Scrub the baseboard!

I’m reading David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. It is delicious revenge for anyone who has ever had to pretend to work for hours on end in order to be allowed to go home again, and you should all read it.

There is a thousand quotations I could make from the book that are relevant to this blog, to Escapology, and to our hatred of pointless, busy work. But I will simply leave you with this lovely story of Graeber’s first job and a lesson in not mistaking a job for useful activity:

I well remember my very first job as a dishwasher in a seaside Italian restaurant. I was one of three teenage boys hired at the start of the summer season, and the first time there was a mad rush, we naturally made a game of it, determined to prove that we were the very best and most heroic dishwashers of all time, pulling together into a machine of lightning efficiency, producing a vast and sparkling pile of dishes in record time. We then kicked back, proud of what we’d accomplished, pausing perhaps to smoke a cigarette or skarf ourselves a scampi — until, of course, the boss showed up to ask us what the hell we were doing just lounging around.

“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now — you’re on my time! You can goof around on your own time. Get back to work.”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

“Get some steel wool. You can scour the baseboards.”

“But we already scoured the baseboards.”

“Then get busy scouring the baseboards again!”

Of course, we learned our lesson. If you’re on the clock, do not be too efficient. You will not be rewarded, not even by a gruff nod of acknowledgement (which is all we were really expecting). Instead you’ll be punished with meaningless busy work. And being forced to pretend to work, we discovered, was the most absolute indignity — because it was impossible to pretend it was anything but what it was: pure degradation, a sheer exercise of the boss’s power for its own sake. It didn’t matter that we were only pretending to scrub the baseboard. Every moment spent pretending to scour the baseboard felt like some schoolyard bully gloating over our shoulders — except, of course, this time, the bully had the full force of law and custom on his side.

So the next time a big rush came, we made sure to take our sweet time.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

8 Responses to “Scrub the baseboard!”

  1. Antonia says:

    I am actually tempted to read this book. However, I came across a few reviews rating it rather low because – reportedly – it is too lenghty compared to the points it makes, and refer mostly to examples from UK and US societies. What would you say, Robert, or anyone else who red the book? Thanks and, if I finally read it, will certainly come back to this article and share my views on it!

  2. It’s definitely worth reading. I suppose it is a long book considering the relatively simple premise but I had a lot of fun reading the testimonies of the people Graeber interviewed about their bullshit jobs: it’s a lot of content but I enjoyed luxuriating in their complaints! His analyses of these testimonies are also very enjoyable and funny.

    The final two chapters are more in-depth and are about why we’re in a situation of there being so many bullshit jobs in the world and what we can do about it as a society: this is perhaps a bit less fun and is maybe too theoretical and high-level for the general reader or the person who simply hates their job situation and wants to escape but can’t. The “why” of it all is perhaps a bit less satisfying to read about than the observation of the problem. Moreover, there is no practicable solution offered for individuals looking to escape — you need a different book for that. 😉

    As for the examples being too UK- or US-centric, I’m not so sure about that. Many of the testimonies may have come from the UK and US (Graeber did after all use his own UK-based/English language Twitter account to collect the testimonies) but he doesn’t often reveal where the accounts came from because the testimonies are anonymous. Occasionally he’ll say something like “Steve worked for a large British government institution” but in general he doesn’t divulge. I also think the examples are probably quite applicable internationally even if they really did come largely from the UK or US. I also remember two or three specific examples from elsewhere in the EU.

    I really enjoyed it. Maybe not for solutions, but I found myself laughing in recognition of many of the observations about bullshit jobs that we so rarely see in print.

  3. Antonia says:

    Thank you very much, Robert! I guess you convinced me! 🙂

    I will purchase this book sometime soon. So far, I am in the middle (or, rather, at the beginning) of Skidelskys’ How much is enough? Money and the Good Life. I ‘owe’ this reading to you as well. So far, I find it pretty interesting (and a bit challenging at some point – need to brush up my economics knowledge actually!)

    I will get back to you and the blog readers once I read about the bullshit jobs then! And you are right, these observations seem to be almost a taboo in print.

  4. Oh, the Skidelskys’ book is wonderful, wonderful. Love all the stuff about Keynes. Don’t give up! At least read the last chapter (about recommendations for fixing greedy old society).

  5. Antonia says:

    OK I won’t give up, I promise! 🙂

  6. Antonia says:

    Hi Rob! I finally bought the Bullshit Jobs book and am really enjoying it! I just passed the baseboard anecdote in fact. It is much more analytical and systematic than I thought it was. Thanks for encouraging me to read it! One question: do you know whether the author still has an email address or blog or the like for communication with readers and contributors? I would have some questions to ask him about certain aspects of the book (and how these relate to my own experience). Many thanks!

  7. Great! I’m glad it is doing it for you. Alas, I do not have a way to contact Mr. Graeber. Have you tried his Twitter account? You might be able to DM him.

  8. Antonia says:

    Hi, well apparently that is not possible… I thought he had created a discussion forum on BJ somewhere, but there does not seem to be any.

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