Miskatonic University Press

Graeber's Bullshit Jobs


I just finished David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which grew out of his 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. It’s wonderful: insightful, thoughtful, thought-provoking and entertaining. Here’s a quote from chapter five, “Why Are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating?” where he’s talking about Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (also worth reading):

Cover of Bullshit Jobs
Cover of Bullshit Jobs

Back in the 1950s or 1960s, one could still say that universities were one of the few European institutions left that had survived more or less intact from the Middle Ages. Crucially, they were still run on the old medieval principle that only those involved in a certain form of production—whether this be the production of stonework or the leather gloves or mathematical equations—had the right to organize their own affairs; indeed that they were also the only people qualified to do so. Universities were basically craft guilds run for and by scholars, and their most important business was considered to be producing scholarship, their second-most, training new generations of scholars. True, since the nineteenth century, universities had maintained a kind of gentleman’s pact with government, that they would also train civil servants (and later, corporate bureaucrats) in exchange for otherwise being largely left alone. But since the eighties, Ginsberg argues, university administrators have effectively staged a coup. They wrested control of the university from the faculty and oriented the institution itself toward entirely different purposes. It is now commonplace for major universities to put out “strategic vision documents” that barely mention scholarship or teaching but go on at length about “the student experience,” “research excellence” (getting grants), collaboration with business or government, and so forth.

I quote this because I see this where I work, at York University. The updates and reports from the university president sound like a CEO reporting on a business. However, the book will be enjoyed by anyone working (or not) in any sector. Highly recommended, even though it is missing an index.

Everything Graeber writes is worth reading. I very much enjoyed Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class (open access):

Many of the internal changes within anthropology as a discipline—particularly the “postmodern turn” of the 1980s—can only be understood in the context of broader changes in the class composition of the societies in which university departments exist, and, in particular, the role of the university in the reproduction of a professional-managerial class that has come to displace any working-class elements in what pass for mainstream “left” political parties. Reflexivity, and what I call “vulgar Foucauldianism,” while dressed up as activism, seem instead to represent above all the consciousness of this class. In its place, the essay proposes a politics combining support for social movements and a prefigurative politics in the academic sphere.