Dissecting two academic trolls’ review of “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”

I’m Nouri the software developer, from the Bullshit Jobs book. Last year, my company paid me to analyze my history of bullshit jobs. (Unwittingly.) Along with 250+ others, many of whom won similar (inadvertent) grants from their employers. Since all my other tasks were lower priority — far less global impact — I lavished time on carefully analyzing each of my companies’ business models, cultural dynamics, and even exploitable blindspots.

Then I sent it to David Graeber, who dove into our analyses and discovered:

  • theories like managerial feudalism and a safe-word theory of social liberation
  • categories like taskmasters and duct tapers
  • solutions like Universal Basic Income

David conveyed excerpts of our analyses near-verbatim, and sent us chapter drafts to review. (What author/journalist does this?) He also respected us as domain experts, building abstractions atop our analyses. (What theorists do this? Commonly, they condescend or just build upon other theorists’ analyses — running out of oxygen atop compounded levels of simplification.)

Puzzle: What social logics are obstacles to a huge open-access repository of such analyses?

Recently I read a trollish review of our work. Like most trolling, it’s unclear whether it’s due to incompetence, dishonesty or both — perhaps unclear even to the trolls themselves. Normally I’d let it pass despite its condescending tone — but I witnessed someone form opinions on Bullshit Jobs despite only reading this review. (Why not simply hit Library Genesis and take 10 minutes to skim the damn book, to hedge against pathological reviews?)

Had it been a quality negative review, I would’ve enjoyed it. Like watching a fun assault on a building I helped make. After all, when building something, I frequently switch to Attack mode — hunting down flaws in my own work.

So I’ll discuss how this blundering review failed to effectively attack Bullshit Jobs. And highlight better lines of attack. To assist future reviewers.


“The duty of the person who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is your goal, is to make yourself an enemy of all that you read, and … attack it from every side. You should also suspect yourself as you perform your critical examination of it, so that you may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”

— Ibn al-Haytham, ~1000 AD


Reviewing the review

Reviewers:This problem is compounded by Graeber’s insistence that there can be no objective measure of social value, yet he treats the self-understanding of those who opt into the classification of having a bullshit job as a surrogate form of objectivity. He seems unaware of the extensive literature on job quality, within which there is a significant degree of consensus on objective and subjective measures of what makes for a ‘good job’.”

Oops. Their own source utterly contradicts their point and justifies Bullshit Jobs:

  • Introductory sentence:In spite of a widespread worrying among researchers and international institutions about quality of work, the concept and measurement of this issue is far from being a subject of consensus.”
  • Concluding sentence:A clear conclusion has arisen from [our] analysis: none of the current indicators of job quality is completely satisfactory from a methodological point of view, existing room to devote more efforts and resources to construct a theoretically sound and transparent indicator.”

In fact, their source gives us a vocabulary to describe bullshit jobs numerically: low scores on meaningfulness (virtually by definition), but often high scores on others like wages, autonomy and physical safety. Contrast with shit jobs:

  • Shit job: Mexican dishwasher whose bosses paralyzed his face because toxic cleaning supplies were cheaper. (My former coworker.) Metrics: High meaningfulness, but low wages, autonomy and physical safety.
  • Bullshit job: Banner-ad industry denizens who swear by their adblockers. (“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” — Jeffrey Hammerbacher.) Metrics: low meaningfulness, but high wages, autonomy and physical safety.

Some of us 250+ contributors produce business intelligence software, and aren’t dazzled by such “metrics.” We choose the metrics and patiently discuss them until they make intuitive sense. So we’ll take the time to actually read the damn paper they cite, and uncover the charlatanry behind claims of “We academic guys know everything.” Numbers are not a magic wand; no replacement for understanding.

If these reviewers misrepresent both the book and their own cited paper, imagine the grotesque conclusions they’d draw from 250+ nuanced analyses.



Reviewers: “Graeber argues that given that work is horrible and pointless, workers can be set free and their creativity liberated through the provision of a universal basic income. Setting aside any arguments about the merits or otherwise of this proposal, given the existing acquiescence to the ideology of work it is not entirely clear who is going to compel the state to grant such a contentious demand. Struggle exits stage left. It is certainly a strange place for a self-proclaimed anarchist to end up.”

Who is going to compel the state? Hints:

  • The book cites “Candi, a fellow Basic Income activist.”
  • The book says, “When faced with a social problem my impulse is not to imagine myself in charge, and ponder what sort of solutions I would then impose, but to look for a movement already out there, already trying to address the problem and create its own solutions.”
  • David’s earlier books include “Direct Action: an Ethnography” and “The Democracy Project.”

Cheat code: I simply asked David to recommend effective Universal Basic Income organizers I could amplify. (If you stop reading now and do similar, your self-destroying species will owe you.)

An answer: Activists build social movements to compel the state.

Wrong answer: The reviewers simply repeated “radical critique” 4 times, as if we’re a more-radical-than-thou critique away from revolution.


Reviewers (emphasis mine):
“A superficially radical critique of the latter stands in for a more specific and arguably more radical critique of the former.”
“… Graeber allows no effective space for a radical critique…”
“In sum, the BJT has the appearance of radical critique, but…”

Reviewers: “But the two central claims of the BJT are an evidence-free zone. This is not the image promoted by Graeber and his fellow travellers. Much rests on an endlessly re-cycled 2015 YouGov poll, also reported by universal basic income enthusiast and author of Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman, which showed that 37% of British workers think that their job doesn’t need to exist. The thing is, they didn’t say that at all. 37% said that their job didn’t ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Well, that’s hardly surprising as that loaded question sets a very high bar. What is more surprising is that 50% said their jobs did make a meaningful contribution!”

Intensely misleading. It wasn’t some random poll lying around. YouGov explicitly commissioned it to test David’s original Bullshit Jobs essay. Are the reviewers publicly criticizing YouGov’s competence? The book explains:

“The response to the poster campaign was another spate of discussion in the media (I appeared briefly on Russia Today), as a result of which the polling agency YouGov took it upon itself to test the hypothesis and conducted a poll of Britons using language taken directly from the essay: for example, Does your job ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’? Astonishingly, more than a third — 37 percent — said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain).

“This was almost twice what I had anticipated — I’d imagined the percentage of bullshit jobs was probably around 20 percent. What’s more, a later poll in Holland came up with almost exactly the same results: in fact, a little higher, as 40 percent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist.

“So not only has the hypothesis been confirmed by public reaction, it has now been overwhelmingly confirmed by statistical research.”

David tweeted a more effective line of attack: “If they are really professional work sociologists they know that & could have said so, ie no poll is reliable, & would have scored a fair point. Instead they chose to once again be dishonest. The overall numbers cited were from one UK and one Dutch survey, though there was later a US & an Australian survey that came up with comparable numbers & one Dutch one that came up with radically lower ones” (tweets: one, two)

So how do we use these numbers? Depends — what’s your goal?

  • To get a bullshit job: Use a lower estimate, to be safe. Estimate that 10–25% of jobs in your region are bullshit. Then increase that probability of finding one, by targeting higher concentrations of bullshit jobs.
  • To analyze system-wide effects of bullshit jobs: Use a higher estimate, factoring in (for instance) “second-order bullshit jobs” — meaningful jobs supporting bullshit jobs. (Like security staff in a building devoted to bullshit paper-pushing. Or one team I worked closely with, which spammed external partners with often spurious bugreports, enabling our company to potentially bargain down prices next quarter.)

Reviewers: “But the testimonies of a self-selected group of people already predisposed to agree with the author’s argument — from frustrated anarcho-syndicalists to student union jobs — is a poor basis for any plausible, general claims.”

Condescending: “from frustrated anarcho-syndicalists to student union jobs.” They didn’t mention:

  • Chloe: Academic Dean at a prominent British university who “spent two years of my life making up work for myself and for other people.”
  • Hannibal: “accomplished researcher who can walk with confidence in the corridors of corporate power” who funnels profits from his bullshit report-writing to treat tuberculosis. (“One of the world’s biggest killers, causing one and a half million deaths a year with up to eight million infected at any one time.”)

Academic trolls commonly target anarchists and students with verbal venom and political infighting.

The book is upfront about the reliability of its inferences. Example: While I lack statistical evidence, if the testimonials are anything to go by, stress-related ailments seem a frequent consequence of bullshit jobs.” Of course, an eagle-eyed reader might spot insufficiently-gauged claims I missed.

This book is an opening salvo to stimulate discussion and research. Not the last word on the subject. So there will be holes for enterprising researchers to fix or exploit.



Reviewers: “Now it is entirely possible that Graeber categorises teaching and nurses as ‘real jobs’ that somehow escape the pointlessness label.”

David responded: “Anyway the review is thoroughly dishonest. I mean how can anyone have read the book & honestly claim not to know whether I consider nursing or education to be ‘real’ work or not? This is a disgrace to scholarship & the authors need to be held to account. […] I repeatedly hold out exactly those two types of occupation as the very paradigm of valuable labor. There was no way they could have missed this.” (tweets: one, two)


Reviewers: “At one stage he comes up with the claim that there is something called a ‘real service sector’ that is supposedly flat at 20% of total employment. No source is given.”

The source is given, with diagrams: Robert Hayes’ “A Simplified Model for the Fine Structure of National Information Economies” from 1992.

I did discover a typo. The book’s text lists the wrong last name: Robert Taylor, not Hayes. Though the bibliography lists the correct name. (Clearly, the reviewers didn’t even get that far — claiming “no source is given” until David mentioned it on Twitter.)


Reviewers: “One of Graeber’s central concepts for doing so is ‘managerial feudalism’. Bullshit jobs are the outcome of the powerful in the private and public sectors surrounding themselves with an entourage of ‘flunkies’ who do little or nothing but provide aesthetic or aural validation. Though used as a general argument, it is in practice a partial one. Even if true, it couldn’t explain whole ‘bad’ or ‘goon’ occupations such as management consultants of corporate lawyers.”

False: managerial feudalism is not used as a “general argument.” Such -isms are social logics — simplifications of reality. Not One True Narratives. The book says:

“It’s not even clear it makes sense to speak of ‘capitalism’ at all (Marx, for instance, never really did), implying as it does that ‘capitalism’ is a set of abstract ideas that have somehow come to take material form in factories and offices. The world is more complicated and messy than that. Historically, the factories and offices emerged first, long before anyone knew quite what to call them, and to this day, they operate on multiple contradictory logics and purposes.”

So neither capitalism nor managerial feudalism explains all dynamics. Effective activists build and select the right theoretical tools for the situation.

And indeed, managerial feudalism didn’t seem that applicable to my situation! Why? One theory: tech startup culture (which I largely move in) defines itself in opposition to managerial feudalism. If so, I’m in managerial feudalism’s negative space. Even when companies falsely call themselves “startups” to bargain down wages, this rhetorical trick comes with some obligation to avoid acting like The Other — that unspoken decadent behemoth organizational structure that looks awfully like managerial feudalism: yes-men entourages, empire-builders, etc.

But one -ism applied powerfully to my situation, which most reviewers conspicuously avoid: Sadomasochism. Chancer’s “Sadomasochism in Everyday Life” revolutionized my life. I realized:

“If office rooms are allocated to meaningless work, then what are they? Chaste S/M dungeons. Like a porn movie, the work is effectively a pretext for endless boss/subordinate roleplay.”

Sadomasochism is a tool with massive applicability. The book discusses “the sadomasochistic dynamic already potentially present in any top-down hierarchical relationship.” Thus, sadomasochism may apply to any situation with top-down hierarchical relations. Ranging from bedroom to boardroom — and beyond.

(An aside: Upon realizing I was in an S/M dungeon, I found ways to escape. The few times I visited, I remarked to friends that it literally seemed yellow-tinged — like a Limbo dungeon of souls chattering about irrelevancies. Protip: if you’re the Dom in a sadomasochistic personal relationship, consider becoming a manager. Better to make your inevitable mistakes in an environment with some oversight and mentoring, rather than privately with someone you love.)

These reviewers not only misuse their field’s established tools, but also misrepresent Bullshit Jobs’ innovations. Perhaps they even misrepresent all tools: a theory that perfectly describes everything is useless — it’s just as complex as the reality it’s supposed to simplify. No useful theoretical tool is fully general, in the sense they seem to imply.


Conclusion

These reviewers are trolls. Without access to their mental state, I don’t know how much of their review is malice, incompetence, or both. (Perhaps neither do they.) But these supposed experts committed malpractice. They misrepresent works even from scholars they cite.

Paul Thompson and Frederick Harry Pitts owe their audience an apology for betraying their trust. And an apology to themselves — for having let themselves be corrupted somewhere in life.

Honest, successful attacks on Bullshit Jobs would be great. Apparently it’s not easy: these determined attackers ended up humiliating themselves. And 250+ of us are watching.


Next essay: “Who is going to compel the state?”

Inspiration for my next essay was buried in one of the reviewers’ sentences: “Who is going to compel the state?” Our species is destroying itself. We’d better learn how to save ourselves. Fast.

Activist and tech startup communities scoff at passivity. We disrupt:

  • Michael Albert: “Short term, we raise social costs until elites implement our demands or end policies we oppose. Longer term, we accumulate support and develop movement infrastructure and alternative institutions, while working toward transforming society’s defining relations.”
  • Paul Graham: “A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful. Till then the best I’d managed was to get the opposite quality down to one: hapless. … Hapless implies passivity. To be hapless is to be battered by circumstances — to let the world have its way with you, instead of having your way with the world.”

So my next essay will answer “Who is going to compel the state?” It will demystify organizing. With theories of effective action and humane teamwork. Drawing lessons not just from activist lit, but diverse fields: negotiation, tech industry fanfic and artificial intelligence. It may even help improve your relationships and attain your goals.