Photo by Getty Images/erhui1979.
“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, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”
There’s a lot packed into that sentence, which is as relevant today as when it was written 86 years ago. It comes from Bertrand Russell’s 1932 essay, "In Praise of Idleness." In it he urged us to realize we have been duped into working more than we have to. Rather we should work no more than four hours a day, and spend the rest of our time embracing leisure and “idleness”.
But first things first: is there really too much work done in the world? Given what we hear from politicians and economists, it seems like there’s not enough work being done. Economic growth is our society’s overriding imperative. Unemployment is the enemy. “Jobs, jobs, jobs” is the mantra.
But if you step back and put our present condition into historical perspective, things start to look a little different. It could be said that there are two distinct periods in economic history: the phase from the dawn of time until about 1650; and the phase from 1650 until now. In the former, nothing changed for centuries at a time. Our ancestors lived an existence barely above subsistence in conditions we’d consider tantamount to crippling poverty. They had to toil in order to survive.
Any innovations or improvements in productivity typically translated into increases in population, and these extra people sucked up all the additional goods, leaving everyone in basically the same state. In fact, according to Max Roser, economist at the University of Oxford and founder of Our World in Data, people living in England in 1270 had the same average income as people living in England in 1650: a paltry $1,700 per annum in today’s money. As Russell pointed out, any surplus that was generated was funneled to the elites—the warriors, priests and land owners—eventually enabling small segment of population to flourish (and work less) at the expense of the masses.
Then, in 1650, everything changed. Technology, automation, and industrialization set modern economies on an exponential journey upward, with each generation earning more than the last. By 1850, only 200 years later, GDP per capita in England—which represents the economic output per person across the country—had gone up three-fold. One hundred years later, it had gone up eight times. By 2016, GDP per capita in England was over 30 times what it was in 1650. Similar gains have been seen in all the world’s industrialized nations.
Yet, here we are, the beneficiaries of unprecedented abundance, and most of us are still working as if our lives depended on it. Wylie Bradford, senior lecturer in economics history at Macquarie University says that, as a society, we can choose to cash in our productivity increases either in terms of more money or less work. But just about every step of the way, we’ve chosen money.
Why? This is where we come to Russell’s observation that we’ve been duped to believe that work is a virtue. It started with the ruling class that sucked up any surplus we created. They were the ones who preached that work was its own reward. “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,” wrote Russell.
This narrative persists to this day, with politicians and economist continuing to frame work as inherently virtuous. One aspect of this narrative is that in this hostile and competitive world, it’s only the disciplined and hardworking folk who thrive. If you work hard, you’ll succeed. Conversely, if you fail, then you must not have worked hard enough.
According to this narrative, taking away the fruits of someone’s labor—such as through taxation—is inherently unethical, more so if it’s then handed over to someone who is undisciplined and lazy. “Lifters and learners”, as former Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey put it. The result: tax cuts for the wealthy (they’ve worked hard, they deserve it), cuts to welfare (they’re lazy, they don’t) and an obsession with growing the economy (GDP is our society’s measure of success). According to this line of thinking, promoting idleness is tantamount to corrupting the moral order by undermining discipline and rewarding laziness.
However this is not just the thinking of capitalists: Work as a "virtue" also has its roots in the thinking of Karl Marx. To Marx, our capacity to change the world via our productive capacities is fundamental to being human. Work is inexorably linked to self-realization and is what gives life meaning. Full employment is not just about maximizing economic growth but enabling each person to maximize their potential. Hence the labor movement, the obsession with jobs, and the idea that unemployment is the ultimate enemy—that promoting idleness is tantamount to promoting despair.
Russell had a different perspective on work. He claimed that most genuinely productive labor, which was necessary to sustain our lives, was tantamount to toil. It was valuable only in terms of what it produced, so it should be minimized as much as possible. And the industrial revolution made it possible to minimize it a great deal.
If all we wanted to do was satisfy our basic needs, we’d only have to work a few hours each day, or perhaps only a couple of days each week. Certainly, to give up some luxuries, which evidence shows do little to bring us lasting happiness anyway. Instead, we would become rich in time.
But what would we do? As it stands, when we are not working for money or to maintain our homes, we tend to spend our time in passive consumption. We eat, drink, consume media, and buy stuff.
It’s a horrifying vision to imagine vast swathes of humanity furiously consuming for several days each week, but Russell didn’t think leisure necessarily equated to “passive and vapid” consumption. When we work ourselves to exhaustion, it’s not surprising that we don’t have much productive capacity left and all we want to do is consume. But if we only spent a portion of our productive energies in paid work, we’d have plenty left over to spend enriching our lives.
He noted that even the ruling class of old, while abounding with lazy consumers, also “cultivated the arts and discovered the science; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relation”. The leisure class produced a lot of slack socialites and fox hunters, but it also produced Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Shakespeare.
So too, argued Russell, if we worked less, we would be liberated to explore our creative and intellectual potential. “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,” wrote Russell. “Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.”
In our world of automation and artificial intelligence, and with increasing awareness of the finite limits of natural resources, Russell’s message is as relevant as it ever was. In fact, it might become a necessity. As machines take over more and more of our jobs, we may be forced to work less. Rather than being a social calamity—as our current political thinking will likely paint it to be—it could be the final great liberation gifted to us by the industrial revolution. Even if a sizable proportion of the population chose to remain idle on the couch, I suspect most of us would be motivated to create and not just consume.
As Russell writes in his essay, “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 forever.”
Tim Dean holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of New South Wales in evolution and morality. Follow him on Twitter @ockhamsbeard. Reprinted from New Philosopher, an Australian-based quarterly magazine devoted to exploring philosophical ideas from past and present thinkers on ways to live a more fulfilling life.