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 to 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 thousands 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 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).
“At all levels there is a denial of exploitation, oppression, imbalance of any kind,” says Eliane Glaser in her book, Get Real.
In America in the 1890s, Glazer points out, the poorest in society worked longer hours than the richest. By the 1990s the richest 10% were working longer hours than the poorest.
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 terms “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 the social ecologist 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 that used to be 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 postmodern corporation, Apple, employs only 60,000 people globally.
At a time in history when, as 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.