LSE anthropologist David Graeber writing in Strike Magazine made a persuasive argument that capitalist society has seen a proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’, jobs that have no ‘social value’ or necessity and serve only the purpose of keeping people employed. ‘Bullshit jobs’ provide an occupation for the population and an illusion that helps maintain ruling class and capitalist relations, the explanation to their existence “isn’t economic: it’s moral and political”[i] according to Graeber.
The number of books and articles on automated unemployment, Universal Basic Income, more leisure time, AI, post-work and post-capitalism have exploded in recent years and with this focus on the future, Graeber’s thesis has become popular amongst many on the Left (his political constituency) and dissatisfied critics of our current economic situation.
The idea of ‘bullshit jobs’ is persuasively argued and at the very least, Graeber touches upon topics ripe for interrogation and debate whatever your political position. However, a familiarity with the Subjective Theory of Value may help explain why Graeber’s thesis is not entirely convincing.
Underpinning (albeit undeclared) Graeber’s thesis is the classic ‘Labour Theory of Value’, the idea that it is the amount of ‘socially necessary labour’ in producing a good or service that gives economic value, rather than market pricing mechanisms based on other criteria.
For example, Graeber observes that socially necessary jobs, such as garbage men, nurses and car mechanics, are less remunerated than abstract knowledge workers such as bankers, who may or may not produce as much ‘social’ value for society. If it takes eight hours to collect a city’s garbage, no more and no less, then the economic value (and remuneration) of such an activity is those eight hours of ‘socially necessary labour’, not how much someone values the activity, the supply of labour or any other factor that determines value within capitalism.
However, challenging the Labour Theory of Value (LTV) is the Subjective Theory of Value (STV), which is the idea that the economic value of a good or service is not related to labour hours, but the subjective value and willingness to pay from a consumer. This is best exemplified in the ‘Diamond-Water Paradox’, which observes that water is necessary to human life, yet is cheaper than diamonds which serve non-necessary purposes in human existence. The explanation as to why this difference in economic value exists (at least anywhere with adequate supplies of water) is down to the Subjective Theory of Value, which holds that the consumer is evaluating different utilities and trade-offs at the present moment and then subjectively determines the value of a water or diamond to them.
The debate between LTV and STV is an interesting and rewarding subject area in its own right; however it punctuates Graeber’s thesis and any subsequent criticism of it. The capitalist elite are not acting or thinking in unison, and capitalism has yet to produce the super-abundance that might necessitate the political need for artificial ‘bullshit jobs’ of which Graeber describes.
The main contestation with the argument Graeber makes is what constitutes a ‘bullshit job’ and why? Defining and discovering what ‘bullshit jobs’ exist is a difficult exercise and the justifications as to why such jobs exist (if indeed they do) help undermine the confident assertion that current capitalism is creating a plethora of ‘bullshit jobs’.
The cost of labour is determined by a number of combined factors such as: market rate for a particular job; scarcity; productivity and bargaining power of both employer and employee among other factors. Wages and salaries are not usually subject to complex modelling based on these inputs, as this is time consuming, the inputs are volatile and ever changing and it is currently conceptually impossible to invent a scientific method to determine wages that reflects an accurate and precise relationship to value produced. Wages are often set by simple markers such as what the rest of the market pays to get a job done and the discretion and preferences of the employer based on their business acumen.
All in all, it is extremely hard for most workers to even begin to know how to calculate their economic value and subsequent rate of surplus extraction (if indeed they produce such a surplus).
Even a crude calculation of dividing profit after deductions, interest and taxation by the number of workers in a firm and then adding this to the existing wage is unsatisfactory. As different workers produce different rates of value, therefore that crude exercise would render a small margin of profit per worker in most companies, which would not necessarily reflect underlying economic realities.
This is assuming that the company in question turns a profit, and disregards paying for capital investment, extra employment costs (such as Employers NI) or any type of risk associated with undergoing enterprise. All the factors which need to be considered when calculating how much value are produced when compared to the cost of employing labour.
Then there is the attempt to calculate the value created by a particular job. A social media manger’s work might produce a sales lead two years in the making, this would not be picked up by supervisors/analysts and would be impossible to quantify. Even workers who have a closer relationship with revenue, such as sales staff cannot accurately discount the intangibles such as brand awareness; quality of the produce; demand in the market (which could be completely unrelated to how well a worker sells) and level of competition which reduce the net value they have produced when making a sale.
Therefore workers are blind to whether they create economic value or not, sweeping generalisations about certain jobs lacking economic value are unlikely to be founded on anything but a fashionable opinion and an unsubstantiated opinion at that.
Payment indicates value
The fact that many people (at least in the private sector) in these ‘bullshit jobs’ receive remuneration for their work indicates that someone within a firm believes value is being created, they could be wrong when the ‘numbers are run’, but they created the job because they believed it creates economic value, rather than serving some intangible political and ethical goal of the ruling class.
Jobs that do not produce more value than their costs do eventually get destroyed. Business exists to turn a profit; which is achieved by marshalling inputs such as: land, labour, enterprise and capital together and producing an outcome that is greater than the input costs.
Even if we ignore economic value, and instead focus on ‘social value’, this is even harder to calculate, let alone define as all of us have different definitions and preferences regarding what activities have ‘social value’. The deployment of ‘social value’ into the debate ignores that quite obviously (albeit unbelievably) inane activities, such as the twitter account of a popular cake, has social value, in so far as that people follow the account and presumably gather some value (I too am perplexed as much as anyone else) from its existence.
Even if we want to replace ‘cold’ economic value calculations with ‘social value’ calculations and outcomes in a new economic system, debate around definitions and trade-offs do not disappear. We all might say that we prefer more economic activity to serve a ‘social value’ outcome such as health or education, at the expense of economic activity that produces something of less ‘social value’.
We could have all discretionary spending diverted to health care if we desired. Though this would be produce a boring and unsatisfying economic life, for what is the point of a healthy and prolonged life if there is little else to occupy one’s time? Therefore it is likely we would still have demand for economic activity devoted to supposed lesser ‘social’ outcomes which would not be directed to economic activity of greater ‘social value’. Labour employed making a sitcom is labour that could be directed to health care, there is always a trade-off and opportunity cost, the debate is about what percentages we might want to be split on different forms of economic activity.
However, that debate must recognize the difference between expressed preferences versus revealed preferences, people might say they want more economic activity directed to things of greater ‘social value’ but their spending habits indicate that may not actually be the case. For better or for worse many ‘bullshit jobs’ exist because there is internal demand within a business for the labour which is then sustained externally by market demand for that labour, even if that demand for labour is hidden from consumers and analysts focusing on where the value is created.
Face Value is False Value
Personal opinion of one’s job being ‘bullshit’ is simply an anecdote rather than a carefully defined data point that supports the thesis that their job is a ‘bullshit job’. People often exaggerate and enjoy relieving stress by complaining about their workplace and job.
Furthermore, few people have the knowledge, motivation and interest to attempt to calculate their own economic value within their firm and compare rates of exploitation and value creation across jobs in the wider economy.
Therefore many who claim that their administration job is ‘of no value’ probably do not know whether that is the case or not, or even how much value they create compared to their cost of labour. A personal and clearly biased opinion on one’s own economic value is no substitute for economic and business analysis.
‘Common Sense’ opinions regarding business and economic rationality are rarely useful, if not downright misinformed and few workers outside of the accounting department or senior management have any visibility on the financial structure of the firm, which is critical in helping calculate the ‘true’ economic value of a job. Therefore it is doubtful that many who claim their job is of no economic value either know that to be the case or have the ability to know whether that is the case.
The only certainty of finding false value in this debate is taking what workers say about their jobs at face value.
If a job is ‘bullshit’ is could be because…..
‘Bullshit jobs’ defined as jobs that produce less economic value than their cost or jobs that exist for a no economic purpose except to serve some agent’s interest do probably exist, but not necessarily for all the reasons Graeber highlighted.
Government regulation, licensure and perverse public sector incentives can create jobs that in a market economy would otherwise not exist. The existence of trade negotiators, for example, owes its existence as a professional occupation to the decree of states that engage in trade barriers, regulation and tariffs. Restrictions and regulations on trade may be both desirable and in some ways useful, but they do not exist without political will for regulation, something that would not naturally emerge from the market.
Furthermore, government regulation rent seeking opportunities can arise and produce jobs that Graeber argues are ‘bullshit jobs’. Graeber mentions that a number of his acquaintances are lawyers who openly admit that their work does not create value and should not exist. The Universal Basic Income advocate Rutger Bregman in his recently English translated book ‘Utopia for Realists’ goes further arguing that many jobs, and in particular the law profession, merely shifts wealth around in a zero-sum-game rather than creates new value in the economy[ii]. Lawyers in the USA either cynically game the legal framework and litigate for the sake of revenue or push for more legal complexity to ensure a steady stream of fees extracted from businesses that are compelled to be compliant with the law.
This argument might be both persuasive and contain a large amount of truth within it, however this behaviour and subsequent oversupply of Lawyers in a nation such as the USA[iii] (and arguably many more Western nations), is because the State has created the conditions for such abuse and perverse incentives. The legal monster wasn’t created to fulfil some philo-political need or to maintain a mythical illusion of work, but to serve the interests of the agents that gain from such an environment; uninspired self-interest can explain the existence of ‘bullshit jobs’ in rent seeking professions rather than a carefully crafted platonic illusion.
Stories of public sector waste and irrational working practices might also highlight the existence of jobs that in a more economically focused environment such as the private sector, would have been downsized as soon as it became apparent a job was superfluous. However, public sector management have slightly difference incentives and constraints compared to private sector managers. In the absence of profit or equity value incentives measuring success, the public sector often creates targets and compliance to display its own measure of success. These targets and compliance duties may sometimes be both pointless and wasteful but exist to meet the demand of bureaucratic directives and interests.
Private Sector managers in multinational corporations also have incentives and interests to maintain bloated departments. A larger departmental budget and headcount might translate into commanding a greater salary, bonus or prestige for supervising a large department. Lost within a behemoth, it is difficult to notice fat on each of the firm’s muscles. Empire building exists across economic society, the difference is the set of incentives and constraints facing each agent, this is a significant creator of real ‘bullshit jobs’.
Businesses are also bastions of inefficiencies and distracted attention. Focus on achieving or maintaining profitability sometimes overlooks operational savings from reducing headcount and few businesses have the resources, time or permission to conduct detailed studies of value creation of each job within the firm. Therefore jobs that are no longer producing value greater than their cost can exist for some time. However even when management is incompetent and slow in recognising dead weight within a firm, eventually the scythe of redundancy will swing upon the unproductive workers, or the firm will go out of business. Either way ‘bullshit jobs’ eventually die, it just a matter of time.
Graeber’s thesis is useful in reigniting the debate between the definition and desirability of social and economic value; the meaning of those values is contested, ever changing and often surprising. Therefore discussing the economy and world of work along such lines can help us understand what we might want from our economic system today and in the future, this is a prerequisite for us to build a new or alternative economic society.
However, Graeber overplays his confidence that bullshit jobs exist to serve some ideological function, when the reality of existing ‘bullshit jobs’ is explained by more mundane reasons as explored above.
The ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis also obscures how value is created and sustained within capitalism, by dismissing a number of jobs as no value ‘bullshit’ it ignores the necessary technical investigation into the dynamic and varied way value is produced by work within capitalist relations. The long term effect of this might be to render technical thinking on value as a capitalist fiction or propaganda, rather than a real obstacle that will have to be wrestled with if an alternative economic system is to ever emerge or be designed.
In closing, Graeber has produced a fun mental exercise, one which on a narrative sense is very persuasive, but one which probably makes thinking about value creation lazy and fashionable to sloganeer on instead of investigate as to whether there can be any social scientific truth to how value is created or the claim that ‘bullshit jobs’ exist.
[ii] Pp163- 173, Utopia for Realists – And How We Get There (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), Rutger Bregman