“For ages, the rich and their sycophants have written in praise of ‘honest toil’, have praised the simple life, have professed a religion which teaches that the poor are much more likely to go to heaven than the rich, and in general have tried to make manual workers believe that there is some special nobility about altering the position of matter in space, just as men tried to make women believe that they derived some special nobility from their sexual enslavement.”
– Bertrand Russell, “In Praise of Idleness,” 1932
When I get really busy the first thing to go is usually the housework. I can only put this off for so long though, because I don’t live alone, and because sooner or later we’re going to run out of dishes – the housework is never really cancelled, it’s just delayed. After that are the political demonstrations, conferences, general assemblies, and other open invitation events that I like to attend, but often don’t. Next are the personal social engagements: the parties, the invitations to hang out, that sort of thing. Then there are my volunteer commitments, the things I’m organizing or helping out with, but that I might be able to offload onto someone else. Last is my work, which, as a student, includes assignments, papers, critical readings (i.e. the ones I can’t skip or pretend to have read), and so on.
A while ago I sat down and thought about this list, and about how the things that are the most important to me, are often the first things to go. I thought about how often we’re pushed to give up on our opportunities to learn from one another, and connect, and organize, and discuss the “big picture,” in favour of checking off another thing on our to-do list, or taking on an unpaid internship, or working overtime, or filling out another application, and how troubling this is when I think about the broad, social implications. I think there is an (ironically) widely shared sentiment that we live in a society that is increasingly alienating, isolating, and individualizing us to the point that we don’t even have a real understanding of what it means to live together, on one planet. A lot of these fears get projected onto social media, mobile phones, and the Internet, which are alternately viewed as either the source of or the cure for all our social ills, but I think it runs deeper than that.
About a year ago I read an essay by Roy Rosenzweig called “The Rise of the Saloon,” which talks about the effect of industrialization on the ability of workers to socialize during work, and the emergence of leisure time in the late 19th and early 20th century. As people moved from farms and workshops to industrial factories, they were forced, in the name of efficiency and profit, into more structured working regimens that were better suited to the monotonous rhythm of the machines, putting an end to the casual drinking, gambling, storytelling, singing, and debating that had characterized their previous places of work. The crackdown on workplace drinking however, and the tightening of other disciplinary measures, also made working conditions more intolerable. As a result, employees began resisting en masse, demanding shorter working days and higher pay. As working time and leisure time became increasingly distinct, new industries formed to fill the gaps. Where drinking was at first a largely informal affair carried out at work or in kitchen barrooms run mostly by working-class women, new regulations on the sale and distribution of alcohol pushed people out of their homes, and into the new saloons, which became the only establishments where alcohol could be reliably acquired. In effect this allowed the upper classes, the people who owned the factories and the saloons, and who wrote the legislation, to recuperate the money that they had ceded to their employees in the form of increased pay. Having fought so hard to acquire (or rather recover) some small amount of free time, workers were now compelled to spend that time consuming alcohol and other commodities.
This essay, I think, perfectly captures some of the dynamics that are still at work today. The pressure to enjoy ourselves, to spend what little free time we have on “leisure activities,” most of which cost us money (bars, luxury vacation packages, spas, amusement parks, IMAX movies, shopping sprees, videogames, conventions, concerts, the list of pay-to-play entertainment options goes on and on), goes hand in hand with the pressure to feel pride in how busy we are, and to feel shame any time we feel we’re “slacking off.” From this point of view, leisure is just another task we need to squeeze into our calendars.
I work in academia, and while it’s definitely not the worst working environment, it’s certainly one in which everyone feels constant pressure to be more productive, more “passionate,” and thus busier, than everyone else around them. It’s a rat race, and it’s terrible for us—it hurts our work, our mental health, our families, our friends, and our society. Of all the things that tend to fall through on a regular basis, it’s the collaborations with people and organizations outside our institutions or departments, because socializing and connecting with one another is not considered to be a productive use of time in and of itself. Unless you can put it on your CV, meetings are a waste, conferences are a waste, conversations are a waste, non-academic writing like this blog post are a waste, self-expression is a waste, it’s all a waste. Not everyone actually believes this (most probably don’t), but almost everyone acts as if it were true, because our careers depend on us playing along. This is how ideology works in the end—it’s not about what we think, it’s about what we actually do, how we perform, how we act with one another.
The first thing to go when we run short on time is the one thing that actually makes social change possible. And the busier we get, the less effectively we’ll be able to organize. Organization for social change takes time: time when we aren’t working for others, time when we can imagine something other than the next deadline, time to care for ourselves and others, time to discover how we all fit together, time to be productive on our own terms, as opposed to somebody else’s.
This is why I think the labour movement is so important. Because when we work, and how we work, affect everything else. The 15Now campaign, to take just one example, isn’t just about underpaid employees finally making a living wage. It’s about a whole lot of people suddenly having a little more time and freedom to think about something other than how they’re going to eat that night, or which bill they’re going to pay off, or when they’ll get evicted. It’s about all that human potential, which we’re currently squandering on the altar of the “bottom line,” because everything that happens under capitalism, so the dictate goes, should happen only so long as someone, somewhere, is profiting.
To quote, once again, Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness”:
“I shall not dwell upon the fact that, in all modern societies outside the USSR, many people escape even this minimum amount of work, namely all those who inherit money and all those who marry money. I do not think the fact that these people are allowed to be idle is nearly so harmful as the fact that wage-earners are expected to overwork or starve.
If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment — assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure…
The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists.”
If this was true in 1932, it is even truer today with the current advances in automation and computing. The question is, who is benefiting from this automation, and what will happen as more and more people are replaced by machines? Why are so many of us spending all of our time working in bullshit jobs that seem to serve no purpose beyond generating a profit for a few wealthy investors (not to mention certain sectors, such as the arms industry, that actually cause widespread harm)? If things continue along their current path, it seems we are heading for a world in which mass unemployment, and mass starvation, are the norm. Without adequate mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, unemployment, rather than granting us some much-needed free time, becomes a death sentence, or at the very least a burden, as we compete with one another to find another job, not because we want to work, but because our survival depends on it. If the power of the labour movement lies in the ability of workers to withhold their labour, to refuse to work, what happens when that labour no longer holds any value to the people in power?
This is the real threat of the doctrine of work: that we will end out working ourselves into obsolescence. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be part of a system that puts profit over people when we reach that point.
Perhaps we’ll never reach it, but I think it’s worthwhile, at the very least, fighting for the time and space to imagine, and produce, alternatives.