Why Bertrand Russell's argument for idleness is more relevant than ever

Russell's observations on the value of leisure were made in an era of mass unemployment – and they are just as pertinent today.

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We are used to thinking of idleness as a vice, something to be ashamed of. But when the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote “In Praise of Idleness” in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, idleness was an unavoidable reality for the millions who had lost their jobs. Russell realised that his society didn’t just need to confront the crisis of mass unemployment. He called for nothing less than a total re-evaluation of work – and of leisure.

Russell believed that we don’t only need to reform the economic system in which some are worked to the bone while others suffer jobless destitution, we also need to challenge the cultural ethic that teaches us to value ourselves in proportion to our capacity for “economically productive” labour. Human beings are more than just workers. We need to learn how to value idleness.

Russell’s call could hardly be more relevant today, as we face the prospect of another great recession. Millions may lose their jobs in the coming months and, as automation and technology continue to advance, the jobs lost during the pandemic may never return.

Today, reformers point to the possibility of a universal basic income as a way to prevent widespread poverty. But, as many have learned while locked down at home on government-sponsored furloughs, a life without work can feel desolate even when supported by a steady income. Does a jobless future condemn us to live less meaningful lives?

In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, within a century, advances in productivity would allow inhabitants of developed countries to maintain a decent standard of living while working 15 hours a week. If that prediction now looks laughable, it failed for reasons that Russell foresaw.

Recalling the famous example of the pin factory that Adam Smith used to explain the division of labour, Russell imagined a new technology that will halve the amount of time it takes to make a pin. If the market for pins is already saturated, what will happen?

In a sane world, Russell thought, the factory would simply halve working hours, maintaining the same wages but greatly increasing the time that the workers could devote to the joys of leisure. But, as Russell observed, this rarely happens. Instead, the factory owner will opt to keep half the workers on the same hours and lay off the rest. The gains from the advances of technology will be realised not as an expansion of leisure but rather as drudgery for some and jobless destitution for others, with the savings enjoyed only by the winner, the factory owner.

Looking back over the past century, we can see Russell’s predictions borne out. Technological breakthroughs lead to layoffs and even when employment recovers we find that, rather than working less to maintain the same level of wealth, our society is one in which people work ever more while accumulating material goods that bring them little joy. Every year we throw away millions of items of clothing, old gadgets, used cars. Why don’t we have more free time instead?

The solution, as Russell saw it, was not only economic and political but also moral and cultural. Keynes’s vision of a 15-hour work-week seems unthinkable because modern societies have inherited an ethic that prizes work – economically productive labour – as the source of meaning in life. To be good is to work hard and so we value ourselves by the hours we log, even if most paid work is tedious and unpleasant.

In its origins, Russell speculated, this ethic of work was a tool of social control, a hypocritical doctrine propounded by leisured aristocrats and slaveowners to justify their oppression of the vast labouring class on whom they depended. Until we liberate ourselves from this ideal, we will never gain the true value that technological advances offer us: the value of leisure.

Yet as the tedium of lockdown showed many of us, enjoying idleness is not so easy. This is not to dismiss the value of passive consumption and relaxation. But, as the weeks turned into months, the pleasures of Netflix in pyjamas and endlessly scrolling Twitter started to fade.

Even the company (real or virtual) of friends and family can start to pall when you discover – as so many did during their confinement – that you have nothing new to talk about. Relationships are a source of meaning, but they need to be structured around other meaningful activities. So how can we find meaning in leisure?

A first step lies in education. Schools and universities are not only valuable because they prepare us for work, but also because they prepare us for leisure. The arts, humanities, and pure sciences are often derided as useless. But someone who reads about physics or philosophy for fun, who paints pots or plays an instrument, who writes novels or makes films, is equipped to find meaning in their lives beyond the workplace. Russell argued that a central goal of education was to equip the population with the necessary abilities, knowledge and habits to enjoy creative leisure. This would mean reform: access to higher education would need to be greatly expanded, while university and school curricula should place as much emphasis on creative arts and the pursuit of pure curiosity as on employable skills. 

That might sound idealistic. Educators are constantly called upon to demonstrate the economic value of their degrees. But this only demonstrates another sickness of our society, the complement of the cult of work: the assumption that all value must be measured in sterling.

In a different way, the current crisis has already eroded this idea: zealots aside, we have realised that it is worth taking an economic hit in order to preserve health. That, after all, is what money is for. Economic output is a means, not an end. Health is truly, intrinsically valuable. If we value health for itself, why not also recognise the intrinsic value of learning?

Schools instruct children in sports, and we do not call this useless, even though most students will not go on to become professional athletes. Similarly, we do not insist that schools focus on those sports whose skills are most easily transferred to the workplace.

Sports education is valuable because it promotes health and the joy of play. If we think that schools and universities should promote physical health and that physical play is a good in itself, why not acknowledge that they should also equip students for mental play and mental flourishing?

The society that Russell imagines, the society that invests in meaningful idleness, is truly revolutionary – not just because its economic structures have been reformed, but because it has changed the way it understands, and values, itself.

We are used to comparing the success of countries in terms of GDP. When we do this, we must deem one society a relative failure if its citizens earn on average £1,000 a year less than its neighbours, even if they have more leisure, play more sports, take more walks, read more books, listen to more music, and paint more pictures. But we are not doomed to think in this way. We should follow Russell’s advice, and learn to relish the fruits of idleness.

Max Hayward is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

 

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