Not-working – Mat Little – In Praise of Idleness
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.”
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 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.
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.Advertisements