“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, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached… the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1932
In his uncannily robust essay now 80 years old, British philosopher Bertrand Russell argues for less work and more leisure time with the confident clarity usually reserved for opposing jeremiads. Never has the view been more relevant than in today’s 24/7 cycle of unceasing, you-should-be-doing-more mentality. It begs the question, why?
Russell reduces “work” to the naked basics.
“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.
“Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.”
This last part is truly prescient. If only Russell had been as accurate in his analysis of the first part: in the future, “work” would have nothing to do with “altering the earth.” Wall Street was vulnerable in 1932, so it’s understandable that a mind as brilliant as his didn’t foresee that mountains upon mountains of bullshit consulting jobs and intangible financial schemes would also be called ‘products” and passed off as “work” even at the expense of producing nothing whatsoever (save mass heartache and devastation during every bust).
It begs the same question; why dedicate ourselves to “working” with such ferocity? We’ve hit this odd pinnacle where almost everyone seems maxed out, stressed out and borderline burned out, whether they’re selling microchips or television scripts or specialty cocktails. Our dedication to toil has made us all Hollow Men.
Does the Invisible Hand propagate the philosophy “hard work” to keep us busy and tired enough to not revolt? Because the Arab Spring has illustrated with undeniable lucidity that gross inequality and socio-economic paralysis make revolution inevitable. There’s no motivation more appealing than bringing down the kleptocracy.
Imagine a four-hour workday instead of 8 or 10. Or a four-day work week and three days off. Would we have enough time to get done what we had to do? What would the actual drawbacks be if the answer was no? And couldn’t we see those drawbacks as positives down the line? Wouldn’t that time off from working for the man help everyone achieve what so many of their bosses ask of them, which is to have a positive attitude and think outside the box? Can’t think outside the box when you spend 12 hours a day sitting inside one.
So the downside is that some things would take a little longer to get done. The upside is that another day off is cost effective, healthier physically and a psychologically change of routine that is pure value added. Imagine, for the sake of the mental exercise, all of us being better off with less. Is it possible? Doesn’t anything seem better than the status quo?
“Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price.
In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”
The rich have always preached the virtues of labor, while taking every precaution to remain virtue-less themselves in this regard. If you ask the laborer what he thinks, you’d see he’s evolved from feeling some pride in his work to hoping to God he hits his Powerball numbers. What he wants to do with the money is a telltale sign of our system’s demise. He’d trade up in a heartbeat. Bigger house, better car, largest flatscreen to consume the same banal entertainment offered to him when he was just a worker bee. None of it would go back into the system.
It’s not his fault, per se. His imagination has atrophied so severely that he’s incapable of breaking the cycle of desire. But could you imagine if he was? Could you imagine if he had the resources to formulate a goal worthy of his efforts because he wasn’t fried sideways from an unceasing if not uninspired donkey load of senseless toil? Might he not give more back to the society that asks so much from him? Might he not improve his life and others around him in pursuit of something loftier than zoning out in front of a demographically tailored action movie with a bag of genetically modified chips and a case of tasteless domestic beer?
Where has our capacity for play gone? The cult of efficiency disqualified it. And we are sowing the seeds of this in our children with the recent unreasonable trend of a spike in homework. Where has our sense of altruism gone? Has the zeitgeist of consumerism commodified it all so easily?
Everything is done in the name of something else. We work so our kids can go to good schools, so we can get away from work on vacations, so we can die wealthy enough to be buried in top of the line coffins. Where has the pride of our labor gone? How in the hell do we tip the scales back the other way just the slightest bit? We know the answers deep down, but we’re afraid to utter it in public: we need to start fucking off more.
It should be mandated by our government that every citizen attend a three day music festival once a year, and hallucinate heavily during it. It should be required that we read fiction and poetry on a weekly basis, and discuss it informally under the influence of tequila. It should be enforced by penalty of law that we spend at least a month unplugged in nature, naked.
“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity.
Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue… Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid… Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion.”
It’s not asking for that much. Just a return to balance. To our natural state of existing on a planet that should have us in awe upon opening our eyes every morning instead of ignoring it from the dread of lugging ourselves through gridlock to a job we dread more than death itself. We need to feed ourselves, yes. We need to clothe our children, of course. But let us take a page from the great slackers who were ultimately completely unselfish. It was Neil Young who so wisely said, “There’s a lot to learn from wasting time.”