David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs strongly recalls Thorstein Veblen’s classic The Theory of the Leisure Class.
In the latter book, the concept of conspicuous consumption was first brought out while in the former book a description of what could be called conspicuous idleness is explained: bullshit jobs.
In each of the two cases, the root cause of irrational conspicuousness is laid at the feet of capitalism.
However, these particular phenomena could well have a deeper, biological origin and meaning.
Throughout human space and time, societies have organized themselves around power, dominance, and hierarchy. The public visibility of these activities, their conspicuousness, was essential to communicate to others the powerful nature of their holder. In many instances, as both Veblen and Graeber point out, these exercises seem pointlessly pernicious. And indeed, they may have that effect on society as a whole and many individuals.
What is interesting though is that such societal structures and behaviors can be explained by the phenomenon known as signaling in the natural world.
Animals, through either conspicuous physical attributes or apparently irrational individual behaviors signal a wealth of information about their health, power, resources, and sexual attractiveness.
It is the same in the world of man.
The social phenomena which Graeber and Veblen so brilliantly explicated can be seen as examples of costly signaling. Thus, their existence has precious little to do with economic rationality per se as the authors indeed vigorously point out. But that was never the intention.
Far more were they meant to act as definitive signposts for the social and even physical power of their holders; a power that is often translatable into sexual dominance and thus, at its most basic level, likely determining the nature and number of potential offspring.
Often, human behaviors that seem baffling like conspicuous consumption and/or bullshit jobs can be discovered to be behavioral expressions originating from deeper, evolutionary wellsprings.
That is not to say of course that all human activity is biologically determined, but that some of that activity can find its otherwise seemingly irrational explanation therein.
Yet, with knowledge and self-awareness there is always a slight chance that through collective action such irrational activities can be diminished and even eliminated all together. But if it is true that these phenomena have as their source the weight of millions of years of inter and intra species’ competition then the therapeutic road leading away from them will be long indeed.