Tom Hodgkinson meets the anarchist professor looking to dismantle the work ethic, from our interview in Idler magazine, May/June 2018
David Graeber is that very rare creature, a successful academic who is also an anarchist activist. A working class New Yorker born in St Mark’s Place, he has studied at Harvard and taught at Goldsmiths. He is now Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. His book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2009) is a brilliant history of money and banking. Peter Carey said of the book: “It is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate,” and Graeber is indeed a terrific writer who is unafraid to take a position, surprisingly rare in academic circles. Graeber was one of the key architects of the Occupy movement and was among those who came up with the “99%” slogan. His anthropological studies have taken him to Madagascar, where he has spent years studying the ways of the locals.
Graeber is also funny, again rare in academic circles. His new book is wittily titled Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and is a survey of management positions based on the testimonies of 150 workers who he found through doing a callout on [evil] social media.
Before we meet the anarchist professor, though, let us take a look first at how he actually defines the term “bullshit job” in the book:
Final Working Definition: a bullshit job is 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.
DAVID GRAEBER: The idea of work being moral in itself is one of the key things that underpins why people accept a society where 40 per cent of jobs apparently don’t do anything. Everybody hates their bullshit job, but you never see people rising up and saying that this should be a social issue. Quite the opposite: any time there is a crisis, the first instinct of the moralists and pundits is to say: “people should be working harder”.
TOM HODGKINSON: Giving us the false idea that “hard work” is the answer to every problem…
DG: Less work may actually be beneficial: the biggest slowdown in global warming happened after 2008, when a lot of people were unemployed.
TH: So activity is energy-draining, and idleness is profoundly healing.
The subversive cultural forms of the 1960s were beat poetry, underground theatre or long guitar solos – all of which required a lot of idle time
DG: Yes, I’m deeply in favour of idleness unless it’s at work [laughs].
TH: But if you do have a bullshit job, skiving can be a way of getting back some of your own time.
DG: The subversive cultural forms of the 1960s were beat poetry, underground theatre or long guitar solos – all of which required a lot of idle time. Whereas nowadays we have…cat memes [laughs]. Almost all of our cultural forms are things that you could be doing while pretending to be working.
TH: There was a Tory MP who recently criticised the idea of the universal basic income, because people would just write poetry, grow plants and play music.
DG: Like that’s a problem! Last I remember, that was supposed to be paradise!
TH: It doesn’t matter what the work is, as long we are working, he said – because we’re supposedly “hardwired” to work.
DG: But if we’re hardwired to work then you don’t need to force people to work. However, people are hardwired to work in the sense that most people would prefer to do something than just watch TV all day. The example I always give is prisoners. Even in prisons, where you are given food, basic TV time and gym time, if you have the choice between watching TV all day or working in the prison laundry, you will work in the laundry. And they’ll take away your work privileges as a way of punishing you.
TH: When left alone by authority, we do all sorts of things. As a student, I was not forced to do much but did lots of voluntary, non-remunerative creative work, like playing in bands and running magazines.
DG: Studenthood is the only time in life where you can operate on values other than money. You could pursue art, or you might pursue philosophical under- standing or psychedelic inspiration or sexual experimentation. But these are all legitimate things.
TH: Because you have a basic income and plenty of leisure time.