The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

In the previous post in this series, I reflected on some of the problems with bureaucracy as an organisational structure. However, as a couple of commenters pointed out (cheers to Irena and Roland), bureaucracies do serve a purpose and a certain type of activity is all but impossible without them. So, I thought it would be worth clarifying where bureaucracies go wrong and also being more specific about when and how bureaucracies become Kafkaesque.

Bureaucracies are great for building bridges or shipping things from A to B. They are, as a general rule, not so good at dealing with human beings for the reason that they are apt to treat human beings as objects. If, as Immanuel Kant said, man is always to be treated as an end in himself and never as a means, bureaucracies have a nasty habit of doing the latter. This is due to a phenomenon known as Goal Displacement. Bureaucracies might begin with an explicit mission to serve the interests of the customer but over time they come to serve their own interests and treat the customer as a means to those interests. This mindset is captured beautifully in W H Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen”.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Anybody who has had to deal with a government department to achieve some trivial task only to be thwarted by pointless rules knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of Goal Displacement. The rules are there to serve the bureaucracy and not the customer. That’s the first way in which bureaucracies go wrong and it’s this that Kafka was chiefly concerned with i.e. the propensity of bureaucracies to treat humans as mere objects. Perhaps the ultimate expression of that can be found at the concentration camps where the Nazi bureaucracy kept immaculate administrative records of the people they were sending to their death.

Another way in which bureaucracies go wrong is when they get too much power and attempt to apply rules to inherently complex domains. We are seeing exactly that kind of overreach right now as public health bureaucracies dictate to medical professionals what treatments to use for corona. In most western countries, nurses and doctors have been explicitly warned by their professional bodies not to speak out against the vaccine. To do so is to risk losing your career. Similarly, alternative treatments such as ivermectin have been ruled out despite the fact that a number of doctors have found them to work. We are seeing the results of this right now. Australia this week followed European countries in restricting the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine due to the risk of blood clots in some recipients. In the normal course of events, where the side effects of a vaccine are well known, a doctor would be able to recommend to individual patients whether a vaccine was safe based on the patient’s profile. With the corona event, doctors have been sidelined and the whole thing is being run out of the bureaucracy which can only operate according to rules with all the clumsiness and confusion that causes. What we are seeing now is a direct result of replacing skilled professionals with bureaucratic mandates. James C. Scott in his excellent book “Seeing Like a State” outlines a number of case studies where this exact error was made. Literally tens of millions of people died in the 20th century from giving bureaucracies too much power in this fashion. That’s the second problem with bureaucracies.

There is a third problem which I touched on in my last post where I talked about a pointless job I once had in a government bureaucracy. I was perhaps a little too flippant about the psychological problems caused by such jobs when I alluded to the psychological suffering I experienced during my very brief stay in the job and also the fact that government bureaucrats tend to take a lot of mental health leave. To be clear, such jobs cause real psychological damage. The reference to Kafka is relevant but the nature of the trauma has a different origin to what Kafka was describing. These jobs, the psychological effects of them and the organisational dynamics in bureaucracies which give rise to them have been described very nicely by David Graeber with his concept of bullshit jobs.

To recap: what I am calling “bullshit jobs” are jobs that are primarily or entirely made up of tasks that the person doing that job considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious. Jobs that, were they to disappear, would make no difference whatsoever. Above all, these are jobs that the holders themselves feel should not exist.

Bullshit jobs cause real psychological trauma but, more importantly for understanding of our current cultural malaise, they might make up perhaps 40% of the total jobs in western nations at the moment. Our hysterical overreaction to the corona event must have a source somewhere and one of the sources is surely the latent trauma caused by bullshit jobs. This is especially true because it has been the salary class that has been most hysterical about corona and it’s also the salary class that works the lion’s share of the bullshit jobs.

In his book, Graeber does a good job of explaining how bureaucracies create bullshit jobs all by themselves due to politicking and internal dynamics. However, I think he misses the main cause of the rise of bullshit jobs and it’s worth sketching out that history so we can understand why we got to where we are today.

In my opinion, the most important fact which explains why we have bullshit jobs is that industrial societies have been in a massive economic surplus for more than a century. We have too much of everything. This is noticeable in the burgeoning waistlines of the citizens of western nations. It can be seen in the rise of the McMansion. It can be seen in storage companies who offer us a place to leave our stuff cos apparently our McMansions don’t have enough room for it all. Marie Kondo owes her living to the fact that we have too much stuff and apparently need somebody to tell us what to do with it. More important though is the way we got so much stuff. We got it by having machines do the work. Industrialisation always created unemployment right from the start. The standard wisdom states that the newly unemployed simply go on to better jobs. All those unemployed miners become factory workers and when the factory jobs disappear they all become software engineers until eventually everybody in society will be the CEO of a company living in a mansion and sailing their yacht to the Bahamas over the summer holidays. What happened in reality is that we eventually automated our way into a situation where there was a shortage of jobs that produce things of real value. But we still needed to have jobs because having a job is one of the foundational elements of our culture. That’s where bullshit jobs came along to fill the void.

One way to understand this is to think about how it could have been different. In his brilliant 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, Bertrand Russell makes the case that society should be organised in such a way that we all have to work as little as possible. That’s right, the 4 hour work week is not a new idea. That this could be done was shown during WW1 when essentially the entire economies of European nations were centralised around the war effort. The bureaucracy turned out to be quite capable of organising boots, uniforms, helmets, guns, food and medicine for the soldiers during the war. Russell and others reasoned that it could provide shoes, clothes, household products, food and medicine for citizens during the peace. Moreover, if this was done, the amount of work required of citizens would be negligible. We could all do a few hours work a week and spend the rest of the time pursuing truth and beauty. I think there’s all kinds of psychological and social reasons why that vision doesn’t work but it does make logical sense. We could still do it today if we wanted to but we have taken a very different route.

In the immediate aftermath of WW2, western nations still had a relatively small number of bullshit jobs. There was a large manufacturing base and many jobs for clerks, office administrators, bookkeepers and the like. At the same time, the consumer economy kicked into gear and the advertising industry worked to increase the demand for products which helped create jobs to make the products. This created a long period of stability all the way into the 1970s when several things happened to spoil the party and caused the number of bullshit jobs to explode.

Firstly, there were the oil shocks and the associated stagflation of the 70s. Secondly, globalisation began and the west started offshoring manufacturing jobs to Japan and South Korea. Thirdly, the computer revolution began automating away many of the clerical and administrative jobs. The result of these three developments was that a huge chunk of steady, reliable, dependable work was lost. But the most important thing about that work was that it was valuable. This doesn’t mean the jobs were easy or exciting or high status. It just means they had inherent value. Even a miner toiling away at back breaking work each day can at least point to a product that is of value the he or she helped to create. Having a job which creates something of actual value is intrinsically satisfying but we shipped those jobs overseas. In 2000, China was allowed into the WTO and the internet caused even more real jobs to be lost. All this led to the situation we are in now where, according to Graeber, 40% of jobs in western nations are bullshit jobs.

Let’s look at the difference between a real job and a bullshit job. Let’s say you were a bookkeeper for a manufacturing company in the 1950s. Your job had a real reason to exist and tangible outputs that were required. Thus, your performance could be judged objectively. You either balanced the accounts or you didn’t. You either did the Thursday pay run or you didn’t. You either got the tax files right or you didn’t. This objectivity gives you a certain level of autonomy because your performance is straightforward to evaluate and can’t be easily fudged for political reasons. Such objective criteria don’t exist in a bullshit job. What exists instead is politics and ideology. With a real job, you can get better over time and take pride and satisfaction in increasing your skills. With a bullshit job, it’s just an endless parade of political maneouvurings. It is this which is behind all the woke ideology that comes out of universities and corporations these days. It’s all there to sort out the internal politics of bullshit jobs. Note that practically every story about some crime against woke-ism features somebody getting sacked. Getting or losing a bullshit job is not based on performance but on fealty to the ideology.

Now that we know what a bullshit job is and why they are there, the final piece of the puzzle is to ask why bureaucracies feature so many bullshit jobs. The answer is simply that bureaucracies lend themselves to expansion. This is actually a strength of a bureaucracy; it scales easily and allows things like bridges and damns, which require a large amount of coordinated labour, to be built. But, in a society where there are not enough jobs that create value to go around, bureaucracies can just as easily expand by creating bullshit jobs. It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Small business, for example, almost never creates a bullshit job because the money to hire any new employee comes out of the owner’s pocket. In a bureaucracy, you’re spending other people’s money. And what you’re buying as an ambitious middle manager is political power, new employees who will be faithful to you. This is why bureaucracies have become synonymous with bullshit jobs in the modern world. We needed to create jobs and we didn’t have enough good jobs to go around so we created bullshit jobs and the bureaucracy is the most efficient organisational form for doing so.

Because bullshit jobs cause psychological distress, many modern bureaucracies have become little more than trauma factories. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw a random social media post by a salary class woman who was ‘terrified’ that things were about to go back to normal. What she meant was, she was going to have to go back to her office with all the psychological problems that go with it. The call for a ‘new normal’ was, I think, a thinly veiled cry for help from such people. What they really need is a proper job. One of the things I think that Bertrand Russell got wrong was he underestimated the extent to which most people need genuine economic fulfilment. That is, we need to know that we are creating value of some kind and we need this value to be socially recognised by others. A social hierarchy based on this creation of value is inherently stable. But a social hierarchy based on bullshit jobs is not. The rise of bullshit jobs has given our society a paranoid and anxious disposition.

The increase in bullshit jobs is behind the increasingly hysterical public discourse in western nations in the last few decades and is also a big driver behind the corona hysteria. This should not be such a surprise. Back in the 1990s, anti-globalisation campaigners warned of exactly this outcome. One of the most eloquent of them was Sir James Goldsmith and his warnings have largely come true. It’s no small irony that the virus supposedly came from China which is supposed to be the poster child of globalisation. It would be equally no small irony if one of the results of all this was to put globalisation into reverse. That would actually help to solve the underlying problem and we could get rid of our bullshit jobs and start doing work again. For the same reason, the absolute worst thing that can happen right now is that globalisation somehow gets patched up by various shenanigans and we try and lug its carcass around, Weekend at Bernie’s style, for another decade or so. The sooner we admit the failure of globalisation, the better.

All posts in this series:-

The Coronapocalypse Part 0: Why you shouldn’t listen to a word I say (maybe)

The Coronapocalypse Part 1: The Madness of Crowds in the Age of the Internet

The Coronapocalypse Part 2: An Epidemic of Testing

The Coronapocalypse Part 3: The Panic Principle

The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

The Coronapocalypse Part 5: Cargo Cult Science

The Coronapocalypse Part 6: The Economics of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 7: There’s Nothing Novel under the Sun

The Coronapocalypse Part 8: Germ Theory and Its Discontents

The Coronapocalypse Part 9: Heroism in the Time of Corona

The Coronapocalypse Part 10: The Story of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 11: Beyond Heroic Materialism

The Coronapocalypse Part 12: The End of the Story (or is it?)

The Coronapocalypse Part 13: The Book

The Coronapocalypse Part 14: Automation Ideology

The Coronapocalypse Part 15: The True Believers

The Coronapocalypse Part 16: Dude, where’s my economy?

The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

The Coronapocalypse Part 18: Effects and Side Effects

The Coronapocalypse Part 19: Government and Mass Hysteria

The Coronapocalypse Part 20: The Neverending Story

The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

The Coronapocalypse Part 24: The Dangers of Prediction

The Coronapocalypse Part 25: It’s just semantics, mate

The Coronapocalypse Part 26: The Devouring Mother

The Coronapocalypse Part 27: Munchausen by Proxy

The Coronapocalypse Part 28: The Archetypal Mask

The Coronapocalypse Part 29: A Philosophical Interlude

The Coronapocalypse Part 30: The Rebellious Children

The Coronapocalypse Part 31: How Dare You!

The Coronapocalypse Part 32: Book Announcement

The Coronapocalypse Part 33: Everything free except freedom

The Coronapocalypse Part 34: Into the Twilight Zone

The Coronapocalypse Part 35: The Land of the Unfree and the Home of the Safe

The Coronapocalypse Part 36: The Devouring Mother Book Now Available

The Coronapocalypse Part 37: Finale

13 thoughts on “The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs”

  1. Hi mate,
    You put the finger on it. When I read your essay i realised what the best way to describe a buerocracy is.
    It is simply a machine. Therefore it does best what any machine does. Pursue clearly defined goals that can be reduced to a clearly definable number of steps. No matter how complicated. Not complex. Complexity requires flexibility. This makes it a powerful tool if properly applied. It should in theory be able to solve any problem that is computable.
    This opens three cans of worms:
    1) we are not very good at choosing the right tools for a task. Actually we tend to choose the task based on the tools we are familiar with. If you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail, or as Gunnar Kaiser put it, if you have a hammer and sickle, every solution looks like a gulag.
    2)a machine only works because the components have no agenda of their own. All they ever want is to to perform their function. This is rather rare in the human components of a machine.
    This might explain why any organisation will dehumanise their members more and more as it grows more complex. As machines get more sophisticated the tolerance of the components must be reduced.
    3)this is a variant of. 1)i cannot prove this, and believers in scientism will disagree, but i think much of reality is not computable. Applying a machine to a non computable problem would then result in nonsensical solutions. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

    All this leads to the machine deteriorating over time. Become corrupted. And at some point break down.

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”
    Or, in the words of the great Douglas Adams:”People are a problem”

    Just a few half baked thoughts…

    Cheers

    Roland

  2. You write that people really need actual jobs. I agree with you on principle, but while I myself put this into practice by opting to get an agricultural job rather than going into “tech” (often it means helping corporations spy on us or improve socially disastrous things such as social media) as my degree would “dictate”, I did notice there are not many people in my country who are willing to do this kind of work, which is why we import the labor from the third world.

    Most people who start working with me each season just end up quitting when they find out how hard this job is. I do get the satisfaction you describe from looking at the towers of crates of fruit we collected every day, yet it seems most people are in no hurry to man this essential job. How does that fit with the “there are not enough good jobs to go around” if it seems there are such jobs no one in my society is willing to fill, and how come most people don’t seem to realize they need a real job?

  3. Roland – that’s a good line from Kaiser. Might steal that one.

    Excellent points. Makes me think of the Church which is one bureaucracy that has lasted the distance. To your points 2 and 3, the Church solves point 2 because the role of a priest is a kind of cipher, a servant of God and nothing else. The vow of celibacy probably helps a lot there too. And they solve point 3 by not dealing with things that computable in the first place.

  4. Bakbok – good question. First, I would point out that most people don’t really know what’s good for them. I include myself in this. We spend a long time in this life trying every wrong way just to find the right one.

    But I think that there’s two parts to it: 1) we need valuable work; 2) we need other people to appreciate it.

    As herd animals, the second requirement is much stronger than the first. If we are surrounded by people who don’t value real work and won’t value us for doing it, we won’t value it either unless we are prepared to go against our peers, which most people cannot do. There’s a nice scene in the movie The Big Short where the trader who is in the process of helping to almost crash the global economy retorts to the protagonist that “society values my job very much”. That’s true. Society very much valued jobs that almost destroyed society and still does. At least for a while.

    Also, with hard physical labour like fruit picking, there is a big hump to get over at the start if you are not physically fit. You’ll be sore. You might be embarrassed at showing in public that you are not fit etc. You’ll need extra motivation to begin with, which is why I suspect so many people quit. I’ve seen the exact same thing in manufacturing jobs I’ve had.

  5. I remember reading somewhere that in medieval times, about one third of the year were holidays (saints of various stripes). Shabbat on steroids, it would seem.

    So, you want a four hour workday? It won’t do to point out that everything that needs doing can be done in that much/little time, correct as that may be. If that were all it took, we’d have done it already. So, instead of insisting that, with all the useful work done, we *deserve* the time to sing, dance, and be merry, we need some institution to inculcate into us that we have a *duty* to sing, dance, and be merry. Just like the medieval peasants. And any barons (employers, I mean) who suggest otherwise should be declared heretics and burned at the stake. 😛 Or maybe just be taxed at 95% or something like that, until they change their minds. Whatever works. That would shrink the amount of time available for work, and then you’d have to get rid of some of those bullshit jobs.

    Now, how do you get from here to there? I have no idea.

  6. BTW, about hard physical labor. Eh, you can’t do that 40 hours per week, for decades, and expect not to wreck your body in a variety of ways. Now, how about 20 hours per week, with appropriate protective equipment?

  7. Irena – Maybe we should replace the phrase ‘work life balance’ with ‘work party balance’. Government can pass a law mandating a minimum number of hours a week be set aside for partying. If you want to give it a religious tone, you just say you are worshiping Dionysus who will become wrathful if the appropriate amount of merriment is not generated in his honour.

  8. Hi Simon,

    Great addition to the discussion on the meaning of life and why we should toil in the sweat of the brow.

    I very much like the perspective of Matt Crawford, (e.g. this presentation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxK6Hu_StGg) who compares the anxiety of office-jobs with the brutal truth and honesty of most manual work.
    That was the most refreshing psychological relief for me when I moved out of my office job to start growing trees full time. The trees are honest. The grow or they die. If I screw up, I cannot cover up with a PowerPoint explaining how successful I was.

    I think the overabundance of stuff will soon sort itself out by itself, so to say, so I think the bullshit job category will evaporate in the coming decades.

    Have a good day,
    Goran

  9. Thanks, Goran.

    I agree this will all sort itself out one way or another. In a ‘logical’ sense, it will be quite straightforward but there’s an awful lot of psychological, cultural and political issues to work through between now and then. A lot of people don’t simply dislike ‘real work’ because it’s physically demanding, they see it as some kind of moral failing which is ironic for a culture built on the protestant work ethic. We love work, just not that work.

  10. Hi Sean – thanks for that. I haven’t seen that one. Will put it on the to-watch list.

  11. I do not know if you noticed a similar pattern in Australia, but in Israel it seems to me that many of the voices that appeared on public record the support the lockdown and were credited as doctors who give their professional opinion (which greatly contributed to the widespread public perception that the government’s policies in fact have anything to do with science, medicine or public health), were in fact health administrators rather than actual scientists, doctors and nurses.

    I have seen many articles where the media went out of its way to imply the person is a doctor or scientist, for example by using the word “expert”, referring to them as a dr. or professor, etc. when in reality when I actually looked the person up, he was either trained as a doctor but very early in his career found his way to an administrative role, and many of the ones referred to as professors were in fact professors for health administration rather than a biologist, doctor or otherwise someone actually involved in doing work that is meant to deal with treating people or systematically researching disease.

    When you actually listened to the actual doctors, a different picture emerged. For example, the chief of medicine in one of our top hospitals, who is a senior doctor in charge of the actual work of treating patients, gave an interview where in the height of the pandemic, he explained that most of the people who are hospitalized in the COVID ward are in fact people who simply have some metrics that were defined for him by the administrators which prevents their discharge. He described it as healthy people sitting around waiting for their body heat to turn 37.5 degree C so it will finally be under the 38 degrees required for the doctors to be allowed to let them go. He went on to explain his hospital was at no point even near the point of collapsing, in contrast to the dramatic descriptions voiced by people with an MBA running various hospital and government health bureaucracies.

    After reading Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, this pheromone looks like an issue he described where our hospitals are filled with useless bureaucrats and administrators who do nothing but prevent the actual people who work at the hospital from doing their jobs by filling their time with needless bureaucracy. David Graeber himself, spoke out that maybe the pandemic means that those managers will finally run home, and the medical stuff will actually be relieved to have some of the bullshit lifted from them.

    I think this is another way to look at the western response to the corona event. We have been overrun by managers to the point they are not only overly dominant in the hospital, but actually feel qualified to dominate public debate – I believe the general pubic was duped into thinking the doctors they rightfully trust whenever they need medical treatment, and the biologist responsible for so much scientific advancements are the ones in charge, and the ones who warn everyone, when in reality most of what stands behind the monolithic cargo cult is actually managers who are neither professional doctors nor scientists.

  12. Bakbook – yes, that’s a big part of it. I know for a fact here in Australia that registered nurses have been told by their governing body that if they speak out against the measures they will be kicked out which means their career is over. I believe it’s been the same for doctors and that the same pattern has happened in most western countries. I touched on this issue in my post on automation. The great dream of the technocrats is to automate away even professional work. Of course, that’s simply not possible without a massive drop in quality but they are trying anyway. I see this is my field and I’m sure it’s the same with medicine. In the meantime, there has been a big power shift away from the professionals and towards the managers who control the money. An autonomous professional class that is independent of government has been one of the main strengths of western societies for a long time but corona has shown that it doesn’t exist any more. It is now under the control of the bureaucrats.

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