The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession


Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The bullshit economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that ended up being a runaway success. By the time his full-length book Bullshit Jobs (2018) came out, a poll had already been conducted that a substantial portion of people in developed countries believed their work had no societal value at all. And though bullshit jobs have in media discourse focused on the bureaucracy and public sector, many people from the private sector reported useless levels of middle management, creation of reports nobody actually reads, and people who exist to duct-tape together something that doesn’t work but could probably be fixed if that was the actual goal, rather than maintaining the status quo.

The spread of COVID-19, which has now enveloped many developed countries, who, with huge amounts of international air travel and centralized urban societies and health systems, were always going to be the first to be slammed by a pandemic. Italy is the post child of how bad things are now, with Spain currently outpacing them in terms of the rate of increase in death rate. The United States is in waves reaching and going beyond the saturation point of its gutted hospitals. According to World Bank data, the US has, per 1,000 people, about a third the hospital beds it had in the 1960s:

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Source: Trading Economics

The de-development of the US, wherein infrastructure is either destroyed deliberately (see, the auto industry buying and dismantling extensive and cheap electric streetcar systems in many cities) or through general neglect in the neoliberal era. The decrease in hospital beds, however, is astonishing not only for how much it digs into American Exceptionalism narratives, but also how it falls consistently even prior to the usual starting point of American neoliberalism in the Reagan era.

It is abundantly clear that the US will have the highest total deaths of any country, by an order of magnitude or more. The President wants to already roll back very inconsistent containment methods by Easter, in order to “restart the economy”. My state has still not adopted shelter-in-place, despite Boston being a major city with a large amount of imported cases and community transmission. It seems clear they will never receive federal assistance in going beyond current containment measures, let alone the medical supplies they need through the use of the Defense Production Act. The government, as most neoliberal governments in American and Western history, is basing their crisis response on handshake deals with large companies and promises of no-strings-attached bailout money.

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.


It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What does the future hold? The idea that the economy can be “restarted” while every hospital is flooded with sick and dying people, and people on the frontlines in healthcare and essential goods production get sick, is insane. There will be a recession, as long as the current range of workable proposals in Congress are where the imagination stops. The stock indexes, which were swollen from deregulation that made once-illegal stock buybacks driving share prices far beyond what assets and earnings a company actually has in meatspace. Bailout money without regulation will go to buybacks, which is just another version of bonuses given out by AIG and Goldman Sachs after the 2008 bailouts. But real-world growth, unemployment, etc. will spiral upwards. A contraction of over 20% of GDP is now being predicted this coming quarter, with Great Depression-levels of unemployment.

A select few elites will benefit, although largely being old men, they will be vulnerable to COVID-19 just like everyone else. A New England Journal of Medicine article on the inevitability of rationing PPE and medical care notes that wealth should not be a factor in testing and treatment, though it inevitably will be to some point. But nothing prevents the wealthy from having severe cases and dying, even if medical care was available. This is not Ebola, it is not confined to the developing (or “developing” but really gutted) countries. And the frontline employees who prepare your food and serve you don’t have paid sick leave and will transmit COVID-19 to others no matter what your bank account balance is.

Press Kit: Help spread the labor struggle of #Greenpeace canvassers

Here is a collection of all the major media we have available to media. Please spread this as far and as wide as you can, because the GP strike is going well, but it needs media attention to sustain its push- we’re talking three weeks into the strike.

Please direct any questions or requests for interview to Bryan Kim (619-382-7888). 

A labor strike based in San Diego and Sacramento is now three weeks old. Greenpeace Frontline staff, the people who raise money outside of supermarkets and at farmer’s markets, are striking because the quota system they are all held to means no job security- have two bad weeks in a row and you’re fired, no matter how much you raised before then. 

Please check out recent San Diego news stories on the strike:

Also on the strike Facebook ( gained the endorsement yesterday of Paul Watson, original Greenpeace member, founder of Sea Shepherd, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

Here is a letter signed by 66 ex-Greenpeace staff, including city and regional coordinators:

Solidarity Forever – An Open Letter in Support of Greenpeace on Strike Additionally the petition (here) shows international supporters for the strikers. 

Check out video from an 8/19 rally in Balboa Park, including Kiku Adair, a striker:

And Sarah Saez, program director of United Taxi Workers, based in City Heights:

The strike is working, but more people need to be circulating the information. It’s the only way to keep things running and potentially expand the scope of the strike.

A goal for 2014: economic democracy

Democracy is a word of immense prestige and power. In the modern context it shapes the actions of even the most hardened autocrats. The Nazis held elections, as did the Soviets, and as do the North Koreans. Even those with complete contempt for popular rule see the rituals of democracy as important and helpful.

However, democracy presently has a very narrow scope in many countries. Voting every year or two is the tiny tip of a much large apparatus, most of which is controlled by individuals or powerful groups. Think about the things that depend on your regular vote. Then think of all the things that you do not influence in any way.

Political democracy seems absurd without economic democracy. Professor Richard Wolff in recent years has pushed for workers’ self-directed enterprises, stating the obvious fact that people spend more time at work than any other aspect of their lives. Voting for a senator is all well and good, but the most relevant decisions in people’s lives are made by bosses and executives.

So the goal should be for greater worker influence- going beyond collective bargaining and into collective management. Even well-organized sectors are being attacked by employers- with threats to move to another country, to lay off vast numbers of people. People’s jobs should not be used as a weapon in an economic war. The workers have a vested interest in successful business, and successful in their own communities.

A vast majority of people feel alienated because of the breadth and scale of manipulation and control that powerful people and groups have. It makes even the political rights that exist now feel meaningless, as politics is in a sea of rich people’s money. The more aspects of life where the common person’s voice is important and matters, the better. And the workplace is where the greatest change will come from.