Last week, my father was led by the malevolence of our era to purchase Jordan Peterson’s “book” 12 Rules for Life. This week, his daughter sent the antidote by mail. Not before a Skype bollocking though. When dad can forgive the exchange — “Jordan Peterson is to moral philosophy as TV chef Pete Evans is to dietary reason”; “For the nth time, Marx has almost no link with post-modern thought, but that Jordan sook is its lowest cross-disciplinary toilet”; “You’re not my real dad”, etc — he’ll read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, and recuperate. Might boost your recovery from the ills of life a little, too.

Graeber is a popular academic of the best, most omnivorous sort. Professor Peterson is basically a xerox of Malcolm Gladwell’s rejected TED talk notes on the topic of “Chicks: they’re just like that”.

You may find comparison of Peterson to Graeber specious. If you happened upon Graeber’s first popular book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, you almost certainly will. That was a genuinely funny account not only of a capitalist present, but of the peculiar morality that permits so many of us, including policymakers, to pretend that the now dominant finance, insurance, and real estate sectors (FIRE) produce any commodity at all but money.

If you have happened upon Peterson and liked him as little as the several reviewers that tore his fragile text a new one, you might wonder why I’d mention his name at all. Hey, even if you don’t mind Peterson or believe that his target audience of young white men are foundering and in urgent need of good advice (I don’t disagree) you may still see that the self-help author is no more scholarly or consistent in his approach than, say, TV chef Pete Evans or paleo-objectivist Ayn Rand.

I mean. Come on. Peterson pulls “facts” together like I shop for fashions: from any discount bin and in a frenzied half hope that an oversupply of cheap raiment will somehow add up to a dignified appearance. Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, has a cross-disciplinary appetite, but he’s able to temper it and produce a truly dignified text.  

Graeber, as a critic in the Financial Review couldn’t help but point out last week, may not be the appearance of dignity. My goodness, he was seen in the company of those with “sea-punk green hair” at the Occupy protests! Whatever. Peterson might hang out with incels for all we know — he’s certainly been kind enough to prescribe them “enforced monogamy”. Either way, if we were to judge a public intellectual by the company they keep, we’d miss out on Hannah Arendt. The point of comparing Graeber with Peterson is this: when my dad, or when anyone, reads Bullshit Jobs, he’ll remember what a true public intellectual can offer.

If you want some spoilers, go read the original Strike article that kicked the project off. I really don’t want to ruin the pleasure you’re likely to take in this account of human individuals living inside the most alienating, most useless and, often, best remunerated jobs.

The first premise of all human history is the existence of living human individuals. The first and most enduring impulse of liberal economists is to crudely abstract that existence. Per Smith, Ricardo and a whole load of tools on the telly and Capital Hill, the productive forces of capitalism don’t have much to do with most living human individuals. Our Jordan’s faith that a few Great Men move history informs his book for lost boys as much as it fuels the accounts of classical economists. Living human individuals count no more for most capitalist economists than a predictable force in labour, and for individualistic moralisers like Peterson they are counted out of any social relations. “There is no such thing as society” in each case. We just don’t live in it.

Of course, we do and to make a case about the estrangement felt even by knowledge workers — persons employed in corporate law, or as communications executives who are paid well not to fix a problem, but just to make it invisible — is to make a compelling case not only against the purported efficiency of capitalism, but against the morality of individualism.

The book is chockers with accounts from real-life bullshit workers whose existence and essence are as radically separated as FIRE is from “the simple law of supply and demand”. The humour and pathos of these human accounts lure the reader into an understanding of financialised markets, of the productive urge common to our species and then some anarchist stuff I have no truck with.

But, dad, this is an actual popular intellectual book. Its one great fault, for mine, is Graeber’s last act. The guy quits being an ethnographer — a person whose work it is to show the development and maintenance of moral and social structures — and starts behaving a little like FIRE, whose bullshit is written to justify what it has already done. This is one spoiler I’ll give you: Graeber declares that Universal Basic Income will fix the bullshit problem, and the problem of labour generally.

Yeah. Nah, Dave. This is what they called in one bullshit job I had in comms “solutionising”. I don’t want answers. I want diagnosis, the work of the public intellectual.

Peter Fray

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