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21 May 2021

The politics of everyday life: rest

How we rest is shaped by how we work, and so is fundamentally determined by relations of power.

By Amelia Horgan

What might it mean to say that some part of everyday life is a political issue? When something is described as a political issue, or question or problem, a few things are typically implied: that the issue is not some natural phenomenon but is shaped by political choices, that some harm might come from treating the issue as a non-political one, and that those who are concerned with politics, particularly those who broadly share the political commitments the speaker holds, ought to care more about the issue.

How about rest? Rest often appears to us as the most natural part of the day, and as such, a universal and historically unvarying experience. But rest has also in recent times become an object of social concern and a source of personal anxiety, and increasing attention is paid to the conditions that shape it. There are recurring panics about the inadequacy of our current patterns of rest, to do with amount and quality: will the blue light emanating from your phone stop you sleeping? Will staying too long at work make your children hate you? Will stress make you bald?

But these panicked discussions usually stop at a rather superficial level. First, they tend to run together leisure and rest and rest and sleep. Leisure and sleep can induce feelings of restfulness but I want to argue for the existence of rest as a distinct activity – or rather, a distinct form of inactivity, one characterised by an open-endedness or indeterminacy. This vision of rest is similar to Richard Seymour’s description of activity that would stand against the data-hungry, profit-driven social industry in his critique of social media, The Twittering Machine (2019): “[W]hat if we were not in the know? What if our reveries were not productive? What if, in deliberate abdication of our smartphones, we strolled in the park with nothing but a notepad?” 

Second, the problem of rest is formulated as a problem of individual choices or attitudes. After the shock of encountering the efficiency-maximising, hyperproductive practices of the modern workplace’s most dedicated denizens, it is common for people to remind themselves, or to remind others, that they are “worth more than their productivity”. But are we? Of course, we can say that people ought to have worth that does not depend on their outward busyness, but the reality is that contemporary society strongly attaches worth to productivity – materially, through wage compensation and ideologically, through the background belief that your social standing is first and foremost the product of your effort.

Such public discussion of the merits of rest can even function as disavowals, with modern-day Stakhanovites proudly confessing that they find it hard to rest because of the strength of their commitments to work. They are champions of purposeful rest, edging past the competition when it comes to tasteful beach retreats or mindfulness seminars. A little rest can be permitted, as a treat, but only for the benefit of future productivity – only instrumentally. Bill Gates, for example, meditates to improve his concentration for the rest of his work. It is not enough to say that we are worth more than our productivity: to defend restful activity for individuals, we must more thoroughly politicise it.

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What would it mean to more thoroughly politicise rest? What kind of slogans would a movement for better rest have? How might we take action to create better inaction? To begin, we should identify the harms of current patterns of rest. The first of these is the uneven distribution of rest in terms of quantity: some people have more time off than others. This comes down to, among other things, how much they need to work. Rest also depends on whether you are expected to carry out caring responsibilities. Neoliberalism has led to a bifurcation of job quality, while cuts to public services have put extra pressure on the household, with significant repercussions for the distribution of non-working time. 

The second problem with prevailing patterns of rest is the varying and generally deteriorating quality of rest time. Anyone who has felt the stomach-churning butterflies-practically-in-your-throat “Sunday Scaries” – the dread-filled anticipation of the return to work the following day – can tell you that the quality of rest is determined by what comes next. Precarious work extends the compromised rest that this anxiety brings into more and more of the week as workers are expected to be ready to work in line with demand, rather than keeping regular hours: 37 per cent of all UK workers are given less than a week’s notice of shift patterns and 7 per cent of working adults are told less than 24 hours in advance. How we work shapes how we rest. 

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Another particularly cruel interruption or even outright denial of rest comes in the form of the punitive regime of benefits sanctions, intensified under government austerity programmes, and a culture of disbelief towards the sick and disabled. Resting is viewed with suspicion. Statutory sick pay in the UK sits well below the minimum wage. This suspicion of the resting, the sick, the idling, the unproductive is not entirely new. In his account of the rise of work-discipline based around clock time, EP Thompson examines the history of moralistic outrage at the industrial labour force merely passing the time idling rather than putting it to “proper” use.

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

The Tory MP authors of Britannia Unchained, a free-market fundamentalist screed on how Britain can remain globally competitive, might allege that “[o]nce they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world”, but the reality is that more and more workers are not only subjected to the demands of productivity at work but at home too. The philosopher Cressida J Heyes argues that work and life, previously separated – albeit never fully – under the demarcated time regime of Fordism, have been “reconflated” through labour flexibilisation and communications technologies. This causes all kinds of temporal stresses rendering rest shameful and guilt-ridden. This is true of both the 9-to-5 office worker checking emails at home and the bar worker ensuring they’re the first to respond to a spare shift on the group chat.

The harms and petty cruelties of how we are permitted, and how we permit ourselves, to rest are the products of existing relationships of power in our society. The amount of time we have to ourselves and the quality of that time are conditioned by the power and status we hold. Challenging this requires fundamental changes in those relations of power, but it also means demanding decent rest as well as decent work, creating durable sites of sociability and community beyond our workplaces; not just more free time but better free time.

Rest takes you out of the temporality of everyday life; it can rub against the grain of reality. It is this reality-bending reorientation to the world that Virginia Woolf had in mind when she described how, on becoming ill and forced to rest, “[w]e cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters … irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round”. Poor rest is the product of a deeply unequal and exploitative economic regime, and better rest is a good in itself. Perhaps focusing on inaction could push us to action. 

Amelia Horgan is a writer and researcher from London. Her first book, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism (Pluto Press), will be published next month.

This is the third essay in a series examining the often unacknowledged politics of different aspects of everyday life. Previous instalments covered the politics of motherhood, and the politics of leisure.