A Brief Reflection on Bertrand Russel's "In Praise of Idleness"
Early in Bertrand Russel's essay "In Praise of Idleness," Russell refers to “the morality of work [as] the morality of slaves,” an accurate rendering of how modern man views their indentured status within a (supposedly) post-industrial society. He proceeds to summarize this morality of “the new slave” by referring to capitalism’s fiat that “…work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.” In other words, the perfunctory nature of labor is not valued on its goodness or even utility but on how it benefits the company and its role within the gladiatorial ring called the world market. It is a myth that businesses naturally produce the most efficient and beneficial commodity for the world. Rather, the bourgeoisie craves the superiority of social standing and the vested interest of increasing profits just to see if they can get away with it. One thinks of Macbeth’s temptation to usurp the throne not out of any Machiavellian triumph but in order to grasp the palpable thrill of power.
The last to extol laisse faire economics, Russell reveals that our economic system does not serve individual interests so much as serve the individual interests of financiers and Wall Street speculators heading influential corporations. He writes, “The real villain, from this point of view, is the man who saves”. Adam Smith, who laid the bedrock for much of what we understand about modern economics evinces that “landlords, like all other men, love to reap what they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce” (Smith). Landlords in 1776 (the year Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published) were the equivalent of today’s business owners which society has apparently accepted this system to be a more “utilitarian” dispensation than the socialist utopia that Russell coyly nudges towards throughout the essay.
Since the early days of man’s revolt against an ensconced capitalism, men have espoused labor to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian revolution, positing that the greatest good for the greatest number of people ultimately canalizes the direction of society. Before even Marx’s prophetic considerations towards class struggle, figures as popular as Charles Dickens decried a utilitarian outlook in novels like Hard Times where the novelist lambasted an emphasis on a work ethic that adhered to factuality, a factuality derived from bourgeoisie values that emphasizes certain “facts” over others: “You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts [sic]: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” (Dickens, 9). This utilitarian adage, all too relevant in our factoid age, fails to regard the necessity of skepticism that may solidify the plans to bring about such world order about. So called “facts” are tenable in public and private discourse but they are used to hinder any other mode of thought that may break out of the rabid cycle of man’s societal malaise that seems to have originated from this emphasis on fact and reason. Much like the tyrannical classroom teacher who outlines the parameters of speech and in turn thought, it is only by breaking out of these parameters through unorthodox thought and action that the student may one day succeed the teacher and create a less tyrannical future for succeeding classrooms. Rarely do the utilitarian intentions of the ruling class achieve more happiness (even for themselves), but rationalize the sacrifice of freedom that we readily fork over to the status quo. And it is here that my utilitarian digression finally reverts to Russell’s polemics on labor.
Today is my first day off in seven days. This year has been my first year having to pay all of the conventional bills of 21st century living without the evasions of responsibility parental dwellings provide. Earlier this year I worked for over thirty days in a row (I literally lost count) in order to pay my rent, student loans, credit card debt, and (ha) utilities. At one point, nearly two thirds of my paycheck went to paying month’s rent – that’s before food and utilities entered into the equation. The point of this is not to bemoan the past or to start a discussion on the individual’s responsibility in preventing such conditions from arising, (as I concede they were avoidable to a certain degree) but to take into consideration how these are the conditions most people exist in today without the latitude of escape: returning to their parent’s home, moving to a cheaper residency, searching for a better paying job, etc. The fact of the matter is that these avenues are not open to millions of people in our country, and billions (with a B) worldwide. The psychological damage that comes with living in a disenfranchised, hostile, and defeated environment relevant to poverty strips away any tangible possibility for escaping the cycle of poverty. Some escape, true. But why should such dismal figures exist?
What Russell purposes (unfortunately without the stratagem to forge his paradigm of indolence) is to strive for a four-hour day of labor - a twenty-one-hour workweek. Before you cry out with the incredulous scoff of the pragmatist save your disbelief for after this historical context. Russell wrote the essay during the interwar period, just months before Hitler’s rise to power when mobilization and industry rose to commander the lives of individuals and repudiate the paltry freedoms that the western world allows. At one point, Russel equates Mussolini’s hyperbolic efficiency to what the rest of the world might mimic in time. Seeing Manhattan’s Midtown at 2:00 P.M. is enough to see the ant-like frenzy that drains the soul in the similar way a twelve-hour shift on the assembly line may have been, albeit on a futon with a MacBook Pro, 5-hour Energy, and Whole Foods fruit salad. Nevertheless, an overworked recipe for a drained mind and denuded existence. Because of the two looming shadows of war that Russell found himself engulfed between, the Great War thankfully corroborated the logistical possibility of a four-hour work day. He says “the war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world”. At a period of total war, the state (Britain) had its work force severally curtailed yet managed to function productively enough to not only run the strongest nation in the world but win the war against the German Empire and its allies. The centrality of this evidence serves the important role of lining up the state’s monomaniac fixation with the altruistic silver-lining of Russell’s essay. If the state really wanted to, it certainly could realize the utopia delineated by Russell.
But the agenda of the state would never view such impractical leisure time as a chance to improve their state of affairs. To expound briefly on the history of labor in the post-classical West, feudalism was a period marked by poor health and life-expectancy but it was a period where peasants worked languorously taking their time harvesting crops, sometimes taking week long vacations for weddings, and on some occasions only working for less than half the year (Parramore). Was it practical? Absolutely not! But one only needs to read their elementary Marx to know that all of our current labor that utilitarianism demands only goes to improve the lives of the bourgeoisie, while solidifying the working class’s worship of the bourgeoisie value system. One only needs to look at charts like these (Politizane) to know that in exchange for living longer lives we feed into a system for many more decades that exploits our labor and obfuscates our increasingly meaningless lives. (Politizane). Industrializing society took advantage of the impetus of progress and increased working days to fifteen hours at times, conditions that still exist in the third world and for six days a week if not more. Discussions like the one we’re having respond to the deplorable servitude industrialized employers are reduced to, discussions that have mandated forty-hour work weeks and eight hour days. But we all know that these sound official on paper and in practice are only available (if lucky enough) to certain strata within society. Utilitarian efforts demanded that these sacrifices be made in order to create a better future that we still await. A movement like the four-hour day which Russell purposes is the next step, and while the reader may not entirely sympathize with something so seemingly impossible, they can at least concede that less work would be a great step towards increasing man’s satisfaction on Earth.
Not only would this free time enable new methods in bettering the lives of others, especially in an age marked by secular meaning that necessitates reflection and personal exploration, but it would give individuals the energy to counter the very system which promotes the work ethic so strongly tied with our value system. The essay states this ostensible axiom clearly: “Manual work is the ideal which is held before the young, and is the basis of all ethical teaching”. The fact that schools emphasize job obtainment over ethics or environmental consciousness elucidates any confusion on where the state’s intentions lie: “The notion that the desirable activities are those that bring a profit has made everything topsy-turvy”. When we are given the leisure to embolden our hearts, rekindle our spirits, and face our friends and families not with the glum anxiety of having to avail a few hours without the onus of our careers, we can strengthen our bonds with each other and reinforce the solidarity that confronts the oppression of capitalism that forces debt and penury to consume our lives.
Something I strongly considered when reading this essay was the post-modern perspective of leisure still facilitating our contributions to the capitalist structure. Figures in the Frankfurt School along with more contemporary thinkers like Don Delillo and David Foster Wallace (who pretty much writes the entirety of Infinite Jest in regards to entertainment’s debilitating effects) understand that having more leisure time can be quite stupefying and something which directs our leisure, however quantified, into the inane pleasures of mass-consumerism and pablum that defeats what free-time should mean: the freedom to create more rich and purposeful lives. It’s far too easy to observe that most of the leisure time we spend consists of Netflix binge-watching, Reddit addictions, and consuming sports-obsession. Seeing inactivity like this, almost makes me prefer the energy of the Googleplex to the supposed value of a crowd of fifty thousand paint-faced spectators. My defense of copious leisure is supported by the education free time will allow us to better ourselves to make more educated choices on value and worth when partaking in entertainment culture. I’ll refrain from more derisive cultural critiques, but the point is that insipid dialogue and tired action sequences will become more evident and eschewed in preference for new art that challenges our perceptions, vitalizing new progressions towards a class consciousness that would conduce something like the four-hour work day to fruition. More free time would allow us the energy to participate in active pleasures (e.g. the production of art, reading, sports) and not passive pleasures (e.g. internet, movies, video games, etc.). Not to say that this is about waging war on passive pleasures, so much as ensuring that active pleasures don’t have to worry about being totally eradicated.
Russell concludes with the idea that, “Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.” The fact that we are reading an essay like this would assume that we prefer education over ignorance, and it is with such leisure that ignorance can be deftly avoided. “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.” It is my belief that our age lacks expression - expression which allows us to nudge closer to the identities we had before rationality, progress, and Sisyphean careers took that away from us. Unfortunately, enacting the dreams of a work week cut in half are difficult to obtain, but I wrote this essay not to galvanize the momentum of a movement similar to Fight for 15 but to disseminate the benefits of working less, showing that being overworked hasn’t always been the case, and perhaps persuading you to ignore a higher paying job if it means having to double your work load. A four-hour work day would be nice, and I’m sure I don’t need to write an essay to convince individuals to vote for such an initiative, but know that overworking might be the principle reason of our common unhappiness. Russell’s essay is a surprisingly accessible and resonating piece of prose I recommend to all. As Russell jests at the essay’s introduction, “I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain”.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print
Parramore, Lynn Stuart. "Why a Medieval Peasant Got More Vacation Time than You." The Great Debate RSS. Reuters, 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 July 2016. <http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/08/29/why-a-medieval-peasant-got-more-vacation-time-than-you/>.
Politizane. "Wealth Inequality in America." YouTube. YouTube, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 06 July 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPKKQnijnsM>
Russell, Bertrand. "In Praise of Idleness By Bertrand Russell." In Praise of Idleness By Bertrand Russell. An Anarchist Reading List, n.d. Web. 06 July 2016. <http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html>.