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5 April 2021

The politics of everyday life: leisure

Work is more intertwined with the rest of our lives than ever. To truly enjoy free time, we must be able to let go of “the realm of necessity”.

By Sarah Jaffe

When I met Chuckie Denison in 2019, he’d just taken early retirement from General Motors. I was in Ohio to report on the closing of the storied Lordstown factory, where Denison and thousands of others had made cars and which, in the 1960s and 1970s, had a history of rank-and-file rebellion. Denison aimed to keep that spirit alive in his retirement, but he was also thinking about free time more expansively.

He told me about Craig Beach, where up until the 1960s there was a little amusement park, around a ten-minute drive from Lordstown. Nearby, there was Idora Park, within the city of Youngstown proper; a fire in 1984 shut those rides down too. Deindustrialisation in the area – the steel manufacturer Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed a mill in 1977, wiping out 5,000 jobs in a day, and it wasn’t the only one – meant not only the end of jobs, but the end of money for recreational spaces that working-class people could use.

Denison longed for a politics that might prioritise working-class people’s pleasure. He told me via text in late March: “We collectively have given all our hard labour, traded for beans that don’t allow families to afford a special weekend, let alone any vacations to enjoy.” Entertainment, he said, was “just an escape from the grind for a moment, while still paying your labour into the same system that grinds you”.

What would a society that really valued leisure look like? The Covid-19 pandemic has foreshortened so many possibilities, curtailed so many freedoms, reintroducing us to a kind of longing that our busy lives had left little time for. Trapped at home (or still going in to do “essential” work), we dream of expansive afternoons with friends, holidays, dancefloors. I recall with pleasure a night crammed into an overstuffed London pub with a dear friend, squeezed into each other as we attempted to get one last drink to prolong the evening. Can we turn that longing into something political, though – a demand for free time to do, as the labour movement used to have it, what we will?

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In Capital Volume III, Karl Marx suggested that “the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases”. The true realm of freedom, Marx argued, “can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.” This observation is about more than just the length of the workday. We can’t kick loose the realm of necessity if we’re worrying about paying the bills, if that smartphone is burning a hole in our pocket, telling us to check that email, open the Deliveroo rider app to complete one more delivery. To truly have free time, we must be free enough of material concerns to let go of those mundane considerations for a while.

[see also: The politics of everyday life: motherhood]

Work is more intertwined with the rest of our lives than ever. While mass remote working might be new, our homes have always been workplaces: housework, cleaning, cooking, raising children, caring for the elderly – so many other activities are real work, even if they aren’t remunerated as such all the time. For many people – cleaners, carers, nannies – paid work also happens in the home. Now that “office” work has decisively invaded the home for so many, it is even harder to switch off, to turn the home back into a refuge from work, a place of rest and relaxation.

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The expectation that we love our jobs and derive meaning from them, as I’ve written elsewhere, has contributed to this blurring of lines. Work takes over what might have been leisure – we are urged to monetise our hobbies, turn everything into a “side hustle”. That inability to let go of the realm of necessity is a characteristic of both the best jobs in society and some of the worst, as the researcher and campaigner Miranda Hall has noted: “taskified” digital work makes it harder to separate work time from the rest of our online time. And whether or not our online activities are explicitly part of our jobs, they do, Hall points out, create value for social media companies. Facebook and Twitter replicate the logics of work even if we’re supposedly using them for fun or sneaking on to them on the boss’s time.

And then there are the dating apps, which are designed to feel like a job interview. Dating, too, has been assimilated to the structures of work so that we can fit it into our work schedules, and commodified so that someone is making money off every aspect of our romantic encounters – not just the pub where we go for a drink but the very platform by which we meet.

Work narrows our imaginations at every turn. Even “self-care” has shifted from Audre Lorde’s concept of “an act of political warfare”, a radical notion in a capitalist society that was never built to value black women as anything other than labourers, to another way to consume and to prepare for more work, as Jennifer Pan has written. “In its ideal forms, self-care enacts a labour slowdown and asserts the right to be lazy, the right to stop working,” she explained. “Self-care can go awry when it ends up seeming like work in and of itself, something that we’re obligated to do to improve ourselves.”

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The demands to repoliticise leisure are growing louder. In Post-Growth Living, the philosopher Kate Soper calls for an “alternative hedonism”, for letting go of “the work-dominated, stressed-out, time-scarce and materially encumbered affluence of today”. It is not surprising that such demands come from people thinking through how we might transform society to tackle the climate crisis. As Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos write in A Planet To Win, “the decision to stimulate consumption instead of promoting leisure [is] a way of avoiding deeper structural changes”. We can’t consume at the rate we have been consuming and maintain a liveable Earth, but we can have – many environmentalists argue must have – a lot more free time.

As has been made glaringly clear in the past year, women are still doing most of the unpaid labour in the home. It’s been known for years, as the sociologist Janet Gornick told me in 2013, that one of the best ways to make that division of domestic labour more equitable would be to shorten everybody’s waged working hours. If the shorter workweek is optional, gender stereotypes push women into “choosing” less work in favour of the home, finding a “work-life balance” that is in fact a balancing of work and more work. This is why a demand for leisure is and must remain a feminist demand: women’s time is as valuable as men’s, and that includes our time off – time off even from caring obligations, though those same stereotypes mean saying such a thing often evokes shame.

[see also: Sarah Jaffe: “I’m trying to abolish everyone’s boss”]

It is also a demand that must take into account the way that racialised and classed expectations shape our perceptions of work: people of colour and the poor are not “lazy” for wanting as much spare time as the wealthy enjoy. Parties and festivals, after all, tend to have a levelling effect, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her gorgeous Dancing In The Streets: A History of Collective Joy. “[T]hey dissolve rank and other forms of social difference.” This is, of course, why the powerful don’t like them.

The pandemic has left us with individual consumption as our only leisure option: Netflix and online shopping instead of dinner with friends. While some of the leisure activities we long for may remain restricted for a while (dance clubs, that crowded pub of my memories, packed theatres) or on-again, off-again in a world of endemic Covid-19, other pro-leisure policies fit very well with virus mitigation strategies, as James Meadway has noted – not only shorter working hours, but a push to free up more public space for outdoor activities, which, even with some form of social distancing, still allow for collective joy.

The pandemic also reminds us of the need for free time to be not-joyful, too. Time to grieve should also fall outside the realm of necessity. The expectation to go on with our workday amid mass death has been one of the hardest parts of this awful year. Free time is necessary, in other words, not just for hedonic release, but also to allow us to be fully human, to experience life in all its complexity.

It is, I think, a radical act to dream of pleasure in the throes of hell; to walk through the wreckage of industrial capitalism and imagine amusement parks again; to dream, in the middle of our current working arrangements, of something other than wage labour; to remember, as Ehrenreich wrote, that “festivity – like bread or freedom – can be a social good worth fighting for”.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at Type Media Center and the author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone (2021) and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (2016).

This is the second essay in a series examining the often unacknowledged politics of different aspects of everyday life. You can read the first, on the politics of motherhood, here. Future instalments will cover rest, exercise and more.