David Graeber

On Wednesday, renowned public intellectual David Graeber died aged 59. Obituaries flowed and thousands mourned the loss of a leading voice against global economic inequality.

Graeber was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement and wrote incisively on debt, bureaucracy and capitalism from an anarchist perspective. But the topic that earned him the most public attention, including here in Crikey, was his theory of “bullshit jobs”.

In a viral essay and subsequent book, Graeber asked why John Maynard Keynes’ prophecy, that technological development would allow citizens of developed nations to have 15-hour working weeks by 2000, never came true.

His answer: contrary to the theory of market efficiency, society’s moralisation of work for its own sake and managers prioritising KPIs over creativity have led to the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”. Such jobs exist to make bosses feel important, needlessly manage subordinates, duct tape over solvable problems, rent-seek and tick boxes. And they make many employees miserable.

As Graeber’s passing coincides with the biggest disruption to our economy and labour market in a century, it is an apt time to reconsider the “bullshit jobs” issue in modern Australia.

Does Australia have a ‘bullshit jobs’ problem?

On one hand, the pandemic has led to the heralding of “essential” workers. However, mass layoffs have seen far more frontline roles cut than managerial and administrative positions,which are more likely to contain elements of “busywork” and “strategic” guff.

This is sometimes due to there simply being more frontline staff in an organisation, but often the distribution of cuts are uneven enough to reveal managerial preferences. Increased CEO bonuses certainly do.

As Graeber warned, “layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things” yet “the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand”. 

As even The Australian’s Adam Creighton concurs (in a typically anti-PC way), the “Change Managers” of corporate Australia are doing just fine.

For those on JobSeeker and JobKeeper, a temporary relaxation in mutual obligations afforded many Australians more freedom to pursue self-directed tasks and hobbies as Graeber, an advocate of a universal basic income, envisioned. But such requirements were phased back in for non-Victorians last month, and the parasitical employment services industry has reaped enormous taxpayer windfalls despite being what Graeber called “goons” – a sector with no right to exist.

Those still in the labour market are arguably plagued more by bullshit tasks than roles. Human resources expert Aaron McEwan argues, “the bigger issue is not that some jobs are bullshit. It’s like everybody’s got a pretty big chunk of their job that is bullshit”.

New research by Deloitte Access Economics, released in AFR on Friday, finds workers spend an average of 10 hours per week on minimisable administration that isn’t part of their actual job. Stunningly, the report found that “if workers spent just one less hour a week on boring, routine tasks, the uptick in their engagement levels would be worth $46 million in extra profits to a top 200 company”.

Cutting the crap after COVID

Australia’s top politicians are all Keynesians now, committed to spending big with a “laser-like focus” on job creation. But we ought to ask what kind of jobs we want to create.

For Keynes, government spending was never about creating jobs for jobs’ sake. He wanted good work done well, so then we could all spend more time making memories, art and love.

Graeber’s great gift to humanity was reviving this radical humanism in Keynes’ vision, imploring us to promote pleasure and meaning over corporate drudgery.

Unfortunately, it is the abrogation of this strand of Keynesianism the federal Coalition is most ideologically committed to, evident in their wilful decimation of our cultural organisations and universities. That they appear to hold contempt for those who might find fulfillment and self-expression in their work does not bode well for the content of the jobs they have vowed to create.

Graeber idolised the moon landing and lamented that mounting piles of grant proposals had stifled similar futuristic innovation. One can only hope that a COVID-19 vaccine discovery might similarly remind us of the transformative potential of truly meaningful work, and inspire our politicians to facilitate it.