The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent or disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing. And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace. — Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”
In the last chapter, we asked why it was that human beings so regularly find being paid to do nothing an exasperating, insufferable, or oppressive experience—often, even when the conditions of employment are quite good. I suggested the answer reveals certain truths about human nature largely overlooked by economic science and even by the more cynical versions of popular common sense. Humans are social beings that begin to atrophy—even to physically decay—if they are denied regular contact with other humans; insofar as they do have a sense of being an autonomous entity separate from the world and from others, it is largely from conceiving themselves as capable of acting on the world and others in predictable ways. Deny humans this sense of agency, and they are nothing. What’s more, in bullshit jobs, the ability to perform acts of make-believe, which under ordinary circumstances might be considered the highest and most distinctly human form of action—especially to the extent that the make-believe worlds so created are in some way actually brought into reality—is turned against itself. Hence, my inquiry into the history of pretend work and the social and intellectual origins of the concept that one’s time can belong to someone else. How does it come to seem morally wrong to the employer that workers are not working, even if there is nothing obvious for them to do?
If being forced to pretend to work is so infuriating because it makes clear the degree to which you are entirely under another person’s power, then bullshit jobs are, as noted above, entire jobs organized on that same principle. You’re working, or pretending to work—not for any good reason, at least any good reason you can find—but just for the sake of working. Hardly surprising it should rankle. But there’s one obvious difference, too, between bullshit jobs and a dishwasher being made to clean the baseboards in a restaurant. In the latter case, there is a demonstrable bully. You know exactly who is pushing you around. In the case of bullshit jobs, it’s rarely so clear-cut. Who exactly is forcing you to pretend to work? The company? Society? Some strange confluence of social convention and economic forces that insist no one should be given the means of life without working, even if there is not enough real work to go around? At least in the traditional workplace, there was someone against whom you could direct your rage.