On 6 May 2018, David Graeber's "Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You're Hardly Alone" appeared in the online Chronicle of Higher Education. The article--a longer one--opens with a plain statement of intent (to write about bullshit academic labor) and a clarifying definition (bullshit labor is work known by the worker to be pointless). Graeber works to establish his ethos for conducting his discussion before suggesting that perhaps half the work being done could be eliminated as bullshit, noting that the increase in bullshit labor is detrimental across fields of endeavor--especially academe. He explicates the degree of bullshit-spread throughout academic institutions, noting that marked increases in administrative staff have prompted the increasing proportion of bullshit labor being done by academics. A case study focused on "Chloe, the nonexecutive dean" is used to exemplify the problem, and Graeber takes pains to note the prevalence of the problem not only in Europe, but also in the US, as well as commenting that the interaction of fields promoted by academic establishments conduces to the peculiar proliferation of bullshit work in academe. He adds that workable solutions are likely to come from neither academic management nor academic labor, but from outside academe--although he expresses hope that such may happen, citing earlier intellectual movements and reformations as examples and shifting into the claim that a universal basic income is one of the more effective potential responses to the spread of bullshit throughout academia.
(Clearly, I have permission to use my own stuff. Who's going to tell me no?)
While I respond in that "elsewhere" to the bullshit aspects of Graeber's piece (and, yes, enjoy the opportunity to write "bullshit" more than a few times), there is something else to treat in the article: Graeber's misuse of medievalism. The article repeatedly invokes the medieval; for example, Graeber comments about "the university...in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars." He also notes a "managerial feudalism" in which "Rich and powerful people have always surrounded themselves with flashy entourages....[and] the accumulation of the equivalent of feudal retainers often becomes the main principle of organization," with those surrounding the mighty being "officious armies of functionaries than the kind of feudal retainer a medieval knight might employ ton tweeze his mustache or polish the stirrups on his saddle before a joust."
While Graeber has grounds to make the first statement, the one about the medievally born self-organized scholarly collective, there are problems with the rest. For one, the use of the medieval as a repeated referent yokes it to the bullshit labor that is the thrust of the article;the repetition cements the connection, suggesting strongly the misguided notion that the medieval is bad--more so than the present. Additionally, most of the invocations of the medieval come alongside more explicit disparagement. The "retainers" described are couched in terms of their uselessness, once again connecting the medieval to being less worthy than right-thinking modern ideas--or the Enlightenment ideals contrasted with the "corrupt, pedantic, moribund, and medieval." It is hardly a glowing description, and one that medievalists can certainly be forgiven for finding distasteful.
Additionally, the repeated assertions of a feudal relationship between management and staff suggest a misunderstanding of feudal structures. The traditional conception of feudalism is that a royal or noble offers land to other nobles in exchange for precisely defined services to be provided--typically military and financial. The relationship can extend laterally at titular social levels, as well, with kings in their own right being feudal vassals of other kings. As it tends to be expressed, the feudal retainer retains particular rights in the relationship, partly through recourse to outside agencies (the Church for much of the High Middle Ages), and there is an expectation of reciprocal loyalty. Such is, admittedly, more an aspirational standard than an enacted one, but it is still the perceived dominant paradigm for the medieval European feudal.
The comparison breaks down when applied to contemporary corporate and corporatist culture at three points:
- The European feudal relationship could exist within titular levels of authority. A crowned king could, in fact, be a vassal of another crowned king, as the relationship between England and France between the Norman Invasion and the end of the Hundred Years' War demonstrates--among many others. In contemporary corporate and corporatist culture, such is not the case; the retainers are always hierarchically lower than their ostensible lords, their lower status denoted by titles, facilities, rates of pay, and other factors in plenty.
- The modern "retainer" does not have nearly so many rights as the feudatory. Without pretending that medieval Europe was anything approaching egalitarian, there were explicit limits on the authorities of feudal lords over their retainers. Military service, the primary obligation, was bounded--traditionally forty days, and able to be offset by scutage. In England, Magna Carta sharply restricted the rights of the highest feudal lord of the land. And over all hung the threat of clerical censure or punishment, the efficacy of which would vary, but which still appeared to have no small influence on the actions of those in the system. In modern corporate and corporatist culture, with the expansion of right-to-work jurisdictions and the releases of employers from terms of their contracts (notably pension obligations), as well as the increasing waiving of rights in employment agreements and an increasingly deregulated labor market, the "retainers" are far more subject to abuse and exploitation than might otherwise be assumed--and certainly more than the noble-born retainers of a noble-born lord would have been.
- The modern "retainer" generally does not and should not expect reciprocal loyalty. Again, the medieval European feudal relationship imposed obligations on the lord as well as the vassal, and feudal compacts typically expressed lifetime if not generational commitments. Modern corporate/corporatist culture benefits from increasing numbers of right-to-work jurisdictions, making dismissal of employees easier--particularly given the increasing tendency in the academy and elsewhere to rely on "just-in-time," contingent, temporary, part-time workers--who are expected in many cases to offer full availability to their employers while accepting either limited compensation for unstable hours or, as in the case of the "zero-time faculty" proposed at Southern Illinois University, no compensation for unstable hours.* Such things are hardly loyalty pledges, and they should hardly be expected to elicit loyalty--although there still seems to be an expectation that people will "ride for the brand."
This is not to say that ideas cannot be applied across time, of course. The whole point of the Society is to look at ways in which the medieval is (mis)appropriated, and a paper I presented some years back looks at how an idea deriving ultimately from contemporary corporate practice offers a rubric for examining at least some medieval literature. But, as has long been held by the Society and evidenced in this webspace, accurate understandings are essential to doing such work. Graeber seems to be working outside of such things, and, given the platform on which his article appears, those other-than-optimal representations of the medieval do not help the case of those of us who study that part of what came before and what we still do.
*It does not escape notice that the proposal, voiced politely but tending towards the abuse of those who would accept it, enacts a form of bullshit, itself--that articulated by James Fredal in a 2011 College English article, brought to mind by the older presentation referenced.