In 2018, the late anthropologist David Graeber published his best-selling book Bullshit Jobs, a savage critique of the futility of modern labour, especially the utterly pointless and mentally depleting jobs that bring little to no self-worth to the workers who slave at them for most of their lives.
Graeber categorised his bullshit jobbers into five key types: “flunkies” (whose sole focus is to make their bosses feel important), “goons” (who deceive people on behalf of their employers or clients, like corporate lobbyists and lawyers), “duct tapers” (who fix problems, but only for the short term), “box tickers” (who give an impression of being useful when they are not, like survey administrators and corporate compliance officers) and “taskmasters” (who generate extra work for those who don’t need it, like middle managers).
Bullshit jobs, Graeber argued, are endemic in the contemporary knowledge economy, where bureaucratic drudgery meets process-driven sameness to create repetitive and meaningless tasks that add nothing to the value chain, either in terms of human, or financial, capital. Even though Graeber was equal parts acerbic and serious, there’s more than a grain of truth in his hypothesis.
Around the time Graeber’s book came out, Shoji Morimoto, a Japanese man in his late 30s, quit his bullshit job in the education industry and started a “Do-nothing Rental” service. Using Twitter (now X) as his launchpad, Morimoto began his venture at a stage when he had had just enough of his toxic boss, whose daily remarks to him ranged from “I can’t tell if you’re alive or dead” to “You’re a permanent vacancy.”
Morimoto took these jibes to their literal extreme, embracing his alleged uselessness. His do-nothing rental subverted the economics of human relationships entrenched in society, reconfiguring the norms of transaction that decide our self-worth. “I’d like the world to be one where even if people can’t do anything for others, even if they can make no contribution to society, they can still live stress-free lives,” he writes in Rental Person Who Does Nothing, his recently published memoir. “This is very important to me because of the gap that exists between the value that I sense in people and the value assigned to them by society.”
Morimoto’s philosophy of life is radical anywhere but it assumes a sharp edge in Japan, where karoshi, or death by overwork, isn’t uncommon. His rejection of traditional work isn’t because he’s part of the NEET (“not in education, employment or training”) generation that emerged in the early 2000s due to a long period of employment crisis in Japan. He isn’t like “Pro-Ogorareya”, a 20-something man on X, who lives off others by offering himself up for odd jobs, as random as accompanying a client to a bar because they want company. In contrast, Morimoto is clear about not accepting money. If his motto is to do nothing, how can he possibly charge a fee? He only accepts money to cover his travel expenses; else, he lives off his savings. He isn’t flush with cash, has a wife and child to support, but he’s keen to push through as far, and for as long, as he can.
But Morimoto has clear boundaries too. He isn’t Marina Abramović making performance art. “I can’t do anything except give very simple responses,” he makes it clear. He is “practically transparent”, withholding the urge to comment or pass judgement. If an assignment requires him to participate actively, he refuses it. “You could say my lack of individuality has become my ‘product’,” Morimoto adds. But is it so easy to relinquish one’s personhood? The absence of individuality can turn into yet another form of identity. Just as doing nothing can become an activity in itself. Ironically, the do-nothing rental service does seem to have its usefulness.
Morimoto believes it acts as a powerful “catalyst”. Hiring a do-nothing person is like setting off a chemical reaction. “You (hydrogen peroxide) may take ten units of energy to do something on your own,” he writes, “but with someone else there (manganese peroxide) you may be able to achieve the same result with just four or five units of energy.”
No surprise that the requests that come his way range from the mind-numbingly banal to the abjectly pathetic, characterised by a whimsical neediness or an importunate sense of entitlement. One client invites him home so that he is motivated to clean up and make it fit to receive a visitor. Someone else asks him to hang around as she tackles a pile of washing, yelling with frustration while she is at it. Morimoto declines the request but the client still gets her job done. Simply articulating her chronic procrastination to a stranger gets her out of the rut.
Another “client had been living alone for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like for there to be someone else in his space, so he wanted me to spend quite a long time with him in his house”. A woman filing for divorce asks Morimoto to come with her. “Being accompanied by someone I don’t know would give me unusual memories of the day.” Yet another client asks him to remind her to cut her nails on a specific day, when she may have sex. Simply setting an alarm on her phone is, apparently, too much work. Or, if you go by Morimoto’s charitable explanation, it’s too dehumanising, a sign of the AI (Artificial Intelligence) fatigue we are all beset with.
Rental Person barely takes an hour to read but keeping up with its litany of banalities can be a test of patience. What starts as an experiment to redefine our perception of work and worth ends up revealing the shocking hollowness at the core of contemporary life, especially in a society like Japan, where as many as 1.5 million people are living as social loners, or hikikomori. Morimoto’s rental service alleviates some of their suffering but it also exposes the naked helplessness of the masses.
Morimoto’s crusade against the beast of capitalism is noble, though utopian. Our “value” as human beings should never be measured by the amount of money we earn or the work that we do. Even the unemployed (or unemployable) should enjoy the right to “stress-free” lives. But is Morimoto’s way of being in the world sustainable?
At one point, he wonders if a rich patron would be willing to pay for him to continue doing nothing. Even if that were the case, is it possible to not be beholden to such a benefactor? The economics of human capital are such that, be it the devil or the lord, in the end we “gonna have to serve somebody”, as Bob Dylan sang.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.