January 12, 2015

Is your job bullshit? David Graeber explains the London tube slogans


Arrun Degenhardt posted this photo on Twitter (@ArrunDeg).

Arrun Degenhardt posted this photo on Twitter (@ArrunDeg).

Last week, London residents made their way into the tube for their Monday morning commute after the holiday vacation where they were confronted with tube advertisements designed by Strike! Magazine. The simple black and yellow ads featured slogans by David Graeber from his 2013 essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.”

While John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that technological advances would mean workers of the future would only have to work 15 hours a week, Graeber argues in the essay that technology is actually making us have to work more.

“It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working,” read one of the ads.

While Graeber didn’t know that his words were going to become tube advertisements, he told Charlotte England — who interviewed him for Vice — that he was pleasantly surprised.

You know to be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know in advance about the action. I was thinking of going in to work today myself. Oddly, I was going to bring a picture with me—the one from the Bullshit Jobs piece—that someone gave me as a birthday present, to my office, to use as a “Do Not Disturb” sign… I guess the idea is that today’s the first day people are going back to work, so I’m assuming whoever did it wants people, after having spent time with their families and doing things that they truly care about, to reflect on whether the job they’re going to is meaningful—what they actually think about it, and also the value of what they’re doing.

That sentiment is expressed in the two other tube slogans from the essay in Strike’s campaign: “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?” and “Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”

Alexis Calvas (@alexiscalvas) posted this photo on Twitter on Monday.

Alexis Calvas (@alexiscalvas) posted this photo on Twitter on Monday.

Those feelings lead to “moral and spiritual damage” that Graeber says is a result general attitude in society that meaningless work becomes a principle unto itself.

 There’s this idea that work is discipline—you can’t become a mature, responsible, self-contained, proper person without basically working more than you want to at things you don’t really like. The more unpleasant work is, the more moralising it is. And that logic has become stronger and stronger and stronger, so anybody who doesn’t work you can revile as a parasite.

Could there be a solution? Graeber offers the idea of a basic income system — “Instead of your wage being dependent on your work, you just give everybody a flat rate and have them decide for themselves how they want to contribute to society.”

David Graeber’s next book, The Utopia of Rules, which examines the nature of work in the 21st century, will be published on February 24, 2015.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.