Freelance bullshit jobs

I have been fascinated with anthropologist David Graeber’s concept of bullshit jobs for a while. I have written a bullshit job poem and a bullshit job rap. In this video, Graeber mentions an informal poll he conducted on Twitter to classify bullshit jobs. He arrives at five categories:

  1. Flunkies.. the people sitting around doing nothing, often simply to enhance the prestige of their bosses
  2. Goons.. the people who do things that serve no rational need in society, such as telemarketers or indeed the army
  3. Duct tapers.. the people who fix a problem that doesn’t need to exist in the first place
  4. Box tickers.. the people who create illusions around the work, for example by ‘collecting data’ that serves no other purpose than to keep them busy
  5. Task masters.. the middle management supervising the workers where in fact, no supervision is needed

I like this list. From my vantage point as a freelance bullshit jobber, I would like to add a footnote. For Graeber, the bullshit factor is about the how of the job, not the what. More precisely, it is about how a company uses labor to achieve its goal, not about the nature of that goal itself. The category of the goons comes close to a critique of that goal, but it still presupposes some potentially meaningful product of service that the company provides and wishes to force upon consumers.

The happiness factor

I admit it: I’d like to jack up the number of bullshit jobs so it gets a more revolutionary ring to it. What is left out are all the jobs creating the consumerist demand needed to keep the system going, the manipulation of people into enthusiastic consumers who require purchasing goods or services for their satisfaction. This is not about cold call telemarketing to customers who are not interested, but about average consumers. When we look into happiness research, we find that beyond $60k their surplus happiness flattens. This means that beyond that threshold, more material possessions doesn’t make people happier. Hence, it is not a rational need of society to produce an abundance of goods and services when they demonstrably cost more (I am referring to the externalized cost for society and the environment here) than they will benefit.

The freelance factor

Graeber’s analysis is limited to the realm of salaried labor and full time employment. In the world of freelancers, ‘laborers’ intentionally work on bullshit tasks to pay your bills. They are confronted with the fact that perform bullshit jobs ‘just for the money’ every time they respond and ‘apply’ for them on an online job platform.

Online freelancers typically do the work of goons, duct tapers and box tickers, because the other two require physical presence. My bullshit tasks are usually in the goon category (eg. translating manuals that nobody reads about a product that makes nobody happier). But freelancers have the advantage that they can, occasionally, if they are lucky enough to stumble upon it, do meaningful work. For example, I might write some critical essay about our work culture and get paid for it, or do anything that has the net effect of making some people a little happier.

Because freelance bullshit jobbing adds the extra dimension of the explicit confrontation with the bullshit, it can corrupt our will. For the sake of our identity, we might imagine a meaning, simply because it is too painful to deal with the implicit nihilism that bullshit jobbing is on a daily basis.

If we add in the freelance activities by independent contractors who hate what they do and the jobs that can be shown to decrease our overall happiness, I think the amount of bullshit jobs has already crossed a critical threshold. A serious economic crisis in the coming years could turn into a real revolution.

Freelance bullshit jobs was originally published on Meandering home


A birthday wish

One year ago, for my 38th birthday, all I could wish and hope for was the absence of toothache. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get it. ‘If and only if’, my daily mantra became, ‘my mind is not distracted by that pain in the upper jaw, so very close to the brain, I will do great things’. My life pretty much revolved around this and it contitutes a dent in my biography, so to speak.

I have been working on a job that lacks even a shimmer of meaning when measured by my admittedly high standards (now, that sounds a lot more eloquent than ‘I hate my fucking job’ doesn’t it?) to earn the money for half a dozen dentists to drill, fill, crown, and whatever, my mouth. As of yet, that pain isn’t totally gone and for my 39th I wish, again, the absence of irritation and the ability to focus.

This might sound dramatic but it really isn’t so bad. I know of people whose wife died of cancer or, perhaps worse, suicide (read about our remarkable ‘ice man’ Wim Hof and how he overcame his wife’s suicide), people who have aids and tbc yet refuse to be defeated, athletes with hand nor feet and – I’ll be damned if life is a pissing contest of doom and gloom.

For this new year I wish focus. To me personally, that translates into no more nasty nervous distractions like that toothache, so that I can focus on getting focused. I can focus on doing my regular meditation, eating a healthy diet, taking cold showers, doing physical exercise, you name it. These things both seem to require and produce focus, so what I wish for the new year is a way into this catch-22 vortex.

a religion or some other story that pictures the unintelligible as an anthropomorphic and often sadistic power that manufactures ultimate meaning and always perverts one of our noblest feelings, that of humility.

It wil be my fortieth year and I am going to say here that a good way to celebrate such a milestone in a human life is to find a Cause that is ‘bigger than yourself’. By that I don’t mean a religion or some other story that pictures the unintelligible as an anthropomorphic and often sadistic power that manufactures ultimate meaning and always perverts one of our noblest feelings, that of humility. It is no trivial task either: I think that now, 129 years after Nietzsche collapsed on the streets of Torino, the specter of nihilism goes around again, and can poison our fragile idea of a shared goal that can claim ultimate meaningfulness. We may stammer our enlightened formula of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and still the nihilist will shrug because the existence of humanity is no ultimate goal. Indeed I think we can speak of practical philosophy as a way of countering this nihilism, or to put it more aggressively, to cut off its oxygen supply.

So, what sort of goal could be ‘bigger than myself’? And should it be a whole lot bigger or is it enough when it’s just a little bit bigger? Could it be something like ensuring permanence of human culture on this blue planet (permaculture) or helping this human species and its successors to colonize the rest of our solar system and ultimately escape before the sun gobbles up the earth (elonmuskism)? Or are these ideas too big, so that ‘being a part of it’ is no meaningful concept, like it is not meaningful for an atom to be part of an acorn as much as it is meaningful for the acorn to be part of the oak. Perhaps I should ponder ideas that provide both myself and the greater whatever-it-is-we-are-in-it-all-together with the optimal amount of meaning, where optimal is something like the greatest leverage?

Above, I wrote I wish focus. In the last two paragraphs I lost that focus in an attempt to ‘flow’ writingly to someplace beautiful. To repeat it for a world in which the beast of nihilism has been slain (shouldn’t we slay it every night in our dreams lest we cease to be human?): Focus translates into our better cooperation on the rapidly aggravating problems humanity faces. More serious grown-up work that adresses inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, illiteracy, diseases, religious fanaticism, species extinction, habitat destruction, and here we go again – focusing on one thing that is only meaningfully bigger than yourself is not easy. But I have an entire year.

A birthday wish was originally published on Meandering home