Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter One

“In Praise of Idleness,” pages 11-25

The essay opens by noting that this is a case of doing what I say, not what I do. I [Russell] was imprinted in childhood with the notion that work was virtuous, and my dutiful nature rendered me evermore hardworking. But I do not believe that hard work and virtue are kin; indeed, I believe that this opinion is harmful, and that a world of more leisure would be a better place.

The notion that there are a fixed number of jobs, so that one person stopping work makes way for someone else to work, is not correct and of course not the basis for my call for idleness. A worker earns money, and the spending of this money helps to feed others. A person who chooses to save (and not through a bank), however, does not generate the income and employment benefits that come from a spender.

Many savers lend their money to a government, which typically needs to borrow to pay the monetary tab of its previous or intended wars. Such a loan promotes the military, and is akin to hiring assassins. “Obviously it would be better if he [a saver who lends to a government] spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling [p. 12].”

You might think that investing saved resources in an industry will generate jobs, but most such businesses fail, and so the labor that goes into them is wasted. At least if you spend on parties you and your friends get some consumption benefits, and the suppliers (including “the bootlegger”) earn income. Nonetheless, those who become bankrupt through failed investments are seen as unfortunate, while those whose excessive spending supports sociability are held in contempt. [These passages of Russell’s can be compared with those of Adam Smith, who also compares unfortunate investors with spenders, and differentiates between those who spend on durable goods and those who spend on immediate consumption. The wealth of society is advanced more by spending on durables than by throwing parties, according to Smith. But not all dimensions of concern favor the person who invests in durable goods (II.3.42): “I would not, however, by all this be understood to mean that the one species of expence always betokens a more liberal or generous spirit than the other. When a man of fortune spends his revenue chiefly in hospitality, he shares the greater part of it with his friends and companions; but when he employs it in purchasing such durable commodities, he often spends the whole upon his own person, and gives nothing to anybody without an equivalent. The latter species of expence, therefore, especially when directed towards frivolous objects, the little ornaments of dress and furniture, jewels, trinkets, gewgaws, frequently indicates, not only a trifling, but a base and selfish disposition.”]

Back to Russell. Work involves either acting upon matter, or ordering other people to act upon matter. [This sounds like a Russellian trope I have come across before, but I cannot place it. Maybe it is Marx instead? – RBR] “The first kind [of work] is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid [p. 13].” There can be an extensive ecology of order-givers and their advisors. Politics involves opposing advisors, and the requisite skill is persuasion, not knowledge of the specific area of contention. Besides the two types of workers, Europe also has a landowning class that receives tribute. Landowners are exemplars of idleness, but not the species that I [Russell] favor. They can only be idle because others are hard-working, and landowners have no interest in seeing their brand of idleness become more universally established.

Up to the Industrial Revolution, a hardworking family generally could maintain subsistence, with most of the surplus being taken by the military and the clergy. In difficult times, the working people might starve, but the military and clergy generally remained provided for. This historical legacy is no longer descriptive of much of the world, but views concerning the virtues of work tend to be relics of this earlier era. The leisure that previously belonged only to the small privileged classes can now, thanks to increased productivity, be distributed more broadly. “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery [p. 14].” [So, for Russell, the virtue of work is one of those ideas which have become obsolete.]

Eventually, the force that allowed the privileged to grab surplus production spawned a legitimating ideology advancing the morality of hard work and a duty to transfer the surplus. The ideology exists to this day: the vast majority of British people would be astonished at a proposal that the King receive a standard, working-class salary. At times the privileged classes have used the leisure that was bestowed upon them by the exploitation of working people in ways that have advanced civilization; nonetheless, it is the leisure, not the hard work of others, that is desirable. Civilization now can move forward through an alternate channel, one that spreads leisure widely.

Wartime demonstrated the vast extent of the economic surplus. Despite huge swaths of humanity, both men and women, being removed from productive labour in favor of war making and materiel manufacture, the average person on the side of the Allies was maintained in excellent physical condition. (Don’t be fooled by the mysteries of finance, whereby wartime borrowing generates the illusion that today’s subsistence is provided by the future.) The war indicated that with a rational approach to production, everyone could be maintained despite only a small number of workers being devoted to providing the means of maintenance. A peacetime version of such rationality would allow living standards to be sustained on just four hours of work (per worker) per day. Instead, the chaotic approach to production was reinstituted post-war, where long hours for some workers were matched by involuntary unemployment – and starvation – for others.

Consider [shades of Adam] a pin factory, that happens to make the entire world supply of pins, with employees working eight hours per day. Technical advance brings a machine that allows pins to be made with only half the labor previously required. But pins already are fairly inexpensive, and even with a price fall, the world doesn’t really require any more pins. “In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before [p. 16].” But what will actually happen is that there will be lots of short-term disruption and bankruptcies, and in the end, half of the workers will continue to work eight hours per day and the other half will become unemployed. Note that the rational method and the actual method involve the same aggregate amount of leisure, but the rational method makes leisure more widespread while still maintaining full employment. The actual method ensures misery for all, the unemployed and the overworked alike.

Rich people cannot abide leisure for poor people. Efforts to cut the huge working hours (even for children) in the nineteenth century routinely were met with claims that the long hours contributed to morality. But the duty to work should go no further than restitution for a person’s maintenance. Of course, much of the upper class is allowed their copious consumption without any work requirement. But their leisure is not as objectionable as are the requisite long working hours of the non-rich.

Rich men in America often work long hours, and are opposed to leisure time for the working class or even for their own sons. The aristocratic duty of leisure is one that they endorse only for women.

Making good use of leisure is itself a skill that requires education and refinement. People who have not developed this skill, and who are habituated to long hours of work, will find leisure extremely dull. “But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things [p. 18].” So let’s make sure that the widespread leisure that is available in theory is available in practice.

Soviet ideology promoting the virtue of work is the usual elite claptrap aimed at the poor – though the concocted deity who approves is not a traditional god, but rather dialectical materialism. The rise of the Russian proletariat has some parallels with the rise of feminism. Women traditionally were praised for their virtue, which was a religious obligation, and made to believe that the barriers erected to preclude female power were more than compensated for by their saintliness. [Russell is echoing his godfather; for instance, from Chapter One (page 27) of The Subjection of Women: “All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have—those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man.”]

Back to Bertie. Manual labor has been extolled in Russia just as the virtue of female dependency has been trumpeted more broadly. Russia even has its version of religious revival meetings, where young people are barraged with appeals to provide labor for some special project, appeals based on the virtue of such labor. Perhaps such an approach is reasonable while Russia remains undeveloped, and not yet in a position where leisure could be universal. It is likely, however, that even as the Russian economy expands, it will be hard for the authorities to allow leisure to take hold, given the ideological attachment to manual work as good in and of itself (page 21).

The west has its own approaches to make sure that manual labor is highly valued. With no interest in economic justice, the fact that consumption is skewed towards the rich means that everyone else must work for their daily bread. The reserve army of the unemployed ensures that output is scarce, so that surely, it would seem, widespread leisure would not be compatible with decent living standards. “When all these methods prove inadequate, we have a war: we cause a number of people to manufacture high explosives, and a number of others to explode them, as if we were children who had just discovered fireworks [p. 20].”

Manual labor is necessary but not a goal in itself, though we often extoll it as though it were such a goal. This preaching serves to keep the poor in their place; the rich “preach the dignity of labour, while taking care themselves to be undignified in this respect [p. 21].” But no manual labourer is taken in, no one views his leisure as an unfortunate but occasionally necessary intrusion into his righteous employment. Rather, work is regarded as necessary for life, but their happiness is connected to their leisure. [Bertie here is unwittingly(?) seconding Marx’s views of labor under capitalism: “First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” The reason that I suspect (but do not know) that the connection is unwitting is because the quoted passage comes from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which were published in the original German by the Soviets just a few years before In Praise of Idleness, and were not available in English for a couple more decades.]

Will people know how to fill their leisure time if we instituted a four-hour working day? Surely in the past, when people were more light-hearted, this would not have been an issue. But now efficiency is king, and activity that does not entail financial profit is suspect. Those who provide commodities and even leisure goods, then, are engaged in worthwhile work, it is thought, while those who consume any more than is necessary to remain a productive worker are being dangerously unserious. This view is obviously mistaken. “Whatever merit there may be in the production of goods must be entirely derivative from the advantage to be obtained by consuming them [p. 22].” But society acts as if it is more concerned with production than with consumption, and undervalues the happiness induced by enjoying consumption. [Adam Smith once again serves as a precursor (IV.8.49): “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”]

A four-hour work day doesn’t mean that the rest of the hours are frittered away. With the necessaries and conveniencies [as Adam Smith might have put it] of life secure, the remaining time can be used in freely chosen pursuits. Education must be up to the task, however, of inculcating preferences for, and knowledge of, fruitful uses of leisure time. These needn’t be elitist tastes. They would be active, however, unlike the passive spectatorship that now is common, and is the requisite use of leisure given long work hours.

The leisure class used to comprise but the privileged few, whose privilege undermined their ethics and sympathies; nonetheless, even in this withered state, most of the progress of civilization, in arts, sciences, philosophy, and literature, can be laid at the feet of the leisure class. But the unequal distribution of leisure was extraordinarily inefficient, as much of the leisure class had neither the talent nor the diligence to make much of their gift. The universities now provide a more organized attempt to promote progress, but they, too, are not a full answer in a world where those outside of the universities lack unstructured time. Those inside the universities are too cut off from the larger society, too restricted in their style of communication, and too tied to the status quo framework to induce major strides for civilization.

The better system is where limited work hours for all ensures that any person with passion and a scientific or artistic or literary idea can pursue that idea, without being beholden to the market for livelihood. [A similar formulation appeared in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] People with political or economic notions will not be cloistered in an ivory tower, and hence not as susceptible as they now are to give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. Physicians and teachers will have the time to keep up with the advances in their fields.

Happiness will spread as fatigue and strained nerves become less common. Those four hours of work will not exhaust laborers, and leisure will still be scarce enough to command a premium. The increase in happiness will lead to more kindliness, and even war (which involves a good deal of work) will be less welcome. Good-naturedness derives from security, not from constant struggle. We can have security without our current combination of overwork for some and unemployment for others. Russell concludes his essay with a resounding echo of what his godfather, John Stuart Mill, wrote nearly 90 years earlier. Here is Mill: “Hitherto [1848] it is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human being.”

And here is Russell’s update: “Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever [p. 25].”