This week: David Graeber, bullshit jobs, hair loss, the Mini Beau...
Welcome to September and something of a handbrake turn. I was planning to write a little more about cycling around the country, but one of my intellectual mentors died on Wednesday so instead here instead is a piece about the anthropologist David Graeber.
(Plus a load of other gubbins about running around and chopping off hair. Something for everyone!)
Above: A student’s eye view of David Graeber in action at the Anarchist Bookfair in November 2012.
Death of an anarchist
David Graeber, author of one of the most influential books I’ve ever read—Debt: The First 5,000 Years—died earlier this week.
David Graeber may have been professor of anthropology at Yale, Goldsmiths and finally the London School of Economics, but he was always conscious that his work must not be allowed to stifle in the deoxygenated air of academia.
He was a practical and public intellectual who faced down the big social inequalities of our time and has given thousands of people the tools to build an alternative.
Graeber came to my attention in 2011 as something of a doorman for the Occupy movement. He opened doors we thought were permanently locked and showed us entire suites of rooms that we never could have imagined were there.
Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, I often laughed.
I learned that systems of credit and debt, far from being the pernicious invention of modern capitalists, are how human societies have managed their economic affairs for millennia. But I also learned that we are perhaps the first society to orgy in credit and debt without having in place the checks and balances that protect the poor from catastrophe.
Graeber traces how these checks and balances came into being in ancient Sumer:
In years with bad harvests especially, peasants would start becoming hopelessly indebted to the rich, and would have to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Gradually, this condition seems to have come to a social crisis—not so much leading to popular uprisings, but to common people abandoning the cities and settling territory entirely and becoming semi-nomadic ‘bandits’ and raiders. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or ‘freedom’, so that all bonded labourers could return to their families.
Biblical prophets also formalised this system of ‘Jubilee’ and cancelled all debts every seven years. This was how humans arranged things for centuries: all debts cancelled, every seven years.
Its simplicity and justice still makes me laugh.
Graeber dared us to wonder why our society couldn’t declare regular jubilees, write off all debts and protect the poor against the wealthy? There’s no reason why not. It’s a choice.
As you can imagine, this colour of politics was too much for the fine upstanding Yale University and we were lucky that Graeber decided to move to London—in fact, he joined the university over the road from where I lived: Goldsmiths.
On bullshit jobs
Graeber taught a number of my friends at Goldsmiths and I attended a few of his public seminars, where we got to discuss and share ideas in an atmosphere of open debate. It’s hard to overestimate this guy. He was like a rockstar to me and my friends.
In fact, Graeber’s 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs came about after a friend of mine, STRIKE! magazine’s Vyvian Raoul, asked Graeber whether he had ‘anything provocative that no one else would be likely to publish’.
Oh yes he did. It was an idea that would call into question the value of entire industries, let alone jobs—including, perhaps, his own.
This was his original thesis of ‘bullshit jobs’:
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.
The article hit such a nerve that it crashed the magazine’s servers multiple times and was copied and republished (frequently by bullshit companies) across the known world. In 2018, Graeber expanded his ideas and the polemical article became a more carefully researched book.
The bullshitisation of work
In his book, David Graeber details a taxonomy of five varieties of bullshit job, each with its own identifiable features. Before explaining further, Graeber stresses that there can be no objective definition of a bullshit job: if an employee asserts that their job is bullshit, then bullshit it is.
Likewise, however, it’s very hard to argue against someone who believes that their job isn’t bullshit. So don’t be offended if you recognise your job as one of those broadly categorised as bullshit. Maybe it’s not for you.
Nevertheless, the response to Graeber’s book seems to suggest that people know when what they’re doing is worthless—even if they’ve buried that sense deep down inside.
Flunkies: people whose only purpose is to make someone else look important. Doormen, concierges, some receptionists and personal assistants.
Goons: those people whose job has an aggressive element. The military, but also most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers.
Duct tapers: employees whose jobs exist only because of ‘a glitch or fault in the organisation; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist’.
Box tickers: ‘employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organisation to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’. Bureaucrats, in-house magazine writers and the unfortunate authors of unread government commissions.
Taskmasters: these employees come in two types. Type 1 Taskmasters are the opposite of Flunkies: ‘unnecessary superiors rather than unnecessary subordinates’. Type 2 Taskmasters are the bullshit generators: those whose ‘primary role is to create bullshit tasks for others to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs’.
Ring any bells? I recognise plenty of my past jobs in this list—and even a few of the ones I force myself do now I’m self-employed. I’m not alone in having thoroughly absorbed the logic of the bullshit economy.
As well as describing the boundaries of bullshit, Graeber also suggests an antidote, reasoning that nothing can be called bullshit if it’s concerned with caring.
Now, maybe there are arms dealers who ardently believe that they’re in a caring career, but even so I think we can agree with Graeber that some jobs are more naturally compatible with caring: nurses, cleaners, teachers, mechanics and electricians (of the non-duct-taping variety) to name a few.
By choosing a non-bullshit career as a member of what Graeber calls the ‘caring classes’, you almost certainly won’t be rewarded financially. There is an inbuilt inequality in our society that seems to imply that bullshit jobs are so sociopathically awful that they need to be highly paid otherwise no one but sociopaths would be masochistic enough to take them.
The book summarises the results of a study by the New Economic Foundation that looked at the social return generated by various different jobs. See if you can identify the bullshit ones:
City banker – yearly salary c. £5 million – estimated £7 of social value destroyed for every £1 earned
Advertising executive – yearly salary c. £500,000 – estimated £11.50 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
Tax accountant – yearly salary c. £125,000 – estimated £11.20 of social value destroyed per £1 paid
Hospital cleaner – yearly income c. £13,000 (£6.26 per hour) – estimated £10 of social value generated per £1 paid
Recycling worker – yearly income c. £12,500 (£6.10 per hour) – estimated £12 in social value generated per £1 paid
Nursery worker – salary c. £11,500 – estimated £7 in social value generated per £1 paid
See any injustice there? It was something that was deeply felt at the Occupy protests—indeed, Graeber describes the Occupy movement as the ‘revolt of the caring classes’. He observes that the most common complaint heard at the protests went something along these lines:
“I wanted to do something useful with my life; work that had a positive effect on other people or, at the very least, wasn’t hurting anyone. But the way this economy works, if you spend your working life caring for others, you’ll end up so underpaid and so deeply in debt you won’t be able to care for your own family.”
But of course the Occupy movement wasn’t enough. That’s why Graeber wrote this book: in the hope that it would offer millions more flunkies, box tickers and duct tapers the intellectual courage to quit and join the ranks of dissenters.
Funnily enough, though, the only reason STRIKE! magazine—and Graeber’s original polemic—ever existed at all was thanks to a bullshit job.
Bullshit origins of STRIKE!
Last year, I interviewed Vyvian Raoul for a review of Bullshit Jobs that I never finished writing. He told me how, back in 2013, he’d been working as a communications officer for a big charity in London. A classic bullshit job.
‘It was basically internal PR, jeeing up the troops,’ he explained. ‘People hated us. We should have been spending the money on more nurses.
‘One time I corrected the grammar on a blogpost that the CEO wrote,’ Raoul said. ‘It was the only useful thing I ever did there—and I got a bollocking for it.
‘From that point on, I’m coasting,’ he continued, ‘and I started setting up STRIKE! in my spare time at work.’
Raoul remembers exactly where he was when he first read On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:
‘I was reading it in Vauxhall Park in the sun when my boss walked past. We reluctantly greeted each other,’ Raoul said. ‘I knew, in that moment, that I was going to leave the job—and maybe jobs full stop.’
The first issue of STRIKE! was paid for out of his redundancy pay from that bullshit job. Graeber’s article was published in the third issue of the magazine and was only posted online as something of an after thought. It went viral: office workers around the world nodding their heads and beating their desks.
‘We got quite a few people emailing in to say thanks for publishing the article and that they’d left their jobs on the basis of it,’ Raoul told me.
I like the circularity of this story. Severence pay from a bullshit job liberated Vyvian Raoul and gave him the independence he needed to start a radical newspaper that published a tract against bullshit jobs, which has itself inspired another generation of bullshit employees to quit and revolt.
Raoul finished our conversation about Bullshit Jobs in a reflective mood: ‘Perhaps liberation is more of a process than a grand, Utopian, revolutionary moment,’ he suggested. ‘And maybe that’s the point of the book?’
All I can add is encouragement for us all to continue our process of liberation. All of David Graeber’s books and many articles are available for free online at the Anarchist Library.
Besides his writing, David Graeber was an excellent public speaker and many lectures and discussions will outlive him online:
[VIDEO] David Graeber and Maja Kantar: Debt, Bullshit Jobs and Political Self-Organisation (DiEM25 TV, April 2020)
[VIDEO] Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Talks at Google, February 2012)
[VIDEO] On Bullsh*t Jobs (RSA Replay, May 2018)
If you’d like to support the ongoing publication of David’s work then check out Anthropology for All and buy some ‘politically challenging’ books from Anthrolopolgy for Kids (content suitable, nay important for all ages).
Above all, please, please make sure that you really give a damn about what you’re doing. Do yourself a favour and care.
I raise my cap to a proper public intellectual. Someone who grappled with politics and ideas in a way that made sense and was immediately useful. Rest in power.
On Wednesday, inspired by this video by hyperactive human being Beau Miles, I ran one kilometre every hour for ten hours.
Not having used these muscles for six weeks, the running was heavy on the joints, but it gave my day the outdoorsy structure that I’ve missed since being off the bike. As a bonus, I got a lot done—although nowhere near as much as Beau.
Just watch the video.
I’ve cut my hair off!
I started growing my hair long back in the summer of 2011—coincidentally the last time I cycled around Britain. My central reason for donating my hair to make wigs for children with cancer is, as you could guess, guilt.
But it wasn’t guilt felt for the injustice of being a healthy and hair-lthy adult when there thousands of kids undergoing chemotherapy while still in primary school.
No: I felt guilty for taking the piss out of a friend for growing his hair long. It was only after six months of gentle, yet persistent ribbing that he turned to me and said: ‘So what are you doing for kids with cancer, Dave?’
Over the past nine years, I’ve donated my golden locks no less than five times. My reason for doing so has morphed from that schoolish guilt into no-brainer logic:
‘My hair is growing anyway, so why the blue blazes would I not donate it to charity, if it’ll do some good in the world?’
Now, sadly, the time has come to hang up my hairbrush and put away the conditioners. I have been advised that my male pattern baldness may have become too extreme to pull off long hair a sixth time.
But, you know, two of my favourite comedians of all time are Andy Zaltzman and Bill Bailey so never say never.
Above: Two handsome style icons.
If you decide that you might as well let your hair grow so that kids can get cancer wigs, then look up the Little Princess Trust. They’d love your long locks, ideally anything upwards of 11 inches. This time around I went out with a record-breaking 16 inches.
Any more for any more?
A few other things that have caught my mind this week.
Front Row hosts an audio review of nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s disgustingly creative career. The newest kenning I kenned: in 2015, another twenty lines of the 3000-year old Akkadian epic Gilgamesh were discovered and translated. Takes me back to my undergraduate days!
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
At the call of the stork, the forest exults,
at the cry of the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
Monkey mothers sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
like a band of musicians and drummers,
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Humbaba!
Eating as dialogue
Eating As Dialogue, Food As Technology by Bing Song. This article might change the way you thinking about dinner time forever: ‘Humans eat food. Food does not consume humans. Or so we thought,’ Song writes.
Rather than mere nosh, provender or raw material, food and its components are now being investigated for communicative and informational properties and for roles in gene regulation, environment sensing, maintaining physiological boundaries and adjusting cellular metabolic programs. Food speaks, cues and signals. Bodies sense and respond in complicated processes of inner conversation only dimly intuited by conscious thought.
If you’re interested in fungi and the networks of all-powerful beings beneath our feet, then chuck a tenner at the Psychedelic Society’s launch of Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life on Wednesday 9 September.
I was lucky enough to read Entagled Life a few months ago and can report that the text is frequently astonishing. The event also stars Merlin’s fellow mushroom experts Darren Springer and David Satori. Great value.
If you’re uncertain about words, then perhaps you’ll prefer the song that Merlin and his brother Cosmo Sheldrake are releasing today. A couple of months ago they impregnated a copy of Entangled Life with Pleurotus spores and then used electrodes to record the bioelectric field of the fungus and thence control an oscillator.
The sound you hear is a real-time sonic representation of the activity of the fungus as it eats the book.
Why do we theorise a conspiracy?
This episode of BBC CrowdScience looks at why people believe conspiracy theories and how empathy is a better approach than argument when trying to understand and talk these people into a different reality.
Even better: the episode also tells how the modern concept of the contemptible ‘conspiracy theorist’ was created by an actual conspiracy of tobacco companies to discredit people who claimed that cigarettes cause cancer. Sometimes they are out to get us!
Similarly, in How to destroy surveillance capitalism, Cory Doctorow offers up this explanation for why outlandish conspiracy theories like QAnon have become so popular:
What if it’s the material circumstances, and not the arguments [of conspiracy theorists]? What if the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us—conspiracies among wealthy people, their lobbyists, and lawmakers to bury inconvenient facts and evidence of wrongdoing, commonly known as “corruption”—is making people vulnerable?
In a more honest society that looks after all its citizens, perhaps we have fewer people wasting their energy on finding laughably convoluted reasons for why they’re being dicked on.
Why do we theorise a conspiracy? Maybe because there is a conspiracy, but it’s not the one you’ll find in obscure corners of the internet. Like the idea of sucking smoke into your lungs being healthy, this conspiracy is almost depressingly obvious—but the antidote is in our power, from putting a tick in the right box to banners, boats and brass bands. And mass arrests.
Delayed by six months due to Events, tomorrow is my first ever day of paid outdoor instructing work. A gaggle of schoolchildren and the forts, mounds and golf courses of Swinley Forest—what could possibly go wrong?
David Charles wrote this newsletter. He publishes another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.
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