In Praise of Idleness and Other Scandalous Notions

Rows of desks at a call center

Over 80 years ago, the philosopher Bertrand Russell praised idleness and called for an organised diminution of work. But, as economic stagnation takes hold, the ideology of work, so disparaged by Russell, is resurgent. The social purpose of work is not allowed to impinge upon its veneration. But how would a post-capitalist society deal with the diminishing need for work?

 In 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that the priorities of modern industrial society needed a thorough reappraisal.

 “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous,” he wrote in the essay, In Praise of Idleness.

 “The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.”

 This is Bertrand Russell being interviewed: 

Now, 81 years later, Russell’s words appear as scandalous as when they were first uttered. Perhaps even more so. To question work now, its moral necessity and the virtue-inspiring discipline it inculcates, is the place yourself beyond the pale of sensible discussion. The one activity the ruling Conservative party in Britain is determined to eradicate, with seemingly widespread public support it should be said, is the possibility of doing nothing. Of not working. Unless, of course, you are very wealthy.

In pursuit of idleness

After the courts ruled the government’s workfare programme (temporarily) unlawful in February, government minister Iain Duncan Smith, responded that the days of doing nothing for benefit were “over”.

When justifying the suffering caused by the Conservative/Lib Dem work capability tests for the disabled, then employment minister Chris Grayling lamented the millions of people left stranded at home on benefit. Doing nothing. If doing nothing is a now a capital offence, that doesn’t let those in paid employment off the hook. The only way we can pull out of this [the economic crisis] is by everybody working harder,” opined UK foreign secretary William Hague  last May.

Work is such an unimpeachably good thing, it retains its allure even when making it mandatory destroys paid employment. There is ample evidence that the UK government’s work programme, which compels young people to work for corporations for free at public expense, has enabled participating companies, such as Asda and Superdrug, to withdraw paid over-time for their regular workforce, or not hire seasonal staff. But the work programme has retained absolute government backing and public support. Never mind that Asda and Superdrug get something for nothing, courtesy of the taxpayer. Never mind that their paid or potential employees lose out. As long as the unemployed work.

The Old Left and the work obligation

 It has to be said that this veneration of work contains a slither of old Left thinking. The old Left, in an attitude stretching back to the nineteenth century, was very insistent that everyone should be obliged to work. No-one, said the old Left, in a taunt aimed at top-hatted, cane wielding capitalists, should live in luxury on the labour of others. But this expectation of universal labour was predicated on first abolishing exploitation. Now there is an expectation of universal work, regardless of the existence of exploitation. In fact, the expectation of work has become more emphatic as exploitation has intensified (this might be related to the fact that exploitation has virtually expired as a concept.

Work is intensifying. In a six-yearly survey of British workers ,published in May, 40% said they worked at very high speeds, compared to 23% in 1997. Job stress is going up while “job-related wellbeing” is declining, the research showed.“At levels there is a denial of exploitation, oppression, imbalance of any kind,” says Eliane Glaser in her book, Get Real.

Work has now achieved the status, described by Mark Fisher in his book, Capitalist Realism, of “post-ideological”. Like recycling, its benefits are assumed unthinkingly. But this is, Fisher says, “precisely where ideology does its work”. 

The virtue of work is an assumption even of a significant strand of anti-capitalist thinking – the school of “economic democracy”, or workers’ control.“Without the pride and self-discipline that good work instills, the human spirit shrivels,” says David Schweickart in After Capitalism.

The fact that the virtue of work is so fervently believed in by utterly diverse elements of the political spectrum perhaps indicates a widespread desire not contemplate something, to blot out an uncomfortable thought.

What is work for?

What that taboo is, I would suggest, is the ultimate purpose of work, as opposed to the qualities it inculcates in the worker. This is the subject of Russell’s essay; the disconnect between the ascetic belief in the virtue of work and what he termed “the social purpose of production”.Considering post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, Russell remarked: “industry, sobriety, willingness to work for long hours for distant advantages, all these reappear”. What will happen in Russia, he asked, “when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?”

This is a question that we in contemporary advanced capitalist countries really need to ask of our own societies. Because we have reached a condition of “post-scarcity” – a state of affairs that could not be ascribed to Bertrand Russell’s 1930s’ England. “Post-scarcity” was a term coined by Murray Bookchin to describe the US of the late 1960s. It meant that society had advanced so far technologically that it was quite feasible to produce the goods that were needed with a fraction of the labour required in the heyday of heavy industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Productivity has increased exponentially since the sixties (though the rate of growth has been slower in the neoliberal era than its social democratic predecessor). General Motors is now making almost double the amount of vehicles it was in 1955 with a third of the workforce. The archetypal modern corporation, Apple, employs only 60,000 people globally.

At a time in history when, as the English thinker Dan Hind says, “the machinery of material production no longer needs more than a handful of us,” it is naively stupid to expect that merely exhalting work will shift this fundamental historical situation. Making paid employment more crucial to survival than it already is – 500,000 people in the UK are ‘employed’ because they work 6 hours a week – will not create the sustainable jobs that people, or a capitalism that craves effective demand, need.

There is another reason why idolising work is fundamentally out of time. Compared to Russell’s day, there are urgent and mounting environmental problems. To take just one example, arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than virtually anymore anticipated. More work – “altering,” in Russell’s phrase, “the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface” – is not part of the solution, it’s a major part of the problem. Ecologically, we, as a society, need less work to be done. We need to de-grow.

All this amounts to asking an elemental question, “one that Marx and Keynes asked repeatedly,” says Glaser, “but which seems to have mislaid amongst the papers on our desks – what is the point of work”. But this is question many people, and not just the powerful, will go to great lengths to avoid confronting. “Manual work is the ideal which is held before the young and is the basis of all ethical teaching,” said Russell in, In Praise of Idleness.

He was referring to Stalin’s Russia of the 1930s but delete ‘manual’ and you have a startlingly accurate description of the mores of contemporary Britain; a country that, in the opinion of the author Mark Fisher, has embraced “market Stalinism.” 30% of young people outside of university are unemployed but work, paid or unpaid, is exalted as both an ethical and practical ideal. “Arbeit Macht Frei” in the words of one Daily Mail columnist. Yes, really.

“What will happen” Russell went on to ask, “when the point has been reached where everybody could be comfortable without working long hours?” We now know what will happen – an intensification of the idealisation of work, a joyless embrace of the tyranny of immediate self-interest. A kind of tunnel vision that refuses to allow questions about the ultimate purpose of work to intrude.

It is tempting to wonder about the curious capacity of ideology to become more intransigent and boastful at precisely the moment when the objective justification for it dissipates. But there is also a stubborn nugget of truth at work here, albeit one fanned mercilessly by the Right. A human being, says Russell in his essay, inevitably consumes a certain amount of the products of human labour in his or her lifetime. Work is, to a greater or lesser extent, disagreeable. It is, therefore, unjust that a person should consume more than s/he produces.

“To this extent, the duty of work must be admitted,” says Russell, “but to this extent only. Or, in the unforgiving words of St Paul, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”.

The latter threat is at the heart of the Conservative assault on social security benefit claimants in Britain; an offensive, emboldened by opinion polls, that has resulted in many people in the seventh richest economy in the world having no food. Not insufficient food. No food. The strivers versus shirkers rhetoric (however divorced from reality) is founded on stoking a resentment that, while you have to go through the disagreeable experience of working every day, others do nothing. That it thrives by inflaming resentment, rather than resting on economic necessity, is demonstrated by the fact that the work obligation destroys paid employment.

Heaven knows I’m miserable now

One way to assuage this sense of resentment could be, of course, to make work more agreeable. But that doesn’t chime at all with the priorities of the age of austerity where everything should get worse. It’s ironic that, whereas in the 1980s the Thatcherite Right taunted the Left by saying it wanted to ‘level down’, now the reverse is true. The UK welfare benefit freeze – all benefits will, including tax credits, will rise by an under-inflation 1% -  is justified by the fact that employees are experiencing real term pay cuts. Cuts to public sector pensions are presented as reasonable because these state pensions are more generous than their private sector equivalents, where final salary schemes are becoming extinct. It is proposed to shorten school holidays in order to compete with China. Level down. Make life more miserable.

But there is still a dilemma here for a genuinely radical Left that isn’t in thrall to the work obsession, and is prepared to confront the question, “what is the point of work?” Without many of the basic commodities of modern society, life would be more a slog than it already is. Consumption, in a sense, makes life meaningful. “The problem with full supermarket shelves is that they’re not enough — not that they’re unwelcome or trivial,” writes Seth Ackerman in an illuminating essay, The Red and the Black.

“The citizens of Communist societies,” he goes on, “experienced the paucity, shoddiness and uniformity of their goods not merely as inconveniences; they experienced them as violations of their basic rights.” Many simple conveniences – lights that work, TVs that function, bath plugs that fit – instantly loom very large in importance when they malfunction. The second biggest cause of fires in Moscow in the 1980s, says the economist Ha-Joon Chang, was exploding TV sets. Despite the implications of 3D printing , and the inescapable post-scarcity fact that material production requires fewer and fewer people, useful commodities do not as yet make or repair themselves. Not everything can be performed by robots.

Can I do the mindless, repetitive unpleasant, dirty, smelly jobs please?

It is not mindlessly repeating conservative tautologies to point out that someone has to bake the bread, make the laptops, distribute the food, repair the washing machines, care for the elderly and clean the offices. To do, in other words, the disagreeable activities that few people would freely volunteer to do. At the same time you have to be living in a galaxy far, far away not to appreciate that many contemporary jobs are “socially useless”– hedge fund manager, sales director, lawyer, public relations executive, many types of manager etc etc. These jobs solely exist to further the interests of the organisations that create them  and in many cases generate harm for the public at large. The question for a post-capitalist Left is how do you get useful, necessary and disagreeable activities done, while excluding activities that are either superfluous or harmful?

One answer to the first half of that equation is a market of worker, not capitalist, controlled firms. The ability of firms to freely enter a market is, says Ackerman in the above essay, the way to avoid the scarcity of useful goods that characterised the Soviet bloc. But markets, worker-controlled or otherwise, also have it in their DNA to exploit opportunities to sell, go way beyond actual needs and try to out-muscle the competition. They are socially useless as well as socially useful. 

Bertrand Russell’s answer to this dilemma was what he termed a “sensible” organisation of production. “Owing to the absence of any central control (my italics) over production,” he wrote in In Praise of Idleness, “we produce hosts of things that are not wanted.” The presence of “central control”, he implied, would prevent any employee from being compelled to work more than four hours a day. There would be no unemployment and enough for everybody. Russell was more of an anarchist than a Communist but his embrace of “central control” still implies the kind of state central planning, whose pathologies we are far more attuned to now than when Russell was writing in 1932. The residual question that Russell’s “sensible organisation” solution does not address is who decides what is and is not wanted and how?

It is theoretically possible for the government to legislate that no-one is forced to work more than four hours a day, in much the same way that the French government instituted a 35 hour week in 2000. Over and above the difficulty that the direction of travel is resolutely in the opposite direction (we must all work harder we are told by politicians), the intrinsic problem with this solution is that the government attempts to impose sensible limits on an unreconstructed capitalist productive system that is full to the brim with socially useless activities, and will work tirelessly to nullify the work-limiting legislation. The “workers’ control” solution to overwork would entail the employees of particular firms insisting on a more civilised work-life balance, and/or rotation of work tasks, because they are in charge of the enterprise and they want it that way. But, externally, markets don’t produce “sensible organisation”. The firms within a market have to react to competition and the need to make a profit. A third solution can be seen in the popular assemblies that have sprung up in Europe in response to economic collapse and dysfunctional “democratic” political institutions. They have begun to set up cooperatives to provide for needs that are not satisfied by a failing economic system. A decade or so ago, the assemblies in Argentina, in response to an analogous situation, created enterprises such as community bakeries. The relevance here is that the assembly controls the enterprise and can insist upon humane working hours. But the scope of these assembly-controlled enterprises is, as yet, limited and way short of what any meaningful economy would comprise.

I can’t highlight the solution. But the disconnect between, on the one side, the declining demand for paid labour and the vanishing objective need for more production, and on the other, the social purpose of production and the desire for a meaningful and spacious life will bring immense pressure to bear to find a solution. But to crystallise the case for radically reduced working hours I believe we should concentrate on its opposite. What, in other words, is the point of not working, and that isn’t a non sequitur. It is this question of non-work that I want to examine in the second part of this article.