The Spiritual Warfare of Bullshit Jobs

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book review / philosophy

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 2:15

Even at the start of humanity, humans were given a purpose: to work; to deal with adversity; to make things happen. That’s not the case today, we’re not existentially given anything in the form of meaning. And increasingly so, it looks as if we cannot look to our jobs as a substitute for meaning either.

We stick to what we know by hanging out with the same groups of people. That’s a factor to our current stratification today – elites in technology or the paper belt are hardly in sync with blue collar workers. Children are told that if they go to university, they’ll be happier and more successful with their white collar jobs. However, rates of depression are highest amongst those who had a privileged upbringing. Why is this the case and what molds a problem into a crisis? Forget the first rule, we need to be talking about the modern-day fight club of hopelessness.

The record levels of anxiety and depression have its roots in a deeper cause. A book I finished (in a day!) and found highly interesting was David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. In it, he discusses how over 40% of people in the UK feel as though their jobs are useless – you could remove them from their positions and nobody would notice. Some are making over six figures and still feel as though they negatively contribute to society. A paycheck doesn’t inscribe value into someone – they need to feel like their life actually has purpose.

To clarify, a bullshit job is defined as:

“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.”

Intuitively, we’ve all been in the position of feeling like our work is unnecessary. Whether in school, where we cannot read what we want even when we’ve finished all our homework or in the more accurate model of the workplace, where we have to pretend to look busy so as to avoid the wrath of our boss and peers. It’s akin to the wrestling’s Kayfabe where wrestlers pretend to fight each other; in reality it’s all scripted. Graeber makes a substantial point that capitalism was meant to remove waste in the workplace with creative destruction, rending inefficient firms. Entrepreneurs enter new areas and businesses that cannot survive are culled from nature.

Nevertheless, that hasn’t been the case since the 1970s. The information revolution created wondrous and interesting jobs, but also led to the growth of PE firms and the derivatives crisis of 2008. “Financialization” has permeated western culture and with it, more MBAs than ever and bureaucracies taking the place of any actual work. The sad part is that once the sociopathic bureaucrats come into the picture, it’s impossible to reel them back; you can only replace them with something better. In the meantime, people have to work at these firms and deal with the vicious cycle of poor management.

Overall, BS jobs fall into four distinct branches: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. Flunkies are people who make others look good while goons are those pernicious PR/marketers who advertise products that sell by causing insecurity in their viewers. Duct tapers fix and repair boring problems (ie software from open-source code) and box tickers along with taskmasters are your average middle-men bureaucrats like Michael Scott from the Office. But how does this relate to mental health?

There is a multitude of research saying how time spent social media has a strong correlation with mental illness. The more time one spends on Facebook or Instagram, the more they compare their life to others and inevitably come up short. Photoshop beats reality. However, one reason they’re spending much more time than ever before on these online platforms is because their jobs or school lack challenge and they never fall into flow. One theory of happiness says that we feel content when we have achieved more than our parents. In our world, where people are still reeling from the Great Recession and are working three jobs in the gig economy, it’s tough that they ever get to feel this way.

Some of the people Graeber interviewed stated that working a mind-numbing job was a form of spiritual warfare on their souls. The dullness day in and day out was a punishment to their sense of being. Take the case of Nouri who works at a prestigious corporate office as a programmer:

I used to have to go literally “insane” to get into work. Scrub away “me” and become the thing that can do this work. Afterward, I’d often need a day to recover; to remember who I am. (If I didn’t, I’d become an acerbic, nitpicky person to people in my private life, enraged over tiny things.) So I’d have to find all sorts of mental technologies to make my work bearable. The most effective motivations were deadlines and rage. (For example, pretending I was slighted, so I’d “show them” with my excellent productivity.)

But as a result, it was hard to organize the different parts of me, the ancient things which cohere into “me”; they quickly went off-kilter.
In contrast, I could stay up late for hours working on workplace organizer stuff, like teaching coworkers how to negotiate, programming, project management . . . I was most fully myself then. My imagination and logic worked in concert. Until I saw dreams and had to sleep.”

It’s clear that work was causing a bipolar behaviour in Nouri – he couldn’t be himself at the office and it was eating him alive balancing his personalities. But he takes up a new hobby within work – a side-hustle if you will.

“I began to introduce myself to people by saying that programming is my day job, and workplace organizer is my real job. My workplace subsidizes my activism.”

People come into work only to pretend to do their jobs and then do something else that satisfies them. Keynes was right. We work fewer deeper hours but still play the guise of 40 hour work weeks. I think remote work is a great trend in this case – we don’t really need as much face time anymore with tools like Zoom, Notion, etc. Human productivity is our best resource, let’s use it more efficiently.

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