David Graeber asks a striking question: what causes the proliferation of bogus “work”?
"Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it."
It’s not just that we have an economy where many people are employed to do work that seems pointless - often purposeless document churning and office politics - but that this phenomenon appears to so completely violate the sacred doctrine of market efficiency. According to the full spectrum of conventional economics, from Chicago School to Marxism, capitalist enterprises are ruthlessly committed to profit, trampling anything that gets in the way without second thoughts. But anyone who has worked in or with large corporations knows first hand that there are a huge number of people who are busily “subtracting value” at our advanced Capitalist Enterprises, many of them highly paid even.
"While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets."
And it’s not just in the hyper efficient private sector that we see this wild profusion of seemingly non-productive work but in not-for-profits - notably universities that have taken the lessons of the corporate world to heart.
Great question, but Graeber’s answer is wrong. According to Graeber bullshit work is invented by the ruling class to impose work discipline on the masses, even though there is not real work to be done.
"The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them."
But if you want to see punitive work discipline, you need to skip over the salaried paper pushers and look at poor people who are essentially imprisoned by often humiliating and demeaning jobs and tasks. Homeless people in New York or poor women on TANF who are forced to take subsidized below minimum wage subsidized “service” jobs - and often to spend hours of bus commute time each way are experiencing punitive work. A middle manager forced to attend a Agile Scrum Management seminar between Facebook sessions or a professor doing hours of self-assessment paperwork is doing bullshit work. University professors and middle managers might think of themselves as part of the 99% but they are actually part of the 15% or less. Bullshit work is something for relatively privileged “professionals”. And it’s not punishment at all - it is just business.
The apparent violation of economic rationality is an illusion produced by a misunderstanding of the underlying “business model” of these institutions. For example in the upper reaches of academia all the former production work of the institution - teaching and research - has been subcontracted to temp workers. Just as university ¨amateur sports” has become a massive industrial enterprise where the actual athletes almost entirely barred from collecting any money, teaching is done by low paid “adjunct” staff who are as welcome at motivational seminars as they are welcome to tenure and research is done by students, post-docs, assistants, and so on. The core faculty responsibilities switch to supervision of the workers and marketing to funding, granting and accreditation agencies. Faculty often complain about being forced to spend time away from their “real jobs” doing nonsensical paperwork and interacting with other paper pushers. What they do not realize is that their real jobs are nonsensical paperwork and interacting with other paper pushers. University administrative staff bloat is not at the expense of the supposed teaching/research mission of the university, it is in place of the ostensible mission, in service of the actual mission. If you think of these people as “coaching staff”, you’ll be more likely to understand their actual job responsibilities.
Or consider a company like Yahoo and think about what its products are. Essentially Yahoo has two sets of “customers” - people who make advertising buy decisions and people who make stock market investment decisions. And both of these depend mostly on the image of the company. Yahoo doesn’t operate like an idealized firm that has to make some tangible product or provide a service: it has to manufacture an image, a marketing presence, that will motivate employees of other huge corporations to purchase advertising and shares. Most of the people who work for Yahoo are only tangentially involved: they develop software much as University students carry footballs or adjunct faculty teach courses. They may be under the delusion that coding is their “real work”, but nobody who sends money to Yahoo or its management gives a damn about coding. The system has to minimally function, just like adjunct English adjuncts have to show up and lecture about the Transcendentalists, but the difference between brilliant and mediocre work by coders or teachers makes no difference to the fundamental business operation of the institution.
Much of bullshit work involves the “metrics” that are central to the management of large enterprises. The purpose of the metrics is to control and measure productivity of the real work that these middle managers, professionals and other coaches are really supposed to do. Nobody who produces these metrics cares if Professor So-And-So spends half the day watching porn in his office or if he finds attending seminars on Stakeholder Value Enhancement in the University Community a waste of time. As long as the good professor generates publications or goes on TV as an expert or wins grants or just sits in the office acting the part of a savant and satisfying some statistical measure - the metrics will digest that information and produce an actionable plan and a revenue breakdown. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if Yahoo’s stack management evaluation method will leave only a demoralized mediocre programming staff - the stock analysts will see a dynamic corporate culture decisively reducing head count and “reinventing”. And head count reduction can be totally illusory, that won’t matter to the Wall Street analysts any more than the actual finances of mortgage borrowers mattered to bond analysts. If the business of the institution is marketing itself to capital markets then the psychology and ideological lenses of the people who manage and communicate within the capital markets is what matters. Remember that these people are not investing their own money even - they are generally just profiting from moving that money around.
Note: Obviously an incomplete answer. Some edits to tame germanically long sentences.