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DavidGraeber's term for all the unnecessary work Capitalism forces on us.

See also :


Quora Answer : What do you think of what David Graeber says about 'bullshit jobs' and basic income?

Apr 20, 2016

A2A : On the whole I agree.

There's a fairly obvious insight which I'd guess he probably DOES understand, but is ignoring because he doesn't want to make the argument too complicated.

Most of the bullshit jobs exist because the market rewards them. And it rewards them because they are competitive tactics in zero-sum games between rivals.

Take advertising. The only advertising you really need is to inform people that you have a product and to give them the specs so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want it or not. To fulfil that purpose, advertising could be very light-weight and cheap to produce : simply a page of plain text on a white background with the details of the products and the price.

But that's not how advertising turned out. Instead, advertising engages in a brutal competition for attention. It has to become beautiful and compelling by targeting human psychology and aesthetic sensibility. It has to blanket the world, colonizing as many spaces as it can possibly occupy. It tries to get in your face, distracting you from whatever you really want to be doing.

The reasons it does all that is that suppliers are handicap signalling in a zero-sum competition against all the other suppliers out there. At best, the excess of advertising is a kind of peacock's tail, announcing that the supplier is bigger (and therefore more successful because its products are better) than all the other suppliers. ( The Market for Lemons )

It's a huge expenditure of energy and resources and creativity and human lifetimes which would be far better spent by giving people more free-time and leisure activities. It generates nothing of real value. After all the effort and jostling, the rival suppliers still have to split the market x% for supplier A, y% for supplier B, z% for supplier C etc. If they could multilaterally agree to a ceasefire and scale their advertising and marketing back to a single plain-text description of their products, searchable through Google, they'd be in more or less the same place. Without the enormous waste.

But, of course, they'll never manage to negotiate such a scale-back. They are trapped in a never-ending war for attention.

Many other examples of bullshit jobs in marketing, retail design, telemarketing, customer service, market research, social media analysis etc etc. follow the same principle. We do them to beat (or at least keep up with) our rivals. In other bullshit areas like finance you see equally pointless zero-sum games : in one part of the market speculators are directly gambling against each other; while in another part companies are providing insurance or hedging against the risks created by the speculators.

"Real jobs" are games humans play against nature. Humans work to win food from the soil or coal from the ground or to shape raw materials into the products we actually want. "Bullshit jobs" are all those jobs which exist simply because humans are forced into playing games against each other.