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More Praise for Idleness

Bertrand Russell argued that the time spent working by an average person should be drastically reduced, work being an overrated virtue. Paul Western believes that ‘idleness’ is still not valued highly enough.

In his 1932 essay ‘In Praise of Idleness’, Bertrand Russell argued that work was an overrated virtue, and that civilised living demanded leisure time in which personal interests could be pursued. Moreover, he believed he was writing in an era when the mechanisation of production had reached a point such that no-one needed to work more than twenty hours a week or so in order to make a fair contribution to society. And yet he saw a society in which large numbers were left unemployed whilst most of the rest were overworked (often providing products and services of questionable value). Despite today’s even more effective production, we still have a far from fair distribution of ‘idleness’.

Russell saw the belief in a duty to work as part of the ‘morality of slaves’: a device used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interest of their masters. This provided those masters with leisure, but Russell was not praising the idleness that feeds on the industry of others. Of course, some of the leisure gained by the powerful is used to advance civilisation. “Leisure is essential to civilisation,” he argued, “and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern techniques it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilisation.”

The maintenance of the civilian standard of living during the First World War indicated to Russell just how much production could be achieved with a reduced work force. In peacetime, the supposed virtue of work led to half the population being overworked, whilst the rest were unemployed. Whilst everybody owes the community some work, four hours a day would provide enough production to meet people’s needs, so that everyone could enjoy ‘time to be civilised’.

If it were true that people would not know what to do with this time, this was a condemnation of our civilisation. Russell saw the answer in two parts. Firstly, we would need to learn to accept a place in life for pleasure for its own sake. If there is virtue in work, there must be a balancing virtue in enjoying its fruits. Secondly, we would need to spend more time on education in a broad sense: then people would discover how to use their time in ways that were constructive. If Russell’s choice of reviving peasant dances as an example seems patrician and patronising, it does not negate his basic point that people would be more able to take up involved and active pastimes, including ones that were publicly useful. As people learnt what they could do with their lives, creativity, charity and simple happiness would flourish.

It must be admitted that Russell’s view on on how a fair distribution of work was to be brought about was vague and hopelessly Utopian. It was all down to the ‘scientific organisation of production’. Whatever this was meant to be, it was not going to appear overnight, in one step. So, in the sixtyfive years since Russell wrote his tribute to ease, have we come to put more value on our own time, in other words on our very lives themselves? Certainly, some steps have been made in this direction. Children stay at school for longer and the working week is generally shorter. But ‘shorter’ is still a long way from ‘as short as possible’. There is still a massive polarisation between millions who feel overworked, and other millions who suffer enforced idleness, an idleness that cannot be enjoyed because of shortage of money. The basic injustice that Russell saw is still with us.

There is a belief that a growing economy creates a growing amount of work and that this will naturally reduce unemployment. Let us leave aside the question of whether a society in which everybody is guaranteed to be overworked is desirable. More to the point is the fact that more work to be done does not necessarily mean more work for people. As technology progresses, the proportion of work, both existing activities and new, that can be effectively automated is increasing. That there is pressure on the opportunities for human work is revealed by the increasingly contrived service jobs people are prepared to take. Some of these are just pointless, like twenty-four hour opening or kiss-o-grams; some are desperate, like the return of domestic service. If all this misdirected effort, which must bring little satisfaction to those making it, were released to a mixture of leisure time and beneficial work, there would be no real loss and a great deal gained. More and more people are making the effort to spend less time in conventional work. By ‘downshifting’, they have found a happy medium between working themselves into the ground, and the underfunded inactivity of unemployment. I am one of them: cutting a day from my own working week has at last given me the time to think and write. But this is still a distinctly privileged position to be in. Opportunities to work reduced hours are much more readily available to those with sought-after skills. Furthermore, the transition is often softened financially by a redundancy cheque or savings. In general, many people feel obliged to work far more than their contracted hours, and much part-time work is too poorly paid to be a true liberation.

What is needed is the opportunity, for anyone who wanted it, to obtain a satisfactory income from a minimal working week (20 hours still seems like a reasonable target). Achieving the circumstances in which a person could live adequately on twenty hours’ work would require that people receive a fairer proportion of the wealth they generate than is the norm now, and that they maintain that share when the profits they generate are spent on technological advancement. If the amount of work a person can do doubles, then they should be able to work half as much for the same pay. ‘Half’ meaning half the time at work, not spreading the reduced effort over the same time. Someone whose work period is full of unproductive gaps too short to put to some other use really is idle, and this is not what Russell meant at all. Proper distribution of the benefits of improving technology would ensure that what can be produced and purchased by a person earning a ‘satisfactory income’ does not stagnate.

If a just distribution of free time was imaginable in 1932, it is vastly more so now. Given that some progress has been made, the process of change seems to be already underway. There are still many people, however, who believe that working long hours confers some kind of moral worth, and there remain those who promote this supposed virtue for ulterior motives. We continue to need reminding that the idea of work as intrinsically virtuous is a fiction. We have an obligation to do our fair share, but that obligation can be discharged in less time than ever before. There needs to be an end to the perverse admiration of long hours, with its consequent tolerance of systematic unemployment. These are, we are supposed to believe, ‘the way of the world.’ Nonsense. Twenty hours a week each spent meeting society’s demands would provide enough for everyone, leaving us all with the time to get on with our real lives.

© Paul Western 2000

Paul Western lives in Teddington, Middlesex, and is surprisingly industrious.


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