Show Hide image

Why the cult of hard work is counter-productive

From footballers’ work rates to the world of Big Data, the cult of “productivity” seems all-pervasive – but doing nothing might be the best thing for your well-being and your brain.

Loafing around can be an act of dissent against
the ceaseless demands of capitalism.
Illustration: Matt Murphy/Handsome Frank

Recently, I saw a man on the Tube wearing a Nike T-shirt with a slogan that read, in its entirety, “I’m doing work”. The idea that playing sport or doing exercise needs to be justified by calling it a species of work illustrates the colonisation of everyday life by the devotion to toil: an ideology that argues cunningly in favour of itself in the phrase “work ethic”.

We are everywhere enjoined to work harder, faster and for longer – not only in our jobs but also in our leisure time. The rationale for this frantic grind is one of the great unquestioned virtues of our age: “productivity”. The cult of productivity seems all-pervasive. Football coaches and commentators praise a player’s “work rate”, which is thought to compensate for a lack of skill. Geeks try to streamline their lives in and out of the office to get more done. People boast of being busy and exhausted and eagerly consume advice from the business-entertainment complex on how to “de-fry your burnt brain”, or engineer a more productive day by assenting to the horror of breakfast meetings.

A corporate guru will even teach you how to become a “master of extreme productivity”. (In these extreme times, extremity is always good; unless, perhaps, you are an extremist.) No one boasts of being unproductive, still less counterproductive. Into the iron gate of modernity have been wrought the words: “Productivity will set you free.”

Strategies to enhance the “productivity” of workers have been formalised since at least Frederick Winslow Taylor’s early-20th-century dream of “scientific management” through methods such as “time studies”. The latest wheeze is the Big Data field of “workforce science”, in which everything – patterns of emails, the length of telephone calls – may be measured and consigned to a comparative database to create a perfect management panopticon. It is tempting to suspect that the ambition thus to increase “worker productivity” is aimed at getting more work out of each employee for the same (or less) money.

To the long-evolving demands of productivity at work we must now add the burden of productivity everywhere else. As the Nike T-shirt’s slogan implies, even when we’re not at work, we must be doing work. There is certainly a great deal of Taylorised labour available on the internet: “sharing”, “liking” and updating profiles constitutes click-farm piecework for which we eagerly volunteer, to the profit of the large “social” media corporations.

Even for those who are not constantly bombarded with work demands outside the office, the ubiquity of information processing presents a temptation to be on call at all times. Our world has become an ambient factory from which there is no visible exit and there exists an industry of self-help technologies devoted to teaching us how to be happy workers. “Is information overload killing your productivity?” asks a representative business story. The answer is to adopt yet more productivity strategies. The labour of work is thus extended to encompass the labour of learning how to keep up with your work (specialised techniques, such as “Inbox Zero”, to manage the email tsunami) as well as the labour of recovering from your work in approved ways. 

“Exercise,” advises one business magazine feature. “It makes you more productive.” In a perfect world, you would be getting exercise while you work – standing desks and even treadmill desks are sold as magical productivity enhancers. In the future, we’ll enjoy the happy possibility of carrying on with our work while out running, thanks to “wearable computing” devices such as Google Glass, which has the potential to become the corporate equivalent of the electronic tags that record the movements of criminals.

In the vanguard of “productivity” literature and apps was David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system, according to which you can become “a wizard of productivity” by organising your life into folders and to-do lists. The GTD movement quickly spread outside the confines of formal work and became a way to navigate the whole of existence: hence the popularity of websites such as Lifehacker that offer nerdy tips on rendering the messy business of everyday life more amenable to algorithmic improvement. If you can discover how best to organise the cables of your electronic equipment or “clean stubborn stains off your hands with shaving cream”, that, too, adds to your “productivity” – assuming that you will spend the time that is notionally saved on a sanctioned “task”, rather than flopping down exhausted on the sofa and waking groggily seven hours later from what you were sternly advised should have been a power nap of exactly 20 minutes. If you need such “downtime”, it must be rigorously scheduled.

The paradox of the autodidactic productivity industry of GTD, Lifehacker and the endless reviews of obscure mind-mapping or task-management apps is that it is all too easy to spend one’s time researching how to acquire the perfect set of productivity tools and strategies without ever actually settling down to do something. In this way, the obsessive dream of productivity becomes a perfectly effective defence against its own realisation. 

As Samuel Johnson once wrote: “Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought.”

Nor is there any downward cut-off point for “our current obsession with busyness”, as one researcher, Andrew Smart, describes it in his intriguing book Autopilot: the Art and Science of Doing Nothing. Smart observes, appalled, a genre of literary aids for inculcating the discipline of “time management” in children. (Time is not amenable to management: it just keeps passing, whatever you do.) Not allowing children to zone out and do nothing, Smart argues, is probably harming their development. But buckling children into the straitjacket of time management from an early age might seem a sensible way to ensure an agreeably docile new generation of workers.

If so, the idea has history. In 1770, an anonymous essay on trade and commerce was published in London. (It is now usually attributed to a “J Cunningham”.) In it, the author proposes that orphans, “bastards and other accidental poor children” ought to be made to labour in workhouses for 12 hours a day from the age of four. (He allows that two of these hours might be devoted to learning to read.) This will have the happy effect, the author argues, of creating a new generation “trained up to constant labour” and thus increasing the general industry of the population, so that future labourers will be happy to earn in six days a week what they currently make in four or five.

Cunningham’s proposed workhouses are also conceived to house (or, rather, imprison) adult vagrants and other so-far-incorrigible poor people. Existing workhouses are too luxurious, he complains: “Such house must be made an house of terror”. Only terror will make the inmates properly productive; the solution is “the placing of the poor in such a situation that loss of liberty, hunger, thirst . . . should be the immediate consequences of idleness and debauchery”.

Fear has not ceased to be a useful spur to productivity. A recent article in the London newspaper Metro reported that research had shown that “dedicated Britons” were “less likely to pull a sickie” than workers in Germany and France. The researcher claimed: “Strong employment protection and generous sick pay was empirically found to contribute to increased staff sickness in Germany and France.” It could indeed be that Europeans are slackers and Brits are peculiarly “dedicated”. Or it could be that Britain’s more “flexible” labour market terrifies citizens into struggling into work even when they are ill.

The reason sickness is undesirable is not that it causes distress or discomfort but that it results in what is often called “lost productivity”. This is a sinister and absurd notion, predicated on the greedy fallacy of counting chickens before they have hatched. “Workplace absence through sickness was reported to cost British business £32bn a year,” the researcher claimed in Metro: a normal way of phrasing things today, but one with curious implications. The idea seems to be that business already has that money even though it hasn’t earned it yet and employees who fail to maintain “productivity” as a result of sickness or other reasons are, in effect, stealing this as yet entirely notional sum from their employers.

It took a long time before the adjective “productive” – which once simply meant “generative”, as applied to land or ideas – acquired its specific economic sense, in the late 18th century, of relating to the production of goods or commodities. (The noun form is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in an essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which he writes of the “produc­tivity” of a growing plant.) To call a person “productive” only in relation to a measured quantity of physical outputs is another way that business rhetoric has long sought to dehumanise workers.

One way to counter this has been to attempt to recuperate the supposed vice of idleness – to hymn napping, daydreaming and sheer zoning out. Samuel Johnson is sometimes counted among the champions of faffing, perhaps simply because of the name of his essay series The Idler. Yet he looked sternly on occupying oneself with “trifles”, as he describes his dilettante friend Sober doing in one of those columns. The guiding principle of The Idler, as Johnson described it in the farewell essay, was to encourage readers “to view every incident with seriousness, and improve it by meditation”. So meditating seriously is not idleness. 

On the other hand, Johnson noted sagely in an earlier entry, one can be idle while appearing anything but: “There is no kind of idleness, by which we are so easily seduced, as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business and by making the loiterer imagine that he has something to do which must not be neglected, keeps him in perpetual agitation and hurries him rapidly from place to place . . . To do nothing every man is ashamed and to do much almost every man is unwilling or afraid. Innumerable expedients have therefore been invented to produce motion without labour, and employment without solicitude.” Does this not perfectly describe our modern saturation in fatuous busywork? 

David Graeber, the anthropologist and author of Debt: the First 5,000 Years, would also probably approve of it as a characterisation of what he calls “bullshit jobs”. In a recent essay for Strike! magazine, Graeber remarks on “the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations”, all of which he describes as “bullshit” and “pointless”. Their activity is to be contrasted with that of what Graeber calls “real, productive workers”. 

It is telling that even in such a bracingly critical analysis, the signal virtue of “productivity” is left standing, though it is not completely clear what it means for the people in the “real” jobs that Graeber admires. It is true that service industries are not “productive” in the sense that their labour results in no great amount of physical objects, but then what exactly is it for the “Tube workers” Graeber rightly defends to be “productive”, unless that is shorthand for saying, weirdly, that they “produce” physical displacements of people? And to use “productive” as a positive epithet for another class of workers he admires, teachers, risks acquiescing rhetorically in the commercialisation of learning. Teaching as production is, etymologically and otherwise, the opposite of teaching as education. 

Idleness in the sense of just not working at all, rather than working at a bullshit activity, was championed by the dissident Marxist Paul Lafargue, writer of the 1883 manifesto The Right to Be Lazy. This amusing denunciation of what Lafargue calls “the furious passion for work” in capitalist civilisation, which is “the cause of all intellectual degeneracy”, rages against its own era of “overproduction” and consequent recurring “industrial crises”. The proletariat, Lafargue cries, “must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.”

That sounds nice but why exactly should we do it? It is because: “To force the capitalists to improve their machines of wood and iron, it is necessary to raise wages and diminish the working hours of the machines of flesh and blood.” Workers should refuse to work so that new gadgets get invented that will do the work for them. Similarly, Bert­rand Russell, in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”, argued that technology should make existing work patterns redundant: “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all,” he wrote. Somewhere, he is still waiting for that possibility to be realised.

One modern anti-work crusader who cleanly abandons any notion of productivity is Federico Campagna, whose recent book The Last Night is an exercise in poetic dissidence. In seeking their existential justification in work, Campagna writes, “Humans elected their very submission to the throne as their new God.” Those who resist the siren promises of labour are therefore the true “radical atheists” and should be glad also to call themselves “squanderers”, “egoists”, “disrespectful opportunists”, “parasites” and most of all “adventurers”. Campagna explains: “Adventurers, like all humans, live within a dream, in which they try to be the lucid dreamers.” Something like dreaming or idling, it turns out, is also now sanctioned by another arena whose popular rhetoric often lays claim to a kind of religious authority: that of neuroscience. 

According to Andrew Smart’s book Autopilot, recent (but still controversial) brain research recommends that we stare vacantly into space more often. “Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now,” Smart declares on the first page. (It took me a long time to finish the book, because I kept putting it down to have a break.)

Smart’s evidence suggests the existence of a “default network”, in which the brain gets busy talking to itself in the absence of an external task to focus on. To allow this “default network” to do its thing by regularly loafing around rather than switching focus all day between futile bits of work, Smart argues, is essential for the brain’s health. “For certain things the brain likes to do (for example, coming up with creative ‘outside of the box’ solutions),” he writes, “you may need to be doing very little.”

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Smart observes, was not very “productive” in terms of the quantity of poems he produced in an average year. However, while pootling away his time, he occasionally experienced a torrent of inspiration and what he did produce were works of greatness.

This reminds us that it is not necessary to abandon the notion of “productivity” altogether. We all like to feel that we have done something useful, interesting or fun with our day, even (or especially) if it has not been part of our official work, and we might harmlessly express such satisfaction by saying that our day has been productive.

This ordinary usage encodes an ordinary wisdom: that mere quantity of activity – as implied by the get-more-done mania of the productivity cult – has nothing to do with its value. Economics does not know how to value Rainer Maria Rilke over a prolific poetaster in receipt of an official laureateship. (One can be confident that, while mooching around European castles and writing nothing for years on end, Rilke would never have worn a T-shirt that announced: “I’m doing work”.) And his life sounds like more fun than one recent Lifehacker article, which eagerly explained how to organise your baseball cap collection by hanging the headwear on shower-curtain hooks arrayed along a rail.

Perhaps I shouldn’t mock. All that time saved every morning by knowing the exact location of the baseball cap you want to wear will surely add up, earning you hours more freedom to hunt and hoard ever more productivity tips, until you are a purely theoretical master at doing nothing of value in the most efficient way imaginable. 

Steven Poole’s “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” is published by Sceptre (£9.99)

André Carrilho
Show Hide image

"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition