The Promise of an Unhurried Society


Unemployment and underemployment have become chronic maladies in Euro-American societies. They are undeniably sources of great mental distress, but universal employment is an alternative that is conservative, desperate and unattainable. An “organised diminution of work” would result in a healthier, less exhausted and more interesting society, and enable the contours of a genuinely participatory democracy to take shape.

In July a college lecturers’ union in Britain released a survey of so-called ‘NEETS’ - young people, aged 16 to 24 who are not in employment, education or training. There are estimated to be 900,000 NEETS in the UK. One third of the 1,000-strong sample said they had suffered from depression, 37% said they rarely left their home and 39% were beset by stress. One workless 23 year old told the BBC: “I rarely go out and feel so down about myself. I’ve tried so hard to find a job but I feel no-one wants me.”

According to David Stuckler, co-author of The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, Britain is “one of the clearest expressions of how austerity kills”. Suicides were falling before the recession, Stuckler relates in an interview. Then they spiked in 2008 and 2009 as unemployment shot up, only to fall again when jobless levels declined.

Unemployment, it is clear, is terrible for your mental health; provoking feelings of isolation, unwantedness and a corrosive sense of not contributing to society. But unemployment – and underemployment - is a perennial blight in virtually all advanced capitalist countries. With onset of the ‘Global Financial Crisis’, the blight of joblessness has become chronic, reaching an eye-watering rate of 27% in Spain and Greece. 

Sinister consensus

So a consensus has formed, in Britain, as elsewhere, that sees joblessness as the enemy and employment as salvation. Trade unions in the UK want stable and rewarding jobs, the British Labour party now brands itself as “the party of work” while the ruling Conservative party, in a move of cynical callousness, justifies the withdrawal of state benefits from the disabled on the grounds of offering “tough love” to people stranded at home, doing nothing, in order to “help them into work”. 

There is something inherently wrong, indeed sinister, with this myopic consensus, as I hope part one made apparent. Yet it derives its potency from a pervasive and genuine fear, that of the destructive effects of non-activity. This fear becomes all-consuming so that it is immaterial what work is for or what it entails, only that it exists. Zero-hour contracts – where an employee does not know how many hours they will be contracted to work in a given week – are mushrooming in Britain. More than 1 million workers, it is estimated, are subject to them. While close to 80% of new jobs pay below £7.95 an hour (the minimum wage rate is £6.19). The overwhelming need is to be wanted by an employer, to avoid the predations of unemployment, to not be excluded from mainstream society. This consensus is both conservative and desperate.

Alternatives to exhaustion

There are innumerable advantages to the “organised diminution of work”, that Bertrand Russell advocated in In Praise of Idleness. Genuine choices would arise if your life was not dominated by the need to serve the interests of another. More time to spend on caring, child-rearing, studying or artistic endeavours, for example. It is not hard to compile such a list. A healthier, more relaxed and more interesting society would result. Russell himself estimated that at least one percent of the population – if not distracted by the requirement to spend most of their useful hours on activities designated by an employer – would produce works of public importance and “since”, he argued, “they will not depend on these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered”. It is, I feel, partly to block the emergence of such original thinking, a bubbling and multi-pronged challenge to mainstream explanations in economics and politics, that the boot remains firmly planted on the neck, as far as working hours are concerned.

But there is one activity which is both enabled by a radical reduction in working hours and also has the potential to substitute for the cohesive side effects of paid employment. I am speaking of democratic self-management. The English economist, Harry Shutt, has said that “in the absence of productive work opportunities … potentially the human race could rediscover the opportunity to practise direct democracy somewhat in the manner of the ancient Athenians – but without their need to depend on slaves to do all the menial work.”

Time for democracy

There are many modern forms of direct democracy – participatory budgeting, worker self-directed enterprises, citizen assemblies, random selection. They are all based on the idea that ordinary citizens have the competence to run their own affairs and that an outsourcing of power to representatives is not necessary for good governance. But what they require to thrive is an abundance of time. Genuine democracy is not possible in a time-pressed, hurried society. Democracy, to work, has to be learnt by experience, by practising it.

A famous ancient Athenian, Aristotle, remarked that excellence was a habit, not an act. You become good at something, he said, by doing it repeatedly. Democracy, in its classical sense, is not a habit for people in modern societies. When it does appear, sporadically, its practices have to be learnt all over again and fitted in with all the other demands of life. Work, by contrast, is a habit and one we are loath to shake off. Management is a habit, careers are a habit, consumption is a habit. The modern capitalist economy has been described as a “gigantic school” doting on and encouraging some skills and allowing others to atrophy.

Contrasting the practices of Athenian democracy with modern notions of politics, Murray Bookchin, wrote: “The ‘political process’, to use a modern cliché, was not strictly institutional and administrative; it was intensely processual in the sense that politics was an inexhaustible, everyday ‘curriculum’ for intellectual, ethical and personal growth – paidea that fostered the ability of citizens to creatively participate in public affairs.”

The promise of idleness

Some people may find the word “curriculum” vaguely threatening but I think it is very apt. If work is to fade in significance, as it is doing and will surely continue to do, then its associated blessings – a sense of belonging, validation and of making a contribution to society – will have to be replaced by something. The fear of a void of non-activity needs to be assuaged. We need a society attuned to post-scarcity, in contrast to this one which is in flagrant denial. John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, said the abiding problem for people once the economic problem had been solved, would be what to do with their freedom, how exactly to occupy their abundant leisure. Keynes, who was irredeemably elitist, could not answer his own question. 

 We, however, can. Democratic self-management, in my opinion, is both enabled by a post-scarcity society and vital to such a future society’s inner strength. The UK government, backed by the opposition Labour party, wants to create a “nation of entrepreneurs”. A genuine Left movement should have the opposite endeavour, to create a “nation of self-managers”, even if the phrase sounds horribly clunky. Once that commitment is made, through forms such as participating budgeting, citizen assemblies, participatory commissioning or worker co-ops, then the process, as Bookchin recognised, becomes as important as the end point. Skills such as public speaking, formulating positions, dissensus, disagreeing with the opinions of others whilst respecting them, need to be learnt and, as objectively as possible, taught. What passes for the Left nowadays seems only to know what it is against and cannot encapsulate what it is for. Economic stagnation and austerity has only further exposed this deficiency. The promise of idleness should be recognised as an opportunity to fill the vacuum.

Editorial Comment

This is part two of the article In Praise of Idleness and Other Scandalous Notions published on New Compass in May 2013.