human and therefore fallible and thus will make mistakes. But that doesn’t make our efforts useless or lacking purpose, it just means we have to accept an amount of “two steps forward, one step back” in our lives.

I’m not sure that the logic of “the market” and capitalism are the same, but that’s another conversation so I’ll skip over this second passage for sake of dialogue. I don’t usually look at the last passages of articles as I like to keep some of the original article a mystery for anyone kind enough to read my articles. But in this case it seems too important to Irving’s thesis to omit:

I think many of the people who supplied testimonies for Graeber’s book had looked forward to being engaged in paid activity that produced something lasting, but found themselves in a service or knowledge economy that cares more about the soft skills of maintaining the metabolism or life process of a network of relationships than the hard skills of fabrication.

I’ll be blunt here: This last piece of writing makes very little sense to me. It reads like an academic trying to over-complicate reality with overly-grandiose terminology. And keep in mind, I say this as someone who likes academia and wants to be in academia. I’m not unsympathetic to the plights of having to make philosophical words sound meaningful and intuitive to readers.

Despite my sympathies to Irving’s academic framing here, I can’t help but reaffirm my belief that it amounts to little more than thinly-veiled victim blaming. Make no mistake, Irving has his share of criticisms for capitalism both in this article and on his Twitter page and so I’m not about to begin calling him a pseudo-leftist. But, as far as I can tell, his argument amounts to, “These people had bad expectations and it isn’t the fault of capitalism for failing people with bad expectations“.

At least, that’s the takeaway I’m getting from all of this, I could be wrong.

But given I’ve reached the “this sounds a whole lot like victim-blaming” coupled with Irving’s bizarre taken on the “article of faith” around believing survivors, I doubt it.

Side-note but Hannah Arnedt herself wasn’t much of a feminist as far as I can tell:

In an early letter to Mary McCarthy she says something like, ‘Simone de Beauvoir’s not really worth engaging with. One should just flirt with her instead.’ Arendt was not a feminist…

My point here isn’t that you need to cite feminist authors to make your argument persuasive (though by and large it doesn’t hurt, pending which feminist), but I find the connection here between dismissing the “article of faith” and citing Arnedt compelling given what I know of her.

By that definition, calling LinkedIn the opposite of work doesn’t quite capture the keen sense of drudgery in maintaining a LinkedIn account. The platform is a wonderful metaphor for the failed promise made to millennials.

It only reinforces the anxiety-inducing need to be a productive member of the economy while endlessly increasing one’s market value. It promises both meaning and money, and it delivers neither. It only contributes to the processes of automation and precarity that make work murkier and more tiring.

Is bullshit the opposite of work? My understanding is that Graeber was saying most work is bullshit when it comes to corporate work. Unless Irving is saying this more generally about his own framing? Again, it’s unclear to me exactly what Irving is getting at here or what the upshot of his theory here is. I agree with him about his criticisms concerning LinkedIn and I also agree there were promises made to us millennials that were, to say the least, not delivered on.

But my problems of work don’t begin and end with the expectations I was given by the society I grew up in. The television shows that showed me people generally happy with their jobs, the parental figures (teachers, actual family members, authority figures) who said I could be anything or the media that constantly talks about how the “unemployment rate” means so much.

And neither do Graeber’s for that matter. His problems (as with mine) come not just from the bullshit that work has largely become synonymous from (after all I grew up in the 90s, the decade of Office Space) but also the “ephemeral but hegemonic system” that it comes from.

Sure, you can see the description of capitalism at times as vague (which I think Irving is getting at here with the word “ephemeral”?) but hey, there’s strength in conceptual ambiguity, right?

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