Looking Forwards, Going Backwards

October 8, 2017 § 6 Comments

Once my Australian friend Nick began his new job in corporate, he started talking in jargon. Like, all the time. Midway through coffee a little while ago, his phone rang: ‘Okay, okay. Okay. I’m going to run the numbers in the hope that we can move the needle. Going forward, let’s take this offline.’ Nick was moving through a vague world of ‘actionables,’ ‘synergizing’ with his co-workers, and ‘jockeying for position’ with new clients for ‘outcome-specific goals.’ Asking for some sort of translation for this businessspeak was doubly confusing: most of the time, Nick answered questions about business jargon with more jargon. It’s not the inexplicability of the jargon per se, it’s that the closer you look at what a worker like Nick does for eight hours a day, five days a week, you see that the jargon more often than not comes to constitute the work itself. Organizing work and talking about work is the work.

'I'm the Company's Registered Acronym Promoter but I've yet to be given a job title.'

In 2013, the activist and anthropologist David Graeber defined predicaments like the above as offshoots of the ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs.’ Writing in Strike Magazine, Graeber maintained that the decline across the twentieth century in jobs in industry and manufacturing occurred simultaneously with a massive increase in the administrative sector. Since the end of the second world war, we have seen ‘the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing,’ along with ‘the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.’ For Graeber, these jobs doubled back on themselves in an administrative loop. They existed for no reason besides validating themselves as valuable work.

Graeber’s article touched a nerve, and had as its implicit backdrop other cultural critiques of humdrum office life. Around the time of the millennium, social satires like Office Space and The Office began to appear on the cultural scene. There is a peculiar cultural fascination with the sheer inexplicability of corporate life. Beyond the tired jargon and acronyms, corporate situations were funny because the daily lives of office workers didn’t make much sense. Or, more accurately, it made sense to those countless souls working in offices already, who saw an image of their lives reflected back at them; for the rest of us, office life was simply perplexing, and therefore ripe for satire. Watching The Office, the viewer is drawn in by how the characters fill out the time of the day: congregating around the water cooler for a few minutes, playing jokes on each other, circulating emails that seem to contain little of value. Against a color palette of monotonous, endless grey, the denizens of The Office, in any logical universe, could seemingly complete their work much faster than the time for which they are legally contracted. A friend of my wife’s who works for a large accounting firm admitted that she could easily complete her fulltime job in one to two days a week. The trick then is to figure out ways to pad out the work until the clock runs down. As in The Office, the work of employees is narrowed to consultations, checking emails, and organizing meetings—essentially vague tasks made oddly legible in a world of increasing efficiency and key performance indicators. What was most significant is that the world of offices often only makes sense in reference to itself: emails are about setting up meetings, meetings refer back to past consultations, and consultations lead to more emails.


Is this what the great utopian thinkers of yesteryear dreamed of for the future? I’m not referring to the bleak dystopias of the twentieth century, but those optimistic utopias of the Victorians. In Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), Edward Bellamy constructed a futuristic utopia where all citizens enter an ‘industrial army’ at twenty-one, performing only useful labor for their working lives before retiring at the age of forty-five. After that point, people are free to pursue art, science, music, painting, or anything else that engages their interests. Against current preoccupations to limit the working day or the working week, Bellamy limited the working life. In Bellamy’s Boston of the early twenty-first century, labor is centered around the production of material things, the economy is centrally planned, and ‘service-industry’ jobs are almost non-existent. What’s more, as everyone has the same income, social distinctions have evaporated. Obviously, the year 2000 looked a little bit differently to what Bellamy imagined; if anything, the Y2K sensation made us wonder if our machine overlords could even get us to the new millennium in one piece.

The point here is not to lambast Bellamy for failing to predict that automation would most certainly not set us free, but to recalibrate our diagnoses of modern life with the aid of these sometimes-quaint utopias of the future. While Graeber doesn’t refer to the nineteenth-century utopians, his examination of bullshit jobs nicely pinpoints the inexplicability of corporate work. ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour [sic] when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?’ Graeber asks. Such jobs don’t exist in Bellamy’s Boston of the future. In contrast to Looking Backward, ‘work’ in corporate environments is more about managing the expectations of your superiors, understanding the internal dynamics of the office, and figuring out the business lingo that produces this bizarre world. If Bellamy’s protagonist in the year 2000 looked back at the late nineteenth-century, then it seems rather apt that we do the same in our current moment. But rather than critiquing the social ills of the Victorians, Looking Backwards can give us some indicators of what a future might look like sans bullshit jobs.



David Graeber. ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.’ Strike Magazine. August 17, 2013.

Edward Bellamy. Looking Backward 2000-1887. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


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§ 6 Responses to Looking Forwards, Going Backwards

  • awicks27 says:

    I appreciate your commentary on “bullshit jobs” and the realities of the never-ending corporate cycle that has become the epicenter of the fulfillment of the American Dream. To pick up where you left off with regards to how Looking Backwards can give us a glimpse into what our future might look like if we were to move past the bs jobs, I must mention that this notion triggered a connection to Phillip E. Wegner’s commentary on Looking Backwards in his book Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity. Wegner notes, “…Bellamy suggests in his narrative utopia that the divisions produced by multiple ‘legacies of memories’ have made the realization of any American nation heretofore impossible. For Bellamy, the modern American nation-state can be formed only through a collective act of forgetting, a breaking of the bonds of the past, and a reorientation toward a single future.” I’m drawn to the idea of a “collective act of forgetting” because in a conversation I had earlier today, I discussed just that. This article in the NY Times (see link at the end of this comment) is a critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates and his pessimism regarding progress towards a more unified America. The article declares, “…so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.” In response to the article, I posited that the article seems to be TOO utopian in its beliefs that the solution to racism and prejudice in America would require everyone to stop being fixated on race and the effects of that social construction. I argued that it would require everyone to not only change their future actions, but to also forget their past. Similar to the hopes of a society free from capitalism, as presented in Looking Backwards, this highly utopian picture is bred from an impossible act of American amnesia (not to mention how said amnesia would have to be a worldwide phenomenon to make a real impact, but that’s neither her nor there). It would require everyone to be able to wake up and realize that the bs jobs were just dreams (nightmares, really).

    Link to article about Coates

    Liked by 1 person

  • Excellent post, Alex! As someone who used to work in a corporate office, I can certainly echo the sentiments that organizing work often amounts to doing work. I can’t tell you how many meetings we held for the sole purpose of planning the next meeting, as if the goals we had to discuss next time together couldn’t have been covered in our current meeting-to-plan-a-meeting. It’s maddening.

    I really like your assertion that LOOKING BACKWARD provides us a glimpse of a potential future without these bullshit jobs; however, for the purposes of this speculative reply, I want to reverse it—that is, how might 19th century utopian fictions look forward to the problems we’re facing in our contemporary neoliberal moment? It seems to me that neoliberalism is the capitalism on steroids that Bellamy fears in his text. In contrast to Bellamy’s era, contemporary capitalism relies on a restructuring of relations in favor of capital over industrial labor. This particularly redounds on Bellamy’s more humanist assumptions about the benevolent and communal-oriented underpinnings of human nature. As political philosophers following Michel Foucault have argued, neoliberalism has created a new form of subjectivity bound by economic rationality. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, for example, argue that in contrast to the self-disciplined subject of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the neoliberal subject is now conditioned by “the generalization of competition as a behavioral norm,” in which rationality “tends to structure and organize not only the action of the rulers, but also the conduct of the ruled” (4). For Wendy Brown, these modes of competition are now infused in all spheres of public life, leading to the economization of the social and political domains. Dardot and Laval argue that these features have created a human subject based on an entrepreneurial/enterprise system; Brown: a contemporary firm. Yet each account nevertheless expresses the ways in which individuals have begun to see themselves as capital, whereby self-investment, self-regulation, and self-governance are all necessitated by, and mimic, the procedures of free market capitalism. With this in mind, we may be able to read Bellamy’s socialist assertions for a shared public capital in sharp contrast to where he saw capitalism heading—that is, toward the hyper-privatization and monopolization of our current moment and its effects of job insecurity and precarity that level out all human relations into the realm of the economic.

    Works Cited:

    Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. The MIT Press, 2015.

    Dardot, Pierre, and Christian Laval. The New Way of the World: On Neo-Liberal Society. Trans. Gregory Elliot, Verso, 2013.

    Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France 1978-1979. Ed. Michel Senellart, Trans. Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Liked by 1 person

  • vandyjg says:

    Hi Alex,

    What an interesting post! I’m a big fan of the original UK Office series, and your thoughts on corporate culture got me thinking about what I find so endearing about that show. Aside from the brilliance of Ricky Gervais’ performance as David Brent, I think it does indeed have something to do with the “padding out,” as you say, of the drudgery that is office life—the jokes, the romance, the hijinks. Indeed, how the “color palette of monotonous, endless gray” acts as a kind of bas-relief for the immutable idiosyncrasies of human beings.

    The risk of getting sucked into corporate culture is real, and I think your assessment that it only makes sense in reference to itself is insightful. As someone who has worked (and clawed my way out of) a 9-5 office job, I’ve experienced the kind of absurd, self-reflexive loopings that you describe: e-mails to set up meetings to talk about work that requires more e-mails and round again. I’m reminded of a quote in Bellamy’s Looking Backward: “However new and astonishing one’s surroundings, the tendency is to become a part of them so soon that almost from the first the power to see them objectively and fully measure their strangeness, is lost” (87). Do people who work these types of office jobs have to adjust their perception in such a way to make it bearable, day in and day out?

    Your post also makes me think of current trends in corporate culture that seek to create utopian work environments, with a modern focus on open-concept spaces and fun outlets for letting off steam. Google’s offices, for example, are famously luxurious, with in-house massage rooms, free gourmet food trucks, rock climbing walls, rooftop mini-golf courses, arcade rooms, and nap pods. The Google Careers website describes its offices as “designed to inspire innovation, big ideas, and community.” Are these types of environments helping to solve some of the problems you diagnose in your post, Alex, and bringing us closer to something like what Bellamy envisioned? Or are they just encouraging employees to be round-the-clock tenants?

    Liked by 1 person

  • lucysmkim says:

    Hi Alex: Thanks for the great post!

    I appreciate your bringing to our attention the proliferation of “bullshit jobs” that seem to serve no specific purpose other than to validate and reinforce the internal logic of corporate jobs in the capitalist economy. It reminds me of the many moments in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888) in which Dr. Leete remarks about the needless, even damaging, complexity of the social systems of Julian West’s Victorian era. For instance, regarding the subject of law schools, the physician informs his time-traveling visitor of their non-existence in the late twentieth century, adding, “The law as a special science is obsolete. It was a system of casuistry which the elaborate artificiality of the old order of society absolutely required to interpret it, but only a few of the plainest and simplest legal maxims have any application to the existing state of the world” (121). If we further consider Dr. Leete’s comment that “[f]ully ninety-nine hundredths of the laws of that time concerned the definition and protection of private property and the relations of buyers and sellers” (123), the legal realm can be viewed as an extension of the perverse intricacies of an economic structure that creates “casuistry” – a form of “bullshit[ting],” we might say – and which refers back to itself in a hermetic loop. In contrast, the more simply organized labor of 2000, by realizing “true concert of industry” (144), has succeeded in doing away with such “elaborate artificiality” to the point that laws, stripped of the ornate apparatus and jurisprudence that constitute the law, prevail.

    I was also struck by your example of the cryptic “business lingo” that is symptomatic of the corporate environment and which also spills over to inflect our day-to-day lexicon. In Looking Backward 2000-1887, we see a happy instance of this in Edith’s unrecognition of the word “menial,” a word she has not encountered before because it is no longer in use; she can only “wonderingly” comment on the “strangely artificial idea” (91). She thus alludes with her foreignness to the term the sheer prodigiousness of the change that has taken place in the intervening years to the extent that a new conceptual vocabulary has become necessary. Personally, this scene and your post led me to reflect on terms such as “work-life balance” which trace their origins to a corporate culture making troubling, encroaching claims on employees’ time and attention and which are now firmly embedded as staples in our daily conversation. I have always found the concept of a “work-life balance” to be a curious one, and even the term to be a misnomer in some ways, perhaps not least because it implies the potentially “bullshit” quality of work in a very broad, general sense. In this vein, it might be worth thinking about the degree to which our economic environment and our language and conceptual tools tellingly intertwine.

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is a great post, Alex. Your reference to the Office made me think more about contemporary representations of work on TV, and I remembered a show I watched with my parents when I was visiting them in Ohio: This is Us. I watched only a few episodes, but it quickly became clear that one of the running jokes of this show is that one of the main characters, Randall, has a job that is impossible to explain. He is a weather-derivatives trader. I will try to explain this job (even though I will likely become part of the running joke that is the impossibility of explaining it). Weather-derivatives traders study weather to predict how future weather events will impact businesses, and then they connect these business with insurance companies. Weather-traders are not meteorologists: they take the weather predictions already made and use math and statistics to determine how they will affect a business’s bottom line. This would undoubtedly qualify as one of Graeber’s “bullshit jobs,” and Randall does experience pangs of self-doubt that mirror Graeber’s description of the shamefaced corporate lawyer. In one episode, Randall attends career day at his daughter’s school and must explain his job to her classmates: he is unsurprisingly unsuccessful, and he comes home feeling like he has failed to become a proper role model for his children. (Interestingly, the trope of the father visiting his kid’s career day has been a popular one for expressing anxiety over the social valuation of particular jobs. Most recently, I saw it on the Dick Van Dyke Show from the 1960s, when the patriarch Rob must explain to little Richie’s class what a television comedy writer does.) But, ultimately, Randall loves his job. He feels he is performing a necessary function, he finds it intellectually challenging, he is excited to go to work every day. Because his job IS incredibly useful—in a capitalist society. Marx was careful to make this distinction when discussing the anarchic squandering of labor power that capitalism engenders: in Capital V.1, he notes the presence of a “vast number of functions at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.” I think it might be important to remember that many jobs that we might call bullshit are “at present indispensable” and are likely often experienced as such by the people who do them. And this doesn’t just go for people like Randall at the tip-top of the bourgeois ladder. Graeber’s article suggests (perhaps unintentionally) that being in an indie rock band is always less alienating than working in a corporate environment—but not everyone wants to be a rock star.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great post, Alex! This topic seems to be striking a nerve with a lot of people, and that makes sense – most of us spend most of our waking hours working for most of our lives. I have to say, though, that I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that eliminating bullshit jobs will make us happier. Every job has “bullshit” elements, I think, and every job can feel meaningful to the person who’s doing it. For example, I have worked both in corporate office settings and in what you might call productive jobs (like in a bakery). I enjoyed both jobs but am happy to no longer be working at either. I never got any more meaning from making a cake than I did from writing/formatting an in-house newsletter about the goings-on of the auditor’s office at one of my jobs (a task that did actually exist and that I performed monthly). Both tasks could be fun if I approached them with the right attitude, and neither one ultimately meant anything to the world. And I love to bake even now, but most mornings I’d hate that job for making me get up to turn on the ovens at 4:00 am. It just all seems so subjective.

    That subjectivity reminds me of something that struck me as I read Eleanor Courtemanche’s great article “Satire and the ‘Inevitability Effect’: The Structure of Utopian Fiction from Looking Backward to Portlandia.” Courtemanche draws a fascinating connection between nineteenth-century utopias and the show Portlandia, which she categorizes as a utopian vision of a peaceful, artsy society that engages in a little “cringe comedy” (242). I, however, have always experienced that show as a dystopia – I can’t identify with the characters, and their hipster lives are really off-putting to me. Until I read Courtemanche’s article, it never occurred to me that Portlandia could be considered a utopic idea of the world. I think Courtemanche makes a good argument, but my very different reaction to the television show made me wonder about the possibly inherent subjectivity of utopian thinking. How do we make plans for a better society if everyone has such different ideas about what a better society looks like?

    Liked by 1 person

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