The decline of the leisure class: why the one per cent are obsessed with work

Once upon a time, the rich would have lived off the fruits of their wealth, but the billionaires of our new gilded age are gripped by a work craze.

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In September last year, Emmanuel Macron invited a group of French students to attend an open day in one of his presidential gardens. Among the attendants was Jonathan, a young unemployed horticulturist from the Picardy region. During the visit the 25-year-old asked Macron what he had done for those “out of work” like himself.

“I’ve been sending round CVs and motivational letters everywhere,” Jonathan said, “but to no avail. No one wants to give me a job.” 

Macron appeared nonplussed and deflected the question with an aggressive retort about what the boy had done to get a job. “If you’re willing and able, be it hotels, cafes, catering, in construction,” he added, “there isn’t a single place where they aren’t looking for people. Cross the street and I’ll find you some. They just want people who are ready to work.”

Macron’s comments hint at one of the most puzzling questions about today’s elites. Our contemporary bourgeoisie appear in the grip of a work-related craze. They venerate toil and boast of inhumane work schedules. Once upon a time, the rich would have lived off the yields of their wealth. No longer. The billionaires of our new gilded age have instead reclaimed “work” from the working classes – many of whom, like Jonathan, find it difficult to find jobs, or are under-employed.

Our contemporary era is second only to the Belle Époque in its degree of economic inequality. The incredible rise of the “1 per cent” has concentrated wealth among an elite class. But those at the top aren’t content to sit upon their laurels.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, boasts of his inhumane 80-hour work weeks; Jack Ma, Alibaba co-founder and China’s richest man, endorses a schedule of 12-hour days, six days a week. Spending longer hours working and less time socialising leads to exhaustion; CEOs and chief executives are increasingly burnt out. Even stockholders can’t just rely on their assets. Rather, they all seem compelled to keep working.                   

For a large part of history, though, elites thought “labour” was below contempt. British factory owners were obsessed with acquiring peerages. In Germany, the bourgeoisie developed its own notion of “Kultur” to counter the predominance of the Prussian Junkers, aristocrats who ruled states during the week and spent their weekends on hunting grounds. This led the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen to coin the term “leisure class” in 1899, describing a group of people who lived off the spoils of the new corporate economy but did not engage in production itself. 

The existence of an aristocracy also made ruling easier. Noblemen didn’t have to win elections or engage in public proselytising. Instead, they simply had to claim their God-given right to rule and wield state power accordingly. If the bourgeoisie did distinguish itself from the aristocracy, it did so by a claim to “productivity”: it made its money through investments in factories, not rents on land. 

Yet such an ethic rarely meant that the bourgeoisie had to equal the exertion of its workers. Factory owners might have opposed landowners for political reason, but they were still deeply taken by the latter’s lifestyle: even bourgeois businessmen spent lavishly on literature, music, jockey clubs and horse breeding. The world of business might have been thought a Darwinian race. But this didn't preclude the necessity of leisure that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once called the “absolute condition of civilization.”

Today, political office has to be won through elections; references to kinship or IQ no longer hold sway with voters. The decline of organised politics in the last 30 years – party and trade union membership in the Western world has fallen steadily since the 1980s – has also made political representation more difficult. Tech oligarchs might donate to certain parties, but they have few organic political connections and find it difficult to build a constituency. In the absence of a hereditary political mandate or a family tree, a supposedly assiduous work ethic is a last-resort justification for contemporary elites' claim to power. 

This also explains the favourite idiom in which our elite justifies its rule – meritocracy. Today’s professionals and capitalists are a lonely class. They have no real rivals to concur with, neither an aristocracy bonded by blood nor a working class on the offensive for revolution. As Yale professor Daniel Markovits notes, the “sham of meritocracy” has allowed a new generation of oligarchs to pose as rulers without the mantle of tradition and convince us that their command over resources is purely of their own doing.

Yet there is a painful irony to this elite love of work. When working-class radicals celebrated the “dignity of labour” in the 19th century, they looked forward to a world without bosses and markets, in which labour would not only be less poor, nasty, and brutish but also “ennobling”. In short, work would be an authentic expression of human freedom.

This is no longer the case for today’s entrepreneurs. Read any confessional tract by a CEO and it becomes clear just how unbelievably gruelling their work ethic is. Zuckerberg works around 60 hours a week but “thinks about Facebook constantly”, while Twitter boss Jack Dorsey seeks refuge in an obsession with Stoicism and mindfulness retreats. As Markovits notes, meritocracy has not only been bad for those on the lower end of the social ladder – it has been equally destructive for the elite itself.  In the attempt to turn themselves into workers, they have become ultimate victims of their meritocratic fable. With no bosses above them, no one toils more slavishly for market share.

The recently deceased historian Immanuel Wallerstein already registered this problem in 1988. He called meritocracy the “final avatar of bourgeois privilege”, after the death of the “industrial paternalist” and the last “tsar.” But he also made clear that pure meritocracy was an unstable way of legitimising rule. “The oppressed may swallow being ruled by those who are to the manner born” he claimed, but “being ruled by and giving reward to people whose only asserted claim… is that they are smarter, that is too much to swallow.”

Faced with this problem, elites can't simply claim that their superiority is genetic. Rather, it has to be the product of their own strenuous effort, a carefully tended piece of human capital. Weirdly enough, our billionaires have donned the mantel of “work” – and left the working classes and the rest to toil in Macron’s cafés, restaurants and bars, or without any work at all. 

Anton Jäger​ is a researcher in political thought at Cambridge University.