Peasants Had More Feast Days Than You Have Public Holidays
On bullshit jobs, time theft, and wage slavery — here's to escaping it all
You and I are trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare, a pantomime of busywork and make-belief with others engaged in the same. If we break character, someone else may be offered our part. It’s a farce staged in offices all over the world; whether in the public or private sector, bullshit jobs and pointless tasks abound.
“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 obligated to pretend that this is not the case.” — David Graeber, “Bullshit Jobs”
Unfortunately, even useful jobs have become increasingly bullshitized. For example, teachers spend ever more time on administrative tasks. When they point out this hefty addition to their workload has caused them stress, they are further burdened with a wellbeing seminar. Boxes are ticked and people are paid, but neither educator nor pupil are better off.
The wetness of water
In the same way a fish doesn’t ponder the wetness of water, we rarely consider the absurdity of the artificial systems we inhabit. We don’t acknowledge that our system of work was designed — haphazardly, but designed nevertheless — meaning we don’t seek to improve it. Rather, we numbly accept our fate as a seafarer might accept the caprices of a storm.
Since at least World War II, writes anthropologist David Graeber of Occupy Wall Street fame, full employment has been the economic ideal, the premise underlying the working world. Even in this age of automation we can’t seem to bear the thought that perhaps there isn’t a need for everyone to work.
Idleness and unemployment are so reviled that even someone in a sinecure (a cushy job with a lofty and ambiguous title) will spend their days scrolling through social media at the company where their father is Vice President, rather than lead the life of leisure they could so obviously afford.
Meanwhile, those of us from humbler backgrounds are taught to be grateful for the privilege of wasting an entire human lifetime just to be able to sustain it. This keeps us too worn out to revolt, and works out rather well for those in power.
“We have become a civilization based on work — not even ‘productive work’ but work as an end and meaning in itself.” — David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs
The good, the pointless, and the ugly
Useful jobs contribute something of value to society, though many of these jobs are better suited to an automaton, or are thoroughly unpleasant. However, in contrast to essential workers, many people to take home a (more handsome) paycheque have a negligible, or even negative, impact on the world.
There are jobs that have seemingly congealed into being only to make others look more more important (“flunkies”), or are necessary only because every other company has their own army of corporate lawyers, public relations experts, and lobbyists (“goons”).
Similarly, large enterprises employ people to patch-over flaws that should have never existed in the first place (“duct-tapers”), or undertake tasks that are merely performative in nature (“box-tickers”). According to the nomenclature devised by Graeber, there is a fifth type of bullshit job-haver, the “taskmaster” whose entire job is to generate yet more bullshit tasks for others.
Goons, Graeber, are the worst of the lot. Employed in industries which exist only to advance the financial interests of the 1%, whether through advertising, public relations, lobbying, or by helping them contort through bureaucratic red tape like a cat-burglar through the crisscross of museum lasers. Were Goons to disappear, they would not be missed; the world would not only go on spinning without them, but it would be a far pleasanter place. Personally, I think the box-ticking are the greater threat, the vacuous, virtue-signalling corporate Woke-sters. (Who was it that said that evil is banal?)
Whatever the particulars of our employment, employers own our time, dictate what we wear, what we’re allowed to talk about (“don’t disclose your salaries”), and require us to peddle the company line, however daft or unethical. Other soul-crushing debasements include: humouring power-tripping bosses, and choking back contemptuous laughter when bare-naked emperors speak of “actioning priorities” to “align with strategic visions”.
Human beings crave self-determination and meaningful work; we yearn to make a positive contribution to society. From the time we are infants, the knowledge that our actions have the capacity to alter reality is a thrill like no other— it affirms we are alive. In contrast, bullshit tasks are antithetical to what it means to be a thinking, feeling, and, not to mention, wondrously creative being.
My first job was folding pamphlets for a small business when I was fourteen. My schoolmates and I worked while chatting as, oddly enough, mindless repetitive tasks lend themselves well to mouth-flapping. It made the work pleasant, which really got the owner’s goat. He couldn’t bear that we were using our time in service to ourselves in addition to completing a task for him. We were made to work in silence thereafter, unhappily and, as a consequence, less effectively.
That was the first lesson I learnt about the world of work: productivity is not measured by the quality and quantity of what you produce, but rather in the totality of the ownership your employer has over you.
How did this sad state of affairs, of employers owning every second of our time, come to pass? As Graeber points out, this is a relatively new concept; the Ancient Greeks or Romans could look at a potter and conceive of buying his wares (or even the potter himself) — but his time? That was too much of an abstraction.
It took us until the late 1700s to start thinking of people as an extension of machinery, able to run up to 16 hours a day, and further, to conceptualise the capacity to work as “labour power” to be extracted from the worker like golden eggs from the proverbial goose. We’ve never quite recovered from that 18th century factory mentality, with its breathing-down-your-neck supervisors and mandatory punch-cards.
We are complacent about a 40-hour work week because we are ignorant of the cultural shifts which lead us to this point. We literally labour under the delusion that things have “always” been this way, or much worse. We console ourselves with the fact that at least we’re not licking radioactive paintbrushes six days a week, when in fact we should be outraged we have so little time to ourselves, our deteriorating relationships and ailing bodies a testament to this.
In the Middle Ages, almost all wage labourers were slaves, employed in commercial port cities like Malacca or Zanzibar, expected to hand half their wages to their owners. As such, referring to the modern worker as a “wage slave” is apt rather than dramatic. (Though I prefer, “The Working Dead”, nonetheless.)
While at work, we are instruments of our employer’s will for as long as legally permitted. In effect, we are free citizens forced to rent ourselves out as slaves. Being a slave was historically considered “the most degrading thing that could possibly befall a human being” — now it’s normalised, and accompanied by a slew of other indignities. (Those working in retail well know even the canvas of their face belongs to their employer, and that anything other than constant face-splitting exuberance is unacceptable.)
The Industrial Revolution gave rise to another aberration: the idea that one should work continuously rather than in short bouts of intense activity, interleaved with longer periods of idleness and relaxation. This way of concentrating is natural, and people were permitted to work in this manner for much of human history.
These days, human nature having remained unchanged, the average worker spends fewer than three hours of the day productively. Yet, we are required to work eight hours, or at least to pretend to do so, which is nearly as exhausting.
When we study modern day tribes, we find they typically work no more than 15–20 hours a week. Similarly, a serf worked the land dawn to dusk, that much is true, however, it was only for only 20–30 days of the year. Outside of harvest, a few hours were sufficient for upkeep of farm land. On feast days, dedicated to honouring various saints by quaffing ale and nibbling on cheeses, people were at liberty to enjoy life. And rest assured, peasants had more feast days than you have public holidays.
The modern day wage slave sits immobile for most daylight hours, hunched over a desk, lit by the glow of a computer monitor rather than sunlight. No amount of box-ticking exercises in ergonomics — moving our monitors further away or our keyboard closer — will remedy the ill-health effects of these working conditions.
High levels of stress due to lack of meaningful work, and musculoskeletal pain due to the sedentary nature of office work are the bane of the ‘knowledge worker’ — yet both maladies are easily avoidable. If it harms the worker and does not increase productivity (the only thing employers ultimately care about) why do we persist with the lunacy of the 8-hour day?
An abnormal society
Perhaps you are one of the rare people for whom long hours and pointless tasks aren’t a problem? You go home, watch television, eat dinner and happily do the same thing the next day. You’ve thrown all of your energy into your career; it’s the only place you socialise. Your job title quickens you, and you value money and status more than you appreciate the brevity of your lifetime. But the rest of us aren’t, to paraphrase Huxley, “the real hopeless victims of mental illness”, those “perfectly adjusted to an abnormal society”.
What’s the solution? Do we wait until enough countries have trialled shorter working weeks and Universal Basic Income, and we’ve confirmed the blindingly obvious — that people in such a system would be more productive, financially secure, healthier, and happier?
Frankly, it may be a while before a 15 hour working week — as predicted by economists long ago in the face of rapid technological growth and greatly increased productivity — becomes a reality. Employers don’t want to lose control; tradition has a certain inertia to it. The Puritanical lust for suffering and needless sacrifice permeates our society; self-denial and abasement to authority are held in high regard.
Those who stand to profit are, of course, relentless in their propaganda. However, if you’ve bought into this hook, link, and sinker perhaps it’s high time you started contemplating the wetness of water…
Hatching your daring escape
Instead of waiting for society to catch up, put your escape plan into motion.
“The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus, ‘If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils.’
Said Diogenes, ‘Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king.’” — Anthony de Mello
My advice is to scale back your working hours as much as you can; live frugally if you must. Sure, you won’t have as much in your bank account, but a lot of your money is going toward bread and circuses, and (physio)therapists anyway. You can’t buy back time, so stop squandering it.
Part-time work — perhaps supplemented by an enjoyable side-hustle so you won’t have to actually live off lentils — will enable you to work on personal projects, engage with your community, appreciate art, commune with nature, deepen your relationships, exercise, and cook healthy dinners.
You’ll stop being the victim of bullshit jobs, time theft, or wage slavery. Instead of a ball rolling inside a Rube Goldberg machine you’ll feel like a full-fledged person once more. And isn’t that worth half your paycheque and then some?
Graeber, D., & Cerutti, A. (2018). Bullshit jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.