Beyond Bullshit Jobs
From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 2 ("Questioning Power").
Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber
This is an edited transcript of a talk Professor Anderson gave at an event organized by The Philosopher at Conway Hall, London on 13th October 2019.
In what follows I will be discussing “the work ethic.” Most of my references are to the American-style work ethic, because America has internalised the Protestant work ethic more fully than practically any other society. There are other forms of work ethic, for example the kind you find in Japan, but in fact they’re ideologically quite different. The American-style work ethic means that what you do for a living is central to your personal identity, a strong belief that disciplined work builds character. American workers are often on call at all hours and take that for granted. This feeds into what I’ll call “performative workaholism” – that is, showing up at work and demonstrating you’re working harder than anybody else in the office. Additionally, there is a very strong stigma on unemployment and getting “free stuff” from the government.
One of the most prominent recent critics of the work ethic is the anthropologist David Graeber. In his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory we find a definition of “bullshit jobs” as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” It is important to contrast bullshit jobs with what Graeber simply calls “shit jobs” – namely those jobs like cleaning bedpans or collecting the rubbish. These jobs have to be done, and they are very important to the functioning of society. This kind of work can be a form of drudgery, it is not highly esteemed, it is generally poorly paid, and workers in these jobs are often in a precarious state. In contrast, bullshit jobs tend to be middle-class jobs, managerial white-collar work, often with higher prestige and with a decent income and decent job security – but they are utterly pointless or even pernicious. On the basis of surveys in the US, the UK and the Netherlands, Graeber suggests that around 40% of workers think that they are engaged in bullshit jobs.
Graeber is working in a long tradition of criticising the work ethic that started, at least, with Max Weber, the great German social theorist who put the work ethic on the map as a serious moral question in his 1920 work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Weber, the Protestant work ethic ended up rationalising capitalist exploitation of workers’ willingness to work. He didn’t think that this is why it was invented, however. Rather he argues that it was invented for theological reasons, but over time it got secularised. While workers had originally been caught up in religious beliefs, these habits survived the secularisation of society. Capitalists took advantage of the high work motivation built by habit and internalised by the workers, and generated a very exploitative system. I would like to tell a different story about the religious origins of the work ethic from within the tradition of Anglo-American political thought, starting with the very famous 17th century Puritan minister Richard Baxter. For Baxter, the chief duty of the work ethic is to engage in disciplined work in a calling, that is, a specialised occupation to which God has called you to dedicate your working life. Puritanism is an ascetic doctrine with plenty of self-denial, so Baxter’s work ethic abhors any wasted time, any idleness, any wasting of material goods, any indulgence in vanity projects or worldly pleasures – that’s all sinful. However, alongside and potentially in conflict with some elements of ascetic picture, Baxter also argued that each man must “frugally getteth and saveth as much as he can”, that given a choice between a higher paying and lower paying calling, you should always choose the higher paying one.
But why adopt the work ethic? Baxter’s justification is theological: you work hard in order to prove you have faith, and faith is of course the requirement for salvation. Any moment of idleness is a sign that you are backsliding in your faith and headed for damnation. The internal anxiety to ensure yourself of your salvation is what motivates people to work very hard in this disciplined way without any backsliding. Weber argued that over time the Protestant work ethic got secularised, but in a very conservative way that is harsh towards workers. My primary dissent from Weber is that he misses out on a very pro-worker version of secularising the work ethic, and this is what I’ll bring to light shortly.
WEBER ARGUED THAT OVER TIME THE PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC GOT SECULARISED, BUT IN A VERY CONSERVATIVE WAY THAT IS HARSH TOWARDS WORKERS
But let’s start by going over what the conservative path that Weber described looks like:
The theological version of the work ethic starts off with the idea that the poor stand to the rich as lazy sinners do to hard-working believers, a very familiar thought in that poverty is seen as a sign of laziness, idleness, and hence sinfulness. The secular version of this is that people’s access to honour is conditional on self-sufficiency, on not being dependant on welfare, and on a background assumption that the poor are undeserving.
The theological version of the work ethic said that it was a bourgeois duty of business owners to maximise their profits, for each to “frugally getteth and saveth as much as he can.” This maximising of profits was achieved by disciplining their workers. The secular version of this is shareholder capitalism, the idea that the purpose of a corporation is to maximise profits. Corporations manage to do this by squeezing the workers and also by lobbying the state for public policies that systematically favour capitalists’ interests over workers’ interests.
With all that squeezing of wages in order to maximise profits, it’s pretty inevitable that you’re going to create a class of working poor people, who are poor even though they’re working. One of the Puritans’ favourite biblical passages is “he who does not work shall not eat.” The secular version of this is the belief that you don’t give handouts to people who aren’t working. Rather, you condition the receipt of welfare payments on the fact that they’re taking up employment (or maybe you prefer private charity to having a state responsibility to take care of the poor).
The theological version of the work ethic said that you’re not entitled to any leisure that you haven’t earned – play, leisure, and rest must always follow labour, not precede it. In the secularized American version of this, there is no right to unearned vacations or leave. The Unites States is the only rich capitalist country in the world that has no state guarantee of paid vacation. About half of American workers do have a contractual right to vacation days. The typical American worker takes about half of the vacation days they’re contractually entitled to, because they’re afraid that if they took all of those days the boss would notice that they’re dispensable in the office and maybe fire them.
Finally, the Puritans considered work to be valuable as a form of ascetic discipline: if you’re working really hard with your nose to the grindstone, then you won’t have any time for sinful thoughts. The secular version of this is “the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, what in my book Private Government I describe as the idea that the workplace itself is a kind of dictatorship where bosses rule over their workers.
As I have mentioned, though, I think that Weber’s picture of the secularization of the Protestant work ethic is only half right. There is another side of the work ethic that we can find in Baxter and his fellow Puritan ministers that has a remarkably pro-worker side to it, and that’s what I want to illuminate now. One of Baxter’s colleagues, the minister Robert Sanderson, had a very popular lecture that was reprinted multiple times about how one finds out what one’s calling is. Sanderson says that God is not simply going to come down in a dream and reveal to you what your occupation ought to be. Rather, you find out your calling by looking at what your talents are, seeing what education you have, what skills you have developed, consulting your tastes and considering what kind of work you enjoy or find fulfilling. Additionally, you can talk to your parents because they love you and know you and they probably have some good advice. In other words, in this sermon Sanderson invented modern career counselling!
A wonderful thing about this is that Puritans had a way of turning duties into rights. Everyone has a strict duty to find the calling that God has called them to undertake, but that turns into a right to free occupational choice because it’s your right to consult your own tastes and your own aspirations as a worker to discover your calling, and so to follow whatever occupation heightens your interest. In his five-volume Christian Directory, Baxter himself had a lot to say about work and employment. One of the things he insisted on was that all workers who are working in their calling are doing God’s work. This includes even the most menial labourers. It’s God’s work because it’s socially necessary labour, and hence all these workers, even the lowest, are entitled to dignity. Baxter also argues that workers are entitled to relief from abuse from their employer. He has a whole chapter lecturing bosses on what they’re not allowed to do: Don’t rule your employees tyrannically; you have a strict duty to provide your workers with safe and helpful conditions; workers are entitled to fair and living wages. There’s also a strict duty and corresponding right to charity – you can’t just let poor people starve or suffer in destitution. Finally, Baxter said that the ultimate reward of fulfilling the work ethic is what he called “the saints’ everlasting rest”. It is true that you don’t get much rest in this life. But in the next life it’s an eternal vacation!
Baxter also had a lot of stern things to say to the rich. They have very strict duties and a chief duty is productive labour. In other words, he’s criticising the idle rich, which is what essentially all the rich were in the 17th century. Just as God commanded Adam after the fall to work by the sweat of his brow to the end of his days, so Baxter tells the aristocrats that they too have this responsibility: “God has strictly commanded [labour] to all”, even if they could afford to live off their rents. Furthermore, Baxter criticises activity that just consists in extracting wealth from the system or from other people. He says that this kind of activity is “a prison and a constant calamity”, that it is an ethical disaster for somebody just to be extracting wealth from other people. It’s a calamity “to be tied to spend one’s life in doing little good at all to others, though he should grow rich by it himself.” He has a whole chapter on what he calls “oppression”, which basically amounts to unfair and exploitative business models. To the rich he says, “don’t tread on [your] brethren as stepping stones of [your] own advancement”. Do not “injure [your] inferiors who are unable to resist” – in other words, you can’t bargain hard with desperate, poor and vulnerable people, but rather you have to give them decent and fair terms in a contract. He railed against monopolists, usurers, all kinds of hucksters and engrossers – all those who try to make profit by cornering a market in some good. He argued against unfair evictions of tenants (today we would look at gentrification). He said specifically that if your tenants have been used to a certain rent for their land, you’re not allowed to suddenly hike it even if the market could bear that price as that would be unfair to them.
So there’s also a pro-worker side to the Protestant work ethic. Over time this too got secularised. You can see some of these themes arising in the classical liberals like Adam Smith and (my favourite) Tom Paine. Elements of this work ethic were also picked up by Karl Marx, by the labour movement, and ultimately by social democracy.
Again I will in parallel take the pro-worker theological version and show how it got secularised over time:
Baxter said that all workers, even the most menial ones, should be honoured as following a sacred calling. In secular terms this translates into the idea that all workers are entitled to dignity and to meaningful work--work that makes a positive difference. No bullshit jobs here!
In Baxter’s vision, workers are entitled to freedom of occupational choice – they can’t just be assigned a certain job they don’t like. This idea is inherited by the secular version.
Baxter also thought that workers were entitled to a living wage (although it’s frugal because he doesn’t believe in a lot of luxury spending!). In the hands of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, this turned into an entitlement of workers to high and rising wages. The difference here is that Smith is imagining (almost for the first time) that economies could grow indefinitely, that the poor need not always be with us, whereas in the 17th century people didn’t really have this idea of the continuous growth of an entire economy. The secular corollary of Baxter’s picture is the idea that as GDP per worker grows, workers should be entitled to have their wages rise in concert with the wealth of society.
Baxter thought there was a right and a duty to charity. The secularised version of this is not charity in the sense of having to ask some particular person to be beneficent to you if you’re in desperate straits but rather a right to social insurance – you socialise and nationalise the right to be insured against all kinds of calamities and risks of various sorts.
The Puritans promised leisure in the next life. If you secularise that good you get state-mandated maximum hours legislation, paid vacation, rights to parental leave, and so forth as legal entitlements of work.
Finally, there’s an interesting twist with Baxter. The Puritans were mostly known for thinking that the elect, that is, the people who were actually saved, constituted a tiny number of people. But Baxter himself was a very heterodox Puritan. He gave a sermon that was rather notorious in its day for its universalism, its idea that salvation is open to all, that everyone who fulfils the work ethic is saved. In other words, he was expressing a kind of confidence that anyone could internalise the self-discipline required for living up to the standards of the work ethic and thereby gain their salvation, or at least certainty of salvation. When that idea gets secularised, it’s the idea that every worker can govern themselves, either individually as self-employed, or collectively in co-operative or worker-managed firms. The capacity to internalise the work ethic, to govern oneself by this ethical standard, is something all workers are capable of. Hence they’re entitled to self-government. They don’t need some boss breathing down their necks forcing them to work harder.
WHAT HAS COME TO THE FORE IN CO0NTEMPORARY NEOLIBERALISM IS A REINFORCED VERSION OF THE CONSERVATIVE WORK ETHIC
Looking at these parallel histories of the work ethic, as the labour movement and social democracy have weakened, what has come to the fore in contemporary neoliberalism is a reinforced version of the conservative work ethic. We’ve lost sight of the pro-worker work ethic that was advanced by these other traditions. The United States has the greatest inequality of any rich capitalist democracy in the world. There’s a major inflection point in the early 70s. From the post-World War Two era up to about 1972, workers’ wages were rising at exactly the same rate as productivity growth. Workers were enjoying the high and rising wages that Adam Smith thought were every worker’s legitimate expectation. The point at which productivity growth and hourly compensation growth start to separate is also the occasion for the rise of the ideology of shareholder capitalism, the idea that the purpose of a corporation is solely to serve the shareholders and not the workers or consumers. At this point, workers’ hourly compensation stagnates even as productivity continues to grow immensely. The gap that opens up is the increasing share of income that’s captured by capital or by the top executives of the firm.
CEO pay has leapt far ahead of productivity growth. A lot of top CEOs will justify this by pointing out how hard they are working, that they are not like the aristocrats of old who just idly sat by collecting rents. The idea is that if they are working really hard, harder in fact than ordinary line workers, do they not deserve however many million dollars per year by way of compensation? Here I want to channel Richard Baxter and argue that we shouldn’t confuse being very busy with actually engaging in work that enhances the welfare of people other than one’s self and maybe some idle shareholders. There are all kinds of people who are very busy, but we wouldn’t consider to be engaged in productive work. Consider, for instance, the counterfeiter. They might spend a lot of time perfecting the engraving on a fake hundred-dollar bill, so they are indisputably very busy. But this does not mean that they are adding value or promoting social welfare; they’re just lining their own pockets with some fraudulent scheme. I think a lot of the activity and overtime that the top CEOs put in these days in advanced capitalist countries similarly involves a lot of busy-ness but minimal actual labour that enhances social welfare.
Let’s consider some very prominent business models in our capitalist world:
Does the business model merely extract wealth? We could take a look, for instance, at vulture capital private equity. In this model, you have a leveraged buyout in which you put down 10% of the value of the firm. If you can extract 20% of the value of the firm by, say, degrading its products, slicing the workers’ wages and putting them in a precarious state, and awarding oneself hefty management fees, then even if you drive the firm into bankruptcy, leaving thousands unemployed, you could still come out with hundreds of millions of dollars of profit. It’s just wealth extraction. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the so-called “genius” of Bain Capital who made hundreds of millions of dollars even though four of his ten biggest deals went into bankruptcy. But even when they did, he still made out with millions of dollars.
Does the business model exploit the vulnerable? In the US there are endless examples of this. For example, people have health insurance and go to a hospital that’s supposedly covered by their insurance. But the listed surgeon invites a friend in just to do a few stitches to close the wound. That person’s out-of-network and surprises the poor patient with a $60,000 bill. These things happen in America! Predatory credit, of course, is very commonplace in the UK as well as the US. People just get mired in endless debt and can’t get out of it.
Does the business model profit by misleading people? Take as an example scam schools like the one ran by President Trump: a fake real estate house-flipping enterprise where nobody who graduated from this course managed to sell a single piece of real estate. Not one!
Does the business model shift risks to the vulnerable? For example, it’s very common in leveraged buyouts to send the pension into bankruptcy quite deliberately by stripping it of its assets. There are legal ways to do that in the US.
Does the business model undermine future generations? Consider the entire fossil fuel sector.
Does the business model profit by spreading hatred and propaganda, undermining democracy and destroying journalism? Consider Facebook.
FOR GRAEBER, BULLSHIT JOBS INFLICT A KIND OF SPIRITUAL VIOLENCE ON THE WORKERS WHO WORK AT THEM
David Graeber (1961-2020)
I’d like to end by returning to Graeber’s criticism of bullshit jobs. For Graeber, bullshit jobs inflict a kind of spiritual violence on the workers who work at them. He cites the indignity of being consigned to useless busy-ness as undermining peoples’ agency, as they are not able to do work that is actually useful to anyone. It’s also humiliating to be ordered to perform tasks that are really worthless, maybe just to slake their employer’s vanity. He points to the phenomenon that in prisons, depriving prisoners of work, even if it’s menial work like working in the prison laundry, is considered punishment by the prisoners. It seems to me that those thoughts are better motivated by the pro-worker worth ethic, than they are by Graeber’s own leisure ideal. Graeber thinks that if 40% of all work is bullshit work, then we should introduce the leisure society by just dropping all of those jobs, installing a more generous welfare state, and then everybody could work half the hours they current work.
But it seems to me that deep down underneath these complaints about spiritual violence is the thought that it really is a prison and a calamity to have a life where one isn’t useful to people. And that is exactly the thought behind the progressive work ethic. By all means we have to abolish the predatory and exploitative business models. But it’s also really important and meaningful to be engaged in activity that is socially necessary and useful. This is very different from the ideal of the leisure society where life becomes a playground and we minimise labour altogether. If it conforms to the pro-worker work ethic, work is a significant source of meaning for peoples’ lives. What we should wish for is that all jobs really are meaningful. Indeed, I don’t think we are even in a good position to introduce the leisure society, at least not yet, because humanity is facing the great crisis of climate change. This is going to require all hands on deck as we will have to completely change the infrastructure of energy, transportation, and manufacturing.
There’s plenty of meaningful work to be done in order to save humanity and the planet. If there is going to be a leisure ideal, I think it will be at least a century or two in the future before we’ll be able to think about what that might be. Our aim, then, should be to replace oppressive and meaningless work with work that actually enhances peoples’ lives, other people as well as the people who are engaged in that work.
Elizabeth Anderson specializes in ethics, social and political philosophy, feminist theory, social epistemology, and the philosophy of economics and the social sciences. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration, and, most recently, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don't Talk About It). She is currently working on a multi-volume history of egalitarianism.