Bullshit (academic) jobs

Some good quotes from Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (David Graeber, 2018):

Most universities in the United Kingdom now have public relations offices with staffs several times larger than would be typical for, say, a bank or an auto manufacturer of roughly the same size. Does Oxford really need to employ a dozen-plus PR specialists to convince the public it’s a top-notch university? I’d imagine it would take at least that many PR agents quite a number of years to convince the public Oxford was not a top-notch university, and even then, I suspect the task would prove impossible. Obviously, I am being slightly facetious here: this is not the only thing a PR department does. I’m sure in the case of Oxford much of its day-to-day concerns involve more practical matters such as attracting to the university the children of oil magnates or corrupt politicians from foreign lands who might otherwise have gone to Cambridge. But still, those in charge of public relations, “strategic communications,” and the like at many elite universities in the UK have sent me testimonies making it clear that they do indeed feel their jobs are largely pointless. (loc 886)

One might imagine that leaving millions of well-educated young men and women without any real work responsibilities but with access to the internet—which is, potentially, at least, a repository of almost all human knowledge and cultural achievement—might spark some sort of Renaissance. Nothing remotely along these lines has taken place. Instead, the situation has sparked an efflorescence of social media (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter): basically, of forms of electronic media that lend themselves to being produced and consumed while pretending to do something else. (loc 2558)

Take the domain of scientific research, or higher education once again. If a grant agency funds only 10 percent of all applications, that means that 90 percent of the work that went into preparing applications was just as pointless as the work that went into making the promo video for Apollonia’s doomed reality TV show Too Fat to Fuck. (Even more so, really, since one can rarely make such an amusing anecdote out of it afterward.) This is an extraordinary squandering of human creative energy. Just to give a sense of the scale of the problem: one recent study determined that European universities spend roughly 1.4 billion euros a year on failed grant applications—money that, obviously, might otherwise have been available to fund research. … [O]ne of the main reasons for technological stagnation over the last several decades is that scientists, too, have to spend so much of their time vying with one another to convince potential donors they already know what they are going to discover. (loc 3375)

Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living. Most people hate their jobs. We might refer to this as “the paradox of modern work.” The entire discipline of the sociology of work, not to mention industrial relations, has largely been concerned with trying to understand how both these things can be true at the same time. (loc 4292)

Conservative voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals more than they resent rich people, because they can imagine a scenario in which they or their children might become rich, but cannot possibly imagine one in which they could ever become a member of the cultural elite. … In the United States, of course, all this is very much complicated by the country’s legacy of slavery and inveterate racism. It’s largely the white working class that expresses class resentment by focusing on intellectuals; African Americans, migrants, and the children of migrants tend to reject anti-intellectual politics, and still see the educational system as the most likely means of social advancement for their children. This makes it easier for poor whites to see them as unfairly in alliance with rich white liberals. … The Left has always been about trying to collapse the gulf between the domain dominated by pure self-interest and the domain traditionally dominated by high-minded principles; the Right has always been about prising them even farther apart, and then claiming ownership of both. They stand for both greed and charity. Hence, the otherwise inexplicable alliance in the Republican Party between the free market libertarians and the “values voters” of the Christian Right. (loc: 4489)

As this sample show, the book is entertaining, at times properly hilarious, but also uneven and occasionally unconvincing. While I feel sympathetic to any attempt at making human labour less repetitive, oppressive, dull, and hierarchical, my impression is that Graeber overstates his case, and adopts a highly problematic methodology (i.e. stories from his followers of Twitter). Some scattered thoughts:

From https://medium.com/@Jernfrost/why-do-bullshit-jobs-exist-4f579eaa5964.
  1. It’s very hard to define the subjective value of work. Anecdotally, I met humble service workers who genuinely like their jobs and depressed university professors who get overwhelmed by a sense of futility, while having an extremely stimulating, relatively well-paid, and autonomous job. The social context of a job, in my experience, has a higher impact than the specific tasks. Moreover, asking somebody whether their job is meaningful falls in the area of happiness studies, and does not enlighten the economic rationale that makes these jobs exist (or not). As we can note in many areas of social life, subjectivity is complicated and can widely diverge from measurable, external factors. I would argue that in many cases the problem is expecting a job that “makes the world a better place”, which sets an unhealthy, impossible standard, rather than a job that “make somebody’s life better”.
  2. The boom of shallow admin jobs in academia coincides, Graber claims, with the rise of managerialism and with the diversification of the sector. By contrast, he seems to miss that unnecessary jobs in the private sector can be easily explained as market failures. If a manager hires people, and then cannot allocate actual work to them, it seems to me a simple case of miscoordination–she could have overestimated the amount of overall work to be done, for example. Apart from the usual childish libertarians, most people accept that markets, while being generally efficient at allocating resources, can fail catastrophically in specific contexts (e.g. the housing crisis in London, the US healthcare system). In the end, one might say, some inefficiency and redundancy are part of all human affairs and cannot be perfectly eradicated.
  3. Managerialism in UK universities does give the impression of generating a lot of “bullshit jobs”, empty buzzwords, weird rankings, and generic vision documents, but without more grounded research, I would be very cautious in dismissing it all. Graeber has the tendency to bash entire sectors as nonsensical based on the anecdotal evidence from a few people on Twitter, which is a tiny bit superficial and arrogant.
  4. The paradox of labour (i.e. the usefulness of jobs seems inversely related to their pay grade) misses the issue of replaceability in determining wages. Cleaners are badly paid because any able-bodied person can learn how to clean floors efficiently in a few weeks, while doctors, lawyers, and engineers need years of expensive and complex training to access junior positions. Good managers are hard to find because they need not only training, but also specific personality traits. This does not contradict the fact that, without garbage collection, our cities would become uninhabitable in about 10 days, while the disappearance of academics would be noticed after a few years, when no new doctors, lawyers, and engineers appear on the labour market.