Why David Graeber is Wrong
Why David Graeber is Wrong
The case against David Graeber’s book Bullsh*t Jobs, and why the Austrian School provides the interpretive lens needed to understand the phenomena of bureaucratic work.
Of all the characteristics of the much-maligned science of economic theory, perhaps none is as frequently derided, disputed, or simply ignored as its capacity to discover universal truths of human behavior, or economic “laws.” And, of these laws, I would argue that none has elicited a more intense reactionary response in the intellectual development of socialism than what Murray Rothbard called the law of “Demonstrated Preference.” The basic idea of this doctrine is that when individuals choose to interact with one another, this necessarily implies that they considered engaging in that activity as the most preferable course of action available. Or, more broadly, the idea that voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial.
As true as this law may be, its optimistic tone and laissez-faire implications clash jarringly with the poverty and misery that unfortunately still exist in the world. This clash is elevated into a full-blown contradiction in the minds of those unable to accept that such unhappy circumstances are partly a result of the inherent scarcity and rivalrousness of many of the necessities of human life.
So, if one supports the use of coercion to eliminate the world’s ills, how can one first deny the seemingly undeniable fact that it is in the absence of coercion that individuals are able to pursue their most preferred courses of action? If a true free market is one in which all interactions are voluntary, how can socialists justify their deep, gnawing sense that it’s all still somehow wrong? In short, how can one escape the implications of the law of Demonstrated Preference?
Whether consciously or not, many of the key arguments and positions of socialism act as attempted answers to this fundamental question. Such attempted answers include the idea that workers lack “bargaining power” to interact beneficially with managers, the pervasive assumption that individuals’ subjective preferences are fundamentally at odds with the “greater good” of society, and even Karl Marx’s famous exploitation theory, which posits that the supposed benefits of voluntary economic interaction merely conceal the secret theft of workers’ surplus value. Following in this tradition, another implicit answer to this question has emerged in the form of arguably the strangest and most interesting new idea to have burst onto the left-wing intellectual scene in the past few years: the thesis David Graeber puts forth in his book Bullsh*t Jobs, which he first outlined in the August 2013 issue of Strike! magazine.
Graeber is an influential left-anarchist public intellectual, was a key organizer of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and is an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics. In his 2013 article, Graeber considered the question of why the huge advances in physical productivity over the past century have not resulted in similarly huge increases in leisure time for most people. If rising efficiency means the same quantity of goods can be produced with smaller quantities of inputs, including human labor, why have we not yet achieved a fifteen-hour work week?
The answer, Graeber asserts in his usual provocative manner, is that an increasing number of completely useless jobs have been created, which serve no other purpose than to keep us working. Examples of these “bullsh*t jobs,” according to Graeber, include corporate lawyers, telemarketers, financial services, human resources, consultants, public relations, academic and health administrators, and so forth. In answer to the question of why these jobs exist at all if they serve no useful purpose, Graeber asserts that “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger . . . [and the cultural attitude] that work is a moral value in itself . . . is extraordinarily convenient to them.”
Those readers previously sympathetic to the free market are likely already scoffing at the idea that a capitalist system could possibly produce millions of completely useless jobs. Yet Graeber’s original article went spectacularly viral almost as soon as it was released, despite the obscurity of the periodical in which it was published. Moreover, its comments sections were flooded with the anecdotes and confessions of countless white-collar workers expressing their relief that someone was finally saying what they had secretly believed for years: that their jobs truly had no reason to exist. This positive reception prompted Graeber to expand his article into a book, Bullsh*t Jobs, which was published last year, and which offered an elaborated version of the theory. However muddled, unsystematic, and ultimately wrong one might judge the specifics of Graeber’s theory to be, the immense outpouring of support and gut-level agreement from so many people suggests that there may be something to it which even Austrians could benefit from salvaging.
The Role of Bureaucracy
Almost all wrong-but-popular ideas contain at least a grain of truth, and in the case of Graeber’s theory of bullsh*t jobs this truth can be observed in the explosion of administrative, form-filling work over the past few decades. Graeber is not incorrect to note that there has been a significant growth in the number of jobs centered around filling in performance reports, filing paperwork to ensure correct procedures have been followed, or, as Graeber puts it, “staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.”
This is indeed a genuine economic problem, but those who seek to truly understand the issue in a systematic way, rather than to merely have their pre-existing leftist prejudices pandered to by yet another irreverent anticapitalist polemic, should look not to Graeber’s book, but to Ludwig von Mises’s classic Bureaucracy.
In that book—which ranks among the most immediate and relevant of Mises’s works outside of his “big four”: The Theory of Money and Credit, Socialism, Human Action, and Theory and History—Mises tackles the question of how businesses can evaluate whether or not they are successfully achieving their goals. For private businesses in a free market, this is a relatively simple matter: their goal is to make money, which can be done by using scarce resources in the way that most satisfies the desires of consumers, and they have the immediate feedback mechanism of profit and loss to inform them of whether or not they are achieving that end.
But what about service providers who do not receive such profit and loss information, either because their goods are given to consumers free at the point of use, or because their inputs do not have freely-arrived-at market prices? For these providers—who are usually in that position due to state intervention or because they are state-run—profit and loss information is unavailable, and so other methods of assessing performance must be thought up. The goals and success-criteria of the organization have to be decided and defined, and then rules and procedures for how best to achieve those goals have to be established. This requires the employment of people to ensure that those guidelines are being followed, and then to track via paperwork the adherence to the rules and procedures.
In other words, Mises’s book demonstrated that the familiar paper-pushing, form-filling drudgery of what is commonly called bureaucracy is almost exclusively the result of government interventions that remove or distort the profit and loss information that companies could otherwise use to judge their effectiveness. It is no accident that Graeber cites healthcare and education administration as archetypal bullsh*t work, given that these are two of the largest sectors where services are either provided free at the point of use or heavily subsidized in most modern economies.
In this light, there is a sense in which even advocates of a free market could agree that “bullsh*t jobs” do exist in our current system. But the reason for their existence is not, as Graeber claims, that the supposed “efficiency” of capitalism was really a lie all along (a claim that his readers so desperately want to believe that Graeber barely feels the need to do more than merely assert it). On the contrary, it is the lack of free market capitalism, and an overabundance of government intervention, that has created the ever-growing number of tedious, bureaucratic, paper-pushing jobs, staffed by people who understandably regard such work as pointless.
The Role of Legislation and Regulation
Of all the jobs and industry types Graeber denounces as bullsh*t in his book, the one which poses arguably the most interesting question for free marketers is the profession of corporate lawyering. If one is unencumbered by prejudice against corporations per se, it is easy to conceive of plenty of perfectly legitimate and useful functions for corporate lawyers, such as drafting contracts, formalizing and overseeing agreements between companies, and so forth.
Yet the functions (and numbers) of corporate lawyers in our current mixed economy has spread far beyond the confines of these legitimate tasks. Given the bewildering knotwork of legislation and regulations with which private companies currently have to contend, an ever-growing number of corporate lawyers, consultants, and bureaucratic administrators need to be hired, not to proactively aid companies in bettering the lives of their customers, but simply to help them avoid arbitrary punishment by the state. The severity of this problem is exacerbated by the fact that even companies that already are complying with regulatory standards are forced to divert resources and workers to the task of proving their compliance, a fact that advocates of “common sense” regulations often overlook.
Although these economic considerations were likely not what Graeber had in mind when he denounced corporate lawyering as an example of fundamentally pointless work, it is true that statist interventionism creates ever higher demand for such workers to perform tasks unconnected to the satisfaction of consumers’ desires, which is a definition of “bullsh*t” work with which even Austrians could likely agree.
Just as Common in the Private Sector?
So much then for Graeber’s grain of truth. Much of the rest of his book is, as one might expect, encumbered by what may generously be called considerable shortcomings, one of which concerns his central claim that the creation of pointless work is not entirely, or even mostly, the fault of government. Graeber concedes that “if you toss out the notion of bullsh*t jobs to someone who hasn’t heard the term before . . . he may assume you’re talking about government bureaucrats.” If most people already recognize that pointless work exists in the public sector, Graeber’s assertion that it is just as common in the private sector arguably becomes his book’s central point. A controversial claim—but extraordinary claims can be justified by extraordinary evidence, so let’s see what proof Graeber offers in support of his view.
Graeber relies on two main types of evidence throughout his book: survey data from polls in which employees themselves were asked whether there was any point to their work (for example, a 2015 YouGov poll which found that 37 percent of British working adults believed their jobs made no “meaningful contribution to the world”), and anecdotal evidence from people who either commented or wrote to Graeber directly after the publication of his original article. Graeber’s reliance on these types of evidence may itself be objected to, and Graeber has freely and laughingly admitted to the self-selection bias in his anecdotal evidence. Yet a deeper problem is revealed when examining the particular anecdotes to which Graeber points in support of his view that the private sector is just as guilty of creating bullsh*t jobs.
One such anecdote, which Graeber regards as such smoking gun evidence of useless private sector work that he places it on the first page of his first chapter, relates the admittedly pointless-sounding work being done by an employee of a subcontractor for, of all things, the German military. Work of a less “private” nature could scarcely be imagined: the subcontractor is paid by a government agency to aid in the production of a “service” that is compulsorily imposed by the government. For Austrians, this is enough to dismiss offhand Graeber’s reliance on this anecdote as proof that bullsh*t work is just as rampant in the private sector, but perhaps more importantly it highlights an ambiguity in the definition of “private,” which causes a much wider communication breakdown.
For Graeber, and no doubt many others, the German military subcontractor is private by definition because it is not explicitly or directly controlled by the government and, perhaps most importantly, it operates on a for-profit basis. Yet how useful can this definition really be if it is unable to meaningfully distinguish between a private grocery store and a private for-profit prison, or indeed a private military subcontractor? Until a clearer and more descriptive term can be selected to distinguish the state sector from the sector which voluntarily caters to genuine consumer preferences, free market advocates are doomed to have our message not only misunderstood, but actively harmed by the excesses of these putatively private providers of state functions.
Bullsh*t Jobs as Self-Defined by Workers
And thus, we turn to Graeber’s other primary type of evidence: the survey data suggesting many employees consider their own jobs to be pointless. The reason Graeber relies on these surveys so heavily is that he admits it is difficult to distinguish between bullsh*t and genuine jobs, so on balance he concludes that “it’s safe to assume the worker knows best.” In other words, a job is bullsh*t if the employees themselves consider it to be so.
Although this might superficially appeal to some Austrians’ subjectivist inclinations, it should be clear that mere failure to understand the point of one’s job does not necessarily mean that it is pointless. In a complex economy with widespread division of labor, workers can be assigned to tasks that are ever more distantly (but still undeniably) connected to the satisfaction of consumers’ desires, just as the twentieth marginal unit of a good can be assigned to the satisfaction of a less urgent desire than the first unit.
However, a closer reading reveals this aspect of Graeber’s theory to be even more deeply flawed than it first appears. Far from resting on a questionable subjectivism, Graeber’s whole theory fundamentally rests on the same mistaken belief in objective economic value that pervades so much of leftist thought. “There is such a thing as social value, as apart from mere market value, but since no one has ever figured out an adequate way to measure it, the worker’s perspective is about as close as one is likely to get.” In other words, some jobs objectively are useful to “society” and other jobs are not, regardless of the preferences that consumers express in the market, and we can use workers’ own opinions to estimate what the objective “social value” of a given job is.
The problem with this approach is not merely that Graeber’s notion of a vague “social value” is so unmoored from the decisions of actual individuals as to be unprovable, but also that it allows him to smuggle in his own arbitrary value judgements as somehow more objective than the tastes of consumers. If Graeber personally considers an industry, say telemarketing, to be wasteful and decadent, all he needs to prove this is to present anecdotal evidence from some employees of that industry. Yet employees who consider their work pointless can be found in almost any line of work, even in industries Graeber considers worthwhile, such as professional cleaning. If confronted by a cleaner who considers their own work pointless, would Graeber really reverse his opinion and immediately declare cleaning a bullsh*t job, or would he more likely dismiss this particular anecdote as failing to disprove the obvious social value of cleaning? In an alternate universe where Graeber was a free market advocate, his same methodology could just as easily be used to come out in support of telemarketing as obviously socially valuable—communicating information to consumers about products that might improve their lives—anecdotal evidence to the contrary be damned!
This arbitrariness of Graeber’s method is placed on full display during his passionate defense of hairdressing as a non-bullsh*t form of work, a point to which he devotes almost four full pages of his opening chapter. Graeber justifies this opinion with a number of ad hoc arguments in favor of the value of hairdressers to society, yet, crucially, his points are no more or less convincing than the countless ad hoc arguments that could be made in favor of any number of other industries, including those Graeber considers socially useless. Far from having achieved a value-free, scientific approach by using employees’ own opinions as the measure of bullsh*t work, Graeber has merely run up against the fact that, having dismissed market prices as a measure of a job’s value to society, there is little more than conjecture and personal opinion to fall back on.
Despite the many flaws of Graeber’s theory, and the elementary nature of its woefully few correct insights, it is perhaps more than anything the visceral and widespread reaction to his work that is the truth worth listening to. Austro-libertarians understandably tend to focus our attention on “the big issues” as we see them—war, central banking, taxation—and it would be easy to overlook mere unproductive allocation of resources, including workers, as just another outcome of state intervention. Yet the outpouring of support for Graeber’s idea reveals how deeply these everyday, humdrum interventions can impact a population, not only economically, but also emotionally and psychologically. Even something as grey and technical as the state-induced proliferation of bureaucratic management can indeed cause, in Graeber’s words, “a scar across our collective soul.”
It is no accident that Graeber achieved such strong support by adopting libertarians’ own favorite strategy: the fearless speaking of undeniable but unspoken truths. There may be many people out there for whom libertarians’ usual dramatic claimstaxation is theft, the state is a glorified mafia, war is mass murder, and so forth—will never resonate. In reaching those unreceptive to such radical claims, it is worth remembering that the siphoning of millions of people into lifetimes of pointless drudgery is a littlespoken evil of statism which is no less profound for being widely felt.
This article first appeared in the summer print issue of our publication, then called Austro Libertarian Magazine. Make sure you pick up a subscription today!