Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

By David Graeber

Finished reading on December 24, 2018

Graeber’s original essay from 2013 is thought provoking and deserves a read, but his book along the same lines falls short. The book lives halfway between a polemic and a more thoroughly researched work and reading it, you wish that there were more substance behind the claims.

The majority of the research comes from a number of interviews Graeber conducted with people who follow him on Twitter. This methodology cries out for deeper contemplation. There are so many interesting questions raised by the premise and interviews: if the economy is more “productive” than ever but so many people are working “bullshit jobs” then what is everyone actually doing? Graeber does dig a bit into some of the statistics available from the BLS, but not enough to probe meaningfully at this question, which seems important or at the least interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting new concept introduced by Graeber is “managerial feudalism.” The notion here is that the workplace increasingly resembles the feudal relationship of the middle ages: the corporate pyramid structure creates a series of increasingly powerful “lords,” each of whom have some number of serfs. Given that many of these mid-level “lords” lack any real responsibilities (according to Graeber), they instead do things like ensure that people are working (i.e. sitting a desk) sufficient numbers of hours each day.

Graeber’s work is interesting, but he doesn’t really close in an interesting way. He instead sort of waves his hands and says “I’m an anarchist!” without really providing a way forward. That there really isn’t a good path forward is true across a number of modern critiques, including of a second book I read during my trip: Winners Take All.

★★★☆☆