The Workplace Is Like BDSM Without a Safeword, Says Guy Who Just Described Your Job

a woman's hand holding a cat-o-nine-tails whip

While traipsing through the back allies of the internet the other day, I came across a mention of anthropologist David Graeber and his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Being entirely unfamiliar with this title but wholly acquainted with jobs of the bullshit variety (believe it or not, my current one does not fall into that category), I immediately sought out a bit more info after adding it to my Amazon cart like the shameless consumerist avid reader I am.

Here’s the premise of the book: bullshit jobs are different from bad ones in that with a bad job, it could likely be something essential. For example, the guy who has to snake your toilet every few months because you don’t get enough fiber in your diet has a bad job but not a bullshit one. He (or she) provides a necessary service, having been trained in how to do so, whereas nothing of value would be lost if most bullshit jobs didn’t exist. Here’s Graeber explaining it to Vox in 2019:

Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist. That’s the bullshit element. A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing.

Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful. In fact, in our society, often the more useful the work is, the less they pay you. Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this.

Ah. So now we know we’re in familiar territory here. The whole Vox interview is an interesting read; however, I’ll warn you in advance there are some Marxist undertones that certain individuals might find repellent. And a complementary shout-out to John Maynard Keynes which I find repellent but I’ll look past that and focus on the message here.

I found the following excerpt from the book especially compelling, though it assumes some remedial knowledge of the Dom/sub relationship or at least having watched Fifty Shades of Grey for more than the racy scenes. It goes without saying this is a bit NSFW — though not explicit — so smash that back button now if you are opposed to sexual metaphors applied to professional situations (which is, like, 45% of the crap we have written around here if you count all the Big 4 dick-measuring contests). We’re all adults here, right?

The Likeville podcast conveniently clipped this text:

Unlike members of actual BDSM subcultures, who are entirely aware of the fact that they are playing games of make-believe, purportedly ‘normal’ people in hierarchical environments typically ended up locked in a kind of pathological variation of the same sadomasochistic dynamic: the (person on the) bottom struggles desperately for approval that can never, by definition, be forthcoming; the (person on the) top going to greater and greater lengths to assert a dominance that both know is ultimately a lie—for if the top were really the all-powerful, confident, masterly being he pretends to be, he wouldn’t need to go to such outrageous lengths to ensure the bottom’s recognition of his power. And, of course, there is also the most important difference between make-believe S&M play—and those engaged in it actually do refer to it as ‘play’—and its real-life, nonsexual enactments. In the play version, all the parameters are carefully worked out in advance by mutual consent, with both parties knowing the game can be called off at any moment simply by invoking an agreed-on safe-word. For example, just say the word ‘orange,’ and your partner will immediately stop dripping hot wax on you and transform from the wicked marquis to a caring human being who wants to make sure you aren’t really hurt. (Indeed, one might argue that much of the bottom’s pleasure comes from knowing she has the power to affect this transformation at will.) This is precisely what’s lacking in real-life sadomasochistic situations. You can’t say ‘orange’ to your boss. Supervisors never work out in advance in what ways employees can and cannot be chewed out for different sorts of infractions, and if an employee is, like Annie, being reprimanded or otherwise humiliated, she knows there is nothing she can say to make it stop; no safe-word, except, perhaps, ‘I quit.’ To pronounce these words, however, does more than simply break off the scenario of humiliation; it breaks off the work relationship entirely—and might well lead to one’s ending up playing a very different game, one where you’re desperately scrounging around to find something to eat or how to prevent one’s heat from being shut off.”

As you contemplate screaming “orange!” in your next work Zoom call, I’ll leave you with this quote from the Vox interview to mull over: “I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.” Could it be that the firms are actually on to something when they go on and on about the younger generation needing to feel like they’re contributing to the world at work?

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Amazon]
Bullshit jobs: why they exist and why you might have one [Vox]

Latest Accounting Jobs--Apply Now:

Have something to add to this story? Give us a shout by email, Twitter, or text/call the tipline at 202-505-8885. As always, all tips are anonymous.

Related articles

Former Deloitte CEO Is a Big Fan of ‘Smors’

No, Cathy Engelbert isn’t talking about the delicious summertime treat. She’s talking about “small moments of recovery.” “I learned this at Deloitte because when you’re running a firm of that size, you have to find time. We dubbed them smors. My EA used to put them on my calendar: Small moments of recovery. You need moments during […]