In 2013, anthropologist David Graeber, now a professor at LSE, crashed the website of a small magazine with a short essay that struck a chord all over the world: ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’.
Graeber, who later extended the article into a book, was struck by the number of jobs thought pointless even by those who did them. He pondered Keynes’ much-quoted prediction that we would all work 15 hours a week by the year 2000, and noted capitalists’ aversion to spending money on unnecessary jobs (or even necessary ones: ‘No – give me back my fucking money!’ Trump reportedly raged on finding he was supposed to employ a transition team when moving into the White House). So what was going on?
Graeber was acute in nailing the proliferation of non-jobs, but less so at explaining it. In fact the situation is more insidious than his version, if admittedly duller. It is not, as he suggested, primarily the result of ‘managerial feudalism’ (employing flunkies to big up your status), nor a dark plot by the ruling class to keep workers out of mischief by insisting on the sanctity of work even when it is valueless, although that is an outcome. Instead it is the predictable consequence of our current destructive management beliefs and the work designs they lead to.
The reasons are fairly simple. Since companies put their own short-term interests above those of society, there is constant friction at the margins of what’s legal or at least acceptable. Pushing too far leads to scandal (Enron), crash (Lehman) or both (2008), and, as sure night follows day regulation to bolt the door after the departed horse. As John Kay wearily explains, ‘We have dysfunctional structures that give rise to behaviour that we don’t want. We respond to these structures by identifying the undesirable behaviour, and telling people to stop. We find the same problem emerges, in a slightly different guise. So we construct new rules. And so on. And on. And on.’
As regulation gets ever more complicated, it evolves into an industry in its own right, with its own vested interests and bureaucracy – a monstrously growing succubus symbiotic with the industries it is supposed to control. You can watch the process playing out again in Silicon Valley now. ‘Facebook puts profits above care for democracy’, proclaimed the FT in a recent article. Of course it does: that’s what managers have been taught to do. The demand for regulation is steadily building as a consequence.
Don’t get me wrong – Big Tech needs reining in as urgently as Big Finance. But as a manifestation of a bigger problem – the ‘dysfunctional structure’ that generates regulation that is simultaneously necessary and useless – the only solution is to reduce the need for regulation in the first place by placing a duty of care on companies for the society they form part of. In other words, regulatory jobs are net energy and value-sapping jobs which shouldn’t exist – the creation of philosopher John Locke’s madman, ‘someone reasoning correctly from erroneous premises’. As Peter Drucker put it, ‘There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all’.
And here’s the thing. The dysfunctional structure is fractal, replicated at every level down through the organisation. Since it assumes at least some workers, including managers, will shirk and skive, management is geared for control rather than trust. Low-trust organisations run on rules, surveillance and performance management – which through the process of self-fulfilling prophecy actually makes untrustworthy, or at least unengaged, behaviour more likely. Look no further for the cause the apparent paradox, noted by Graeber, that bureaucracy proliferates just as much in the supposedly lean and efficient private sector as in the public. In effect, each company carries the burden of its own regulatory apparatus. In 2016 Gary Hamel estimated that excess bureaucracy was costing the US $3tr a year in lost productivity, or 17 per cent of GDP. Across the OECD, what we might call the ‘bullshit tax’ amounted to $5.4tr. ‘Bureaucracy must die!’ proclaims Hamel. Yet he concedes that despite his campaign, it seems to get worse, not better.
Finally, with the ideology of Public Choice, the same pessimistic assumptions and stultifying management structures have been visited on the public sector in the form of New Public Management, with exactly similar results. Marketisation has added a further overlay of bullshit. Symptomatic is the experience of the university sector: compare stationary salaries and worsening conditions of academic staff with burgeoning jobs (and salary levels) in administration and management (especially at the top) and the creation of entirely new departments concerned with branding, PR and massaging the all-important student satisfaction figures – an enormous increase in pointless overhead on the real work of turning out critical citizens who can distinguish real value from hot air.
Putting all this together, it is hardly surprising that the US and UK, as the most extreme proponents of deregulation and privatisation, are, with delicious irony, more subject to this systemic bureaucratisation than other less laisser faire economies. So much so that it is tempting to characterise the UK in particular as a bullshit economy. Having largely abandoned manufacturing, it prides itself as a purveyor of financial and professional services selling advice and other products of which the social value is dubious, to say the least. The extreme and paradigmatic case is advertising. ‘The UK advertising industry,’ a recent House of Lords report solemnly intoned, ‘is a success story. Advertising fuels the economy by helping businesses to grow and compete against one another. It is also a significant sector of the economy on its own. The UK, especially London, is a global centre for advertising, exporting services to clients around that world,’ and plenty more in the same vein.
Well, maybe. But in its own terms, as senior adman Dave Trott succinctly told a BBC Radio 4 audience recently, of £23bn worth of ads purchased annually in the UK, ‘4 per cent are remembered positively, 7 per cent are remembered negatively, and 89 per cent are neither noticed or remembered at all’. Let that sink in a minute. £20bn of ads that might as well never have been created – that is bullshit of an awesome order.
Bullshit generates more bullshit. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads’, one Silicon Valley techie accurately noted. 'And that sucks.' Or about spin and fakery – another British ‘success story’ that bloats as newsrooms shrink. PR people now outnumber reporters five to one, compared with two to one 15 years ago. Which is why this kind of bullshit/bureaucracy is so hard to root out. It’s what happens when economic incentives are out of line with society’s interests. It’s not a bug in the system – it’s a feature. It won't change, in other words, until everything changes.