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:-