Bullshit jobs: David Graeber’s theory and its relevance to South Africa
Across from the house the city is laying water pipes, an initiative to use treated sewerage water to irrigate parks and sport fields. Overnight, weekends and downtime a security guard watches over a Cat excavator. He stands around doing nothing else, or because it’s cold and raining, sits in its tiny cabin. I think the machine can look after itself, though.
This is what American anthropologist David Graeber, professor at the London School of Economics, calls bullshit jobs: “pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us working”. (He has become a cause célèbre and expanded the theory into a book published May 2018.)
Many of us have had one. In the 1990s I worked for firm of consulting engineers. During the preliminary, design phase of a project (as it later turned out, my last at the firm), the engineer-in-charge instructed me to perform calculations for an office block again and again. Each week I presented him the results. He looked at it briefly and told me to begin again, for the next iteration changing the fenestration coefficient by a small factor.
Those calculations occupied most my time for a few months. Mostly I thought them pointless because they didn’t tell us more than the first few runs and suspected he was keeping me busy or from straying to other projects. Colleagues made fun of me for performing the boring, repetitive exercise that apparently served little purpose.
I read about Graeber’s theory recently in The Guardian and then his original article in Strike! magazine. He argued that in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted by the end of the 20th century technological advances would enable a 15-hour work week. But people are working harder than ever. While jobs in domestic service, industry and agriculture fell dramatically, the professional, managerial and service industry tripled to three-quarters of all jobs including new ones like financial services and telemarketing and expansion of others like corporate law, etc, and those industries that only exist to support them.
He makes telling points about “psychological violence”, “dignity in labour” and “enragement” when “one secretly feels one’s job should not exist”. And of society’s chauvinism against working class jobs that are essential but unappreciated, but the high esteem for managers, administrators and CEOs whose jobs may not be essential to humanity at all.
This is relevant to South Africa with its high unemployment (26.7%, the 19th highest in the world and among failed and conflict-ridden countries like Syria, Yemen, etc), bloated and inefficient cabinet and public sector, demands for decent work and a living wage and transformation.
In the context of high unemployment (real rate 36.7%) and over 50% youth unemployment, the country has programmes for youth internships aka jobs subsidy and expanded public works (EPWP). In my opinion they’re bullshit jobs because they’re cosmetic and not really needed. Without these government-funded programmes and subsidies, they wouldn’t exist in their own right. Government departments and municipalities can do the work EPWP workers do with existing resources far more efficiently, and because they’re low-level labourer jobs, few if any skills are delivered.
I acknowledge, though, beneficiaries feel differently because they have a job and some income for a few weeks or months. But after that they’re on their own, unemployed and without hope. And the programmes make no difference to service delivery, infrastructure development and the unemployment rate.
Former president Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet had 50 ministers and deputy ministers and Kgalema Motlanthe 47. Under Jacob Zuma it expanded to 73 including new and split ministries. The effectiveness and productivity of Zuma’s cabinet didn’t increase with more ministers but the opposite, and drastically if we use sharply declining economic growth rates as an indicator (not counting continuous political and legal battles and poor service delivery). During the State of the Nation Address the incumbent, President Cyril Ramaphosa, promised to reduce the size of government but has largely kept Zuma’s ministries.
Zuma’s (and Ramaphosa’s) cabinet was the largest, and for members’ salaries among the most costly, in the world. (Reports say the costs of the VIP Protection Unit, the unit that protects the president, ministers and politicians, has ballooned to R3 billion this year.)
There were a number of bullshit jobs especially in Zuma’s, and by extension, Ramaphosa’s cabinet. It’s common cause Zuma filled his cabinet with smarmy yea-sayers, many of whom were incompetent or out of their depth (some remain in Ramaphosa’s), not in service of the country to provide a better life for all, but to extend his patronage network and shield him from numerous internecine and external battles. For example, his supporters – ANC members of Parliament – defeated the motion of no confidence votes against him.
For example, I can’t understand why any country needs a sports minister. How does she fill her calendar? Thankfully sports quotas and alleged racism rears its head relatively few times, not enough to keep a minister in full-time work earning a R2 million salary. The same applies to the minister in the presidency for woman. These portfolios (there may be others) are like the security guard at the beginning of the article, staring into space or holed up, waiting for something to happen.
Other bullshit jobs are premiers, MECs and MPLs. By establishing provinces’ political structure, in their wisdom, or compromise, the constitution’s writers created another level of public service bloat that serves minimal purpose because it lacks real power, which is in the National Assembly. Provincial legislatures also serve parties’ patronage networks by rewarding B Team members for loyalty and service. For the rest of the time they can be ignored.
Therefore, I didn’t understand why when Helen Zille was DA leader she chose to be premier in the second-tier and largely supernumerary provincial legislature rather than lead from the front in the National Assembly. My theory is having the title and job was more grandiose than MP in an opposition party working on the national agenda.
This is not a complete compendium of all categories of bullshit jobs and situations in the country. Who knows how many posts in the large, over-paid and unproductive public service and state enterprises are included. Eskom has an excess of 6 232 employees which makes one wonder what they’ve been doing all this time, especially since Eskom is in a worse state than ever. Similar for other SOEs like SAA and SABC, most of the chapter 9 organisations and public service generally.
But it’s unlikely, as Graeber wrote, they “secretly feel their job should not exist”, i.e., it’s a bullshit job, because they regularly strike and protest and demand above-inflation increases to their already high salaries.
For the tongue-in-cheek title of his theory, he makes serious comment about the nature of work. I don’t necessarily agree, though, just because a job or industry didn’t exist 20 or 50 years ago it’s redundant today. The world is changing and so must the jobs and skills needed to make it function. But others again, like those I mention above, seem to exist solely to service themselves.
I’ve sympathy for his egalitarian view of the relative value of labour. Why is a teacher or social worker who trained as long as an accountant or engineer held in lower regard and paid less? Societies where this equality ideal exists, as is sometimes thought, are Scandinavian social democracies.
As I wrote in my previous article, in this country, especially among politicians, there’s a misunderstanding about jobs and skills and what’s needed to create them. It’s often said scientific, technical and economic management skills are needed as if the country doesn’t need artists, writers and upholsterers. And it’s simplistically assumed the mere fact of having these skills (these graduates account for over 50% of all graduates anyway) is enough to spontaneously replicate themselves – as they believe, labour/skills creates jobs – and create economic growth without the correct and necessary economic environment being in place.
But with skilled people being among the vast army of unemployed, perhaps all people, jobseekers among them, can hope for is a bullshit job like the chemical engineering graduate in a family we know who could only find a job as a call centre operator, public works employee, or like my friend the Cat-watcher, a security guard. As a last resort, apply for that government or political job vacancy.